Interview with Colleen J. Shogan, author of “Stabbing in the Senate”

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

One day, I took a walk in my suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood and I conceived of the plot for Stabbing in the Senate. I’d written plenty in nonfiction, but had never tried writing something creative. A few weeks later, I started writing my first novel. It wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined. In nonfiction, I’m constantly checking sources and consulting my research notes to make sure I’m not making an error. In fiction, the story must be consistent and cogent, but there’s a lot more freedom. When I don’t like the direction of a plotline or the development of a character, I change it! You can’t bend the facts or data in nonfiction writing.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I read every day, mostly within my genre (mystery). If you aren’t reading, you’re not learning. There is no way a writer can succeed without reading. I have many favorite authors, including Joanne Fluke, Ellen Crosby, Karen MacInerney, Deborah Harkness, Mary Marks, Allison Leotta, and Nadia Gordon. I love the snappy writing and dialogue of Lawrence Sanders and Carl Hiaasen.

Do you attend literary lunches or events?

When time allows, I love to attend literary events. I never miss the semi-annual gathering of Washington, D.C. based writers at the famous Old Europe restaurant in Georgetown. It’s an eclectic group of authors assembled by writer Dan Moldea. Once I showed up and Robert DeNiro greeted me at the door. You never know what’s going to happen at those dinners!

Does a bad review affect your writing?

Not necessarily, but choosing to ignore helpful and critical feedback works against an aspiring writer. At the very least, the criticism should help the writer moving forward. Oftentimes, a critical review will point something out you’ve never considered before. That’s extremely valuable.

Do your novels carry a message?

I write a D.C. based mystery series. The most important aspects of my books are the characters and the backdrop of a political setting in our nation’s capital. I don’t get preachy in my books. However, I try to endorse the notion that Washington is not an evil place. There are good people working for our nation’s government. Most of the time, they are well intentioned. In today’s vitriolic and polarized climate, those positive notions get lost and I try to recapture them.

How realistic are your books?

I pride myself on the realism in my books. My protagonist works in Congress. I work on Capitol Hill at the Library of Congress and I previously worked in the Senate. For me, realism is personal. However, there are leaps of logic the reader must make to enjoy my books. People aren’t getting murdered right and left in Congress. I understand the police and FBI would likely solve these cases faster than my amateur sleuth. However, once that premise is accepted, the setting and other aspects of the story, such as working in Congress, are absolutely realistic.

Are there any books that you are currently reading and why?

I’m finishing up The Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker. After that, I’m moving onto Duplicity by Newt Gingrich! He will appear at the 2016 National Book Festival, and as part of my job at the Library of Congress, I will introduce him. So I want to read several of his books before our festival in September.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

My husband Rob Raffety encouraged me to try to write a novel. He’s a part-time filmmaker and writer. He was correct that I needed to engage the creative part of my brain. He always wants me to keep churning out novels!

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

My full-time job is at the Library of Congress, where I help run a 400-person division that consists of all the services and programs the Library provides for the public. That includes the National Book Festival, the Kluge Center for Scholars, Visitor Services, the Library gift shop, the Center for the Book, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Federal Research Division, K-12 Educational Outreach, and our Library exhibits. It keeps me busy! I spend almost no time in my office. My job is to augment and develop our outreach to national and international audiences. I love meeting people and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t learn something. I’ve very blessed to have this job.

Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?

Of course. Has any writer not been rejected? I know of no writer who hasn’t received a rejection. If someone is out there, make yourself known!

Is writing book series more challenging?

It can be. The characters must remain similar, but they also must evolve in interesting ways. If not, readers get bored. Plus, the author must be careful to stay consistent. Writing later in the series, the author must not reveal too much about previous books, or suffer the “spoiler syndrome.” It’s a delicate balance.

What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?

Don’t give up! Simply because you’ve received rejection from a publisher or a literary agent doesn’t mean the book will never get published. However, if an agent or editor gives helpful advice, don’t ignore it. The first agent I solicited wrote back and said he liked my writing and the premise of my book. But he eviscerated the slow start in the first chapter. I could have ignored his advice, but instead, I read it several times and incorporated his suggestions. One of the reasons I eventually sold the book was due to its snappy beginning. Many thanks to that literary agent, who didn’t represent my book but really helped me!

How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?

It wasn’t truly my first book, since I’d written a nonfiction book on the American presidency a few years ago, but when I published my first novel, my husband threw me a big party at our house. It lasted all day, and we had a huge cake with the book cover on it. I’ll never forget it.

What other genres do you enjoy reading?

I mostly read mystery, since there’s so much good work in my genre and I believe that I must get to know other authors writing similar stories to my own. However, I love reading a good biography. I adore Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. I couldn’t put the book down. He made me feel as though Jobs was sitting next to me and we were having a conversation about his life and career.

 

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I’m currently working on the third book in my series, Calamity at the Cosmos Club. In this installment, my main character has to solve a murder outside of Capitol Hill. There’s a whole new cast of characters involving hill rollers who belong to an elite intellectual society. Rather than focusing on politics, this book focuses on history. I’m about halfway done and hope to finish this summer.

 

When can the readers expect your next book in print?

Homicide in the House, the second book in my series, will be released on June 15, 2016. It features many of the same characters in my debut novel and also a few new ones I’ve created. A popular character, Clarence the beagle mutt, is back. He’s got a bigger role this time in solving the mystery, so stay tuned!

Fiction or non-fiction? Which is easier?

For me, fiction is easier to write. It enables creativity. The possibilities are endless. Non-fiction demands an adherence to sourcing. When the facts don’t check out, the writer can’t create an alternate ending. However, in my experience, it’s harder to sell a fiction novel than a non-fiction or academic book to a publisher. The name of the game in fiction is making as much money as possible. That’s not necessarily the case in the university press market.

What’s your favorite movie based on a book?

Probably Gone With The Wind. When I was thirteen, my mother challenged me to read the novel. It was really long! She said if I read the entire book, we could rent the movie and watch it. I did, and I wasn’t disappointed in the movie, which is usually the case. However, I learned at a young age that reading the book is preferable because there are so many details lost in the movie version.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

Yes, but I think the evolution is positive. It allows writers to self-publish their work and enables the market to decide its value. I went the traditional route through a publisher that provided a print contract. However, e-books are the wave of the future and I embrace it. I read 90% of books on my Kindle. I love the ability to sit by the pool and decide I want to read a particular book. In thirty seconds, I have that book downloaded and I’m enjoying it. That simply wasn’t possible a decade ago.

Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?

Hermione in Harry Potter. I feel her pain. Absent the magic, I felt like I was reading my autobiography. Long live Hermione Granger!

How active are you on social media?

I love social media. I’m on it every day because I like to know what my friends and followers are thinking. All in all, I believe it’s a tremendous force for good in the world, allowing people separated by distance to converse and exchange ideas, information, and updates. I realize some people use it for negative outcomes and malicious intentions. I do not think those terrible misuses of the tool outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, throughout human history, terrible individuals have abused every medium of communication. But that hasn’t stopped human progress, and it shouldn’t stop it now.

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