I am delighted that Lori Rader-Day was able to join us today to talk about jobs, writing, and her latest book Little Pretty Things. I met Lori on a panel at Left Coast Crime in March of 2014 a few months before her first book, The Black Hour, was published. Lori is smart, funny, and always interesting. Take it away, Lori.
Writing my second novel, Little Pretty Things, I had a lot of time to think about work. Not writing—work work.
In the book, Juliet Townsend works at a “roadside dive” of a motel, cleaning up after people who have no compunction about not keeping the rooms neat.
As Juliet puts it, “I’d encountered bloody towels left behind the door, sheets covered in terrible things. I’d had to clean up spilled beer, used condoms, dirty diapers, and more. People came to motels like the Mid-Night to be someone else for a night, and their new identities rarely wanted to pick up after themselves. Sometimes their new selves wanted to smear things on the walls.”
I’ve worked in nice, clean offices for twenty years, but the reason I started writing about Juliet was because I wanted to write about the kinds of jobs I might have had to live with, if I’d chosen a different path.
My first bad job was as a busboy in a family-owned restaurant in my hometown. I was too young to drive, so my patient parents dropped me off and then picked me up a few hours later. In the mean time I would have picked up a … scent. I was 14. I hardly made any money at all, but I managed to get a lot of baked potato under my fingernails.
Jobs were hard to get. My family lived far out in the country and until I could drive myself, I couldn’t get the kinds of jobs my friends in town did. The half-hour commute into town was a long commute for someone with a brand new license and three hours of homework every night. At the same time I was highly involved in school activities like the yearbook staff, which dragged into the summer and took crucial time away from work.
In the ensuing high school-to-college years, I worked a series of crappy jobs. At the family fun park where all my friends worked midway games or rollercoasters, I sat alone in a hot little camper shilling all things deep-fat fried. Because I learned to use a cash register there, I was saddled with cashier jobs for a while. At Wal-Mart the next summer, I stayed on into the fall before I realized I couldn’t seem to get my homework done anymore. I had to quit. I felt as though I’d worked a lifetime there. It was four months.
One summer I worked in a factory that made shiny tree garland. I ran a special machine that turned rolls of thin, glossy plastic into ropes of shiny, fluffy tree décor. In the history of garland-making, no one was ever worse at it. I worked at another factory later, where I was asked to break apart giant wooden wire spools with a sledgehammer. I started out tentative but by the end of the day picked up a real Paul Bunyan’s ax mentality.
The summer before I went to college, I wore a tight, brown polyester uniform dress, like a punishment, at the cash register of a Ponderosa franchise. Once in a while, I was asked to dump a bag of powder into the top of the ice cream machine. Voilà, ice cream. I couldn’t wait to go to college.
So I’ve been in the trenches, is what I’m saying.
I’ve never worked in a motel—or la-di-da, a hotel—but I found that I could finally put some of this life experience to good use, giving Juliet the right mix of shame and pride in her work.
That’s the amazing thing about writing, isn’t it? You’re not writing about yourself exactly, but when you dig for the right detail or the right emotion, you find that you are inserting a little bit of the real you—the you who remembers and stores away information—into these fictional characters.
And readers who feel you’ve nailed something just right want to know: How? Unless you’re writing directly from experience, “getting it right” can seem like a little bit of magic. The conjuring of sense memory, of emotion, of anything transferable to the themes of your project, of feeling the words start to lift off the page and take flight beyond your own abilities, when the work work of writing fades away and the joy of creating takes over.
It’s not always like that, I think we can all agree. But having someone with chronic pain tell me the pain my protagonist describes is exactly right, or having a friend who’s a runner tell me I got Juliet’s former track team life right, that I “must have been a runner in a past life”—that’s the real payday for this job we love to do.
Readers: What was your worst job?
Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014), received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second mystery, Little Pretty Things, is out in July. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and spoiled dog and is active in the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.