Mug Shot: Julia Dahl
Julia Dahl is a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice. Her first novel, Invisible City, was nominated for an Edgar Award and a Thriller Award, and won the Barry, the Shamus, and the Macavity Awards for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Run You Down, is now out in paperback. She currently writes and reports for CBSNews.com and is working on the third novel in her Rebekah Roberts series.
1. What made you decide to be an author?
I’ve been a reader all my life — my mother’s motto is “bring a book” — but it didn’t occur to me I might actually be able to write books until college. I’ve always felt like I had stories to tell (or, perhaps more accurately, that there were stories out there that needed telling), which led me to journalism, how I’ve made my living my entire adult life. I wrote a novel in my 20s that was pretty terrible – not much of a plot – and was never published. That “failure” was tough, but I couldn’t stop trying. I wrote half of another novel, then a screenplay, and then finally in 2007 started writing the book that became my first novel, Invisible City. It was published in 2014.
Being an author is perhaps the greatest privilege of my life. I will keep doing it as long as they let me.
2. Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
I don’t outline. Since I’ve been writing mysteries, I start each book knowing who dies, who did it, and having a loose idea of why. I also usually have an idea or theme I want to explore: the corrosive power of secrets, or the near impossibility of outrunning your upbringing, for example. But that’s about it. My “process” is that I try to stay a few scenes ahead of myself in my notebook — where I write down snippets of dialogue and make notes on plot, character — so that when I’m writing a scene I have some idea where it’s going.
This method works for me because I really enjoy the “discovery” part of writing and an outline feels like a lot of work I don’t really want to do. That said, this method, at least for me, means heavy revision. I once heard Anna Quindlen say there are two kinds of writers: those who edit along the way and those who run to the end. I am a “run to the end” woman. I need to get some semblance of a plot out, then I make changes and see problems.
It took me six years to write and edit Invisible City, but I was doing it while working full time, with no idea if anyone would ever read it. It was an act of faith, so I could take my time with it. Run You Down and the third Rebekah Roberts novel (almost finished!) were very different. I had a year to turn in a solid draft. It was terrifying, and the hardest work I’ve ever done (aside from taking care of an infant), but I like Run You Down even better than Invisible City, and I like the third in the series even better than that, so I figure it’s a challenge worth meeting.
3. What non-crime books do you enjoy reading?
I suppose you could call what I read other than crime fiction “literary” fiction – though it often has a crime in it. Recently, I’ve loved The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Purity by Jonathan Franzen. I occasionally re-read older favorites, too – Edith Wharton, Joan Didion, Patricia Highsmith. I read some non-fiction, often involving crime or addressing social issues like poverty and mental illness. Recent reads include The Triangle by Kevin Deutsch; The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs; and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Lost Girls by Robert Kolker is next on my list.
4. How do you handle rejection or bad reviews?
Not well! I was very lucky with my first novel, Invisible City, in that nearly every review of the book was positive, and it was nominated for an almost embarrassing number of awards. But the very first review of Run You Down was negative. The first sentence called it “so-so.” Ouch. I was devastated, and nervous all the other reviews would be bad, too. They weren’t, thankfully, but it was a very unpleasant experience. I’m working on caring less, but it’s tough.
5. What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Story matters. And so does passion. If you’re not excited about what you’re writing, no one else will be either. Write first, edit later.