A Chat with Bestselling Novelist
On January 10th, Tess Thompson celebrated the release of her ninth novel,
Congratulations on the release of Miller’s Secret! This is an outstanding novel. Can you tell me a little bit about how this story came to be written?
Like all my novels, the characters and plot came to me in a visual image. One morning last spring, I woke to an image of a young war hero looking out the window of his beach house and seeing a young woman, sketching in her notebook, on his lawn, the Pacific Ocean spread out before her. This was the beginning of this complex story unravelling in my brain. How it completely falls into my mind, I cannot possibly explain because I don’t know.
Characters often find themselves in situations they aren't sure they can get themselves out of. This is true for some of the characters in Miller’s Secret. When was the last time you found yourself in a situation that was hard to get out of and what did you do?
Wow, this is a hard question. If I’m completely honest, I would say the process of getting out of my first marriage. It seemed impossible to imagine forging a new life, a new path, after twelve years of marriage and two kids. Like Caroline in the book, I held onto certain beliefs about my life that were hard to let go of – things I really wanted to believe were true but just weren’t. Like her, I accepted a life that made me feel dead inside, focusing on my children instead of facing the truth about my marriage. I made excuses, again like Caroline, to convince myself that everything was fine, that I was happy. Finally, feeling almost suicidal, I had to admit that something drastic in my life had to change, and that change was my marriage. You don’t get more drastic than divorce. It was gut-wrenching and awful. However, on the other end of all that pain was a chance for redemption and a new opportunity for happiness. This is a major theme in all my books, but especially in Miller’s Secret.
What did you enjoy most about writing Miller’s Secret?
Everything, but probably writing the second draft after I received the notes back from my story editor. Unlike some writers, I adore re-writing, especially after taking in notes from an editor. I find that criticism always sparks a deeper level of creativity for me. The relationship with my editor is key to everything.
What was the hardest part about writing Miller’s Secret?
Keeping the through line of four characters spanning twenty years.
Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
I don’t have any stories, other than I was very close to my grandmother, who was a young woman during WWII, married to a Navy Officer. Her stories of that time inspired my fascination with the Greatest Generation. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers fought in WWII. My mother’s father was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. My father’s father was in the Army and told us stories of his time fighting on enemy ground, including the time he accidently wandered into enemy territory and was lost for several days. I’ll say this, though. I wish I’d had a tape recorder for some of these conversations, as all my grandparents have passed now. As a kid, I felt too shy to ask them more questions. I would give anything to go back with my list of questions.
What does your writing process look like?
It’s changed over the years. I used to write the first draft fast and then layer upon it on the second and third pass. This works well for my romantic suspense series that are very much plot driven. Once I have the plot on paper, then I can go back and add the nuances of setting, character and dialogue. However, for Miller’s Secret, I wrote in a more plodding fashion, which allowed me to go deep into the characters’ minds right away. For this book and Duet for Three Hands, my other historical, I wrote as if under a spell. The words seemed to come from somewhere else, somewhere otherworldly. I can’t explain it exactly, other than to say the process felt like magic. The characters seemed to speak to me, like they were sitting next to me at my desk. Perhaps this is the writer’s zone everyone talks about?
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Lyrical, romantic themes, complex characters, fast-paced plots.
How long have you been a writer? Where did your love of storytelling come from?
I’ve been writing seriously since 2000. I started out as a playwright, but decided after my first full-length production that I hated playwrighting because I’m too much of a control freak and the theatre is all about collaboration. My first novel, Riversong, was released in 2011. Since then, I’ve been pursuing the writer’s life with great energy and focus. Half of my energy is on craft and writing, the other half on trying to figure out how to sell the darn books. The first one is much easier!
My love of storytelling stems from my love of reading. As a kid, I was the one with my nose in a book. I never grew out of my love for story told via the page. It morphed into writing at some point. I’m not sure when, other than to say I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to become a writer. I remember very distinctly driving home from the movie theatre after seeing the first Star Wars movie in 1976 and telling my perplexed mother that the movie made me want to write a story. I can see her face looking at me from the driver’s side of the car like – what is wrong with this child?
I also come from a long line of verbal storytellers. My father is absolutely mesmerizing when he tells a story.
Just as your books inspire authors, what authors have inspired you to write?
Every time I read an author better than me, which is a lot, I’m inspired to up my game. Early on I was inspired by Pat Conroy, Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro – not that I’m in their league, of course.
What question do you wish that someone would ask about Miller’s Secret, but nobody has?
Did Miller Dreeser suffer from a lack of attachment as a baby/small child, causing his later personality disorder?
The answer to that is yes. Research shows that babies who are not touched and loved as infants and toddlers, (i.e. attaching to their mothers) often cannot establish healthy bonds and feelings of love for others.