An interview with mystery writer Lynn Chandler Willis, who set her new novel Wink Of An Eye in a West Texas town she’s never visited.
A resident of Randleman, North Carolina, Lynn Chandler Willis is no stranger to mystery writing. With two novels under her belt — one set in her home state — she decided to branch out into a strange land for her latest book. Inspired by a movie that depicted the barrenness of the West Texas landscape, Willis decided she needed to set a novel there. Some writers would have booked a flight for research, but Willis just started Googling and let her imagination run wild.
The result is Wink Of An Eye, the story of private investigator Gypsy Moran who returns to his hometown of Wink, Texas, and becomes involved in the suspicious suicide of a local sheriff’s deputy and disappearance of several teenage girls. As Gypsy untangles the clues with the help of 12-year-old Tatum McCallen, he finds himself face to face with his former high school sweetheart and a tempting reporter. “Murder, scandal and a dash of romance add to the sweltering heat of Wink, Texas,” according to the press materials from Minotaur Books.
Willis is the first female winner of the Private Eye Writers of America Competition since 1998 and talks about what it takes to craft a good mystery, breaking into a male-driven genre, the movie that inspired her setting and future plans for a series and a visit to Wink, Texas, in our interview below. Join us in chatting with her on Twitter Friday, December 5, from 1-2 Central time (2-3 Eastern) using the hashtag #southernlit. We also have one copy of Wink Of An Eye to give away to a lucky chat participant!
EZB: Where did the idea for this book come from?
LCW: I had the character in mind for years, sometimes he was a private investigator, sometimes he wast just a detective, sometimes he was just an independent investigator. I’ve always had that character there. The actual story behind it and the setting was inspired by the movie “No Country for Old Men.” I loved the setting and the scenery that went along with it and the constant dirt and heat of the West Texas area. I’m really big on setting. I think setting should be used as the secondary character. In certain instances it does become a character in itself and that kind of how it all morphed together.
EZB: That’s fascinating that you were inspired by a movie.
LCW: Most people think of the tropics that inspires them and I’m into the dirt and the cactus.
EZB: Had you visited that area of Texas before you wrote the book?
LCW: No. Not at all. I’ve been to Texas once and that was fly in, fly out of Dallas, but I do have a lot of friends in that area that were constantly sending me pictures and telling me about the area so I didn’t go into it completely blind. I can add that the little tiny town of Wink, Texas (pictured below), has a Facebook page and when I started researching the town I found it and I’ve got a lot of information from there.
EZB: Why did you choose Wink and how would you describe that little town?
LCW: Very close knit. To me anyway, it’s the heart of America. It is what this country is about. It’s the neighbor knowing neighbor, just a really small community of people and it’s something that someone wants to come home to. That was the whole thing with the character of Gypsy. He tried so hard for years to get away from the nothingness of the town. That’s the first place that he runs to when he’s in trouble, and it’s not just the physicalness of the town itself, it’s the feeling of home.
When I started researching, I knew my setting was going to be west Texas. So I just started Googling small towns in west Texas and I came up with various lists and I just kept whittling it down until I found the one I wanted, and it was Wink. The more research I did on the town itself, the more I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t put Gypsy in El Paso or San Antonio or Monahans or anywhere else. It had to be in Wink.
Wink, at one time, had been a booming little town with a thriving population and enough businesses to contribute to a healthy tax base. But by the early seventies, despite a million-dollar urban renewal grant from the feds, the town was barely clinging to life … Most of the people that remained had been born here, like their parents and grandparents before them. Few people moved to Wink by choice. It wasn’t a bad little town; hot as hell, but quaint.” – Gypsy Moran, Chapter 3
EZB: Do you have plans to visit Wink now that the book is finished?
LCW: I’d like to. It’s on my bucket list with things to do.
EZB: Tell me about your main character Gypsy. He’s been called “the perfect blend of streetwise smartass and bighearted nice guy.”
LCW: Everybody loves a bad boy, and I think you have to find that perfect combination of a little rough around the edges not but so rough that he’s offensive or that you wouldn’t want to bring home to mom. He evolved over the years into actually the kind of man I like. He’s a smartass and he can be a jerk, but what makes it lovable is he doesn’t realize he’s a jerk. That’s kind of where you want to whop him upside the head and say oh, my gosh I can’t believe you just said that sexist comment. I’ve got a lot of feedback from my male readers that said you nailed it. Yeah, that’s how a guy thinks.
EZB: You did a newsletter reveal about how Gypsy got his name. Can you talk about that?
LCW: I never really thought about it. That’s the character’s name that I’ve had from day one, and it never occurred to me that people would be interested in how he got his name. That’s all I’ve every know him as. In the first draft, I did explain it and then somehow or another it got cut and never got put back in and now it’s kind of become a thing.
Rhonda turned around and stared at me with a scowl on her face. ‘Gypsy … why can’t you just once follow the rules?’
‘I’m supposed to start walking down the hall today with crutches and I’m not wearing a gown that shows my ass. Hold the bag.’
‘You show your ass all the time.’
‘I smiled sarcastically, then fed the bag through the sleeve of the shirt.‘ ” – Gypsy Moran, Chapter 17
EZB: Tell me about writing a mystery novel. Some writers let their plot happen as they go along, but with a mystery, do you need to know what’s going to happen from the beginning?
LCW: Yes, you do, especially to get from point A to point B. Maybe in the first draft you don’t know all of the red herrings. That may come in the second or third draft, but I’ve got to have a firm grip on where the story’s going and how it’s going to get there and who the killer is or what the ultimate resolve of the mystery is.
EZB: Was it difficult to follow all those plot points and make them fit together?
LCW: A little bit, because I knew the main crux of the investigation would be Tatum’s father’s apparent suicide. That’s what I wanted to start with and then I had to kind of branch out like a tree on why that happened and it is kind of like a police investigation where you follow the evidence. You follow the clues, and from point A to point B there has to be something there for the reader to hold on to.
EZB: You are the first woman to win the Private Eye Writers of America Competition in over 10 years. Why do you think it has taken so long for a woman to win, and is still mystery seen as a male genre?
LCW: Yes, it’s a very testosterone driven genre, not only the writers themselves, but the characters. You look at the Harry Bosch, Reacher [series], it’s very male driven by male authors and male characters. I think Lisa Gardner is breaking down some of that wall, but I don’t know that there’s been a private investigator written by a woman in a man’s point of view.
EZB: You mentioned a book two and it seems like most of your reviewers are hoping for a series, so I’m assuming it will continue?
LCW: Book two is a little bit past the outline stage now and I’m still doing a little bit of research and pulling stuff together to actually start putting words on paper.
EZB: Was that your plan all along or were you waiting to see how book one did?
LCW: I think in the back of mind, I was hoping for a series just because I love this character and whether it was one book or two books, I wanted the character to continue. So, I could divide that up into 10 300-page books or I could do one 1,200-page book.
EZB: Can you reveal any future plans for Gypsy?
LCW: In book two, we will revisit the eight missing girls and we will revisit the Daddy issue.
See Willis’s signing schedule for Wink Of An Eye here.
Photo Credit: Wink, Texas, photo by Nicolas Henderson from Coppell, Texas, on Wikimedia Commons.