In the Handbasket: CJ Lyons

I can’t believe it’s already time to have my friend CJ back in the Handbasket. Her debut novel, Lifelines, came out last March, and her second novel, Warning Signs, was published on Tuesday. I’m thrilled to have her back at the blog, and totally psyched about seeing her at next week’s Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago!

Welcome, CJ!

Tell us about Warning Signs and how it connects to your debut novel, Lifelines.

WARNING SIGNS is second in the Angels of Mercy series. It’s a coming of age story about a young medical student facing her own mortality as she investigates the mysterious deaths of patients and then begins to suffer the same deadly symptoms herself.

LIFELINES, my first book, was definitely more of a thriller. It was the classic stranger comes to town story (I love old westerns) and the pacing is rapid-fire, the stakes raised until the entire city is at risk.

WARNING SIGNS, however, is more of a mystery, focusing on the whodunnit and howdunnit of a mysterious illness. It’s still fast paced, but more about the medical student coming to her own as a healer.

The third book, URGENT CARE (due out in November, 2009), is back to the world of thrillerdom–it’s darker and edgier than either of the first books. More emotionally complex and the plot is also more complicated.

What did you learn about yourself as you wrote Lifelines and Warning Signs?

That it’s okay to take risks and expose yourself to the reader. Each of the main characters in the series struggles with a lot of the same issues I’ve struggled with either as a woman or as a physician.

For my own life, I’ve also learned that out of disaster comes opportunity. Something so simple, yet we often get so caught up in distractions that we forget this in our daily lives.

Every time you and I have a conversation, you make the most wonderful, relevant literary references. Who in your life instilled you with such a love of reading and learning, and how did you develop it?

Growing up we didn’t have many toys–we tended to mainly run around outside like wild things, using our imagination to make up games/dramas. But living in central Pennsylvania means a lot of days when you’re cooped up inside.

My mother was a great reader, so there were books all around–first, they became my playthings, then as I interpreted the little squiggles inside, they became my companions. I skipped “Dick and Jane” and went right to Agatha Christie and the like: Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, etc.

My nephew takes after me–by the age of nine he’s read “heavy” books like At Dawn We Slept about Pearl Harbor–a book I myself didn’t tackle until college. It’s been such fun introducing him to the books I loved as a kid–it’s hard because almost any other books engaging enough for his reading level have explicit sex, so I went back to the classics. He’s plowing through Nero Wolfe and just finished the Lord of the Rings.

On your website, you describe yourself as “medical suspense author,” but your work reaches beyond the usual suspense novels and delves deeply into the relationships between your characters. How do you keep that balance in a genre that demands almost constant plot action?

Thank you for noticing! Most of my reader mail comments on the depth of my characters and realism of the trouble I cause for them.

I guess that’s the key to my pacing–staying true to my characters but also constantly creating havoc for them that forces them to push themselves to the edge and beyond.

Yes, I do love to torture my characters! And indeed, my characters drive the plot, not the other way around. I think no matter how action-packed a story is, the most compelling ones are those that have an emotional core based on characters and their relationships.

I feel so strongly about this, that I actually coined the term: Thrillers with Heart to describe these kind of fast-paced, high-stake novels that revolve around the personal stakes and relationships moreso than the action.

Your travel and teaching schedule is jam-packed. Not all writers are so motivated to teach other writers. What motivates you to teach and how do you balance teaching with your busy writing schedule?

As a pediatrician, I love teaching–it was part of my daily life when I was still practicing. It’s been such a joy to find that I can still teach as part of my new career as a writer.

But, honestly, I learn something every time I teach, so it’s a win/win for me! As for balancing, I have begun to limit my online classes to offering them only once a year and trying to arrange for my live appearances to coincide with my book releases. It’s tricky, but well worth it since teaching is so rewarding.

What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?

Tough question! I definitely want to still be writing, but I’d like to think that I’d be exploring new areas of character–both real and fictional. I like to dream that by then perhaps my books will have attracted the eye of some oh-so-brilliant TV or film producer and I would love to somehow be involved in adapting them to screen.

Basically, I guess the same as I’ve lived my entire life: exploring new ideas and sharing them with others through my work, either by writing or by teaching.

A question from Bengal, my nine year-old: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?

Watch the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowls!!! Second to that, reading a good book, collecting salamanders and racing them (hotwheel tracks are good for this), making forts in the woods near our house, and generally finding new ways to get in and out of trouble….

You can find out more about CJ at her website. She has some pretty amazing stories on there, plus links for writers.

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