First, let me say that Nora is the perfect character. She is respected immediately by any reader for her family values, honesty, sympathy, empathy, and continual conscious effort to do the right thing. Her name, Nora, Biblically stands for awing. Greek, "she knows." You hit the name on the head! And so that I am not adding more to this name than you meant, how did you choose the name Nora for your protagonist?
Thank you for the compliments about Nora! And I love that you looked up the Biblical meaning of her name! I have a “Name Your Baby” book, which I use when picking out the names of my major characters. The book explains the origins for various names, too. For my heroine, I had it down to two names: Marge or Nora. Both seemed to go with the WWII era (Nora Charles was the name of Myrna Loy’s character in THE THIN MAN series from a few years earlier in the 1930’s). I was leaning toward Marge, but my editor preferred Nora. My editor won. THE ENEMY AT HOME is my 24th novel, and it’s getting harder and harder to pick out names that I haven’t already used for my main characters!
Nora joins the women's workforce during the onset of WWII, becoming a Rosie Riveter. My husband's aunt also held this title. What about this period of US history drew you to set your story?
That is so cool about your husband’s aunt! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in World War Two—the Home Front, in particular. I remember being very moved by the David O. Selznick film, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), where Claudette Colbert and her two daughters, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, keep the home fires burning while the husband/father goes off to fight. I became fascinated by everything that happened on the Home Front during the war: the air raid drills, blackouts, scrap drives, war bond rallies, victory gardens, rationing, the constant uncertainty and the patriotism. I’ve always wanted to set a thriller during that significant period of US History, and Rosie the Riveter seemed like the perfect heroine.
Why set this story in Seattle?
I’ve lived in Seattle since 1980, and most of my thrillers are set here. For THE ENEMY AT HOME, setting this World War II story in Seattle seemed like a no brainer. It was one of the major cities for war production—with Boeing churning out B17’s and the shipyards making destroyers, mine-sweepers and battleships. There were also several important army and navy posts in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle enforced blackouts, where the whole city went dark after eleven at night—to discourage potential aerial attacks from the Japanese. The blackouts accounted for an upswing in crime and auto accidents. Seattle was also one of the West Coast cities where Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps—a shameful, tragic footnote in the war. WWII really put Seattle on the map.
I read that you wrote this story during Covid. Did you see parallels between the epidemic we just went through and the effect of the beginning of the war on people?
Yes! I couldn’t help noticing how we compared with the “greatest generation” when it came to “doing your bit” and making adjustments and sacrifices during these crises. I don’t think we could handle the demands made on the population from 1942 to 1945. Then again, in my research, I found out that not everyone “did their bit” during the war. There were also a lot of injustices that were tolerated—or even endorsed. Like the recent pandemic, WWII seemed to bring out the best in people and the worst in people.
This novel is set in one month's time period. How did you plot your book to get so much in so little time?
I always outline my books, and THE ENEMY AT HOME was no different. I originally intended to have the storyline happen over a period of several months—so the reader could see Nora become more independent and self-assured thanks to her war job. But once I actually started writing the book, everything accelerated—especially after Nora began to investigate the murder of her friend. After the mystery and thrills really kicked in, I had a hard time slowing down and leaving time gaps. As a thriller author, I’m always aware of the pace in my books, and keeping the reader turning the pages.
The Enemy at Home is a good title, and the story resonates with this theme by bringing up issues of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Enemies can be found at home as well as abroad. Did you find it challenging to have Nora confront these issues in her time period, keeping out how you might feel about them today? Or are you trying to say there were many people during this time that were more accepting than history gives credit to?
That’s a great question! When I started writing the book, I figured I could show Nora having her eyes opened to different injustices; but during that time period, it would have been anachronistic for her to take a strong stand against the socially-accepted racism and homophobia of the time. However, Nora makes some steps to counteract the prevailing prejudices—like holding onto family keepsakes for her incarcerated Japanese-American friend, standing up for a closeted homosexual who was accused of murder, and sitting in the unofficial “colored” section in the work cafeteria.
I love Nora dealing with her teenage son and how her imagination runs as Chris is gone more and more without letting her know where he is. Parent of a teenager?
No kids, but I have 17 nieces and nephews—and I’ve watched them all grow up. I’ve also gotten an earful from my five siblings about what it was like raising kids, especially teenagers.
Family is a massive theme in the novel. Nora struggles with the trust and acceptance of her brother. I found this a considerable risk for readers who may not have considered some of Nora's decisions. How did you see this character and subplot?
You mentioned in your first question that Nora is always trying to do the right thing. That’s so true. She feels responsible for her younger brother, Ray, whom she more or less raised from the time he was a baby and she was a young teenager. He was only eleven years old when she married and moved away, leaving him with their awful grandparents. Nora feels like she has abandoned Ray. And Ray never lets her forget this. So, later on, when he comes up with a scheme to get out of active duty in the Pacific, Nora feels horrible for refusing to help him. Then she’s really distraught when one of his schemes results in an explosion on a naval base. She’s torn between being a decent citizen/patriot and protecting her family’s reputation. One of the things Nora learns within the book’s arc is that everything isn’t just black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray.
Great, putting a serial killer within a heroic industry of war effort. What gave you the idea?
I got the idea of a Rosie the Riveter killer years ago, and pitched it to my editor. But at the time, he felt that my readership expected contemporary thrillers from me. So—I waited a while, and re-pitched the idea in 2020. I was ready to shake things up and write something a bit different. Knowing how WWII stories have become more and more popular, my editor gave the story the greenlight. We both liked the idea of a serial-killer thriller set in a time before the term “serial killer” was even coined (that didn’t happen until the 1970’s). I based the killer on Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Ted Bundy. Apparently, a primary reason Bundy killed was because, at the time, Women’s Liberation was taking hold, and he’d built-up a resentment toward women in power. It wasn’t much of a leap to use this same lethal resentment as a motive for the Rosie the Riveter killer.
Because I also need to ask you questions many of the writers who read this interview might be interested in, can you say something about your writing process and discipline?
I have a great, longstanding (27 years!) relationship with my editor at Kensington. When I get an idea for a book, I’ll pitch it to him—or he’ll pitch an idea to me. Then I’ll start working out the basic plot and characters who work interestingly within that storyline. All the while, I keep asking, “What if?” and “Why?” Once I have a few pages of notes, I’ll let my editor in on what I’m doing. If he likes it, I’ll start writing a detailed outline for him. It’s usually about 80 pages (The outline for THE ENEMY AT HOME was actually 127 pages—because of all the historical details). I think this is a pretty unique writer/editor process. My outlines read like a condensed novel with dialogue, descriptions, cliff-hanger walk-offs, and everything. So once my editor gets this outline, he knows exactly what he'll be getting in the final draft—with maybe a few twists and turns and surprises. This makes the actual writing easier for me, and I have fun fleshing things out even more. Once I submit that final draft to my editor, he usually has very few notes or corrections for me, because he’s already reviewed and discussed with me all the major plot points. It’s a great process that works for us.
Are you working on something new?
Yes, I’m nearly finished with a new outline—for another thriller set in Seattle during World War II. The plot is quite different from THE ENEMY AT HOME—with a woman on the run settling in an apartment complex where a neighbor dies mysteriously. There’s a bit of Hitchcock influence (Rear Window and Saboteur, especially) at work here!
Are you sticking with your branding of being a suspense author, or do you also have urges to try other genres? Or do you enjoy a blending of genres?
I’ve really enjoyed blending the thriller and historical fiction genres. After this second WWII thriller, I’d like to come up with a thriller set in the late fifties or early sixties—maybe something within the film world, so I can utilize my love for Hitchcock movies. We’ll see!
Thanks for your enthusiasm for THE ENEMY AT HOME and all the wonderful questions, Dj!