Killer Nashville Interview with August Norman
1. This is the second novel that follows heroine Caitlin Bergman. How soon into crafting the first book did you know her story would continue?
Even before Caitlin made her debut in Come and Get Me, I’d worked the character into a screenplay and another novel. As an investigative journalist, Caitlin gets to explore the issues I care about, whether that’s battling white supremacists, breaking up a cult, or dating in her 40s. The journalists I know work hard in dangerous places to bring the world basic facts, often for little pay and less respect. Like them, Caitlin is obsessed with getting the true story behind the legends, even at the expense of her own safety.
2. What are some of the challenges you faced with writing the second book in a series? Were there things that came easier throughout the process?
One wonderful challenge I faced writing “Sins of the Mother” was honoring the expectations of the first book’s readers. With a debut, you get to say, “Here are my characters; this is what they do.” While plotting the second installment, readers from my publishing team to Goodreads followers wanted to know who would come back, how Caitlin would grow, and what horrible junk food she’d eat this time. I made sure to honor that relationship with the reader while taking Caitlin in a new direction.
3. Most of the book is set in Oregon. What drew you to choosing the setting in the Pacific Northwest?
To tell this story, I needed somewhere in America that you could hide a cult within miles of the broader society. I also wanted a setting where the locals feared the end of their traditions because of a liberal shift in ideals, and would be willing to fight to ensure their ways of life. Oregon’s lush forests, rocky coasts, inland plains, tribal lands, federal preserve, and wild-country-feel all bash heads daily with the new Bohemia tech sector billionaire playgrounds of Portland, Silicon Valley, and Seattle. Caitlin is searching for her past in a state that’s dealing with its own growing pains. In “Sins of the Mother,” the area’s small government “Don’t Tread On Me” mentality allows white supremacists to flourish in the same proximity as a reclusive cult. It’s only a matter of time before the two fight for their ideals, no matter the cost.
4. You recently became a father, and the book definitely focuses on parental themes. Was that coincidental? And are there things you learned about parenthood from writing a book centering so much on that theme?
In the lead-up to my entrance into parentage, I did a lot of soul-searching on what I believe makes a good parent and what constitutes family. Whether related by blood, chosen through adoption, or selected from a pool of friends, I think the closest families are born through love and sacrifice, rather than biology. As unnatural as it may seem, sometimes the best thing a parent can do is realize they don’t have the skills to guide their children through life and leave them with someone more qualified. Having never met her birth mother, raised by a single adoptive father, and now childless in her early forties, Caitlin explores her own family’s tree, ultimately seeing another side of her perceived abandonment and the sacrifices and openness needed to truly love.
5. You have a background in screenwriting. How has that experience helped you with writing novels? Or has it made things more difficult?
Coming up through screenwriting, I hope I can claim a few skills that help me as a novelist. I gravitate toward short, cinematic scenes in my chapters, understanding that readers fill in much of the setting with their own shorthand. I also try to create characters that actors from well-known stars to five-lines-and-under would line up to audition for. Who wouldn’t want to play an aging cult leader, past his prime and looking for a way out? A devout, female lawyer that represents a cult in greater society but becomes her true self in the privacy of their woodland compound? A violent white supremacist hell-bent on saving his daughter from those people? Finally, many authors come to their work with a my-way-or-the-highway sensibility that can leave them stuck when their publishers ask for edits or complete page one rewrites of art that took them years to complete. Screenwriters, subject to deadlines and notes from all levels, have to be able to move fast and adapt, while keeping their original concepts intact. So far, these skills have all helped bring Caitlin Bergman to the page.
6. Your lead character, Caitlin, is definitely a strong female protagonist. Did you face any challenges writing a female character?
As a straight white male, no one needs me to explain a damned thing about being a strong modern woman — and I keep that in mind with every sentence I type. Caitlin Bergman began as a minor character in an early screenplay but quickly became the lead I wanted to see challenge the injustices of the world. Rather than try to create a strong female protagonist, I wrote Caitlin as the ideal acting role for one of my best friends. Fierce but flawed, strong but not a superhero, sexual but not necessarily sexy, and smarter than anyone I knew, Caitlin is the combination of four women and one man from my life, and someone I would love to hang out with — if she’d deem me worthy. That said, I rely heavily on beta readers to make sure her words and actions ring true. Since my first title, “Come and Get Me,” touched upon the terrible trauma of sexual assault, I asked 20 readers to evaluate the work before it reached my agent’s hands. Of those 20 readers, 15 were women. Of those 15, at least 2 were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, as well as people of other ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. With justifiable historical and societal reasons, I’ll never satisfy everyone, but I do everything possible to make Caitlin and her friends behave like real people I know and love.
7. No spoilers, but the book’s plot centers around the fictional Daughters of God cult. What research goes into trying to craft a cult from scratch?
Cults fascinate me — not just the religious ones but any occasion where a group of people choose to believe in something that can either be demonstrably proven false (cough, cough … flat earthers) or where the association requires self-injury, legal compromise or financial ruin. When building my own group, I wanted to concentrate on the people who would stick around, even after their prophesied end of the world had come and gone. To really get into their mentality, I first consulted my own personal therapist, then dove deep into articles, books and documentaries about these hidden societies, many of which found their own starts in my background of Southern California. Sadly, most of us are susceptible to this kind of belief, and far too many have lost their families, fortunes and lives under the leadership of demagogues.