Killer Nashville Interview
with NYT Bestseller Tosca Lee

Tosca Lee is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels including The Line Between, The Progeny, The Legend of Sheba, and Iscariot. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages and optioned for TV and film.

She is the recipient of multiple awards including two International Book Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, ECPA Book of the Year in Fiction, and the Nebraska Book Award.

She recently sat down to talk writing, her author journey, and inspiration with Killer Nashville. 

You live and write on a farm in Nebraska in what you describe as a plot twist you never saw coming.

That’s true. I was a city girl completely until I met my future husband—a farmer and single father of four—in 2013. He proposed at one of my book signings the following year at Barnes & Noble and we married in 2016. Today I write in the renovated upstairs of the 1940s portion of our farmhouse. During planting in the spring and harvest in the fall, I sometimes take lunch for Bryan and I both and eat with him in the planter or combine. He introduced me to farm life, I introduced him to ComiCon and Thrillerfest.

You’ve just returned from the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE, where you made several visits to area schools to talk to middle and high school students about writing. What advice did you give them?

I was so impressed with the students I met—they asked very good and sometimes difficult questions about the writing process, how I approach my routine, handle rejection, continually improve, and how to know when a story is finished.

What are a few things you told them?

Never give up. Write what you love to read. Read voraciously. Learn from rejection and never take it personally.

Have fun. If you’re doing that, you’ll always weather the setbacks and bumps along the journey.

I also shared several of my top rules for writing:

  1. Write like no one will ever read it, like you’re hidden away writing in your secret notebook with a flashlight. That’s how you avoid worry about what people will think and get the good stuff.
  2. Get the clay on the wheel. In other words, finish that draft and then go back and perfect it. So many people want to write a novel, for instance, and dream of a career in writing. But if you don’t finish that book—or short story or essay or whatever is—you will never be able to have that.
  3. Know how you work best and honor that. Not everyone outlines. Not everyone writes by the seat of their pants. Some people need music, low-level noise, interaction, and collaboration. Some need silence and isolation. Some like feedback from a critique partner along the way. Some prefer to protect their ideas like fragile budding sprouts.

You originally wanted to be a classical ballerina growing up—how did the switch to writing happen? And how has that background in dance impacted your writing journey?

I did—from a young age, ballet was something I pursued vigorously. While my friends were watching TV after school, I was in the car on my way to class in a larger city an hour away. I spent my summers at intensives and dance camps away from home and began to audition for schools like the American Ballet at age 13. But I got an injured a year later with a slow recovery that caused me to evaluate my future and explore future career goals. Meanwhile, I’d always been a writer—was first published with an essay about my dog in third grade and had won several contests in school. I just hadn’t really thought of it as anything other than a fun departure from reality like the books I so enjoyed reading.

Your father was instrumental in your decision to pursue writing. What was it he said or did that inspired you?

I came home for spring break my first year of college at Smith and my dad and I were in the car together and I was talking about what it was I loved about reading fiction and my favorite books. How a great novel was like a roller coaster, or a door to another world that, once the story is over, you miss and want to return to. I blurted it out that day: “I think I’d like to write a novel.” I wanted to know if I could build that roller coaster or construct that secret passageway for someone else to enjoy the way my favorite authors had for me.

That day, my dad made me a deal. He offered to pay me what I would have made at my summer job as a bank teller if I instead wrote my first novel, did it 40 hours a week and treated it like a job. That summer I wrote my first novel—an epic, sweeping tale of the Neolithic people of Stonehenge. It got soundly rejected by Writer’s House the following year and still lives in my basement. But they did compare it to Clan of the Cave Bear—a book I had loved growing up. And that kept me going.

Who else was instrumental in your early journey?

Teachers. Teachers encouraged me to write from a young age. Pat Kaltenberger and Anne Cognard in high school. My professor and advisor at Smith College, Craig Davis. Daniel Mueller, whom I spent two summers studying under at the University of New Mexico Creative Writing Program in Taos.

And other writers, whether they knew me or not, whom I studied as I read for years.

You were first runner-up to Mrs. United States 1998, and also spent several years traveling the world as a Gallup Organization consultant. How do these experiences impact your writing life today?

I’m so grateful for both of these portions of my journey—and the ballet, too, which taught me tenacity from an early age. I came into this writing career already comfortable with radio and TV interviews. After leaving Gallup in 2011 to write full time, I also had 15 years of public speaking, which is an immense boon. Today I enjoy talking to readers any chance I get, presenting at book fairs and events, and teaching others what I’ve learned along the way.

Your most recent two novels, The Line Between and A Single Light are part 1 and 2 of an apocalyptic duology centered around a pandemic. Both books released in 2019—the second just four months before COVID struck. What was 2020 like for you?

Surreal. I’d just written about a society entering lockdown after a hotspot of a new pandemic appeared in Washington before moving swiftly throughout the U.S., about Canada closing its borders, and the search for a vaccine.

But surreal also because, as a writer, I kind of entered a state of creative catatonia. I beat myself up for not taking advantage of all this time alone and getting more done. But we had three boys home from school and a house torn up for renovation and sometimes you just have to give yourself grace. It turned into a special time in which I read live to my readers online, and got to spend more time [with them]—even if virtually—than I ever had before. I did wonder how the pandemic would affect the readership of The Line Between and A Single Light. I assumed it would be a lot less fun to read fiction about something that had become reality…

And then The Line Between won the Silver Falchion last year—were you surprised?

SO surprised. Especially when I saw both books had finaled and then to have one of them win was such reassurance in the midst of uncertainty and uncertain times. I’m just so grateful. Weirdly, these two books have now won more awards than my previous ones put together.

What do you attribute that to?

I’d like to think it has to do with the fact that the theme is love, hope, and light. I named the sequel A Single Light based on this idea that it only takes one act of kindness, of love, of heroism to save the world a moment at a time.

Tosca Lee is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels including The Line Between, The Progeny, The Legend of Sheba, and Iscariot. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages and optioned for TV and film.

She is the recipient of multiple awards including two International Book Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion, ECPA Book of the Year in Fiction, and the Nebraska Book Award. Her work has finaled for the High Plains Book Award, the Library of Virginia Reader’s Choice Award, the Christy Award, and a second ECPA Book of the Year. The Line Between was a Goodreads Choice Awards semifinalist for Best Mystery/Thriller of 2019. In addition to the New York Times, her books have appeared on the IndieBound and inspirational bestseller lists, Library Journal’s Best Of lists, and as part of Target Stores’ “Target Recommends” program.

Lee’s work has been praised by Publisher’s Weekly, The Historical Novel Society, Booklist, Kirkus, Woman’s World, BookReporter, The Dallas Morning News, and The Midwest Book Review, as “deeply human…” “powerful…” and “mind-bending historical fiction.” A public speaker with over 25 years of experience, Lee is a featured presenter and guest of honor at writer’s conferences and literary events throughout the nation. She is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, Rogue Women Writers, and Mystery Writers of America and was recently elected to International Thriller Writers’ board of directors.

Born in 1969 in Virginia, Lee earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Smith College. She also studied at Oxford University. A former Fortune Global 500 consultant with the Gallup Organization and first runner-up to Mrs. United States, she lives in Nebraska with her husband and three of four children still at home. For more on Tosca, please visit: www.toscalee.com.