Monday, February 19, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Sarah M. Chen

Hi Sarah. Welcome to Ink-Quisitions. You're the first writer we're lashing to S&G's wooden rack—so I hope your wrists and ankles feel fit.

My first question is a softball: All set to spill some Ink?

A. Are you kidding? I’m thrilled—for both of us! Congrats on the new gig, Jesse, and I’m honored to be the writer to launch Ink-Quisitions. Thanks for having me!

Q. Like most of us Indie writers, you work for an employer. But yours—LA Adjusters & Investigators—sounds mysterious. Should I start with the waterboarding? Or are you willing to give us a glimpse into your workdays?
A. It’s nothing as cool as it sounds, especially now. My boss, an insurance adjuster/private investigator, is practically retired. It’s a small outfit with just me and him and our specialty (at least when I first started) was tractor-trailer claims—like stolen cargo, tractor-trailer thefts, and vehicle accidents. Occasionally, we’d do investigative work for lawyers and that’s where the fun stuff happened: like stakeouts, serving subpoenas, and searching for witnesses. And by fun, I mean making people angry. Although people seem less suspicious of a woman snooping around than my boss.

I got the job by answering an ad in the local paper in 2002 for an “assistant to a private investigator.” How could I pass that up? And yes, looking for jobs in the classifieds used to be a thing. Initially, I wrote reports and did bookkeeping. But eventually I handled my own claims.

I have to say that I owe a great deal of my writing career to this job, at least getting it started. There are many crazy claims I worked that inspired short stories and it helps to write about crooks when you work with them on a regular basis. My boss also loves mystery novels so he’s the one who got me hooked on the likes of Tony Hillerman and Patricia Highsmith.

Q. Maybe because I write fiction myself, I tend to think of authors as people first and writers second. So I'm curious. What has your social life been like as a writer? Did you find your way into an actual or online writing community early on—or did you spend a lot of time in isolation first?

A. I didn’t start taking writing seriously until 2006. I’ve always wanted to write and dabbled in it here and there. My background is in the entertainment industry, mostly as a studio script reader. I eventually wrote a screenplay, thinking that’s what I wanted to do. But after reading hundreds of scripts over the years and seeing what producers were greenlighting, I left the industry.

Then in 2006, I got divorced. I re-evaluated everything in my life and it was a weird time for me. I felt lost yet totally grounded at the same time. I decided if I didn’t start writing then, I’d never do it. I went to the Los Angeles Festival of Books for the first time that year and met Darrell James at the Sisters in Crime booth. He invited me to a meeting and I went. It was the best decision I ever made. I met my current writer group, Travis Richardson and Stephen Buehler, through Sisters in Crime. I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.

Q. I'm excited about your novella "Cleaning up Finn." As well as your 2017 appearance in the Gutter Books Johnny Cash tribute anthology "Just to Watch Them Die." And heartfelt thanks to Editor Joe Clifford for culling this kickass collection. But I'd like to look backwards first. When and where was your first story published? And what were your submission experiences like prior to this Happy Day?

A. My first published story, “Dough Boy,” is about a private investigator who wanted to be a baker. It’s more light-hearted than what I write now. Darrell James helped me revise it. The story was published in 2007 by Loretta Scott Miller / Shannon Road Press in an anthology called LITTLE SISTERS. I was so excited and it was an amazing experience since there were five other local authors in the collection. We did a mini book tour together. It was awesome because for many of us, it was our first published story. I haven’t had anything like that experience since.

Prior to that, I didn’t submit much at all. I took a creative writing elective in grad school and that’s when I first realized I may not suck at writing short stories. My professor, who wasn’t exactly effusive with his praise, begrudgingly admitted my story could be publishable somewhere. I tucked it away, and when I found it years later, it became “The High Road” which was published by Plan B in 2013.

Q. Time to toss in some grit. "Missouri Waltz," your story contribution to the Cash anthology, struck me as darker than the Man-in-Black himself. But for the sake of prospective readers, let's avoid plot. How did you channel enough anger to create Violet, Lorraine, and Darius—then chain these furies to the page?

A. I often channel what’s inside me into my characters. I know I harbor a lot of anger and that’s why writing helps me. It’s therapeutic which sounds clichéd but it’s true. I was raised to keep my emotions in check, especially anger. Even though I eventually learned that it’s unhealthy to bottle everything up and have been working on changing this, it’s hard to break longtime habits. So when I write these characters who are hurt, resentful, or enraged, it comes mostly from within.

Q. I chanced to read an interview Steve W. Lauden conducted with your fellow contributor Jen Conley shortly after this anthology's release. Jen indicated that writing a dark story like "God's Gonna Cut You Down" impacted her emotionally for some time. Have you experienced anything similar in regards to any of your characters? And does this particular Cash song bear any personal significance to you?
A. Each character takes a little piece of me. At least the main characters. So when I write something that draws from my own pain or anger, then yes, it’s absolutely hard not to be affected.
I have to admit I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash when I was asked to contribute a story. Joe Clifford said it didn’t matter, that it’s about whatever song title speaks to you, which was a relief. I didn’t grow up on his music or have much exposure to his songs so the only things I knew were from the movie and the “Hurt” cover song. I know, I know! So when I went through the long list of songs, I was kind of overwhelmed and freaking out until I saw “Missouri Waltz.” I knew that was my song title. I had just gotten back from a trip to St. Louis to visit my ex-husband for his birthday (yeah, it’s weird, but go with it). We hung out in this cool blues club and the woman singing, Kim Massie, had a voice and a presence that blew me away. She was the inspiration behind Lorraine and the story’s setting.
I interpreted “Missouri Waltz” as a dance between the main character and her father. A waltz is a dance that’s all about precision and timing. So for Lorraine and her father, the timing for them to connect meaningfully over the years is always off. Although there is definitely a strong emotional thread of rage throughout, it’s essentially a sad story of regret and missed opportunities between father and daughter. At least that’s what I envisioned when I wrote it.

Q. When your short story “The Benevolent Man” was published by Spelk Fiction in December 2015, your bio announced that All Due Respect Books (ADR) would release your first Noir novella in May 2016—proving you could write something over 6,000 words. Congratulations on making that leap. What's the grand finale tally in your novella?

A. It’s 27,770 words exactly!

Q. I love all those "sevens." And how you wound up on an "even number." But in less than 6,000 words: Who is Finn? Why does he need cleaning up? And how did this rapscallion get you nominated for an Anthony Award a mere 12 months after his debut release? I'm hoping you can talk about Finn's "psychological make-up"—rather than discussing plot.

A. Let’s deal with the easy question first: I think FINN was nominated for an Anthony because I lucked out on the “wild card” category. Last year that was the Novella category. I think primarily because the novella has surged in popularity in recent years. Since there were a limited number of novella releases, I think that’s how FINN got in.

As far as who is Finn? He’s that Peter Pan character who never grows up—the eternal playboy. We’ve all known a guy like Finn. And yes, there tends to be more Finns in certain circles, like the restaurant industry, which I worked in for years.

I wanted to explore the reasons behind his womanizing. He treats women as objects and something to conquer. But I wanted to show that his behavior is driven by an inability to establish intimacy, rather than a desire to dominate and control. Finn is a patchwork of various people I’ve worked with and known over the years. As well as a little of myself. I’ve gone through my own struggles with what it means to be emotionally available to someone.

Finn puts on this bravado. But underneath, he’s a lonely man who craves validation. He doesn’t love himself. And that’s his main problem. Until he chooses to clean up his life on his terms rather than everyone else’s, he’ll be forever trapped in this Peter Pan limbo—because it’s all he knows and understands.

Q. After you attempted to clean up Finn on paper, what route did the two of you take to find him a home with a publisher?

A. Initially, I was contracted with a fledging publisher who was launching an imprint of e-book novellas. I expanded FINN from a short story I had written years earlier. It took me over a year to do this and by the time I was done, the publisher went under. I then took it to Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan over at All Due Respect Books. I couldn’t see FINN anywhere else—and luckily, they agreed.

Q. Based on Facebook posts I've read, you appear to have a fine relationship with esteemed crime editor (and writer) Rob Pierce. But Rob was not the editor for your novella. Who is the editor for your book—and how did you go about choosing an editor? Was the choice difficult? And what factors influenced your decision?

A. ADR handled the editing process for me. Chris Rhatigan and Chris Black (from Number Thirteen Press who is now heading the new imprint, Fahrenheit 13) did a fantastic job cutting all the extraneous bullshit and pointing out all my crutch words. I’m seriously indebted to them.

Q. Since Ink-Quisitions conjure images of pain—what is the highest number of “Declinations” you have received from any particular publication?

A. I submitted three times to the Al Blanchard Award Contest that the Crime Bake Conference puts on. And got rejected every time. Although one year, I received a lovely note of encouragement. I’ve tried for the Bouchercon anthologies a couple times. But so far, I’m zero for two. But the important thing is, after tweaking the story, I resubmitted elsewhere and landed homes for all of them. Pain is a good thing, you know?

Q. This next question is crucial: If you have first-time house guests who will only be in town for 18 hours—where do you take them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

A. For food I'm talking local South Bay ... no battling L.A. traffic for me. I'm not much of a breakfast person but I do love a good Bloody Mary. So that means Hennessey's Tavern. Lunch is a messy burger with bacon and avocado at Simmzy's in Manhattan Beach. Dinner is ramen at Hakata in Gardena.

Best of luck to you, Sarah. Thanks for helping us initiate S&G's rack. Meanwhile, anyone with an interest can purchase her novella "Cleaning Up Finn" on Amazon.

Additionally, Sarah recently teamed with writer E.A. Aymar. And this dynamic duo coedited "The Night Of The Flood"—a novel stitched together from fourteen short stories. Set in the fictional town of Everton, PA, life gets wet-n-wild when a band of irate women decide to destroy a local dam. (So I suspect that this anthology will sweep its readers away.) While this damned-dam collection will release March 5th, eager beavers can pre-order here

You can learn more about Sarah and the above collection by visiting her website.

Folks who've never read Ms. Chen's work—or fans that can't get enough of her, can also read her story "The Benevolent Man" for free at Spelk Fiction.

Meanwhile, you can easily visit Sarah at the various Links below.





  1. Feed the authors, show em some love.

  2. Great interview. Loved FINN. Glad I found "Story and Grit" through Sarah's newsletter. I'll be checking back.

    1. Glad I could help lead you to Story & Grit! Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael!

    2. Appreciate you stopping by, Michael. Hope to see you back.

      Glad having you, Sarah. Hope we’ll get you back on Story and Grit soon.

  3. Thank you, Jesse and Mark! Would be happy to return for more torture - er, chitchat - anytime!

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  5. Sarah, you're stories are kick-ass! And I dig Highsmith a good dose of her in grad school. I just joined sisters in crime and am writing and sending stuff out now too, just like u did. So thanx sooo much for sharing...your story is fueling me to write on!