Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes T.M. Causey.
Ms. Causey is the author of “The Saints of the Lost and Found” (The Road Runner Press). She previously wrote the critically acclaimed, USA Today bestselling Bobbie Faye series under the name Toni McGee Causey. Also a screenwriter, she began her career contributing to local newspapers and magazines that included Redbook and Mademoiselle. Ms. Causey lives and writes in New Orleans, where she and her husband are renovating a building in the French Quarter.
“The Saints of the Lost and Found” was published on March 8th. RT Book Reviews awarded the title 4.5 stars, noting: “One of the best books I’ve read in months.” Further, Booklist enthused: “Causey … delivers a spellbinding hybrid of chilling suspense and potent romance, whose unforgettable heroine, beautifully evoked setting, and nuanced secondary characters will long linger in readers’ memories.” Among contemporaries, New York Times bestselling author C.J. Lyons praised, “Heart-wrenching, compelling . . . Causey is the new queen of Southern Gothic suspense” while fellow NY Times bestseller Allison Brennan offered, “I loved SAINTS! A dark, twisty suspense full of tension, secrets, and compelling characters. You will not be able to put this book down.”
From the publisher:
Avery Broussard has the curse of seeing lost things (and make no mistake about it, it is a curse). Missing belongings and beloved pets, lost love and loved ones—she sees it all. Long ago, that curse destroyed her own chance at true love, causing her to flee her Louisiana home, vowing never to return. She’s kept that promise too, until a phone call from her estranged grifter father forces her hand. Her big brother is dying, and she may be his last remaining hope.
Avery wants nothing more than to rescue her brother, but doing so pulls her into a labyrinth of lies and deceit rooted in her own lost love and her family’s twisted history. It doesn’t help that a little girl has gone missing, and the abduction is tied to a killer Avery failed to help the FBI catch. With no time to spare, Avery realizes her curse might well be the only thing she can trust. Is it too much to hope that she might save her brother and find the missing girl before she becomes the killer’s next victim?
Now, T.M. Causey reveals the heart that beats between the lines of “The Saints of the Lost and Found” …
John Valeri: What first inspired you to undertake writing “The Saints of the Lost and Found” – and why did you decide to publish under a pseudonym?
T.M. Causey: There are three incidents—one came from a story my dad told me, and two were things that happened directly to me—that inspired the what if? question that beget the idea of writing about a woman who finds lost things.
When my dad was about ten, he and his dad lost a hunting dog, and this was back during the Depression, when finding food was critical, and hunting dogs worth more than gold. They were very poor farmers (generally), so when this one dog didn’t show up after a hunt and they couldn’t find her, my PawPaw took my dad on a drive more than an hour away from where they’d been hunting. This was back when there were no telephones (at least, they didn’t have one), and no way to contact anyone, so my dad was thoroughly confused when they arrived at the little shotgun house of a very old black man. He was sitting on the porch, and even from the drive, my dad could see the white cataracts that had blinded him.
Before my PawPaw could even ask a question, the old black man called his name out, and said, “You’ve lost a hunting dog, haven’t you?” and when PawPaw confirmed it, the old man tipped his head as if he was staring off into the distance, and then said, “You know that river you were hunting by? You know the fork?” PawPaw said he did. “You take the right fork, go on down about a mile past where you were hunting and your dog’s hung up in the barbed wire there.”
My dad thought this was a colossal waste of time, but PawPaw thanked the man and promised him some deer meat from the hunt It took them more than an hour to drive back and make the trek to the river and then up the right fork, but about a mile up from the fork… there was the dog, hung up in the barbed wire fence.
Now, my dad doesn’t typically believe in anything like that, but the seriousness with which he told this story stuck with me. Probably because there had been a lot of very weird occasions in my own life when I had seen “lost” things. Two were particularly surprising, because in one case, I “saw” where a friend’s mom had lost a shoe… it was underneath her house (which was built on tall piers), the third pier back on the left, if you were standing in the front of the house at the staircase entrance, and lying in a depression in the ground, having been chewed on by a dog. When we had the discussion where the lost shoe came up and I mentioned the image that had popped in my head, my friend was shocked… because I had never been to her mother’s house—in Nova Scotia, some 2000 miles away from where I lived, had never seen photos of it, nor had she told me about it, but I had described it exactly. She laughed, though, because her mother didn’t have a dog, but she agreed to tell her anyway.
She called me back a few minutes later—the shoe was where I had “seen” it.
Not long after that, a friend went missing—she’d left a suicide note and a mutual friend was trying to find her. An image again snapped into my mind of where she was—sitting in front of a very large tree, eyes closed, already dead, her white car parked not far away. I could see a woman with a backpack leaning over her, discovering the body, and I could sense water, but not see it, which made no sense to me at all. But I described it and my friend was sorely disappointed, because they lived in a desert area—no big trees, nothing like what I had described.
She called me about four hours later—our friend had been found. She’d died—not long before discovery… sitting in front of a giant cottonwood tree on the bank of a dried riverbed, her white car parked not far away. She’d been discovered by a woman who had been backpacking through the park.
That freaked me out plenty.
And it also made me think I had gone a little bit insane, because really, that kind of thing just does not exist, right? You know? But after those two big events and a host of little ones, I wondered, “Am I supposed to do something with this? Help people? How?” I also wondered how stupid I would be to even mention it to offer help, because people were going to think I was insane (but since then, people already think I’m nuts, so hey, no expectations to live up to there), but if I could legitimately help someone who’d lost a child, for instance… shouldn’t I try?
I mentioned the events to a couple of friends, and immediately, they did what came natural—they asked me about something prized that they had lost and an image popped in my head and I was… wrong. My stats on how wrong I was would take many zeroes behind the decimal. Many zeroes. It bordered on the ludicrous, which, frankly, was a relief, because suddenly I wasn’t responsible to find all sorts of heartbreaking things… missing children, loved ones, etc.
Which led me to wondering… What if? What if you could do this for real… But you’re human, you’re not perfect, and you make mistakes? Would you go to the police? Would you volunteer? Where do you draw the line?
What if everyone wants your help? How do you have a life? Do you hide your ability?
What if a child’s life depends on it?
What if your own life does? Or someone you love?
Years after losing our friend, Avery was born, and I think she’d probably been there all along, from the first time I found something… or maybe even as far back as when my dad told me that story about the hunting dog.
And those what ifs kept piling up, pressing forward, begging to be answered until I could ignore the question no longer.
“The Saints of the Lost and Found” is not for the faint of heart. It’s a dark book, and it may break your heart, but it may also give you hope.
JV: Tell us about your protagonist, Avery Broussard. (She’s much different than sassy Bobbie Faye Sumrall). What is her curse – and how is that used to both define and re-define her?
TMC: Bobbie Faye was raucous and outrageous and kick ass—just a tremendous amount of fun to write. I always imagined her as a female version of Wile E. Coyote just as he’s gone over the cliff and looking back at the camera with an oh, shit! expression. She was an everyday hero, very reluctantly shoved into the role, much to the horror of everyone who knew what a walking disaster she was.
Avery has hidden her real abilities all her life (well, as much as she could, once she had control of her life). She can see lost things, and it’s painful and overwhelming at times. She sees everything you’ve ever lost when you walk past her—snapshots—lost keys, phones, jewelry, wallets, loved ones, children. All cut into her psyche with razored indifference. For the longest time, she avoids getting involved, because to help someone… anyone… means exposure, and with that exposure, ridicule and hatred, and worse: desperation and hope for the thousands who are at their wits’ end.
The ability has not only been a curse, it turned her into a tool her grifter parents could use when she was a child, and it’s destroyed so much of her chance at happiness that she only gets involved in a case when she just cannot walk away from it. But the thing is… that curse is something she’s either going to have to learn to live with… or die from. And Avery has to choose who she’s going to be, if she’s going to survive at all.
JV: This book is dedicated to your brother’s memory. How did this loss influence your telling of Avery’s story – and in what ways can fiction be an outlet for both channeling grief and preserving legacy?
TMC: I think Americans in particular have this can do notion about grief—this feeling that we understand what it is, how we’re going to react, how the process is going to go. We know about the stages of grief, whether we’re religious or not, we tend to think of those stages as a to-do list: Shock? Check. Denial? Check. Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance? Check check check. And done… except, it’s not linear, and it’s not a to-do list, and it’s never ever really finished. But because we think we know what grief is, or whether we’ve experienced it at a certain level, and therefore think we can handle it, it can really knock us flat when we lose someone truly close, no matter if it was expected or not.
Grief is circular. It’s a battle you’re fighting in the dark, and you never know when the next punch is going to land, and you never know what exactly is going to trip you, and you never know how big or brutal your opponent is going to be, and nobody gave you any weapons, except maybe prayer and friendship, which don’t always save you from the bruises, but maybe help you get back up again to fight another hour.
You get to a point where there’s a lull in the battle, and you relax a little, thinking, “Finally… I’m okay,” and then you are suddenly gut-punched by something that shocks you—a sound of someone’s voice that’s exactly like the person you lost. A man kneeling on a sidewalk, bent over working, who looks identical to your brother, and you stare in shock and nothing, nothing can prepare you for those moments.
I thought I understood loss and grief when I first started writing “Saints,” and then my brother was diagnosed with a very rare form of lymphoma that had an extremely low survival rate and would require a bone marrow transplant for there to be any hope at all. I thought I understood grief when I held him the night before he was to undergo the treatment that would wipe out all his immune system, right before the transplant, and he was terrified—this big, 6’2” fifth degree Master in Karate (Tang Soo Do) and International World Champion in sparring, and I grieved for him. I thought I knew what grief was when he was doing his worst. But see, there was still a fraction of hope. And then he was better, and then they said he was going home, he’d beaten the cancer, and was cancer free.
He didn’t beat the fungal infection that is such a high risk to every transplant patient out there. (It’s a common fungus, on every single thing we touch, that our bodies are normally naturally immune to, but which can wreak havoc if our immune system is compromised, as his was. It’s why we all had to glove up and wear gowns. There’s no way to know when he contracted it.)
He went downhill so fast, the shock and the grief hit all over again. Then suddenly, he was gone, and I was knocked flat. Just flat. I functioned and barely followed through on anything.
Even a year later, even two, and now three… there are days when something reminds me, when I reach for the phone to call him, and I’m shocked all over again that he’s not in this world for me to talk to.
I don’t think you get over that. I think you maybe get used to being shocked, you get used to being pummeled by it, and you sort of learn to live with it. Each time it happens, it’s not that it gets better… you just become a different person, and you get used to the grief and that person being gone as being a part of your new reality.
It doesn’t mean you’re failing at grief. It means you loved dearly, and that person is always with you as long as you remember them and can tell their story.
Mike made me promise to finish “Saints,” and it was a tough book to go back to, for many reasons, but most of all because Avery and Latham already echoed our brother/sister bond. But, in a way, Mike lives on in those pages in a way I hadn’t anticipated before, and maybe, just maybe, that’s a little bit of comfort.
I think fiction gives you that chance to tell at least a part of a story and get to a truth—a love, a friendship, a bond—that is complex and layered, the way we are in real life, and it gives you that outlet of saying, “I have shown how this felt. If nothing else, it stands as witness.”
JV: In your opinion, how does setting enhance narrative – and in what ways were you able to draw upon your own relationship with New Orleans to add depth to this story?
TMC: Setting is so essential to me—it creates the characters, the ways they do (or don’t) communicate, their histories, mythologies, spirituality (whether they have it or not), and so on. It’s the seasoning in a finely cooked meal—you won’t get the same flavor from McDonald’s that you get from a five star restaurant… but you also won’t get the same flavors from one five star restaurant to another. And you shouldn’t. Setting is the same way—it’s the ingredient that makes a story unique, from slang, to rhythm, to texture and tastes, scents and sounds, and deeper… expectations, nuances, mores, socio-economic impact, culture. Any book that is set in some sort of generic place loses the wonderful benefit of all of those things in creating and building a world that the reader can fully inhabit.
New Orleans is chock full (as most people know) of culture and color and blends of traditions that are unique to this place. Living here gives you a wonderful filter through which to see the world. There are details in “Saints,” epiphanies about culture and people that became clearer to me once I lived here in New Orleans, and walked its streets, met so many different people from so many countries and cultures—it helped me look at the world I’d built in “Saints” and choose the right details that would say (show) so much without a thousand pages of description.
There’s so much more that should be said about setting, and reams more about New Orleans, but what it did, perhaps most of all, was feed my soul, and helped me heal, and I think that, more than anything, helped me shape “Saints” into the story it needed to be.
JV: Some of this book revealed itself to you at a writers retreat. What are the benefits of creative brainstorming – and what advice would you give to those who are struggling to find and write their own stories?
TMC: The benefits of creative brainstorming are wonderful—if you happen to be the kind of person for whom that works. Some people cannot do it—they feel awkward, or perhaps threatened, in revealing half-baked ideas, things not ready-for-prime-time so to speak, and that inhibits them from the riffing that a really good brainstorming session can be. But it’s the riffing that makes the magic, and like the old jazz musicians that sat around late at night in a smoky bar, riffing on music, improvising, pointing out flaws in theories or sound and improving on ideas, creative brainstorming can work the same way.
I’ve found that to succeed at creative brainstorming in a group, you have to find people who, first, get what you’re writing. If you’re in a group of thriller writers and you’re trying to brainstorm a romantic comedy, unless the writers there truly understand your goals and can help you be the best you… help your ideas by throwing out relevant and useful what if? questions… then you are (in my experience) more likely to be derailed. And not because they don’t mean well—they may fully think they’re helping, but if they don’t know the history of the genre, the tropes, what you’re trying to avoid, the richness of the story world you’re building, they could easily make suggestions that will steer you in the wrong direction. (This is true of beta readers as well. They have to fully embrace the type of book you’re trying to write, and not try to make it into a different kind of book.)
Once you have three or four writers (bigger groups get very unwieldy), you can approach the brainstorming session the way we do it: we divide each day into two, and take a writer per ½ day. That way, no one writer hogs the interactions (even inadvertently), but also, you prevent story fatigue—where you just get so many different ideas, that it’s all mud.
A critical aspect of this kind of brainstorming is that no one is allowed to tell you how to write or what to write. The idea is brainstorming. You present a brief (BRIEF) synopsis of where you are in the story, and what’s stumping you. The other writers typically will start asking questions, playing devil’s advocate, riffing on each other’s questions and your answers. You record or write notes as you go, and then, most importantly, you stop talking and work on the next person’s, so that you don’t feel like you were being bullied into stuff (which it can feel like, if it goes on forever).
The beauty of this is you don’t have to do any of these things. Sometimes these ideas simply help you figure out what your story is not, which is, often, just as important as figuring out what it is.
I love this process. I won’t talk about the story-in-progress to many people, but a very few of my close writer friends, I feel free to torture. (CJ Lyons, Allison Brennan, Patricia Bourroughs, I’m looking at you.) However, that train goes both ways, and they call / email and we all brainstorm when we’ve painted ourselves in a corner.
I’m hoping to set up more writing retreats at my home in the French Quarter as soon as we have it finished (this summer). It’ll be a blast resuming those retreat weekends, and I love seeing the great work that my writer friends bring to the table. It inspires me.
JV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
TMC: It’s dark, brutal, historical, and a thriller, about crimes committed against my ancestors (and crimes they committed in return). It’s gut-wrenching, and there are secrets and spies and wily double-crosses. It might take a little while, but I have been mulling over this book for more than ten years. I think, hope, that I’m finally in the right place at the right time—headspace-wise as well as just circumstance-wise—to do this book justice.
With thanks to T.M. Causey for her generosity of time and thought and to Kim Rozzell Miller, Author Public Relations Counselor at Nancy Berland Public Relations, Inc., for helping to facilitate this interview.