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Monday, February 27, 2012

Debra Borys, Cancer Survivor and Author Shares Her New Book, Painted Black

Debra, tell us a little about yourself and what inspires your writing.

I am a former Chicagoan who spent eight years volunteering with homeless on the streets of both Chicago and Seattle.  In addition to being the author of suspense novel Painted Black, I am a freelance writer and the author of several published short stories.  I am currently working on a second novel in the Jo Sullivan series which reflects the reality of throw away youth striving to survive.
After spending my whole life in small town Illinois, I moved to big, gritty Chicago.   I was drawn there by a need to do something that would make a difference in the world.  A recent battle with cancer and exposure to the struggles of a small church I visited on the south side of the city had given me the courage to move out of my comfort zone.
My years spent volunteering with the homeless has changed my world far more than I probably did theirs. I developed a real appreciation for the people I met there, especially the kids.  They’ve been kicked in the face, cursed and, worst of all, ignored and yet they continue to fight to survive, to thrive.
I live in Seattle now and support myself as a freelance writer.  But I am still channeling the lessons I learned on the streets of Chicago.  I am surrounded here by mountains and ocean and emerald green trees.  But until the human element can find a way to treat themselves and each other with respect and understanding, I still feel a need to try to make a difference in the world.
Tell us about the genre of your work. 
Painted Black is a suspense novel, but because it's so character driven, it doesn't fit neatly into a genre niche.  It's not a mystery in the sense that I start with a crime and the story is about figuring how who did it.  The mystery is actually more figuring out if there has been a crime committed, or rather, which crime?  A street kid is missing and as they try to find her, more suspicious questions crop up that need to be answered also.
Why did you choose this genre?
While I read a wide variety of books myself (my favorite all time author is historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett) mystery/suspense has always been my favorite.  It started with the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boy books when I was a kid and continues through Stephen King and Dean Koontz, et al.  My favorite authors always have a certain something that makes them rise above the genre, however.  Straight whodunnit's were never as interesting to me as something that got me into the mind of the character as much or more than the actual plotline.
What are some of your books, stories that have been published?
Painted Black is my first published novel, but I have had several short stories published in print and online publications.  One of them, Red Light, Green Light, is actually a story that arose out of one of the main characters of Painted Black.  I also had three short mysteries published.  They are my Evelyn A. Archer stories which I call my cynical bitch mini-mysteries.  An essay about one of the street youth I knew in Chicago is being published in the February issue of Ascent Aspirations.
Give a short description of your book and where we may find it.
Painted Black is a suspense novel that twists the reality of Chicago's homeless community with murder, corporate greed, and a bizarre collection of freeze-dried corpses. (Kindle edition ASIN: B006QYPCPC ) Barnes & Noble (epub) edition: BN ID: 2940013794818)
A homeless man in a glass coffin, that's all Jo Sullivan was looking for, some new material for her column in Winds of Change, a weekly rag willing to dust the dirt off the seamier side of Chicago.  But after she nearly turns a street kid into a hood ornament, the tip dropped by a fifteen year old prostitute starts to look more like a front page two inch headline.  When the young girl disappears, her friend Chris hints of a room filled with corpses on display like an exhibit at a wax museum, and Jo and Chris team up to uncover the truth behind Sloan and Whiteside's funeral home.
10% of the author profits from Painted Black will be donated to homeless services, including The Night Ministry in Chicago, in appreciation for the work they do in helping the homeless. I encourage anyone who reads my books to also support any program working to eliminate homelessness.
The short stories were mostly in print magazines and are no longer available.  I did re-release Red Light, Green Light ( Kindle edition ASIN: B004XJ4MI0 ) (Smashwords ISBN: 978-1-4580-9102-4) and another short story, Peeling the Onion, (Kindle ASIN: B004V04MK4) (Smashwords ISBN: 978-1-4581-9767-2) as e-books.  In addition, I compiled the complete set of Evelyn A. Archer stories, including the three that were published. That book, Weeping Widows (Kindle ASIN: B005D9RH9K) (Smashwords ISBN: 978-1-4661-1956-7) is also available for download.
Links to the above can also be found on my website
How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?  

The place was easy.  Chicago is such a vibrant, gritty city it actually feels like a character in Painted Black.  The city is teeming with a life that energizes and practically demands attention.  Character names are usually just a question of brainstorming.  Sometimes they come to me fully formed in my head, other times I might just start writing possibilities down until it sounds right.  For incidental characters that the reader isn't going to spend much time with, I might try searching for unusual (but too unusual) last names in a phone directory and then add first names that give the whole a certain kind of rhythm or feel so that you get a sense of what kind of person they are just from their name.  I want to populate my stories with a wide diversity of cultures and ethnic characters to reflect the melting pot a big city really is.
How did you develop the character of your protagonist in this book?  
Jo Sullivan was born out of my own metamorphosis of awakening to the wider world.  She starts out as this flawed character just trying to get on with her life, dealing (or in reality, not dealing) with her own dark past by toughing it out.  Then she has this encounter with a 15 year old prostitute and something about the girl releases this damn of awareness in Jo that she is no longer able to ignore.  She starts looking outside herself, really looking at what's out there, and turns her anger at what's screwed up in own life into energy to try to right the injustices of others. 
What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind? 
There are two, actually.  Sidney Cole plays the largest role in the sense that he is on scene the most.  Several of the chapters are actually told from his point of view.  He is in his own way as flawed as Jo and the kids she's trying to help, but his past has warped him so much that he is trapped in his own sick world.  He does what Philip Quinlan tells him to only because he wants to be left alone and Quinlan gives him that freedom in exchange for performing certain tasks.  Quinlan is the more bone chilling character because he sees nothing wrong with anything he does.  He's a businessman in his mind, an entrepreneur, nothing more.  He does what he feels he must to achieve his goals, no matter who it hurts.
What’s your favorite thing about your book?
I really feel the book gives the reader a good feel for what it's like to be homeless on the streets of Chicago.  To me, it is the street characters that give it the most life.  I think that is because they are based loosely on people I actually knew when I was volunteering there.  One of the most base impressions my experience gave me is that these people are largely invisible to the rest of society, which is even worse in some ways than being despised.  I want to give the homeless a personhood of a sort, because so often they are treated as less than that.
How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?
I don’t really think it is.  All the elements are the same, you need conflict, great characters, smooth writing, beginning, middle, end.  The only difference is you need some mysterious or suspenseful element as your main conflict.  And even that isn't really any different--it's just called "tension" in other books.  If there is no tension, no risk to the characters of some kind, then why would the reader care about what happens?
Why and when did you begin writing?
I've been writing since I was a kid.  I remember even binding a small book using cardboard, construction paper and a typewriter when I was in junior high.  I even chose not to go to college because I knew I wanted to be a writer and what did a writer need with a college degree?  I know better, now, but to my 17-year-old mind it made sense at the time.  I wrote all through my marriage and that was when I started submitting things.  I concentrated on novels at first, but nothing worked until I started writing and submitting a few short stories.  Getting a few of those accepted--for pay even!--gave me the confidence I needed to keep working on my novels.
As an inspiration for Painted Black, the Jo Sullivan series I am working on now, I spent twice a week volunteering with Chicago’s homeless, youth in particular, and got to know a few on a personal level that made me want to become a voice for them. My first manuscript in this series was rejected at least 100 times before I finally gave up and moved on to Painted Black. It may someday come back as a prequel, though obviously rewritten so it is as good as my recent work. 
If there is one unifying theme to my work now, it is an attempt to look the real world in the face, the good and the bad, and keep going no matter what.  Like the character in one of my short stories says, “It’s how you deal with the darkness that counts.”
What is your writing schedule?
Writing time spent on my fiction is sporadic, at best.  I have a freelance business and a part time job that take a lot of my time to make ends meet.  Freelance writing I treat mostly like a business, planning the 8-5 work day to fit in writing or researching or talking to clients as needed to meet deadlines.  I do have two writer's groups that I belong to which makes me accountable to have new fiction to bring to them every two weeks.  We meet every other weekend, so at the very least my goal is to spend the odd weekend concentrating on fiction only.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I am working on the second novel in the series, Bend me, Shape Me.  It stars Jo and all of her friends like Painted Black, but brings in a new street kid, Star Ramirez.  This book addresses another common problem found on the streets, mental illness.  Snow, who is bi-polar, believes the psychiatrist treating her brother is trying to harm him in some way.  The suspense comes in the reader not knowing if her allegations are true and the brother does need saving, or if it actually Snow who needs to be saved from her own delusions.
I recently made a scary career move to jumpstart my freelance writing business again.  I've worked on several projects, most of them editing or ghostwriting fiction, but also did editing on a business book and wrote some Outlook how-to articles for a website.
What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
It's a cliché, but the best thing to do is keep writing.  I had no formal training and some of the stuff I churned out in the beginning, stuff that I thought was so good, is so much more flawed than the work I produce now.  You will learn by doing even if you can't afford classes somewhere.  As for publishing, I'll be honest and say that I think it is mostly a waste of time to submit to markets that pay nothing--unless, that is, it is a publication that has a reputation that attaches a prestige to your acceptance by them.  The only other advantage to having your things published without payment is that it gives you samples to show potential clients or editors.  It is a way to showcase that you write well, and that is the most important step to getting published--write well!
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
Join a writer's group.  Take your time, though, and find one that works right for what you need.  You want a group that will actually critique your work, not just tear it down or pat you on the back.  They should also have the same goals as you.  If you're writing because you want to get published, it's not at all helpful to be part of a group where most people mainly write because they love it and don’t really care if they get published or not.
What do you do when you are not writing? 
When I'm not writing, I am spending a lot of time promoting my writing, or looking for freelance opportunities online.  As far as a personal life goes, it's kind of dull when you think about it.  I have a dog named Sophie that I adopted who is great company and she keeps taking me on walks or to dog parks.  Most of my family lives in Illinois so I usually end up relying on friends to spend holidays with since I don’t' get to fly back home very often.  I have two grown sons.  One is a TSA agent at an airport and one works for Homeland security, so they are great resources for research when I need that kind of info.  They are very careful about not getting away any national secrets though, lol.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
The first moment was the acceptance of my first ever acceptance.  I was a divorced woman trying to scrape pennies together and start a writing business when I didn't really know what I was doing.  I submitted a literary short story to a contest in Iowa Woman titled "The Nest" that had a very personal theme for me.  When they called to tell me I had won honorable mention and would be published in their next issue, it was exactly the dose of self confidence I needed to believe in myself and encouragement to keep writing.  To this day, when I read the story again it brings tears to my eyes.

You can visit my other blog at: that features a preview to my new book that will be released in 2012, Traveling a Rocky Road with Love, Faith and Guts.

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