Toronto author Lisa de Nikolits has created another delightful heroine. Her new novel, The Nearly Girl, is a fast-paced literary thriller about a young woman with a rare psychosis. With a tortured poet for a father, a body builder for a mother and a dysfunctional psychiatrist for a therapist, what could possibly go wrong for Amelia Fisher? This is a novel about an unusual family and the consequences of deviating from the norm.
Check out The Nearly Girl’s trailer.
Lisa, all your novels have strong female protagonists. Would you ever consider writing from a male perspective?
Absolutely! As mystical as it sounds, I like to let my characters come to me and I definitely have a male protagonist knocking on my door for the novel that I am currently working on, The Occult Persuasion. If all goes according to plan, this will be my novel for 2019 and I’d like to get its first draft completed by the end of this year.
You protagonists are mostly women in their 20s. Why do you focus on younger women?
Ha! It’s true that the protagonists of The Hungry Mirror, West of Wawa, The Witchdoctor’s Bones and Between The Cracks She Fell were all young women and I think it was because I was interested in the many issues that face young women and I wanted to investigate them. But Melusine in A Glittering Chaos was in her 40s, and the novels for 2017 and 2018 all feature women in their forties, so I am moving on! And as I mentioned above, the protagonist of The Occult Persuasion will be a young Asian man. But I also see a middle-aged couple featuring strongly in that book, so I think it will include characters of all ages.
Are some of your characters based on real people?
They aren’t based on people I know, but if I have a character and I need to flesh him or her out, and I am stuck, I talk to people I think can help me develop the character. For example, in The Nearly Girl, Amelia falls in love with Mike. I knew Mike’s age and what he looked like, but I had no idea what music he listened to, or what books he read or what he liked to do for fun.
I suppose I could have gone online but I can’t find characters that way. I have to be in the real world, looking at people, talking to people – that’s the only way my characters can come to me. So I kept an eye out at work (I work in a building of 3,000 people) and I finally saw “Mike.” I followed him and explained who I was, and I asked if he would be interested in helping me develop my character.
Fortunately, he was extremely helpful. I interviewed him and sent him a questionnaire, and we emailed back and forth. I thanked him in the back of the book.
Sometimes I will take the names and some of the characteristics of people I know. In The Nearly Girl, Ethel and Ed are named after my Great Auntie Ethel and my Great Uncle Ed because I wanted to pay homage to them. I took their kindness and the contents of their big hearts, and I filled the hearts of my characters with that same open-hearted generosity. Auntie Ethel was a very talented writer and she held a story hour at the local hospital for many years. She and Uncle Ed opened their home to youngsters, even although they had children of their own and weren’t wealthy. I thank Auntie Ethel and Uncle Ed in the back of the book, and I hope that wherever they are, they can see that.
And as I mention below, some of my own idiosyncrasies give me food for thought but I am way too boring to be a character in my own novel. My first draft of West of Wawa was largely based on me, and that character was dismissed as being “banal” and “boring” and “showed no character or emotional development whatsoever.” Ouch! So I had to kick myself out of the book and create Benny, a character who isn’t based on anyone I know, and I think she worked pretty well!
Have readers ever told you they “know” the real-life counterparts of your characters?
Yes, they have! And usually they are not at all like the characters, in my mind at least! It’s quite funny, and it can be a bit of an over-share because it usually reveals an aspect of the person I wasn’t aware of, and it can be a bit awkward!
Humour is a major ingredient in your stories. What role do you see humour playing?
The funny thing is (pardon the pun), I don’t consider myself to be a funny writer and I don’t set out to write with humour but it seems to creep in. At one point, during the edits, my editor Luciana Ricciutelli commented that a certain passage was absolutely hilarious, and I was so happy to hear that because it made me laugh every time I read it. I was glad it wasn’t just me!
Some of my characters just crack me up – but I don’t set out with the goal of making them funny, so I’m not sure where it comes from. I am not a great fan of comedy; I find it quite stressful, standup in particular. Comedians are brave people, putting themselves on the spot like that.
But humour can lighten a serious subject and help balance the perspective.
A theme of The Nearly Girl is that trying to be “normal” is a truly crazy pursuit. How did this theme emerge?
My exploration of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (a core theme in The Nearly Girl) came about when I was trying to untangle my issues with insomnia and claustrophobia. This led to the creation of my character Dr. Frances Carroll and his therapy called D.T.O.T., which is Do The Opposite Thing.
It was also my lifelong characteristics of nearly getting things right and also getting them very wrong that led to the creation of Amelia. For example, I used to file my manuscripts and papers in the oven (before I met my husband who told me this wasn’t wise because, even although I never baked, I did use the stove top and having paper – reams of it – neatly stored in the oven wasn’t a good idea).
But the things I do would probably be called idiosyncrasies, while Amelia suffers from a full-blown psychosis. I used my mistakes as seeds to grow the idea of her story-worthy malaise that led to her discovery of crime. The Nearly Girl is a thriller, a past-paced one at that, rather than a story about therapies and mental-health issues.
Are you a plotter or a pantster when it comes to structuring a novel?
I start with a single idea. With The Nearly Girl, it happened like this. I was on a bus, in the winter, going to a book event. I didn’t know if I was on the right bus because I’d never been in that area before, and I was anxious. Then I realized how interesting it was, being on an unfamiliar bus, on an unfamiliar route, surrounded by all kinds of interesting people. What was fascinating was how significantly visual they were as a group, and how different they were from the crowd on my usual bus route. I wondered what jobs they held, what their families and their lives were like, and I decided that I should take more random buses.
At one point, I looked out the window as we drove past the beach. The sun had just set and it was snowing, and I felt sad that our bodies forced us to follow the seasons and obey the rules. What if we could have a picnic in the snow? Sit on the snow in shorts and T-shirts, with the sleet hitting our bare arms while we made S’mores.
And there it was. The Nearly Girl‘s protagonist.
Then I had to figure out the rest of the story because all I had was a protagonist, an idea and a title. I began by sketching out who the other characters were. I am very character-driven.
And when I have my core idea and my gang of characters, I sit down and work out the plot. I feel as if I am stuck in a café on some deserted Texas highway (I have no idea why it’s Texas) and my single idea is scrawled across one wall in neon writing and the cast of the story is gathered around the diner counter, looking at me accusingly, wanting to know what their roles are.
We get to chatting and that’s how I figure it out. Sometimes one of the characters will object and tell me that the action I have in mind doesn’t fit his personality. Then I’ll get stuck for a bit, but another chap will volunteer for the task, and that can change the entire mood. Suddenly the gang chips in and the next thing you know, dawn is breaking, we have the outline of a plot, and we all eat pancakes and settle down to writing the novel.
All your novels are standalones. Have you considered writing a series or even a sequel?
Quite a few readers have asked me what happened to Benny (West of Wawa) and Melusine (A Glittering Chaos) and have expressed interest in both of those having follow-up novels but I don’t really have anything more to add to those stories.
I’d like to write a sequel to The Witchdoctor’s Bones, about the children who are abducted for muti, but I’d need to go back to South Africa and do a lot of serious research about that. I feel that Kate (protagonist of The Witchdoctor’s Bones) and her boyfriend André (who readers loved!) would make good return appearances.
But writing a series is tough, and I really take off my hat off to you and D.J. McIntosh for both your admirable series.
I love to write about different things and generally once a book is written, that’s usually it for me, the topic is done and over with.
You are an incredibly prolific writer—a novel a year for the past several years, while working at a full-time job as an art director. Is it necessary to put out a book a year to build a readership? And between writing a new novel and marketing your current release, how do you manage to market your previous works?
People often comment that I am prolific and I worry that this makes me sound like the Costco of writing! It isn’t so much the desire to get a book out every year to increase readership that drives me, but it’s my way of trying to find my true writing voice.
The first book I wrote with a serious intent of being published was The Witchdoctor’s Bones. I had a very rough draft of The Hungry Mirror from years back and while I was waiting for feedback on The Witchdoctor’s Bones, I returned to The Hungry Mirror and reworked that and submitted it to Inanna Publications. Following that, I returned to another novel for which I had another rough draft, West of Wawa, and I reworked that and submitted it for publication.
As it turned out, The Hungry Mirror was the first novel to be accepted for publication, followed by West of Wawa and both were followed by A Glittering Chaos, a novel I started from scratch while waiting for more feedback on The Witchdoctor’s Bones. The Witchdoctor’s Bones was finally published in 2014 when I was working on The Nearly Girl which was accepted for publication in January 2015.
So you can see that the chronology of my published books didn’t follow the same linear path of my writing and therefore, some of my earlier published works were more indicative of my earliest voice, which is not the voice I now view as my true author’s voice.
A Glittering Chaos (penned after The Hungry Mirror, West of Wawa and The Witchdoctor’s Bones) was the first book that is resonant of the voice I am striving to develop. The Nearly Girl IS written in that voice, as are the upcoming works No Fury Like That and Rotten Peaches.
This is not to say I don’t love my earlier books. I feel a huge fondness for them and their messages and their voices, but I would say they don’t reflect the writer I would most like to be, while The Nearly Girl does.
To answer the other part of your question, I focus on promoting my most recent book. People often express interest in the others so I don’t worry about promoting them. If Toronto Public Libraries’ readers are anything to go by and my annual royalties, those works are doing fine. (Thank you, readers, very much!)
What do you enjoy least about the writing process?
The worrying and the waiting! I am such an impatient person so maybe this is the zen lesson life is trying to teach me. Maybe this is my karma, to be involved in a field of creativity where so much time is spent waiting.
First I have to wait while the idea evolves, and I worry it won’t be substantial enough for a whole book. Then I worry while I am writing the novel that the idea will fall apart and what small progress was made will disintegrate into a pile of ash, which will be the sum total of my work.
Once the book is completed and I have finished Draft Number Three or Four, I send it off to my publisher and I worry that she won’t like it. I wait for the reply, gnawing my fingernails.
Then I wait for the production process to begin. I punctuate this waiting process with several self-edits, going back and trying to polish the book, making every sentence shine.
Then I work on the publisher’s edits. That’s when it all starts to feel more real, like this might result in a real book after all.
Then, when I finally have the book in hand, I worry that no one will like it and my labour of love will have no more impact on the world than a few drops of rain falling on a sidewalk.
What do you enjoy most about the writing process?
I make it sound so terrible that you probably wonder why I bother writing at all. The answer is the joy of the creative process. There are moments when a character speaks to me and it feels fantastic. And when I finish the first draft and I realize that, yes, it all worked out, even better than I had thought or hoped. And then you I to hold the book, which is simply magical. And then readers do like it after all. That’s like the sun is shining and summer is here forever!
You’ve had several short stories published, one of them in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s crime fiction collection 13 O’ Clock. Are short stories more or less of a challenge to write than a novel?
Short stories are definitely more of a challenge for me than long fiction. I love writing short stories, but I find I have to work a lot harder at them. They are a great way to keep my writing fresh, and I am always working on a short story between novels. Sometimes a short story can lead to an idea for a novel, or a character in one of the short stories will find its way into a novel. For example, my protagonist in Troubled Times (in 13 O’ Clock) is in No Fury Like That because I wanted to know what happened to her.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?
I’d like to thank you for having me as a guest today. and I really hope readers have enjoyed this post. I also hope they will be interested in reading The Nearly Girl!
One last thing I’d like to add is that I love attending book clubs, so if you’d be interested in having me at your book club, along with my characters, that would be fantastic!
I also do a lot readings at the Toronto Public Library and other places, so if you’d like to catch a live reading and meet me in person, please check out my website where all my events are listed, along with reviews, photographs and all kinds of interesting information.
Thank you, Lisa!
Originally from South Africa, Lisa has lived in Canada since 2000. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and philosophy and has lived in the United States, Australia and Britain. Lisa now lives and writes in Toronto. The Nearly Girl is her sixth novel. Her previous works include: The Hungry Mirror (2011 IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Women’s Issues Fiction and long-listed for a ReLit Award); West of Wawa(2012 IPPY Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction and a Chatelaine Editor’s Pick); A Glittering Chaos (tied to win the 2014 Silver IPPY for Popular Fiction); The Witchdoctor’s Bones launched in Spring 2014 to literary acclaim. Between The Cracks She Fell was reviewed by the Quill & Quire, was on the recommended reading lists for Open Book Toronto and 49th Shelf. Between The Cracks She Fellwas also reviewed by Canadian Living magazine and called ‘a must-read book of 2015C. Between The Cracks She Fell won a Bronze IPPY Award 2016 for Contemporary Fiction. No Fury Like That is scheduled to be published in 2017 and Rotten Peaches in 2018. All books published by Inanna Publications.
Lisa has a short story in Postscripts To Darkness, Volume 6, 2015, and flash fiction and a short story in the debut issue of Maud.Lin House as well as poetry in the Canadian Women Studies Journal (Remembering, 2013, and Water, 2015). Her short stories have also appeared on Lynn Crosbie’s site, Hood and the Jellyfish Review. She has a story coming out in the anthology PAC’HEAT, a Ms. Pac-Man noir collection, and another story in Sisters In Crime Toronto’s anthology, November 2016, The Whole She-Bang 3
Follow Lisa on her website. On Facebook. On her Facebook Author Page. On Goodreads. On LinkedIn. On Instagram. On Wattpad. On The Mesdames of Mayhem. On Pinterest: Inspiration for The Nearly Girl. Or Tweet with @lisadenikolits
You can purchase The Nearly Girl at:
- Canadian Chapters/Indigo stores.
- Through Amazon wherever you live with The Nearly Girl’s international Amazon link.
- And at Inanna.ca.