Often, when I read first-published books by SinC
Guppy members, my assumption of a cozy read is right, especially when the
publisher is Kensington. After reading Susan Bickford’s A Short Time To Die, I found that assumption was wrong!
The language can be rough, the
concepts—obscene, and the tone—suspenseful. We hope the main character, Marly
Shaw, will come out on top. And just when we’re wringing our hands, Susan’s counterpoint
POV, Detective Vanessa Alba, provides calming relief, but then—we’re afraid of
what she’ll find out.
For a debut author, Susan’s
approach is gutsy. I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Please welcome
Susan Bickford to WWK. E. B.
You dedicated your book to
Kathy Bernhard and George-Ann Formicola. Who were they?
Wheatland Chili, outside Rochester, NY, was
quite small—about 100 students in each grade, with a combined junior and senior
high school. Georgie, Kathy, and I were in the same homeroom and we giggled and
snickered at the back every morning.
On our last day of school freshman year, they
went swimming and never came home. The rumors were that they had run off. But
two months later their bodies were found nearby, hideously mutilated. Their
killer was never identified. It has haunted me all these years—girls who
deserved their own futures.
Charon Springs is a town in
Central New York State where the central part of your story takes place. Did
you base the town on someplace you lived? Like Chili, perhaps?
How did you know about Chili? Georgie and Kathy
lived in a small Chili community that was a stone’s throw from Rochester but
very isolated in a way.
My parents seemed to prefer towns that were
the farthest commuting point into the nearby city. I always had the sense that
the end of the world began about five miles down the road.
Charon Springs is a mix of a number of tiny
communities around Central New York and a bit of Vermont.
Why does the water in Charon
Springs smell badly? What’s the mythology of the town?
Upstate New York is a fascinating place
geologically with ancient mountains and old seabeds, scoured by glaciers.
Syracuse is the Salt City because it was dominated by salt production for many
The downside is that the water is universally
hard and tastes terrible. In addition, certain areas have sulfur water because
the water filters down through many layers of salty sediment.
Here and there, communities tried to turn
this into an asset: Ballston Spa. Saratoga Springs. Saratoga means bitter water in Iroquois languages.
Charon Springs tried and failed to become a
spa back in the nineteenth century.
The Harris family rules Charon Springs much like the
Mafia. But the Scotch Irish settled the town. Is this power and rule-by-violence
clan mentality or just a congenital or learned sickness?
I would call it the rotten apple principle,
so it is a bit of both. Every one of us has the capacity for cruelty but also
for kindness. My personal belief is that this goes back to very ancient
instincts that allowed us to identify weak animals while hunting, for example.
Sadly, that same instinct can be turned against those around us. At the same
time we also developed a sense of empathy and the necessity to help each other
in communities. Both are congenital. However, circumstances can allow for the
cruel side to prosper. The Harris family set up a pattern of abuse and
domination long ago and those who remained are infected.
Marly calls her mother, Denise,
by her first name. Why?
Marly loves her mother but cannot respect
her. Denise has made so many disastrous decisions in her life that have
impacted the entire family and she never learns or matures. Marly is filled
with teenage frustration and anger, because she is trapped in so many ways.
This is her way of showing contempt. Eventually Marly accepts that her mother
is a deeply damaged person who will never change.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is
for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
The above quote repeated
through my mind when reading your book. The police seem somewhat inept and
fearful. The librarian, Mrs. Haas, who Marly works for, seems to know a lot,
but never says much. Girls are beaten, threatened, and killed. Why so much
The police care but are overwhelmed and don’t
have sufficient tools to seriously combat this type of insidious, low level
crime and violence. Everyone else has only two choices: leave forever or stay
and play along. No one wants to poke the bear.
Marly teams up with beating
victim, Elaine Fardig. They hadn’t been friends before Elaine’s beating. Why
does Marly have incentive to befriend Elaine, and what do they have in common?
Marly realizes she won’t survive long on her
own if she wants to escape. She needs allies beyond Mrs. Haas, the librarian.
Elaine was brave enough to stand up to the Harris family despite the risk and
Marly needs someone like that in her corner. People in surrounding communities
look down on their little town. Elaine is ambitious and needs to get away and
is not concerned with kissing up.
You provide readers with the
POV of Santa Clara County (CA) Detective Vanessa Alba, of Colombian descent,
who, along with her temporary partner, Santa Cruz County (CA), Detective Jack Wong,
come into the Charon Springs’ story after finding two partial skeletons of
Harris clan members in their jurisdictions. Was using her POV showing how
limited the police are in crime solving, or is it more a show of good and bad
aspects of discretionary authority?
I needed someone to reveal aspects of the
story that Marly wasn’t aware of and would never learn. An outsider who works
in law enforcement fit perfectly. Vanessa’s outsider status also allows her to
see the situation in Charon Springs with fresh, unjaded eyes. She is smart,
observant, and passionate. It’s more about being effective. Besides, Vanessa
doesn’t have to remain in Charon Springs so she has the advantage of being able
to call things as she sees them.
Carl Harris, due to the deaths
of ruling family members, becomes the head of the Harris clan. You kept me
guessing whether or not he was good or bad. There’s reason to believe that he’s
checking up on Alba and Wong’s investigation—threatening them. And yet, he’s
helped Marly. What’s the verdict?
Ah yes—a good bad guy or a bad good guy? I
adore Carl. He and Marly are opposite sides of the same coin. They are both
smart, self-aware, strategic thinkers, and want to do the right thing. The high pressure corruption of his family
twisted Carl’s moral compass a bit. Somehow the same pressure taught Marly
empathy, although she struggles. She mostly manages to keep the positive side
of the coin facing up, Carl not so much. Ultimately I think Carl is a good guy
who can’t help himself. His wife, Betty, loves him and Betty is no fool.
Officer Paul Daniel bugs me. He
bugged Marly, too. What is it with that guy? Is he part of the conspiracy of
silence, a nerd, or slime?
Paul is on the autistic spectrum and not very
smart. He clings to his dysfunctional world of Charon Springs because he can’t
figure out how to leave. He has been bullied his entire life but he has figured
out how to survive. He’s not really part of the conspiracy of silence because
he can’t really process or connect the dots very well. He bugs Marly because he
is weak, needy, and unable to evolve—much like her mother. She has run out of
sympathy. Eventually she realizes that she is indulging in the same bullying
behavior as others by teasing him and targeting his weaknesses. Paul bugs
Vanessa too, but she quickly sees the tragic side of Paul’s situation.
What is “Marlyfication,” and
why would Marly do anything for the town or people in the town where she grew
up in fear?
Marly learned the hard way that policies of
benign neglect or containment never helped the people of Charon Springs. The
situation just festered and many innocent people were sucked under or failed to
thrive. She understands that she was able to be successful because other people
came to her defense, and that she was lucky enough to be able to take advantage
of that. She wants to prove that the right kinds of intervention can turn
things around in Charon Springs. I hope she is right.
How did you get your contract
with Kensington, and do you have advice for unpublished writers?
I didn’t plan ahead of time. Every step of
the way I thought, “Gee, what’s next? I wonder if this story is worth writing,
worth polishing up, worth publishing…” Then I thought, “I wonder if I could get
an agent? Let’s try.” And finally, “OMG, my agent actually found a publisher.”
I was perfectly happy to take on a small
publisher or go the self-publishing route but it just so happened that the
agent and publisher arrived first.
I also knew myself well enough to realize
that I was not going to enjoy all the detailed micro-management I would need to
handle to self-publish, particularly going through it the first time. I’m
extremely pleased with what Kensington puts into distribution and marketing and
it’s still a lot of work for me.
To unpublished writers, my advice would be to
take your time to write the best story you can and enjoy the journey. Once you
publish, the pressures to write the next one is intense (particularly if you
have a contract), plus promotion and marketing pile on.
While you’re doing that, take the time to
study your options and understand the tradeoffs. It’s not as simple as
self-publishing or traditional publishing via an agent. Some traditional
publishers will accept direct submissions, there are excellent small presses
out there, and cooperative publishing seems to work very well for many. Avoid
vanity publishing. The rest is all good in different ways.
Which would you prefer, Susan,
a mountain or a beach vacation and why?
Actually, I have both in California and my house
in Vermont is on a beautiful lake in the Green Mountains. I’m not much of a
beach bather, but I love the power of water and the grandeur of the mountains.
For non-family vacations, I tend to look for a change of pace—a trip to a
corner of the world I haven’t seen yet, for example. I particularly love it
when I can visit old friends at the same time. They become so precious to me as
time marches on.
A Short Time To Die Jacket Blurb
home from a high school dance on a foggy autumn night in rural New York, Marly
Shaw sees a flash of approaching headlights. A pickup truck stops and two men
get out. One of them is the girl’s stepfather. She runs. They follow. Minutes
later, gunshots are fired, two men are dead, and one terrified girl is
running—for the rest of her life…
years later, human bones are discovered in the Santa Cruz Mountains of
California. DNA tests reveal they belong to a mother and son from Central
New York. Both have criminal records. Assault. Involuntary manslaughter. Maybe
more. Santa Clara County Sheriff Detective Vanessa Alba wants to know how these
backwater felons ended up so far from home.
and her partner, Jack Wong, head to the icy terrain of the Finger Lakes to
uncover the secrets of a powerful family whose crimes are too horrifying to
comprehend. Whose grip over a frightened community is too strong to break. And
whose twisted ideas of blood and honor are a never-ending nightmare for the one
family member who thought she got away…