In her own fictional world, Rebecca Burrell is a secret Vatican spy, a flight nurse swooping over the frozen battlefields of Korea, or a journalist en-route to cover the latest world crisis. In real life, she’s a scientist in the medical field. She lives in Massachusetts with her family, two seriously weird cats, and a dog who’s convinced they’re taunting him.
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In the click of a shutter, #Resistance becomes more than just a hashtag.
Pass the bar exam. Convince someone—anyone—in the Egyptian government to admit they’ve imprisoned your husband. Don’t lose your mind. For fledgling human rights attorney Leah Cahill, theCairo.
Leah, the daughter of a civil rights icon, grew up wanting to change the world; Matty was the one who showed her she could. Though frustrated by the US government’s new fondness for dictators, she persists, until a leaked email reveals a crumbling democracy far closer to home.
Risking her own freedom, she gains proof Matty’s being detained at a U.S. ‘black site’, stemming from his work covering the refugee crisis in Syria. Armed with his photo archives, Leah plunges into their past together, a love story spanning three continents. She uncovers secrets involving Matty’s missionary childhood, her own refugee caseload, and the only story the deeply principled reporter ever agreed to bury. It’s what got him captured—and what might still get him killed. With Leah’s last chance to save him slipping away, Matty’s biggest secret may be one he’s willing to die to protect.
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We welcome you to My Bookish Pleasures! Can you tell us how you got started writing fiction?
For better or worse, I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up wanting to be a writer. I came to writing somewhere in my late twenties through fan fiction. I was an avid watcher of the TV show Alias, and active in an online fan community for the show. As with many fandoms, discussion could get heated, but I learned so much about character and story development, and soon, I found myself wanting to explore the characters more. It was probably a year or two later that I started getting the urge to right my own original pieces, something I found both exciting and vaguely terrifying.
Describe your writing process. Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants? When and where do you write?
While a lot of writers consider themselves strictly plotters or strictly pantsters, I’m more of a hybrid. I’ll plan broad arcs and turning points, and write out character sketches (there’s this ridiculous 50 question worksheet I have a love-hate relationship with) Once I’m done with those things, I tend to just write from one turning point to the next. Depending on how the story has evolved, I either keep going or re-evaluate. There’s an old Army joke that no battle plan survives past first contact with the enemy – for me, it’s applies to my writing, as I find that I can’t really plan anything detailed more than one turning point in advance. Too much changes once the characters take the wheel.
For when and where, I tend to write in the early mornings or evenings, usually sitting by a fire in the living room if it’s winter, or in warmer months, I will take my laptop and a coffee out to the sunny back deck.
Can you tell us about your most recent release?
At Shutter Speed, my first published novel, is the story about a fresh-out-of-law-school human rights attorney who gets a trial by fire when her husband, a respected, but troubled conflict photographer, goes missing after a crackdown in Cairo. The story is set in Africa and the Middle East over a fifteen year period, spanning from the beginning of the Iraq War to the present day. It’s part portrait of a marriage, part the story of the ways in which war affects not just those who fight it, but those caught up in it, those in the humanitarian community who try to help, and those who feel compelled to document it all.
How did you get the idea for the book?
Bits and pieces of At Shutter Speed have existed on my hard drive for an embarrassingly long time, so it’s hard to be sure (though it probably involved my tendency to fangirl journalists instead of movie stars and a lifelong obsession with current events) While I’ve always loved this story, it was never really the right time for it. Then the election happened, and suddenly the America around me no longer made sense. Both my husband and our children were born elsewhere and came to this country as immigrants. Especially to my older son, it all felt very personal and scary. For me, writing has always been my way of figuring out things that on the surface, I can’t. When I started reading back through what I’d written, it became clear that now, this was the story I needed to tell.
Of all your characters, which one is your favorite? Why?
Dale, my heroine’s father, who’s an aging Civil Rights hero. She’s his only living child, from a late-in-life second marriage, and seen through her eyes, he’s equal parts inspiration, anachronism, and though he loves her fiercely, he’s a bit of a mystery she’ll never quite figure out. Much of the inspiration for him came from my own grandfather, including a story he shared with me towards the end of his life about his time as a young soldier in France and Germany. My grandfather wasn’t the most emotionally demonstrative guy in the world, but there was one moment for him towards the end of the war that resulted in a complete and total loss of his religious faith. He described it in such a powerful, personal way that I’ll never forget it, and though I’ve never experienced war myself, it made an permanent impression on me of the ways in which it profoundly affects those who have.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?
My novel follows the lives of a married American couple over the past fifteen years, most which they spent living in Africa and the Middle East. The logistics of writing a story built around recent history can be tricky, especially when our interpretation of those events is still evolving. As a country, we’re still feeling the effects of the Iraq War (especially those who fought in or covered it). The Syrian Refugee Crisis is simultaneously both intractable and rapidly changing. It was a real challenge trying to make the events and situations in the book reflective of the current state of affairs not just in those places, but also with the rapidly changing political situation at home in America as well.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on two different books right now, both in the same fictional world as At Shutter Speed. The first, titled Resurrecting Micah, is set in Jerusalem and the West Bank, about an interfaith couple involved in the peace movement, and the second is about a pair of millennials who’ve been caught up in an episode of gun violence and decide to leave the US for life as ex-pat humanitarians.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring fiction authors?
Make friends. Writing has traditionally been considered a solitary profession, but first, that’s a recipe for all sorts of unhealthy things, and second, publishing these days is driven by social media to such a large degree that going it alone just doesn’t fly. As the saying goes, I get by with a little help from my friends, and thanks to the amazing writers I’ve met, I wouldn’t want it any other way.