Recently, I sat down with Liz Lazarus to chat about her newly-released debut novel, Free of Malice.
Can you share with readers a little bit about your latest book?
FREE OF MALICE is a psychological thriller – fiction, but loosely based on a real-life experience. Set in Atlanta, the main character Laura Holland, a rising journalist, endures a night of terror when she is attacked in her home. Although she fights off the would-be rapist, his parting words are a threat to return. Laura undergoes therapy to recover from the trauma, learning about a relatively new technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) used for PTSD patients. But just when the reader feels a sense of where this book is headed—the story of a woman healing—the plot veers in a new direction. Though Laura did not own a gun at the time, she wishes she could have shot her attacker as he fled. When she learns that her actions might not have been deemed self-defense, her journalistic instincts are kindled. Laura decides to write a hypothetical legal case, which plays out the events of that night had she shot and killed her assailant. She enlists the help of a young, black attorney, Thomas Bennett. Though Thomas proves to be clever in the rules of the criminal justice system, his striking resemblance to her attacker does not go unnoticed. As the two work together to develop the case, Laura’s discomfort escalates, particularly when Thomas seems to know more about that night than he should. Could he possibly be her assailant or is Laura being hyper-vigilant? Reality and fiction soon merge as her real life drama begins to mirror the fiction she’s trying to create.
When and why did you begin writing?
Like the main character, I was attacked by a stranger in my home in the middle of the night. In order to heal, I started to write about how I was feeling and what had changed in my life. At the time, I didn’t know about EMDR therapy to heal from trauma, so used writing as a catharsis. Also like the main character, all I had for self-defense was a can of Mace. After the attack, I said to my brother-in-law, if I had owned a gun, I would have shot the guy as he left. My brother-in-law countered that I was fortunate I didn’t—as shooting a fleeing criminal might not have been a clear case of self-defense. That idea sparked my interest in learning about the criminal justice system and inspired me to write the hypothetical case portrayed in the book. The ending, which I won’t spoil, was prompted by a question from my mother. Once you’ve finished the book, write to me at email@example.com and I’ll tell you more about that.
Do you work to an outline or plot sketch, or do you prefer to let a general idea guide your writing?
FREE OF MALICE takes place over 6 months, from June to December. As strange as it may sound, I didn’t write the book in order. Like most authors, I outlined the story so I had the sequence of events laid out. Then, because I’m a fairly visual person, I used a huge wall calendar to outline the six months in which the book took place, listing all the events that occurred which helped me arrange the story and also allowed me to circle back to clues I had dropped in earlier chapters. And though I don’t have a law degree and am not a trained therapist, I had the great fortune to consult with a criminal defense lawyer (Alison Frutoz) and a certified EMDR therapist (Karen McCarty) to be sure those portions of the book were accurate. Spoiler alert – don’t read the calendar too closely on my blog—might give away some clues!
How do you market your books?
We are doing traditional media outreach and also social media with FB, Twitter and Instagram. I’ve found that sharing some Advance Copies with Goodreads members has been a wonderful experience – nearly everyone has been really receptive to being an early reviewer and I’m making some great friends along the way. One really fun activity we’ve started is reaching out to the Atlanta locations in the book and asking if they want to join in the promotion. So far, we are planning activities with Davio’s, Eddie’s Attic, Sandy Springs Gun Club and Range, Fat Matts and have more to come.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I postponed writing this book for many years to pursue other opportunities. I moved to Paris, got my MBA from Northwestern and got my pilot’s license. But this book kept nagging me to write it so I finally relented. I would tell other authors, if you have the calling, listen to it.
Also, at some point along the way, I said I’ll never …
- Cut 30,000 words from my book
- Change the tense from third to first-person
- Add a new character
- Change the title (it was SWEET SAM; seriously, isn’t FREE OF MALICE so much better?!)
- Let my mother read it
- Let my fiancé read it
But I did.
If nothing else, this book has taught me to be patient and flexible . . . and it’s a better creation because of the “never-s” that I unshackled. My advice to aspiring authors is to be open and accepting of input that will make your work of art even better.
Tell us more about one of your main characters. What makes him or her unique?
Thomas Bennett, the criminal defense attorney character who consults with my protagonist, Laura Holland, is an interesting guy. Do we love him or hate him? Do we trust him or suspect him? And why is he doing pro-bono work for a journalist – what’s in it for him? At one point, Laura says, “he sounded sincere, but there was this little nagging voice inside of me—aren’t most psychopaths also charmers?” My editor, Jan Risher, may have said it best, “This book is not a traditional whodunit. The author pulled off a tough balance of having me both suspect yet somehow root for the lead male character.”
My best friend from college, Thomas Barnette (not a psychopath, by the way), was my inspiration for the lawyer character. Among other things, he is a musician and, as an added bonus, his song, Let Me Breathe from the CD which I co-produced is the theme song for my book. You can listen to the song on my website.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you cast?
For Laura, the lead female, I have always thought about Jennifer Garner or Jessica Alba. For Chris, the husband, Ben Affleck or Josh Duhamel. (Alas, when I wrote the book, Jennifer & Ben were still together. It would have been so neat to have them be the lead couple.) For Barbara, the therapist, Linda Evans or Barbra Streisand. And, for Thomas, well either the real Thomas Barnette or an aspiring African American actor (say that fast 5 times!). What’s your vote?
If there was one thing you could do to change the world, what would it be?
Ensure no person was ever homeless or hungry. If I win the lottery or this book makes me millions (pause, dream a bit, back to reality), I’d focus on only that. Today, I volunteer for a charity called Second Helpings, where we pick up and transport food that would otherwise be thrown away from grocery stores (expiring that day) to local food shelters. It’s my small part towards the larger goal.
Tell us something unique about you.
I can land an airplane but can’t drive a stick shift!
Liz Lazarus is an engineer, career business woman, private pilot, and consultant – nothing that necessarily says ‘author’. But this book literally kept nagging her to write it, so she finally relented. Loosely based on personal experience and a series of ‘what if’ questions, FREE OF MALICE traces the after effects of a foiled attack; a woman healing, and grappling with the legal system to acknowledge her right to self-defense. Liz is a native Georgian, born in Valdosta and now living in Atlanta with her fiancé, Richard, and their very spoiled orange tabby named Buckwheat.
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