Lori Rader-Day on ‘The Black Hour’
For Chicago sociology professor Amelia Emmet, violence was a research topic–until a student she’d never met shot her. Lori Rader-Day answers our questions about her twisty and compelling debut mystery, The Black Hour.
What would you like readers to know before they dive into The Black Hour?
Like a trigger warning? The Black Hour is about a campus shooting. Also there’s a suicide hotline involved. Wait, where are you going? I promise: Despite the dark subjects and despite how painfully timely the topic of campus shootings is, I tried to make the book enjoyable, with characters you wouldn’t mind spending time with.
This is your debut novel, although you’ve published fiction in Good Housekeeping (fun fact: Jodi Picoult chose Lori’s story for first place in the magazine’s first short-story contest!); The Madison Review, TimeOut Chicago; and Southern Indiana Review. What attracted you to writing a mystery for your first full-length endeavor?
I grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown stories, then Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, but I had gotten away from reading mysteries at some point. When I started to write my first novel (the one now in the proverbial drawer), I was just writing to see what happened. A crime happened. Later I met a mystery writer, Terrence Faherty, who clued me in. If my book solved the crime, he said, it was a mystery. (If I didn’t solve the crime, mystery readers wouldn’t touch it.)
Mysteries are sometimes categorized as escapist fiction, but crime fiction visits some of the darkest themes and situations you’ll find on the bookshelf. It’s not really that escapist—more the opposite. One theory would be that we read crime fiction so that real life comes as a relief. For me, writing about crime means that I get to write about characters in desperate, heightened situations—that keeps the act of writing interesting.
The Black Hour is set in the academic world, against the backdrop of a college campus. What inspired you to choose this setting? And what kind of research did you do to make it feel authentic?
You might say I was inspired by my morning commute—at least the last few minutes when I arrive at work on a university campus on Lake Michigan. I borrowed from my experiences as a student, a teacher, an administrator, but also from corporate jobs I’ve had. I don’t think I can say that I did honest research, except to understand sociology as a discipline. I bought a 101-level textbook and read it on my summer vacation. That book was so not a beach book.
What I liked about a campus as a setting was that community-within-a-community thing universities have. They’re simultaneously a part of and separate from their host towns, and they’re also compressed little universes of people, the kind of place a few high-strung characters could bump up against one another and set off some sparks.
Your main character is a sociology professor, which seems like the perfect profession in a mystery. What led you to that choice?
I knew Amelia Emmet was a professor, but she could have taught any subject. I wanted to write about a victim of a crime who survived, and I wanted that character’s reactions to be—academic, not panicked. If I got shot at my workplace, you can bet I’d never walk in there again. That would be a very short novel. But a protagonist who had studied violence, as Amelia has, might be expected to have a more nuanced reaction to being attacked. She’s ready to reclaim her life, even if she still has trouble with students’ backpacks and loud noises, even if she’s no longer sure what she thinks of violence. It’s not just a subject to her anymore. Over the course of the book she manages to put herself back in danger. The reasons why she would be willing to put herself in danger after such a near miss—that was why I wanted write the story.
On top of that, one of the best classes I took in college was a sociology class. I left that class every day with my little Midwest mind blown. If I’d taken it earlier in my college career, I might have added sociology as a double major.
What can readers look forward to from you next?
My second novel, tentatively titled Little Pretty Things, is out from Seventh Street Books next summer. It’s about friendships and rivalries between girls and women, letting yourself get stuck, and, of course, murder.
What is your favorite spot to read?
I love to read on my back porch with the windows open. If it’s raining, even better. That way I don’t feel guilty about sitting around with a book.
What books are currently sitting on your nightstand?
My nightstand is too crowded for even books right now, but I’m carrying around The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson at the moment. It’s so good I don’t want to do anything else.
Learn more and order your copy of The Black Hour here.
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