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When late-night phone calls summon Jude Coleridge and Camille Prescott back to the Talbot Hall School for Girls, painful memories bombard them. Though estranged for years, both bear the physical and emotional scars from their youth.At the boarding school, they were branded “the crazy girls, the ones who lie” and became unlikely best friends. They soon formed a trio with a new student, Wanda Ann, who pulled them into her bewildering relationship with the school psychologist, Dr. Hedstrom. But Wanda Ann’s wild stories masked a truth that threatened to engulf them all.
As teens, the girls could only rely on each other as they moved toward an unfathomable, fiery danger. Now, in the crumbling halls of Talbot, hours before the building’s demolition, they must grant forgiveness, to themselves and others, if they are to move forward.
Q & A with Claire & Penny ~
Q: Let’s see, you and co-author Penny Koepsel have a new book coming out, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing 2021). Please tell us a little about the book, and how it came to be.
CLAIRE: Wayward Girls is a blend of women’s fiction/suspense and psychological thriller in which two women return to the site of their old boarding school on the eve of its demolition and relive the trauma of what happened to them as students there. It is inspired by a true story of tragic events that took place in a Texas wilderness school in the seventies, but our book is 100 percent fiction. Penny and I both attended the same Florida boarding school but different years, so we never met as students. However, when alumna began to connect for a reunion, an English teacher we both adored recommended that we meet each other, and so we started emailing. Once we were at the actual reunion, everyone was telling stories and we decided to write a book.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and how you started writing.
CLAIRE: I spent many happy childhood hours on the porch listening to my kith and kin tell stories. This infused me with a love of storytelling, which translated into reading books and then writing books. I started writing short stories and poems in high school, studied creative and nonfiction writing in college, and have gone from there.
PENNY: I began writing short stories in elementary school. They were typically immature love stories about unrequited love or loss. I still have one, typed in brown ink from my father’s office. Occasionally, I accompanied him to his office on weekends. It was always so much fun. I sat at his secretary’s desk and used her typewriter to write short stories while he sat in his office and worked.
Q: What are some things you enjoy when not writing?
CLAIRE: Gardening, walking in nature, photography (especially of nature).
PENNY: I have several passions other than writing that include rescuing and fostering animals, working in my garden, and my career as a school psychologist. My two dogs I rescued, could never find a home for them and cannot imagine life without them. They give me so much love and companionship. Working in my garden affords me peace, time to think, and experience gratitude for my blessings in life as I sit outside at night, sip a glass of wine and enjoy the beauty.
Q: What is something about you that people would surprise people?
CLAIRE: For twenty years I lived in a homemade house in the woods in Georgia in an intentional community of environmentally conscious folks who wanted to get back to the land. Not, you understand just in the country, but in the deep, deep woods. UPS would not deliver to our house. My husband Bill and his friends built the house by themselves. Happiest years of my life.
PENNY: That I used to work for a railroad company; I started out as a stenographer, but later became weary of office jobs and applied for a job as a freight inspector and a foreman in the shops. I was told I could not apply as I was a woman. I replied that I had the seniority and they had to let me apply. I applied, got the positions, and had to learn how to drive fork lifts, open box car doors, inspect damaged freight and box cars, drive a truck, and be assigned some of the worst areas to travel to such as the docks, refineries, warehouses. My last position there was a janitor working from 4:00 PM to 1:30 AM so I could do my undergraduate in English and Psychology during the day.
Q: Do you have a ‘day job’ as well?
CLAIRE: Not at the moment, though I have been a newspaper reporter, a lawyer, a college teacher and an organic blueberry farmer.
PENNY: Yes. Working as a school psychologist, making even the tiniest difference in the lives of children, their families, and ultimately society is so fulfilling. It can be extremely sad and frustrating at times, but helping to make the difference in one child is huge. I retired a few years ago, but contract back with a school District part-time. I love it. It made my gazillion years of college, internships, research, and dissertation writing worth it.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
CLAIRE: From my own varied experiences, from reading newspapers, stories my friends and family tell, and my imagination.
PENNY: I think most of them stem from something I experienced in life be it first or second hand. Perhaps something I learned about from the news, or from someone else. I was a shy, quiet, and reflective child and spent time paying attention to others. I have always reflected on my experiences, my feelings and emotions and tactile sensations.
Q: Do you have a go-to first reader after you feel your manuscript is ready?
CLAIRE: Yes, Mike Lehner, who has been my friend since high school. I trust him to be honest.
PENNY: Kate Birdsall with Red Adept Publishing did our line editing and was a joy with which to work.
Q: Is there a particular author or book that influenced or inspired your writing or decision to write?
CLAIRE: Barry Hannah and Thomas Rabbitt, who were my creative writing professors in grad school, were both a tremendous influence, albeit in different ways.
PENNY: As a child, books like Little Women, Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Shirley Temple books. I could envision the characters, their feelings and emotions. Lying on the hearth in front of the fireplace as a child, being catapulted to another time and place was memorable. I learned that books were friends that could take one on an adventure to a different time and place.
Later in life, I discovered Jefferson Bass. Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Mr. Jon Jefferson. Their “Body Farm” series is a poignant example of being a voice for those who cannot share their story. Jefferson Bass masterfully unravels and delicately re-weaves what the victims could not do. The first book of theirs that I read made such a lasting impression, and they have been role models for me as I strive to be a voice for those less fortunate in both my writing and my profession.
Q: Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published (or this book?)
CLAIRE: I had tried and failed for three years to get an agent for a couple of serious legal thriller manuscripts when an agent said my stories should be “more fun.” He rejected the manuscript but gave me that great advice, which I took to heart and wrote a funny legal thriller about an eccentric woman attorney. Even before I finished it, I entered the first chapters in a legal fiction contest in which a HarperCollins vice president was involved. Those chapters won first place and led to a four-book run with HarperCollins. Thus, my first book, Skinny-dipping (2004) was the result of listening to good advice and winning a contest—and three years of steady rejections.
PENNY: OMG – don’t know if we have enough time in this blog (LOL). It was time-consuming, discouraging at times, exciting at other times, eye-opening, sobering, and amazing. We have an amazing agent, Liza Fleissig with Liza Royce Agency. She supported and encouraged us throughout the entire process, during those times we were so confident, and again during those times when we were discouraged and ready to throw in that proverbial towel. We also have an amazing publisher, Lynn McNamee. We could not be where we are today without either one of these phenomenal women. Thank you both so much.
Q: What are you working on now?
CLAIRE: These days I am working on another book with some of the same characters that appear in The Smuggler’s Daughter (Red Adept Publishing 2020).
PENNY: Marketing Wayward Girls. Thinking about brushing off a manuscript I began working on a few years ago and trying to breathe new life into it.
Q: Is anything in your book or books based on real-life experiences?
CLAIRE: Oh, yes. As I had been a practicing attorney in Florida for years, I naturally used some of my own real-life experiences in writing my legal thrillers. The Smuggler’s Daughters is loosely inspired by the infamous (in its time) sinkhole murders in Florida.
PENNY: Wayward Girls is a work of fiction, but some of the events were loosely based on actual events experienced by children and adolescents at private schools, wilderness schools, boot camps and other facilities after being sent there by parents, guardians, or the courts.
Two years after graduating from the private school in Florida, I read a local newspaper article about the death of a female student in a Texas wilderness school. A school psychologist was originally accused of the murder, and there are documented accounts of the death and subsequent legal proceedings. I communicate with a former student who attended the same school when the student died. She shared some of the horrors they experienced. I visited the isolated area where the school was located, walked around the area, closed my eyes, and felt the hair raise on the nape of my neck as I imagined the horror the students felt.
Claire and I both attended the same private girl’s school, though a few years apart and never met. We were blessed to have had an English professor, Jesse Mercer. Jesse lit the flame of creativity in me, encouraged me, and was such a source of support for me. When I graduated from the school, I lost contact with Jesse for decades. However, I never forgot him and thanked him in the acknowledgements section of my PhD dissertation. I was able to locate and contact him in 2004. We remained in contact for a few years. I sent him a copy of my dissertation with his acknowledgement and he sent me copies of books he wrote. We remained in close contact on a regular basis via email, phone calls, and cards until he passed away several years later. He encouraged me to contact Claire, told me she was an author, graduated a few years after I did, and that he thought we would enjoy meeting each other and had a great deal in common.
I contacted her, and we did have a lot in common. We became friends over the internet and phone calls. A multi-year reunion was being scheduled the next year and I flew to Florida and Claire and I drove to the reunion together. Sometime over the reunion weekend, we decided to write a book about a murder of a student by a school psychologist, at an exclusive girl’s school, the rest is history and breathed life into Wayward Girls.
Q: Do you have a favorite chapter or scene?
CLAIRE: There is a scene in Wayward Girls where Jude, one of the main characters, has a panic attack after some shattered glass triggers a PTSD flashback when she is breaking into her old boarding school’s building. Her dog, Carson, a Rhodesian ridgeback, who is based completely upon a friend’s dog (also named Carson), rescues her. The strong connection between Jude and Carson is one of my favorite scenes in any of my books. The very real Carson, and his person, Sally, and I went through a serious hurricane together a few years ago. I can attest to Carson’s steady, calming nature.
PENNY: There were several. However, sharing them might be a spoiler and I do not want to do that. I also have scenes that were extremely important, yet difficult for me to write and to read. Again, no spoilers here either.
Q: Do you have a favorite character?
CLAIRE: Jude in Wayward Girls. Maybe Carson is a tie with Jude for favorite character.
PENNY: Probably Camille because I can relate to her. She was shy, analytic (to a fault at times), athletic, a tomboy and a dare devil. She was involved in school activities both academic and athletic and dreamed of being a writer someday.
Q: What would your job of choice be if you didn’t write books?
CLAIRE: Book review critic for a newspaper.
PENNY: Exactly what I am doing now – providing psychological services to children.
Q: What was the most unique research you had to do for a book?
CLAIRE: I do extensive research on all my books, which is how I have come to know about forensics, weapons, specific real-life murders like the sinkhole murders, drug smuggling, phosphate mines, and a lot of esoterica. Perhaps my most unique—or certainly the most troubling—research involved what became a full-scale obsession with researching crimes against teenagers which take place in wilderness and other boarding schools targeted toward disciplining “wayward kids.” It’s horrific and such abuses continue to make headlines even today. During the research phrase of Wayward Girls, Penny and I both read trial transcripts, government documents, books, newspapers and other media, and spoke with people who had been students at the wilderness school in Texas. It was exhausting emotionally.
PENNY: That would have to be all my research and my dissertation “Recidivism in a Short-Term Crisis Stabilization Facility.” I worked for a community mental health agency and was “on call” one night a week and one weekend a month to respond to psychiatric crises in hospitals. We also rotated from our on call/crisis intake and screening position to our day treatment facility and provided group therapy, individual counseling, relaxation therapy and whatever else was needed. I became aware of the recidivism of certain clients/patients and their mental health disorders. That was my hypothesis for my research and dissertation and the most unique, long term and challenging research.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
CLAIRE: Read. Read. Read. Join a critique group. Take writing classes, online or in person. Consider journalism classes which will teach you to get to the heart of the story in a hurry. Persevere.
PENNY: Don’t give up. It is okay to set aside your writing at times, but pick it back up again. Do not expect your book to automatically be published the first time. If it is, you are lucky. When it is critiqued and edited, do not be insulted. Keep trying, especially if it is your passion. Have a mentor who can help you, be your sounding board, your cheerleader, your counselor, and your voice of reason.
Q: What are the downfalls of your writing career? The best parts?
CLAIRE: The best parts—meeting people. I have met so many wonderful writers and readers who have enriched my life. Downfalls include carpel tunnel and back aches from hours at a computer.
PENNY: I like beginning with positives so I’ll first mention the best parts. Writing is truly my passion. I feel inspired to write and afterward enjoy reading the fruits of my labor, albeit I am my own toughest critic. My downfalls are just that – being my own toughest critic, being a bit obsessive compulsive at times. I also vacillate between spending too much time at the computer vs. having to make myself get back and write again. I spend hours on end sitting at the computer, reading, re-writing, sometimes doodling detailed designs on a piece of paper. I need to work on time management and multi-tasking between being a wife, mother, providing psychological services, taking care of my fur babies, and pursuing my passion for writing. Taking time for one’s self is important as well. Meditation, self-reflection, relaxation, enjoying life and time with friends and family can easily be overlooked when trying to juggle too many plates in the air without a break.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?
CLAIRE: Thank you. And thank you again.
PENNY: Thanks to all of you who followed us on Facebook, blogs, emails, and supported us during our long journey to publishing Wayward Girls. It was definitely a long journey, but the fruits of the labor were worth it.
Q: If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published that you’d change?
For a new author of fiction, there was so much to learn. Because I have no point of reference, I cannot answer this appropriately and defer to my co-author, Claire Matturro, who is better qualified to answer this. With the exception of a couple of short stories and poetry, I have primarily been published in journals, and a PhD in Psychology dissertation.
Q: How do you market your work?
PENNY: Since this is my first experience at marketing, my close friend and co-author, Claire Matturro has assisted me in “learning the marketing ropes.”
Q: Favorite band or music?
PENNY: I can’t identify just one, but some of my favorites include: Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Guess Who, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Shawn Phillips, Shake Russell – I could go on and on and have probably overlooked some who have made an impression on me over the years.
Q: Favorite book and/or movie?
PENNY: Elementary School: it would have been a close race between Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and Little Women.
Middle and High School: Atlas Shrugged, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Hobbit, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Erle Stanley Gardner, Little Women (can’t name just one).
Later Years: I’ll mention those authors in whose books I read and was transported to another time or place and fueled my love of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Jefferson Bass as I mentioned above. These are not in any special order as I adore all of them. Michael Connelly, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Jodi Picoult, Alex Michaelides, John Sanford, Johnathan Kellerman, George Orwell, Delia Owens, Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, Claire Matturro, All my Red Adept Publishing author family members. I know I have inadvertently forgotten someone and I apologize immensely.
Q: Place you’d like to travel?
PENNY: We lived on Maui for 3 years when I accepted a job with the Hawaii Department of Education as a school psychologist. I loved living on Maui and have returned several times. The Aloha spirit remains forever. My dream place to travel would be to Ireland, Scotland, England, and ferry over to France. My husband and I were going to fulfill this dream over the summer, but COVID-19 threw a wrench into our travel plans.
To connect with Claire and Penny:
Claire at boarding school (wearing white skirt):