T. M. Causey: Well, introducing oneself is always rife with danger. I say on my author website that I’m a USA Today bestselling author, a photographer, contractor, designer ninja, rabble-rouser and general crankypants.
A long, long (long, really, seriously, get out your prehistoric calendars) time ago, I wrote—under my real name Toni McGee Causey—a comedic thriller trilogy about a crazy southern-fried heroine, Bobbie Faye Sumrall, who took no prisoners and was known to pretty much destroy everything and anything in her way when trying to get to someone she loved to help them out. She was an absolute hoot to write — smart but vulnerable, smartass but kind-hearted, and the sort of woman who’d looked for love in all the wrong places. I loved her so, and she’d make me wake up at night, laughing, from dreams about the next scrape she was about to get into. My novel that will be coming out March 8, The Saints of the Lost and Found, is written under the pen name T. M. Causey, a decision I made because the premise is a darker one.
Between the series and the new book, I helped my husband in the running of our small civil construction company, became a professional photographer and then a grandmother (took me six whole months before I could use the “g” word. I started off telling people the baby was my son’s daughter; it made people look at me all side-eyed, like I was weird or something).
About five years ago, my husband and I moved to the French Quarter for what we thought was a temporary move, only to know within a few weeks that it was going to be permanent. There’s a life, a fire, a culture here—a kindness, a heart, a spirit—that gets into your soul, pumps through your blood and makes you never want to leave. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible for us to fall so hard for a place, and if you’d have told me a couple of years before that I would feel so passionately about my adopted city, I’d have thought you crazy, but there ya go. It has been pointed out to me that I am still a “foreigner” because I wasn’t born here, and I get that. But I’m also more than fifty-percent Cajun. And that should count for something. When people feel the need to question my right to be here, I just laugh and say, “sure, that’s true, but I found my way home, and that’s what counts.”
QUESTION: Name a mystery/suspense author or two whose books you admire and why?
T. M. Causey: That is a brutally difficult question for me, because I read so many people and admire them for so many different things. It’s very, very difficult to narrow it down to two or ten. I will try by eliminating all the authors I’ve met and am now friends with (one of the wonderful perks of attending conventions is you get to meet your heroes and become friends with them).
The first name that pops into my head is Tana French. She’s an Irish writer that can weave language like a spell, and I’m in awe of her prose and the depth and nuance to her characters. She can take tiny, micro-moments and give them such vivid clarity, making you see the layers and layers to that person’s life with these clear-eyed glimpses of their flaws.
The second is Robert Crais. I’ve read him from the beginning, I think, and I believe he is just one of the very best at pacing, at twist, at planting clues right there in front of you that you don’t see because he’s genius at sleight-of-hand. He also nailed Louisiana in the book Voodoo River the way only a native (born here, I believe, though he lives elsewhere now) could. It’s hard to explain the differences, but I can usually spy when someone is writing from research or from experience, especially if they think everything in Louisiana is like New Orleans. New Orleans is a third-world country unto itself that only barely acknowledges it’s a part of the U.S., and then only when it suits it. Crais gets that, and in every book, he shows that.
The last, and I have to mention him, is my idol, James Lee Burke. He is the quintessential Southern storyteller, with the beauty of Tana French’s language and the pacing of Crais. He’s just a master.
T. M. Causey: One of the odd surprises of my life is that the thing you never expect to hit is the thing that hits, and in so many ways, that’s what happened with Bobbie Faye. She was fierce and fun, and I loved giving my humor a wide field in which to play, from subtle to sarcasm, from irony to near slapstick (oh, who’s kidding, tons of slapstick). I always saw Bobbie Faye as Wile E. Coyote just as he goes over the edge of the cliff, looking back at the camera with that “oh, shit” expression. It was a joy to write her, but the great thing about being a writer is that you have so many stories you want to tell. The terrible thing is that you have so many stories you want to tell.
I have never been very good at writing what I was “supposed” to write next. (My entire family reading this is probably thinking, “Well, duh, look at everything else she is ornery about, no surprise there.”) I had a fallow period immediately after the Bobbie Faye trilogy at which time I tried several different stories and, well, they sucked. Massively. They didn’t make it past the first act because I wisely deleted them, never ever ever to be seen again, thank goodness. I know now they sucked mostly because I was trying so hard to write what I thought I was supposed to write next to fit in with the market, to sell, to not disappoint Bobbie Faye fans, and I can tell you, many brilliant writers out there are genius at this, and their storytelling/writing does not suffer. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.
So after the suckage-fest, I finally faced facts: I needed to write something that inspired me and that I knew I wanted to dig into. And as it happens, for a long time I’d had this idea about a woman who finds lost things, and what that would be like.
Oddly, at first, I thought it was going to be a funny novel. (No, really, I could imagine all sorts of crazy antics and outcomes.) But then the character of Avery showed up almost simultaneously with the idea, and every time I tried to “write her funny” it fell flat. The more I looked at her, the more I delved into who she was and how she had gotten that way, I was overcome how much pain, how much darkness was there. Quite honestly, I was scared of it. I think I quit writing this book more than a dozen times.
Then one day on a writing retreat at the esteemed author Joan Johnston’s house, with Peggy Webb and my dear friend, CJ Lyons, we were taking turns brainstorming on each other’s book ideas, untangling confused storylines, suggesting twists and turns. I’d never participated in something like that before, and at the time I was still terrified of writing this story. It was more than fear of “what if I fail?”—something that plagues nearly every writer—it was the bone-deep realization that there were some truths I was going to have to tell, some things I was going to have to mentally live through again that were going to be difficult if I was to tell the story. I had to face the fact that I would feel exposed for the first time, really, as a writer. I don’t think you can tell as dark a story as The Saints of the Lost and Found without that sort of vulnerability. At least, I couldn’t.
There was a point in the retreat when I was in the shower, and the ending (a critical piece of it) came to me, and I stood there in tears, because I knew that the journey to it was going to be so painful for Avery and so necessary, and while there was some hope in the ending, I wondered if it would be enough. I almost quit the story again right then; Peggy Webb found me in the kitchen, in tears, and sat me down and listened to the story again. When I had gone through the truths I knew I would have to delve into, she said, “You have to write this. You’re meant to write this. You can do this. I believe in you.”
Sometimes, it’s just that, those little moments in a writer’s life, where everything turns, and you don’t recognize how big a moment that was in making a book possible until years later.
QUESTION: It sounds like SAINTS speaks to something in your own life?
T. M. Causey: The story is about a young woman who can see people’s losses, but her curse, as she thinks of it, has resulted in a serial killer making another kill. Unable to forgive herself for letting the family of the victim and the FBI down, Avery is ready to leave town when she is summoned home by her estranged, grifter father.
This story had so many false starts and poor, crappy drafts, and I was constantly aware that I hadn’t quite hit it yet. I had a draft done when my brother was diagnosed with a rare form of gamma-delta t-cell lymphoma. The horrible irony of this was that in my story Avery was coming home to Louisiana in order to try to help her brother, whom she’s been told would die if she didn’t. I had been seeing my brother’s subtle deterioration for a year or so and I now realize my fears about that were seeping into the story. I had to pull the manuscript then, from my agent and from some of the publishing houses we’d submitted to and take time off.
At the time, I was absolutely certain my brother was going to make it. Mike was a fifth-degree Master black belt in Tang Soo Do, and had always been in super shape and health conscious. It was inconceivable given his indomitable spirit that he would succumb to cancer, and for a year-and-a-half, he fought it hard. And really, he’d won—he had a bone marrow transplant, he beat the cancer, beat the graft vs. host disease, even beat a horrible stomach-type of virus that often follows, and he was so happy and almost once again the picture of health. He was riding his stationary bike five miles at a time, forty miles a day (no exaggeration), and I kept saying, “Are you aware that you have cancer?” and he’d just laugh. Then two days after they told him he was cancer free and he’d be going home soon, he woke up with what they thought was a stroke.
Only, it wasn’t a stroke. It took days of tests before they figured out it was a fungal infection, one found on, literally, everything. Within a few days, he went from laughing and biking to being unable to walk, to being unable to talk above a whisper, to unable to breathe on his own, to unable to see and barely able to hear. He could wiggle his toes and fingers and squeeze my hand, but there was no hope. They showed me the MRI; the infection looked like dual hurricane Katrinas slicing into his brain stem.
He made me promise I wouldn’t force him to live as a vegetable, but I was still looking for answers when one day a doctor and a swarm of medical students who didn’t know us showed up unannounced in Mike’s room. The doctor started talking about all of these extraordinary measures they were going to do to him even if it left Mike unable to hear or see or breathe on his own, and that’s when I said, “No. No, you’re not going to do that.”
He chastised me, and I cut him off. I told him, “Look, you can go teach whatever you want anywhere else in this hospital, but this is my brother here, and if I could trade places with him, I would. I made him a promise, and even if it kills me to follow through, I will follow through, because he deserves that dignity.”
And then, my brother, who could barely move, somehow managed to tug on my jacket. I turned and looked at him, stunned, and he strained and strained to pull his hands together in a grip, one set of fingers cupped over the other set, ying/yang style, and then he strained to bow. And it hit me what he was doing.
I asked him, “Are you bowing out?” Because I knew what that meant. He was the undefeated sparring champion of the world in his class, and he never gave up. Not once. He never quit. Ever.
Yet here he was telling me that he was done, and he was letting me know he agreed with me, with the choice I would have to make for him.
It killed me, a few days later, to get to that point where there was obviously no other decision, and to this day, and probably forever, I wake up each morning sobbing, wishing like hell there could have been some other way.
All the hours we spent together in the hospital are golden to me. My husband and I became his main caretakers, and every single minute is precious. And during those long hours, we talked about writing, about my getting back into the groove, and how I couldn’t face it. Words had fled me, and he made me promise I would go back to the book about Avery and her brother, and finish it, “for him.”
It took more than a year to be able to even open up the document, and it was painful at times, many times, as I worked to finish it. I dedicated to Mike. He was always my biggest encourager, always the proudest, always my baby brother grown so much taller than me, and I miss him every single day. But he lives, at least a little bit, in Latham, in Avery’s story. One day, I hope to pick up more of that story, of Latham’s journey, and tell it, too.