Halley discusses her debut novel The Lady Upstairs, her love of murder bus tours, writing feminist noir, participating as a mentee and mentor in Pitch Wars, the importance of building a community in the book world, and more.
Halley discusses her debut novel The Lady Upstairs, her love of murder bus tours, writing feminist noir, participating as a mentee and mentor in Pitch Wars, the importance of building a community in the book world, and more.
The Lady Upstairs can be purchased at Murder by the Book.
Halley’s 2 recommended reads are:
If you enjoy reading mysteries and want to listen to more episodes like this one, try Alice Henderson, Megan Collins, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and Wendy Walker.
book, jo, noir, los angeles, authors, tours, people, pitch, reading, layne, cover, wars, upstairs, bus tour, murder, cindy, lady, woman, title, pandemic
Cindy Burnett, Halley Sutton
Cindy Burnett 00:09
This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. Listen to what inspired the storyline, how their covers and titles were chosen, their personal connection to the story, and other fascinating tidbits about the authors themselves. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. I recently launched a new website www.thoughtsfromapage.com that contains my social media and book column links and everything about this podcast. It also has a really cool feature where you can leave me voicemails, and I would love for listeners to send me questions that you would like me to ask the various authors that I'm interviewing. Try it out. It's a lot of fun! Today I am interviewing Halley Sutton. Halley is the author of the forthcoming feminist noir The Lady Upstairs. She is a former Pitch Wars mentee and current Pitch Wars mentor. She lives in Los Angeles, California, where she enjoys the noir history and trivia, reading about old murders, and discovering new nuggets about Hollywood and the cults in the area. Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show. Hi, Halley. I'm really looking forward to talking with you today. How are you?
Halley Sutton 01:14
I'm doing so well. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast Cindy.
Cindy Burnett 01:17
Yeah, thanks for taking the time to come on.
Halley Sutton 01:19
Cindy Burnett 01:21
Well, why don't we start by you talking a little bit about The Lady Upstairs?
Halley Sutton 01:24
Sure. The Lady Upstairs is a modern feminist noir about women who run a blackmail agency in Los Angeles targeting bad men, like Harvey Weinstein bad. So they pick these bad men, they find a girl to kind of seduce him, and then they extort him or kind of use that knowledge to their own gain and power. And my main character, Jo, when the book starts, is involved with the agency for a couple of different reasons, including her own kind of personal motivations, her connection to her co-workers, specifically her co-worker Lou who's like her best friend slash something more. And also that she owes this boss that she's never met, the lady upstairs, a great deal of money. So that's, that's kind of where we kick off. And then one of, one of Jo's cases goes bad and things start to get complicated.
Cindy Burnett 02:14
Well, that's such an exciting storyline, like just even hearing about it. How in the world did you come up with it?
Halley Sutton 02:19
It kind of was an accumulation of a variety of things. I had Jo's voice in my head very early, and I kept trying to put her in different things. I kept trying to put her into short stories and other different writing exercises. But she felt bigger than that. I kind of knew that maybe there was a novel around her, but I didn't know what the structure of the novel would be. And then I moved to Los Angeles for grad school. And I didn't really understand the city. It's kind of the enormous sprawl of a city that was never really city planned. And it's both a very real place with a lot of real lives. But then there's also all the mythology around Los Angeles and Hollywood. When I moved to LA, I was kind of very interested in noir and the city's history with noir. And I was like, oh, what if this is a noir novel? And Jo is a literal femme fatale, like, you know, not, not a projection of what if she's trying to destroy me? She has all these things? What if it literally is like her business card is like I destroy men. And that then it came from there.
Cindy Burnett 03:21
Well, one of the questions I sometimes ask is plot versus character coming first. So it sounds like it was definitely character in this one.
Halley Sutton 03:28
It was definitely character. And then when I found what the plot engine was going to be it all just kind of clicked.
Cindy Burnett 03:35
And how about the idea for the lady upstairs, sort of this mythical, not-named person? Where did that part of the story come from?
Halley Sutton 03:42
I liked the idea of having this blackmail organization that was kind of the shadowy where are the orders coming from. It felt very noir to me to kind of have this like institution-down darkness that you don't know exactly where it's coming from. And I loved the idea of maybe that being helmed by a woman and that they don't actually know who it is. At a certain point Jo kind of wonders. It could be a man, but she thinks personally it's a woman. And I kind of love the idea because I think when you think about like, mafia or mob organizations, there's the default it's a man and I love the idea that maybe this default was a woman.
Cindy Burnett 04:18
I like that too. Like you said, when you think of those things, even like Charlie's Angels, and, you know, just all the different people. They're always run by men. And so that great idea that instead it would be a woman.
Halley Sutton 04:28
Yes, that was that was what I was going for.
Cindy Burnett 04:30
I like that. Did you have to do any research for this one?
Halley Sutton 04:33
I did do research in a couple of different ways. I really kind of like immersed myself in noir for a few years, both kind of film and literature. Raymond Chandler, James Kane, and then a lot more current stuff. Megan Abbott, Steph Cha, and then just watched. Sometimes I think my path to being a published author is really just like how many times can I talk about Body Heat on the internet, and here's another one. So I watched the film Body Heat all the time. One of my favorite movies was very inspirational for the book. So I did a lot of noir research. I did a lot of Los Angeles research, but kind of in a roundabout way, like I did a lot of murder bus tours and tours about kind of the celebrity homes because Los Angeles is a very real place. And there are a lot of people who write about it in very real ways to get that the different beating hearts of the city, but I was also very interested in Los Angeles, this kind of this made up place, this place that you see in the movies, this place that sort of doesn't exist, but it's what everyone's looking for when they come here. And so I kind of almost wanted to study more the fairy tale idea of Los Angeles. So I did that by, like I said, kind of going on these historical tours of Los Angeles, but they're also kind of these mythology tours of Los Angeles, if that makes sense.
Cindy Burnett 05:47
That part had to be so fun.
Halley Sutton 05:49
It was so fun. I had a great time. There are some really great, interesting tour companies in LA. There's Esotouric, there's Dearly Departed Tours, there's a bunch of them that do these kind of tragical history tours is kind of what some places call them where it's the crimes, the sensationalism of Los Angeles, which you could have discussions about the ethics of some of that about, but it's but they are a lot of fun. They are a lot of fun.
Cindy Burnett 06:14
We were supposed to go to L.A. last summer, and obviously didn't happen with the pandemic. But we had not booked anything like that we were doing, I have three teenagers, and we were doing a variety things. But that's good to know whenever we are able to travel again and we take
Halley Sutton 06:27
Cindy Burnett 06:27
that trip, I'm adding that stuff because that's the stuff that actually appeals to me. All the celebrity houses and like you said, where they died or the Chateau Marmont, you know, just some of the pieces that are sort of living legends. So that's great to know that there are tours like that. I mean, oh, there's tour lists.
Halley Sutton 06:42
I, I'm happy to send you recommendations. There's some great ones out there.
Cindy Burnett 06:46
Oh, that would be great. So did you have a highlight of writing The Lady Upstairs?
Halley Sutton 06:51
So part of my journey of writing The Lady Upstairs was that I got involved with an online organization called Pitch Wars. And I was lucky enough to have an early draft of my novel picked by Layne Fargo, who is a feminist thriller writer. She has two books out, the first is Temper. And the second is They Never Learned, which just came out in October, both great. But she actually kind of plucked me out of the slush pile and took me in hand and really helped revise my book. And for me, it was both how much she helped me revise my book, but really been the relationships that came out of Pitch Wars that have been so fabulous. That have been, and I would say that that's probably true across my publishing experience, just the relationships you build with other writers with agents that just as kind of like such a great community out there. And that has been really nice and sustaining. Even when we're all trapped in our houses like indoor house cats.
Cindy Burnett 07:44
That was the thing that surprised me the most when I started doing this four or five years ago, not the podcasts, I've only done it a lot more recently, but just the reviewing and becoming involved in the the book world is how accommodating and kind and building up a group of people it is.
Halley Sutton 07:58
Definitely! People are very generous and very willing to talk you up to different people or introduce you or just very welcoming. It's been, It's so nice.
Cindy Burnett 08:08
Well, then I was gonna ask you a little bit more about Pitch Wars, because I'd seen some of that on your Twitter account. Because it looks like you have now paired with Layne and you all have picked somebody that you're going to be mentoring is that correct?
Halley Sutton 08:18
Yes, yes. So this is our second year working as co-mentors, Layne and I. So our friendship really did take off after Pitch Wars. So last year, we worked with a woman named Heather Lynn Levy, whose book walking through needles will be out next year, which is so exciting. And we just announced like a couple days ago who we're going to be working with for the upcoming stretch of Pitch Wars, and it's a woman named Olesya Lyuzna, and I'm pretty sure I didn't pronounce that correctly. So I'm really sorry Olesya, but her book Brickbats & Bouquets is this feminist flapper noir that we just like, fell in love with, set in the 1920s in Harlem and Brooklyn, and it just is like, so great. It's like Megan Abbott meets Miss Fisher's mysteries in like the best way possible. It's so, it's so great.
Cindy Burnett 09:05
Oh, that's so fun. Well, I was not all that familiar with Pitch Wars. Until recently, it's just such a neat program.
Halley Sutton 09:11
It really is. It really is. So for people who might not be familiar, it's this online mentoring program. And if you apply with your manuscript and get picked, you have like three to four months to really revise in depth with your mentor. And then at the end, there's this agent showcase that kind of tries to help you get agented. But really, really, the important part is the work that you can do in those three to four months. And it really is kind of phenomenal how much you can transform a book in such a short period of time.
Cindy Burnett 09:38
Well, and just to work with people who've already been through the process, and are most likely I would assume, most of the time, in your same genre. So it's just such a cool idea. And I'm sure so helpful when you're getting started. I mean, I'm sure like you said before, it was very helpful to you, I would think that it would just be a lot of guidance and maybe what to look for and things like that.
Halley Sutton 09:56
Yeah, it really is. Layne really was so helpful in helping me transform my book and my plot. But on top of that, it was that she was also this person I could go to when I had questions about the publishing process, and I could bounce anxieties and concerns off of. And that really is invaluable, because it's such an interesting, wonderful journey. But it's also really new if you're a debut author, and you kind of don't know what to expect, and you don't know what's normal, or how you should be navigating a lot of these things. And so it was really helpful to have somebody who had done it and could say, like, well, in my experience. She's so generous with their time, it was amazing.
Cindy Burnett 10:30
Or even near lookout for this, or this thing I didn't know, but I wish I'd done, you know, just kind of all that along a new journey. I always think is
Halley Sutton 10:37
Cindy Burnett 10:37
so helpful. I mean, I always try to do that. Like when my kids started a new school or you know, just anything when I'm starting down a new path or a new job, you just think oh, somebody who's done it before is going to provide a lot of advice that will most of the time be very helpful.
Halley Sutton 10:51
Yeah, absolutely. Exactly.
Cindy Burnett 10:54
So which character did you enjoy writing the most?
Halley Sutton 10:57
You know, Jo and I were so bonded that she was just so easy to write, like it was almost like a skin I stepped into when I was writing through her. And that made it really easy, because I could just see the world as Jo saw, which is not the same as exactly the way that I see it. But she was just so easy to kind of step into. So she's kind of the obvious answer. But I would say the second answer is I really had a lot of fun writing Ellen, which is the woman that Jo has hired to seduce this kind of Harvey Weinsteinesque lecherous producer, and Jo and Ellen clash in a lot of ways and that was really fun for me to write, to kind of rub Ellen up against Jo and see what would come out. That was very fun for me.
Cindy Burnett 11:36
To write the drama, and maybe someone that you don't identify with quite as much.
Halley Sutton 11:40
Right. Yeah, I had a lot of compassion for Ellen too. You know, Jo kind of sees her as this ditzy doesn't really know what she's doing. But Jo is also pretty hardened. So it was kind of fun to write her from both perspectives. Whereas maybe me as the author has a slightly kinder view of Ellen, but I could also, it could be fun to writer as as Jo sees her too, if that makes sense.
Cindy Burnett 12:03
Oh, it makes perfect sense. I sometimes think it is interesting to hear who authors like to write the most because some people love to write like the bad character that they could never say the things or do the right somebody does. And other people enjoy writing the person they identify with. So it sounds just kind of interesting to hear who resonated with you the most. So I'm always all about titles and covers. I would love to hear how your title came about, how your cover came about. And that whole process?
Halley Sutton 12:28
Sure, absolutely. So funny enough, The Lady Upstairs is the only title this book has ever had. That has actually stuck. When I was first working on a draft of it in grad school. I think every week I came in with a different title. Like, noir-like thing that people kept going, No, you can't. That's not it. You can't do that. You know, when I finally settled on The Lady Upstairs, there was a part of me that I was like: I like it, I wonder if I'll find something better. And then as time went on, it really kind of stuck with me. And so I was like, Okay, I think this is the title. But I was open to the idea of changing it. When my agent and I eventually did sell the book to Danielle Dietrich at Putnam, she kind of had the same note when we first met, she was like, it's a good title. But we maybe we'll see if there's something different. And then she came back like three weeks later. And she was like, you know, the more I think about it, the more this is the title for the book, which was pretty funny, because that had been my exact experience. And I was like, sure, great, so happy that it's made it all the way through, which is pretty funny.
Cindy Burnett 13:23
And that doesn't happen that often.
Halley Sutton 13:24
It really doesn't. I really feel like when I've written short stories, I really struggled with titles. But then when I have one, you just know you're like, Oh, yeah, that's the title. And even for the work in progress I'm working on now I'm pretty sure I know what the title is. And maybe it'll get changed somewhere down the line because of the publishing. But like, The Lady Upstairs was never one that I was, I actually am very bonded to it now. But for a long time, I was like I could, I could imagine that there was something else but no. So it is kind of unique and rare that it made it all the way through.
Cindy Burnett 13:55
And it truly is. Yeah. And then as for the cover, which I am so in love with. I have heard stories from a bunch of different people who have published books that the cover experience can be really harrowing. That it's the front face of your book that you've worked on for so long that the first thing people are going to see and it will depend on whether or not somebody picks it up oftentimes is if the cover catches their eye. So covers are super emotional and super personal. And I was so nervous to get my cover because I knew that and I knew that I had had friends who had had experiences where they ended up with covers they weren't totally in love with because some bargaining has to go on between what the publishing house thinks is best. And then if the author really hates it, and I think that oftentimes they work with each other, but you know, it's like it doesn't always end up perfectly happy. So I was so nervous. And then I opened it and this was the cover the cover that's on it now was the cover all the way through so I lucked out twice. You did, you did.
Halley Sutton 14:52
I did. And I was just I think I burst into tears. I was so happy. It was kind of exactly what I wanted. It had this almost like neon 80s, 90s Edna Buchanan crime novel throwback feel to it, but it still felt really modern. I think the only thing we changed at all was that we did a little more to the typeface where we kind of have this like smoky pink and purple going through the the yellow lettering, but otherwise, it's been the exact same, and I could not be more thrilled. I love it so much. The cover designer is a woman named Erica Verbeck. And I think she just did a phenomenal job. She hit it out of the park.
Cindy Burnett 15:26
Well, and the nice thing is, it's different. So like the second time I see it, I know it's your book, which I just think is such a nice feeling. Because there's just sometimes so many that are similar enough that you have to kind of stop and think for a second, but I see yours. And I'm like, Oh, I know exactly that book. So that's nice. That's great, I think,
Halley Sutton 15:42
Yeah, thank you. Yeah, no, I actually I feel the exact same way too. And I, you know, I understand that there are trends in publishing and you kind of try to capture them. But I totally agree. I think, I feel so thrilled to have a cover that really just kind of jumps out at you and doesn't really look like a lot of other covers. I've seen.
Cindy Burnett 15:58
I agree. And then you mentioned your work in progress. That was actually my next question. So can we talk about it at all?
Halley Sutton 16:03
Sure. It is still very early stages, and it is not yet under contract. So who knows if this is going to, who knows where this will end up I guess is what I'm saying. It's another feminist noir set in Los Angeles. Funny enough, it's about a woman who runs a murder bus tour. And she is a former child star living in Los Angeles and now this is kind of what her life has evolved to. And then, on one of the stops on her tour, she finds a dead body and gets kind of wrapped up in the mystery there.
Cindy Burnett 16:32
I know I'm gonna have to read that one. After our whole murder bus conversation, I'm like, that sounds like it's right up my alley.
Halley Sutton 16:38
Thank you. I'm so yeah, I'm thrilled. And so when life resumes in a way that we can get back on the murder bus tours, I guess I'm just gonna have to do more research.
Cindy Burnett 16:46
Exactly. You're gonna have to go out and just do every single one that's out there.
Halley Sutton 16:50
Exactly. Something to really look forward to.
Cindy Burnett 16:54
(laughs) Exactly. What is the first thing you're gonna do when the pandemic is done? I'm gonna ride on the murder bus. (both laugh)
Halley Sutton 17:00
I'm gonna take every murder bus tour Los Angeles has to offer.
Cindy Burnett 17:04
People will be like, okay. (both laugh)
Halley Sutton 17:06
Yeah, like steer clear of her. (both laugh)
Cindy Burnett 17:09
Well, we talked a little bit about Pitch Wars. But do you have any other advice for aspiring authors?
Halley Sutton 17:14
We kind of touched on it a little. And it's the same from Pitch Wars, but really building your community, there's so much of publishing that's out of your control. If you sell a book, if you get agented, you have, you have some control over that. But some of it is just so personal and kind of flash in the pan hard to, hard to, like aim exactly at but I think the thing that you can do is really like build strong relationships with other writers, with other people over social media, over different mediums, you know, go to book events, meet people. And I think that that'll serve you well, no matter what that kind of building those relationships. Who knows where that'll lead? I think that that is something that you have control over, which is not, not necessarily advice for the writing part, but I think is a good way to build a literary life and career.
Cindy Burnett 17:59
I completely agree with that. Because having done this podcast, so many of the authors that I have found to interview have actually been from other authors. Like I'll interview somebody, and then they'll send an email cc'ing me to someone else. And you know, you might want to connect with Cindy. And I feel like because it is such a generous community and it is about building relationships that that will serve you well. It's kind of a long term thing. But, as your time, as you continue to make relationships, build friendships, that it definitely will serve you very well.
Halley Sutton 18:28
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Cindy Burnett 18:30
Well, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you really liked.
Halley Sutton 18:35
I feel like I have struggled up and down a little bit during COVID. There have been periods of intense reading, and then periods of barely reading. But I have read a few things recently that I'm really excited about. First of all Little Threats by Emily Schultz is this really beautiful, really interesting literary thriller about this woman goes to jail for the murder of her best friend years ago when they're both in their teens. But she has no knowledge of that night. She had taken drugs, she doesn't remember what exactly happened. So she doesn't actually know if she's innocent or guilty. But a lot of the focus of the book is both kind of unwinding the mystery of what happened to the girl that night. And then the other part of it is really like how do you put a life back together after, after something like that. It kind of follows the main characters named Kennedy and she has a twin sister named Carter. And it's just really interesting to look at the ways that Emily Schultz kind of unwinds what this enormous event has done in their lives and how it's disrupted things and the ripples that go through it.
Cindy Burnett 19:34
Oh, that does sound interesting. And then I'm just thinking about their names Kennedy and Carter. (laughs) I was like, Oh, that's kind of funny. Named after 2 presidents.
Halley Sutton 19:42
Yes, exactly. And I think that that's one of the early lines in the book. And then right now I am currently reading The Anthill by Julianne Pacheco, and it is great. It's this kind of magical realism almost ghost story set in Medellin. And it's about a young woman who grew up in Columbia, in Medellin, and her mother had an accident and she left when she was a child and went to England. And she's coming back to kind of rediscover her roots and reawakening both something inside her and maybe something a little mystical outside of her in this orphanage that she's volunteering in. And it's spooky and beautiful and a page turner and I'm just, I'm really enjoying it.
Cindy Burnett 20:23
Oh, that does sound good. And definitely a good distraction from the regular world right now.
Halley Sutton 20:27
Yes, absolutely. I don't, I don't know about you. But I'm really enjoying kind of traveling via books. I really love traveling, and I miss it. So right now anything set in a different country? I'm like, yep, right there.
Cindy Burnett 20:39
Definitely. I write a weekly article for Houston magazine. And a couple of my articles have been about armchair traveling, you know, waiting there and picking books around the world, because that's the only kind of travel we're able to do. So the other thing that's funny for me is I've always read some nonfiction, but not a ton. But that's been a lot easier for me to read during the pandemic, for some reason than fiction, always. So I've ended up reading a ton more nonfiction this year than I normally do. And I don't know why that is, but it just seems to be working.
Halley Sutton 21:05
Yeah, I know. I am actually I had a similar experience for a while too. I was just something about the kind of imagination or I don't know if there was something I couldn't access with fiction or something. But yeah, for a while nonfiction was kind of where I was finding myself drawn over and over too.
Cindy Burnett 21:20
Well, and the nice thing about reading is at least it does take you outside of everything, regardless of what you're reading, you know, it can happen somewhere else, which is helpful right now. (laughs)
Halley Sutton 21:29
It really is.
Cindy Burnett 21:31
Well, thank you so much for joining me on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really really enjoyed our conversation, Halley.
Halley Sutton 21:37
Thank you so much for having me. This was so much fun. Thank you, Cindy.
Cindy Burnett 21:42
Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram and Pinterest @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. Halley's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope to see you next time.
Here are some great episodes to start with.