Today, I bring you an interview with Sarah M. Chen, author of Cleaning Up Finn, the Anthony Award-nominated crime novel with attitude, and editor of the soon-to-be-released The Night of the Flood, a "Novel in Stories" (the concept of which sounds absolutely fascinating). Enjoy!
“A speedboat ride along the Southern California coastline where the sun shines a light on the lecherous locals. Finn Roose is an opportunistic restaurant manager who finally gets in over his head when he meets an underage femme fatale. Lives are shattered and bullets fly through the salty ocean air in this fast-paced debut from Sarah M. Chen.” —S.W. Lauden, author of Bad Citizen Corporation and Crossed Bones
What drew you to the genre you write in?
I read a lot of mystery and P.I. novels thanks to a job I had at a literary agency right out of college. I thought I wanted to write the next P.I. or detective novel but I quickly realized I sucked at writing whodunits. Then I discovered a whole subgenre of crime fiction that I guess you’d call hardboiled or noir, like Sara Gran, Don Winslow, Charlie Huston, and Elmore Leonard. I knew right away this was what I wanted to write: stories that featured regular people who suffered from poor decision-making or misplaced priorities.
Which character in the novel gave you the most trouble?
Definitely Ronnie Havemeyer. She’s what I guess you would call the villain in Cleaning Up Finn, although pretty much every character is up to no good. She’s the main force behind Finn’s downward spiral. He tries to seduce her and things don’t go well, especially when he discovers she’s underage. I wanted Ronnie to be young and naïve yet she thinks she’s savvy and has everything figured out. I remembered when I was her age, seventeen or so, that I felt like my parents wanted me to go down one path yet I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted. I had no idea what I wanted really. I tried to capture that frustration with Ronnie and make her somewhat sympathetic. So I had to balance between femme fatale and naïve teenager.
In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?
For me, I felt “successful” when someone who wasn’t my mom or my friends—basically someone I’d never met—said they read my story and enjoyed it. That, for me, is what writing is all about. Finding that emotional connection with a stranger through a story I made up. I just love that and will never tire of it.
What was something interesting you learned while researching that didn’t make it into the novel?
The last act of the book takes place in Catalina. I’d been there a few times and even sailed there from Long Beach on my stepdad’s tiny sailboat (that was hell!). But I knew little about its history so I started researching. It’s so easy for me to fall down these rabbit holes. I read up on Buccaneer Days which are four days of wild partying on the island and everyone dresses like a pirate. I thought it’d be fun to have that going on when Finn arrives, but it got too complicated so I had him arrive afterwards when everyone’s hungover. I read how bison were transported to Catalina because of a Western that was filmed there and the animals were “extras.” The film crew just left them there and they’ve been on the island ever since. I got sucked into how the island has problems with overpopulation and tried various solutions like shipping them to the mainland to using birth control. I thought this was fascinating but it didn’t really have much relevance to my book.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if it’s the best writing advice but it’s one that has always stuck with me: write like your parents are dead.