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Author Interview: Kimberly Van Sickle

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Kimberly Van Sickle, author of Assassins Are Us.

FQ: I commend you for writing such an entertaining story and want to thank you for the opportunity to chat. Beginning with your bio, I am always excited to talk with an author who shares their love of reading. You mention you are a retired middle school English teacher, which begs the question: How much inspiration did you draw (if any) from memories of former students to add color to certain aspects of Hedy’s, Gary’s, and Dave’s characters? Is there one trait that resonated and opened your floodgates to breathe such great life into each character?

VAN SICKLE: Such an interesting question that could also be dangerous in the answering! I have to say that it is quite possible I have subconsciously created amalgamations of the best and worst students in my past when I created Hedy, Gare, and Dave. I knew Hedy needed to be smart, strong, and loyal, yet given all these strengths, I also felt she should lack some confidence and be somewhat awkward because THAT is what the teenage years are about. Those years are such vulnerable ones, and I think vulnerability was the trait that I felt needed honing. As Hedy narrates the story, the reader experiences her internal struggles and her self-doubts, although she has a fairly tough exterior. Gare is the exact opposite; his vulnerability shows when he feels less than Hedy, which is most of the time and usually at Hedy’s doing.

FQ: I chuckled when I read the names you gave to your dogs: Hendrix and Janis. Were these chosen with two very iconic musicians in mind? If so, what is your favorite Jimi Hendrix tune and the same question for Janis Joplin?

VAN SICKLE: Both our dogs are rescue dogs, and they are just the best! My daughter named our first dog Hendrix as she has an eclectic taste in music. She and her grandmother often talk about the music from my mother’s generation; Grandma Barb will tell you that the ‘60s and ‘70s had great music. Those two exchange vinyl with each other… it’s cute. So, Maddie wanted to choose an iconic male musician, and I think she picked a great name. Then, we adopted another dog, and I had to name her Janis because I loved the symmetry between the names.

Oh, easily, my favorite Janis Joplin song is “Mercedes Benz”! It is a cappella, so the listeners can truly appreciate Joplin’s gravelly, soulful voice. As far as Jimi Hendrix is concerned, I have to say there isn't a song of his that doesn’t speak of pain, injustice, or war, which are all bummer topics, but the chords on his guitar make such a beautiful noise. That was his genius. The most memorable song of his was when I saw him play “The Star Spangled Banner” on TV, and I was blown away.

FQ: Before we jump into the story, one last big question. You say you have been a ‘plot junkie’ your entire life and value any medium which keeps you guessing. Who would be the author (and what book comes to mind) you think of first who more than satisfies your voracious appetite for this medium?

VAN SICKLE: You know how George Costanza from Seinfeld dresses for his mood? That is how I feel whenever I am asked this question. Because I have so many beloved books in my life, I can only answer this question based on circumstances and my “mood.” Currently, I’m really loving historical fiction, specifically WWII, and Elizabeth Wein and Monica Hesse are FABULOUS historical researchers and fiction writers. What I truly admire about their works is they both are accomplished mystery writers as well, and Hesse has received an Edgar for Girl in the Blue Coat and Wein for Code Name Verity, truly brilliant writing!

FQ: How appropriate your dedication is: ‘The first mistake in a (family) business is going into it’ (paraphrased) by Benjamin Franklin, given the storyline of Assassins Are Us is a ‘family business.’ Did this simply pop into your mind, or did you have to do some process of elimination to decide this was the ‘one’?

VAN SICKLE: I think by your question about “the ‘one’,” you are referring to the tagline, so I will address this. I just Googled famous quotes about the family business, and as Benjamin Franklin is well-known to multiple generations, I chose to go with his quote as it transcends age groups and speaks to Hedy’s discord about what her family does for a living.

FQ: I chuckled at the way you laid out the scene of Hedy giving her World History class a breakdown of the Swastika symbol, and at the book's end, you describe Hitler’s ‘twisting’ of the original insignia. The latter piece of information was fascinating. In your opinion, why do you suppose something that was once a symbolic religious token could have its symbolism so gravely skewed?

VAN SICKLE: What a great question! I suppose the original meaning of what the Swastika stood for (which was “prosperity”) was greatly misunderstood by Hitler as “power” and was amped up to reach an ill-proportionate level of evil.

FQ: You referenced a 1939 Look Magazine article, ‘Why I Hate My Uncle,’ as the inspiration to pen your story. What in that article spoke to you specifically to begin writing Assassins Are Us? Did you happen upon the article? Did someone suggest you read it?

VAN SICKLE: I watched the 2014 documentary Meet the Hitlers, which interviewed various people and families from America and Europe who either had the last name of Hitler (or a variation therein) or wanted the last name of Hitler. These true stories were amazing, awful, and awe-inspiring. One of the stories follows an investigative reporter who intrepidly tracks down the descendants of Adolf Hitler. They had changed their names and identities and lived in a neighborhood unknown to their neighbors, and when the reporter showed up on their doorstep (with his face blurred out), one of the family members reservedly asked the reporter to respect their current peaceful way of respect was given. After all the reporter had unveiled to land the interview of his career, he showed mercy. The article from 1939 written by William Patrick Hitler was referenced in the interviewer’s segment.

FQ: Was this a difficult story to piece together? You truly are a ‘plot master,’ and there are many moving parts and ‘seeds planted’ throughout the story. Did you sketch out a character guide and develop each character first and then build the story around them? What was your process?

VAN SICKLE: “A plot master!” I am truly honored. I can’t say I have a proven process, but after the inspiration hit me to write AAU, I just captured thoughts on paper about the immediate family members, what would make for a catchy opening, and just revisited the story over the course of a few months. I felt I had a solid first and second act, but I stalled finalizing the third. So I shelved it for several years, dusted it off about a year ago, and found a great content editor to help me with the final act.

FQ: Was there ever a time when the steam that fueled your pen was losing momentum? If so, how did you regain speed and continue? If not, what would you suggest to a novice author as tools he/she could source to overcome block?

VAN SICKLE: My advice would be to get another set of eyes on what you are writing. My husband has always been a great resource for idea enhancements when I feel a little blocked, but I trust him. To let someone provide feedback on something you have poured hours upon days upon months into is opening yourself up to criticism...which is difficult when you are passionate about something you have borne. Being vulnerable is essential but very hard.

FQ: I adored Grandmother Oma’s character. She was a spicy, direct, ‘tell it like it is’ woman of substance. Is there someone in your life who reminds you of Oma?

VAN SICKLE: Oma is a compilation of three amazing grandmothers of mine. They are/were so different in their lives and passions, but each gave me memories that influence me today.

FQ: Thank you again for your time today. I thoroughly enjoyed your book. I would imagine this is just the beginning of your writing journey, and have to ask if you are working on your next book. If so, are you able to share?

VAN SICKLE: I am so thrilled to hear you enjoyed Assassins Are Us! My husband, others who have read the book, and even some professional reviews have suggested that Hedy’s adventures need to continue on, so I have a notion about how I would like to pen that sequel, but it is only a notion at this point. I began writing a horror novel-in-rhyme titled The Many Souls of Azazel, which I hope to finish in 2024, and I would also like to revisit a historical fiction book I self-published 8 years ago titled Placement. Now that I have a content editor whom I have faith in (and who has faith in me), I feel I can give my “firstborn” better legs to run with.

I thank you for this opportunity to share thoughts on my writing with you. Your questions were thought-provoking and genuine.

Kind regards,
Kimberly Van Sickle

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