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Author Interview: Verlin Darrow

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Katie Specht is talking with Verlin Darrow, author of Murder for Liar.

FQ: The list of industries you have worked in and jobs you have held in your lifetime is quite extensive. Is there one particular job or career that stands out to you as the most rewarding or exciting?

DARROW: Being a therapist has proven to be the most rewarding career/job I’ve ever had. Playing professional volleyball in Italy was certainly the most exciting.

As a therapist, I utilize all my hard-earned life experience, insight, professional skills, emotional and spiritual development, and whatever else gets pulled out of me in sessions in service to others. As I’ve aged, a lot of things that used to be important to me dropped away, leaving helping whoever I can as the remaining worthy activity. After all, we’re truly all in this together. (It could even be argued that our sense of ourselves as separate individuals is an illusion, but that’s a discussion for another time).

As a professional athlete, the excitement factor might seem obvious, but it went deeper than the competition and the fans. It was simply challenging every day to live in another country and try to build a life that worked. I have a lot of respect for anyone who manages to do that successfully, especially in this country with our gnarly language. For me, challenging equals exciting. For better or worse (and often worse), I’ve always pushed myself past psychologically safe bounds.

FQ: Murder for Liar is your fourth standalone book. Would you say there is a central theme that unites all four of your novels, or are they each their own separate entity?

DARROW: While separate novels, with unique characters and plots, all my books thus far embody underlying themes of how people change, what might lie beneath the physical world, and how do people cope with extraordinary events. In my latest book, Murder For Liar, Tom is a psychologist who has to figure out how to deal with seemingly impossible events, as well as several murders. To do so, he has to expand his sense of most everything. In my first novel, Blood and Wisdom, a private investigator solves a murder at a spiritual retreat center, while falling in love with its teacher. Coattail Karma is a wild, no holds barred fantasy thriller, taking similar themes to extremes. And Prodigy Quest explores what happens when a genius ten year-old is tasked with finding a book of wisdom. In that one, I include the contents of the book he finds as an appendix—the world according to Verlin.

FQ: At its core, Murder for Liar is a mystery but the psychological components of the story make it dark, intellectual, and at times, simply horrifying, which in turn makes it impossible to put down. What inspired the story? With you being a practicing psychotherapist, did you base some of this on your work with clients, or did you simply develop this remarkable story yourself?

DARROW: Actually, as hard as it might be to believe, a great deal of the plot, at least early on, was autobiographical. A long time ago, I was approached by a charismatic, spiritually-oriented guy who told me I was someone special in that realm, with a vital mission to perform. I posited that he was either crazy or quite spiritually advanced and knew what he was talking about. Biased by my ego—who doesn’t want to be special?—I settled on the latter since he could do things beyond logic and science—impressive, mind-blowing stuff. So I signed up as the first disciple of what became a small, benign cult, serving as my guru’s assistant. I eventually realized that our sincere and hardworking leader was also delusional, and I graduated myself and everyone else out of the group. So I grappled with some of what my protagonist does, which I think lends authenticity to being in Tom’s head as he weathers much more than I did, including murders.

As a therapist, I did indeed use amalgams of former clients to help me create believable characters. The story itself more or less wrote itself. My style is to get started and see what the hell happens. Then I fix the screw-ups later.

FQ: The supporting characters in Murder for Liar, including Zig-Zag, Dizzy, and George, are unique, to say the least. How did you develop such distinctive characters?

DARROW: I really don’t know. It feels like they write themselves, pretty much. I guess that represents the presence of my subconscious in my process. When something bubbles up, I’ve learned to trust it. Perhaps a character says—for no discernible reason—that they’re allergic to strawberries on page nineteen. Lo and behold, on page 248, this turns out to be an important plot point. It’s all a bit mysterious to me.

FQ: What would you say has been the biggest surprise to you thus far on your author journey since publishing your first book?

DARROW: How humbling the process is, leading to diminished pride about myself as a writer. As in other endeavors, when I reach a goal, especially one in relationship to creativity—like getting published—what feels as though it’s going to be the end result turns out to be just one more step in my process. In other words, whatever expectations I had around being a published author making my life complete or filling me with never ending warm puppy vibes inside got squashed. I’m still me, warts and all, and the fifteen minutes of fame, even if it’s stretched longer, is never sustaining in and of itself. The real satisfaction comes from the writing, not the result.

FQ: Do you have any plans for future books, and if so, what can you share about these plans?

DARROW: The first book of a more genre-ish mystery series is currently at a couple of publishers, and early indications are that it will be out next spring. The current title is The Not Quite Enlightened Sleuth. In it, a former Buddhist nun returns to her dysfunctional family of origin in northern California and tries to solve multiple murders. She’s both psychologically and spiritually-oriented. It was fun—and challenging—writing in a woman’s first person voice.

FQ: From reading your author bio, it seems like you have undergone some rather unique experiences in your lifetime. Two especially notable ones are surviving the natural disasters of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Can you share a bit about these experiences?

DARROW: I played in a volleyball tournament a couple of days before Mt. St. Helens blew its top. As our plane departed Portland for home, the pilot told us he was going to detour to fly over the volcano so we could all take a look—which we did. The eruption reached a crescendo ten minutes later, once we were barely out of range. So that experience was largely conceptual, but still sobering. At any time, from however unlikely a direction, I learned that most anything on any scale could happen.

I was in Mexico City at the end of a buying trip for a folk arts store I owned. At seven-twenty in the morning, I was tossed out of bed by what was an 8.1 earthquake. I was at the center of it on the top floor of an elderly wooden hotel. Huddled in an archway, I endured four and a half minutes of shaking, rolling, and swaying, hearing deep rumbling, screams, and buildings crumbling into the street. When the hotel swayed, it was extreme enough that I could see the ground beneath my window—an array of decorative metal spikes atop a restaurant roof. With each sway, I was sure the next one would bring me down to my death. Now here’s the interesting part. I wasn’t scared. I just waited patiently to see what would happen. In fact, dying felt okay—not good, not bad, just what was happening. The quake was so out of my control, so beyond me, that any reaction seemed pointless. And I became curious about what might happen once I died. Then I didn’t die, of course. I no longer fear death, I no longer kid myself that I’m in charge of my life, and like the volcano experience, I now know that you never know—not about anything, not for sure.

FQ: You have previously written manuscripts of children’s books but did not publish them. Do you have any plans to write for this audience in the future?

DARROW: At the time I wrote them, my writer’s mind operated at a fifth-grade level. That was the vocabulary and complexity that naturally came out of me in a first draft. I was a slow bloomer about most things, but especially writing. These days, I would have to translate from a more mature style into something compatible with younger readers. I’m afraid my ideas about life and the themes I care about might be lost. At the least. I’m not confident that it could be any sort of maestro if I tried. I did have some wonderful titles back in the day: Nightmares Are Caused By Bad Dust Bunnies, The Dog Who Burped His Way to Mars, and others.

FQ: The ending of Murder for Liar is unexpected, to say the least. Seeing Tom become a better version of himself after all he has been through is quite satisfying, although the events leading up to it are surprising. Did you have an “aha” moment when it came to how you would conclude your story, or did you know this from the beginning of writing?

DARROW: I never know how things will turn out in my books, which keeps me interested to find out. Often, I write myself into a corner and have to figure out how to proceed, which sometimes leads to major plot twists. That’s what happened in this book. About three-quarters of the way through Murder For Liar, there’s as big a shocker as I’ve ever created. That’s because the first draft ended there, much to my chagrin. Not only would the manuscript be too short, I didn’t like those scenes as my ending. So I came up with a way to go forward, which wasn’t easy, but led to some surprises that readers seem to like.

FQ: If someone who had never read any of your books wanted to read just one, which one would you recommend he read and why?

DARROW: Actually, that depends on the person, but so far everyone who has read my latest—Murder For Liar—has liked it the best. I guess I get a little more skillful as I continue to publish books. Personally, I like Coattail Karma the best, but I’m a rather idiosyncratic reader and I wrote that one aimed at myself. At the time, since it was actually written before the others, I felt hopeless about getting published, so why cater to the world at large? As it turned out, after an editor’s heavy hand, the book actually has wide appeal and garnered good reviews. Anyway, you can check out all these on Amazon or my website——and see for yourself what interests you.

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