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Amy Pendino: Author Interview

Author of The Witness Tree and Wild Horses

· author interview

Amy Pendino writes mystery, women's fiction, and historical fiction. A member of the Twin Cities chapter of Sisters in Crime, her writing has been published in anthologies, several magazines and reviews. The Witness Tree, her first published novel, won 3 indie writing awards: an IPPY gold for "best regional fiction", a silver Ben Franklin for "best new voice, fiction", and a finalist award from the Midwest Book Awards.

RUSSELL RICARD, author of "The Truth About Goodbye"

[Wild Horses is] a lovely and thought-provoking read. Pendino's lyrical, character-driven prose, her vivid, small town settings and layering of secrets are well supported by an exhilarating build of dramatic action.

– RUSSELL RICARD, author of The Truth About Goodbye

Q: What inspired you to start writing The Witness Tree?

A: I was visiting a lifelong friend at her new farm in Iowa and noticed a strange double- trunked tree. She said she’d been told that the tree was cursed and should never be cut down. I wondered what would cause a tree to be cursed, and The Witness Tree was born. The story explores a small town’s reactions to newcomers, and themes of friendship, betrayal and self-reliance are woven in.

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Wild Horses picks up where The Witness Tree ends. The same small town watches as a big secret unfolds; I also delve into the relationship between humans and animals, and how that bond grows through trust and taking chances.

Q: How do you develop your plot and characters?

A: Dani Holden is my main character. She has a strong inner life but lacks confidence in the real world. She’s sort of me, but maybe only 82%. She is still growing and changing, and that’s what’s fun to write about.

The other characters are more like living plot points, in this series: they help Dani to discover something, or they explain something; so far, the ones she’s trusted haven’t been all she’s expected, so she’s learned to rely on herself. But she doesn’t know what’s still ahead for her and may have the opportunity to develop a strong connection soon.The plot is something I sketch out, but it usually evolves as I go along. I have a rough idea and an end point but I rely on the characters to put their own spin on (or even change) the means of getting there as we go along together.

Q: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

A: I’ve written four and am drafting a fifth. The first two have not been published and are buried in the backyard. The Witness Tree is my favorite because of how it unspooled: Dani and her counterpart, Lilly, wrote themselves. My favorite scene, though, is the last chapter of Wild Horses.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration for new novels?

A: Curiosity and imagination. Sometimes a person in public will pique my interest and I’ll “write” them to figure out why they act a certain way. Once, I based a character on an obituary I read. That app called “NextDoor” is fabulous for finding interesting stories! The places I write about are mostly real, though I tug at their edges to make them fit the stories.

Q: What is the future for your characters? Will there be sequels?

A: Dani’s story will continue to unfold in consecutive books, as a series. I’m toying with the idea of a completely different series; more info to come on this…

Q: What was your most difficult scene to write?

A: In The Witness Tree, writing the hospital scene was horrible because I could see and smell and feel what was happening, but could do nothing to stop it. It had to be told that way.

Q: Which of your characters was the most challenging to create? Which was the most natural?

A: It’s challenging to write “bad guys” because they all should have a redeeming quality or two, and sometimes I’m so focused on what their jobs are in the book that I forget that they’re supposed to be human and, therefore, must be good at something or nice to someone. It’s easier to just write them BAD; it’s challenging to make them REAL.

The most natural character was Lilly in The Witness Tree. She came fully-formed, whereas all of the others have needed to have background stories and family trees and unique drives created for them.

Q: Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

A: I love horses. I used to sit on a fencepost and pretend it was my horse (probably through middle school, I’m embarrassed to say); now, my husband and I have riding horses that we take all over the country. We’ve welcomed over thirty baby horses to our farm since 2005 (they’re owned by others; we board their mamas.)

Playing the piano is a relaxing hobby. Walking and hiking are good for mind-clearing and plot construction. I’m also really good at organizing things like closets and cupboards, though I hate cooking and cleaning (unless it’s the barn—I’m good at mucking stalls.)

Q: What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?

  • “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving
  • “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger
  • “Patty Jane’s House of Curl” by Lorna Landvik
  • “Empire Falls” by Richard Russo
  • “Accidental Tourist” by Anne Tyler

Q: Are there any real-life mysteries that lie in your past?

A: Yes. [I guess that’s going to remain a mystery.]

Q: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Keep writing. Don’t censure yourself as you write first drafts—keep yourself moving.”

Q: When starting a new book, what is the first thing you do?

A: I eat a lot. It’s really tough to start, because I know I’ll try to make myself keep going through that entire first draft, and I get anxious about that. Mostly I sketch a plot outline, stew about it, research a bit, second-guess, and then just jump in.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: Dani has a new job (book 3 of the series) that prohibits her involvement with a mystery that literally shows up next door. I’m almost done with the first draft.

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