The Last Night Out by Catherine O’Connell
Review To Follow
Six friends. Three secrets. One murder.
Maggie is set to marry the man of her dreams. Desperate for one wild last night out on the town before her big day, she gathers her closest girlfriends to hit the bars and party until dawn.
Only things go wrong – horribly wrong.
When Angie’s body is found in the park the following morning, their night to remember quickly becomes a nightmare they all wish they could forget. Under police scrutiny, how far will Maggie and her friends go to keep their secrets? Far enough to protect a killer?
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) I’m a writer and I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I’ve always had an overactive imagination, and would take that imagination to the page while I was in grammar school, writing short stories that the teacher would read to the class. I continued writing throughout my youth, writing sketches and more short stories, keeping journals that to this day can take me back to the inner workings of a teenager.
Having the goal of being a writer, I majored in Journalism at the University of Colorado. But by the time I graduated, I felt like journalistic writing was far too dry and restrictive for my goals. I really wanted to recognize my dream of being a novelist and the creativity of fiction versus reality. So I embarked on all kinds of adventures thinking that the more experiences I collected the more fodder I’d have for novels. I backpacked Europe and then lived for a couple of years as a ski bum in Aspen, working as a hotel maid and receptionist. Then I returned to my hometown of Chicago and worked as a waitress and a bar manager on Rush Street, floor runner at the Chicago Board of Trade, and a sales rep for a fine wine company. All through that time period I had countless ideas for books and started dozens of novels that never got much farther than ten or twenty pages.
It wasn’t until I the 90s that I finally committed myself to the work required to take it a step further. Doing what all authors need to do, I put my bottom down on a chair and started writing. I finished one novel, sent it out to an agent, but it never sold. I finished writing another book shortly thereafter and that one did sell, becoming Skins (Donald I Fine) in 1993. After that, I published a pair of high society mysteries, Well Bred and Dead and Well Read and Dead, inspired by questionable circumstances and multiple birth certificates surrounding the death of a friend.
My current book, The Last Night Out draws upon my life experiences as well. I worked as a bartender in Rush Street Chicago in the late 1980s. The scene was pretty wild back then and just when I thought I’d seen everything, someone would take things a step further. Then, in the late 90s, my husband and I started a nightclub tour business called The Party Bus. As things turned out, our primary customers were young women having bachelorette parties. If I thought I saw some crazy things as a bartender, well, those bachelorettes took it up a notch.
Coincidentally, the first novel I’d written and never gotten published was about a women getting drunk at her bachelorette party and one of her friends ending up dead. Inspired by the bachelorettes on The Party Bus, I decided to pull out that manuscript and rework it and, voila, The Last Night Out was born.
I want to add that getting published isn’t a direct line to literary success. I have more than a few dusty unpublished manuscripts occupying a safe place in the closet under my stairs. But if you’re a writer, you just keep on writing. It’s kind of like being an alcoholic—either you’re practicing or your not.
The Last Night Out is the story of six high school friends who come together in Chicago’s northern suburbs to celebrate Maggie Trueheart’s upcoming wedding. The party moves downtown to Rush Street where the girls drink into the wee hours of the night. The next morning Maggie awakes to find a stranger in her bed. If that’s not bad enough, a phone call brings the horrifying news that her friend Angie, one of the party-goers, has been murdered.
Afraid her fiancé might learn about her infidelity, Maggie lies to the detectives assigned to Angie’s case, trapping herself into a series of lies that become more and more convoluted as the search for Angie’s killer continues. And while Maggie is caught in her own fabric of lies, little does she know the rest of the girls have lies of their own, all of the lies in some way connected to Angie’s murder. Unbeknownst to them, one of the lies has put another one of them in the killer’s sights.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea, to writing and finally to publication?
A) It’s my belief that the writing process is different for every writer. There’s no template for creating a book. Some writers make extensive outlines, some just start blind, some know where they’re going, some have no idea. I’m telling you this because I think that readers often think that there is something orderly in creating a book, and I’m the first person to tell you, there is not. The only thing all writers have in common is that they have to sit down and put that story on the page by somehow pulling it out of their head and putting it on paper. Which, I might add, can often be quite painful.
When I start writing a new book, I’m pretty much set on the beginning and the end. What’s left is to fill in everything in between and hope it matches up. I do write a rough synopsis as a sort of map, but I usually veer from that synopsis fairly quickly as my brain leads me in a different directions once I get into the story.
The bottom line for me is to just start writing. Rule #1 for me. Right after coffee in the morning. Otherwise I might get sidetracked into doing something important like cleaning the bathroom. The rough draft is the hardest. It’s kind of like pulling your brain out your ear with a tweezers. I try for five pages, around 1000 words, a day, but sometimes only come up with one. When I get really stuck I grab a yellow pad and paper and sit in a corner or go outside. The goal is to push the story forward. And though I have a pretty good idea who my characters are, guess what? They change along the way. But rather than go back and make everything consistent, I plod towards the end of the book. The idea is to get the story down. I know I can always go back and fix things later. The old writer’s axiom is, you can fix a blank page, but you can’t fix an empty one.
Once the story is finished, for me the heavy lifting is over. It’s like going through the pain of building a house, and now it’s time to decorate. Early in my writing career, I discovered if I kept going back to make the first ten pages perfect, I’d never get to the other 290. Rewrite’s the time to do that, to fix uneven plot points, to embellish descriptions, to sharpen dialogue. My first rewrite is pretty substantial, fixing up sloppy language and getting times and places match up. And my character’s appearances! You can’t believe how many time I’ve changed a character’s appearance or background or even their name in the rough draft and have to make it all jibe. Then there’s a second rewrite and then a third, each time with less needing polish. It’s during the fourth rewrite when I start to feel it’s all matching up and it’s time to say ‘enough’ before I ruin anything!
My agent is the first person to read my manuscript. I’ve already run the story idea past her, but after that I don’t send her anything until I’m basically finished. That’s because my first draft is such a mess no one would ever believe it could be a book. Once I send my agent the completed and polished manuscript, she gives it a careful read, does some editing, and points out things that might need to be clarified. I’m proud to say there usually isn’t much that needs changing at that point, and when she OKs it I breathe a sigh of relief.
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) I love Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna being one of my favourite books. Geraldine Brooks is another favourite, both March and The Year of Wonders high up on my list. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction about World War I and II and Kate Atchinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins were amazing. Ian Mc Kewen’s Atonement blew me away, and if you want to get a good understanding of the horror of World War I, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is required reading.
I love Nelson DeMille’s edgy tough guy characters, The Gold Coast another one of my all time favorites.
Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.
I tend not to read in my genre when I’m working on a book because it influences my writing, but when I’m not writing I love falling into mysteries by P.D. James, Dick Francis, Dennis Lehane, Thomas Cook, and Donna Leon. One of my favourites early on was Raymond Chandler for his great plots and sharp dialogue.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
Q) I guess I have to start with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, books for young American readers. They inspired in me this amazing desire to read which then morphed into me wanting to tell stories of my own. As I grew older and my thirst for reading grew, I branched out into historical fiction. My favourite books were Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Hawaii by James Michener, Exodus by Leon Uris and the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I used to feel that if a book wasn’t at least 800 pages, it wasn’t worth picking up.
Q) What are you currently reading?
A) Just finished Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Gail Honeyman and loved it. Next up is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’ve heard so many good things about it I have to read it.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) Seeing my book in print. There’s a sense of validation in having your work published that can not be described.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) My husband has always been a source of invaluable support and encouragement. Every time I’ve felt like quitting, he says, “You got this far. Why quit now?”
And my friends. They have always told me I could make it. Especially my friend, Luky, who kept me going by saying, “If you throw enough of you know what against the wall, some of it’s going to stick.” It’s crazy stuff like that that keeps you going.
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