The Craft of Writing — October 2022
As we continue our year-long interviews of mystery, suspense, thriller, and fantasy authors, I’m excited to welcome fellow Memphian and award-winning author Andrew McClurg. Andrew writes fiction under the pseudonym Dorian Box, and his Emily Calby thriller series has won numerous awards.
Award-winning author Dorian Box on The Craft of Writing Blog. Click To Tweet
Meet Andrew McClurg (aka Dorian Box)
Dorian Box is an award-winning author and former law professor. His nonfiction books include an Amazon Editors’ Favorite Book of the Year. In fiction, he likes to blend dark themes with heart, hope, and humor.
His novels have received honors and awards from Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Digest, IndieReader, Readers’ Favorite, Feathered Quill, BestThrillers.com, and the National Indie Excellence Awards.
In his academic life, Box won numerous awards for both teaching and research and wrote thousands, possibly millions, of scholarly footnotes. He’s been interviewed as a legal expert by National Public Radio, the PBS Newshour, the New York Times, and many other sources.
Dorian spent the last decade living out his childhood rock star fantasies singing and playing in cover bands that earned tens of dollars sweating it out until two a.m. in Memphis dive bars.
Welcome Andrew McClurg, and thank you for joining us!
Thank you, Kay! It’s great to be here, especially with one of my favorite Memphis authors.
Please give us some background – have you always wanted to be a writer?
I really have. My mother was a newspaper reporter who raised me to love the written word. I was editor of my high school newspaper and went on to get a journalism degree from the University of Florida, always intending to follow in my mighty mom’s footsteps. Then in my last semester it sunk in she barely earned a living wage despite having won numerous awards and being nominated for two Pulitzers, so I took the LSAT and went to law school.
As a law professor in the “publish or perish” world of academia, writing was big part of my job. I published a lot over the years, including several nonfiction books. But all along my dream was to be a novelist.
My first effort at fiction was a Grisham-type legal thriller. I sent it to only one agent and she said I should use it as a “learning bike.” So I junked it and began working on a mystery/thriller in the “wacky Florida fiction” vein à la Carl Hiaasen, but with a dark side, like all my books.
This was back in the nineties. I had an agent for it, but nothing ever happened. So I stuck it in a drawer. From time to time, I’d think about revising it, but so much had changed technology-wise I couldn’t figure out how to do it. The advent of the internet, smartphones, etc. ruined mystery writing! Then one day a light went on. I dug out the Word document, typed “1995” in large bold font on the first page and problem solved. I published it in 2015 under the title Psycho-Tropics, and the feedback I got amped up my desire to write more fiction. I began working on the Emily Calby Series as a side-hobby and recently retired as a law prof to pursue writing fiction fulltime.
Why did you decide to write thrillers?
I’ve always loved suspense, but my books aren’t typical thrillers. There’s plenty of action and plot surprises, but my biggest strengths are probably character development and relationships. I like to compose compelling human stories that evoke emotions. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a reviewer of The Hiding Girl (Emily Calby Book 1) who said, “My husband kept asking me why I was crying.” But other reviews of the same book talk about the humor in the relationship between Emily and her mentor, Lucas. So my books are a mixed bag of dark and light. I appreciated it when IndieReader awarded The Hiding Girl its 2021 Discovery Award for Fiction (second place), rather than in a subcategory like thrillers/suspense. They saw it as more than just a thriller. I like to think of Emily’s journey as a coming-of-age story, albeit a sometimes dark and grisly one.
How did you come up with the story for the The Hiding Girl?
I wish I understood better how my stories come about. For The Hiding Girl, different parts probably came from different places. In general, I’ve always been a fan of sympathetic underdogs who face overwhelming odds in high-stakes situations.
The seed for The Hiding Girl was a horrific true crime home invasion against a family, a couple with two daughters, that received national media coverage. It was the worst crime I could ever imagine. It stayed with me for years. I started the book with a similarly awful home invasion set in rural Georgia, with 12-year-old Emily as the only survivor. Everyone thinks she was killed, burned up in a fire, but she survived and went on the run.
She ends up in Memphis where she meets Lucas Jackson, a hardened ex-gang member who lost his own family to violence. That part of the story probably came from living in Memphis, along with years of academic research into gun violence, including gang violence. Lucas takes her in off the streets and they become unlikely allies and ultimately family. Their unusual relationship—the rural, religious White girl and the much older inner-city Black male—is the heart of the entire series. Lucas teaches her a lot, including what he insists on calling “self-defense” skills, but which Emily sees as tools to obtain justice.
Emily’s psyche is fractured from the trauma and a central thread in the book is her fighting to cope with her psychological disintegration. That part is probably related to my own trauma and grief issues, which, while certainly not as extreme as Emily’s, gave me a basis for writing about them honestly.
But this is all speculation. I don’t really know for sure where my stories come from.
The Hiding Girl was a great success, and you’ve turned it into a series. Can you tell us a little about each one of the other books in the series?
It’s a trilogy that tracks Emily’s life forward from the day of the home invasion to her first semester of law school. The books are spaced four years apart in Emily’s life. She’s twelve years old in The Hiding Girl, sixteen in The Girl in Cell 49B (book 2), and twenty and starting law school in Target: The Girl (book 3). So readers basically get to watch Emily grow up. Although probably best read in order, they’re designed as standalones. Each title involves a distinct plot and setting.
Book 2, The Girl in Cell 49B, finds Emily—the notorious “missing Calby girl”—arrested for murder on her 16th birthday and extradited to a corrupt juvenile detention center in Louisiana where she battles a vindictive prosecutor willing to resort to any means to convict her. Thwarted by the law at every turn, she discovers a hidden prison law library and buries herself in the books, determined to fight back, in effect casting her destiny. All the while, the dark secrets behind the prison walls are closing in. Much of the book focuses on Emily’s explosive trial, so it’s an unusual legal thriller.
In book 3, Target: The Girl, Emily, now twenty and firmly established as a justice-seeker, starts law school in Florida after Lucas made her give up violence as a path to justice and rely on the law. But trouble follows Emily wherever she goes. Someone appears to be stalking her, but because she lives in a constant state of hypervigilance from her trauma, she thinks she’s imagining it. She’s not, and there are plenty of suspects along the way.
What’s your writing process? Do you start with plot or characters or some combination?
I read about authors who plot everything out in advance. I’m the opposite. I just start writing. I have a protagonist in mind and a vague notion of a plot, but most of my plotting and characters spring to life organically as I write. It’s what I love most about fiction writing compared to all my years of scholarly writing. I love sitting at the keyboard wondering what’s going to happen next. I’ll be typing along and, “Oh, no! I can’t believe that happened. Poor Emily!”
But I don’t just write straight through from beginning to end like some author friends of mine. I frequently hit a wall where I’m not sure what should happen next. What a lot of people call “writer’s block,” I call “plot block.” Writing is easy when you know where you’re going. So I’ll often pause to figure things out. Sometimes it takes several days.
As I’m sure you can attest, it’s impossible to just stare at a keyboard and make ideas pop into your head, so I create documents as I go along titled, “Plotting from page ### forward,” and dish out as many ideas as I can. Often the puzzle piece I’m seeking will come to me when I’m taking a walk, or a shower, or lying in bed. I’ll text it to myself so I don’t forget it. I’m constantly adjusting characters and plot, both forward and backward. Fiction writing is very polycentric. When you change one thing, it usually affects other things.
Maybe it’s my academic background, but I research everything as I go. Not that I’m above taking literary license when necessary, but I find that seeking factual accuracy, even about small things, not only enhances credibility, but creates new ideas all along the way. I wrote a blog post about it.
As an example, in The Hiding Girl Emily has to get from Memphis to Lafayette, Louisiana by bus. It would have been easy to just have her board a direct bus ride. Few people, including me until I researched it, would have known that the only Greyhound route from Memphis to Lafayette leaves at 3:20 a.m. and first goes to Little Rock, then Texarkana, and then Shreveport. Sticking to this seemingly insignificant actual schedule ended up stimulating one of the most important plot developments in the book.
I’m fascinated with your pen name. Why did you decide to write under a pseudonym and how did you come up with Dorian Box?
It was a difficult decision. After all, one of the pleasures of writing a book is seeing your name on it. I was still a law professor when I published Psycho-Tropics and also The Hiding Girl. As you know from reading The Hiding Girl, some of the content is edgy and profanity is common. I wrote to a lawyer who had penned a blog post on using pseudonyms, explained my dilemma, and asked what he thought. His good advice was if you’re thinking you should use a pen name, you probably should. So I did it to keep my fiction-writing life compartmentalized from my public persona as a law prof. I only came out as Dorian Box after I left law teaching. Even some of my close friends didn’t know about it, which certainly made it harder to market books!
As for how I came up with the name, I wish I had a better story. I started with A.J. McNash, which at least had my initials in, but it sounded generic and bor-ing. I read a blog post that said if you’re going to use a pen name, you might as well make it something memorable. That made sense.
One evening I was lounging around with a then-girlfriend talking about pen names. It’s possible we were in a slightly altered state. She said, “What’s the pen name going to be?” I paused, stared at the wall and said, “Dorian Box.” She laughed and said, “B-O-X-E?” I said, “Nope, just B-O-X.” She asked how in the world I came up with that. I wish I had a more inspiring explanation. In front of me was a doorway (Ding! “Dorian”). Next to it was a square speaker (Ding! Box). Dorian Box was born, haha.
What are your plans for future novels? Do you have another series in mind?
Emily fans keep asking if there will be a book 4 and if I were wiser, that’s what I would be working on. But after book 3, I was feeling kind of Emily-ed out. So I took a break and wrote a couple of middle-grade books which I actually like a lot. But I did it without first researching that you need a traditional publisher with middle-grade books because they all go through the school/library pipeline and only traditional publishers can accomplish that. I sent out some slush-pile email queries to agents and you know how that goes. I’m too impatient to spend years chasing needles in haystacks, one of the things I love about indie publishing.
So I set them aside for now and started writing a sequel to my first novel, Psycho-Tropics. It’s another wacky Florida fiction thriller. I grew up in South Florida and have always been a huge fan of the three giants of the genre: Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, and Laurence Shames. I’m approaching the end of a first draft. It’s amazing how much faster I can write now that it’s my fulltime job!
But I can’t imagine not returning to Emily at some point. She’s part of me.
What advice would you give an aspiring author of thrillers?
Understand that thrillers is a tough market to break out in because there’s so much competition. With more than a million new books published on Amazon every year, that’s probably true of all genre fiction. Added to that, surveys show about a quarter of adults admit to not having read a single book in the past twelve months. So write because you love to write, not with the expectation that you’re writing the next Gone Girl. Of course, always keep that hope!
Thrillers are difficult to market for the same reason. It’s much easier to target an audience and find a traditional publisher for a nonfiction book.
Read every book out there that resembles the writing style, genre, and protagonist you have in mind. In writing the Emily Calby Series, I learned so much from reading and studying the craft of thriller authors like Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Tana French, Lisa Jewell, and Lisa Wingate. And my overall writing style is strongly influenced by Elmore Leonard, who taught me two valuable lessons for writing fiction: try to leave out the parts people skim over and if it reads like writing, rewrite it. The latter is particularly true with respect to dialogue. I always read it out loud, even imitating the characters’ voices, as I write and edit it.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
The easiest way is to just Google “Dorian Box.” That’s another good thing about an unusual pen name. My website is dorianbox.com. People can also find me on Goodreads and on Facebook at “dorianboxbooks”. If you want to learn more about my alter-ego, Andrew McClurg, Google the name and you’ll find way more than you’d ever want to know.
Thank you, Andrew, for being with us today.
Thank you, Kay! It’s a been a pleasure.Award-winning thriller author Dorian Box on The Craft of Writing Blog. Click To Tweet