If you haven’t discovered P.J. Tracy yet (a pseudonym for the mother-daughter team, P.J. and Traci Lambrecht) you don’t know what you’re missing. Monkeewrench, the first book in their suspenseful series, isn’t your regular fare; Tracy’s serial killer works by matching each murder scene to one found on a computer game. In their latest book, Snow Blind, the fourth in the series, murder victims are stashed inside snowmen. These books make the bestseller lists for reasons other than unique concepts: the plots are constantly twisting, the pace is hot-butter-slick, and Tracy delivers dynamic, believable characters who occasionally deliver such witty dialogue that you’ll literally laugh out loud. We’re thrilled they took some time out to chat with us about craft and their unique working relationship. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with P.J. Tracy
Q: When did you first think about joining up as a team to write a novel? Did you feel the call of authorhood at the same time?
PJL: Writing – storytelling, actually – was never something either one of us decided to do; it was just something we each did from childhood. I learned at an early age that although my family quickly tired of my endless chatter, a piece of paper never complained. My lack of a childhood audience may be why I was so attentive when Traci started telling her toddler tales. She started writing them down the day I put a crayon into her hand.
TL: It may be a mistake to credit us with actual conscious intent. Although we’d both been writing individually for most of our lives, joining forces happened when PJ’s freelance workload became too heavy and my post-college wallet became too light. We collaborated on short stories to pay the bills, then romance novels to pay the bigger bills, and ultimately moved on to mainstream thrillers, the genre we most loved to read.
Q: What has this partnership been like for you?
TL: Simply amazing. Writing is normally such a solitary, lonely endeavor, and to be able to share it with someone you love and enjoy so much is a true gift.
Q: What kind of negotiations did you have to make along the way?
TL: Really, there has been no need for negotiations of any kind along the way. It’s disgusting, I know, but we’ve never had a single argument over the books, or anything else in our lives, for that matter. Our minds track in much the same direction, and yet our different perspectives provide a welcome dimension and diversity to the work and characters that would normally be an effort to produce when flying solo. We acknowledge those differences, embrace them, and give each other free rein. Partnership doesn’t necessarily make the work go faster, but it does make it easier and so much fun on many levels.
Q: Did you write under another name? Care to share some of your previous titles?
PJL: We’ve written under many names! PJ Platz, PJ Lambrecht, Melinda Cross (Harlequin), Mariah Kent, Jessica McBain. I believe that some Melinda Cross novels are still in print after ten or more years…and occasionally we see an old Melinda Cross romance on used book sites. I just googled Melinda Cross and was surprised to see that they’re still out there!
Q: Was it clear you’d collaborate on a mystery-suspense thriller in particular? Were any other genres pulling at you?
TL: We collaborated on many different things throughout our 18 year career together, including screenplays and romance, but mystery/thrillers have always been our favorite genre to read, so it made sense to us to eventually take a stab at writing them.
Q: Monkeewrench was a—ehem—killer read! There were so many twists and turns in the plot. How did you decide when you’d twisted enough? And what is your process of working through such a plot? Do you know from the start where you’re going and who the “bad guy” is (concentrating creative efforts on twisting the center of the story up), or are you as surprised as your readers by what the twists reveal?
PJL: If we were at all analytical, we could probably figure out the actual mechanics of how we manage to move our stories along, but analysis has always given us both headaches (you must remember that you’re dealing with two women who would rather believe that fairies run the vacuum cleaner than figure out how it actually works). Analytical people ask “How does that work?”, while we say, “Wow, it worked!” If we had the remotest idea how we wrote novels together, we’d write a lot more of them a lot faster. We hope our readers are surprised by the twists and turns in our novels. We certainly are.
TL: We are very likely more surprised by the outcome of our books than our readers. Honestly, our process of plotting is one mystery that will probably remain unsolved forever. Even we don’t have a clue as to how it all comes together for each book, which is pretty frustrating, because if we could figure it out, we’d probably never miss another deadline! But our process is very organic — we talk and talk and talk, throw out crazy ideas, and somebody might say one word, or a single phrase, and that will send us off in another direction entirely. And then we’ll each do individual writing, and that often churns up new and unexpected surprises or plot twists that we work in. I’d like to say that we know where the plot is going when we begin, but the characters always change that mid-stream; and I’d like to say that we always know who the villains are, but even that can change. It sounds completely disorganized (and it is!), but it certainly is fun.
Q: We love the way you wove two separate storylines together in Monkeewrench, leading the reader to an eventual understanding of how the threads relate to one another. Did you come up with both story parts together or chunk it up into parts—hers and hers?
TL: See above answer – and then watch ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST – I think that film captures the essence of PJ Tracy beautifully.
Q: What is your actual process of working through the story? Do you work together in an office, a kitchen? Do you rely heavily on email or telephone? Do you call each other with new ideas at all hours of the night? How much time do you spend on storytelling daily?
TL: We both have offices in our respective homes (where we spend the majority of our waking hours working, seven days a week), and we’re constantly on the phone or sending emails. And once every month or so I’ll spend a couple weeks at PJ’s, where we’ll write together in the same office, on different computers.
Q: Your scenes are generally short and vivid. Did you make the decision early on to craft short scenes, and do you find brevity keeps your pacing slick? Are there any unique challenges to crafting short scenes?
TL: Our brief history of screenwriting really gave us an appreciation of short scenes and how effective they can be as a storytelling device. It’s the classic, ‘less-is-more’ philosophy — if you make sure every word progresses the plot or builds the tension in some way, chances are, you can keep your readers reading. Of course, this minimalist style can be a challenge sometimes. I’m sure most writers would agree that it’s hard to know when to shut up, and we’re no exception!
Q: How do you create your characters? Do any of the characters feel like they “belong” to one of you over the other? Who are each of your favorites?
TL: They’re all a slapped-together mess of reality, imagination, and observation. We both have always paid very close attention to the way people behave, and often the odd gesture or comment of a stranger sends our minds spooling off in all different directions. But generally, we each develop characters that we’d like to know in real life or have over for a dinner party. And both our footprints are on all of the players – they are all truly collaborative figments of our collective imagination. And I don’t think either of us could pick a favorite – that would be like singling out a favorite child.
Q: That last comment, about strangers spinning your off in creative directions, seems to beg a story or two. Do you have any memorable instances of how people watching evolved into an interesting character or plot twist?
TL: Mr. Drool from the grocery store; an arrogant, obnoxious lawyer who should have been mainlining Ritalin instead of meth; my wonderful religion professor, whose name is actually Anantanand Rambachan; Sheriff Ed Pitala from DEAD RUN, who is not a sheriff, but a real person and very dear friend; and all of our psychotic family members, who will hopefully read this interview from the institution.
Q: The pairings of officers Halloran & Bonar and Magozzi & Gino are humorously similar—something the officers realize once they finally meet one another. I think it’s Gino who says, “It’s like we’re a couple sets of twins that got mixed up.” Did you do this purposefully?
TL: Making the Halloran/Bonar and Magozzi/Gino characters similar pairs was one of the few things in Monkeewrench that was indeed intentional, and the roots of that can be found in reality. In the past, PJ worked with officers from several different departments and communities, and learned that the job and the personality that led each officer to it creates a commonality that often overshadows individual characteristics and unique histories.
Q: I love your voice and the touches of wit alternating with touches of poetry. Do you both add these extra nuances to the final work? What are each of your specialties?
TL: Thank you! Again, this is yet another unplanned element in our writing, and something that flows naturally. We’re both pretty hardcore perfectionists, so what you read is very close to what we originally wrote. We do very little editing. And I don’t know if you could say that either of us have a specialty – we both share everything fifty-fifty. One day, PJ might be feeling a brilliant bout of emotional narrative coming on, and I might want to plunge into some sassy dialogue. But that varies from day to day for each of us – we write with our moods.
Q: How do you balance the humor and suspense? When do you know it’s time to lighten things up?
TL: I think that’s a gift from our family, all of whom are notoriously dark and use judicious amounts of humor to break tension. We were both socialized that way, is my guess, because it’s instinctive.
Click below for part 2 of WU’s interview with writing duo PJ Tracy, where we’ll talk about red herrings, troublesome characters and the future of the Monkeewrench gang!