When Denver novelist LS Hawker was in elementary school, she happened upon a silly book about scary things. The only entry she remembers today is “something scary…is an apple with a mustache,” which was accompanied by an illustration of a bowl of fruit, atop which sat a Red Delicious with facial hair. This inspired Hawker to write one of her first stories: "Detective Alistair Apple: Apple with a Mustache,” an illustrated murder mystery. “I still have it,” she says. “It’s not bad.”
So began a writing life that’s gotten a lot more serious over the years. LS Hawker first became known for her debut novel, The Drowning Game, which became a USA Today bestseller. Now four thrillers deep into her career, Hawker sat down with us before the January 26 launch of her new book, The Throwaways, to talk about inspiration, music and the winding road of a working writer.
Westword: You're launching your new book, The Throwaways, at Tattered Cover Aspen Grove on January 26. What does it mean to you to be able to start your reading tour at the Littleton Tattered Cover, right in your back yard?
LS Hawker: The Tattered Cover is the holy grail for writers in Denver, so it's an honor and a privilege. I adore Tattered Cover, and I've always done my best to patronize the store, their events, and their presence here in Denver.
Talk a little bit about this new book. Where did the idea come from?
When I was in college at the University of Kansas, a friend of mine from a small rural town went to the liquor store one night and met a guy who said his car had broken down and he needed a ride to his girlfriend's house. My friend complied and ended up in the most dangerous situation of his young life. He survived unscathed, but I always wondered what would have happened if he hadn't. That's the genesis of the story.
What surprised you in the writing?
How two of the characters found their way into my debut novel, The Drowning Game. (I wrote the original version of The Throwaways before my debut.)
So where does your passion for writing come from? Who in your life inspired you to go into it, and what convinced you that it was the right thing for you?
I've been writing stories since I was eight years old. I read one of them to my third-grade class, and they laughed in all the right places, and I was hooked. My freshman English teacher at Cherry Creek High School, Joan Hodgkinson, read a short story I wrote (inspired by the Eagles song "Hotel California") and urged me to try to get it published. I don't know where she is now, but I'd love to thank her.
What was your experience with your first book, The Drowning Game, as you toured with it and saw it winning the accolades that it did?
I'd been trying to break into publishing for many years by that point, had gathered hundreds of rejections for various manuscripts, so my debut's success was a glorious surprise. Almost immediately after it was published, I began receiving emails from readers, and I couldn't believe it. I'd hoped that people would enjoy it, but I'd been knocked around enough to know that the odds against even modest success were huge. My most overwhelming emotion through it all has been profound gratitude.
Any favorite stories that came from that first book tour? One of those moments where you stopped for a moment and thought, "Wow, I'm actually here right now"?
I went to Thrillerfest in New York City in July 2016, because The Drowning Game was nominated for a Thriller Award in the Best First Novel category. I was dazzled by even being in the same building as the biggest names in thriller writing — Lee Child, Gillian Flynn, Karin Slaughter. I was attending one of the panel discussions, and a question posed to the panelists was "What writer inspires you?" Julia Dahl, who's written bestsellers like Invisible City and Conviction — whom I'd never met — said, "LS Hawker, who's sitting right there in the front row." I almost fell out of my chair! I didn't win the award, but it's an honor just to be nominated. Isn't that what you're supposed to say?
I've heard that you make soundtracks for the books you're writing. Is music important to your process?
I started putting together playlists for my manuscripts back in 2005, because I always see my novels cinematically, and the scenes appear in my head accompanied by music. Often I'll hear a new song and it will remind me of one of my characters — not because of the lyrics but because of the way the music feels. A great example is "Every1's a Winner," by Ty Segall, which is a cover of a ’70s Hot Chocolate tune. The lyrics are silly, but Segall's blazing guitar and hollow drums remind me of my character Curt Dekker in The Throwaways, so that's his song. "Hang You From the Heavens," by the Dead Weather, with Dean Fertita's sinister guitar and Jack White's suspense-building drum licks, make me think of Stacia, so that's her song.
I work on the playlists throughout the writing and often afterwards, so listening to them keeps me in the headspace of my characters and the tone and atmosphere of the scenes — so it not only helps in the writing, but in the promoting of the books.
So what's your track list for The Throwaways?
I'm so glad you asked! I select 31 songs for each novel. Here's a link for The Throwaways. If anyone wants to see the playlists for my other books, they can visit my website. Each novel's playlist is at the bottom of its page.
Like many writers, you have a long and semi-strange work history. You got a degree in journalism, had a radio show called People Are So Stupid, and had a gig as a Kmart portrait photographer. What is it about writers and weird jobs?
I always say that looking back over my life is like looking at a road paved with Scrabble tiles that spell out "Be careful what you wish for." I believe we as writers seek out experiences like normal people seek out deals on organic produce.
Any favorite moments as a Kmart portrait photographer?
I was at a Kmart in a tiny, remote town in Idaho, and a family of sixteen came in. Not extended family. They had fourteen kids. The mother had lost her arm in an accident, and her kids spent the shoot playing with her stump. It was one of the wildest times in my life.
Okay, last question: You've said in other interviews that Kansas (where you went to college) is your spiritual homeland, but let's talk about Colorado for a moment: What is it about this state that makes you stay? How does living at a mile high feed your writing?
Colorado is (cliché alert) beautiful, no question about it. But as far as my writing goes, the writing community in this city is one of the best in the country. We have Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Pikes Peak Writers, Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Sisters in Crime — these are my people, my tribe. The support, camaraderie and learning opportunities are endless.