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Interview: January 28, 2011

An ex-marketing whiz and a Southern girl at heart, Mary Burton is the critically acclaimed author of SENSELESS, a romantic suspense that follows homicide detective Deacon Garrison and the ill-fated Eva Rayburn, a mysterious woman who was implicated in a death at her sorority, only to find her hometown ravaged by murder 10 years later --- and every victim is linked to her. In this interview with’s Donna Volkennant, Burton talks about the strange things --- and weird phrases --- that sparked her novel, elaborating on how she manages to create such riveting characters and why she chose Alexandria as a setting. She also reveals how she unwinds after writing about dark and sensitive subjects, speculates on the similarities between baking and being an author, and gives readers a few hints about what they can expect in MERCILESS, the insta-sequel to SENSELESS that is now in stores. SENSELESS, your latest romantic suspense novel, connects “The Sorority House Murder,” a death that occurred on a college campus 10 years ago, with a series of tortures and murders now taking place around Alexandria, Virginia. What sparked your imagination to write this book?

Mary Burton: There were a couple of fragments that came together to get SENSELESS brewing in my head. The first was a branding iron my mom bought at an antique shop when I was a kid. It was strictly decorative, and the end was shaped into a swirling W. (Which makes no sense because our last name started with T.) Anyway, that branding iron sat on our fireplace for decades, until Mom moved and gave it away. For some reason, I remembered the branding iron, and it just got me to thinking.

Next came the phrase “Eyes Forward.” I don’t even know where I heard it, but when it came to mind, it encapsulated the philosophy of my heroine, Eva. She is a woman who has had a tough time in her young life, and she has every reason to be bitter and give up. But she never dwells on the past, and her thoughts are only for the future.

One thing I’ve discovered is that there is never any one big spark that gets a book going for me. My stories come to me in dozens and dozens of little pieces that I knit together.

BRC: Eva Rayburn, your female protagonist, is a 27-year-old who was recently released from prison after serving 10 years for manslaughter. Detective Deacon Garrison is an Air Force veteran, a widower and a homicide detective that’s been assigned to a case involving arson and murder, which implicates Eva. Both characters leap from the pages. What techniques do you use to create such believable and fascinating characters?

MB: When I first started writing years ago, I wanted my characters to be happy, and I didn’t want them to suffer. They controlled their tempers. They never made bad decisions, and they were generally very reasonable people. They would have made great next-door neighbors, but unfortunately they made terrible story characters. I realized very quickly that the interesting characters are the ones who are not perfect. Yes, they can be kind, smart and caring, but they are also willing to fight, lose their temper and, sometimes, even make unwise decisions.

No character should be completely good or bad. I will always work to find something that isn’t positive about a hero or heroine and something that is positive about the villain. It is a character’s flaws as much as their strengths that make them interesting.

BRC: The book takes place in and around Alexandria, Virginia, a city you describe as having “history, prosperity and poverty.” Why did you pick this particular area as the setting?

MB: I used to live in Alexandria years ago and fell in love with the place. Alexandria is a great blend of past, present and future. Originally a seaport built on the banks of the Potomac River, it was a thriving center of commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries. What is now called Old Town was the city center in those days, and it is still a charming place, filled with Old World charm and bustling business. Alexandria is also just across the river from Washington, D.C. and less than an hour from the Shenandoah Valley and the state capital. It had the right blend of past and present, as well as grit and polish, to make it a great location.

BRC: You touch on a number of social issues in this novel --- homelessness, foster care, suicide, rape, mental illness and murder --- and deftly weave them into your story line. How do you wind down after writing about such dark and sensitive topics?

MB: I either bake, take a yoga class, or walk my miniature dachshunds. The best way to put a difficult scene aside is to just to get up from the computer and focus on the positive.

BRC: The crime scene description and police procedures here are specific and believable. How do you research the details that make them so realistic?

MB: I started off pouring through lots and lots of books on forensics, crime scene investigation, DNA and police procedure. Then I signed up for my local citizens’ police academy. It was a 12-week course that covered everything from driver safety to homicides. I got to do a ride along with an officer, fire on the firing range and drive a police car. I’ve also attended several conferences that were designed to teach writers about police procedure. I’ve attended Sisters in Crime’s Forensics University in St. Louis, the Mad Anthony conference in Hamilton, Ohio and, most recently, the Writers Police Academy in Jamestown, NC. These conferences give me the chance to listen to presentations made by law enforcement professionals and ask them questions that I otherwise might not be able to answer in a book.

BRC: SENSELESS has strong and compelling heroes and ruthless villains. Which do you find more challenging to write about --- the heroes or the villains?

MB: That’s tough because they both come with their own set of challenges. I don’t want the heroes to be too good or the villains to be too bad. Each bad guy and each good guy I write about believes that what they are doing is right. Each believes they are justified, and each believes they are good.

BRC: You do a great job conveying the mindsets of the mentally ill, an ex-convict, people touched by grief and victims who are recovering from violent crimes. How do you balance the right amount of introspection and description with the action that’s needed to keep the story moving?

MB: It’s really a feeling --- kinda like when you know you’ve kneaded the dough enough. One trick I learned is to print the entire book out and put it in a binder. I get away from my desk and then read the book as a reader and not a writer. If I find that I’m starting to skim, chances are my reader will do the same as well, so I make cuts. As long as I’m on the edge of my seat and feeling the tension, I know I’m hitting the right notes.

BRC: You have a website, a blog and a newsletter. I especially like your blog, which gives a personal glimpse into your writing life. How has having an Internet presence affected the way you interact with your fans?

MB: I’m finding that readers rarely write me letters. Some will email me through my website, but many will now go straight to my fan page on Facebook or Twitter and jot me a quick note. I love this format because I can get right back to them. I’m feeling connected to my readers now more than ever.

BRC: When you’re not writing, one of your pastimes is baking. How are writing and baking similar?

MB: Both are creative processes. Just as I take an archetype and build a character, I take basic baking techniques and create recipes that I enjoy. What I also love about baking is that it keeps the creative side of my brain firing while I’m away from the computer. It’s amazing how many plot tangles and questions I’ve unknotted while mixing batter or kneading dough.

BRC: What can you tell us about MERCILESS, the “insta-sequel” to SENSELESS? What led to the decision to release both books less than a month apart?

MB: MERCILESS features homicide detective Malcolm Kier and defense attorney Angie Carlson. I first introduced Malcolm in I’M WATCHING YOU, and then we meet him again in SENSELESS. Angie also appears in SENSELESS. Both Angie and Malcolm were strong characters, and I just felt there was so much more to say about them. When my editor suggested two books back to back, it felt natural to plot the second book with Angie and Malcolm in mind.

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