I’m so pleased to welcome fellow Tule author T.A. Cruz to the spotlight today. His debut thriller releases on May 4 and I can’t wait! We had an opportunity to chat and I know you’re going to be as intrigued as I am!
Raised in a small California farming town, T.A. Cruz spent his childhood honing an imagination as vast as the wheat fields stretching around him for miles. With 6 years of military service, and passport stamps from around the world, part of him will always be in that little town with a single stoplight and a population of 1500. A lifelong lover of horror, and things that go bump in the night, T.A. Cruz decided it was time to take that passion to the page to shock and terrify others for a change. He is an active member of the International Thriller Writers and is on the hunt for more groups to expand and connect with other authors that share his passion. When not diving face-first into another project, Cruz enjoys spending time with his wife, daughter, two dogs, and a pet axolotl.
N: Welcome to the blog, T.A. I’m so delighted to have you with us today. So, opening question, what comes first—characters or plot?
A: Thank you so much for having me Nan! Happy to be a part this! Now onto the opening question which is a loaded one! I’d say it depends. Sometimes you start a story with a character, sometimes you have a plot in mind and the characters develop later. With Have You Seen Sarah Baker? the plot came first. I knew the ending within a few chapters and just worked toward that finale. Some chapters were left on the cutting room floor along the way, but the plot changed very little throughout the years working on this story.
N: Your new novel, Have You Seen Sarah Baker releases on May 4. Tell us how that story came about.
A: Sarah Baker started for me with a simple idea and kind of flourished from there. A woman—mid to late twenties—shackled in a cellar, and a man, a stranger, comes down to bring his prisoner food periodically throughout the day. Doesn’t speak. Doesn’t harm her. Just silence. And it was the silence that kind of stuck with me. Who is this guy? Why did he take her? What is he planning on doing with this missing teacher? The list of questions goes on and on! It was at that point I knew if I was asking these questions, readers no doubt would be scratching their head asking the same thing. From there, I knew I had to find out as well.
N: What is the most surprising thing you discovered about yourself while writing Have You Seen Sarah Baker?
A: I think I surprised myself the most by being able to tie together two separate timelines—past and present—and tying them together in a single story. Have You Seen Sarah Baker? alternates between a past and present timeline. Before she was taken to after. To quote Doc Brown from Back To The Future Two, “The results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum and destroy the universe!” After years of writing, this book was the most challenging one when it came to making sure everything lined up from the plot to character development to climax. You open yourself up to make substantial plot hole errors, and when you make a change in one timeline it can seriously affect the other. It was the hardest and most rewarding project I’ve worked on to date.
N: I got to read an ARC of your book and found it enthralling and un-put-downable. I’d love for you to speak to writing suspense? How do you create the twists and turns like the ones that happen in Have You Seen Sarah Baker?
A: It’s difficult yet easy to answer. I took a step back and tried to imagine myself as the reader. Who would be my first guess? Who would I think was the villain of this story? Then I decided to run with those two thoughts. One of the most important things when it comes to thrillers though, the thing that keeps those pages turning… Cliffhangers. Cliffhangers. CLIFFHANGERS. Whether you were watching shows on basic cable back in the day or living in the streaming service age, they all got your attention with one thing. Cliffhangers. Something to keep them turning the page or ignoring the “are you still watching” popup we all skip over when one episode just wasn’t enough.
N: Give me three words to describe your heroine Sarah Baker and three to describe your hero Jeffrey Mills.
A: For Sarah Baker, I’d choose broken, desperate, and surviving. For Sheriff Jeffrey Mills, I’d say rough-neck, regretful, and lost. Both of these characters each have their own demons, and something has turned them into the people you meet throughout the story. No one is perfect, after all. Sarah Baker and Jeffrey Mills are far from it.
N: What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
A: My biggest hope is that the readers are left with a satisfying ending. It’s not going to be happy, and you will leave with questions or wanting more. It might be heartbreaking for some, but believe me when I say it had to happen this way, and I would rewrite this story a hundred times over and end it the same way every time.
N: What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
A: Writing is a difficult beast. To take elements from your head and translate them to paper in the form of a readable story, no less, is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But it can be fun to force yourself into the lives (some are better than others) of characters you create from nothing. The hardest part about writing to me lately, is finding the time to do it. But when you have a thousand different character’s voices talking in your head nonstop, you have no choice but to get it on paper.
N: In your life, you’ve served in the military and traveled extensively. How do those experiences influence your writing.
A: Throughout my tenure in the military and travels, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people from different walks of life. You pick up on a lot. Accents. Facial expressions. How someone might gnaw on their cheek whenever they’re deep in thought. I think this helped me the most with creating realistic characters the reader could reach out and touch while only a few chapters deep. I aim to have every character in my novels feel like someone you’d pass by on the street or have a conversation with at the local coffee shop. You can have the most amazing plot ever, but if the reader isn’t invested in your characters, why are they going to care about this amazing plot?
N: Writing can be an emotional, stressful pursuit. Any tips for aspiring writers?
A: Writing is one of the most rewarding things I think I have ever done. It is also one of the most time-consuming, headache-inducing, mentally frustrating things I’ve ever done. My biggest piece of advice to new authors is to read and write. When you read you’re going to learn tools to help your write without pause. When you’re writing … Keep going! Perform that symphony-worthy crescendo on whatever device you’re using. Hell, I wrote my first published novel on an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard. Just write. Write until your fingers ache. I think the best piece of advice I was ever given in the early stages of my first novel was, “No matter what, just finish it. Finish the book.” This has stuck with me throughout a lot of projects, and if you’re reading this, Noah, thank you!
N: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I had my fair share of ambitions as a kid. Professional skateboarder. Animator. Rockstar. The list goes on. Surprisingly enough, author was never on that list. I just stumbled into it I guess. A dream I had just wouldn’t stop playing on repeat in my head, and once I wrote it down, I was hooked. To make something from nothing feel real, to draw emotions out of whoever reads it, wow, it’s a great feeling.
N: Favorite book when you were a kid?
A: Harry Potter, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and Goosebumps are the ones that stick out the most. A little magic. A little horror. A little fun. A little creepy.
N: And here is my signature question that everyone loves: If you could choose three people, living or dead, to invite to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
A: Stephen King would be the first. Oh, how I would love to pick the suspense master’s brain. He is undoubtedly one of the best authors of our time, and I could definitely see myself asking him questions until the sun comes up. Gillian Flynn would be a very close second. I don’t know how she does it, but her mind works in such a tremendous way, and to have a conversation with her, even over dinner, would be amazing. Last and certainly not least by any means, one of the horror greats, John Carpenter. Halloween is one of the movies that terrified me as a child, and that fear eventually made me fall in love with the genre.
Thank you so much for having me, Nan. This was a lot of fun!
Have You Seen Sarah Baker?
For five years, high school English teacher Sarah Baker has helplessly watched her marriage become emptier than the bed she crawls into alone each night. But a divorce would leave her in financial ruin, so she stays shackled to the husband who left his vows at the altar.
Then Sarah discovers an escape and takes the ultimate risk, only to find herself chained again—this time in the basement of a remote cabin.
When a grisly teen murder rocks his quiet northwestern town, rough-around-the-edges Sheriff Jeffrey Mills has his hands full identifying the body while facing the mounting pressure of tracking down the missing high school teacher the community is determined to find. In the blink of an eye, a heart attack sidelines him during the search, and Mills faces an impossible choice: skirt the law and lose his one chance for redemption or leave Sarah Baker to her fate.
But one thing is clear: they’re both running out of time.
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