What Scares You, Helen Rye?

Fun fact: Helen and I were twins in another life. Now in this life we are almost-sisters. I’ve only known her for about three years, but she’s one of my favorite people in the world and she’s a kick-ass writer. Too bad there’s an entire ocean between us, keeping us from hanging out in pubs every night and singing karaoke. However, I’m convinced one day we’ll be old and retired and sitting on a porch drinking lemonade spiked with gin and laughing about nothing at all.

Enough sentimentality, though. Let’s get to the terrifying shit.

What is your greatest fear?

I have one or two people I just can’t imagine life without and I’m no-filters terrified of something happening to them. I’m never far removed from the raw, existential sense of all of us as a bunch of small, soft animals clinging onto the surface of a rock, alone in infinite space. I don’t really understand how we’re supposed to live day to day with the knowledge that everyone we love is going to die. This makes me a LOT of fun at parties.

But seriously, it’s a scary old life, and I think the ability to forget this has never been hardwired into me in quite the same way it seems to be for some people. I suspect this proximity to mortality and the baffling, shooting-star fragility of life is one of the things that makes us write. I know if I said this sort of thing in a pub, most people would suddenly recognize someone they knew on the other side of the bar and not come back, but writers would nod in silent recognition and get another bottle of bourbon for the table. And then we’d all get really drunk together and do karaoke and have a rare old time. Because there’s nothing like an awareness of the ephemeral nature of everything you care about to make you want to really live, while you’re here.

Anyway, in practice this translates to me worrying horribly when someone I love has a health scare and doing reassuring things like crying when they tell me stuff because I can’t bear to think of them being really sick. And writing stories about apocalypses and singing in the darkness at the edge of the world. It feels like the pandemic has kind of brought everyone else to where I am, in terms of trying to work out how to live alongside this inescapable awareness of death, and suddenly everyone’s writing about how fragile everything is. I’m a bit Get your tanks off my lawn about it, honestly.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

I grew up on a ‘70s TV diet of action movies and the Dukes of Hazard. Every TV car crash I’d ever seen ended up with the car blowing up in a spectacular fireball, so when I was nine and the car we were travelling to our holiday in suddenly lost its steering, flipped over and over and landed on its roof in a field, I knew exactly what to expect. I remember the interior of the car spinning around us like we were in a washing machine, and then the next thing I knew I was standing on the other side of the field with my little brother shoved protectively behind me, waiting for the explosion and the blooming cloud of flame. Of course, nothing happened. It was a solid, ancient Volvo estate; everyone was fine, even the dog (who I’d forgotten about, and who was in the boot with a load of deadly projectiles in the form of camping gear and food cans). I was the only one to execute that classic run and dive into a protective hedge I’d seen modelled so many times. So the scariest part of the whole experience never actually transpired, which you’d think would be a lesson in not being scared of things that might not happen. It was pretty freaky, though.

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What Scares You, Donna Andrews?

Thrilled to welcome the great Donna Andrews to What Scares You on this icy, chilly, spooky February day. Donna’s award-winning Meg Langslow series has given her loyal, dedicated fans. I especially appreciate the bird puns in each title, and fun fact: my son Dash actually helped her name one of her Christmas books: Owl Be Home for Christmas. What scares the pants off Donna, you ask? Well, read on to find out…

What is your greatest fear?

I think for most of us the greatest fear is, ultimately, the fear of death. Which is unavoidable . . . but we all deal with it by channeling it into lesser fears, fears of things that can be avoided. If you’re afraid of heights, confined spaces, crowds, rabid beasts, clowns, zombies, penguins—you can at least try to avoid them.

What are your phobias?

I think my biggest one is claustrophobia, with a generous side order of acrophobia. Which is what makes my experience with caving so peculiar. Some of my friends used to go caving quite often, and the very thought of it both terrified and intrigued me. It took me quite a while to get up the nerve to even ask if they’d take me, preferably to a really easy cave that they were thoroughly familiar with. When we got there, we all half-walked, half-slid down a gravel-covered slope, rather like an amphitheater, to a hole in the side of a cliff. So far, so good. But the actual cave opening—I pictured a rough-hewn archway. Okay, there it was. Check. And some rough-hewn rooms. Check. But the entrance to the main body of the cave was just a hole in the ground, like something a large mole could have dug. I panicked. Somehow I levitated to the top of the gravel-covered slope—I really don’t remember climbing up—and stood there, trembling, telling them not to wait for me.

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What Scares You, Kristopher Zgorski?

Kris Zgorski is truly a gift to the crime fiction writing community. I’ve discovered many of my favorite crime writers by reading Kris’s reviews at BOLO Books. He has a distinct talent of getting to the heart of every book he reads, making his reviews works of art in and of themselves.

Since he reads and watches so much crime, horror, and mystery, is there anything left that can truly scare him?

Why, yes. There is.

Read on to find out what…

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

I have a distinct memory of being put to bed one night as a young child and for whatever reason, being conscious of my heartbeat. As I started to drift off to sleep, I could sense that it was slowing down. Of course, it turns out this is perfectly normal and expected, but my young brain was not aware of this, and I became convinced I was dying. I believe this was the beginnings of the mildly hypochondriac side of myself.

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What Scares You, Kellye Garrett?

I’m excited to end the year of fear with my agent sibling Kellye Garrett. Kellye’s won or been nominated for nearly every major crime fiction award out there, and for good reason. Her books are funny and smart, so I was curious about her dark side. I wanted to find out what really freaked her out. This interview does not disappoint!

What is your greatest fear?


Fear of failure. It’s the reason it took me thirty years to write my first novel.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I didn’t until my Dad unexpectedly passed away the day before Easter 2018. If you use Snapchat you know that it will put filters on two people in a frame. I had Snapchat up because my niece and nephew love the filters. I was the only one in the frame, but Snapchat put a filter on me and the empty space next to me. A week or two later, I was lying in bed with my computer open next to me just super depressed trying to figure out everything in regards to his funeral. Wrapping up someone’s entire life is not an easy thing. I put my head down and when I brought it back up, a picture of my Dad had opened itself on my laptop and was smiling at me. So I truly believe that my Dad was sticking around right after he died to make sure we were okay.

Another reason is that we noticed my niece and nephew would randomly have glitter on them when they were babies. And the joke became that someone from heaven came to visit them. I will very randomly have glitter on me after major events—both good and bad—and I see it as a sign that one of my ancestors is reminding me they have my back.

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What Scares You, John Copenhaver?

I’m so excited to welcome one of my very dearest friends to the site today. John and I met a very long time ago in grad school at George Mason University and became insta-friends. It helped that we admired each other’s writing and that we each had a love for creepy things. Our writing styles are very different, but we did take a somewhat similar path by both starting out in a very literary MFA program and then veering back to our childhood love of crime and mystery.

John’s debut, Dodging and Burning, is excellent and was nominated for nearly all the awards for a good reason. John himself is pretty excellent, too. Read on for more about his deepest, darkest fears.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

When I was a child, I was obsessed with the paranormal. I lost my father to lung cancer when I was eight, so you’d think that was the reason, but I have memories of being enthralled with ghosts well before his death or the onset of his illness. Fascination with the unknown—that morbid curiosity—has always been with me. I remember seeing ghosts as a kid. I’m certain now that I summoned them from my imagination after hours of staring at the Time-Life books series Mysteries of the Unknown, but what scares me is that, as a child, I really thought I saw a black shadow gathering density and shifting in the corner of my bedroom, or an old decaying farmer walk into my room and sit on my legs in the middle of the night. I mean, I just imagined it, right?

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What Scares You, Colleen Kearney Rich?

I’ve known Colleen for almost half my life (NOW THAT’S SCARY, COLLEEN!) and I never heard her tell the ghost story below. It gave me shivers. I love her stories because they always incorporate some element of ghostly encounters or verge just on the edge of something creepy, something terrible. We also have a mutual obsession with Bunnyman Bridge, and she was the first person to ever drive me there to see it. So excited to have her chat with me on Friday the 13th about what scares her.

What is your greatest fear?

Not being as interesting as some of the people you’ve already interviewed. Just kidding. I have a real problem with heights, and it translates into other terrors like bridges you can see through as you are driving over them. Why would someone make something like that? And really steep escalator stairs like with the Washington, D.C., Metro. I’m pretty sure the Dupont Circle stop is a hellmouth. Can’t do it. Nope.

Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

Of course, but I don’t know why. It just makes sense to me on some level. Whether there is life after death is a theme in some of my work. I want to believe that there is more than to this experience than we are capable of seeing and sensing. If there aren’t ghosts, I’ve had experiences that are difficult to explain.

What is your favorite urban legend?

I grew up in Philadelphia, and I can remember my grandparents teasing us kids about the Jersey Devil. But I could never really picture him/it, and I guess I felt safe being on the other side of the river from New Jersey.

Bunnyman Bridge

Here in Virginia, near where I live, we have the Bunnyman. The Bunnyman legend has never really scared me, but those dark country roads are always creepy. It is a good story with violence, an escaped criminally insane person, and a spooky wooded area where there is this strange little bridge that is nicknamed the Bunnyman Bridge. There is some basis for the legend—a hachet was thrown and the attacker described as wearing a bunny suit. It is fun to see the legend get picked up by various podcasts and other shows, and it is interesting to see how the legend gets retold and embellished. It is a source of inspiration. I have written a story about Bunnyman Bridge that is forthcoming from Heavy Feather Review.

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What Scares You, J.J. Hensley?

I have definitely regretted becoming friends on social media with some people. People who in real life I might’ve enjoyed or found pleasant, but who turn into utter ugly monsters when you see their news feeds.

But then every once in awhile you find those people who you like way more after becoming friends with them on social media. Enter J.J. Hensley! I love his posts, which always feel well thought-out, interesting, and honest. He also has a fascinating background, which you’ll find more about as you read below, and this informs a lot of his fiction and his opinions.

His newest book, The Better of the Bad, is the fourth book in his Trevor Galloway series, was released just this month, so click on over and get it now.

I’m honored to have him here, on this my favorite day of the year and my birthday, to talk more about what scares him.

What is your greatest fear?

I’m a parent, so that’s an easy one for me. It’s a combination of something horrible happening to my child along with a healthy dose of me not being there when I’m needed. I’ve always had a strong, and often illogical, guilt complex when it comes to not being present when something tragic is happening and I think I could have helped. I was a Secret Service Agent taking a training class about 12 miles away from the Pentagon when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and I’m still bothered that I wasn’t able to do anything to help. When the attack occurred, I was sent back to my field office and later deployed to the White House, but never got to assist those at the Pentagon because there were more than enough first responders at the scene. I wasn’t needed and would have just made matters worse by being in the way, but it still grinds on me. So amplify my weird compulsion by a million if my family was to be in trouble with me not being able to help and then you can imagine my fear level.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

When I was six or seven years old, I saw An American Werewolf in London on HBO. I know that film is categorized as a horror-comedy, but my little brain didn’t find ANYTHING funny about that movie! Also, there was a movie called Dreamscape starring Dennis Quaid. In that film there was a snake man that scared the bejesus out of me. I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m still scared of snakes to this day, but that’s another story.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

It’s odd, because I was a fairly timid kid and, although I’d played sports, I certainly didn’t like any sort of violent physical contact. I was pretty sure I was going to go into law enforcement by the time I was in college, so I forced myself to take a judo class. Then, after graduation, I went into a police academy in Virginia, where there was plenty of violent physical contact. After a few years of working the street, I joined the Secret Service, and it was literally my job to be a human shield. Although I’m out of that particular line of work now, and I still dislike getting hit or shoved, I keep challenging myself with Krav Maga and other pursuits in order to not let the old fears get the best of me.

What is your weirdest fear?

I wouldn’t call it a fear, but I’m weirdly uncomfortable anywhere where the land is really flat. I’m much more at home where there are rolling hills or mountains. Even when I was with the Secret Service, I’d take off from Virginia or Maryland and be fine, but then I’d land in Iowa or Missouri and feel completely out of my element. It really bothered me. Now, keep in mind I currently live in Coastal Georgia where you can see for miles around, so I’m pretty much on edge most of the time.

What is your favorite urban legend?

In my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, there is a story many people swear by. Several drivers have encountered this mysterious form on rainy nights going up or down 5th Street hill. Drivers have reported seeing a woman in a white wedding dress walking up the steep incline, where no pedestrian should be. Whenever the driver stops or unrolls a window to ask if she’s okay, the woman just keeps crying uncontrollably. The driver inevitably looks away to call 9-1-1 or loses sight of her in the driving rain and then when he or she looks back… the lady in the wedding dress is gone.

“Drivers see a woman in a wedding dress walking where no pedestrian should be. When they look away to call 9-1-1, the lady is gone.”

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

My only recurring nightmare is one where I’m confronted by an armed suspect and he’s raising a shotgun at me. I have my gun out and I’m trying to pull the trigger, but my finger is frozen. No matter how hard I try to will it to move, it’s locked. The dream ends with the shotgun blast.

What is your favorite villain?

My favorite villain is Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I’m always drawn to villains who are portrayed as human and relatable. Raskolnikov is all of us who can be driven by desperation and then weighed down by a conscience. In fact, he’s what most of our hero protagonists should be, and some would say he is the hero of the novel, which is also correct. The best villains are actually a roll of the dice or a flip of the coin away from being the true hero of most stories.

What’s worse: being haunted by a demon or having a stalker?

Oh, give me a stalker any day. I might be flattered by having a stalker, but I get the feeling demons aren’t that discriminating.

You are renting a remote house with a few close friends when all the electricity cuts out. Are you the friend who goes down to the basement to check on the situation? If not, what do you do when someone else does, and you hear them calling your name from that dark basement? (Assume your cell phones don’t work out there in the remote wilderness.)

Oh, I’m definitely the person who would head down to the basement without regard to my own safety. Of course, if the electrical issue turned out to be anything more than flipping a switch on the circuit breaker then I would have to yell for someone else to come help me because I’m less than useless with most home repair matters. So, put that on my list of fears — electrocuting, disabling, drowning or maiming myself via home maintenance — because any of those are a solid possibility.

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He is the author of the novels Resolve (named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine and a Thriller Award finalist for Best First Novel), Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, Bolt Action Remedy, Record Scratch, Forgiveness Dies, and The Better of the Bad.  He resides near Savannah, Georgia. He can be found at www.hensley-books.comwww.facebook.com/hensleybooks, and on Twitter at  JJHensleyauthor. He blogs at Yinz to Y’all

Boucheron 2020–Virtual and spectacular!

The Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was supposed to be in Sacramento, California, this year. I should be on a plane right now, in fact, flying home with a suitcase full of books (and a mild hangover).

Instead, Bouchercon came to our living room this year. Great panels and interviews, and a live Anthony Awards celebration. Thanks so much to all the committee members for their incredible work transitioning to a virtual conference and making it special for all involved.

One Night Gone was a finalist for the Macavity Award and the Anthony Award for Best First Mystery, and I’m thrilled to say it won BOTH AWARDS! I had to give the Anthony acceptance speech live, and I was incredibly nervous, so I forget everything I said but hopefully something nice was said in there somewhere. I’m still in shock, honestly. My fellow nominees for both awards–Angie Kim, Tori Eldridge, Samantha Downing, J.P. Pomare, Lauren Wilkinson, John Vercher–wrote some of the best books last year. Read them all.

It was also a delight to discuss research with my fellow panelists Terry Shames (moderator), Cara Black, Ann Parker, David Schlosser, and Linda Townsdin.

My awesome research panel at Bouchercon 2020!

Thank you to everyone who read One Night Gone, reviewed it, emailed me pictures of it in Target, and did anything at all to support the book, big or small. It is much appreciated, and a very bright light in this otherwise dim, scary year.

What Scares You, Layne Fargo?

Today I welcome Layne Fargo, writer of bad-ass scary novels, to talk all about her fears. Layne’s latest novel, They Never Learn–AVAILABLE TODAY–features a female serial killer and English professor. I mean, really, you’re clicking through and buying this right now, right?

And after you’ve bought it, come on over here and read more about Layne’s most favorite scary things.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

My fear of snakes—though I’m not sure I’ve overcome it so much as learned to manage it. I used to be so afraid of snakes, I’d have a full-on panic attack if I even saw a picture of one. When I was in college, I sought therapy for this, which helped some—but after that I sort of did my own therapy, which involved forcing myself to read books about snakes and watch movies with snakes in them, then working my way up to going to the reptile house at the zoo and even touching a snake (held by a zookeeper with its creepy little head turned away from me!).

Over the years I’ve adopted the snake as a symbol in my life: of my ambition (yes, I am a Slytherin) and my willingness to face my fears head-on. I own lots of snake-shaped jewelry, and I even have a tattoo of a snake wrapped around my right ankle. I’d still run away screaming if I saw a snake, like, crawling across the ground in front of me, but the fear no longer controls me.

How do you deal with fear?

I tend to get curious, because your fears can tell you so much about yourself. Sometimes fear is your intuition warning you away from something that’s not right for you or even actively dangerous. But other times it can be like a glaring neon sign pointing you to what you really want in life. Especially in my writing career, I’ve found that if something—a project or an event or an opportunity—scares the crap out of me, it’s a sign that I care a lot about it, and I have to find a way to push through the fear and go after it.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The actual writing! I hate drafting; the blank page makes me freeze in terror. I love revising, but unfortunately you have to write first in order to have something to revise. I’ve developed all these tricks to make the first draft process feel more like revising so I can get through it, like brain-dumping a stream-of-consciousness version of each scene first or writing in script format (just dialogue and action). Anything to avoid the dreaded blank page!

What is your favorite monster or villain?

I’m not sure I have a #1 favorite, but Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body is up there. I can’t get enough of female villains who thoroughly enjoy doing bad things and don’t feel guilty at all. Jennifer’s Body was a huge source of inspiration for my new book They Never Learn, which features a similarly remorseless female villain who enjoys killing boys (and men).

“I used to be so afraid of snakes, I’d have a full-on panic attack if I even saw a picture of one.”

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?

I know I was just talking about how I’ve moved past my snake fear, but the baby snake scene in Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark will haunt me for the rest of my days. It starts with a character finding a baby snake in his coffee cup, and I had the misfortune to be drinking coffee when I read it. I may never recover.

In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?

I would be screwed in just about any post-apocalyptic scenario. I have no survival skills whatsoever, unless making kickass spreadsheets counts. But of these, I think I’d have the best shot in The Stand. I’m good at finding efficient ways to do things with limited resources, and I don’t mind being alone for long periods of time, so a world with only a few people in it doesn’t sound so bad.

Layne Fargo is the author of the thrillers Temper and They Never Learn. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, vice president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the co-creator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

What Scares You, Rachel Howzell Hall?

I loved Rachel Howzell Hall’s novel They All Fall Down. It was a wicked novel, vicious and funny and super fun, and twisty in all the right places. None of the characters were noble people, and yet they were delightful to read about.

Rachel’s newest, out just this month, has already gotten such great buzz, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. (Not literally.)

Here’s more about And Now She’s Gone: Isabel Lincoln is gone. But is she missing? It’s up to Grayson Sykes to find her. Although she is reluctant to track down a woman who may not want to be found, Gray’s search for Isabel Lincoln becomes more complicated and dangerous with every new revelation about the woman’s secrets and the truth she’s hidden from her friends and family. Featuring two complicated women in a dangerous cat and mouse game, Rachel Howzell Hall’s And Now She’s Gone explores the nature of secrets — and how violence and fear can lead you to abandon everything in order to survive.

Lucky for us, Rachel has agreed to talk more about fear right here. Let’s see what keeps her up at night.

How do you deal with fear?

I write to deal with fear. Before I knew that I could write, when I was a kid, I would sleep. Just close my eyes, say a prayer, and hope that It would be over in the morning. I would seek out books to disappear and not deal with my fears, but then I wanted to write my own stories. As an adult, I deal better with some fears than others. As I was going through cancer treatment while also being pregnant, I faced my fears head-on. I was scared that I would die because the papers that I signed before each surgery told me that it was possible. Again, my faith and writing kept me sane. I cried, though, and I turned to my family for support. In those moments, I listen to gospel music—there are some songs today that bring a visceral reaction because I remember playing them over and over again from 2003 to 2008.

What is your greatest fear?

Dying – I’ve faced that possibility, and while that scares me, that isn’t my biggest fear. I fear leaving my daughter before I can teach her how to deal with love and heartache, college and parties, marriage and babies, jobs and racism and sexism. I want to be there for her in every life challenge and life celebration. I don’t ever want her to feel lost and alone. We started our journey together in such a treacherous moment, and I fought for her to be here with me. The thought of not being here for her wrecks me more than anything.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I don’t, but you won’t get me to say “Bloody Mary” three times in a dark bathroom while standing in front of a mirror. Also, I don’t believe for religious reasons as well. I do appreciate the creative metaphors for ghosts, and I do believe our ancestors are with us in everything we do—but I don’t believe that in a literal sense. I believe there are demons and angels, most definitely, but humans who have left us and are moving among us? No.

“There are creatures in the sea, big creatures, creatures with big teeth or long stinging tentacles.”

What scares you most about the writing process?

Every time I start a new story, I worry that my idea isn’t big enough, twisty enough. I know it will be interesting, but for me only or for a larger audience? I’m scared that the words won’t come or that the words will be wrong. That I won’t have the energy because I’m only getting older. That I won’t be able to deliver. I worry that I will listen to critics of my work as I write and that I’ll do more of those things they’ve dinged me on, no matter how ridiculous. It’s weird—before I start a new story, I go on a shopping trip to Office Depot or Staples and buy new pens, pads, stickies, all of that cool stuff, and I’m excited about it. But after the high of office supplies wears off, dread settles in, and it stays with me until the second draft. Once I know that my story is sound, that my story is actually a story, I relax into the process. That doesn’t mean that I’m confident. Just that I have something to make better.

In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?

Ha. So right now, we’re… not in a post-apocalyptic scenario? You’re shitting me. Umm… one thing my oncologists always said to me was that sure, my body kept creating these cancerous tumors, but I heal really quickly. So, I’m gonna go with The Stand. I think I’m pretty resilient. But Randall Flagg….

Maybe The Last Policeman. Can I change my mind? Ha.

What’s worse: being stranded at sea or lost in a desert?

Being stranded at sea. For one, I can’t swim. Two, there are creatures in the sea, big creatures, creatures with big teeth or long stinging tentacles. And it’s deep—there are parts of the sea we haven’t reached.  At least in the desert, I have my legs. And there are clumps of unexpected civilization. Maybe a rainstorm will dump water to drink. Maybe I can munch on the insides of a cactus. There are “maybes” with the desert.

Rachel Howzell Hall, author of the bestseller and Anthony Award-, Lefty Award- and ITW-award nominated They All Fall Down (Forge), writes the acclaimed Lou Norton series, including Land of ShadowsSkies of AshTrail of Echoes, and City of Saviors. She is also the co-author of The Good Sister with James Patterson, which was included in the New York Times bestseller The Family Lawyer. She is currently on the board of directors for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is a Pitch Wars mentor for 2020. She lives in Los Angeles. Her newest novel And Now She’s Gone waspublished in September 2020. You can find her at www.rachelhowzell.com and on Twitter @RachelHowzell.