Author Interview — Dawn Lee McKenna
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Welcome to the second installment in my author interview series, where I ask authors the tough (and fun) questions and dive into their writing processes and motivations, while gaining bits of wisdom they have for aspiring writers.
I'm excited to include on this list best-selling suspense writer, Dawn Lee McKenna. I was fortunate enough to steal some of her time on a cruise I recently attended, and I learned that not only is she a wonderful writer of Southern books, but also a great Southern lady with a big heart, who makes friends at each turn of a corner.
After reading this interview and getting to know a bit about Dawn Lee McKenna, take some time to get to know her characters who are "damaged but strong, deeply funny, and all the more beautiful because of their flaws."
You won't be disappointed.
— Sarah Flores
Dawn Lee McKenna, author of the best-selling Forgotten Coast Florida and Still Waters suspense series, and the Southern fiction novels See You and The Cricket Jar.
SF: How did publishing your first book change your writing process?
DLM: I don’t think it did, except to make me write more often, more consistently, because I knew it was actually going somewhere.
SF: What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
DLM: Without hesitation, The Last of How It Was by T.R. Pearson. I remember reading it for the first time in the 1980s. It was so remarkable, and so incredibly funny, that I kept trying to read passages aloud to my mother, but I would start laughing and crying so hard that I couldn’t do it.
The entire book is essentially a grandmother, a grandfather, and a great aunt telling a story to a young boy or young man. Incredibly, Pearson manages to write it as though it were being told orally, and it’s an amazing feat. I’ve never seen anyone else manage it, and it’s honestly so funny that you’ll hurt from laughing.
It's one of my two favorite Southern books, the other being Cold Mountain, because why wouldn’t it be?
SF: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
DLM: Start indie publishing in 2011, not 2014.
SF: As a writer, you have a gift for touching the hearts and souls of readers. Why do you believe some people are given this ability?
DLM: That’s kind of like the positive version of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
My books do seem to touch readers on a very personal level, and I think that’s because of the characters. So many reviews mention that the characters become family. But I don’t feel like I created those characters, so I also don’t like to take credit for that. To my mind, I am somehow introduced to these characters, and then I write about them. (Cue crazy lady music.)
As far as other people having that gift, I think that God uses books and movies and music quite often to encourage and lift people, to inspire them, to comfort them, to make them feel less alone. And so, He does give that gift to some writers so that they can be used in that way, and it doesn’t have to be through Christian books and music alone.
All of my books have some element of faith in them, and they’re all pretty clean, but they’re not Christian or inspirational books. Neither are some of the books that have inspired or encouraged me, although I am a Christian.
SF: Are any of the characters in your novels based on real people?
DLM: Quite a few real people appear in the Forgotten Coast series, and I use their real names. They love it now when readers visit Apalach and ask for a picture or their autographs. But they’re wonderful characters in life, and they make wonderful characters in the books.
In my first novel, See You, I use my real grandmother, and the premise was actually born from my last day with my father. In the Still Waters series, one of the most popular characters is the sheriff’s assistant, Vi Hartigan, who is based almost wholly on my late aunt, Vi Hartigan.
SF: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
DLM: Most of my books require little research. I did do a lot of research on weapons and procedures for the Forgotten Coast series, and John Solomon, who is a character in the series and retired from the sheriff’s office, was incredibly helpful with that, and still is.
It’s been a long time since I lived on a boat, and my dear friend and mentor, Wayne Stinnett, answers boat questions for me.
In my new series, the Dismal, FL series, I do a lot more research. It’s set in 1973, so I often have to confirm that a certain song was on the radio in summer of 1973, or consult timelines to see what would be on the evening news when a character turns on the TV, or what show was on, and which night.
Right now, for the second book in the series, I need a lot of help with Vietnam because a handful of vets are at the heart of the plot. I asked readers who were in Vietnam to help me with military details, and they’ve been very generous and helpful.
SF: Of the towns in the South you love writing about, is there one you most connect with?
DLM: That would have to be Apalachicola, FL, since it has become my second hometown. Port St. Joe is the only other real town in my books. Two others, one in FL and one in AL, were conjured from my imagination, though Dismal, FL is kind of a patchwork of towns I grew up in or near.
SF: Is there a particular type of character that often finds a home in your novels?
DLM: Hm. Witty people show up a lot. People with a dry sense of humor. I think guilt is a theme in my books, and several characters, like Maggie Redmond and Bennett Boudreaux in the Forgotten Coast series, wrestle with guilt. That’s definitely a case of my life spilling over into my characters’ lives.
SF: What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a writer?
DLM: Read really good books, and then really think about why you feel they’re good. Then use them to inspire you to become good at those elements.
And definitely go indie. Don’t wait thirty years to be discovered by trad pub. Indie publishing is a lot more mainstream than it used to be, back when it was confused with vanity publishing. Going indie has allowed me to make a great deal of money by writing the way I want to write, to write the books I want to write, and to do it on my timeline.
SF: What is your most interesting writing quirk?
DLM: If you mean, in my style of writing, I guess I would say that I use humor in the middle of dark, sad, or scary scenes. If you mean my writing process, well, there’s nothing but quirks there. I am very much a creature of habit and still do some of the things I’ve been doing since I was writing screenplays on an IBM Selectric. Oh, and I have a playlist for every series or book and have to have that music to write.
SF: What books or authors have most influenced your writing?
DLM: James Lee Burke made me want to be really good at putting readers into a given place or scene. I think he’s the master of scene description, and when I read, that’s what I’m looking for. I want to be transported to a place or time. I would say he’s my greatest influence, for that reason.
About Dawn Lee McKenna
Dawn Lee McKenna is a native Floridian who moved to northeastern Tennessee in her thirties. She is the author of the Southern fiction novel See You and the bestselling Forgotten Coast Florida Suspense series. She also co-writes the spin-off series, The Still Waters Suspense series, with her friend, Axel Blackwell.
Dawn Lee is a wannabe homesteader, a coffee addict, and a flawed but functional Christian. When she's not writing, she's kicking cancer's butt, dressing the wounds from playing with her cat, and telling her five kids "I told you so."
Author Dawn Lee McKenna
Books by Dawn Lee McKenna
Check out this excerpt from her latest book, Black and White.
It was Reggie Goode, or Good Reggie Goode, as people used to call him. He was just standing there, both hands on his cane, smiling at her. He wore gray trousers with sharp creases, a white, short-sleeved shirt with a red bowtie, and a straw bowler.
“I’ll be right back,” Jennifer said as she stepped off the sidewalk.
As she crossed the street, she saw that his light brown skin was still unlined, though he had to be at least forty by now. She couldn’t see much of his short, curly hair, but what she saw was still black as night.
Reggie Goode had been sent to prison at the age of sixteen, for accidentally killing another boy in a fight. He’d hit the boy, and the boy had struck his head on the edge of a piece of broken concrete. Jennifer couldn’t remember what the fight had been about.
Reggie had become a little famous while still a prisoner, when the Chicago Tribune published one of his poems. A bigtime New York publisher published a slim volume of Reggie’s poems, and he was the darling of Civil Rights activists for a few months before the press moved on to someone else.
When Reggie had been released at the age of twenty-four, he’d come back home to live with his aging mother. When she passed shortly after, he stayed on, and frequently volunteered with Claire, writing up heartfelt fundraising letters or penning poems that sometimes made the Florida or Alabama papers. Jennifer’s mother had adored Reggie. Jonah had once wondered aloud if Reggie were actually a little in love with Claire.
Reggie was in an interesting position in Dismal. He was black, and vocal about Civil Rights and other hot social topics, but the rednecks left him alone. There were rumors that Reggie had killed an older, white man in prison when he was eighteen or nineteen. That he’d not only stabbed the man with the man’s own homemade knife, but also cut out his tongue and thrown it away.
The rumors also said he’d killed the man for making advances. Nothing had ever been proven, no one in jail admitted to knowing anything, and Reggie had never been charged. He’d also been smart enough not to deny the rumors once he got home.
His smile got wider as Jennifer stepped up onto the sidewalk. His teeth were still brilliantly white and perfectly straight.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Jenny, come home to little Dismal after all,” he said. His voice was gentle and smooth and almost aristocratic. As a kid, she’d loved the way he spoke.
“How are you, Reggie?”
“I’m quite fine, thank you,” he answered. “And how are you, my fair one?”
“I’m good, thank you,” she replied with a smile. “It’s good to see you.”
“And it’s good to see you as well, though I question the wisdom of your return.”
“I wanted to come home. This is my home.”
“It used to be, yes,” he replied. “But what is here for you to return to? Even your wonderful grandmother is gone.”
Jennifer swallowed. “Friends. The house I grew up in.”
“Yet your coming is already causing strife,” Reggie said, still smiling.
“That? That’s not my fault.”
“You come home to stir that pot that has been idling on a low flame, and all of the aromas, good and bad, start wafting through the air.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are, at the very least, an unpleasant reminder, my Jenny.” His smile dimmed a bit, his warm, brown eyes lost the laughter that shone in them. “For the white man, you’re a reminder of ugliness and shame. For the black man, loss and injustice.”
Jennifer tried to smile, but mostly failed. “Thanks. It’s so good to be home.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. Your home is your birthright, and many of us are happy that you’ve come back to claim it. Inez, certainly. Young Daniel most assuredly.”
Jennifer wasn’t in the mood to enlighten him about that one.
“But you’re not just here to get back to the soil in which you were cultivated, are you, Jenny?” he asked. “You’ve come looking for reparation, have you not?”
“If you mean answers, sure,” she said.
He smiled at her again, then leaned in and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. He smelled of Afro Sheen and Aramis. When he straightened, he tipped his bowler to her with one long, manicured finger. Then he started walking away, his cane tapping gently beside him.
“In the fullness of time, my Jenny,” he said over his shoulder. “All truth is revealed in the fullness of time.”
Sarah Flores, Editor
Write Down the Line, LLC
Sign up here to receive a free self-editing checklist and notifications about the latest author interviews.
Share this interview: