Since stores now put up their Halloween displays around the Fourth of July, it's only fitting to feature an author who specializes in horror and paranormal suspense and has been nominated for a Bram Stoker award for best debut novel. Deborah Leblanc is also the president of the Horror Writers Association and active in the Mystery Writers of America's Southwest Chapter and Sisters in Crime. In addition to being part of paranormal investigation teams, she's also own a funeral service business and is a licensed death scene investigator. I asked her a couple of quick questions about those items and her literacy program.
IRTM: I understand you're a licensed death scene investigator, although that's not your primary living. What made you decide to get the license and what's involved in getting certified? Have you ever been called upon to use this experience outside of your books?
DL: Curiosity and frustration caused me to look into death scene investigation. I've worked in the funeral service industry for a number of years now, primarily as a management consultant. When I first started, I had to earn my stripes by learning the trade from the ground up--no pun intended--in order to be accepted in that industry. Earning those stripes included assisting with removals, embalmings, casketing, cosmetizing and even schlepping flowers to gravesites. It took about two years before the industry finally recognized me as one of their own. But even after that 'trial by fire' period was over, I continued to help with the 'hands-on' duties whenever I can and still do today.
All that said, it was during that two year training period and doing removals that initially sparked my interest in death scene investigation. I'm overly curious by nature, so each time I helped remove a body from a homicide scene or one where the cause of death didn't appear clear-cut, a million questions raced through my mind. The 'who--what--when--where--how--and whys plagued me long after the body was embalmed. And so it went for five more years.
Then one day, as fate would have it, the Safety Director for the National Funeral Directors Assoc. , who also happened to be my mentor in the business and a priceless friend, handed me a brochure about a death scene investigation program that included licensure at a Georgia university. There was a prerequisite for licensure, however. The applicant had to have served in law enforcement for a minimum of ten years--or had to have worked in funeral service for at least seven years. Remember the fate I mentioned earlier? I had just finished my seventh year in funeral service, which made me eligible!
Before you could say CSI Miami, I signed up for the program and was soon elbow-deep in text books, lectures, and hands-on workshops that focused on blood spatter analysis, DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, profiling---it was Nirvana!
I've never been called upon to use this experience outside of writing, but it has served other purposes. It's allowed me 'behind the scenes', where I can question something I think has been overlooked, which occasionally has detectives looking in new, more productive directions to solve a case.
IRTM: You also have worked in the funeral/mortician business? What types of
experiences has that involved, and how do those work their way into your
DL: Funeral service is a fascinating business to me, and I hold directors and embalmers (in many states they're one in the same) in high regard. It takes a special person to deal with death and the bereaved everyday and still maintain a positive outlook on life.
Being involved in this unique business has provided a treasure chest of experiences that would be invaluable to any storyteller. Even if I lived to be a hundred, I'd never be able to pen enough novels to write about them all. From a writer's perspective, the best part about experiencing even the worst this death business has to offer is authenticity. It brings a ring of truth to my readers' ears.
When I write about a murder scene, you can bet all your bananas on the fact that you're reading the real deal. I'm recalling an actual murder scene I've witnessed--sights, sounds, smells. If a tale involves a shooting, not only can I give an accurate accounting of gunshot wounds and blood spatter, I know the weight and feel of the weapons used. I'm licensed to carry concealed, so I spend as much time as time allows on the firing range. Sometimes I target practice with a 9mm Glock, a 9mm Luger, and know all too well the rapid casing spray from an automatic M11.
If one of my stories takes you into an embalming room, chances are it'll read as if you're actually there--because I've actually been there. You'll read secrets of the trade that few outsiders ever hear about.
I'm a stickler for details because my greatest desire is to have a reader truly experience my stories. I want him or her to feel as if they are standing right in the scene.
The same holds true when I write about paranormal experiences. You can bet most of what you're reading comes from a first- hand experience. I've been a paranormal investigator for over 15 years, and have found myself in some of the creepiest places on the globe.
I have to admit, though, that sometimes I can take this obsession for detail a tad too far. Like the time I had myself locked in a casket. I was writing GRAVE INTENT at the time, and since one of my main characters wound up locked and trapped in a casket--I HAD to know, instead of imagine, what that felt like. What were the movement limitations REALLY like inside a casket. What about the smell? Did ANY light filter through cracks? Did sound penetrate through a coffin? Yep, that adventure was a bit intimidating, to say the least--but it sure was a rush experiencing it!
IRTM: I'm very much interested in the organization you founded, Literacy, Inc., since I'm a firm believer in literacy for all ages. The Leblanc Literacy Challenge has cash incentives for reading--including this year a potential grand prize of a free college education--which involves reading some of your books and taking a quiz and writing an essay. Certainly, the scholarship and funds for the kids and their schools are a great idea, and I'm curious as to what response you've had thus far? Are you considering branching out and including other books in the future?
DL: The Literacy Challenge is now in its fourth year, and the program response has exceeded our wildest expectations. So you can witness the impact it's had first hand, I've included a few comments we've received from teachers, students and parents: "The workshop was very enlightening to my students. It not only motivated them to read, but excited them about the challenge. I was thrilled by the way you were able to relate to the students, get on their level and share with them the boundless opportunities that await them if they only try."
Deborah Leblanc's latest paranormal suspense novel is Water Witch. She's also currently writing a paranormal thriller for Harlequin Nocturne, part of a trilogy with Heather Graham and Alexandra Sokoloff.