Q. The Perfect Daughter is due out this month (April 2021), and is already baking in praise. How have elements of mental illness, secrets, and danger combined in this mystery/thriller to get critics raving?
D.J.: I’ll be honest; this book nearly did me in. I didn’t realize how big a bite of the apple I took when I came up with the story. Typically, I have to juggle character, plot, and pacing throughout the novel, but The Perfect Daughter had the unique challenge of having one character with multiple personalities. I needed a way to develop each personality while at the same time showing the reality of the condition and the challenges associated with treatment, the impact of mental illness on the family, and do all this without losing momentum or becoming overly didactic. In addition to all that, this was the first WHODUNNIT I’ve ever attempted. My first traditional mystery would not have earned the raves it did without a great team in my corner of editors and early readers who helped shape the narrative. Writing may be a solo endeavor, but this book benefited from a lot of great suggestions along the way.
Q. You made the transition from ecommerce entrepreneur to writer. What did that journey look like?
D.J.: It was a very long transition. I began writing while working in web development, but it took me twelve years before my debut novel was published. One of the first lessons I learned along the way is that this hard. Building websites was undoubtedly challenging, but you can always tell if the system is working as designed. With writing, there’s a level of internal doubt built into the process that makes you question if the work is any good, coupled with fears it won’t resonate with readers. Whenever a website of mine received critical feedback from a user, I took it as an opportunity to improve the product. I didn’t internalize the critique. When your name is on a book, it’s hard to be that objective, but over time you learn to thicken your skin and keep going. The second most important lesson I’ve learned is to be fearless. You’ve got to write the story you believe in, and you’ve got to believe that you’re the best one to tell it.
Q. Thriller, suspense, and mystery are all sort of nebulous terms. What kinds of books do you feel like you write?
D.J.: I mostly write suspense using elements of a good mystery or thriller to drive the plot. Some of my books lean more towards the thriller genre in plotting, meaning it’s less of a question of who did the crime and more about how the characters will escape some peril. The New Husband fits that mold, while The Perfect Daughter is more of a traditional mystery, a whodunnit. What I try to do with every book, and what I think satisfies my readers is that I balance deep characterizations with a twisty plot and an ending that’s usually hard to guess. I always remind myself that I’m paid to write tension, not action. To me, that guiding principle is the bread and butter of suspense fiction.
Q. The New Husband, which came out earlier this year, goes deep into the theme of betrayal. How does infidelity, for example, help the reader relate to your protagonist, Nina? Why do readers love lies, deceit, and betrayal in our thrillers and mysteries?
D.J.: I think readers like the adrenaline rush of exploring darker truths safely. Along the way, they also enjoy trying to puzzle out the mystery of who is doing what and why. It’s a game that has high stakes but can’t hurt them the way that real-life lies, deceit, and betrayal might. It’s fun to imagine and put yourself in these wild scenarios, but to get out of some jam, all you have to do is close the book. The characters we writers create aren’t nearly as fortunate.
Q. What are you working on now?
D.J.: My work in progress is titled, My Wife is Missing. The story opens with Michael Hart, a father of two, who returns to his hotel room while on family vacation to find his wife and children are gone. More alarming, all of their belongings are gone, too , with the exception of his son’s beloved stuffed bear, which Michael finds in the hallway outside his hotel room. Michael goes on a desperate search to locate his missing family only to discover that his past may have finally caught up to him.