VANESSA LILLIE is the bestselling author of the thrillers Little Voices, For the Best and coauthor of the Young Rich Widows series. Her forthcoming novel, Blood Sisters, launches a new suspense series and releases October 31, 2023.
She has fifteen years of marketing and communications experience and enjoys organizing book events in and around Providence, RI. Originally from Oklahoma, she is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation tribe.
Q: What inspired you to set the story in Northeast Oklahoma?
Vanessa: This is the first book in the series. The story is set in Northeast Oklahoma, which is where I am from. I wanted to write about my hometown and the surrounding towns. The town in the story, is based on the history of a real town where there was oil and minerals, lead, and zinc. It became a boom town overnight. I wanted to incorporate my real history within my fictional characters backstory. I also wanted to write about the meth production, the Mexican Cartels coming into NE Oklahoma, and the legislative changes which is all accurate for the time, in 2008. I wanted to show how the illegal drug of meth combined with the legal Opioid drugs caused a lot of devastation in so many communities.
Q: Can you shed some light on the inclusion of Native American elements in the narrative?
Vanessa: The Quapaw Tribe had land taken from them. I set the story in 2008 because it is now a ghost town, with a government buyout program. There are serious health issues because of all the left-over minerals. I grew up next to this community. I am Cherokee so I wanted to write about a Cherokee protagonist. Because the matriarchal connection among Native Americans is so strong, I wrote how Syd is connected to her late grandmother, her Cherokee heritage that they shared together.
Q: How would you characterize Syd, the central character?
Vanessa: She is a badass—with a lot of vulnerability. I wanted to show through this character how someone processes trauma. She cares about justice, what she believes is right. She is haunted and struggles to connect with people. She is not direct and a loner. She has a little bit chip on her shoulder.
Q: Syd’s return to her hometown has undertones of outsiders coming back. Was this inspired by personal experiences?
Vanessa: I am from a small town and left it to go to college when I was 18. I still felt a disconnect and insecurity when I returned, which is something I put onto Syd. It is hard for her to come in and think she has answers when Syd did not live there. She might have good intentions but does not know the reality of what is going on. She had created emotional boundaries and literal physical boundaries when she left her hometown and moved across the country.
Q: What drives Syd’s quest related to her sister in the story?
Vanessa: She will do anything to find, help, and save her. Even putting her life at risk. Syd had created boundaries in her life, but at the end of the day when her sister was at risk, she would do anything to save her sister.
Q: Can you elaborate on the character of Jo Mankiller, Syd’s superior?
Vanessa: She represents the new generation of those in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She feels she is there to support the tribes and the people. She has her own internal politics going. She agrees with Syd that BIA should help the tribes, particularly with the murdered and missing girls. The BIA is a management structure for tribal lands. Unfortunately, the Federal government in 2008 controls the law enforcement and they do not often care about girls going missing. Their attention is on the drug cases.
Q: The presence of the ghost, Luna, is intriguing. Was this influence drawn from films like “The Sixth Sense”?
Vanessa: I wrote a pilot through the Native American media. It was a screenplay. I was struggling to communicate Syd’s problem. My editor and I worked it into this story. Syd is literally haunted by this sarcastic ghost girl. Ghost Luna is a manifestation of trauma and pain that Syd carries. She appears during Syd’s stress. She is based on an old memory of a teenage friend when they were girls.
Q: There’s a poignant quote about love in the book. Can you discuss its meaning?
Vanessa: You are referring to this one, “Love isn’t protective. In fact, it’s what makes us vulnerable to pain.” Anytime someone loves, they risk pain. People open themselves up to others and risk disappointment and hurt. There are beautiful things that come with it. For Syd, she has the idea of love, pain, and hope.
Q: What can readers anticipate in your next work?
Vanessa: It will be set where I live now. Syd has another case tied to earlier colonial days. It will probably come out in 2025.
Blood Sisters by Vanessa Lillie combines a riveting mystery within a thrilling plot. This is a story of the main character’s personal journey as she attempts to overcome her past demons and strives to balance her Native American identity with her current life.
Syd Walker, the protagonist, now lives in Rhode Island with her wife Mali, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She moved there from Oklahoma because of her violent past. Fifteen years ago she barely escaped from being killed when two masked men came into the trailer she, her sister, and her best friend were staying. She was able to rescue her sister, Emma Lou, but her best friend, Luna Myers was murdered. She is guilt ridden and haunted literally by Luna’s ghost, who speaks to her ala Charles Todd whose ghost Hamish haunts Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge.
After Syd’s old BIA ID badge from a college internship is found inside a skull on BIA-managed land she is asked by her BIA supervisor, Jo Mankiller, to investigate. Reluctantly, she returns to her hometown and learns that her sister Emma Lou, an opiate addict, has vanished, one of many Indigenous women to have recently disappeared from the area. She begins to investigate the women’s disappearances, hoping her inquiry might finally bring her face-to-face with Luna’s killer.
The blending of the culture and history made the plot even more interesting. Readers take the journey with Syd as she tries to reconcile her past, come to terms with her demons, and attempting to rebuild a relationship with her family.