A native of upstate New York, author Laura McNeill holds a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. After six years behind the anchor desk at a pair of CBS affiliates, where her accolades included awards from the Associated Press, Laura moved to the Gulf Coast of Alabama to raise her family.
In July of 2015, Laura’s new novel, Center of Gravity, will be released by Thomas Nelson Publishing, a division of HarperCollins. Set in the city of Mobile, Alabama, Center of Gravity tells the story of a Southern family in grave danger, threatened by the person who they have most trusted and loved.
To learn more about Laura and her novel, visit her online at www.lauramcneill.com.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I was very fortunate to have a lovely, idyllic childhood. I was raised in a small town in Upstate New York where, in the winter, we skated on frozen ponds and, in the summers, vacationed in the Finger Lakes. I enjoyed school, sports, and my friends.
Growing up, my parents kept the TV off all summer, every summer. While I wasn’t thrilled at eight years old, at about age 28, I discovered it was the best gift they could have given me. I trekked to the library and back by myself almost every day of the summer and it grew my love of reading exponentially. As a mom, I’m not quite that strict, but we don’t subscribe to cable either. I’ve found that while my boys have permission to occasionally watch Netflix or YouTube, they rarely reach for the remote.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences?
My mother and father, definitely! I remember them always reading at home, on vacation, and whenever we traveled. They always encouraged me to follow my dreams and supported my passion for art, culture, and writing.
As a voracious reader as a child, I adored novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew), and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women). As a teenager, I read a myriad of authors, including Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Jakes, and nonfiction like The Diary of Anne Frank. In college, I was drawn to American literature, including Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, and many more.
What are your fondest memories of your time as a news anchor?
My fondest memories include working as an anchor with the weekend team at WWNY, Channel 7 in Watertown, NY (CBS). We were a tight group, all good friends, and worked at the station from 12 noon to 12 midnight every Saturday and Sunday all year round. I don’t think I ever laughed so much as I did working with my sports co-anchor, who would make crazy faces at me just as we would come back on air from a commercial break!
I’ll never forget one of my first days on the job as a reporter at Channel 7. A few months before, the very popular 6 o’clock anchor team – an on-again, off-again, boyfriend and girlfriend – had a major spat in the station parking lot. This particular day, news that one of them might have had an affair pushed their relationship drama into new territory. Fists flew, the police came, and both anchors lost their jobs. Talk about the story eventually faded away over the next months.
Meanwhile, I covered every kind of story you can imagine. House fires, car accidents, and crime scenes and more offbeat stories, like cow judging at county fairs and tracking down a lost pet Emu.
When my second son was born, I began writing Stay Tuned under the pen name Lauren Clark – a story about working behind the scenes at a fictional Macon, Georgia TV station – with, yes, you guessed it, a fistfight kicking off the main action.
What inspired the story of Center of Gravity?
I began my career as an author writing Southern women’s fiction under the pen name “Lauren Clark.” I really enjoyed these fun, frothy tales, but halfway through the writing of my second novel, my marriage fell apart. Everything that I had built and trusted had come unglued. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I was worried about my children, about my job, and about my future.
I shelved the novel, moved into a new house in a new neighborhood, and restarted my life. Months later, it hit me that I missed writing. But I couldn’t bring myself to write comedy and romance. This time, I tackled a serious storyline, a suspenseful story about a family in peril. I had spent the past year or more talking to other women and men about their stories of love and loss. It seemed that everyone I talked to had an aunt, a cousin, a best friend, or a sister who had been through a tragic, heart wrenching break up. Some involved children, some didn’t.
Many included alienation from friends and family. Some involved violence. The majority involved a long, drawn-out court battles. All of the stories left me feeling, somehow, that I was not quite alone. I began writing the novel which would become Center of Gravity.
What were your reasons for writing under a pen name initially? And what made you decide to use your real name for Center of Gravity?
In preparing for my first novel’s release, on a whim, I searched Amazon author names. In short order, I discovered that an erotica writer shared my married name. As I was penning sweet Southern novels, this didn’t necessarily bode well for my future career. After much debate about confusing friends, family, and potential readers, I published my first three novels under the pseudonym Lauren Clark.
Shortly thereafter, I was discovered by my agent, who loved my writing, but was seeking to represent suspense manuscripts. Luckily, I had finished two. To separate out the two very different genres, Liz decided it would be best to publish the new books under my real name, Laura McNeill.
How much of yourself is there in the character of Center of Gravity protagonist Ava Carson?
Ava Carson definitely reflects some of my personality traits. She is an optimist who fiercely loves her children. She’s also a people person, enjoys spending time with friends, and is involved in her children’s activities. Like me, she prefers a simple, no frills lifestyle, adores handmade cards from her children, and doesn’t mind driving a car that isn’t brand new. She enjoys cooking, but is better off baking cookies and preparing BLTs than attempting to prepare a gourmet, seven-course meal.
It’s my hope that readers connect with Ava – a woman who finds strength deep within herself when almost everyone else has given up on her. Like so many of the women I’ve met over the years, Ava is tenacious, smart, sensitive, and, as it turns out, a bit naïve, when it comes to trusting and believing in the man she’s chosen to marry. She’d like to cling to the fairytale of having a perfect marriage, but eventually sees through her husband’s charming façade.
How have you evolved as a writer over the years?
Truly, so much. I’m a firm believer that there is always more to learn on honing character development, story arc, dialogue, etc.
Over the years, I’ve learned to create a detailed outline and take my time crafting the structure of the story. Once I have that in place, the actual writing flows much more easily. It’s what works for me; many of my author friends don’t use an outline.
I’m also very particular about setting and description, and love writing about cities in the Coastal South. I usually include the voice of a younger character (ages 8-15) who can bring an objective perspective to the novel, but it’s always a challenge to get the narration authentic and just right.
I’ve become so much more adept at the process of revising my manuscript, as well. I used to dread it, but have come to understand that editors are there for the purpose of strengthening a novel and making it sing. What better gift can we, as writers, be given?
What are the starkest differences between living in upstate New York and living in Alabama?
If you had asked me 15 years ago, when I first moved to the Deep South, I would have said the climate! We bought our house in Alabama in July of 2000, and the heat and humidity were a significant change from the breezy, cool Upstate New York summers. But we quickly fell in love with the Deep South, its friendly people, and the relaxed way of life. Though I miss my family, my friends in New York, and the four seasons (especially the snow at Christmas time), I’ve grown to love the diverse Southern culture, delicious food, the coastal lifestyle (the beach is only 30 minutes away!), good manners, and, yes, the warm weather all year ‘round!
What are your three favorite Southern foods?
Oh, that is SO difficult to narrow to only three. I really adore Dreamland Bar-B-Que (original restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Ala.), red beans and rice (New Orleans), and chess pie (a light, sweet caramel-flavored confection).
Then, there are the pralines, and 7-layer caramel cake, the peach cobbler, and the pecan pie…
What aspects of parenthood have you found to be the most rewarding?
Watching my two sons grow into wonderful young men. Though they have very different personalities, both are smart, intuitive, and well mannered. They both share my love of reading and books, and my fondest memories are reading together in the evenings before bedtime. My younger son and I have read the first 35-40 books in the Magic Treehouse series; both boys have also enjoyed the Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief series, as well as The Maze Runner books, and Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles.
If you were tasked with assembling a team of four superheroes to save the world from an alien invasion, who would you select?
What a great question! I’m an Avengers fan, so I’ll have to go with Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, and Captain America.
What are you working on next?
My second HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson book will be released in April of 2016. Sister Dear is the story of a woman, Allie Marshall, who goes to prison for a crime she doesn’t commit, leaving behind a 5-year old daughter. When Allie is paroled 10 years later, she hopes to reclaim her quiet life and move on, but her daughter, now a teenager, soon challenges her innocence. In her quest to find justice, Allie discovers that the one person she trusts most committed the ultimate betrayal a decade earlier.