Aimee Hix is a former defense contractor turned mystery writer. Her debut novel, What Doesn’t Kill You (available January 8, 2018), introduces PI Willa Pennington and is set against the shady backdrop of Washington, D.C. It’s the first in a three-book deal with Midnight Ink. Ms. Hix spent two decades as a federal contractor before turning her attention to writing fiction full-time. She makes her home in Virginia.
Recently, the author graciously discussed topics including the appeal of crime fiction, how reading has influenced her writing, characteristics that she and her protagonist share (and don’t), the differences between cops and private investigators, why it’s important to be part of a community, and what comes next.
What Doesn’t Kill You is your first published novel. What drew you to crime fiction, and how did your reading life inform the transition to writer?
I think 99% of women who write crime fiction will cite Nancy Drew as one of their first forays into crime fiction, and I’m no different. For many of us, I think the mystery aspect was secondary to the freedom and autonomy Nancy had in the stories. Crime fiction, in general, allows us an outlet for some of the feelings and frustrations we may have with our roles as girls and women. Reading these kinds of stories opens worlds and actions that are often not available to us.
I’ve spent most of my reading life with crime fiction, save for a brief foray into horror as a teen. But I think every story, at its heart, is a mystery. Who does what to whom and why? I’m always wondering how things work; why people do the things they do; what are the societal impacts of people who take the kinds of actions that go unchecked, unpunished, or unavenged? Why are some people happier ignoring the ugly truth in front of them versus the people who can’t see an injustice done without fighting it? Writing fiction is how I perform therapy on myself.
The book introduces protagonist Willa Pennington. Why do you believe she’s a character worth revisiting, and what of your own self can be found in her persona versus what is simply fiction?
Willa is the young woman I wish I had been and the woman I want my daughter to grow up to be. She’s tough and takes no bullshit, but she’s also someone who is caring and kind-hearted. She’s actively dealing with emotional pain and loss instead of shoving it down like many fictional “tough guy” types. She’s capable of admitting she’s wrong, but she won’t allow embarrassment to cause her to drop the pursuit of justice. She’s someone who will do the right thing even if it’s not the first thing to mind. She’s loyal but not to a fault.
All those traits are things that sometimes bug me about crime fiction characters—the character who’s too tough to deal with emotional pain; the character who can’t admit they’re wrong so they keep stubbornly beating their head against the wrong wall; the character who can’t imagine someone they love doing something wrong so they don’t see the obvious signs.
As for what are traits we share: we’re both pretty into coffee, although my habit isn’t nearly as excessive as hers (my mother, though, would drink five to six 12 oz. cups a day). We’re both sarcastic. We can both get lost in figuring something out. We’re both stubborn. We’re both probably too lax in our standards of what children and teens should be viewing. We both hate those creepy figurines of big-headed children with eyes so large that anime artists cringe. I actually have some Christmas ornaments called Snow Babies that my mother bought me when I was in my early 20s, and my hatred for them inspired part of a scene in What Doesn’t Kill You.
Willa is a cop turned PI. What are the essential differences in these roles, and how does her new vocation both liberate and entrap her?
Willa trades in the badge for private investigation in an emotional moment. It’s a life-changing emotional moment, and it’s the right choice. Police work wasn’t really what she was supposed to do with her life, even if the pursuit of justice is. There are trade-offs in each career and how each allows Willa to investigate.
Private investigators aren’t bound by the same rules that police officers or other law enforcement officers are, but they also don’t have the same authority to insert themselves into certain areas of inquiry—if you have no leverage when questioning someone, then you won’t necessarily get the answers you want. But Willa can go places now that she couldn’t as a cop. She loses the protection that comes with a uniform and a badge but gains the freedom she needs to solve crime the way she feels is best.
You were a defense contractor for the federal government for many years. In what ways did this shape your understanding of the maneuverings in Washington, D.C., and how did your familiarity with the place allow you to bring the setting to life?
Well, the book is set in the suburbs of DC and has only periphery dealings with the federal government. Also, the work I did as a federal contractor is a far cry from any of the matters dealt with in the book. But one of the reasons I set the book in the area is that the chances of shenanigans are high. And there are so many federal law enforcement agencies that, in some very specific places in the area, jurisdiction is disputed, overlapping, or in one case, non-existent. I find that amusing—because I’m that kind of person—and a great opportunity as a writer. If law enforcement agencies are fighting each other or forced to work together or not taking responsibility, that’s an amazing source of tension that can be leveraged.
Growing up in the suburbs of the DC metro area afforded me the chance to get to know the unique personality types that inhabit the region. Diversity is ramped up there like in no other place—in the 400 square miles that encompass Fairfax County, you literally have people who are homeless, refugees, people under federal witness protection, diplomats, royalty, world power brokers, and plain-old regular middle-class folks. And the people who want to prey on any and all of them.
As a debut author, what advice would you give to yet-unpublished writers, both in terms of honing craft and finding/creating community?
As a part of the official establishment, I am required by law to say read fiction like it’s your job (it is)—great, good, and bad fiction. Listen to recorded books. Watch movies with an ear to dialogue. Deconstruct the stories. Be judgmental. Write. Do NaNoWriMo to learn to write a specific word count daily on a deadline. Reading is, as my mentor puts it, an MFA in writing.
Definitely, find your community. Social media makes it easy to connect with authors. Do that. Go to conferences. Meet people without an agenda, though. That’s how it started for me—Malice Domestic and the friends I made there. Through an author friend from Malice, I met my mentor, Matthew V. Clemens, and he volunteered to read anything I wrote.
After a few months, I had the courage to share my idea for what turned into What Doesn’t Kill You. He worked with me step by step, chapter by chapter, pushing, prodding, letting me make mistakes, forcing me to see them. The book doesn’t exist without him.
Willa is the young woman I wish I had been and the woman I want my daughter to grow up to be.
Other author friends helped me by reading and recommending edits to the manuscript. I got help with my querying, introduction to agents. Some help I asked for, and some I didn’t. I always erred on the side of preserving my friendships. I never want anyone I know to feel taken advantage of or used.
I know that if I hadn’t had the kind of help people gave me, it would have taken me years instead of seven months to write the first draft. And I would rather have spent years doing it all on my own than lose one friendship over writing and getting the book published.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
Happily, Midnight Ink offered me a three-book contract for the Willa Pennington, PI series, so there are at least two more adventures for Willa after What Doesn’t Kill You. I turned in the second book in November, and it’s set for publication on January 8, 2019.
It takes place four months after the end of What Doesn’t Kill You, and the characters are still dealing with the aftermath of the events of the previous fall. We get to meet more of Willa’s family and some people who are new in her life but important to her. There’s a murder, a cold case, and more than a few pithy remarks. Willa ends up outside her comfort zone in a big way. Since it’s so newly delivered to my editor, I don’t think I should say much more than that, but it is a book I’m very proud of and continues Willa’s story in a very satisfying way.
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Aimee Hix is a former defense contractor turned mystery writer. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime. What Doesn’t Kill You is her debut novel. You can visit her at www.AimeeHix.com.
John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.