Todd Harra is a member of the Wilmington-Chadds Ford Writers Group and the author of three books. He was gracious enough to sit down with me recently to answer a few questions about his books and writing style.
MB: Todd, thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to me. First, tell me a bit about yourself.
TH: I’m one of the unlucky ones like yourself that’s tortured by the impulse to tell stories, to write (laughs). Seriously though, I’m a funeral director by profession—though I prefer the moniker undertaker. It has more gravitas. Writing has always been a hobby of mine, and I think will remain a hobby. Even if I was able to parlay it into something professional, the stress of turning the blank page into money would be too much. I know my limitations. I’m happy to tap out my books in the evenings, and if I’m too tired that night or I have a viewing to work, I just do it the next night. There’s little stress in my writing life now, and I think that’s what allows me to be creative.
MB: You've written both fiction and non-fiction books. Let's talk about your non-fiction first. You have two books out called Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt and Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid. Tell me about those books.
TH: I met the co-author of those books, Ken McKenzie, while participating in his Men of Mortuaries calendar, which raises money for his breast cancer foundation, KAMM Cares. A while later he reached out to me because he had an idea for a book, what would later become MC:USTD. Ken had collected stories from undertakers around the U.S., and asked me if I’d be interested in ghost writing it for him. I loved the idea, so I said no, I’d only do it as a co-author.
The original manuscript was 60 stories. We signed with the Johnson Literary Agency, and our agent, Elana Roth, sold the book in days to Kensington. Elana helped us pare the book down to 50 stories and organize it in a much more cohesive way, so it reads from “bedside to graveside.” Essentially it walks the reader through what we do from the point of the “first call” (i.e., the initial death call) to when we walk away at the cemetery.
The book sold well enough that we were asked if we were interested in doing another, and I began working on what would eventually become (after 4 years and a few interesting detours, but that’s a whole different story) OODB:ULTL. My biggest concern with doing another was not just stamping out a carbon copy of MC:USTD, it was important to me to give the readers something different. So, OODB:ULTL focuses a bit more on Ken and my professional journeys using some short stories to illustrate points. I think there are only 12 or so short stories in it. I’m really happy with the final product, but I think the readers like our first book better because Kensington is releasing a second edition in April.
No matter what one you decide to read, a portion of the proceeds gets donated to KAMM Cares.
MB: I believe one or two of those stories came from your own experience as a funeral director, correct?
TH: Yes, “Duel at High Noon” in MC:USTD is one of mine. For those who haven’t read it yet: I watched a gun fight from the steps of a church one fine morning. (The church was about three blocks from where I was living at the time; pleasant neighborhood). But the whole book has my professional fingerprints on it. A lot of the stories weren’t stories in the sense they were more scenarios that I had to put to scenes and place characters in them to make them readable. If there was information missing, I’d use my professional expertise to fill that void so the story would read naturally and remain technically correct.
MB: You have a new book out called Grave Matters. This is a mystery novel featuring an undertaker named Tripp Clipper. That's a heck of a character name. How did you come up with it?
TH: Grave Matters is set in the south so I wanted a good southern name, hence Tripp. I think it’s important to make the characters memorable to the reader, one of the ways to do that is with a unique name. Everyone calls this character by an abbreviated version of his last name, Clip. I thought it was unique and slightly militant which is fitting because Clip is former military.
MB: Tell me about a little about Grave Matters.
TH: I’ll give you a variant of the back matter without giving anything away. Clip suspects his newest case, Chloe Maas, has been murdered. Chloe was involved in a horrific car wreck and clung to life, comatose, for a few days in the hospital before dying. Clip, a former Army medic, notices injuries incongruent with a wreck, brings the information to the attention of the coroner. The coroner’s office has closed the case, and aren’t interested in reopening it. Clip decides to poke around a bit to satisfy his own curiosity. Trouble is, his questions attract attention. The bodies, seemingly completely unconnected, start piling and Clip finds he’s waded into something far reaching, and well-funded, and that’s he’s next in the crosshairs.
MB: Every writer has specific nuisances when it comes to writing. Some have special places set aside where they write. Some are "pantsers" who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to their plot, while others are plotters who feverishly outline their stories within an inch of its life. Some edit as they go, and others won't edit until the draft is done. Talk for a moment about your writing process.
TH: I used to have a lot more time to write. With family obligations, I’m happy to squeeze in something every day, and yes, I do make an effort to write every day. I have a pretty good collection of vinyl and a stackable turntable that was my dad’s. I’ll load that thing up with five or six records and start typing.
Non-fiction seems “easier” to plot. I can muddle through without an outline. The story happened, I’m just re-telling it. Fiction is a whole different animal. In order to focus my writing and keep the pacing, I’ve found I have to outline. I don’t plot out every piece of dialogue and character movement, but I do typically start with a 15 page outline that’s detailed enough so I know where to insert clues, and when I need to be hitting certain benchmarks in the plot.
I think good characters and a good story will take on a life of its own, so I’m not afraid to stray from the outline if the story starts taking me a different direction. I’m going to reach the same destination, but the hope is I’m creating a more “scenic detour” for the reader than my original route.
MB: Let's talk about reading for a moment. Is there a specific genre that you lean toward when selecting a book to read?
TH: I typically read what I enjoy writing: mystery/suspense/thriller type-stuff. That being said, if someone hypes something to me I’ll definitely read it.
MB: What are you currently reading?
TH: I’m currently reading Running Blind by Lee Child. The Reacher series never fails to deliver. Some people have asked me if I modelled Clip after Reacher. The answer is no. The only similarity are their stints in the Army. Reacher is a tough guy, loner. Clip is suffering PTSD, and trying desperately to assimilate into a profession. I made him a lot more fallible than Reacher, not because I don’t think Reacher isn’t a great character—he’s one of literature’s standout characters—but I think Clip’s more relatable.
MB: What can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any new projects?
TH: Of course! I can’t not write. I’m a handful of pages away from completing the first draft on a follow-up to Grave Matters called Blackwater. Clip is back in action again with his band of merry men (and women), getting sucked into another quagmire against his will. The city of Charleston is the victim of a bio terror attack, and somehow Clip finds himself in a position where only he has all the pieces of the puzzle (once he figures out he possesses those pieces). Now that I’m almost done I feel kind of bad. I really beat up that character a lot in this plot, so much so I won’t tell you if he makes it.
MB: Finally, give me a list of your top five all-time favorite books.
TH: Can I give you a brief editorial too?
1. City of Thieves by David Benioff – Love, love this book. Non-fiction that reads like fiction.
2. The Alienist by Caleb Carr – A period piece wrapped in a mystery. Who could want more? I’m a sucker for period pieces, and this one is amazing.
3. Moon by Tony Fletcher – I love music (see above, the vinyl). Makes the antics of the hair bands in the 80’s and 90’s look like nursery play. The guy is the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll.
4. Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman – Kiedis bares his soul, and it shows. Best rock autobiography I’ve ever read. Hell of a band too.
5. The Stranger by Albert Camus – Maybe I like it because of the opening funeral scene, but I do respect the unflinching examination of mortality and faith.
MB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with Grave Matters, and the upcoming Blackwater.
To read my recent review of Grave Matters, click here. Find out more about Todd Harra's books on his website, www.toddharra.com. You can follow Todd Harra on Facebook at www.facebook.com/toddharraauthor.