Rhode Islanders love the rare thrill of seeing the Ocean State used as a backdrop, especially when it’s described well — not just in vague terms, but from an author who knows the difference between East Providence vs. the East Side of Providence and how to name-drop Haven Brothers.
An Oklahoma native, Vanessa Lillie lived in Washington, D.C., for a stint. But it wasn’t until moving to Providence in 2011 that she “fell in love” with the tiniest state, changed her writing approach, and found new inspiration.
Her sophomore thriller, “For the Best,” set in Rhode Island, hit shelves Sept. 8. Reminiscent of Paula Hawkins’s “The Girl on The Train,” we have a narrator, Jules, who was so drunk at the time of the murder she doesn’t actually know if she might’ve dunnit.
As with her best-selling debut thriller, “Little Voices,” Lillie writes about Rhody with a passion that feels homegrown. Reached by phone, Lillie took a few minutes recently to talk Rhode Island, women writers, privilege, and inspiration.
Q. Both of your books are set in Rhode Island. Had you tried writing a novel before your move here?
A. I started writing with the hope to be published around 2004. When I was in D.C., I wrote two books in 10 years. They will live on my hard drive forever.
Q. Seems like you moved and found new inspiration.
A. My husband and I fell in love with this state, and when you’re in love, you kind of become obsessed. We were constantly traveling around Rhode Island, going to different restaurants. We had a lot of guests, and we were in Newport showing off the ocean and mansions probably twice a month.
When my son was born, he was not a good sleeper and I walked him up and down neighborhood streets, so I was constantly immersed.
I was nervous to write about Rhode Island as not a true Rhode Islander, but it came from a true appreciation and love.
Q. What sparked the idea for “For The Best”?
A. It came from my feelings about being a white woman in this country, and feeling privileged. I wanted to explore that. My ultimate goal is to make this book a fast-paced thriller, but within that, I did want to really look honestly at myself [and] the privileges that helped me.
Q. You’re also on the board of Sisters in Crime, to promote women crime writers.
A. Yes, it’s a fantastic organization that’s been advocating lately for Black voices, Black authors, and for them to have more seats at the table. If you look at the bestseller list, there aren’t [many] thriller writer women of color. So certainly Sisters in Crime is advocating for those voices to be lifted up.
Q. What kind of reaction do you get from Rhode Islanders?
A. [Mostly positive] but my favorite reaction was this e-mail from a very sweet lady who told me she loved my book but here are the six things I got wrong. Which I loved. I knew Rhode Islanders would take this very seriously, and if they told me it didn’t work, I’d believe them, because I’ve only been here so many years. I was hoping that by writing about things that I find interesting and quirky, that Rhode Islanders would appreciate it.
Q. Like what?
A. Little things, from the Big Blue Bug to the Awful Awful. In “For the Best,” I wrote a lot more about the East Side. I tried to pick locations as true as I could.
Q. The sidewalks of Benefit Street.
A. Exactly! I just have such an appreciation for this state, I love to talk to people about it. To me, it’s the most gorgeous, fascinating place.
NEW ENGLAND THRILLERS
Ink Fish Books hosts a conversation with Vanessa Lillie and novelist Megan Collins Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. Register via www.inkfishbooks.com.