Sarah Zettel creates strong female protagonist for 'A Mother's Lie'

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

Writing in different genres has given award-winning author Sarah Zettel an edge.

“I actually think it’s an advantage as a writer because every genre gives you a different view into the art of storytelling. Each genre has its own emphasis and expectations and requirements. It requires you to learn a new set of skills or to hone your old skills,” said Zettel, a Washtenaw County resident and author of “A Mother’s Lie.”

A University of Michigan alumna, Zettel has written in the science-fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller/suspense, romance and young adult genres. She’s penned a total of 35 novels. She’s won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Philip K. Dick Award.

“A Mother’s Lie” is her second thriller.

"A Mother's Lie" by Sarah Zettel

“By writing in so many genres, they start to play off each other,” Zettel said. “You bring the skills you learned in one genre to all the others. For example, mysteries require a tightly-honed plot. They have to be carefully constructed. When writing mysteries, you’re really focusing on that plot. That’s a skill that will make every other book you write a better, tighter, sharper read,” she explained. “Writing (‘Lie’) was a new experience… You do not have a lot of room for false steps in a thriller. Every move has to lead directly into another move, so I was really paying attention to fitting all the pieces together. That was a challenge for me, and I really, really enjoyed it. I enjoyed focusing on the intersection between plot and character that comes with a thriller.”

While there is plenty of overlap, Zettel explained the difference between a mystery and a thriller.

“They are incestuous, but there’s a quick and easy definition. A mystery is whodunit. A thriller is ‘When’s he gonna do it?’ That’s not my definition — that’s (Alfred) Hitchcock’s,” she said.

Robin Agnew, who co-owned the now-defunct Aunt Agatha’s, the Ann Arbor bookstore that specialized in mysteries, said Zettel is “an intelligent writer.”

“No matter what she tackles — YA, cozy, or thriller — she applies her smarts to the stories she’s telling,” Agnew said. “In the case of her thrillers, smart plotting and in-depth characters make for unforgettable reading.”

Author Sarah Zettel

“Lie” — which occurs in Chicago and in Detroit — begins with an attempted kidnapping in San Francisco years ago. The protagonist is Beth Fraser, an ex-con artist and single mom of Dana, 15. Beth’s built a successful career in the tech sector and has put her troubled past behind her.

Or so she thought. 

Dana is accosted on the street by someone claiming to be her grandmother. Soon thereafter, Dana begins to question her mother’s past, while Beth has to pull off one last con job for her parents if she ever wants to see her daughter alive again.

“In a lot of thrillers, we often see a child in jeopardy,” said Zettel. “A lot of the time, the father is the one who rescues the child. I wanted to do a story where the mother gets to be the hero. I wanted to write about the bond between a mother and her daughter, and how that relationship is a source of strength. In the end, I want it to be what offers the ultimate source of hope to the characters.”

In genre literature, Zettel pointed out that the mother is blamed a great deal, whether it’s because something is wrong with the children or her relationship with the children and/or the spouse. The mother is either too giving, she doesn’t give enough, she cares too much about herself, or she dies. The latter is a common trope, according to Zettel: The mother dies, causing the father to step up and become the best parent ever to his child/children.

“I wanted to write a thriller where the mother gets to take center stage and be the hero,” she said. “It is another take on the new breed of heroine we are seeing in domestic suspense. These are women who are troubled, who are not necessarily believed when they speak, but who are very strong and turn to themselves to solve their own problems. I’m really pleased to be part of this new wave in women-centered books.”

Beth comes from a family of small-time scammers. While movies such as “Catch Me If You Can” and “Ocean’s 11” show the glamorous side of being a con artist, the author pointed out that con artists are small-time crooks in reality. They hustle for nickels and dimes, robbing people who really don’t have money to lose.

“I wondered what it would be like to be from that kind of family, to be part of that instability, to grow up on that far edge, what that might do to you as a person, and what you have to do to get out of it,” said Zettel. “Beth’s been trying to escape her past. What she has to learn is while you cannot escape your past, you don’t have to embrace it either; it’s not an either/or. You can take the lessons that you want and you can use them to make your life better, but you don’t have to be glad, you don’t have to be what you were told you were while growing up. That’s a hard lesson for people who’ve grown up in instability to learn. I really wanted to explore that. Beth is coming to grips with her past and herself, learning to live with what she can’t wipe away.”

Regarding Dana, Zettel noted she’s a teen from a stable home who’s kind and smart.

“(Kids today) are smarter than the kids I grew up with; they’re way more engaged in their world,” she said. “They’ve gone through a lot. This is the generation being raised with learning what to do when a crazy guy with a gun shoots up their school! They’ve gone through economic collapse, they’ve gone through slaughter at their schools, now they’re going through an unprecedented pandemic. Where do people get the idea that these kids are spoiled and can’t handle life? I don’t understand. We’ve been throwing life at them with both fists as long as they’ve been alive!”

Zettel’s next book will be released in December. It’s a mystery called “To Fetch a Felon,” the first in the “Chatty Corgi” series of mysteries, introducing protagonist Emma Reed and her corgi Oliver. It will be released under the pseudonym Jennifer Hawkins.

Zettel has several more pending projects. However, none of them will be about the COVID-19 pandemic. At least not now.

“I think it’ll be a long time before anybody wants to hear stories about this,” she said. “A lot of people right now are writing their coronavirus novel, and I think that’s a mistake. People will want hearts and flowers and fluffy sheep for quite some time, (along with) light and humor and hope.”

‘A Mother’s Lie’

Grand Central Publishing, $16.99