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A Conversation with ‘Saving Grace’ Pamela Fagan Hutchins

Pamela Fagan HutchinsPamela Fagan Hutchins writes award-winning mysterious women’s fiction and relationship humor books, and holds nothing back.  She is known for “having it all” which really means she has a little too much of everything, but loves it: writer, mediocre endurance athlete (triathlon, marathons), wife, mom of an ADHD & Asperger’s son, five kids/step-kids, business owner, recovering employment attorney and human resources executive, investigator, consultant, and musician.  Pamela lives with her husband Eric and two high school-aged kids, plus 200 pounds of pets in Houston. Their hearts are still in St. Croix, USVI, along with those of their three oldest offspring.

Her latest book is the mystery/women’s fiction, Saving Grace.

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Saving GraceQ: Thank you for this interview, Pamela. Can you tell us what your latest book, Saving Grace, is all about?

Thank you! Saving Grace is the story of Katie Connell, a Texas attorney whose life is one train wreck after another: too many Bloody Marys, a client who’s the Vanilla Ice of the NBA, and a thing for a Heathcliff-like co-worker. She takes refuge from it all on the island of St. Marcos, where she plans to investigate the suspicious deaths of her parents. But she trades one set of problems for another when she is bewitched by the voodoo spirit Annalise in an abandoned rainforest house and, as worlds collide, finds herself reluctantly donning her lawyer clothes again to defend her new friend Ava, who is accused of stabbing her very married Senator-boyfriend.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

First, there’s Katie. Oh, Katie, Katie, Katie. She’s the main character, a 30-something lawyer who vacuums her rugs backwards and is as much a danger to herself as the bad guys.

Nick is the object of her unreturned affections, an investigator in Dallas with a penchant for surf boards and bass guitars.

Ava is an island seductress who convinces Katie to become her new best friend and a second for her vocal duo.

Rashidi John befriends Katie when he introduces her to the jumbie house Annalise on one of his popular-with-the-ladies rainforest botany tours.

And then there’s Annalise, a giant abandoned house in the rainforest who shows her magical side to a chosen few, and, boy does she ever choose Katie.

Q: Do you ten­d to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

I steal most of my characters from people whose big imprints on life inspire my creativity. But if fiction is life without the boring parts, my fictional characters are those people without them either. Their fictional bads are badder and their crazies are crazier.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I am a planner and a plotter, but the novel takes me wherever it ultimately wants to go. Kind of like my kids do, in real life. In Saving Grace, a character named Zane McMillan shows up who wreaked havoc on my carefully constructed outline. I had a heck of a time keeping him from hijacking the whole book. I love it when that happens.

Q: Your book is set in the Virgin Islands.  Can you tell us why you chose this area in particular?

The islands are magical. I lived on St. Croix for six years, and the people and the places just burned into my brain and my heart. I had no choice in the matter: Saving Grace set itself there.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

The island setting, and the rainforest jumbie house Annalise in particular, are pivotal to the story. In the islands, Katie can embrace the magic in herself and the world around her, whereas she is much too pragmatic for that kind of nonsense back in Texas.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Katie is throwing caution and common sense to the wind and is about to make an offer to purchase a half-finished abandoned house in the rainforest because she believes she and the jumbie spirit offer each other a chance at mutual salvation.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Sure, here’s one I really like:

We had hiked for nearly two hours when Rashidi gave us a hydration break and announced that we were nearing the turnaround point, which would be a special treat: a modern ruin. As we leaned on smooth kapok trees and sucked on our Lululemon water bottles, Rashidi explained that a bad man, a thief, had built a beautiful mansion in paradise ten years before, named her Annalise, and then left her forsaken and half-complete. No one had ever finished her and the rainforest had moved fast to claim her. Wild horses roamed her halls, colonies of bats filled her eaves, and who knows what lived below her in the depths of her cisterns. We would eat our lunch there, then turn back for the hike down.

When the forest parted to reveal Annalise, we all drew in a breath. She was amazing: tall, austere, and a bit frightening. Our group tensed with anticipation. It was like the first day of the annual Parade of Homes, where people stood in lines for the chance to tour the crème de la crème of Dallas real estate, except way better. We were visiting a mysterious mansion with a romantic history in a tropical rainforest. Ooh là là.

Graceful flamboyant trees, fragrant white-flowered frangipanis, and grand pillars marked the entrance to her gateless drive. On each side of the overgrown road, Rashidi pointed out papaya stalks, soursop, and mahogany trees. The fragrance was pungent, the air drunk with fermenting mangos and ripening guava, all subtly undercut by the aroma of bay leaves. It was a surreal orchard, its orphaned fruit unpicked, the air heavy and still, bees and insects the only thing stirring besides our band of turistas. Overhead, the branches met in the middle of the road and were covered in the trailing pink flowers I’d admired the day before, which Rashidi called pink trumpet vines. The sun shone through the canopy in narrow beams and lit our dim path.

A young woman in historic slave garb was standing on the front steps, peering at us from under the hand that shaded her eyes, her gingham skirt whipping in the breeze. She looked familiar. As we came closer, she turned and walked back inside. I turned to ask Rashidi if we were going to tour the inside of the house, but he was talking to a skeletally thin New Yorker who wanted details on the mileage and elevation gain of our hike for her Garmin.

Q: Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

I’m in a perpetual state of writer’s block, or recovery from it. The first thing I do when I feel it coming on is change locations or go outside. If I can’t nip it in the bud, I talk it out with my husband/muse. If it persists, I force myself to write something else — anything to keep me writing. I am a big believer that creativity happens when you’re putting in the work. I had a huge episode of block while writing the sequel to Saving Grace. It took me two months of other writing before the block broke and I could get back to the islands.

Q: What would you do with an extra hour today if you could do anything you wanted?

I’d love to say I’d run six miles or snuggle in the front of the fire with my husband, but it’s a lie. If I had an extra hour, I’d keep writing, but I’d at least play footsie (very vigorously) with him on the couch while I did it.

Q: Which already published book do you wish that you had written and why?

I wish I had written Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, because of the characters: unforgettable, flawed, and larger than life. Gus and Woodrow, oh, how I love thee.

Q: What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors regarding getting their books out there?

More than ever, a fiction author must be fearless and relentless. The number of books published a year is growing exponentially, and you can’t just write yours and hope someone else will sell it for you. You need a marketing plan and an entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn’t hurt if you have a lot of support, too.

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Read-a-Chapter: Saving Grace by Pamela Fagan Hutchins

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the mystery, women’s fiction, Saving Grace by Pamela Fagan Hutchins. Enjoy!

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Saving Grace

Click on cover to purchase at Amazon!

  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: Skipjack Publishing (September 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0988234807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0988234802

If you’re at all inclined to be swept away to the islands to fall in love with a rainforest jumbie house and a Texas attorney who is as much a danger to herself as the island bad guys, then dive headfirst with Katie Connell into Saving Grace.

Katie escapes professional humiliation, a broken heart, and her Bloody Mary-habit when she runs to the island of St. Marcos to investigate the suspicious deaths of her parents. But she trades one set of problems for another when she is bewitched by the voodoo spirit Annalise in an abandoned rainforest house and, as worlds collide, finds herself reluctantly donning her lawyer clothes again to defend her new friend Ava, who is accused of stabbing her very married Senator-boyfriend.

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Chapter One

Last year sucked, and this one was already worse.

Last year, when my parents died in an “accident” on their Caribbean vacation, I’d been working too hard to listen to my instincts, which were screaming “bullshit” so loud I almost went deaf in my third ear. I was preparing for the biggest case of my career, so I sort of had an excuse that worked for me as long as I showed up for happy hour, but the truth was, I was obsessed with the private investigator assigned to my case.

Nick. Almost-divorced Nick. My new co-worker Nick who sometimes sent out vibes that he wanted to rip my Ann Taylor blouse off with his teeth, when he wasn’t busy ignoring me.

But things had changed.

I’d just gotten the verdict back in my mega-trial, the Burnside wrongful termination case. My firm rarely took plaintiff cases, so I’d taken a big risk with this one—and won Mr. Burnside three million dollars, of which the firm got a third. That was the total opposite of suck.

After my coup at the Dallas courthouse, my paralegal Emily and I headed straight down I-20 to the hotel where our firm was on retreat in Shreveport, Louisiana. Shreveport is not on the top ten list for most company getaways, but our senior partner fancied himself a poker player, and loved Cajun food, jazz, and riverboat casinos. The retreat was a great excuse for Gino to indulge in a little Texas Hold ’Em between teambuilding and sensitivity sessions and still come off looking like a helluva guy, but it meant a three and a half hour drive each way. This wasn’t a problem for Emily and me. We bridged both the paralegal-to-attorney gap and the co-worker-to-friend gap with ease, largely because neither of us did Dallas-fancy very well. Or at all.

Emily and I hustled inside for check-in at the Eldorado.

“Do you want a map of the ghost tours?” the front desk clerk asked us, her polyglot Texan-Cajun-Southern accent making tours sound like “turs.”

“Why, thank you kindly, but no thanks,” Emily drawled. In the ten years since she’d left, she still hadn’t shaken Amarillo from her voice or given up barrel-racing horses.

I didn’t believe in hocus pocus, either, but I wasn’t a fan of casinos, which reeked of cigarette smoke and desperation. “Do y’all have karaoke or anything else but casinos onsite?”

“Yes, ma’am, we have a rooftop bar with karaoke, pool tables, and that kind of thing.” The girl swiped at her bangs, then swung her head to put them back in the same place they’d been.

“That sounds more like it,” I said to Emily.

“Karaoke,” she said. “Again.” She rolled her eyes. “Only if we can do tradesies halfway. I want to play blackjack.”

After we deposited our bags in our rooms and freshened up, talking to each other on our cell phones the whole time we were apart, we joined our group. All of our co-workers broke into applause as we entered the conference room. News of our victory had preceded us. We curtsied, and I used both arms to do a Vanna White toward Emily. She returned the favor.

“Where’s Nick?” I called out. “Come on up here.”

Nick had left the courtroom when the jury went out to deliberate, so he’d beaten us here. He stood up from a table on the far side of the room, but didn’t join us in front. I gave him a long distance Vanna White anyway.

The applause died down and some of my partners motioned for me to sit with them at a table near the entrance. I joined them and we all got to work writing a mission statement for the firm for the next fifteen minutes. Emily and I had arrived just in time for the first day’s sessions to end.

When we broke, the group stampeded from the hotel to the docked barge that housed the casino. In Louisiana, gambling is only legal “on the water” or on tribal land. On impulse, I walked to the elevator instead of the casino. Just before the doors closed, a hand jammed between them and they bounced apart, and I found myself headed up to the hotel rooms with none other than Nick Kovacs.

“So, Helen, you’re not a gambler either,” he said as the elevator doors closed.

My stomach flipped. Cheesy, yes, but when he was in a good mood, Nick called me Helen—as in Helen of Troy.

I had promised to meet Emily for early blackjack before late karaoke, but he didn’t need to know that. “I have the luck of the Irish,” I said. “Gambling is dangerous for me.”

He responded with dead silence. Each of us looked up, down, sideways, and anywhere but at each other, which was hard, since the elevator was mirrored above a gold handrail and wood paneling. There was a wee bit of tension in the air.

“I heard there’s a pool table at the hotel bar, though, and I’d be up for that,” I offered, throwing myself headlong into the void and holding my breath on the way down.

Dead silence again. Long, dead silence. The ground was going to hurt when I hit it.

Without making eye contact, Nick said, “OK, I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

Did he really say he’d meet me there? Just the two of us? Out together? Oh my God, Katie, what have you done?

The elevator doors dinged, and we headed in opposite directions to our rooms. It was too late to back out now.

I moved in a daze. Hyperventilating. Pits sweating. Heart pounding. My outfit was all wrong, so I ditched the Ann Taylor for some jeans, a structured white blouse, and, yes, I admit it, a multi-colored Jessica Simpson handbag and her coordinating orange platform sandals. White works well against my long, wavy red hair, which I unclipped and finger-combed over my shoulders. Not very attorney-like, but that was the point. Besides, I didn’t even like being an attorney, so why would I want to look like one now?

Normally I am Katie Clean, but I settled on a quick brush of my teeth, a French shower, and lipstick. I considered calling Emily to tell her I was no-showing, but I knew she would understand when I explained later. I race-walked to the elevators and cursed them as they stopped on every other floor before the Rooftop Grotto.

Ding. Finally. I stopped to catch my breath. I counted to ten, took one last gulp for courage, and stepped under the dim lights above the stone-topped bar. I stood near a man whose masculinity I could feel pulsing from several feet away. Heat flamed in my cheeks. My engine raced. Just the man I’d come to see.

Nick was of Hungarian descent, and he had his gypsy ancestors to thank for his all-over darkness—eyes, hair, and skin—and sharp cheekbones. He had a muscular ranginess that I loved, but he wasn’t traditionally handsome. His nose was large-ish and crooked from being broken too many times. He’d once told me that a surfboard to the mouth had given him his snaggled front tooth. But he was gorgeous in an undefined way, and I often saw from the quick glances of other women that I wasn’t the only one in the room who noticed.

Now he noticed me. “Hi, Helen.”

“Hi, Paris,” I replied.

He snorted. “Oh, I am definitely not your Paris. Paris was a wimp.”

“Hmmmmm. Menelaus, then?”

“Um, beer.”

“I’m pretty sure there was no one named Beer in the story of Helen of Troy,” I said, sniffing in a faux-superior way.

Nick spoke to the bartender. “St. Pauli Girl.” He finally gave me the Nick grin, and the tension left over from our elevator ride disappeared. “Want one?”

I needed to gulp more than air for courage. “Amstel Light.”

Nick placed the order. The bartender handed Nick two beers beaded with moisture, then shook water from his hands. Nick handed mine to me and I wrapped a napkin around it, lining up the edges with the military precision I adored. Nick sang under his breath, his head bobbing side to side. Honky-tonk Woman.

“I think I like you better in Shreveport than Dallas,” I said.

“Thanks, I think. And I like seeing you happy. I guess it’s been a tough year for you, losing your parents and all. Here’s to that smile,” he said, holding his beer aloft toward me.

The toast almost stopped my heart. He was spot-on about the tough part, but I did better when I kept the subject of my parents buried with them. I clinked his bottle but couldn’t look at him while I did it. “Thanks, Nick, very much.”

“Want to play pool?” he asked.

“Let’s do it.”

I was giddy, the sophomore girl out with the senior quarterback. We both loved music, so we talked about genres, bands (his old band, Stingray, and “real” bands), my minor in music at Baylor, and LSD, AKA lead-singer disease. Over a bucket of beers, we swapped stories about high school, and he told me he’d once rescued an injured booby.

“An injured booby?” I asked. “Implants or natural? Eight ball in corner pocket.” I sank it.

He gathered the balls out of the pockets and positioned them in the rack while I ground my cue tip in blue chalk and blew off the excess. “You’re so land-locked. A booby is a bird, Katie.”

I rolled his use of my real name back and forth in my brain, enjoying how it felt.

“I was out surfing, and I found a booby that couldn’t fly. I carried it back home and took care of it until I could set it free.”

“Oh, my gosh! How bad did it smell? Did it peck you? I’ll bet your Mom was thrilled!” I talked fast, in endless exclamation points. Embarrassing. I was a Valley Girl on acid, like Oh-My-Gawd. “It was in shock, so it was calm, but every day it got wilder. I was fourteen, and my mom was happy I wasn’t in my room holding some girl’s real booby, so she was fine with it. It smelled really bad after a few days, though.”

I broke. Balls clacked and ricocheted in every direction, and a striped one tumbled into a side pocket. “Stripes,” I called. “So, your mom had caught you before holding a girl’s booby, huh?”

“Um, I didn’t say that . . .” he said, and stuttered to a stop.

I was more smitten than ever.

“Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” was playing in the background. I hadn’t heard that song in years. It got me thinking. For months, I had been fighting off the urge to slip my arms around Nick’s neck and bite the back of it, but I was aware that most people would consider that inappropriate at work. Pretty small-minded of them, if you asked me. I eyed the large balcony outside the bar and thought that if I could just maneuver Nick out there, maybe I could make it happen.

My chances seemed good enough until one of our colleagues walked in. Tim was of counsel at the firm. “Of counsel” meant he was too old to be called an associate, but he wasn’t a rainmaker. Plus, he wore his pants pulled up an inch too high in the waist. The firm would never make him a partner. Nick and I locked eyes. Until now, we’d been two shortwave radios on the same channel, the signal crackling between us. But now the dial had turned to static and his eyes clouded over. He stiffened and moved subtly away from me.

He hailed Tim up. “Hey, Tim, over here.”

Tim waved to us and walked across the smoky bar. Everything moved in slow motion as he came closer, step by ponderous step. His feet echoed as they hit the floor, reverberating no . . . no . . . no . . . Or maybe I was saying it aloud. I couldn’t tell, but it made no difference.

“Hey, Tim, this is great. Grab a beer; let’s play some pool.”

Oh, please tell me Nick didn’t just invite Tim to hang out with us. He could have given him a short “hey how ya doing have a nice night I was just leaving” shpiel, or anything else for that matter, but no, he had asked Tim to join us.

Tim and Nick looked at me for affirmation.

I entertained a fleeting fantasy in which I executed a perfect side kick to Tim’s gut and he started rolling around on the floor with the dry heaves. What good were the thirteen years of karate my father had insisted on if I couldn’t use it at times like these? “Every woman should be able to defend herself, Katie,” Dad would say as he dropped me off at the dojo.

Maybe this wasn’t technically a physical self-defense moment, but Tim’s arrival had dashed my hopes for the whole neck-bite thing, and all that could have come after it. Wasn’t that reason enough?

I cast out the image. “Actually, Tim, why don’t you take over for me? I was in trial all week, and I’m exhausted. We have an early start tomorrow. It’s the last day of our retreat, the grande finale for the Hailey & Hart team.” I handed my pool cue to Tim.

Tim thought this was a fine idea. It was clear women scared him. If I had hoped for an argument from Nick, though, I didn’t get one. He reverted to his outside-of-work “Katie who?” act.

All I got from him was “Goodnight,” with neither a Helen nor a Katie tacked on.

I grabbed another Amstel Light from the bar for the plod back to my room.

Reprinted with permission from Saving Grace by Pamela Fagan Hutchins. © 2012 by Skipjack Publishing

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