Tell us about the road you travelled to becoming a bestselling author, starting with your upbringing in Oklahoma.
I’m originally from Miami (Mi-am-muh), Oklahoma, which is the largest town in the Northeastern corner of the state and has a population of about 11,000. Like many writers, I’m a big reader. I spent a lot of hours at the Miami Public Library, and I love to visit it whenever I’m back to see my parents.
I was eager to go to college in a city, and I ended up at a Jesuit school (though I’m not Catholic) Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. I loved being educated by the Jesuits. In fact, I was editor of our school newspaper, which often got into trouble taking on one controversy or another. Our Jesuit advisors always stood by our right to free speech and never backed down to any administration pressure.
Then I went to graduate school in Washington, D.C. at American University. I studied Public Administration, which is kind of like a degree in government. My internships were all in marketing and communications though, especially education policy related. All ten years that I lived in D.C., I worked in that area. I organized press conferences and pitched education media on reports or events. I was writing all the time, but I missed creative writing vs. the policy type I was mostly doing.
So I started working on a book and joined local writer groups. That was the real start of my journey, and it’d end up being about thirteen years before my debut was published in 2019.
Then you moved to Providence, where you still live with your husband and young son. What attracted you to – and keeps you living in — Providence?
We moved here for my husband’s job, and I was able to work virtually. We were honestly ready to live someone easier. I loved D.C., but we were in a small apartment, no car and it’s pretty expensive. We moved to an apartment on 12th street on the East Side, near the outdoor farmers market. We just fell in love with the state. The walkability, great food and being so near the ocean really blew our minds. I still feel that way, and I try to get everyone I know to move here because there’s nowhere better.
When did you start writing?
As far as writing to be published, my first attempt was in 2005 on a book club / women’s story. A few years later, I moved on to a thriller idea, since that’s mostly what I read. That’s something I learned: write what you read. I tried to get an agent with both those books, especially the thriller. I ended up querying about 150 agents over many years. All of them were “no”s, but I just kept going. Then I had a baby and took a year and a half off. When I started writing again, I realized I wanted to explore the terrors of new motherhood and that’s when something clicked. I realized I needed to connect my writing to my real emotions. I spent about eighteen months writing and editing that book, and from there, I was able to get my agent and a two-book deal.
Your first book was “Little Voices,” a thriller published in 2019. Give us the synopsis – and the real-life experiences behind it.
As with so much of being a new parent, Little Voices began with sleep, or lack of sleep. My three-month old son would not nap unless he was ON me. I wore him in a baby wrap, but I had to move to keep him sleeping. Luckily, it was early spring, and I could amble through my neighborhood on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island.
On these long, daily walks along Blackstone Boulevard, where Little Voices opens, I often imagined another mother wearing her baby like me. I pictured her trying to solve a friend’s murder after another friend is accused. Of her not listening to critics who questioned her sanity. How she believed in herself and her abilities, even if she was the only one.
Next was 2020’s “For the Best,” another best-seller. Tell us about that one.
For the Best was my second thriller, and it’s the story of a woman named Jules who finds herself as the only suspect in a murder that happened on a night when she was blackout drunk on Hope Street in Providence.
With her seemingly perfect life on the line, she launches a true-crime vlog to investigate and find the real killer. Not only does she uncover clues the police missed, but she comes face-to-face with her past demons.
Plot aside, this book came from my need to explore why white women (myself included) so often assume that things will just work out for the best (usually, it’s because the system supports that thinking). How entitlement is passed down generation to generation. That white lady asking for the manager in front of her kids learned exactly how to do that by watching her own parents. And since it’s a thriller, so what happens when there is finally a reckoning.
You co-authored the bestselling Audible Original “Young Rich Widows,” which came on the market in 2022. Tell us about it – and whether you were surprised at its almost instant success.
Young Rich Widows was an early pandemic co-author project and came from my need to have fun writing (it’s a campy thriller set in 1980s Providence). I also wanted an excuse to work with writers I admire. I was lucky enough that three incredibly talent authors agreed: Kimberly Belle, Layne Fargo and Cate Holahan agreed. We’d never written for audio-only, or a co-author project, but we just went for it. We each wrote a character and alternated chapters – it was honestly a total blast.
As far as the success of the project, we’re all still stunned. There are almost 20,000 reviews and it was at #1 on the Audiobook charts for weeks. I think it’s been in the top one hundred since it released almost a year ago. We were even just nominated for an award for Best Audiobook from International Thriller Writers. It’s crazy, honestly. I think what we did right is we wrote the book we wanted to read (or listen to). We wanted something fun, escapist, but with lots of twists as well as strong female leads. It’s such an honor that people have connected with it. And the sequel is coming soon!
Your next book, “Blood Sisters,” is due for publication in October. Part of it is set in Rhode Island, and part in Oklahoma. The novel involves missing Indigenous women and it draws on your experiences and heritage as an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Give us an overview – and tell us what inspired it.
Blood Sisters is my new suspense novel about Syd Walker, who fifteen years prior, killed a man in a devil mask to save her sister’s life. She’s called back to Oklahoma because she’s an archeologist and a woman’s remains are found, but it’s when her sister goes missing that she knows not all the devils are dead and she must save her sister again.
While Blood Sisters is absolutely fiction, there are true parts of this story that have been with me my whole life. This book (and future books in this series) will have Missing Murdered and Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) at the heart of the stories, a tragic issue I’m deeply committed to elevating in whatever way I can.
I also wanted to write about my Cherokee heritage and explore what it means to be Cherokee today. Just like Syd, my Cherokee family were forced to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. In fact, I gave Syd the same last name, Walker, my Cherokee ancestor who was forced to the state. But there’s a whole modern world I wanted to share as well as questions I’m still exploring through my characters.
You also write non-fiction – and here, we’re recalling “Home but Not Alone: A Coronavirus Diary,” a multi-part series you wrote for The Providence Journal during the height of the pandemic. I happened to curate it. Any more non-fiction projects in the works?
I’m so grateful for that series and getting to work together. It kept me writing, taught me a lot and helped me capture a lot of parenting during the pandemic I would have otherwise forgotten. As far as now, I have a few ideas for some essays related to Blood Sisters, but nothing written down yet.
Tell us about The Long Rhode Retreats & Gatherings that you operate.
It’s three acres in the woods of South County with a beautiful post and beam home that’s perfect for small to medium sized gatherings and retreats. I’ve held writing retreats so far, and I’m planning to open the space up for people to rent for their own gatherings and use. I’m imagining yoga classes by the pool, artists painting under pine tree or writers working away on the wrap around covered porches. Even a corporate meeting is nicer in the woods. More details or to reach out click here.
What are the books that have most influenced your own writing?
Every book has different influences. For Blood Sisters, I thought a lot about Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series, which is set in Texas where the author is from. I also revisited the work of Daniel Woodrell, especially, Winter’s Bone, both the book and movie. They really evoke setting in a way that’s honest and unapologetic, which I admire. I also love The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, which I read after I’d drafted Blood Sisters, but it gave me such a sense of relief, as if it said, okay, there is an audience for this kind of book. And in her case, it’s a big audience, and I loved cheering on all her success.
If you’ll pardon the pun, how about we take a page from The New York Times Book Review’s regular feature “By the Book” and ask this: You are organizing a literary dinner party. What writers, dead or alive, would you invite, and what would you serve?
If I’m picking three, then it’s Allan Gurganus who I’m lucky to know and is an absolutely brilliant author and storyteller of the highest degree. I’ve been at dinner parties with him and there’s no better company. I’d also love Robin Wall Kimmerer to join because Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. And finally L.M. Montgomery, so I could tell her what her Anne of Green Gables series meant to me (and millions of others).
I’ll serve locally caught Bomster scallops and mushroom risotto (from Trader Joe’s). Dessert is absolutely Gregg’s Death by Chocolate cake.
Let’s say you are writing your memoir. How would the opening paragraph read?
Call the literary police because this is a fake. There’s no way Vanessa Lillie has an interesting enough life to warrant a memoir worth reading!
What is one thing no one would guess about Vanessa Lillie?
I once won a poker tournament in Saint Martin. I absolutely love Texas Hold’em. The best people watching with an occasional payday, who could ask for anything more?
I love connecting with readers, writers and creatives – the best place to reach out is Instagram or my website.