Finlay Donovan is Killing It. Literally.
“It’s a widely known fact that most moms are ready to kill someone by eight-thirty A.M. on any given morning. On the particular morning of Tuesday, October eighth, I was ready by seven forty-five.”
The narrator in Elle Cosimano’s Finlay Donovan Is Killing It (Minotaur Books) is Finlay Donovan herself, and let’s recap her situation. Her dirtbag ex-husband slept with their real estate agent, with whom he is now living, and has just told Finlay he wants custody of their kids. Four-year-old Delia has taken advantage of Finlay’s diaper wrestling match with two-year-old Zach to give herself a ragged, scalp-nicking haircut. The coffee overflowed, the babysitter has unaccountably not shown up, Finlay is already late for a brunch appointment with her literary agent about Finlay’s very, very late manuscript, and every bill on her table is glowing with red “overdue” stamps.
Not long thereafter, there is a dead body in her garage. Not long after that, she is kneeling in a field in the middle of the night with the cold steel of a gun pressed against the back of her head. How did she get there? It’s a long story.
A SUDDEN TRANSFORMATION
In that brunch with her agent, after the two of them hash out some practical ways to kill someone and get her book moving again, Finlay complains about not getting paid enough, and unexpectedly finds a note slipped under her plate. It contains a name, address and phone number, and the words “$50,000 CASH.” Someone has obviously way misunderstood their conversation, but when Finlay calls to explain, the woman on the other end of the line will hear none of it: Her husband is a bad man and “I just want him gone.”
Of course, Finlay isn’t going to do any such thing, not even after she spots the evidence of domestic abuse on the woman, or after she hears about some of the terrible people the woman’s husband is involved with, or after her shockingly enterprising babysitter sits her down and says, “You can either look Patricia in the eyes and take her money, or you can look in the eyes of your husband’s lawyer as he takes your children from you.” Finlay’s not a hitwoman, for God’s sake. But … one thing leads to another, and then another — “I keep trying to do the right thing, and somehow it keeps backfiring” — and before long, she is deep in an ever-escalating cascade of burglary, blackmail, body disposal, fake identities, real murderers, and the dangerously awakened interest of the Russian mob. Not to mention that gun to her head. How does she survive it all? I’ll never tell — but it’s all in the funniest crime series debut since Stephanie Plum strapped on her bounty-hunting gear, and you’ll love every minute of it.
INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS?
Cosimano’s inspiration for the book lay close to home: “Finlay’s story begins in a crowded Panera during a midday rush, which is exactly where the idea for the book first came to me. My longtime critique partners were helping me brainstorm through a particularly violent plot over lunch when we realized that a diner at the table beside us seemed a little uncomfortable. After all, how could they know that we were only plotting fictitious murders?
“Later that evening, we were laughing about all the various ways that conversation might have been misinterpreted when someone posed the question, ‘Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if they assumed that we were killers for hire?’” Lightning struck. I could see that plot roll out in front of me as clearly as the opening to a TV show. The three of us started brainstorming, and I started hammering out a loose pitch. Shortly after, I sent the opening chapters and a synopsis to my agent, and we both agreed that we were onto something really exciting.”
BREAKING NEW GROUND WITH GENRES
This would be the debut of what she hoped would be a new series, but it was not Cosimano’s first book. She’d already been the author of five well-received young adult thrillers. Was writing an adult novel different?
“I think there’s a very common misconception that YA novels are vastly and inherently different from adult novels. In my experience, the only difference is the age and perspective of the lens through which the story is imagined; the storytelling itself — the craft of it — is (for me) the same. I fell in love with young adult books because I’m fascinated with characters who are discovering themselves for the first time, and I approached Finlay’s story
with that same curiosity.
“Only this time, I imagined the story through the lens of someone who is re-examining and reclaiming her own identity instead of exploring it for the first time. As mothers, our identities are constantly reforming around our roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers. As I crafted Finlay’s voice, I asked myself a lot of the same questions I ask my YA characters: Who are you now, and who are you becoming? What do you fear and yearn for? What’s at stake if you fail?”
JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE LIFE FOR A MOM
And, as an author, am I going to be able to pull this off? “As I sit here and think back on every book I’ve ever written, I can’t remember ever not asking myself this question. And it seems fitting because this is the same question Finlay asks herself over and over throughout the book. And maybe that’s part of what makes this whole crazy plot work.
“When I was writing Finlay’s story, it was pivotal to me that she be deeply relatable — that her voice and circumstances feel real and authentic, even if the plot wasn’t. There’s a lot of my own internal voice in Finlay’s character. I’ve been that weary, bone-tired mom who’s desperately trying to juggle parenthood and a career that others don’t always take seriously. I’ve been that mom who’s wondered if I’ll ever get another book deal. I’ve been that mom who’s been forced to prioritize the needs of everyone else over my own. Who’s made questionable decisions in the name of what’s best for my kids. Those were the real, deep, true-to-life elements that brought balance to the zanier aspects of the story. And truthfully, I hope Finn and I never stop asking that question: Am I going to be able to pull this off? If we’re not, maybe we’re not taking worthwhile risks. Maybe we’re not really stretching ourselves.”
A CHANGE OF PLANS
Cosimano knows first-hand about those risks. For fourteen years, she was a successful real estate agent — and then she chucked it all away to move her family to Mexico and begin a writing career. What happened?
“I think the breaking point came in 2010 when I realized I wasn’t present in my own life. I was spread so thin, trying to be too many things to too many people and consequently feeling inadequate at everything. My life was rushing by, and none of those blurred moments felt joyful or memorable. We were trapped in a grind, and I hated that I was wishing away time that I would never be able to get back. “While I was on a short vacation visiting my parents in Mexico, longing for the beautiful, simple retirement they were enjoying, my mom (in her infinite mom-wisdom) realized I was teetering on a crisis and suggested that I take a sabbatical and write a book. I told her she was crazy; I had only ever joked about things like that. But after we got home, I thought harder about that possibility.
“Not long after, I changed careers, we moved our family there, and we reimagined our life. It was the riskiest and best decision we’ve ever made. We moved back to the U.S. last year for lots of small reasons … my husband’s job requirements, my career, my teenage son’s desire to attend college here. But the experience of living abroad was magical and healing, and I’m grateful beyond measure for the time we spent there.”
Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is a comic novel with romantic suspense elements. Cosimano’s YA books stretch across a number of genres — serial killer, paranormal, fantasy. How does she decide what form is best suited for the story she wants to tell?
“I’m laughing to myself as I’m reading this question, wondering if maybe there’s a key to my personality here somewhere. I’ve never fit easily into molds. As a teen, I never fell easily into a group or a clique. I wasn’t drawn to labels or brands. My hobbies and interests, my strengths, and even my musical tastes were all eclectic and hard to pin down. Not because I found it hard to get excited about any one particular thing, but because I was passionately interested in a lot of things.
“As a writer, I often feel the same way. I read across age groups and genres. I love romance, thrillers, epic fantasy, comedy, and horror. I love books about kids and books about adults. I don’t limit myself as a reader, and I enjoy stretching myself and trying new things as a writer. For me, the story usually begins with a small seed … a glimmer of voice or mood, or an image or scene in my mind. I’m not sure that the choice of form is a conscious one so much as percolation of random thoughts, images, and ideas until the premise grabs me by the throat and I can see the story, the world, and the characters in my mind. That’s when I start writing it.”
SOME WORTHWHILE ADVICE
And rewriting it: “The greatest piece of writing advice I’ve learned during my career came from my very wise literary agent, Sarah Davies. Early on, she said, ‘You don’t need a lot of words. You only need the right ones.’ This idea stuck with me, and it’s shaped the way I approach writing and revising.
“When I was very young, I had a grandfather-figure who used to sit in a rocking chair with a pocket knife, whittling smooth, lovely figures from big, ugly sticks. My process feels similar. I typically begin with a messy, horribly overwritten first draft. With every pass, I’m cutting, whittling away unnecessary bits until I can start to see the opportunities underneath.
“There’s very little nuance in my early drafts. All those poignant thematic bits are usually buried, and it takes me several passes to mine them out. Even then, I still need at least two passes late in the game to smooth out the rough edges at the line level.
“I probably drive my editors to the brink of insanity, but I’m very critical of my own writing, and at some point, someone will have to forcefully take the manuscript and red pen from my hands and tell me it’s done. My revisions tend to take much longer than my drafts. And I never read my books again once they go to final printing. I’m far too hard on myself for that.”
INFLUENCES OF ALL KINDS
She reads plenty of other people’s books, though: “You probably won’t be surprised to learn that my literary influences were all over the map. When I was little, my Great-Uncle Bob used to read me fairy tales. Not the Disney kind; these were mischievous, wicked woodland creatures who made bargains, spoke in riddles, and committed remorseless acts of violence. These tales utterly captivated me, and to this day, I adore dark faerie stories. As a teen, I discovered S.E. Hinton, and I read her books until the spines fell off. As I grew older, my tastes ran the gamut from time travel to paranormal,
psychological thrillers to contemporary mysteries, rom-coms to urban
fantasies. I’ve found inspiration and joy in them all.
“The Stephanie Plum series definitely helped shape my vision for this book. Unlike the YA market, where genre feels much more fluid, genre in the world of adult books seems more rigidly defined. Janet Evanovich’s series is such a fun mash-up of comedy, mystery, thrills and romance, and it gave me hope that my own mashed-up story might one day find a place on a similar shelf.
“As far as non-literary influences, music is a big one for me. I keep a playlist for every book — a collection of songs that put me in the right headspace for each scene. My Finlay soundtrack is upbeat, surprising, and fast, blending a lot of styles, a lot like the book. I love it.”
A WRITER, A READER, A DAUGHTER
There was one other influence, as well: “My dad had an unusual career; he was the warden of a maximum-security prison, and I guess that means I had some unusual life experiences growing up as a byproduct of the work he brought home with him. So much of what I learned from him, about good and bad people and how we define them, feels very resonant now.
“One might assume that through his relationships with correctional officers, police, lawyers, politicians, and convicts, and through the stories I heard about them growing up, I would come away with very concrete understandings of right and wrong, or good and bad people. But I think the opposite was true. I learned that those lines are not clearly defined. That good people sometimes do bad things. That there are circumstances and systems in play. That just because someone is wearing a uniform or a suit or a judge’s robe doesn’t make them inherently worthy of them. That we all have the capacity for right and wrong, compassion and evil, strength and weakness inside us. This is an idea that sticks with me while I’m writing — that heroes and villains are dimensional and human, and telling the good guys from the bad guys isn’t always so clean cut.”
In the book, Finlay Donovan certainly finds that to be true, too, and undoubtedly will find it to be true again in her next adventure: “I’m busy drafting the second book now. I’m so excited about where this series is going. We’ve got all kinds of exciting Finlay news on the horizon I can’t wait to share.”
Hmm, sounds like a movie or TV deal in the works to me!
Looks like Elle Cosimano is killing it.