Wanda M. Morris has worked in the legal departments of some of America’s top Fortune 100 companies. She is an accomplished presenter and leader. Wanda previously served as President of the Georgia Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, in which she established a signature female empowerment program known as the Women’s Initiative. She is an alumna of the Yale Writers Workshop and Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Wanda is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and Crime Writers of Color. She is married, the mother of three, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. All Her Little Secrets is her debut novel.
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Writer orgnaziation’s discussed: Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Crime Writers of Color
Transcript – Please note, I used an automated software program to generate this transcript, not a human. I only do a light edit so it might be choppy and have mistakes. Accuracy according to the software is 80%. To learn more about the Happy Scribe software that I use click here.
You are listening to Meet the Thriller Author, the podcast for interview writers of mysteries, thrillers and suspense books. I am your host, Alan Petersen, and this is episode number 177. In this episode of the podcast will be meeting Wanda M. Morris, who is a corporate attorney who has worked in the legal Department for several Fortune 100 companies. She’s an alumna of the Yale Writers Workshop Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery. Writers of America and Crime Writers of Color. She lives with her family in Atlanta, Georgia.
All her Little Secrets is her debut novel, which was published on November 2. Before we get to the interview, I’d like to tell you about the sponsor of this episode of the podcast, which is Brain FM. I’m really excited to tell you about Brain FM. They provide music that’s designed for the brain to improve your focus, meditation, relaxation, even for naps and sleep within minutes. So you’re not going to hear the latest hits that’s going to distract you on Brain FM. Instead, they use a science first approach to create music that sounds different and affects your brain differently than any other music.
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Welcome to the podcast, Wanda.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So I have to ask. You have a lot of experience in the legal field, so did you always want to write fiction and thrillers while you were working as a lawyer?
Oh, wow. I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve always loved to write. Didn’t know until much later in my career that I wanted to write fiction that I wanted to write books, and then when it hit me, it was kind of like a shot. And I was like, oh, that would be so cool to do. Of course, I knew absolutely nothing about writing a book. And it showed from my very first draft.
Did it help with you? Because I’m assuming as an attorney, I had a lot of experience writing, like, legal stuff. So do you help at all, or is it just two different worlds?
Well, yeah. Writing a novel and writing, say, for example, Legal Breezer, two very different things. There is some of the habits that I developed as a lawyer. I brought over to my writing and that’s things like riding on a deadline, having to work in a crunch. I think that helped me a lot, but just the idea of creating original stories. Yeah, that was kind of different. But I think the difference is that as a novelist, you get to create your own facts and create your own world.
Whereas writing as an attorney, you’re kind of limited to the facts that you have. And it took some getting used to it also took some courses and workshops and things like that just so that I could learn things like characterization and pacing and story structure. So, yeah, it was good, though. I enjoyed.
And were you a fan of the filler and mystery genre as a reader before you decided to write your own book?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always been a fan of mysteries and thrillers in particular long before I ever kind of say, yeah, I could actually write one of these. I just love books all my life. Going to the library or the bookstore on occasion just was kind of like, my highlight. I was that kid who asked for books for Christmas instead of toys.
Yeah, I was the same way as, like, my favorite gift was Mars and Nobles gift card.
Right. Exactly. That was me.
I’m kind of curious, too, because I’ll have a little secret. So we’ll get into that in a second here. But that’s your debut novel. So I’m just kind of curious How’s it going as a book launch. Has it been what you expected? Is it really different from you expected?
Oh, gosh. It has far exceeded anything that I ever could have expected. I kind of didn’t know what to expect until I asked my friends and they were all kind of like, soak it in. Soak it in. And it’s not until you’re actually in the midst of it that you actually put ideas and thoughts and things that you’ve worked on in solitary out into the world. So, yeah, it has been really exciting, really fun, really scary. Just amazingly surreal.
Tell us a little bit about all her little secrets. What’s it about about the characters?
Sure. So all her little secrets is kind of the short synopsis. It’s the story of a black female lawyer who gets caught in a dangerous conspiracy after the death of her boss. At least Little John is the protagonist, and she seemingly has everything going forward. She’s got this in a well paying job in Midtown Atlanta. She’s got these great friends, but everything takes a turn. One morning in January, she goes to the office for a meeting with her boss. And this is not a spoiler because it’s like on page two.
But said boss is also someone she’s been having an affair with. She finds him dead and she does what many people would consider the unthinkable. She actually walks away without calling the authorities. And the reason she does that is because she has a dark chunk of secrets that she’s been keeping from everyone, including the small town past and a younger brother who spends some time on the other side of the law. Soon after the death, she is promoted to replace her boss in the executive suite.
And it’s there that she uncovers some shady dealings going on in the company as she starts to dig into what is going on, all those secrets that she’s held close to the best start to bubble to the surface, and soon she is caught in this quagmire of trying to protect the brother that she tried to save years ago and stop a really sinister conspiracy.
And you tackle some big issues in your novel racism, sexism, all these problems that we’re having in America or we’ve been having forever, but they come to the head the last couple of years. Can you tell us about the importance it was important to you to incorporate these themes into your novel? And I’m kind of curious to you about how you balance it, because those are pretty big themes, obviously. But you’re also writing an entertaining novel. Was it tough to balance all that?
It’s interesting. I didn’t set it out specifically to say yes, I’m going to cover X, Y and Z issues. What I set out to do was to write the story of one black female in America, and as a result, you get all these really tough issues because being black and female in this country is still very difficult despite whatever progress we’ve made, I still feel like black women in particular are still the most maligned and disrespected people on the Earth. And so when I set out to write this book, I wanted to write her story and everything that is encapsulated in living and working as a black female in this country.
As a result, you get issues like sex, discrimination and racism and all the other isms of being black and Brown in this country with your love background.
Does that help shape the story and other characters based on any real people as part of you in these characters?
Someone said there’s a little bit of every author in their book. I think that’s certainly true. There are some issues that I tackle in the book that come out of my lived experience, for example, being racially profiled in a store, being maligned or impeded obstacles put in my way, sitting in corporate conference rooms. But I think my law degree, it certainly did contribute to the story in the respect that wanted to be intentional about the difficulties that this particular character faced. And so my law degree and my law background informed the book because I wanted to set up a really tough situation for a lease where she would be caught between this dilemma of her ethical duties as a lawyer and also her moral duty to her brother and her family.
As I said before, despite the body count in this book, it really is a book about family and love and loss and resilience was intentional about her being an attorney in the book because I wanted to put her in this really tough dilemma. And what would she do when faced with these opposing obstacles?
Yeah, it seems like Atlanta has a pretty big role in the novels. You always hear about the Old South and the New South. Tell us a little bit about that, especially here on the West Coast. It’s always fascinating when I hear those terms. Tell us a little bit about Atlanta. The role of features in your book.
Sure to me, Atlanta has always been a city of dichotomies. This city was once the military operations center of the Civil War. It is also a city that served as the cradle and the bird, so to speak, of the civil rights movement. So you have these two kind of opposing hallmarks in the city. You can drive down a street and see Confederate soldier statues right down the street from the historic Ebony’s Or Baptist Church where Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King preached. There are Confederate soldiers carved into the side of a mountain stone mountain here in Atlanta, which is down the road from the John Lewis Parkway.
So you have these kind of competing hallmarks of the city. And I thought gosh, this would be the perfect setting for a woman who is faced and tasked with racially charged issues in the book. And while black and Brown people aren’t sitting in the back of buses anymore, and we don’t have to go to the back of a restaurant to be served, I still think that we have some ways to go in this city and in this country. As a matter of fact, I think that there is still economic disparity that contributes to a lot of oppression and the rigors and challenges of trying to live as a black person in this country.
In corporate boardrooms across the country, there’s still a sore dearth of black and Brown people in executive management. I read in a Fortune magazine earlier this spring that something like 3% of the executives in Fortune 500 companies are black. I just think, wow, that’s sad for all of us, because when you have a homogeneous looking boardroom where initiatives and company is driven from the top down. You kind of get that same thinking. And I think that’s unfortunate for everyone. The company has done a disservice as well as the people who work and consume goods to those companies.
I was doing research on your background that the US strong advocate for empowering women in communities of color. And I read in your novel that’s like a continuation of that advocacy. I know you might not have started it that way, but he talked a little about that. How fiction, how a filler novel can help in that, especially for people who are writing and maybe can think of doing something like that.
Yeah. Well, I hope that after reading this book, people come away from it and say, wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Or Wandermore gave me food for thought about how I interact or what am I doing to be an ally to people of color? And so my thought is similarly, that not just people of color, but women, too. There are moments in this book where nearly all the women in the book are on some sort of journey. And my hope is that people kind of stop and think, oh, am I contributing to the problem or am I helping?
So, yeah, I like to think that those issues that I tackle in this book are things that people see in real life and that they can now say, you know what? I’ve got a different thinking about this. Or there’s another approach I can take in the book. Elise, Little John faces like an almost insurmountable and amount of not only tragedy, but just kind of microaggressions, just those little bitty things that occur on a day to day basis that you stop and think, oh, some offhand remark that somebody makes they’re thinking, I’m being funny.
I’m being clever. It’s something that could be offensive. And so in tackling these issues through fiction, my hope is that I’m also tackling them in real life by helping to change behavior.
Yeah, it does great, too, because like you said, you’re dealing with these issues, but you turn out an action packed page trading thriller. So it’s kind of neat how you blended those two worlds and still in a thriller. I think that’s a really cool outcome on your novel. So I’m kind of curious, too, now. So how do you come up with this is the cliche question that I have to ask. How do you come up with your ideas for your books? How was the process?
Wow. Well, with this one, I’ve worked for companies where they didn’t treat women and black and Brown people and disabled people very good, whether it was pay equity or in resources, promotional opportunities. What have you and that stuck with me? And then I also worked with I worked for a company that called Everyone Family, like executive Management, called all the Employees family and wanted everyone to consider themselves part of the Flip company family, and someone in my Department died unexpectedly. There was nothing sinister about the death.
The person just died. But I was mortified by how quickly everybody went back to normal. After the person’s death, the office was cleaned and the name was removed. And two days later, nobody was talking about the person. Nobody. It was as if the person had never existed in that office. And that just like I said, it just mortified me. And it stuck with me because I thought, Gosh, if we consider ourselves family, shouldn’t we be doing something more? Should we not be reaching out? There should be something more that we could do.
So that served as the Genesis of this theme of family that runs through the book, who we call family and why we call them family. And I tried to explore that both from a corporate setting whose family as well as a personal setting who is a Lease’s family. And it isn’t always via biological ties either.
Okay, curious about your writing process. Do you outline your novels or do you write by the seat of your pants?
Oh, gosh. Now I couldn’t write by the seat of my pants. I tend to outline, and I think I do that primarily just so that I have a roadmap. And when we’re talking outlines, I’m talking very loose outlines. We’re talking just a few pages and nothing like I once heard. Jeffrey Deaver writes like, 250 page outlines, and I’m like, no, I’m not doing that. But we’re talking a very loose outline so that I kind of know the big scenes and the big turning points in the book.
And then I start to write. I don’t always know how the book will end. As a matter of fact, they never know how the book will end. And I like that feeling of writing to the unknown. Even with this book, I was like, right along with Elise, she’s running. And I’m kind of like, oh, my gosh, girl, where are you going? I was running with her on the keyboard, so I do that. And certainly I’m not hard and fast to the outline that I said. If the characters take me off in a different direction, I go with that.
One of the characters in the book was a gentleman by the name of Juice. He’s a friend of Elise’s brother, and he was supposed to be just like, a minor character in one scene. And after I wrote him in that scene, I thought, Gosh, I really like this character a lot. I’d like to see him in other scenes. And so that veered from the outline that I originally set for myself. But that was good because I’ve heard from early readers who told me, oh, my gosh, she’s one of my favorite characters.
So that’s a good thing.
How does your wedding day look like? Especially if you’re balancing it with your legal career, looking your writing, do you try to set specific times you’re going to write? Do you have wood count goals?
Well, I definitely work better in the mornings because my brain just feels fresher. For example, when I was writing all her little secrets, I would get up early before I had to get my son up to get him ready for school. I would write in airports if I weren’t traveling. And I was working here from the office. This was in the before times go to the library. That was right around the corner from my job. And I would sit in the library every day for an hour to an hour and a half, and I would write.
So it was difficult. But I found the time once I committed to the book because I started this book 13 years ago, and then I put it away because I convinced myself it wasn’t very good. People wouldn’t want to read it. And so I put the book away for seven years. And then six years ago, I picked it back up, and I committed to finishing it. I was going to finish it. And once I started to get into it, I loved the characters because the first draft was really bad.
It was really bad. But I love the characters. I have always loved the characters. And so I committed to finishing it. And then once I got into it, I was writing like I said, I was finding various snatches of time to do it. And the more I wrote, the more I love the characters. And so then I was like, maybe I could actually get this thing published. Now it took another six years. Oh, my gosh. I’m telling you, I could paper this wall behind me with all the rejections.
It was just crazy, but I didn’t give up because like I said, I was just in love with these characters. I loved Vera. I loved Elise. I loved her brother Sam, all of them. I just said, there’s something here. And so I kept going. That’s probably my one piece of advice for every writer out there. When you start to doubt yourself, just keep going. Just see where the next day’s writing journey takes you because you never know how close you are. You just never know.
Yeah, that’s amazing, because you said you started writing this 13 years ago, and now it’s published by one of the Harper Collins Williamaro, one of the big ones publishing companies out there. So, yeah, that’s a really cool trajectory that you’ve gone through. And I’m a cover geek. I love the cover for all her little secrets. When you first saw that, can I explain the process for you? Because that’s a really cool cover.
Thank you. I love that cover, too. My publisher asked me, what kinds of things do you want to see on the cover? And the one thing that I was certain I wanted to see is I wanted to see a black woman on the cover. I thought that the book is so intertwined with the black female experience that I wanted definitely a black woman on the cover. And then I said, I’d love to see a cover that would represent kind of the duality in the story. So to speak.
The story is told in dual timelines. I was actually doing laundry and my phone buzzed and it was my agent, and she said, Go check your email right now, like in all Caps. And I was like, oh, my gosh, they’re canceling the book.
Of course, that’s where you go.
It might always take you to the worst place. So I ran to my computer and I pulled up my email and there sat that gorgeous cover. And I wound up to tell you the truth, I was just like, oh, my gosh. I was just stunned by how much that cover. It’s so striking, and it captures everything that I think this book is about. Ploy Surplus is the art director at HarperCollins, and she designed that cover. And she is a genius because like I said, that cover depicts everything that is truly in the book, the strong black female, the innocence of a child.
And, oh, gosh, I love that cover, too. I love, love, love that cover.
Yeah, it’ll really make people stop in there. Perusing through Amazon in a million miles a second. I was wondering, too, with the whether this is part of a Plan series or is it a standalone right now?
This is a standalone. I know that’s disappointing to some people. Every just tell me, no, you got to tell me what happens with the lease after the story is right now. It is just a standalone. I do really love those characters, though. I could very well see revisiting them again. But at the present time, it’s just a standalone. There’s not a sequel in the works right now.
What are you working on now? Writing wise. What’s next for you?
So I’m working on another thriller. This one is set in the Jim Crow South of Mississippi in 1964. And it is the story of two black sisters who become embroiled in the murder of a white man. And before the police can catch up to them, they take off running one heads to the north, purportedly for a better life, away from the discrimination of the south. The other sister winds up in a small town in Georgia. But what the sisters don’t realize is that there is a man from Jackson, Mississippi, where they’ve run from, who knows what happened and is hot on their trail.
And he’s got some dark secrets of his own and a really dark motive to find them.
Sounds good. Do you find that challenging? Writing a novel set in the 60s versus a contemporary novel? Was it challenges on that?
Yeah, that one was a bit more challenging than my first book, but it was also a lot of fun to do because I of course, had to do all this research about 1964 Ohio, where one of the sisters runs away to. And so that was really interesting and getting to talk to people who had actually been in some of those places at that time. It was just fascinating. But yeah, I really have enjoyed writing that book because it also, in addition to the story of these two sisters on the run, it also encapsulates, like a lot of what was going on during that period where this country was right at the cusp of the civil rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws in the south.
And so that was just fascinating to research and write about.
And so before I let you go on, I always like to ask my guest because I have sparing writers that listen to this. You already gave us some good advice, but any advice for sparing thriller mystery writers that are listening?
Oh, gosh, yeah. So in addition to persevering, as I mentioned earlier, the one other thing I would strongly advise is to build yourself a community of support because writing and getting published is just fraught with all sorts of rejection. It’s a rare writer that just sits down, bangs out a story and goes right to publication. There is a lot of rejection. And one of the things that helped me was finding like minded people of the writers who were also on their journey, whether they were ahead of me on that journey or coming alongside of me, but find people who are also writing and are also driving towards the same goals that you do so that they lift you up and you keep each other lifted in support because it’s tough.
I remember one day I got like, four rejections all in one day, like all in the span of 2 hours, actually. And I got to tell you that would hurt that’s tough. Like, every email I opened was like, oh, unfortunately. And I was just like, oh, my gosh. I just don’t want to open another email, but it helps when you have friends and support along the way that keep you lifted and keep you going on your website that you’re a member of Sisters in Crime.
I hear a lot of good things about that organization from Mother Gas.
It’s a wonderful organization, tons of resources. I have a lot of friends there, and it’s just been a really good support system. They have chapters all across the country. Or if there’s not one in your city there locally, you could certainly join them as a general member through the national website, sistersincreme. Org. I believe it is. I’m also a member of Mystery Writers of America and Crime Writers of Color all great support systems. I hate your writers who are listening to join these communities because you can’t even pay back all the wealth that you get from them.
It’s amazing that way.
You know that you’re not alone with the imposter syndrome and all that stuff that we go through as writers.
So what’s the best place for the Listers to find you? I’m assuming it’s your website.
Sure, it’s Wandamorrisswrites. Com and I’m on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram as well. So look for me on all those social media channels as well.
Wanda, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Really enjoyed chatting with you about your novel and all her little secrets.
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
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