Episode 74: Elizabeth McCourt

I repeated my thirty seconds of speeding up and thirty seconds of rest method, sprinting around the park’s track. I was panting hard when I rounded the bend coming back to where I’d started. I veered off the track, my sneakers crunching on the gravel, and I slowed to a walk heading towards the playground area to hit the drinking fountain over by the swings. The swings were moving from the tiniest breeze, but otherwise all was quiet.

The water in the fountain was warm, and I let it cascade over the side of the bowl for a minute. I tested it with my hand, then leaned down and slurped some of the metallic-tasting, still-warm water. I closed my eyes and let the water splash into my face, shaking it off like a dog and wiping my eyes with my shirt.

“Over here, please help me!” A woman’s voice yelped through sobs.

— Elizabeth McCourt, Sin in the Big Easy

I am delighted to chat with debut mystery author, Elizabeth McCourt. An executive coach and former trial attorney, she brings a realism to the story, and not just the courtroom scenes. Elizabeth brings nuance to all her characters, but especially her protagonist, Abby Callahan, in the first of a projected series, Sin in the Big Easy.

Check out Elizabeth’s website here (she’s also on Twitter and Instagram), but also don’t miss her TEDx talk, which appropriately enough is on the burden of carrying secrets. She also gives a shout-out to one of my favorite reads, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Woot! 

Sin in the Big Easy also deals with human trafficking, which is a terrifying and important issue. I can’t help but mention Peg Brantley’s book, Trafficked. Since I interviewed Peg, it has won several awards and continues to add to the national discussion. Also, if you have teenagers in the house, a good way to open up the discussion would be to check out author Pamela Samuels Youngs YA version of her own novel, #Anybody’s Daughter, which deals with domestic trafficking and teen safety. If you want to learn more or if you know someone who might need help, CNN recently published a list of organizations around the world who are fighting human trafficking. The nonprofit Elizabeth mentions in New Orleans that helps women who have survived trafficking is Eden House. Their mission is “Heal, Empower, Dream,” and they offer prevention education as well as resources and recovery services.

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, a transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura

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Transcript of Interview with Elizabeth McCourt

Laura Brennan: Elizabeth McCourt is a certified executive coach, top-ranked financial recruiter, professional speaker — and now, mystery author. Her debut thriller, Sin in the Big Easy, introduces attorney Abby Callahan, a woman whose personal life is even more complicated than her most recent case.

Elizabeth, thank you for joining me.

Elizabeth McCourt: Hey, Laura. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

LB: So you have a fascinating background.

EM: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yes, everyone said to me, really? Mystery writer? Where did that come from?

LB: Well, now, how did you start out? Did you start out in the financial market?

EM: I started out right after college at Morgan Stanley, as an analyst. But then I went to law school. I didn’t like that so much, and so I went to law school in New Orleans and fell in love with the city. Although I didn’t stay there; moved out west and then, sort of full-circle, became a headhunter and then a coach. But this love of New Orleans and writing was with me throughout my life I would say. And so it just seemed, as this book evolved, to have it in New Orleans and use my legal background in some way just made sense and worked for the book.

LB: Yes, one of those lesser-known uses of law school is getting to write legal thrillers.

EM: Exactly! Yes, I feel like I have to use my legal background somewhere and writing in this way, and writing Abby, was really fun for me to utilize my courtroom experience. Because I was actually a trial lawyer.

LB: Oh, really?

EM: Yes. I was a trial lawyer in New Mexico. But I didn’t to criminal cases, I did products liability and plaintiff side personal injury type of law.

LB: Well, one of the things I really loved about your book was how it takes all of the tropes we’ve come to expect, the shady clients and the cops with their own agenda, and the possible conspiracies going on. It takes all of those tropes and it gives them to us in a completely fresh way.

EM: Oh, thank you for that! I’m glad you felt that way. My goal, and I think why it took me a long time to write this book, was because I knew I was doing things a little bit differently and I knew my character, she’s not your average heroine. She’s — people say she’s refreshingly flawed. And that felt a little bit scary for me. But I’m happy when someone really enjoys it for that reason.

LB: Let’s talk a little bit about Sin in the Big Easy and first, what does someone who hasn’t read the book yet, what do they need to know just to follow our conversation?

EM: I think they need to know that the book is set in New Orleans, of course. That’s the Sin in the Big Easy. And that it is a mystery, but it’s also about the main character. People say that the mystery is great and they really enjoyed that, but they really did connect with the main character and her, like you said, her messy story does play a big role in this book. So I think that connection is very strong for people.

LB: You gave a TED talk, the importance of telling your secrets. What’s fascinating to me is that Abby is a woman who is holding on, gripping tightly —

EM: Yes!

LB: — a very big secret.

EM: That’s right. That’s right. Isn’t that interesting? Because in my personal work, what I do for a living is really help people connect to who they are, both personally and professionally, and how to bring that forward in a very authentic way. And my main character really struggles with this and has a big secret that, indeed, sabotages her. She lets it sabotage her by gripping it so tightly. And I think, she’s also 27 years old and I think that is not an uncommon thing when you are in your twenties and you have secrets that are seemingly so big that they become a sabotaging force in your life. Which they certainly do with my character, Abby Callahan.

LB: So how did you develop Abby?

EM: I wanted to make her someone that was real, relatable, that has some savvy but also did some stupid things, but that you’d still want to root for her. So when I developed her, I tried to really think of what would be real? What would someone really do? What would really happen? And I think as a writer, you absolutely use the combination of experience, certainly some of your own and also observed experience. Or what you would observe even in a film or another book or outside, people you know, people you don’t know. So I really find that when I make character, I might observe something that I find fascinating and for me personally, unexplainable. And that I will use that because I want to actually explore that in a way that may not be available to me, and so I use that and give that kind of thing to my characters.

LB: So in Sin in the Big Easy, it opens with a chance encounter that is going to be the thing that sends Abby’s entire life into a bit of a tailspin.

EM: Yes, that’s exactly right. She gets the case, I think the one thing she thinks, she thinks this case is, you know, this is a rape case, lots of nuances, but she feels both personally and professionally invested in it. And she thinks is only about how it’s going to make her career. And the reader will find out that it’s really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what happens with her connecting with the victim of this incident and going forward with the case.

LB: Well, you’ve been writing a long time. You’ve written for many publications. When did you decide you wanted to write mysteries?

EM: It’s funny, because I, when I moved back to New York from being a trial lawyer, I’d always been writing, but I decided I’d get an MFA to entertain myself and meet a community. Initially, I thought it was going to write something totally different. At first it was a memoir, then it was short stories, then something else — nothing was really working. I just decided that, what would it be like to just tell a story. I love New Orleans, so I thought of this character and I thought, there’s a courtroom drama. What can I do with this to make it a little more interesting and not your standard — I don’t like standard books. I think at the time I started writing it, I was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I love the nuances of that plot and how it was complicated. So in my mind, I was modeling it off that, what I enjoyed. Not predictable. I didn’t want it to be predictable. But I will say I struggled until I finally gave myself permission to just have fun with this character I’d started developing. And once I did that, that’s when the pages really started to flow. Because before I felt like I was controlling it, I couldn’t find the genre that was working for me, I couldn’t find the medium, I couldn’t find the story. But I think I personally was gripping too hard and once I gave myself permission and freedom, that’s when the story came out.

LB: Oh, I am fascinated by that. I’m so interested that you talk about control, because Abby is someone who, to an extent, is just buffeted by events that are outside of her control.

EM: Yes. Yes, and I think it’s sort of the struggle and maybe what people have a sort of a frustration with her is like, gosh, Abby, get it together! Own your confidence! Make something happen! And I think for me that was, I think it’s either a frustration for reader or something that they can relate to in that, as we all, as people, go through life, things certainly do happen. We make choices and things happen that aren’t within our control. She has a family drama that happens and she has to deal with it. So in that way, I think that’s life, that life isn’t perfect, it can be a little bit messy, it can be a little bit unpredictable. If something is predictable and you’ve figured out in chapter 5 who did it, I think for me personally that would be boring. So I tried to write a mystery that I would want to read and I would be entertained by. That was my goal.

LB: Well, yes. Well done! [Laughter]

EM: Thank you!

LB: But also, that whole idea that she has to get it together, I think the big thing that’s keeping her from getting it together is one of the big themes in your book, which is Trust.

EM: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. She has family trust issues, she has issues with a couple of boyfriends and making stupid mistakes, and you’re right, she doesn’t have, she’s not using her intuition, really, to figure out if the people that she’s connecting with, her friends, the police, she’s trusting the wrong people and not trusting her intuition of who she should really trust.

I do think that’s an interesting and important struggle that many people have. Who do you trust? What information do you trust? What people do you trust? Are you being naïve to interactions that you have with people, are you trusting everything they say? Do you have reason to trust them? So I think that was, you’re right, there’s definitely a thread of trust throughout the whole thing. And insecurity. I mean, she’s, you want to root for her, but she’s not, she’s got a lot of doubts on herself. She’s a flawed and not yet come into herself and her full confidence as we read her in this part of the series.

LB: So one of the key issues in your novel is the dramatically dreadful social issue that we have right now of human trafficking. Which I think also kind of falls into trust, it’s these young women who are trusting people who in fact do not plan to take care of them, but to exploit them to the fullest possible extent.

EM: You’re absolutely right. I did research on that because when I lived in New Orleans, one of my jobs when I was in law school is that I worked for a shipping company and so I would deliver provisions on the ships of the Mississippi. It was a part-time job and it was just such an oddball job that I embellished it for the book. And then I added, I’m down at these docks, I had actually been going onto these large ships because I had to go get money from the captains. They are these massive ships, and I thought, gosh, you could really sneak some people on these ships.

And then I did some research on it and I didn’t even realize that human trafficking, we think of it as all foreign trafficking, which in my book it is. But there really is trafficking within the United States. In New Orleans actually, there is a charity, a nonprofit called Eden House, which does take women who have been trafficked and helps them re-assimilate into society. It’s really interesting, I think it can happen in any kind of community and like you said, it’s certainly opportunistic and people who maybe want for something different and they get themselves into a situation that maybe it sounds too good to be true. And it certainly is when these people get themselves into situations they can’t get out of.

LB: One of the ways that you help people as an executive coach is that your are broad thinker, you think outside the lines and particularly outside the straight, narrative lines, if you will. How did that serve you as you were developing your mystery?

EM: I love that question! I think that people are very nuanced. I see that in my work, we all see that. And I think that having an understanding of people and their differences and their motivations makes a character more nuanced and not so one note. You can have a very confident character who also has a nervous tic, or somebody you think is going in one direction and then has a hobby that you wouldn’t even think. So I think that my own personal experience is very vast and very nuanced, and so likely one of my gifts in how I connect with people is that I always feel like I have something in common with everyone. And I like to listen to people and observe their experiences and then take a piece of that and put it into my characters.

LB: So what is next for Abby?

EM: I’m sort of in the middle of it, but I hope, I want Abby to grow from this experience. Because she can’t be, having had all that’s happened, the family drama and boyfriends and a legal case, and can she learning grow from this experience and have another case and have another situation but be a little bit smarter? I’m wanting to explore what she’s learned, like what she’s not going to do for next time and how she’s going to be smarter. And hopefully how she’s going to bring better people into her life.

LB: Well, it’s interesting because one of the ways that modern mystery novels are so very different from the Golden Age — Perry Mason didn’t grow from case to case.

EM: You know, I think that’s interesting. I think you’re right, I think we’re — you know, there’s one thing to have formulaic mystery, and there’s something kind of entertaining about that. Kind of easy and enjoyable. But I want to be challenged, I want to see how a character has changed. Because even though it’s purely fiction — I say this is a fun beach read, I want people to be entertained and enjoy it — but is there something to take away? Is there a thought to take away that’s useful in your life in some way? Some small way.

LB: So what is next for you?

EM: Oh, I’ve so many things! But two things, I have the next Abby brewing. I happened to be in Paris last fall and I said, oh, maybe Abby needs to be in Paris. So that’s sort of in my mind, I don’t know if she gets there. And then also, I’m deep into a nonfiction book that I’m writing which is about what you spoke about, the nonlinear path to success and I’m very deep into that book as well. So I’m always writing.

LB: Where can people find you online?

EM: My website, which actually just relaunched yesterday, newly branded and new text, is McCourtLeadership.com. You can also find me on Twitter, it’s @ECMcCourt, and then I am also on Instagram, and that is Rizabiz, it’s sort of a funny catchphrase.

LB: Before I wrap this up, you have a great quote from your mom, which is that the things that people want to read and hear are the things that you don’t want to tell. To me that seems like the best possible advice to a mystery writer.

EM: I think it’s perfect advice for every writer, any kind of writing. Because when you hold back, like we said, when you hold back the secrets of your character, when you hold things back, it’s good to hold back a little bit of the mystery, but people are going to get frustrated. You’ve got to give them something that makes them go, wow, I can’t believe they wrote that, or tried that. It’s not about spilling your guts unnecessarily or unprocessed, but can you be that courageous writer who writes something that other people will connect with?

LB: Thank you so much for that and for joining me today, Elizabeth.

EM: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Laura. It’s really been a treat.

2 Replies to “Episode 74: Elizabeth McCourt”

    1. Elizabeth, it was so much fun talking to you about secrets and trust and thrillers that play with your expectations… Really, what’s not to love? 😉

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