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Interview with Kay DiBianca

Author Kay DiBianca may not be the fastest runner in a marathon, but she is one who will cross the finish line. In twenty years of running competitively, she has completed four marathons, fifteen or so half-marathons, and a lot of shorter races. In her recently released book The Watch on the Fence Post, she imbues her love for running in her main character, 27-year-old Kathryn (Kate) Frasier.

The book opens with Kate training for a marathon in a deserted park on a cold winter day. When she finds a gold watch perched on a fencepost, questions arise as events unfold in the western foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

In my recent conversation with Kay, she shared with me a little of her writing journey and how her debut novel came to be.

Your book is set in Bellevue. Is that a real place or your own story world? How about Sunset Trail where Kate trains to run?
Bellevue is fictional. I didn't want to get too specific about the location. I particularly wanted to name it “Bellevue” to emphasize the irony between the surface of the beautiful town and its dark underside. Since Bellevue is in the western foothills of the Rockies, it could be in any one of several states. Sunset Trail is similar to some of the trails I run on here in Memphis.

In your story, Kate’s pastor suggests that she train for a marathon to help her deal with her problems. Did this idea for Kate’s therapy arise from your own experiences?
I thought introducing Kate through her training would give me the opportunity to interweave something about her character and backstory through the different phases of her five-miler.

I’m an avid runner myself. Training for a marathon is therapy. It serves me in so many ways. In training you have to give up so much and focus on your goals. It’s possible when you're training to put other things out of your mind. That’s a good thing.

Running provides me with a sense of well-being, and it’s become an important part of my life. It also gives me time to think about things in a different way and to get new ideas. I usually listen to audio books or podcasts when I run. It helps my creativity.

How did you come up with the idea of Kate’s running companion, Barkley the border collie?
Barkley wasn’t in the first versions of the manuscript, but I realized the first chapter would be more interesting if Kate had someone or something to talk to while running. I chose a border collie because I knew about their ability to run long distances and we have several friends who own that breed. A miniature dachshund probably wouldn’t have worked.

I’m fascinated that you have an MS degree in Computer Science and extensive IT experience in the corporate world, but you enjoy writing fiction. Doesn’t that require you to use different parts of your brain?
Computer science is definitely left-brained. It’s all analytical and problem-solving. It’s figuring out the problem and breaking it down. You might think fiction is completely right brained, but there’s a lot of analytical thought that goes into writing. When you set up your problem and how it’s going to be solved, you’re using an analytical process.

It’s that analytical mindset that makes mysteries so attractive to me. Constructing the story in the form of a puzzle is similar to the kinds of problem-solving skills needed to develop computer programs.

Was someone in your own life the model for Kate’s dad?
That’s an interesting and perceptive question. I wrote the character of Kate’s father without thinking that I had a model for him. However, after I finished much of the book, I realized Dr. Bill Frasier bore a remarkable resemblance to my husband, Frank. Frank is a devoted husband and father, and our son’s relationship with him is very similar to Kate’s relationship to her father. Frank was also a college professor and inventor.

I loved the personality of the sister, Cece. Was her character based on someone you know?
Cece was based on Jan Keys, a friend of mine for over 40 years. Jane is very devoted and a woman of great faith. She told me when she was in high school she looked in the mirror and said, “I'm never going to be brilliant. I'm never going to be able to accomplish any great thing. But there’s one thing I know I can do—I can be a friend.”

That's a good description of Jan and I thought it was a good description for Cece. She’s a picture of God's love. I thought that she was unselfish and I'm glad you picked up on that. I did not have a sister, so maybe that was a bit of wish fulfillment.

How did you develop the character of Phil—a car mechanic who studies Aristotle?
My original idea for the novel was a straight mystery without any romance. I had intended Phil to just be the mechanic who discovers the first clue, but I created him to be an intelligent mechanic. (We often pigeonhole people and I don't like that.) As I wrote the chapter Phil began to take on a life of his own and wrote himself into the story as the romantic interest. It was my first experience with a character dictating the story to me!

So, you let Phil write himself into your story. I thought as a computer scientist you would be a serious plotter.
I'm sort of hybrid, and this was my first novel. I had a general idea that I started putting down on paper and then I realized I needed to add additional elements. I don’t organize the whole story before I write.

In writing a novel, you can stop and start. If you do that in computer programming, you’ll have a mess. You must have the plan completely in place before you start.

I love the Jewish heritage connection in the story. Where did you learn about Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world?”
My husband and I are members of a Messianic Jewish Synagogue. As a Christian, I have been greatly blessed by learning about the Jewish roots of my faith, and I like the idea of including some of what I have learned in books I write. My husband and I were both raised in Christian homes with Christian backgrounds. We spent our married life in Christian churches. After a long period of prayer and study, I took a course at a theological institute and got much deeper into God's word. I became convicted about observing Sabbath.

We decided we wanted to go somewhere with where we could observe Seventh-Day Sabbath. At the same time my husband was researching his family and found out that some of his family was Jewish but had been converted in the 15th century. Those two paths came together and we decided to go to the Messianic Jewish Synagogue to see what was like. We really feel at home there. We have so many friends in the Jewish community.

Are there any interesting quirks in your book?
There is one interesting little detail: it contains a word in Chapter 40 which is not in any dictionary. “Kinestatic” was coined by my husband when he invented and patented a medical imaging device and named it the “Kinestatic Charge Detector.” While I’m very proud of Frank’s work, I’m amazed at the word he came up with.

Kinestatic means something that is moving in one frame of reference while being still in another. For example, walking on a treadmill: you’re moving in relation to the tread of the treadmill, but still in relation to the room. I can imagine so many scenarios that this word describes. Like running around all day but getting nowhere.

Every editor who reviewed the manuscript told me to change the word since it wasn’t in the dictionary, so I had to explain to each of them why I used it and what it means. I intend to use “kinestatic” in every book I write until it makes its way into common usage so that it can be included in dictionaries.

What would you like for your readers to take away from your book, besides the pleasure of reading it, of course?
I hope my readers will see that God is active in our lives, even in times of sorrow and pain. And I hope Mr. Goldman’s description of Tikkun Olam as bringing light to the world through faith and forgiveness will provide some food for thought.

Will there be a sequel? What are you working on now?

I would like to create a series of Kate and Cece novels, so I’m working on the second book now. The working title is Dead Man’s Watch and will have many of the same characters as the first book. I would like to do a series at least three books. It's a little hard because of the time spent marketing the current book.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey? How long did it take you to see The Watch on the Fencepost come to fruition?
I have learned so many things, it’s hard to name just one. I came to understand that writing a good book means more than just writing a story, and it involves a lot of hard work and discipline. Studying books on the craft of writing, reading other authors in my genre, and accepting criticism and rejection were all part of the learning process. Between the time I sat down to begin writing the book until the day the book was released was a little over three years.

When did you know you wanted to write fiction?
After I retired I listen to a lot of fiction while I was out running. I began to think I could put a story together that would be interesting. That was the key to getting started.

I thought of Agatha Christie who could write one book after another with complex plots and characters. She created a whole universe of mystery writing.

How do your faith and spiritual life affect your storytelling?
I had two goals in writing The Watch on the Fencepost. The first was to write an entertaining story that would stand on its own as a mystery without the consideration of spiritual content. The second was to include part of my Christian worldview, especially the Jewish roots of my faith, without preaching.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Even though I’m retired, I find my time fragmented among all the “life stuff” of chores, classes, and service projects. I still try run a significant number of miles each week. Now I’ve added marketing and promoting The Watch on the Fencepost to the others. It’s a lot to juggle, but I love the challenge.

What is your writing routine?
Since it’s hard for me to find long stretches of time to write, I’ve learned to do writing sprints of 20-30 minutes in order to meet a quota. My husband and I each have a room dedicated to our writing habits, and each room has a door. When the door is closed, it means “Please don’t disturb unless you are bleeding profusely and need to be taken to the Emergency Room. If so, please knock.” It works well, and we haven’t had any emergency room visits yet.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I spend a lot of time running. When I’m outside, I usually listen to podcasts or audiobooks. I watch movies when I’m on the treadmill. Since I started writing, I find myself watching and listening with a more critical viewpoint. And, of course, I read. One of the best benefits of retirement is having the time to read a whole variety of fiction and non-fiction.

Do you have sage advice for aspiring ACFW authors?
My favorite writing quote is by Richard Bach: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Getting from a lousy first draft to a finished product is hard work and the temptation to dump the whole thing is strong, especially when faced with negative feedback. I’ve come to appreciate constructive criticism and learn from it, so my advice is, “never give up.”


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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