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Interview with Ellen Larson, author of In Retrospect


Former elite operative Merit Rafi suffered during her imprisonment at the end of a devastating war, but the ultimate torment is being forced to investigate a murder she would gladly have committed herself.

The year is 3324. In the region once known as Turkey, the Rasakans have attacked the technologically superior Oku. The war is a stalemate until the Oku commander, General Zane, abruptly surrenders.

Merit, a staunch member of the Oku resistance, fights on, but she and her comrades are soon captured. An uneasy peace ensues, but the Rasakans work secretly to gain control of the prized Oku time-travel technology. When Zane is murdered, the Rasakans exert their control over Merit, the last person on Earth capable of Forensic Retrospection.
Merit, though reinstated to her old job by the despised Rasakans, knows she is only a puppet. If she refuses to travel back in time to identify Zane’s killer, her family and colleagues will pay the price. But giving in to Rasakan coercion means giving them unimaginable power. She has only three days to make this morally wrenching choice; three days to change history.

As the preliminary investigation progresses, Merit uncovers evidence of a wider plot. How did the Rasakans defeat the technologically superior Oku? Why did the Oku surrender prematurely? How did the Rasakans discover her true identity? Merit realizes she will only find the answers by learning who killed the traitor, General Zane.
In Retrospect is a good old-fashioned whodunit set in a compelling post-apocalyptic future.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

The question of how I titled In Retrospect is lost in the mists that surround the birth of the idea for the book. The title is the book and the book is the title. I knew I was going to write a book that would include time travel, so I knew I wanted a title that would have something to do with time. I knew my protagonist would be thinking back on her life in a series of flashbacks (because the flashback is the literary equivalent of time travel, an idea I wanted to play with). As I begin a book, I always gather a pool of words that are going to have special meaning. so whenever the words “in retrospect” first flashed in my mind, they immediately resonated. Literally. They infiltrated my growing concept for the book and echoed through its substance. Merit, my time-traveling protagonist, became a Retrospector. The science of time travel became Retrospectography. The action of time traveling became Retrospection, and the two uses of Retrospectography deemed acceptable in the world I built became Forensic Retrospection and Historic Retrospection. As I wrote, other words echoed this core language, most notably Prospective, which is what Retrospectors in training were called. As a Prospective, Merit is asked to learn to meditate, and as she does so, she thinks these thoughts, which echo the very first days of the book’s conception:

She turned face front and closed her eyes. I am never alone. I am one with the physical universe; I am one with the light. The universe and the light interweave with one other and with me. Or at least they will when I’m attuned—if I ever am attuned, which I hope I am. Boys can’t be attuned unless you practically kill them, because their metabolism is wrong and their cells would explode like a bug when you squish it. Only girls, the littlest girls with just the right specific absorption rate can be Prospectives. I am a prospective selective. Retrospect, respect, suspect, expect, inspect, prospect, insect, introspect. She hummed happily to herself, swaying on her mat.

What is your writing environment like?

I travel a lot, so it changes. Though wherever I am I must have a comfy chair that tilts back, with my feet up. That said, I built an off-grid cabin in the woods of upstate New York so that I could make my ideal writing environment a reality. Lots of windows that look out upon maple trees and the nearby meadow; morning glories growing over the kitchen window, and silence. I also like to sit in an Adirondack chair on my tiny patio, surrounded by my garden.

What is your favorite quote? Why?

We know each other's faces,
But for our hearts, he knows no more of mine,
Than I of yours;
Nor I no more of his, than you of mine.
Richard III - Shakespeare.
Because I like the message, and I adore the wriggly inside-out way he says it.

How has your upbringing influenced your writing?

Interesting question. My mother was a librarian in Bergen County, NJ, and my father had a habit of stopping off at a used book store in Manhattan on his way home from work, both instilling in me and feeding my passion for classic children’s lit, and, for better or worse, the writing styles of the first half of the twentieth century. Though we were middle-class, I had a quite sheltered childhood, in the sense that I had the opportunity to let my imagination soar. And soar it did.

The other transformative event in my childhood occurred when my parents bought a 150 acre farm in upstate New York to use as a vacation home and a place for my father, whose passion was the out-of-doors, to hunt. I was eleven, and life was never the same after that. Not only did I get my first exposure to a culture quite different from my own, but I got to roam the woods and mountains, developing a love of the Earth that is today apparent in much of my writing.

What inspires you to write?

You do. Meaning anyone who desires to read. Meaning people, who are capable of doing so much that is good, and so much that is evil. I remain in awe each day of the bizarre things that people can talk themselves into saying and doing and thinking. I have an unquenchable drive—not a belief, because I know it to be false—that good will out-duel evil in the end. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I write to try to add whatever I can to what I perceive as a universal effort to tip the scales toward justice and compassion

What do you consider the most challenging part about writing a novel, or about writing in general?

Finding the time to do it.

Did you learn anything while writing this book? If so, what was it?

I learned many things. I always do. I’m lucky enough to do exactly what I want an astoundingly high percentage of the time, which is another way of saying that learning is as pleasant as breathing and eating, and a key component in enjoying what one does.

Oh, you mean specifically? Specifically, I learned that while I can create interesting characters who have nothing at all in common with my experiences, it is more difficult to create a sympathetic character who shares none of my beliefs. Practically speaking, I learned that it is hell on Earth to write a book with as many flashbacks as this one has, because you have to get certain bits of information on the page in the right order for the mystery (revealing clues), which means that there are limited choices for that order, but you also have to maintain the emotional flow of the story. The potential for losing the reader with a shift that had nothing to do with the previous scene, or was too abrupt emotionally, was always there. That’s the sort of thing you don’t think about when you read it (unless I screw up), but it was always, always there. There are half a dozen scenes that in the end did not make the cut, because I just could not make them fit—most notably one lengthy scene in which Eric, the Rasakan physicist who has been assigned the thankless task of keeping an eye on Merit as they prepare for the flex, attempts to see the Prioress, Merit’s rival, who is in seclusion. In the end I could not make it fit. Actually, a lot of the final few rounds of revision of In Retrospect involved cutting out tertiary threads that, I became convinced, would go wholly unnoticed anyway.

What have you done to promote this book?

Well, I have quite a lot of faith in this book, so I’ve pretty much pulled out the stops (within my means, which are not extensive). I lucked out in that my artist friend Mike Sissons created a fabulous book trailer []. I ran a Kickstarter campaign to collect funds to pay for music, software, etc. for the trailer. Mike then asked Trish Bertram, a well known British voice artist (you heard her as stadium announcer for the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics), to do the voiceover for the trailer. She said yes, pretty much out of the kindness of her heart. So that was pretty spectacular and garnered some good attention. For example, Baker & Taylor featured it on their home page, as their Reel Time selection, for three days in November. That was pretty cool.

I also sent out about thirty extra pre-press review copies, plus signed up for NetGalley to try to get as many reviews as possible. Hard to tell if that was a success or not--I have gotten between a dozen and fifteen reviews so far, which is less than I expected. But then I wonder, if I hadn’t gone the extra mile, how few reviews would I have? Now I am doing the virtual tour, and also sprang for some ads in January. I’m doing a number of conferences, both Science Fiction and Mystery, and will have no less than three book launches, so my face will be out there this year. And behind the scenes, I will be doing a library mailing—first to my “local” libraries (local in quotes because I have three different locales with which I can be said to be associated), and then to, well, all the rest. Five Star is a library publisher, so libraries are my primary market.

What are some of the best tools available today for writers?

Boy, that’s a tough one for me. I don’t really use any special software (if that’s what you’re talking about) to write. Other than my laptop. Nothing against organization software—I just happen to be aggressively organized to start with. I don’t think one learns how to write by going to conferences—they are strictly for hearing anecdotal info about the biz and meeting very cool people. So you got me with this one!

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I’d like to thank the Examiner for hosting me and asking all the tough questions! And I’d like to thank so much my supporters at Five Star, Senior Editor Deni Dietz and Acquisitions Editor/Head Honchette Tiffany Schofield. It’s sort of a minor miracle that this book is in print at all, and unlike a lot of horror stories you hear about publication, this one is full of people who actually fought for it and worked hard for it. I am one lucky cookie.


Ellen Larson’s first story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. She has sold stories to AHMM (Barry Award finalist) and Big Pulp and is the author of the NJ Mysteries, The Hatch and Brood of Time and Unfold the Evil, featuring a sleuthing reporter. Her current book is In Retrospect, a dystopian mystery (Carefully crafted whodunit -PW starred). Larson lived for seventeen years in Egypt, where she developed a love of different cultures. She is editor of the Poisoned Pencil, the YA mystery imprint. These days she lives in an off-grid cabin in upstate New York, enjoying the solitude.

Visit her at

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