Mobile author Laura McNeill can attest to the power of rebirth. She’s changed locales, roles, even names enough to fill out a few acts of her own script.
Reinvention is a key component at the heart of her latest novel, “Center of Gravity.” It’s a tense tale of psychological tumult, parental bonds and the task of seeing reality through the haze of our desires.
“It’s about how well we really know people, and what are the lies we tell ourselves because we want to believe them, or are there things we’re trying not to see,” McNeill said. “I think women get wrapped up in romance and love, then walk away with what they want to believe. Once you get married and start living together, you start to get to know the person so much better.”
The storyline follows Ava Carson, a Mobile woman who sets career aside at her husband Mitchell’s insistence, then watches her life whip into a storm. His behavior grows increasingly worrisome, then terrifying as Ava fights for access to her kids and much more.
“Mitchell, in the book, is so charming, powerful, well respected but then, behind closed doors, he’s a different person,” McNeill said. “It’s several women’s stories. There’s so many people with really bad break-up experiences and traumatic divorces.”
The “domestic suspense” novel reveals a world filled with lawyers and college administrators, prep schools and high-toned neighborhoods that will resonate with Lagniappe readers. Characters’ names may be unfamiliar, but their real-life counterparts will be plain to locals.
Originally from upstate New York, McNeill went from public relations to TV news, then headed south to the Alabama Wiregrass. After two-plus years as morning news anchor at Dothan’s WTVY, she shifted into sales, then relocated to Mobile in 2007.
It was then writing emerged as her dominant pursuit. She strolled into sunny territory at first but something would have to change initially.
“At the time my name was Laura Reese but there was an erotica author named Laura Reese,” McNeill said. “So here I am writing ‘Southern women’s fiction’ and didn’t want to be mixed up with an erotica author.”
She pulled out an old family name — Clark — and the work of Lauren Clark was born. She self-published a few works but kept moodier themes hidden.
“I try to write something light and fun, then I write something dark, then I write something light and fun, then I write something dark, just to break it up,” McNeill said.
When she received an unexpected call from an agent who stumbled across her work “Dancing Naked in Dixie,” the representative was impressed. She sought versatility, though.
“She didn’t really deal in a lot of fiction but she was looking for suspense, drama, more like that,” McNeill said. “I’d written ‘Center of Gravity’ and sent it to her and she sold it about nine months later.”
The new publisher, Thomas Nelson HarperCollins, thought a break in pen names might pair better with a different genre. That’s when McNeill put her actual name on the cover.
Endorsements from authors like Anita Hughes, Erin Healy, Colleen Coble and Joshilyn Jackson along with favorable reviews from Library Journal, Booklist and RT Book Reviews have spurred sales. The author isn’t keeping up with tallies now as she’s too consumed with a book tour. Artifice caught up with as she was at Sunday brunch in Athens, Georgia, with friends.
“I’ve been in Atlanta; Charlotte; Seaside [Florida]; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Albany, New York. I’m going to Natchez [Mississippi] and Bay St. Louis [Mississippi], so I’m focusing on readers and talking to folks,” McNeill said.
Now in her next renaissance working public relations for Spring Hill College, McNeill squeezes her creative time into the start of her day. She awakes to sit at the keyboard for a couple of hours each morning before heading off to academia.
Her next release is due in April 2016, another domestic suspense work entitled “Sister Dear.” Though still close to water, it is set on the Georgia coast near St. Simon’s Island and draws upon the author’s family and friends in the area.
“It’s about a woman who goes to prison for a crime she didn’t commit after she discovers a body, and the second half is her getting out of prison,” McNeill said. “When she left Brunswick she had a 5-year-old and now she has a 15-year-old. She spends the second half tracking down what really happened and getting to know her daughter.”
McNeill said she dove into Georgia state law and researched life in the state penal system for the book. If it is anything like “Center of Gravity,” it might take a while to put the background work behind her since the research into narcissism and sociopathy still arises in her personal life.
“When I’m talking to friends of mine and they’re dating someone and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, run! Run now!’” McNeill laughed. “So I think I do see that now because you learn to recognize behaviors and pick up on it, and my intuition is tightened.”