Interview With Lois Duncan, Author of the Suspense Novel "Stranger with My Face"
I recently had the chance to interview best-selling author Lois Duncan, whose young-adult suspense novel "Stranger With My Face" will be broadcast Sunday, August 29 at 8 pm, et/pt and 12 midnight et/pt on the Lifetime Movie Network. Duncan is an award-winning novelist and children's author, having written more than 50 books - ranging from children’s stories like "Hotel for Dogs" to scary young-adult thrillers like "I Know What You Did Last Summer."
In "Stranger With My Face," Alexz Johnson stars as Laurie, a budding artist whose world is shattered when her father is killed accidentally after he is struck by a car. When her mother, Shelley (Catherine Hicks), moves Laurie and her younger sister to their summer home so their family can start over, strange things immediately start happening as people keep telling Laurie they've seen her in places she’s never been.
As the incidents become more frequent and even violent, Laurie, who is adopted, comes to discover she has a twin sister whose fate did not turn out as happily as her own. Could it be a ghost that’s now haunting Laurie, or could her twin be trying to contact her through astral projection (an out-of-body experience)?
In our interview with Lois Duncan, she shares the story behind "Stranger With My Face," reflects on her success as an author, offers tips to budding novelists and even shares details of an out-of-body experience that occurred following a personal family tragedy.
Role Mommy: How did you initially come up with the story behind "Stranger With My Face"?
Duncan: I had heard about astral projection and was fascinated by the concept. I didn't believe in it, but thought it would make a great plot for a novel. I thought I was writing fantasy.
Role Mommy: You mention on your website that you've actually experienced astral projection. Can you tell us about that experience?
Duncan: Out-of-body experiences are most likely to occur during times of extreme physical or emotional trauma. People who undergo emergency surgery sometimes describe "rising to the ceiling" and looking down with interest as medics work on their bodies. In my own case, the trauma was emotional. In 1989, my youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, 18, was murdered. Overwhelmed by grief, I cried myself to sleep, and shortly before dawn I awoke to the strange sensation of heavy vibrations starting in my feet and moving slowly up through my body to center in my chest. Then I experienced the sensation of being manually lifted, as if I were in a hospital bed with a back that could be raised mechanically.
A moment later, without having moved a muscle, I found myself in an upright position. I looked down at the bed and saw my body lying there. The instant my eyes caught sight of it, it drew me like a magnet, and I was snapped back into that body as if I were attached to it by an overstretched rubber band.
That same thing happened on several occasions after that. I was never able to induce such events or control where they took me, as Lia could in my fictional novel. They happened on their own and have become less frequent with the years. They seldom happen now.
It should be noted that those experiences occurred years after I wrote "Stranger With My Face" in 1981. They did not inspire the book.
Role Mommy: Tell us about the location where the novel is set. Have you been to a place like that before, or was it a completely fictionalized location?
Duncan: I grew up in a beach house in Florida, so I always had a love for the ocean. I'd visited Nantucket, so I had an idea of what it might be like to live on an island that was filled with tourists in the summer and belonged to the "town people" in the winter. Cliff House was a product of my imagination. I would have loved to have lived in such a place. (Cliff House doesn't exist in the film, just in the book.)
Role Mommy: Did you do any research on astral projection and whether there are twins who have experienced this, prior to writing the book?
Duncan: Yes, I did quite a lot of reading before I wrote that book and was especially impressed by books by Robert Monroe. Much later, in 1995, I coauthored a nonfiction book, "Psychic Connections: A Journey Into the Mysterious World of Psi," with parapsychologist Dr. William Roll, project director for the Psychical Research Foundation. Dr. Roll had had numerous out-of-body experiences, and I learned a great deal from him. I don't know if twins experience this more than other people, although I do think in general twins tend to have an unusually strong psychic bond.
Role Mommy: How long did it take you to write "Stranger With My Face," and did you base any of the characters on people in your own life?
Duncan: Most of my suspense novels take about a year to write. I didn't deliberately base my characters on real people, although the traits of everyone who has ever been part of my life are stored in my subconscious, and I probably draw upon them without realizing it.
Role Mommy: You've also had one of your children's books, "Hotel for Dogs," and the suspense novel "I Know What You Did Last Summer" turned into feature films. What has it been like seeing your novels brought to life in both television and on film?
Duncan: It's both exciting and scary. It's like giving birth to a baby -- will it be the delight of your life or born with two heads? And the worst part is, you have no control whatsoever. Once an author sells the rights to his or her story, what is done with it is up to "The Powers that Be" in Hollywood. A lot depends upon whether it's a high- or low-budget picture.
Role Mommy: How did you get your first big break as an author?
Duncan: If, by that, you mean how did my first novel come to be published, I submitted the manuscript in a contest run by a publishing house, and it won. Part of the prize was having the book published. I was 22 at the time. But I had been writing for publication long before that. I started submitting poems and short stories to magazines when I was 10.
Role Mommy: What is your advice for budding novelists who have a great concept for a suspense thriller but don't know how to get started?
Duncan: Outline it first so you know where you're going and how it will end. Then sit down and start putting words on paper. When you come to the end, set the manuscript aside for a month. Then read it as if you were an outsider. You'll probably be surprised to find out how bad certain parts are. So go back and rewrite those. Keep going through that procedure until it's as perfect as you're capable of making it. Writing is a self-taught craft. There are no shortcuts, and nobody can do it for you.
Role Mommy: What did you like best about seeing this movie come to life?
Duncan: It was fascinating to see the script writer's and casting director's visions of scenes and characters as compared to those I had lived with so long in my head.
Visit myLifetime.com to read a book excerpt from "Stranger With My Face." For more information on Lois Duncan and the story of her life, you can watch this segment from the "A Gulf Coast Journal." Scroll down past "Watch the Latest" and click on the "Play" arrow for July 2009.
Additionally, if you are a teacher and are interested in finding out how you can adapt Lois Duncan’s books for classroom use, visit her website to view clips from a 30-minute DVD, "A Visit With Lois Duncan," which was created for classrooms.