Siblings in Suspense: Franklin & Jennifer Schneider on ‘Black Hills’ (Q&A)

Today, I have the good fortune of being joined by sibling suspense scribes Franklin and Jennifer Schneider.

Franklin and Jennifer are the authors of Black Hills, out tomorrow from Thomas & Mercer. Franklin studied writing at the University of Iowa and is the author of the acclaimed memoir Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment. Jennifer has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and writes with her brother often; she lives and works in New York City. This is their first published project together.

Authors Jennifer and Franklin Schneider.

Praise for Black Hills:

“With her hardened cynicism and a .357 magnum strapped to her hip, Alice Riley is a strong, undeniably modern detective heroine. She is smart and self-sufficient, and her moral and ethical ambiguity make her a complicated, compelling protagonist.”—Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“Franklin and Jennifer Schneider, a brother and sister team, combine their talent in this gritty, neo-noir detective story…Unsentimental and dark, Black Hills shines as a story of justice, triumph, and redemption.”—RT Book Reviews

From the publisher:

When Brooklyn private investigator Alice Riley reluctantly travels to Whitehurst, South Dakota, to investigate an assault charge against her ex-boss’s husband, she discovers more than just a tawdry small-town scandal. A surveyor for the local fracking operation, the accused was leading a dangerous double life—shacking up with a prostitute named Kim and overindulging in Whitehurst’s deadly new drug, a powerful stimulant called “devil dust.”

Out of her element in this badlands boomtown, Alice joins forces with the street-smart Kim, whose connections open doors some in town would rather keep closed. Working together, they descend into the heart of the local drug trade, unraveling a decades-old conspiracy that reaches to the top of Whitehurst’s social strata.

As Alice comes closer to cracking the case, however, people around her start disappearing. With the case and her life spinning out of control, Alice embarks on a single-minded, dust-fueled campaign to expose the truth—an effort that will take her to the darkest places imaginable.


Now, Franklin and Jennifer share the inside details of their writing partnership …

John Valeri: What inspired the idea for Black Hills—and how would you classify this book for readers?

Franklin Schneider: Black Hills started out as a pilot script I was shopping around, which was nearly bought but was, at the last moment, passed over for another fracking script. It was very much conceived as a serial entertainment, with all that that entails—anyone who’s ever binge-watched an HBO show knows what I’m talking about. The narrative rhythms, the way characters are introduced and developed, the methods by which information is dispensed and facts revealed. When people ask about the book, I describe it as “TV on paper.” (Of course, prestige TV borrowed a lot of their methods from classic novels in which each chapter was an “episode”—books by Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac that were originally serialized in weekly or biweekly chunks and had huge, summer blockbuster-type audiences.)

Jennifer Schneider: When we decided to develop the script into a novel, things got really fun. We had access to interior spaces of the characters, and we were able write really dark, strong, complex women. The book, I think, gives depth to a lot of things that appear flat: the Midwest, sex workers, drugs. A lot of books are set in cities or coasts, and we were excited to write something about the middle of the country—the “fly-over” states that people might ignore. The book follows a classic noir structure with updated social elements.

JV: Your protagonist, Alice Riley, is morally ambiguous. How does this manifest itself in her character—and in what ways do you endeavor to balance staying true to that ambiguity without alienating your audience?

FS: I don’t think I ever worried about alienating our audience. I feel like the morally unambiguous protagonist is the most boring cliché out there, right? The “good guy.” Even superhero blockbusters feature characters who are kind of good, kind of bad; even boring old Superman got rewritten to be “dark.” Moral ambiguity is totally mainstream. (Which makes me wonder if the next trend will be unambiguously good guys versus one-dimensionally evil bad guys.)

JS: Readers are smart, and they want to go to new places. Yes, we definitely push limits with Alice—but she has to make hard choices. Her moral ambiguity is less a product of her character flaws and more a reflection of how truly messed up her situation is. I couldn’t say that I would or wouldn’t do similar things in similar circumstances.

JV: Tell us about Whitehurst, South Dakota. How does setting enhance narrative—and what most appeals to you about writing a fictitious place?

FS: Writing about a fictitious place gives you a certain freedom, and there’s also the absence of lawsuits.

JS: Whitehurst is less of a fictitious place than an amalgam of real places. Often, we would mine our childhood town—a river town in Iowa—for details, even though Iowa is hundreds of miles away from South Dakota. I went to graduate school in Wyoming at the foothills of the Rockies, and I have been to North and South Dakota countless times. Even though each place is so different, there’s an underlying “small-town” feel that permeates places like Whitehurst: the desperation of laid-off factory workers, the pining of teenagers, the aftermath of agriculture and industry. Frank and I drew on every small town we’ve visited along I-80.

JV: The book tackles real-life issues such as fracking, drugs, and prostitution. How does the lens of fiction influence telling a story about very real problems? What are your hopes in terms of how this book might influence readers’ worldviews?

FS: It sounds weird, but I think fiction is the best way to discuss reality. For many years, I supported myself by writing journalism, and I think that what finally burned me out was that I discovered the very real limitations of facts, in the sense that objectively presenting names, dates, information, etc. just isn’t that effective or compelling. It should be, but it isn’t. I don’t know why. People don’t care. They’re bored by it, they block it out. Maybe it’s that reality is just insufficient, something we all suspected in early adolescence but now sounds trite and immature. But why else would the fictional impulse be so integral to human nature, all the way back to prehistoric man telling stories around the fire? I think that’s also why mundane discussions about politics or your family history are so quick to veer off into conspiracy theorizing and unfounded gossip about the great-grandfather who spit in Hitler’s eye or whatever. Facts are empty calories: they’re not satisfying by themselves. Just look at this presidential election: the truth does not resonate anymore. It’s not enough.

JS: My background is in nonfiction, and I found fiction to be the perfect way to explore empathy. I’ve had friends whose marriages have fallen apart because one person strays, patronizes sex workers; on the other hand, I have many friends and colleagues who have engaged in sex work. Reality is messy—there’s no neat ending or moral to a life story. But in writing fiction, we are free to assign or subtract meaning as we see fit. So yes, Kim is a prostitute, and she is exploited, but I don’t see her as pitiful. I see her as someone I can really empathize with. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.

JV: I just have to ask — how does your collaborative process work? What are the unique strengths that each of you bring to the proverbial table?

FS: I’m good at the day-by-day “pennies in a jar” incremental work—the actual sitting down every single day and writing. Which is strange because in the rest of my life, I’m totally lazy and irresponsible—my apartment is horrifically messy, and my utilities are constantly getting shut off and turned back on because I’ll just forget to pay my bills.

JS: In one of my first workshops, the professor said writers are either “bangers or swoopers”—referencing a Jack Kerouac interview, I think. Bangers sit down every day, like Frank does, and eke out word by word. I’m definitely a swooper. After a chapter is finished, I’ll sit down and edit the story and generate plot for, say, seven, eight, or nine hours. Then I don’t look at it again for five days. Frank goes back to detail work, and I wait for the next batch.

Frank is a disgustingly talented writer—and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. His fiction is so eye-catching. I write nonfiction, so this has been a really educational process for me. But I will say this: Frank has the classic Fragile Writer Ego. He hates critiques and micro-edits. He doesn’t want to talk about word repetition or the subtle choices of dialogue and vernacular. I love that stuff. I’m also a rapacious cutter—if it were left up to Frank, Black Hills would be another 100 pages of red herrings.

JV: Leave us with a teaser — what comes next?

FS: Alice travels to the Pacific Northwest to look up a former criminal connection. Though she’s vowed to embrace “a regular, boring life,” she gets drawn into more intrigue when her friend’s child disappears….

JS: Yeah, Alice finds herself once again paying her bills with others’ unhappiness. Things get dark. This next book will make Black Hills look like a Pixar movie.


With thanks to Franklin and Jennifer Schneider for their generosity of time and thought and to Claire McLaughlin at Little Bird Publicity for facilitating this interview.

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