What Happens When an Editor Writes Her First Novel? An Interview with Shayla Raquel on the Launch of “The Suicide Tree”

By Blake Atwood

I believe I “met” Shayla Raquel after being invited to an editors-only Facebook group that she and a co-conspirator launched a few years ago. Since I was just beginning my career as a freelance editor, I relished that group’s insight, camaraderie, and helpfulness. Whenever I felt stuck, I asked that group. The fact that I continue to have clients is a testament to that group.

In time, I had the opportunity to meet Shayla in person, and she was exactly as her Facebook posts advertised: ebullient, knowledgeable, and over-the-moon about books and writing.

So, on the day that her first novel, The Suicide Tree, launches, I had to interview her.

Where did you find the seedling for The Suicide Tree? In other words, what moment sparked the first idea for your story?

Originally, from a dream whose plot I can’t even recall.

For one of my college classes (age 19), we had to write a character sketch so I used the plot from my dream and wrote a sketch on a man named Arlo, who had schizophrenia. Of course, in The Suicide Tree, he suffers from a personality disorder (by all accounts, dissociative identity disorder, although I never call it that in the book).

As the years progressed, I had forgotten about Arlo and my research on the disorder but came back to it when I bought The Book of Poisons and discovered a plant called the suicide tree. And what do you know?

It made for a great hacker name.

You quit writing this book for a time. Why? When and how did you find the courage to complete it?

Plot holes, my friend.

First, I didn’t start with an outline, which was the dumbest thing I could’ve done—er, not done.

Second, the poor story changed more times than the lead in a Broadway play. I couldn’t even keep up with what I had done to the plot.

Third, I felt like I was a crappy writer because of the plot holes. Why couldn’t I just write something amazing? Why did I have to keep messing up the story?

All of that changed, however, when I took over as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society (which you recently presented at). The accountability, encouragement, and knowledge I received from that group gave me the kick in the pants I needed.

Six months after joining, I sent off my novel to beta readers. Six months after that, it was with a content editor.

Writing teachers often advise turning off your inner editor as you write. Since you’re a full-time professional editor, was that a struggle for you? How did you overcome it? How would you advise other writers to silence their inner editor while writing?

I could strangle my inner editor. She ruined everything!

I would get going and things would be great—and boom! It’s time to go back and edit and tweak and revise and pull out your hair.

All that led to was a medieval muddle, as Merlin would say.

I overcame it by determining in my heart that if I didn’t finish the dang book by December 2017, I would be disappointing so many people who had been rooting for me all year long. That’s why accountability is so important. You can’t do this alone.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

This notion that I wasn’t good enough.

Now think about that. I have been working in the publishing industry since 2010. I’ve edited 300+ novels, launched bestsellers, and even published a couple of nonfiction e-books.

But I didn’t think I was good enough to write a full-length novel.

What if people hated it so much they wouldn’t hire me as their editor? What if my debut novel didn’t live up to my expectations?

Looking back, I realize that was just pure insanity. I had to overcome my fears and accomplish the one thing I had wanted to do since I was 16. I decided that nothing would get in my way of making that dream a reality.

What’s been the best part of writing your first novel?

Falling in love with the characters.

Knox Kevel, the protagonist, is my favorite character. He’s witty, sarcastic, and intelligent. He grows throughout the novel, which I believe is so important.

Writing him and the other characters was easy. I felt like I knew them.

Another thing I loved was revisiting Italy. The characters go all over Italy, as I had in 2011, and it was a blast going back to those places in my mind.

What future books can we look forward to from Shayla Raquel?

For NaNoWriMo, I’ll be writing a book of creative nonfiction short stories. I have always, always wanted to publish a book of humorous short stories. Then, I will be crafting my next novel, which I hope will be a sci-fi thriller involving blood—but no gore. Hmmmm . . .