Allyson Rice is the author of the novel The Key to Circus Mom Highway. She is an award-winning mixed-media artist, a photographer, and she spent decades as an actress on stage and on television, her longest role being seven years as Connor Walsh on As the World Turns. You can see her multi-award-winning, comedic rap music video “Fine, I’ll Write My Own Damn Song” on YouTube.
TBE: To begin, I want to express my appreciation to you for agreeing to this interview. Could you tell us something about your book that isn’t in the blurb?
Allyson Rice: Thank you for the interview! Here’s something that’s not in the blurb, though it’s not specifically about the book, but more about the process of how I wrote the book. When I was just beginning to write it and I was working out the personality of each of the main characters, it helped me (especially when writing dialogue) to picture the actor I thought would be great in the role. This is what I came up with. I could see Reese Witherspoon as Jesse, Leslie Mann as Jennifer, and Clayne Crawford as Jack (Robert Downey Jr if he had been younger). Then, about midway through the book, I went, “Oh, you know who else would be good in these roles?…” Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jesse, Judy Greer as Jennifer, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack. (I’d love to hear what actors the readers envision in the roles as they read it!)
TBE: Can you give us any background on how this story originated? And what is the significance of the title of the story?
Allyson Rice: I was re-watching an old movie from the 1980s, After Hours, with Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette. I love its premise of a guy just trying to get home, but it’s fraught with obstacles, and the supporting characters are all very quirky/strange. (That’s also something I love about Carl Hiassen’s characters). So that’s all I knew in the beginning was that it was going to be someone trying to get somewhere in a landscape populated by fun/quirky characters. The similarities with After Hours end there. The process of building the storyline was about answering one question at a time–who, what, where, why, and when.
The title is a play on the old blues song “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy. That song actually makes an appearance in the book in one of the flashbacks about the deceased mom’s life. (I had to license the lyrics to be able to use them.) The lyrics are about having the key to the highway, and echo the backstory of the mom “I’m gonna leave here runnin’ cause walkin’s much too slow.” The addition of the word “Circus-Mom” to the title is because it’s what Jesse sarcastically calls their birth mom in a moment of anger and frustration.
TBE: Your characters are so well-depicted. Do you have them clear in your mind before you start writing chapter one? How do you get such a fine level of detail about your characters, their thought processes, and their lives?
Allyson Rice: There’s nothing clear in my mind before I begin chapter one except for having a general idea of who the main character is and some very loose plot ideas. I gain more clarity as I write. As each new detail gets added, I may then backtrack and add pieces earlier in the story that tie into what I just wrote.
Some of the surprising twists in the story were added when I asked myself, “What would really take the character by surprise at this point in the book?” Honestly, that’s how Jack got added to the story. I hadn’t known I was going to write this character until he was the answer to that question. The way the story unfolded constantly surprised me as I wrote it! The level of detail about the characters came by fully inhabiting that character in any given scene. My past career as an actress was very helpful in this regard because you have to do that when you’re playing a character. You have to be that character in that moment. When you are the character, the details all become evident.
TBE: There is a fascinating dynamic among the three siblings. How did you shape the interaction of their three distinct personalities? Of the three, Jesse, Jennifer, and Jack, was there a character who challenged you the most? In writing them, or understanding them?
Allyson Rice: I first fleshed out the ways in which they were different from one another. And then decided how those differences would play out – were their differences just mildly annoying to each other, or did they really hate certain aspects of one another, causing noisy altercations? Then I focused on how they might be similar to one another. I wanted there to be moments, in between all the comic bickering, where something would happen and there would be this surprising moment of camaraderie or a quiet, poignant moment of mutual understanding.
I think that Jack was the one who challenged me the most. Even though Jesse and Jennifer are very different women from each other, they’re both female characters. So that makes them more easily identifiable to me. The female brain and the male brain work in very different ways! So Jack got developed more slowly. I decided on the right “voice” for the character, which helped with the tone of his dialogue. But the backstory of being a veteran isn’t something I developed right away because I had zero knowledge of anything military, and at the time, it wasn’t crucial for the story.It was a backstory that was mentioned, but there were no flashbacks, etc. It wasn’t until later that I realized I needed to flesh out that story more because it had become integral to the tie-in with Jesse’s past.
So… I took a deep breath and did a very deep dive into research for the flashback, and research into how a milder case of PTSD might play out, and spoke to a friend in the medical field about medications, etc. Now I can’t even imagine the book without it.
TBE: The Key to Circus-Mom Highway is full of evocative imagery, including a detailed road trip. What kind of brainstorming work do you do with imagery? How do you conduct research that results in such a rich and detailed story?
Allyson Rice: The first step for me is always online research. There is so much available to us online it’s mindboggling. I also cross-check things because there’s also a great deal on the internet that isn’t accurate, or that’s partly accurate but also partly outdated. I chose stops on the trip based on looking at maps and figuring out distances and travel times because it’s an inflexible time frame that they’re working in. Finally, I went on the same road trip that the siblings went on to make sure that everything I found online actually worked (it did!).
I also wanted to collect all of the sensory details–the sights, sounds, foods, etc–along the way. All the smaller details that make a location really come to life. And I went on adventures along the way, like staying on a houseboat in the Louisiana swamp one night, visiting an old juke joint in Alabama, and doing a haunted tour in Savannah in a renovated hearse. It was while exploring Bonaventure Cemetery that I found some of the old family names in the flashbacks in Savannah, like “Guyton,” and “Lyman,” and “Theus” (though I mixed first and last names so as not to be naming a real person). I also didn’t settle on the exact location for their deceased mom’s final home until I explored all the little islands off the Savannah coast.
TBE: Writing a book is a complex and time-consuming task. You’ve got a story arc, you have characters, you have the structure of the presentation — and what you’re giving to the reader, of course, are the words on the page. You certainly excel in each of those four areas, but I want to ask you about the words that are on the page. How much of that comes naturally to you? And how much of that requires a lot of effort and hard work? And how much of that comes as a result of your editing?
Allyson Rice: I have to admit that when I began, I didn’t have the story arc or the structure. Those developed organically over time. I did have the characters, though (and some general plot points). For me, so much of the fallout in the story comes from the characters. I mean, there are definitely plot points that developed over the course of writing the book. Events that the characters have to respond to. But the way any human being responds to an event is as unique as they are. What they say and what they do is based on their unique personality and their entire life experience up to that point. So, often the responses of each of the characters determined where I took the story next.
In answer to your question, it’s a lot of effort and hard work (based on the sheer volume of time involved and the amount of research done), and it also comes naturally. I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. Dialogue especially comes naturally. Having spent decades as an actress earlier in my life, I played a lot of characters and worked with a lot of dialogue. So once I know who the characters are in my writing, the way they respond in a conversation flows pretty easily. That past acting experience is why the first thing I did was picture the movie version. (In case you were wondering about that.)
Even some of the plot points were added based on a conversation that occurred between 2 or more characters. Lines of dialogue flowed out onto the page, surprising me and making me go, “Oh, that’s so perfect!” and then leading me to another new wrinkle in the plot. Then, of course, all of it gets better and more layered during all of the subsequent editing I do. I edit as I go, so new story details and new lines of dialogue are constantly being added.
Also, I would periodically put the manuscript aside for a short time and come back to it with fresh eyes and re-read it all from the beginning (as I continued to edit it).
TBE: Your story opens with a truly shocking event — the death of the mother — and yet your writing is so wonderful that your characters and settings have stayed with me but the main event has faded. Would you elaborate on how did you strike that delicate balance between advancing the story and giving your characters room to grow and find their own unique voices?
Allyson Rice: Yes, it’s shocking, but more for the sisters than for the readers because the sisters were raised by other parents and didn’t even know they had a different birth mother until the call from the lawyer, who just tells them she’s passed away and there’s an inheritance.
But they’re not losing someone they knew and cared about, which keeps the event from being too sad. So the focus is more about the road trip they have to go on to collect their inheritance, a trip that will ultimately explain why their birth mother made the choices she did when she abandoned them as infants.
All three siblings come into this trip with challenges in life that the other siblings aren’t aware of. So they’re each undergoing their own internal journey in the book, even as they’re on this external journey together, and there are misconceptions they each have of one another because they don’t know what the others are going through and how it might be affecting their behavior. That causes a lot of comic bickering between the siblings. As the story progresses, their relationships deepen based on new understanding. And, yes, the inciting event (and the past in general) is supposed to fade over the course of the story as the relationships in the present, as well as their shared future, become the focus.
Some flashback scenes deal with more serious topics, but I tried not to dwell too much on those events, being brief in the descriptions, so that the siblings (and the readers) would understand the life events that shaped the birth mother, but the story wouldn’t be dragged down into those isolated dark moments. That was probably the most difficult thing to balance. How do you bring up dark events while still keeping the book light and fun and full of humor? Because I definitely wanted to keep people laughing throughout the book. (And based on advance reviews that mentioned this balance specifically, I seem to have been successful!)
TBE: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
Allyson Rice: I don’t have a particular writing spot at home, especially since I’m newly not in my home anymore (I just moved to a new place across the country). So I’ll usually start off at the dining room table, and I’ll move at some point to my bed with my computer on my lap or sit in a lounge chair. If the weather’s nice, I might sit outside at a table on the back deck. I take breaks every few hours to walk my dog and move around a bit. Otherwise, it’s easy for me to lose track of time and then have a hard time standing up because my legs have gotten stiff from sitting at the computer for too many hours in a row (ah, the joys of aging…)
Sometimes, though, I’ll take my laptop to the library or to a nearby diner and write there for a few hours. A diner is my favorite place to write. I just can’t afford to do that every day. I’ll also sometimes take breaks in between stretches of writing and go to my art studio down the road. Working on visual art relaxes me and re-sets my brain in a way that helps with the writing. That’s probably the most unusual thing I do, switch back and forth between writing and creating visual art.
TBE: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
Allyson Rice: I love the humor of Carl Hiassen. I’ve loved every book of his that I’ve read. I love the humor and gentle wisdom of Anne Lamott. My mom gave me Anne’s book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year when I was pregnant with my son. It was perfect. One of my favorite books is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (the M.D. Herter Norton translation). A new favorite is The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman (so hilarious to be set in a retirement community, and the characters are great fun). I love the old Nero Wolfe detective series by Rex Stout. And some classics I love are Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. There are way too many favorites to list them all (especially since they change from week to week), but those are a few.
TBE: Did you have any goals for this story when you wrote it? Any particular theme you want to explore? Ultimately, what do you hope readers will get out of your book?
Allyson Rice: Some of the themes I wanted to explore are how our first impressions of people aren’t always the most accurate, and our perception of them changes as we learn more about them and their struggles.
I wanted to explore how, even with people who initially seem very different from us, we can find common ground as human beings. I wanted to explore how, when we feel wounded, we put up defensive walls to protect ourselves, but we don’t just keep out people who might wound us in the future when we do that. We also keep out people who love us and who might be trying to help us. I wanted to explore how we don’t have to be ruled by our past experiences and the things that have hurt us. We can decide at any moment to start anew and to be the phoenix rising from the ashes (like Jesse’s tattoo).
In that same vein, I wanted to explore how things out of our control can change in a heartbeat–our relationships, our external circumstances, etc–and we can choose to allow our own perceptions and reactions to change as well. That we do have control over. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others and change our perceptions and take down our defensive walls, we actually feel less alone in the world because we can feel the love and support that surrounds us. I also wanted to shine a spotlight on how weird and humorous the world around us is.
I wanted all of those more serious themes to be woven into a wildly entertaining story. And I wanted to create a fast, fun read that ended on a hopeful note about second chances. One that would make readers laugh a lot, and maybe tear up in the more poignant moments, because the primary goal when I wrote this was entertainment. I hope that’s what readers take from the book–they had a great time reading it, and they feel hopeful about having second chances in their own lives.
TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
Allyson Rice: I’m at work on my second novel. It’s a comedy about a woman on the verge of turning 50, newly divorced and entering the online dating world for the first time, and she’s trying to decide the direction she wants her life to go. It includes her friendships with two women she’s known since college, and there’s an Australian paragliding instructor she meets on one of her new adventures who gets under her skin and she’s not quite sure how she feels about that. I don’t know how it ends yet!
I’m also at work on my fourth women’s coloring book. Those get created little by little when I take breaks from other projects I’m working on and draw for a while to create more clear space in my brain when it gets too crowded in there. There’s also writing that accompanies some of the drawings.
I’m also working on a screenplay. It’s a crime drama set in 1920. I’ve recently finished a detailed outline and have been working on fleshing out the scenes and writing the dialogue.
And, as always, I’m working on expanding my newsletter mailing list to keep readers up to date on news, events, and subscriber-only giveaways. (Hint, hint…) 😊