Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Interrogation Room #13: Tracy Bilen, author of What She Left Behind

“Don’t even think of leaving…I will find you,” he whispered. “Guaranteed.” - What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen

Sara and her mom have a plan to finally escape Sara’s abusive father. But when her mom doesn’t show up as expected, Sara’s terrified. Her father says that she’s on a business trip, but Sara knows he’s lying. Her mom is missing—and her dad had something to do with it.

Each day that passes, Sara’s more on edge. Her friends know that something’s wrong, but she won’t endanger anyone else with her secret. And with her dad growing increasingly violent, Sara must figure out what happened to her mom before it’s too late…for them both.

This week we've hauled author Tracy Bilen into the Interrogation Room, accused of being a First Ttime Offender. Her first novel What She Left Behind, a romantic thriller, debuted May 1st from Simon Pulse.

Tracy is a high school French and Spanish teacher in Michigan where she lives with her husband and two children. Before moving to Michigan, Tracy taught at a ski school for high school students in Vermont (Spanish, not skiing!). She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and taught English in Strasbourg, France. She enjoys cross-country skiing and walks in the woods.

Here is the transcript of Tracy's interrogation:

Laura Ellen: According to your bio, you are a high school French and Spanish teacher. How did you decide to begin writing young adult novels?

Tracy Bilen: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that the road wouldn’t be easy, so I entered college determined to come out with a profession I could use to support myself. Studying French and Spanish was an easy choice, since I love speaking other languages as much as I love writing. When I started writing novels, I wasn’t much beyond my teen years myself. So I started writing with a teen perspective and I never wanted to give it up.

Laura Elen: Were thrillers your intended genre? Going forward, what genres do you see yourself writing?

Tracy Bilen: My first attempt at a novel was a romance, but I’ve always loved reading thrillers…from Lois Duncan as a teen to Harlan Coben, now as an adult. And while What She Left Behind is a thriller, it’s a romance as well. I love both reading and writing romantic thrillers, so I see the genre as my writing “home.”
Laura Elen: You classify What She left Behind as a 'romantic thriller', but it has also been called a  'mystery' by others. Do you see the terms 'thriller' and 'mystery' as interchangeable?

Tracy Bilen: Here’s my take on the two terms: In a mystery, the protagonist usually has a choice about whether or not to try to solve a crime. And while his/her life may be at risk, this normally isn’t evident until near the end. While Sara does have a mystery to solve, I consider What She Left Behind to be a thriller because Sara’s life is in jeopardy from the moment she and her mom decide to run away. 
Laura Ellen: When you began writing What She Left Behind did you know it was going to be a thriller or did it just 'happen' as you got farther into the writing?

Tracy Bilen: I always knew that What She Left Behind would be a thriller, that the novel would be a race against time as Sara searched for her mom.

Laura Ellen: When you write do you plot everything out or do you just let the story take you where it needs to go?
Tracy Bilen: I’m definitely more of a “pantser”than a “plotter.” With What She Left Behind, I knew very little about where the story would go when I started it. One of my critique group partners is a definite “plotter.” About her own work she would say things like, “In chapter 9, such and such will happen.” And I would find that so funny because I could never know something that detailed starting out. That being said, I’ve found that in the manuscripts I’ve worked on since What She Left Behind, I’ve been able to do a lot more of the plotting up front (but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell you what will happen in chapter 9 before I write it!)

Laura Ellen: How would you advise mystery and thriller writers to ramp up the "thrill factor"? Do you have any tips for suspense writing?
Tracy Bilen: When your character is in a bad spot, keep asking yourself, how could this get any worse? And then throw your character into that worse situation (and try not to wince!) Also, try to ramp up the suspense at the end of each chapter. Make your reader feel like he/she just has to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next.

Laura Ellen: What She Left Behind deals with two very difficult issues -- grief and abuse -- how difficult was it to inject these into your story and still keep it a fast-paced, suspenseful thriller?

Tracy Bilen: Writing these parts was not difficult because that was the way the story unfolded in my mind. That being said, I did have to go back through and crank up the suspense in certain scenes.

Laura Ellen: Was there ever a time in writing What She Left Behind that you felt it was too dark/edgy and you had to pull back?

Tracy Bilen: Yes, there was one scene in particular that I was struggling with and I wrote it the direction I thought my editor wanted it to go. But I also wrote an alternate version of the scene that I was much happier with, and as it turned out, so was my editor!

Laura Ellen: I understand you won the SCBWI-MI novel mentorship for 2009 which meant a year working on What She Left Behind one-on-one with author Shutta Crum. How did this mentorship push you from manuscript to published novel? What were some of the key lessons you learned through this experience?

Tracy Bilen: When I started the mentorship, I had about half of the novel written. In something akin to an editorial letter, Shutta gave me detailed suggestions about how and where to expand the novel. She did this five times throughout the year, and by the end, the novel was ready to make the rounds with agents. One of the things we worked the most on was characterization and character arc. These were weaknesses that I wasn’t even aware of when I began the mentorship, and I’m so grateful I had the chance to grow in this area!

Laura Ellen: Thank you for your time, Tracy. We hope to see you again soon as a repeat offender. Before you go, where can we find you if we need to ask you more questions?

Tracy Bilen: If you want to know a little more about What She Left Behind, you can watch the trailer here. You can also head over to my website at
On Twitter I’m @TracyBilen and on Facebook my page is at:
I am also on Goodreads:

Click the 'read more' link below to win a What She Left Behind swag pack which includes 1 WSLB notebook and 5 WSLB bookmarks!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Ohhh that's soo awesome, I didn't know Tracy was a French teacher !!I live in Bordeaux which in the South west of France hehe ..
    What She Left Behind sounds beyond amazing !! I can't to read it so thank you for the opportunity to win some swag :) !! I'm really hoping the giveaway is inernational :)

  2. Tracy's book is wonderful. I like how she explains the difference between a mystery and a thriller in this interview.

  3. Great interview Lauren and Tracy. I loved Tracy's book. And she definitely followed her advice on making it an incredible thriller. I could not put it down.


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