Interview sponsored* by Alyssa Devine
The Children’s Book Review | May 22, 2017
The Hypnotist is a murder mystery/thriller. What draws you to the murder mystery genre?
That’s a great question, Bianca. It would be easy to say I’m influenced, for the most part, by the large number of superb made-for-television series in this genre that populate the cultural landscape . . . shows like Fargo and True Detective. But the truth is, if you look closely at this novel, and in fact, at all of the novels I wrote under my real name—Theodore Jerome Cohen—they are basically police procedurals. It’s not so much the crime with which I’m concerned, though believe me, if you’re going to write a mystery-thriller, you might as well go all the way and have the antagonist commit a murder, or two, or more. No, what intrigues me as a physicist is how the crime is solved. That is, how does the detective, or in this case, how do two teenagers, catch the killer? What clues do they uncover? What investigative tools and techniques do they use? How do they connect the dots? Meanwhile, just to spice things up, let’s put their lives in jeopardy and see if they can bring the perp to justice before they, themselves, are murdered. It’s great fun playing out these games of cat and mouse on the pages of a mystery/thriller.
Hypnotism is not something one normally sees as the subject of a YA novel. For this reason, we’d love you to share the inspiration behind the novel.
As a senior in high school, a friend and I used to experiment with hypnosis. In fact, we became quite adept at hypnotizing our classmates toward the end of the school year, something that almost led to our being expelled two weeks before graduation!
Well, we had stayed after school to finish our trigonometry homework one afternoon and got to joking around. I ended up hypnotizing him on the third-floor landing when Mrs. Schumacher, the geometry teacher, caught us. The next thing we knew, we were sitting in the principal’s office. I don’t think he quite understood what had happened or how to handle the situation. No one was harmed, my friend didn’t seem worse for wear, we both had good grades, and so, we got off with a stern warning, including something about having our graduation certificates withheld if we so much as looked cross-eyed at anyone in the weeks leading up to graduation. Clearly, the experience made an impression on me because it served as the inspiration for the book. By the way, all of the teachers at the high school in The Hypnotist have the same last names as my former teachers at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Just my way of paying homage to some of the people who had the greatest influence on my life!
The plot contains the paranormal, fortune telling, magical realism, reincarnation, a budding romance, and murder. What was your process for creating this rich storyline?
Well, I have to tell you, I didn’t start writing with that list in mind. I write intuitively. Which is to say, I wake up one morning with an idea, sit down at the keyboard, and lay down anywhere from 2000 to 5000 words a day, totally off the top of my head. I have no idea where the story will lead, what the characters will say—and believe me when I tell you, even I’m surprised sometimes by what pops out of their mouths—or how the story ends. I just let the story-line and dialogue flow in a stream of consciousness, hoping I don’t back myself in a corner and contradict something stated earlier in a later chapter. Eventually it all works out—obviously—and in the process, I almost always end up having a lot of laughs. Humor is a major part of all of my novels.
I guess that means you are a pants-ter. You start with some basic characters and a concept, and just let ’er rip?
You can be so eloquent at times, Bianca! But yes, that’s basically correct. In the case of The Hypnotist, I knew, given this was a YA novel, that there would have to be some kind of love interest. So, voila, I created Amanda Wilcox and Tom Lassiter. Both are students at the fictitious Langford Creek High School in Lafayette, Louisiana. They’re from out of the area, both are outsiders, and so, they naturally gravitate toward one another. The opening scene is intended to introduce Tom as the hypnotist. Here, he hypnotizes another player just before orchestra practice. This scene also has the advantage of creating some tension between Amanda and Tom. And of course, you just know that Tom will eventually want to hypnotize Amanda. Things take off from there. But I don’t want to tell too much here because it will spoil the fun. I will say, however, that one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me, from the standpoint of writing the book, was the portion related to the reading of the tarot cards. I didn’t know anything about this arcane art when I began, so it was quite an education to learn about it and put my knowledge to work. It’s the tarot card reading for Amanda by Madam Zu-Zu that actually drives the novel. By the way, Colorado authorities recently sentenced a man to life in prison for murdering his wife more than 20 years ago. The manner in which he hid her body was identical to that used by the murderers in The Hypnotist. Uncanny!
The main characters, Amanda and Tom, are both teenagers and also ‘outsiders.’ Can you delve into their background a little bit and why they gravitate toward each other?
Allow me to quote from the novel, which, perhaps, may be the best way to introduce the two protagonists:
“[Amanda] was a transplant from New York City, the result of her parents finalizing their divorce during the summer between her sophomore and junior years and her mother’s return to her parents’ home in Lafayette. Amanda, a petite student with emerald green eyes and fiery red hair, was far from bored in her new surroundings. Among other things she still was struggling to master the violin under her new teacher, a less gifted woman than her former instructor in Manhattan who had been trained at The Juilliard School. Despite this vexing problem, Amanda continued to excel in math and science at her new high school. As a result, she received several offers from universities and colleges around the country that would have allowed her to pursue degrees in the physical sciences under a variety of financial aid packages. She finally accepted MIT’s, where she was given a four-year, full-tuition scholarship from the Department of Physics.”
“[Tom], too, was a transplant of sorts, though it would be difficult to state exactly where he might call home. Born in Houston, Tom had, in his short life, lived in Texas, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Indonesia. This transient way of living was the result of his father’s job as an officer in a major international oil conglomerate based in Houston. Now, with the elder Lassiter responsible for the management of his corporation’s oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the family found itself in Lafayette. To say Tom was bored most of the time would be an understatement. Still, he was an excellent student, and through his father’s connections, had already been accepted at his father’s alma mater in Oklahoma. Much to his parent’s dismay, however, he turned the school’s offer down. Instead, he chose to attend Princeton University, where, as one of less than 800 students admitted under the school’s early admissions program, he intended to pursue a degree in mathematics, with a specialty in number theory.”
So, Amanda played the violin in the orchestra while Tom played the trumpet. Both are outsiders. Both are excellent students. It’s easy to see, I think, how they eventually will be drawn to one another.
The Hypnotist has been selected by the English Department at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for inclusion in their Core Genre (Mystery) 9th Grade Reading Program. How do they use the book in this program?
The two core texts used in the program are The Hypnotist and Witness for the Prosecution. The Hypnotist, in particular, has a Lexile® measure of 930L—corresponding, roughly, to a 10th-grade reading level—so it poses a good challenge to 9th grade students. A variety of other mystery authors/titles are available for use as the self-selected text. These titles vary in difficulty to meet the needs of the individual student. Lower-level texts include books from The Boxcar Children Mysteries and Field Trip Mysteries series while upper-level texts include classic titles from Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe as well as titles from a variety of popular authors, including John Grisham, Dean Koontz, and Michael Crichton. In all cases, students discuss and evaluate story arcs, characters, themes, and so forth. I guess you’d have to say we’re in pretty good company.
Do you make school visits?
Oh, yes. I am regularly asked to talk to 9th grade English classes on mystery writing. We discuss everything related to the genre, from story ideas to character development, and from writing a novel’s first line to the creation of dialogue. The discussions are most stimulating. Last year, I gave 40 one-hour sessions at this high school.
There is also a special paperback edition for dyslexic readers that has been endorsed by the American Dyslexia Association and the Wisconsin Institute for Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia. What was the process for creating this special edition and having it endorsed?
I never realized the problems facing people with dyslexia until I read an article on the CNN Website describing the work of British designer Daniel Britton. Britton, who had never finished reading a book until he was a 22-year-old university student, has dyslexia, a disability that affects one in five people. At the time, Kindle eReaders were not configured out-of-the-box to display a special font—for example, OpenDyslexicAlta—that could help readers with dyslexia read books on those devices. So, I decided to try an experiment. Basically, I downloaded the OpenDyslexicAlta font to my computer and converted the entire text for The Hypnotist to this font. Then, after creating a new cover, I uploaded the book to Amazon’s CreateSpace and published a special paperback edition for readers with dyslexia. Once it was available, I sent copies to the American Dyslexia Association and the Wisconsin Institute for Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia; they responded by endorsing the special edition. Now, that said, it’s my understanding certain high-end Kindle eReaders today do offer users the option of converting text to the Open Dyslexic font, which should help some who are having problems. Others with dyslexia may want to try converting texts to Comic Sans or Arial, or even changing the color of the screen background. Interestingly, sometimes removing the right justification on a document can help.
As the Hypnotist is your debut novel under the pen name of Alyssa Devine, can we expect to see more exciting murder mysteries?
[Laughs] I’ll have to see what ideas occur to me upon waking up some morning.
Would you like to share with us why you choose to write under a pen name? Or would you prefer it to be a mystery?
Sure. I wanted to separate my YA offerings from my adult books, so I knew I would be using a pseudonym. But what name? To be candid, I simply googled girl’s names, and starting with the A’s, went down the list until I found something I liked. Alyssa. Beautiful! Then, I wanted something descriptive for the second name. I know a book reviewer who goes by the name Paige Lovitt. Isn’t that a terrific name? So, I needed a last name that would describe my books. I wanted them to be “divine.” Alas, Alyssa Divine was being used, but Alyssa Devine was not! And so, Alyssa Devine was “born.”
Is there anything else that you would like to share with us about The Hypnotist or your life as an author?
Just that earlier this year I released my second short-story anthology, The Road Less Taken: A Collection of Unusual Short Stories (Book 2) under my real name, Theodore Jerome Cohen. This continues my penchant for writing stories that mix truth with fiction in ways even my friends and family find difficult to untangle. All of the stories, in one way or another, involve people I knew—though the stories are fictionalized, of course—or involve situations in which I found myself at some point in my life. You’ll find a story about a man who survived the death camp at Treblinka to become the owner of a violin shop in Queens, New York; a friend who was confronted by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and General de Gaulle on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland shortly after the start of World War II; and a man with a passion for beautiful women and fast cars who dared to live on the edge. There’s something there for everyone. One of the stories in Book 1, by the way—“Unforgiven”—won Honorable Mention in a Glimmer Train literary magazine competition in 2015. The story can be found in its entirety on my Website. *
Thanks so much for being with us today, ‘Alyssa’.
Thank you. The pleasure was mine.
Written by Alyssa Devine
Publisher’s Synopsis: When, on an afternoon outing in Bayou Vermilion, Lafayette, LA, Amanda Wilcox has her fortune read by Madam Zu-Zu, she and her friend, Tom Lassiter, never thought it would lead to her having a nightmare in which she dreamed she was being choked to death. Under hypnosis, Amanda reveals to Tom that she once was a woman named Kyla Decker, who disappeared 25 years earlier after being stopped by a policeman while driving home early one morning after partying with her girlfriends. An Internet search reveals the name of another woman, Cindi Lathrop, who disappeared some years after Decker under similar circumstances. As Amanda’s and Tom’s relationship blossoms, the teenagers uncover evidence linking a former Lafayette, LA, policeman and a funeral home employee to the abductions, men who they suspect murdered the two women. But then, in what appears to be a real-life enactment of what the fortune teller told Amanda, Amanda and Tom find their lives threatened by one of the two men they think was responsible for the murders committed 25 years earlier. Can the teenagers survive, knowing the last of the five tarot cards read to Amanda by Madam Zu-Zu was Death? The only way to learn the answer to that question is to read The Hypnotist.
Educators and librarians: The Hypnotist has a LexileTM measure of 930L.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1507859438
About Alyssa Devine
Alyssa Devine is the pseudonym for an award-winning scientist/investigator who already has published ten award-winning adult mystery/thrillers and police procedurals. Besides drawing on the author’s background in criminal investigations, The Hypnotist also explores the paranormal, including tarot card readings and reincarnation as revealed through hypnotism. Though billed as a YA novel about two teenage sleuths in Lafayette, LA, adults will be equally fascinated by this story and its characters.
You can read more about Alyssa at www.alyssadevinenovels.com and www.theodore-cohen-novels.com.
The Author Showcase is a place for authors and illustrators to gain visibility for their works. This interview was sponsored* by Alyssa Devine, the author of ‘The Hypnotist.’ Discover more great writing and illustrating artists in our Showcase.