Zibby speaks to New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist Deanna Raybourn about Killers of a Certain Age, an unpredictable and witty new thriller about four 60-year-old female assassins who, after forty years of service, just want to retire! Deanna talks about her quartet of badass protagonists, the risk she took writing a contemporary story after years of publishing historical fiction, and the idea of retirement as something that can change a person’s identity. She also reveals the phenomenal thrillers that changed her opinion of the genre, and shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Deanna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Killers of a Certain Age.

Deanna Raybourn: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I will never think about a cruise ship refrigerator the same way again.

Deanna: I know. Who knew they had so many uses?

Zibby: Who knew? Frankly, even, now I’m worried about cruise ships. Anyway, I’ll stop. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about and also what inspired you to write it?

Deanna: Killers of a Certain Age is about four female assassins who are sixty years old. They’re on the cusp of retirement. They have to band together when they realize the organization they work for would rather see them dead than let them retire. The book didn’t actually start with me. It started with the fine folks at my publisher. I write for Berkley at Penguin Random House. They were apparently having a chat one day in the office where they were talking about the fact that there just are not enough books about older women doing kick-ass things. They wanted to know if I would be interested in writing something like that. My books have always been about younger women. They’re historical. I write about one character at a time, usually with a really cool, dishy sidekick and a very large found family or blood family. This was going to be a complete departure for me. I was super excited about the idea of doing it. They weren’t thrown by the fact that I wanted to write sixty-year-olds. They were not thrown by the fact that I wanted them to be killers, but they were super surprised that I wanted them to be set in a contemporary setting. That was the part that really, really surprised them.

Zibby: Why? When did they think it would be?

Deanna: They thought I would want to write another historical. The brief was like I could literally do whatever I wanted. They just wanted older women doing badass things. That was the entire brief. They must have asked me at least three times, “Are you sure you want to do contemporary?” I was like, “Yes, please.” To their everlasting credit, they let me do it. I think a lot of publishers probably would not have, but they did. I loved it. It was so much fun to write and the hardest thing I’ve ever written because I’ve not done contemporary before. I had to find that contemporary voice. That was quite an ordeal, but got there in the end. It was an absolute blast to write.

Zibby: It seemed like fun. There was a wink and a nod, I feel like, to all of it.

Deanna: Absolutely. The whole point is for readers to have fun with it and just take a few hours out of your day, whatever you’ve got going on, whether you’re in car line picking up the kids from school or you’ve got a commute to work or you’re lucky enough to be sitting on a beach somewhere, just a few hours out of your day to read this and forget about whatever is stressing you out and live vicariously as people who deserve to get murdered get bumped off.

Zibby: It’s awesome. This feels very movie to me. Very cinematic, I should say.

Deanna: That’s the hope.

Zibby: Interestingly, you include the backstory with the relationships that a lot of the women are in. I found that to be really interesting too. Helen is grieving the loss of her husband and is sort of shrinking in on herself. The girls are trying to rally around her to help. Then you have another character — what is her name? I’m getting all the names wrong — who was in a lesbian relationship with her — she has a fight.

Deanna: Mary Alice and her wife, Akiko.

Zibby: Akiko. I was going to say kimono, but I was like, that’s not right. And how this job puts stress on their relationship too because she’s always taking off. You bring a new dimension to — a real dimension. Not new. You’re just introducing the characters. Tell me about their backstories, their relationships, and what you’re highlighting with each of them and how that is important in this group of four.

Deanna: When you look at books or TV series that have quartets of women — there are a lot of them. It starts with Little Women. When we’re kids, we read this book. Then I was an eighties teen, so I saw Living Single and Golden Girls. A decade later, we had Sex and the City. I don’t know what all the cool kids are watching now, but there’s probably some show with a quartet of women in it. Anytime you look at a project that’s got four women in it, they seem to fall into these archetypal roles. One of the characters will be a nurturer. One will be a wild child, which we certainly see with Natalie. She’s our killer who’s been married three or four times. She’s a serial monogamist. She’s into mixology. She just will not say no to a good party. Then you’ll have a character who steps up to take a leadership role. She doesn’t particularly want to, but she’ll do it because she’s good at it and somebody has to. That’s Billie. That’s the character who kind of drives the narrative. We see the contemporary scenes through Billie’s eye. We see flashback scenes to when they were first recruited, when they first started working together, and what those early missions looked like. The book opens with their very first mission. It goes to hell really, really fast. They’ve got to scramble and think on their feet and figure out how to salvage this mission. Billie’s the one who really steps up into that leadership role, even though that’s not how she thinks of herself. That’s not something she would’ve necessarily chosen to do, but it’s what she’s good at.

Like you said, we’ve got Helen, who, forty years on — this friendship has endured. This working relationship has lasted for four decades. We’ve got Helen, who was happily married and is grieving the loss of her husband. Billie has never married, but there’s the one who got away because she told him too. Then Natalie with her serial marriages. Now we’ve got Mary Alice, who is very little more than a newlywed. She’s only been married about three years. We see them all at very different stages in their relationship journeys, but they’re all in the same place with regard to their relationship with each other, which is, I’ve known you for forty years. You push all my buttons, but I would literally take a bullet for you. Sometimes they actually have. They trust each other and they know each other in a way that they don’t trust or know anybody else in their lives. To me, that makes for this really rock-solid friendship where they shorthand a lot of things. If you’ve known somebody since you were twenty years old, they know things about you that nobody else knows. They know how to get right under your skin. That’s what they do for each other. Playing with that dynamic was a great deal of fun because that’s another thing that I haven’t done a lot of. Usually, writing a strong central character and just a lot of supporting characters, it’s a very different dynamic than looking at this really incredibly strong four-way friendship that has meant so much to these women throughout their lives.

Zibby: Amazing. Actually, I’m writing this novel. I do have four friends. Now I’m like, oh, my gosh, maybe I’m just copying The Golden Girls and Sex and the City. I didn’t mean to do it. I’m like, oh, I do have the one who’s wilder. Anyway, whatever. Maybe now I have to go back.

Deanna: I’m telling you, it’s archetypes. When you look back and you look at Little Women, you’re like, oh. There’s Jo, who’s going to take charge when nobody else really can. You’ve got Meg, who’s going to be kindly and nurturing and take care of the ones who need a little help. Then you’ve got Amy. Again, wild child. Then you always have the one who just drifts along and is maybe kind of a still waters running deep situation.

Zibby: Another thing I loved was how you deal with this notion of identity. If you’re not in your job anymore or you’re retiring, who really are you? I know Billie is struggling with that and is part of, perhaps, why everybody gets dragged in. It wasn’t exactly what they wanted to happen on this voyage. What does it mean? What does it mean to even retire anymore? Not everybody even gets to retire.

Deanna: Exactly. People who do retire, how many of them are retiring from jobs that they’ve had for forty years working for the same organization? That’s not really a thing anymore. I feel like if you have been in that situation, then here comes this entire existential crisis along with it where you’re leaving this job that has been a part of you literally since you were twenty years old. I do feel there’s something slightly underhanded about the fact that they were recruited when they were as young as they were and shaped into being who they are. Who knows what their lives would’ve turned out to be if they hadn’t been gotten at when they were twenty? They all signed on willingly. They all wanted to do this. We see the reasons in the book for why each one of them wanted to pursue a career in assassination. That has to shape you when you’re doing that kind of work, when you’re keeping those kind of secrets. How does it shape you? Then when you’re done with it, who are you? Who are you? This is who you’ve been for forty years. Now you’ve got to answer that question. I feel like some of them are a little more equipped to handle that. Plus, you have not just, who are you after you’ve lost or are in the process of losing this job that has defined you, but for Helen, who am I now that this marriage is gone? That role has been taken away. Natalie doesn’t currently have a man on the string. Who is she as a single woman when she’s accustomed to always having some sort of dalliance going on? With Mary Alice settling into a marriage with someone who literally does not know what she does for a living, was that a wise move, Mary Alice? Should you perhaps have told her at some point what you do for a living? They’ve all got things that they’re wrestling with. In the meantime, they’ve got people to kill.

Zibby: Really, when you think about it, that is what empty nesting is. It’s retirement. It’s a forced retirement from a job that you chose twenty years before or eighteen years before. You might not want it to end, but it comes to an end. You can’t really get it back. It’s all with your identity. Everything is wrapped up in it.

Deanna: You’ve got a skill set that might not necessarily translate to anything else that you want to do. Whether you’re a mom, whether you’re a killer —

Zibby: — It’s all the same.

Deanna: You have these skills that might not be appreciated.

Zibby: It is hard, especially as people live longer and longer. I don’t know, really, what the answer is. Is the answer always to find the next new thing? Be a writer? Read? I don’t know. What do you think?

Deanna: For me, it’s always going to be storytelling. I’ve had the empty nest because my daughter’s twenty-seven, about to turn twenty-eight. I’ve done the mom thing. Now I’m doing the parent of a grown child. I’m a mother-in-law. It is a very different role. Being on the other end of it now and going, oh, okay, so the years when they need you, need you, need you are over, then what do you do with that time? What do you do with that sense of being completely necessary to someone? The role changes. For me, it’s changed in wonderful and amazing ways. I have loved those transitions. I know for a lot of people that’s a really, really tricky, tricky thing to get through. That was kind of what I put my poor killers through.

Zibby: Are these characters returning? Do you have plans for them in any way or any subset of them?

Deanna: All I can tell you is people are talking and discussions are being had.

Zibby: That’s good.

Deanna: It’s cryptic. It’s a cryptic and unsatisfying answer. I’m very sorry, Zibby.

Zibby: That’s okay. I understand. I get it. It’s fine. I have a feeling this is not the end of these characters. We’ll just throw that to the universe.

Deanna: That sounds like a lovely thing to throw out into the universe.

Zibby: Where are you from? How did you even get involved in writing at all? I know you were picked for this project, which is so cool. Where did this come from? Did you always want to do this?

Deanna: Oh, yeah. I’m a sixth-generation Texan on my mom’s side. My dad’s side, his mother was English, and so I had all these unusual English children’s books that I read when I was growing up. When I started writing and I started publishing, my novels have all been set in Britain. They feature British characters. That was another huge departure for me, is writing characters — I think only one other time have I ever written American characters. That was another change of voice, change of perspective that I had to navigate, which was great fun. I loved it. It was a big change. I was always going to be a storyteller, always. I remember being super excited when I learned how to print because I could get stories out of my head and onto paper. I was like, this is the greatest thing ever. I double majored in college in English and history because I knew I wanted to write historical fiction. I wrote my first novel when I was twenty-three. It’s in a box in my attic because it’s not good. It took me fourteen years after that to get published. I’ve been working and publishing ever since then and have been very, very lucky. Having that wide-open brief, just, “Hey, do you want to write something cool about older women?” and then being able to do whatever I wanted was a huge risk that came at the perfect time. I had never told anybody that I wanted to write a contemporary. That was something I was sitting on until I had just the right thing to do to take that risk with. Then when this idea cropped up, everything clicked into place. I was like, this is the one to do that with. This is the time to walk that tightrope and just scare the bejesus out of myself, which I love to do when I work. I love to scare myself when I work. This was that time.

Zibby: Do you have a little posse like this, too, of your three best friends?

Deanna: No, not to this extent where — there are women in my life, and a couple of men, who are just incredibly supportive. They always have my back. They’re the ones who don’t flinch when I say, hey, I’ve got to kill somebody on paper. How does this strike you? I had a couple writer friends that I would moan to when this all got to be a little too much and a little too scary. I had one pal in particular who texted me one day when I was really having a crisis of confidence and texted me and said, “If you’re writing authentically, you cannot fail.” I printed that out and taped it to my monitor and just carried on.

Zibby: I love that. As long as you’re having fun doing it, other people will have fun reading it.

Deanna: That’s what it came down to. Anytime I had choices to make in structuring the book or choosing who these characters were and how they were going to react in a specific situation, I always defaulted to, what’s going to be the most fun to write? Whatever’s the most fun to write is going to be the most fun to read. Like I told you at the beginning of this chat, that was the point, was for people to have fun.

Zibby: Do you think that there is a killer in each of us? I know when Billie was being recruited, she’s like, okay, I guess I’ll be a killer now. The man was like, oh, you were already a killer. We just had to get you to admit it, or something like that.

Deanna: No, I think there are some people who are absolutely not capable of it at all. I think far more people are capable of it than actually do it. I think different people would have different motivations. A lot of mothers would kill to protect their children. That’s just a primal thing. I think a lot of it depends on circumstances and motive and whatnot.

Zibby: That’s interesting. I was like, I definitely wouldn’t kill. You’re like, mothers. I was like, well, yeah, of course I would kill if —

Deanna: — Exactly. You think that’s such a cynical thing to say, that so many people would be killers. Then you go, but what about your kids? Then everybody goes, that’s a gimmie. Of course, I’d kill to protect my kids.

Zibby: I remember growing up, my mom was always like, “You know, I would die for you. If there was a car coming, I would step in front.” I always felt like I had so much responsibility knowing that. What was I supposed to do with that? Okay, thank you. I didn’t know quite what to make of that. It’s the same as the killing for someone else. It’s like, all right, good to know.

Deanna: Then you have kids, and you’re like, okay, I get it now. Now I understand.

Zibby: What do you like to read?

Deanna: I love to read biography and memoir, especially the really chatty kind. I love to read celebrity memoir. I have just started, a couple of years ago, reading thrillers because I’m a huge chicken. I never would read them. That changed a couple of years ago. I was going on a beach trip and saw a book. I just fell in love with the cover. It’s shallow, but we do that. I looked at the cover and said, I have to read this book. It was a beautiful Nigerian girl with great big, sassy, green sunglasses on. The reflection in the sunglasses was a butcher knife. The title was My Sister, the Serial Killer by —

Zibby: — Jessica something?

Deanna: Oyinkan Braithwaite.

Zibby: I’m thinking of something else.

Deanna: Oyinkan Braithwaite. It was phenomenal. I realized, okay, I can read thrillers. I just need them to be domestic thrillers. I started off with domestic thrillers. I branched out slowly but surely from there. That was my gateway thriller that got me into them. Recently, I just finished Amina Akhtar’s Kismet, which is a thriller that’s set in the desert Southwest near a spa and wellness center. I sent her a message on Twitter saying, “Oh, my god. It’s been two weeks, and I haven’t stopped thinking about this book. It’s still creeping me out.” She’s like, “Sorry, not sorry.” I am definitely still thinking about that book.

Zibby: For your next project, these ladies aside for the moment, are you going back to historical? Are you going to stay contemporary? Are you doing both? What are you thinking?

Deanna: I have just turned in the eighth book in my Victorian mystery series, the Veronica Speedwell series. Getting ready to start book nine. I do actually have another contemporary project or two that I’d like to try. We will see what happens.

Zibby: How long does it take for you to whip out each of these books? You’re making it sound like it’s so fast.

Deanna: My sweet spot is about nine months. Two a year just feels like too much to me. One a year is not enough. Nine months is where I’m most comfortable. It gives you time to — I don’t love to write when I have to promote. I like to be able to focus on one thing at a time because they’re such different skill sets, being a writer and being an author. I really like to compartmentalize. While I’m doing all of the promotion for Killers of a Certain Age, my Veronica Speedwell, girlfriend is in the closet with the door locked. I’m not even thinking about her right now. In a couple weeks when everything slows down, I’ll buckle down and start writing book nine in that series.

Zibby: Amazing. Have you gone on a cruise? Would you go on a cruise?

Deanna: I went on one cruise. That was more than thirty years ago. Now, absolutely not. Absolutely not. You walk around the ship, and you’re thinking, god, there’s so many ways to kill people here. I do that. I get where the average person probably doesn’t do that, but come on.

Zibby: Definitely not going on a cruise ship with you. That’s for sure.

Deanna: But I’ve never actually pitched anybody overboard. I just like to work through the logistics.

Zibby: That is not a huge conciliation. Oh, my goodness.

Deanna: I like theoretical killing. I would not do it in person. I feel obliged to issue that disclaimer, Zibby, because you look very nervous right now.

Zibby: I am a little scared to even be on Zoom with you. I’m glad you didn’t come over. No, I’m kidding.

Deanna: It’s fine, but I do actually have your address, I should point out.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s even worse.

Deanna: It’s fine. It’s fine.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Deanna: Listen to less advice from established authors. You know more than you think you do. You are the only one who knows what it means to write your book. A lot of times it’s very, very easy to get stuck in thinking that because someone has published books, because they have a successful career going that they know everything there is to know about publishing, but they don’t know how to publish your book. They don’t know how to write your book. You know how to do that. That is a good place to put your focus. It’s very easy to think that you have to go to a lot of discussions. You have to read a lot of how-to books. You have to assemble every little piece of writing advice that you possibly can before you can start. That’s not true. The most important thing is just getting stuff down on the page and going from there. Once it’s on the page, you can do anything with it. Until it gets on the page, it’s not a book.

Zibby: True. Thank you so much, Deanna. That was so fun. Thanks for coming on.

Deanna: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. You’re never going to invite me back because you’re scared now. It’s fine.

Zibby: I’m not. I probably won’t. I’m going to have a restraining order against you. Other than that, it’s great.

Deanna: I get it. I totally get it. I support you.

Zibby: Thanks so much.

Deanna: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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