Edge of Sundown by Jennifer Worrell Genre: Suspense
When dystopian fiction becomes real…
Val Haverford’s Sci-Fi and Western novels made him a household name. But that was then. A decade of creative stagnation and fading health has left him in the literary wilderness.
Attempting to end his dry spell and secure his legacy, Val pens a dystopian conspiracy theory set in a tangential universe where alien invaders eliminate ‘undesirables’ perceived as drains on society.
But as he digs deeper into violence plaguing his adopted home of Chicago, he discovers unsettling similarities between his work in progress and a life he thought he left behind. Soon he finds his fictional extremists are not only real—they’re intent on making sure his book never sees the light of day.
As he pieces together haunting truths about his city and his motives, Val realizes his last chance to revive his career and reconcile the past could get him—and the people he loves—killed.
Will he make the right choice? Or will it be too late?
Edge of Sundown is a provocative story that shows how the desperation of lost opportunity can lead to drastic and unexpected consequences.
Twilight was settling.
Val Haverford exhumed an ancient cardboard tube from his writing studio closet and smoothed the roll of floor plans onto his sketch table. They still smelled faintly of pencil lead and wood shavings and dime-store aftershave. But the sharp, precise lines were now fuzzy, paper tinged the color of weak tea. He couldn’t fathom how his brother had found the time to draft them, much less hide such vast sheets right under his nose.
He immediately recognized the one he was searching for, a sketch based on incessant dreaming: twin houses angled northeast on the bank of the Gulf of Mexico. Years after Michael’s death, imagining what might have been gnawed a hollowness straight to his bones, unearthing guilt once buried deep. As long as their neighbors could deliver vengeance, they could go back to living in their perfect world.
Now those old scandals felt like déjà vu, the source of inspiration he’d blown half a century avoiding.
Careful to handle the paper with a soft touch, he affixed it to a mat board, measuring once, twice, confirming it was perfect. He set it into an ebony frame and hung it where it was visible from his writing desk, to remind him why he sat there every dawn, every night, typing until his fingers were raw.
Crimson spilled across Lake Michigan where the water met the horizon, its shimmer telling the time. Grabbing his partial manuscript off the desk, Val considered another quick read-through. After so many years of block, the bravado that led to calling his agent now felt rash. He should have stuck to his forte, a classic sci-fi adventure, and avoided last-minute doubt.
Ten minutes. He could skim in ten minutes.
He stopped short halfway through the first page. One letter—always one letter—flickered like a figment of imagination, an apparition from a nightmare that lingers after you wake. His fist curled around the pages until his knuckles threatened to pop at the joints. He squeezed his eyes tight, counted to ten. When he opened them again, everything was still.
That should grant some reprieve. At least for a while.
Stuffing the pages in a manila envelope, he chucked it into his portfolio along with a copy of the Tribune and headed into the city, gray clouds distorting the sunset.
Submerged in dusky light and the revenant spice of cigarettes, Calvyn’s was the last unpretentious dive on Chicago’s Gold Coast: no menu, no frills, and no name. Calvyn himself brought the usual double Macallan on the rocks to Val’s permanently reserved table. Val slipped a roll of quarters in the wall-mounted jukebox and cobbled together a playlist of sultry R&B. He sank into a chair, enveloping himself with the smooth sound of Sarah Vaughn while the scotch melted down his throat. His favorite form of meditation.
Detecting an excited chitter in the booth along the opposite wall, he opened one eye just enough to see two women, both having seen the bottoms of too many rocks glasses, giggling and throwing sidelong looks in his direction. He whipped out the Trib and fanned it open, busying himself with finding an article. At the sound of “I’m going to talk to him,” he ducked low and sped up the search, crumpling the pages as though that would deliver some great air of urgency and importance.
“You really need to get out more.”
Val jolted at the disembodied male voice and rubbed a floater from his eye.
Graham Van Ellis, gray overcoat bulleted with rain, leaned his umbrella against the jukebox. “I will never get used to that,” Val said. He raised his glass to Calvyn—ice rattling without his permission—and stuck out two fingers: another scotch, and a beer for my friend.
Calvyn nodded. He’d already popped the cap on a Bud.
Graham hung his coat on a wall hook and willowed into a chair. Smoothing down his tie, he regarded the pair of women. “They were just being friendly! And two of ’em, not bad.”
“No thanks. I don’t think my life can handle that sort of thing.”
Graham’s laugh was hoarse and strident after years of supporting the tobacco industry. “Your life, please. How busy are you?”
Val slid the fat manila envelope across the table. “Don’t give up on me yet.”
Graham slapped the tabletop. “I hoped that’s why you called me out here on such a shitty night! You writing again?”
“Started Monday, yes.”
“I’m done with that series. Time to go in a new direction.”
“Again?” Graham scooted his chair forward. “All right. What’s this one about?”
“That,” Val said, pointing up at the muted TV screen flashing a photo of a redheaded teen boy, another victim of violence on the Southwest Side. “And this.” He closed the newspaper and spun it to show Graham the front page, a photo of an old man in tattered clothes. Neighboring district, same grisly end.
“I don’t follow.”
“Every day more people are killed for no good reason. Look at this,” he said, opening the paper to an inner spread where the front page story continued. “Seventy years old, harassing tourists for money. He was unarmed, yet half a dozen people jumped in to subdue him. And that guy.” Val scowled at the TV. “What is he, fifteen? Looks like he weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Can you imagine, coming home and hearing that your son…”
All the moisture vacuumed out of his mouth along with the rest of the sentence. Val tugged at his temple, cleared his throat. More than fifty years and bitter reminders still brought the same reaction.
Graham tipped up his bottle. They emptied their drinks in silence. Val signaled for another round.
“How do these guys figure into your story?” Graham asked.
“All the perps have gotten off easy. How does that keep happening? That gave me an idea.” Val held a measure of scotch in his mouth, welcoming the burn. “A tangential universe with covert invaders quietly cleaning things up. Only they’re specific about who they target. Drug pushers. Gangbangers. Vagrants. Troublemakers not likely to be missed. With a rigged judicial system, each member of the syndicate gets a minor sentence and is free to kill again. When the undesirables of one territory are eliminated, they move on to the next, until the planet is gentrified. But where the line is drawn, and where it ends—what happens when you reach the goalposts?”
If Jennifer were to make a deal with the Devil, she’d ask to live—in good health—just until she’s finished reading all the books. She figures that’s pretty square.
In case other bibliophiles attempt the same scheme, she’s working hard to get all her ideas on paper. She writes multi-genre fiction and the occasional essay, and is currently working on a collection of shorts and two picture books that may or may not be suitable for children.
Edge of Sundown is her first novel. She’s always been drawn to “what-ifs” and flawed characters, and has never quite mastered the happy ending.
Jennifer is a member of Chicago Writers Association and Independent Writers of Chicago, and works at a private university library.
Can you, for those who don't know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I can sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” in Tagalog.
This has zero to do with why I’m an author but it’s a fun fact nonetheless.
I want to become an author since I first heard there was such a job, in kindergarten. The idea that humans can grow up and write stories fascinated me, and I wanted in. I was (am) a quiet kid (grown-up) that was (is) never without a book, notebook and at least two pens. In case I forget to bring these items with me, I keep a collection of poetry or short stories in my glove compartment with a mini pad and pencils (lead won’t fail you in Chicago’s wildly vacillating temps). Otherwise I may have to (gulp) make conversation with other humans. Despite all the lovely dialogue I’ve read over the years, I haven’t quite nailed that skill.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
I am obsessed with mustard and toast. But not together, that’s just nutty.
When browned correctly, toast is an underrated thing of beauty. I assume that since Bob & Ray’s House of Toast doesn’t actually exist on Earth, it must be waiting for me in heaven. (Though I’d prefer to delay my gratification, if you’re listening, Fate.)
With so many varieties of mustard, I’m not unlike a fanatic collecting Barbies or Star Wars memorabilia, except for the insistence upon keeping the packaging intact. This particular obsession started a few years ago when I became a judge for the World-Wide Mustard Competition (two years running!) at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. Huzzah, Poupon U!
Where were you born/grew up at?
I was born at a now-defunct hospital on the south side of Chicago (Michael Reese) at the tail end of the ‘70s. I was thus able to bypass all the horrible fashions of the decade and embrace the appalling ones of the ‘80s, though I am proud to say I never owned parachute pants.
Since getting sprung from the neonatal ward, I lived with my parents on the northwest side (Jefferson Park, later Norwood Park) for twenty-two years.
That area is still the tops: quiet, manicured, near enough public transit that you don’t feel left out. Plus, it’s home to the famed Superdawg Drive-In. Although I disapprove of their hot dog/fry combo packaging, the place is a nifty throwback.
What are you passionate about these days?
Information literacy. With the onslaught of alternative facts, political spin, media bias, opinion shows and articles masquerading as truth, and thousands of outlets for transmission (not to mention bots!), the need to teach people how to wade through the endless stream of information to find the reputable stuff is paramount. It’s so easy to spread falsity, even by mistake; I admit doing it myself at times. You see a headline and immediately react; that’s what they’re for. But are they accurate? Not often. It’s only a taste of the story, and stories always have more than one side.
I work for a university library, and Information Literacy is part of our orientation for new students. But this shouldn’t be taught 17+ years into a young person’s life; instead, it should be introduced by first grade. Especially since so many kids have access to internet-linking devices before they reach school age.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
My husband, Joel, always makes me laugh, and my kitty, Tallulah, is the epitome of chill. I hang out with them and a tumbler of whiskey and everything feels a lot better. In The Beforetimes, a long drive with lots of music was a good substitute. I once drove to Iowa to work out the kinks of writer’s block. (Success!)
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
In high school, we were assigned to read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I was blown away by the book, and excited that such a great thing was written in my backyard, so to speak. Although Chicago has a Mango Street, the setting was fictionalized, so the house doesn’t really exist. I was heartbroken when I found this out!
Cisneros did, however, live near Humboldt Park, so I can at least visit the place where such a talented author grew up. I like to think some of her skill might transfer through osmosis.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea of someone writing a conspiracy theory that turns out to be true had been on my mind for a while. I remember mulling it over in March of 2013, eventually turning to procrastination. “Meh,” I said to myself, “I guess I’ll wait until NaNoWriMo.” Thankfully my more ambitious side told me to “shit or get off the pot” and I listened. I did not intend for it to become a political allegory, but I think I rather did.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I started writing flash fiction, and I’ve amassed so many that it’s time to put together a collection. They’ll be mostly dark, but in multiple genres, including horror and comedy.
I get a lot of twisted ideas while reading other things. For example, while reading about a journalist’s trip around Antarctica in AFAR magazine, I got the idea for a picture book about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated trip in the early 1900s. It would focus purely on the increasing disasters that arose while trying to find a way home, and it may or may not be suitable for children.
A friend also told me about a fantastical event that happened to her as a kid, which she generously allowed me to expand upon for another picture book. I want to do her justice, so it will focus on female empowerment.
I’m also working on a sci-fi novel that deals with addiction and memory distortion, and since there are three timelines/POVs in this story, I have to -gasp!- outline. I may have made a terrible mistake.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Character development is so much fun. It’s like therapy for imaginary friends, and you get to be both client and counselor. Spiralling deeper into their psyches and lives makes them more interesting with each pass, and I become more involved in what makes them tick.
You can derive a whole story from a character’s decisions in response to an event or other character’s comments or attitude, especially in relation to things that came before.
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
All my characters have at least some connection to a real person, at least at the start. Mostly flaws, because flawed characters are fun to write and read about.
Sometimes the characters change so much there’s no resemblance at all in the finished product. Then again a certain irrit has appeared as different manifestations in three stories so far. It’s true what they say: annoy a writer and they’ll torture you in their fiction.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
I wish they would have hijacked things! I had to do all the thinking, and that’s a lot of work. Many people visualize their characters taking action, while mine were more like actors at the snack table, waiting for someone to yell ‘action!’. Director Me apparently has as soft a voice as Real Life Me, and someone stole the bullhorn.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
I have enough short stories for a collection, so I’m working on culling the best ones, then revising and rewriting. It’s both fun and daunting, and I’m really looking forward to organizing it. I even have a title, which is always the hardest thing for me to come up with.
I may have another “novel” I wrote when I was very young, but I hope I’m wrong. I’ve seen my writing from the past and the nightmares continue to haunt me.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Very little. I do what’s necessary to make the setting/character/etc. believable, which is a good method to increase focus. For instance, my next book will be about a radio ad exec who has a late-night show, so I needed to get an idea of what a studio layout is like, how the schedule runs, who he would naturally come into contact with during the course of a day, that sort of thing.
I research everything else as I go, screeching to a halt if necessary. If I plow ahead, everything from that point on might be based on falsity, and the hardest things to edit are bloopers. It’s not just about fixing the mistakes, it’s about trying to remember the consequences of the change, like character reactions. You might end up with new bloopers!
Do you see writing as a career?
As romantic as it sounds, I don’t think I’d enjoy it. I don’t want writing to become a chore; it shouldn’t feel like a job. Even if I were lucky enough to sell a lot of books, there’s no guaranteed salary, no benefits. I’d rather not rely on my passion to put bread on the table.
Though I’d like to give the bestseller thing a shot and live high on the hog. My cheese addiction gets expensive.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
Silence, unless the noise isn’t directed at me. For example, in The Beforetimes, I attended film festivals that lasted the better part of a day. Between movies, I’d take my iPad and keyboard to a café, have a nosh, and write for a few hours.
Once I spent the wee hours in the back of a Subway, bogarting wifi from the closed Dunkies next door while I waited for my husband to get out of a midnight showing of Opera.
When you’re surrounded by the din of other people involved in their own lives, it’s great for inspiration. You hear so many snippets of conversation, different accents, tones and turns of phrase.
It’s also a good way to avoid procrastination: if you stare at a blank screen too long, you just look like a nutter.
Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time?
When I was writing Edge of Sundown, I wrote dozens of short stories (and even a questionable poem) so I wouldn’t lose heart when the dreaded block got in my way. I had a few of those stories published too, so I was lucky enough to get a few pieces in my bio.
I’m working on another novel now, but even if I didn’t, I’d still write multiple short stories at a time. That way when it’s time to edit, I don’t have to put writing on hold.
Pen or typewriter or computer?
Computer. I think faster than I write by hand, and my memory is so bad I tend to forget the second half of my thought before I finish writing the first. But I like to take notes by hand; I feel like the different medium clears my head, and a break from screens is most welcome on the eyes.
A day in the life of the author?
I tend not to get moving until the afternoon, which irks me. I’m jealous of people who can spring out of bed at dawn and immediately hit the keyboard. But my brain slogs through the morning, springing into action around 2pm, and if I’m lucky, continues for hours.
When I’m having a good writing day, I tend to forget to eat or drink. Such a distraction! (This is a very bad idea.)
I make sure to carve out some reading time, which often leads to me jotting notes for future projects.
I usually don’t write every day, because I need to recharge the batteries. Too much of a good thing eventually feels like work.
And contrary to popular belief, no drinking until I close the laptop. I’ll just fall asleep or end up writing pretentious nonsense.
Advice they would give new authors?
Take some of the pressure off yourself in the beginning. You don’t have to write every day to be a “real writer”, you don’t have to follow prescriptivist rules, and mistakes and ugly drafts are part of the game.
Pressure should come later, when it’s time to revise. Don’t take the easy way out. You’ve spent so much time on something that you’re passionate about; keep that standard up during editing and beyond.
“Writing” doesn’t just include typing. Working plot out in your head is just as valid; so is analyzing other writing and research.
Keep good notes and stay organized. Never throw anything away; you may find a good place for the darlings you killed early on, or you’ll get an idea for a different story altogether.
And stay off social media. It’s the world’s biggest timesuck. Instead, use it as a reward for a diligent writing day.
Describe your writing style.
Contemplative and descriptive. I think writing is my way of trying to figure life out. I like developing characters more than building plots, and I have a lot of questions on how the world works and what would happen if things were different. Humans are complex creatures, and so much of the universe is unexplained and unexplored. That’s an exciting place for a writer to dream up new stories.
What are they currently reading?
I tend to read multiple things at once. Right now: Hunger and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Inside Voices by Sarah Davis, Invisible 2: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F edited by Jim C. Hines, and Ryunosuka Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove for research (did you know Rashomon was based on a short story? I didn’t).
What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first? What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I usually pants flash stories.
I wrote a synopsis for the novel rather than an outline; outlines are too much like math. And they remind me of my 8th grade research project, which was hell on crackers. By telling a truncated version of the story to myself, I felt like I had free rein to write it the way I wanted rather than following rules. But the next novel (I think?) needs to be outlined the old fashioned way, because I’ll have multiple points of view and timelines to keep straight.
Organization is key! Keep everything. Make notes about what each document contains or very soon you’ll end up with a mess.
I bought a tickler file for Novel #2, so hopefully that will keep things from going awry.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Social media. It’s addictive and constantly updating, and when you’re trying to build a community, it’s hard to designate small nuggets of time to this and discipline yourself to stick to it. And I think there’s some sort of time warp connected to the login. You enter at 9am and don’t come out until 11:45.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Ha! I have no idea what readers want. It’s a mystery. I try to be original in the sense that I love trying new things, even if those things are old hat to many people. For instance, I’m intrigued by the Kishōtenketsu method of writing, which is less focused on conflicts and more on complications. It seems like a more natural way of telling a story and testing a character’s mettle. And I do love torturing my characters.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
“Quit putzing around and do it already.”
I wish I’d gotten more serious much earlier, learned that critique isn’t so bad when you find a community who has the same goals, and realized that classes and workshops don’t all lead to reading your work out loud (terrifying). I wasted a lot of years worrying about not being good enough or what people might think.
Turns out most writers feel the same way, even after multiple publications, awards, etc. The difference is, they’re working instead of wringing their hands. I could have at least studied the craft more, so I’d be further along today.
Also: “Rethink that pastry degree.”
Though you don’t need an MFA to write fiction, at least I would have been true to myself. I loved baking and had big dreams of owning a dessert/small plate restaurant-and-music venue, but if I’m being honest, I got the degree because I was too shy to join the writing community. Bad, bad Jenny.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I actually found writing men to be easier; writing women is hard! I love strong female characters but keeping them away from the stereotypes I dislike is a challenge.
I’m trying to improve with every subsequent project. I’m looking forward to writing a picture book about a girl who discovers she doesn’t need boys to have fun, thanks to some insects with great timing.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I only wrote one so far and it took about six years. I’m hoping the next one isn’t as time-consuming, because I learned that level of meticulousness is a bit wasted. There will always be typos (I apparently hate articles, especially ‘a’) and the more you read your own work, the more blind you are to bloopers.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Yes! It's a real thing, no matter what others tell you.
Okay, it’s a thing with caveats.
When I use the term, I mean I’m humming along and suddenly get stuck. Either I’m mid-scene and the words aren’t flowing, or I find myself in a mess I can’t write my way out of, or I have no idea what comes next. Maybe this is why I don’t write linearly; it’s too confining.
I think the term is often used to describe low inspiration—another awful predicament to be sure—but at least that’s an easy one to get out of. Read more, engage with the humans, experience life. Eventually the block will go away.
This is another good reason to keep a file of ideas handy. You don’t have to come up with a new concept while you’re already stressed, just freewrite some details for one that’s been waiting.
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