'Brutality' a Conversation With Ingrid Thoft

06/23/2015 11:35 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

2015-06-23-1435073610-9265417-IngridThoftCreditDougBerrett.JPGPhoto: Doug Berrett

Ingrid Thoft worked as a tech and education writer before turning to fiction. Her wish to create a credible P.I protagonist led her to obtain a certificate in private investigation from the University of Washington. Her debut novel, Loyalty, was nominated for the 2014 Shamus Award. Brutality is her third novel focusing on Fina Ludlow, an investigator for her family's law firm.

When soccer mom Liz Barone is attacked and left for dead in her suburban kitchen, Fina is hired by the victim's mother to find the assailant. Fina's investigative skills are taxed to the limit when everyone she interviews claims Liz had no enemies. But, Liz had initiated a lawsuit against her alma mater and current employer, New England University. A soccer player during college, Liz was suffering from mild cognitive impairment which could be linked to earlier game injuries. Fina soon learns that seemingly innocent victims have hidden frictions and secrets lurking beneath their ordinary lives.

For those unfamiliar with Fina Ludlow, give us a brief overview of her as a person.
Fina is the youngest in her family, and has three older brothers. Her father and brother are in the family law firm, which deals with personal injuries. It's a tough, competitive group. Fina flunked out of law school and works as the firm's private investigator. She's very independent, makes her own rules, but has a sense of right and wrong, and often champions the underdog.

Is it her independence and feistiness that make her so appealing to readers?
That's a big part of her appeal. She does and says what many people--including myself--would like to, but don't, because we are more politely measured in our responses. I think that holds great appeal to readers. She also struggles with balancing what she feels is right, against her family's demands, and those of the larger community. It's a universal conflict: people struggling to keep the balance between different life issues, each with its own pressures and agendas.

In an earlier interview, you said you would keep Fina going. How do you see her evolving in this series?
One thing she's learned is she can't fix everything. That's a difficult lesson for most of us. We want to make things "right," especially when someone we love is suffering. Fina is learning her limits, which has been an eye-opener for her. She's involved in a very delicate juggling act, and something will have to give. As the novel progresses, she's going to drop one of those balls and there will be telling consequences. She's also trying to figure out her romantic relationships. Things are evolving in relation to the men in her life.

In an earlier conversation, you said you like exploring 'porous ideas.' Explain what you meant by that.
When I begin a book, I have questions about a specific topic or concept. I began writing Brutality a year and a half ago. At that time, there were accounts of NFL football players suffering from cognitive impairment and other brain issues. Many fascinating questions are posed by this issue. I see it as involving the intersection of money, entertainment, identity, and what it means to be macho in our culture. I thought it had many interesting facets, making it porous on many levels.

To me, it's always interesting when the theoretical and practical clash. For instance, as a parent knowing about brain injuries, you might not want your child to play football. But, what happens if your husband played football and you're from a football-playing family? If it's part of your family's culture, it may not be so easy to prohibit your child from playing, despite compelling evidence that it can be dangerous. Things get interesting when people are forced to make value judgments. You know, even sports not involving full contact have been implicated in concussions -- baseball and soccer -- and they raise serious issues about mild brain injuries.

When you're considering an idea for a novel, do you brainstorm with other people?
I brainstorm early on with a few people -- usually my husband and my mom, who read all my work. I also have a handful of friends. I usually get the script to a point where I feel fairly confident before bringing it to my editor.

What kind of feedback do you get from your early readers?
My mother always reads my manuscripts. She doesn't just rubber-stamp them; she's very kind, but has a keen eye. And, I have a couple of friends who are wonderful readers.

You want readers to be brutally honest, but not brutal. Being a good reader is similar to being a good editor. I sometimes ask my readers to focus on specific elements in a draft -- let's say plot continuity, or character development.

Someone with a fresh and critical eye can help a writer make a draft much better.

But, as I've written several books, the process to publication has speeded up. I no longer have the luxury of as much time to get the input from my readers. The marketing demands to get the book to print have limited the number of readers from whom I can obtain feedback. It's a change I've had to accept, and accommodate to that reality.

So you and Fina are both learning your limits.
Oh yes, we're both on a learning curve. (Laughter).

What has surprised you about the writing life?
I'm still surprised when I encounter people who talk to me about my characters. It's wonderful, but it's also so strange because as a writer, I've lived with the character in my head for a long time. It's a unique experience to hear people I've never met talk about their experience with my character, with Fina.

Another surprise has been how wonderful it's been getting to know other writers and become part of the author community. You know, writing is very isolating, and it's delightful to attend conferences and meet peers. As a writer, you don't go to an office every day and talk with colleagues. That's been a lovely surprise.

What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
(Laughter) I shudder to think about it. I wouldn't be doing anything requiring meetings. That's part of what I didn't like about the corporate world. I'm not sure what I would do. The first thing that comes to mind is being paid to organize things. I'm very good at it, and get a real sense of satisfaction from seeing things fall into place. Maybe it would be travel-related because I love experiencing new places and cultures.

You're hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
First, I would invite Nancy Drew because I was such a Nancy Drew fan as a child. Then, I'd invite her housekeeper to cook -- Hannah Gruen. I'd love to have Barack Obama there, and then I'd have George Clooney at the table.

Why George Clooney?
(Laughter) I think he would be a fabulous dinner companion. And lastly, I'd have my father. He died many years ago. It would be a bizarre and eclectic group but I think the conversation would be lively.

What would they be talking about?
We would talk about all kinds of things. So many world events have happened since my father died. I'd love to talk with him about those things, and about the books he loved to read. I never got to have an adult relationship with him. We'd all talk about the role of women moving forward. I think Nancy would have a great deal to say about that. I think the conversation would drift to where we are as a country, and the direction in which we're heading.

Congratulations on writing Brutality, your third Fina Ludlow novel, about which Entertainment Weekly said, 'Kinsey Milhone, you've got competition.'

Mark Rubinstein is the author of The Lovers' Tango and Return to Sandara