LJ Talks to Wanda M. Morris, Author of ‘All Her Little Secrets’

Wanda M. Morris talks to LJ about her debut novel, wrapping women’s stories in legal thrillers, and how an Atlanta library was instrumental in the creation of All Her Little Secrets.

Wanda M. Morris talks to LJ about her debut novel, wrapping women’s stories in legal thrillers, and how an Atlanta library was instrumental in the creation of All Her Little Secrets.

Like the main character in your novel, Ellice Littlejohn, you’re a corporate attorney. Tell us about her background, then about yours and how your background influenced your choice of career.

Ellice comes from a background of poverty and emotional and physical abuse. But she is strong. When she gets an opportunity to escape through a private boarding school scholarship, she does everything to win [it]. I’ve had similar experiences. I was born and raised in Cleveland, OH, the youngest of seven children, so money and resources were scarce. Like Ellice, I was fortunate to attend a private school beginning in high school. The loneliness and code-switching that Ellice describes in the book are very familiar feelings I had while attending private school. While I always enjoyed writing, I was encouraged to pursue a “real job” so I became a lawyer, because lawyers do a lot of reading and writing. But writing as a lawyer is very different from writing as a novelist and I yearned to create original stories.

Photo © Michael A. Schwarz

Karin Slaughter called All Her Little Secrets a “powerful exploration of race, the legal system, and the crushing presence of keeping secrets.” Why did you feel the need to juggle those difficult topics?

Slaughter’s quote is an overwhelmingly wonderful compliment. I wanted to write about one woman’s experience living a dual life—that of a successful professional woman and that of a Black woman in America. Ellice’s experiences are an amalgam of what many women experience in the workplace and in their everyday lives. I wrapped the mystery of the story in a legal setting to heighten the threat of the ethical dilemma Ellice faces. However, Ellice’s story could be the story of any woman who has ever felt unseen, marginalized, or gaslighted. I’ve heard some reviewers compare the book to John Grisham’s The Firm. Again, a wonderful compliment. But I didn’t set out to write legal stories. I want to write women’s stories.

Ellice is the lone Black person on the executive floor, and soon she realizes there are few people of color in the entire firm. Does she feel a sense of responsibility to assist others? Do you?

Ellice absolutely feels a sense of responsibility. It is one of the reasons she decides to accept the promotion, believing that by being in the executive suite she can bring about change to hire and promote more people of color. Like Ellice, I’ve been an advocate for women and people of color. I’ve worked as a vice president for diversity for an organization. I oversaw initiatives including hiring and promoting people of color and other-abled employees. I also supervised supplier diversity and internal investigations into complaints of discrimination. I founded the Women’s Initiative, a mentoring and empowerment program for female lawyers working inside corporations. As a corporate employment lawyer, I’ve helped to resolve claims to ensure a fair and equitable workplace. I think I’ve been fighting some sort of fight for the disenfranchised for the bulk of my legal career. I feel a responsibility to pay back all the women before me like my mother, my grandmothers, and every woman who was oppressed and disenfranchised but still got up each day and worked hard so that I can enjoy a life they never knew was possible for them.

Ellice is confronted with a dilemma at the very beginning of the book, one of many problems she has to face. Why did she walk away when she found her boss’s body?

For Ellice, her “go to” reaction in the face of difficulty is to run away. As mentioned in an opening chapter in the book, it was imprinted on her in one of her earliest memories as a young child when she and her mother were running from someone or something. Throughout her life, she resorts to running away when things got difficult, whether it was running away from the reality of the things that happened to her back in Chillicothe to running away from intimate relationships to running from Michael’s dead body. Running away is a coping mechanism for her. People who suffer trauma that hasn’t been properly processed find ways to cope with the pain of that trauma, and those ways aren’t always the most logical. Instead of calling the authorities, Ellice decides to run away to avoid her past coming to light. At least that’s the way she thought things would go when she closed that office door and walked away.

Tell us a little about the backstory of Ellice’s brother. She wants to protect him, while, at the same time, she feels trapped by her family’s past. What provides her with hope in life?

While All Her Little Secrets is a thriller, it is also a story of love, loss, resilience, and hope. Sam and Ellice are caught in this horrific situation while growing up, but they each take a different path of escape. I wanted to show that despite coming from a terribly devastating environment, there is still an opportunity to succeed. But it requires giving everyone an equal shot at opportunity. Sam didn’t get that and because of it, he became caught up in a legal system that would set the course for his life. After Ellice escaped to boarding school, Sam was conflicted between staying with Vera, someone who provided order and boundaries and Martha, who was a victim herself without a fair shot at a decent life. Ellice always felt some responsibility for creating Sam’s problems. But Sam eventually comes to realize that there is a better path for him despite his past mistakes. Ellice’s deep and abiding love for Sam never wavered.

I also wanted to play with the theme of assumptions. Ellice makes certain assumptions about Juice, Sam’s friend. But Juice has his own story of hope and redemption that turns Ellice’s assumptions on their heads.

Readers always want to know how much of the author is in their characters. Writers are told, “Write about what you know.” Are there parallels to Ellice’s experiences in your own life?

There are several parallels between my life and that of Ellice Littlejohn. We are both products of private school educations, both lawyers, and both Black women. We’ve both experienced toxic workplaces and fought against injustice in whatever form it takes. Being a Black female lawyer in corporate America is not always an easy road and I think my experiences helped me shape the story and bring authenticity to Ellice’s characterization. Fighting from an “underdog” position is not unfamiliar to me, whether it was fighting for a promotion I deserved to wrangling with a misinformed salesclerk who assumed I couldn’t afford the goods being sold in a store.

How do you see Ellice? Is she a victim before she becomes the hero of her own story?

I think Ellice was always a hero—she just didn’t know it. Think of how she devises a plan to escape poverty and protect her brother in the process. It might not have been a plan that you or I would have chosen, but a 14-year-old who decides she will not take the abuse anymore and does something about it is a hero. Even though she elicited some help, this was always her plan, a plan to save herself and protect her little brother. I think a lot of women are a lot stronger than they realize. For many of us, it’s a matter of tapping into that strength regardless of what others may tell you or how they try to define you.

Your working title for All Her Little Secrets was “The Elephant Fighter.” What does that mean to you, what did you hope to convey to readers?

It comes from an African proverb that says, “When elephants fight, the only thing that suffers is the grass”—when those with all the strength and power fight, the people who suffer the most are the innocent. Ellice is as much of an “elephant” as the villains in the story; several people suffer at the hands of both Ellice and the villains. No one in the story is “all good” or “all bad.”

Tell us about the role of a library or librarian in your life.

Librarians have figured prominently in my life and in the life of All Her Little Secrets. I grew up in very humble circumstances and books were my escape. My best memory is being able to walk to my local library all by myself. I was probably in the third or fourth grade. Before that, my mother made my sister go with me so I wouldn’t get lost. Walking to the library alone meant I could spend as much time as I wanted wandering the stacks and fretting over which books to choose or telling a librarian what I like to read and knowing she would point me to a great book!

I started writing All Her Little Secrets on my lunch breaks from work at the library around the corner from my job (thank you Vinings Branch!). I sat in the same carrel and wrote for an hour and a half each day. I remember going into the library one day for my lunchtime writing retreat. I waved a friendly hello to the librarians behind the counter and marched toward the back to “my carrel”—I had two scenes to knock out before I had to get back to the office for an afternoon meeting. I didn’t even realize until I was standing at my usual carrel looking at the back of some guy’s head as he sat in “my seat … in my carrel.” I looked around like somebody was pulling a prank. It took me a few seconds to realize I couldn’t really ask this man to get up. I stumbled over to a carrel a few feet away. Those two scenes didn’t come as easily as I thought they would. It was then that I realized I had made the Vinings Branch of the Cobb County Library System my own personal writing space. I don’t recommend getting this attached to a seat in the library! 

Talk about your journey to the upcoming publication of your debut novel. What kind of surprises have there been along the way?

I love talking about my journey to publication although it was not an easy one because I hope it inspires and encourages other writers. Someone recently asked me how long it took me from first draft to publication and it occurred to me that it has been 13 years (which is fitting because I’ve always considered 13 to be my lucky number!). I started a draft of this book and then put it away for seven years because I convinced myself that nobody would want to read about a 40ish Black woman who worked with really awful people. I think people want an escape when they read a book, and who would want to escape to the world I had created in this book?!

I continued to write whether it was personal essays, short stories, or even journaling, but I didn’t go back to the book. Then I had a health scare a few years back and I started to look at my life differently. I’ve always loved to write, so why not do what I loved to do. I pulled out the manuscript. When I read it again, I knew it was pretty bad, but that was okay. All first drafts are bad. I knew immediately I needed to improve my craft. I began reading about fiction writing and took night classes on creative writing. In 2015, I attended Thrillerfest, an annual conference of mystery and thriller writers held in New York City. There, I met so many authors, people whose work I read and admired and each of them was so accessible and generous with their wisdom and advice. I returned the following year and entered Thrillerfest’s Best First Sentence Contest—I was named one of the winners! It gave me confidence that I was on the right track, but I knew I needed some concentrated attention to my craft, so I applied to the Yale Writers Workshop using an excerpt of my manuscript, and miracle upon miracles, I got in! Far and above, it was one of the best things to happen to my writing. I learned so much and met some really wonderful writers who helped me rethink and reshape my manuscript.

After the Yale Writers Workshop, I was ready to query agents. I did so with horrendous results. My queries either went into a black hole of which I didn’t hear a word back or I got a standard form letter thanking me but advising that the project was “not right” for them. I still felt deep down that I was on to something with this book, so I kept revising and polishing it. I queried some more. More rejections. But this time, some agents responded that they liked the premise but went on to give me specific comments about why the book wasn’t working for them. I took those comments and poured them back into my manuscript revisions.

While on my “journey of rejection,” I did a really smart thing: I built myself a community of support in other writers, some more advanced in the journey and some right where I was. I came to rely on their friendship, wisdom, and insight. Rejection is hard and having people to support you along the way is hugely important. I joined groups like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers of Color.

In 2018, I learned about Pitch Wars, an online mentoring program that pairs an unpublished writer with a published author for a three-month mentorship, at the end of which agents review the first page of the manuscript and may request to see the full manuscript. I worked hard during those three months with a lovely author named Wendy Heard. During the agent showcase, I got a large number of agents who requested to see the full manuscript. I knew for sure this time I would get signed with an agent. Again, more rejection! And while you would think I would have given up on this book, I didn’t. I knew if I just stayed with this book, I would see a breakthrough.

In July 2019, I went back to where it all started—Thrillerfest. I participated in their pitch event and there, I met a lovely woman, Lori Galvin of Aevitas Creative Management, who became my agent. She is a fierce advocate for this book and my career. But above all, she is an absolute joy to work with. I tell my friends that I think this book was merely waiting for Lori to come along. After I signed with Lori, she gave me notes and I spent another nine months or so (the pandemic intervened and at one point I was not writing all!) working on more edits. We went on submission in July 2020 and 12 days later, we were in an auction! The book sold to the enormously talented Asante Simons at HarperCollins. Asante has been a godsend of an editor. She understood right away what I was trying to accomplish with this book. She has provided so much insight. Asante and my entire team at HarperCollins/William Morrow have been so supportive and generous. I am in very good hands.

The biggest surprise in all this has been how well the book has resonated with early readers of all backgrounds: Black, white, young, old, male, and female. Rights to the book have been sold in Brazil and Poland. It still blows me away that words and stories I conceived from my imagination will be read by people in foreign lands. I am blessed to have had that journey of rejection. During those 13 years, I grew as a writer and a person. I’m a lot gentler with myself these days.

EDITOR’S NOTE This interview has been edited for length. Watch Holstine’s interview with Morris and other mystery authors at LJ’s Day of Dialog mystery panel.

Lesa Holstine is Collections Manager at the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, IN. She is LJ’s mystery columnist and a 2018 LJ Reviewer of the Year.  


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