Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Denise Hamilton

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

In addition to award-winning fiction, Denise Hamilton writes Uncommon Scents, a monthly perfume column, for the Los Angeles Times. When I learned this, my writerhead radar kicked into high gear. Surf noir and a perfume column…I had to know.

Welcome to Denise Hamilton’s writerhead.

The Scoop About Damage Control

In Damage Control, critically acclaimed author Denise Hamilton weaves an engrossing story of teenage friendship and adult betrayal, featuring a high-powered public-relations executive who gets swept up in murder and scandal involving a wealthy political family.

Maggie Silver is solidly middle class, with a mortgage to pay and an ill mother to support. She is doing her best to scramble up the ladder at an exclusive, high-powered PR firm in Southern California, whose clients are tabloid-worthy movie stars and famous athletes. Now, Maggie is being asked to take on her toughest client yet: Senator Henry Paxton, distinguished statesman from Southern California, who also happens to be the father of Anabelle, Maggie’s former high school best friend.

Senator Paxton’s young, female aid has been found murdered, and it is up to Maggie to run damage control and prevent the scandal from growing. Thrown back into the Paxtons’ glamorous world, Maggie is unexpectedly flooded with memories from the stormy years in high school when her friendship with Anabelle was dramatically severed after a tragedy that neither of them has been able to forget. As Maggie gets further embroiled in the lives of the Paxtons’, she realizes that the ties of her old friendship are stronger than she thinks. But how much of her own life can she sacrifice in order to save those she loves?

Riveting and suspense-filled, Damage Control examines the bonds of friendship and the human side of our craving for scandal and spectacle.

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“Denise Hamilton scores her largest and greatest triumph: Damage Control is a great mystery, and, much more rarely, a superb psychological thriller. Kudos to this brilliant talent.” ~ James Ellroy

“A riveting stand-alone thriller. . . . In a novel that marries celebrity culture, surf noir and the bonds of friendship, Hamilton is at the top of her game.” ~ Kirkus Advance

“Excellent” ~ Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review

First Sentence

“The party was in the Jungle, not our usual scene at all, just a bunch of clapboard beach shacks in Playa del Rey, leaning drunkenly under the crescent moon.”


And now, Denise’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

I sit at the computer in the walk-in bedroom closet that is my office. Often I’m in my pajamas and wearing my awesome shearling slippers. There is usually a cat or two curled up nearby and the dog napping. There’s a window but the blind is usually down because the sunlight casts glare on my screen. The ceiling is coved, the archway curved, so it’s a womblike nest of a space. There are usually perfume vials scattered around because I’m also the perfume columnist for the LA Times and sample about 2-3 fragrances each day. So the sillage and waft in my office is usually yummy. Typically it’s between 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., because that’s when our boys are in school, and thus the house is quiet and peaceful.

When I’m in writerhead, the words flow from my head down through my arms to the tips of my fingers through the keyboard to the screen like liquid mercury. It’s like a glittering silver river of thought, like Dumbledore’s wand transferring his thoughts to the “pensieve” in the Harry Potter books. (I’ve always loved that image). I’m a big Tori Amos fan, (and often have her music playing in the background, or PJ Harvey), and I liken the writerhead state to the way a pianist moves in a tactile yet precise fashion through the keys to produce music. I’m producing a story, but I feel at one with the keyboard the way I’ve hear musicians describe their playing. The keyboard is my instrument, which allows me to get my thoughts down faster than I could ever do so writing longhand. (I put myself through college working as a secretary and I’m a dang fast typist).

When I’m in writerhead, I experience it almost as taking dictation from a movie that is playing on the silver screen inside my head. Sometimes I can barely transcribe the words fast enough. I see the characters and hear their dialogue, its tone, their physical gestures, the looks on their faces. It is a cinematic reel unfolding. Time is flowing and ebbing around me but I’m in a trance, intent on getting the scene down before it disappears back into thin air, from whence it came. Then with a slow fade, I ease back into myself, and once again I’m aware of my physical setting, that I’m sitting hunched over a screen and my stomach’s grumbling, my back aches, my leg is falling asleep, the cats need to be fed. And I blink and it’s over and there’s a sleepy, almost post-coital sense of serene accomplishment.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

This happens all the time to me. Because even though I mainly write during the day when my kids are in school, a family member will drop by, a kid will call saying he’s sick, he forgot his lunch, he has track practice after school. Or a deliveryman needs a signature, the neighbor children are selling Girl Scout cookies. It goes on and on and inwardly, I scream and weep and gnash my teeth and want to tear my hair and rend my garments like a tragic Greek heroine.

But sometimes I want to laugh too, because it’s so blackly humorous. Mostly I just sigh and get up without throwing a hissy fit. And really, I learned how to cope with this long ago because I worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 10 years. The newsroom is an open office with people constantly racing around, shouting, emails beeping at the top of your screen, the TV flickering, calls coming in. I had to write o lot of stories on deadline, and I just learned to compartmentalize my brain. So I was able to keep enough focus on the writing while part of my mind scanned the outside sources of motion and noise, assessing if there was anything that required my immediate attention and blocking out everything that didn’t.

But writing can be seductive and lure you in. At home, I’ve burned my fair share of pots filled with lentils or slow simmering soups. I’ll plod upstairs for a few minutes after putting a pot on the stove, not intending to get sucked in, only to be jolted out of my trance an hour later by the smell of something burning. Once I thought that the Santa Ana winds (a constant concern in Southern California) had started up and a forest fire was spreading in the hills near my house. (This happens every couple of years). When I turned away from the computer to sniff the air, I thought the forest fire smelled almost…food-like. That’s odd, I thought, until with horror I realized the pot of beans I’d left on the stove, now charring blackly into ash. It takes awhile for the smoky air to drift upstairs. Luckily I haven’t started any fires of my own yet.

But I try to be sanguine about getting interrupted. I read a biography of Anton Chekhov in which I learned that he usually wrote at a table in his house, with family members and invited guests swirling all around in a cacophony of chatter, demands, disruptions, arguments, fisticuffs, and exhortations. And look at the genius work that he produced. So I reckon that if Chekhov could write amid such chaos, then I shouldn’t let a few minor interruptions bother me.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

For me, writerhead is like I’m magically transported into a movie that is unspooling inside my head, and I’m the stenographer who’s scrambling to get it all down or else I’ll be executed at dawn. Writerhead is a floaty 4th dimensional place, at once fuzzily indistinct and yet razor-sharp where time gets all curvy and Mobius Strip-y. Sometimes hours go by and it feels like 20 minutes. That’s when I’m completely submerged. At other times, I’m floating on the surface of writerhead, the way you do when you have a light nap but don’t go completely under. And I’ll swear I’ve been writing for hours, because the scene is so rich and urgent and complex, and yet I’m also semi-aware of the clock, monitoring it with a fractional eye and a few synapses to see if my time is up and I have to hit save/close and go pick up the kids from school. And then it becomes a race against the clock to finish the scene before it transforms once more from a real 3D world inside my head to a saggy pumpkin with a couple of white mice running around squeaking, or in my case, just a steady cathode ray and one computer mouse and a keyboard with too many cookie crumbs wedged between the keys.


Denise Hamilton’s crime novels have been shortlisted for many awards, including the Edgar Allen Poe and the Willa Cather awards. She also edited the Los Angeles Noir short story anthology.

Her latest, Damage Control, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, raves from USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, and BN.com and kudos from James Ellroy (“a superb psychological thriller”).

Prior to writing novels, Hamilton was a Los Angeles Times staff writer and Fulbright scholar. She lives in Los Angeles suburbs with her husband and two boys and writes a monthly perfume column for the Los Angeles Times.

If you’d like to learn more about Denise and Damage Control, pop on over to her web site. You can also greet her on Twitter (@denisehamilton_) or Facebook.



This week, I’m giving away one copy of Denise Hamilton’s Damage Control.

RULES: To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment for Denise right here on WRITERHEAD. Show her some love!

*Comments must be posted before the clock strikes midnight on Friday, December 9, 2011. (That’s Eastern Standard Time U.S.)

**The winner will be drawn on Saturday, December 10. Be sure to check back to see who wins.

***This contest is open internationally.

****Though I welcome all comments, only one per person will be counted. (I know, I know…but this isn’t “American Idol.”)

*****The winner will be drawn randomly by the highly scientific method of my 3yo pulling a name out of a hat (or some other convenient container…blocks box, [unused] cereal bowl, sand bucket, etc.)