We caught up with author Madeleine Asheleigh, to talk about her new book, The Strangers We Call Friends, and her journey to becoming a writer!
*Tell us about yourself
-My name is Madeleine Asheleigh. I am a 22-year-old senior at Kennesaw State University earning my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. I was born in Atlanta, GA, but I have lived in New York, Ohio, and Guyana, South America before returning to Atlanta for college. While being a student, I have maintained jobs working with children and being a professional dancer and choreographer specializing in the styles of contemporary and hip hop. I am a MASSIVE NBA basketball fan. I am also the proud author of the phenomenal “The Strangers We Call Friends”.
*Tell the readers about the book
“The Strangers We Call Friends” is a coming-of-age murder mystery that focuses on four young women, Maxine, who is also referred to as Max, Sydney, Heather, and Carolina, who have been friends all their lives. When Max's older sister, Margot, is murdered, Max is determined that she knows who did it and is further determined to bring about justice through the means of revenge. The story goes through the twists, turns, ups, and downs as Max and the girls are not only dealing with life and all that comes with it, but also trying to keep Max off the edge despite her constantly trying to throw herself off of it in the name of "justice". It sheds light on themes of friendship, betrayal, the duality of human beings, and whether justice can exist without some form of revenge.
*When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up, I was an avid reader. I’m talking finishing 5 books in a span of 2 hours. I have always loved fictional stories and getting lost in the happenings of the characters, feeling their feelings and going through their experiences. Just as I loved to read, I also love to tell stories and bring fictional characters to life and give others the same experience I had whenever I would read and I’ve always been a great storyteller, even before I could read. My mom would have me go through my bedtime stories and I would say what I thought was going on based on the pictures I would see throughout the book. So, I guess I’ve always known that I would eventually be a writer and thankfully I didn’t waste any time diving into that career path.
*What drew you to this story?
Despite reading a good number of African American authors within the realm of fiction stories, I realized that there are certain genres that are rare for African American authors to venture into and I figured that if I can’t find authors in that genre, I would become one. I randomly envisioned the opening of the book playing out like the opening sequence of a movie and my first thought was “I have to write this down” and thus, my paper baby was conceived.
*How did you come up with the title?
-As a child, and even sometimes as an adult, I would throw around the word “friend” a little too loosely. I would call people my “friends” without really even knowing them, which led to constant disappointments from people that I thought I knew. They were strangers that I would call my friends, so shoutout to them because if they had never hurt my feelings, I would have never written my book.
*What is your favorite passage in the book and why?
“Let’s get one thing very clear, Max does not cry. Ever. She’s the toughest person out of the group. It’s her one defining personality trait. So, you can imagine Sydney’s reaction when she saw Max hysterically sobbing in front of her bedroom door the night it all went down. She cried herself into a panic attack. A bad one. It was the worst one Sydney had ever seen her have, and Max doesn’t have them often. She had to call the families’ doctor. He’s the best medical professional in the state, and even better than that, he’s great at keeping secrets. This was the last thing Max’s parents needed to know about. And by parents, Sydney was really only thinking about her dad.
After getting her heart rate and breathing down, Dr. Hertz took the oxygen mask off her face and gave her a final analysis to ensure that she was stabilized. Once it was confirmed that Max was somewhat calm and could breathe on her own, Dr. Hertz started packing his things as Sydney wired him his payment. Once he had all of his supplies put away, he begun making his way to the door until Sydney roughly grabbed his forearm. “Not a soul. Are we clear?” She demanded through gritted teeth. Dr. Hertz simply lowered his head in understanding, giving Sydney enough incentive to let him go.
Once Dr. Hertz was off of Mannings Manner, Sydney returned her attention back to her best friend. Except Max didn’t look like herself. She was hunched over in a corner of Sydney’s room, wrapping her knees tightly to her chest. She was soaked from the rain and shivering in only shorts and a t shirt, meaning she was probably about to go to bed when she made her way over. “Do you wan-“ Before Sydney could finish her question, she saw the tears roll down Max’s face again. Thankfully, they weren’t coming down violently like when she had first gotten there.
They were calm, as if held back during Dr. Hertz’s visit. Max’s face didn’t even look sad. She looked dead. As she picked up her head to look Sydney in the eye, Sydney noticed that Max’s signature milk chocolate orbs resembled that of a blank screen. Pitch black with no sign of life. Now, Sydney was really worried for her friend. She begun to move toward her friend to hug her, but Max held her hand up to stop her. That’s when Sydney realized she was pitying Max and there is nothing Max hates more in her life than pity. Not even her father.
Sydney backed up and sat on her bed, facing the window with her back to Max. Then, she heard the sniffling. She knew Max was crying again, but she forced herself to not turn around, for Max’s sake. “He killed her Sydney.” She immediately became alert at hearing Max use her full name. The only other time Max had ever done that was when her dad threw her across their living room when they were eight. “Richard killed Margot.” Now, that was the sentence to make Sydney’s whole body go cold instantly.
She rushed off of her bed and wrapped her arms tightly around Max and let her sob on her shoulder as she rocked her best friend back and forth, as if attempting to put her to sleep. Unfortunately, Sydney’s phone started ringing. She knew who it is without having to look at the caller ID. As soon she answered, she heard Carolina’s voice, “I know Max is with you. I need both of you now. I’m outside. You have five minutes or I’m coming in and dragging both of you out here by your ponytails, so move it.” Before Sydney could tell her to f*ck off, she was met with a dial tone.
“Come on.” Max said as she untangled herself from Sydney and walked over to the closet to pick out something to wear from some of the clothes that she had left over the years. Sydney knew better than to try and talk Max out of it at this point. All she could do at that point was make sure Max didn’t end up in prison with a homicide charge.
As Max emerged from the closet, she donned an oversized navy-blue sweatsuit, her hair was in a bun on top of her head and her face was dry. But she still looked dead in the eyes. As the two made their way to the Mondrago’s BMW, Max was walking with a purpose, leaving Sydney trailing behind her, trying desperately to keep up. The windows in the back were down and the girls could see Heather in the backseat on the passenger side. Carolina was leaning against driver’s side door, arms crossed, her eyes trained on Max like a racist store owner.
“Two minutes, I’m impressed.” Carolina told them as she tapped her phone screen. Of course the b*tch set a timer. “Cut the sh*t and let’s go bury my sister.” Max snarled as she slid into the backseat next to Heather. Carolina stiffened at Max’s comment, while Heather turned to Max so quick, she actually got whiplash. As Carolina regained her composure, she fixed her eyes on Sydney and locked her gaze for a few seconds, as if communicating telepathically. Sydney knew what she would have been saying if she were and Carolina was absolutely right.”
This is the opening to Part 2 of the book where we switch from Max’s perspective to Sydney’s. We also go through Heather, Carolina, and a narrated bird’s eye view throughout the novel. I love this passage so much because, to me, it sets everything up rather perfectly. Throughout Max’s perspective, we gain an understanding of what Max’s older sister Margot meant to her and how her death affected Max, but through Sydney’s eyes, we get an extra glimpse of how traumatizing this was in real time. I feel like this passage also helps to describe the dynamic between the girls as individuals and as a group through how they respond to one another, especially during a circumstance like this.
*How did you select the names for your characters?
The names for my characters came from the roommates that I had at the time. I slightly altered them so that they weren’t the same, but they were a massive inspiration. Big shoutout to Hayley, Sydni, and Carolina for being okay with me butchering their names for the sake of art.
*Did you experience writer’s block?
ALL THE TIME! I didn’t realize how deep writer’s block could be until I got it for the first time. It is honestly as bad as authors have described. However, I don’t really see writer’s block as a bad thing. I really saw it as a challenge. An obstacle in my way of finishing a project that I was determined to complete by a self-inflicted deadline. Whenever writer’s block would make an appearance, I would simply type random gibberish on my manuscript until an idea came and replaced the blockage. I also maintained voice recordings of ideas whenever they would come to me at random in case, I wanted to use them, and they were great resources when writer’s block came to visit.
*How long did it take you to write this book?
The entire process of research, plot creation, character development, writing, editing, designing the cover, and self-publishing took a grand total of 6 months. It was a very stressful 6 months, but even more rewarding, so I would say the stress was well worth it.
*What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
I would have to say that the most challenging part of writing the book was editing it for sure. Having to reread the manuscript over and over literally almost drove me to insanity. Thank God I had Grammarly to help me out with the editing portion of the process, especially with this being my first book and having no prior experience in this particular field.
*How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Publishing this book definitely taught me a lot of things that it isn’t a process to be rushed. While I am very proud of myself for creating this novel in under a year and still having it be a work of high quality, it isn’t a process I would want to do again.
*What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before you started writing?
I conducted my research throughout the first month of writing the book and it mainly centered around the legalities of writing a novel and ensuring that I knew what I could and could not include throughout my plot as well as learning as much as I could about the self-publication process.
*Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A little bit of both if I’m being completely honest. I have always loved to write, even those super long informative essays for school. Writing for the book was fun and exciting. It was as if I was exploring new territory. However, despite the fun I was having, there were still those days where I was worn out, sleep deprived, and bawling my eyes out because I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job. But I think that comes with the territory of the pursuit of any creative career or career that you’re passionate about. Although you love what you do, it’s rather inevitable for it to be taxing sometimes. I see it as a challenge to see how dedicated I am to seeing it through and thankfully, I stepped up to the plate and didn’t quit.
*What do you like to do in your spare time when you aren’t writing?
I love to bake. It’s a great way for me to relieve stress and experiment with new flavors. One of the best desserts I’ve made is my famous, at least to my roommates, peanut butter cookie brownie cheesecake. I also love to watch “The Nanny” and sew.
*What are common traps for aspiring writers?
The most common trap I have seen with authors, especially those within my age range, is telling too many people about what they are working on before they finish. I think this subconsciously depletes the desire to work on, let alone, complete what they have in the works because so many people are asking them about it and are anticipating what the writing is going to be about, which can build up expectations from your audience. This is why I refused to tell a lot of people about what I was doing. My own roommates didn’t even know until I was three months away from publishing it. I had the entire ending written by the time they knew I was writing a novel. My mom is the only person who knows most of the plot of the book and even she doesn’t know how it ended until she read it all the way through.
Knowing that no one knew what I was doing and that it would be a massive surprise to everyone else that wasn’t within my inner circle to see me publish a book out of the blue. I firmly believe that had I told multiple people about me writing the novel, I would not have wanted to finish it and would have been really disappointed in myself if I didn’t make my deadline. I feel that when your audience doesn’t know what to expect, anything you put out to them will be amazing because as far as they’re concerned, you created this thing out of nothing even if the artist themselves had a finished product in their head and what they created doesn’t match.
Another common trap I have seen and even experienced is imposter syndrome. The constant nagging feeling that what you created wasn’t good enough and that no one will enjoy it can be really loud and hard to ignore, but something that helped me to combat this feeling after I published my novel is to remind myself that if someone could have done what I did better than me, they would have done it. I had to, and still have to, remind myself that my ideas are worth being put out into the world because if I don’t put them out there, they will never get the shine that they deserve.
*What is your favorite childhood book?
As I stated earlier, I was an AVID reader as a child and read hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books before I reached middle school. I have had many favorite books and book series, but I have to say that the book series that I loved the most growing up was the “Junie B. Jones” stories. My mom and I heard about them at a garage sale in our neighborhood and once I read the first one, I knew I had to have them all and eventually, I did manage to collect every single one of them and read them multiple times.
*What does your family think of your writing?
My family is so used to me setting insane goals for myself that when I said that I wanted to publish my first novel within a span of six months, they weren’t too surprised. They supported me wholeheartedly throughout the entire process form my initial idea to being some of the first people to buy it when it was published.
*What can readers hope to learn from your book?
I hope readers take from my book what I have taken from life over the course of my 22 years, that not everyone is your friend, regardless of how long you have known them. This isn’t to say not to ever trust anyone and never let people into your life. It’s more to say don’t think that people can’t and/or won’t do you like that because when you least expect it, they definitely can do you exactly like that.
*Where can readers purchase your book?
It is currently selling globally on Amazon.
*What’s next for Madeleine?
If I told you, I would have to kill you. 😂