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“Readers want to be entertained. They want to fall into the story and let it capture them. They want to feel like they’re invested and that the outcome is important to them. “

Although she refers to herself as a prolific procrastinator, Marana author MJ Miller has certainly kept busy over the past few years. Following a career in marketing, she has published three full-length novels and two novellas and is currently working on a serial, all in the realm of suspense, romance and “cozy mystery.” 

This work recently landed her in the American Book Fest’s American Fiction Awards, where her book “Phantom of Execution Rocks” is a finalist in the romantic suspense category. For five years, the awards have focused on honoring excellence in new fiction writing. 

“Phantom of Execution Rocks” blends history and legend on the coast of Long Island. While none of her books have focused on Tucson yet, Miller, a former Oro Valley resident, says she is working on a new series of books that will take readers on a tour through the landscape and myths of Arizona. 

Have you always been interested in writing, and what was the process to publishing your first book? 

I’ve always been writing, since the time I was small. And whether I was actually writing down stories or just making them up and telling them to people, it’s just who I was most of my life. But practicality took over and after college I got into advertising and marketing, which is where I wrote for years. So I was always on the fringe of publishing. One day I started to realize that with self-publishing becoming a thing, there was no reason to leave all my stories in a hard drive. So about five or six years ago I decided to finish all those stories and throw a few of them out there. 

When did you find out you’d been selected as a finalist for the American Fiction Awards? 

This was the third contest I submitted to, and you never hear back unless you actually place or win. So it really was gratifying to place as a finalist because you know the book has some merit, regardless of reviews and editorial. It was really gratifying because I was competing with other writers, and still stood out.

You are a finalist in the Mystery/Suspense category. In your opinion, what makes a good mystery story? 

A good mystery is one that keeps you turning the pages and trying to figure out what exactly is happening, without getting confused, and without having it revealed to you in any obvious way. I like to challenge the reader to help figure it out. When I’m writing, I let the story take me where it’s going and sometimes don’t even know the ending until I get there. And I think that helps make it a good mystery, because if I’ve already figured it out, then the reader may have as well. It also means occasionally you’ll have to write your mystery three, four or five times. Readers want to be entertained. They want to fall into the story and let it capture them. They want to feel like they’re invested and that the outcome is important to them. Because if they don’t care, they won’t finish it.

You specifically won in the romantic suspense subcategory. Do you think mystery stories lend themselves toward romance? 

I do. Romance comes in a variety of forms, and it’s always about the connection between people. But it’s not always the star. Romance isn’t the point of the book, nor is it all the reader is invested in. To me, it makes what’s happening more interesting. There are elements, but it’s not the focus. That’s what differs between a true romance, and a mystery romance or romantic suspense.

What is Phantom of Execution Rocks about? 

That’s always a tough one. Phantom of Execution Rocks is based on some childhood misfits I grew up with, and an actual lighthouse sitting on an island called Execution Rocks. So there is some truth, with real history behind it, but it’s about a journey into the past where the blurred lines of history are coming to the forefront. It’s based on slavery in the north, the maritime abolitionists, and also based on the concept of amateur mystery dinners. It’s a lot of things all converging on this wealthy enclave on Long Island. 

Phantom of Execution Rocks doesn’t take place in the Southwest, but do you think the Tucson landscape has influenced your writing at all? 

My next series actually takes place in Colorado, but there are a lot of travels throughout Sedona, Flagstaff and Tucson. So I’ve taken a completely different approach for that series. It takes in a lot of the elements that I enjoy here, especially when it comes to Sedona, the vortex, Red Rock. I think all these elements are Arizona’s shining quality. They bring a sense of power and mystery, and my next series has a lot of influence from them. 


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