Q&A with Totally Deceased author, Sue H. Cunningham

We spoke to Sue H. Cunningham, the author behind Totally Deceased – a brand-new, hilarious, high-stakes YA murder mystery!

Totally Deceased is out now.

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Tell us about the concept of your debut Totally Deceased.

Totally Deceased is a funny supernatural YA murder mystery where seventeen-year-old Jess wakes from an emergency heart transplant to find she’s being haunted by her donor. High-maintenance trust fund teen Tilly is convinced she was murdered and refuses to rest in peace until Jess agrees to help her solve the mystery behind her untimely death.

What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve always loved those buddy movies where two completely contrasting characters are somehow linked together and have to learn to work as a team in order to solve a problem. I’m also awed and fascinated by the idea of heart transplant surgery and the mechanics of how it all works. I used to write short fiction for magazines and one story was about a little girl’s imaginary friend who turned out to be her heart transplant donor. I often wondered about overhauling this idea into a longer story where I could explore the ‘what ifs’.

What if your donor came back to haunt you? What if their death wasn’t an accident? What if you were trapped together until you could solve the mystery?

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this murder mystery. How challenging is it to write funny dialogue, particularly when the core subject is dark?

I have quite a dark sense of humour so my problem is probably knowing when to stop! I think you can find a hint of humour in almost anything.

Writing dialogue is definitely my favourite part of the writing process. In real life, I am that person who always thinks of the witty comeback when it’s ten minutes too late – luckily, as a writer, you have the opportunity to edit and give your characters the chance to say it to the right person at the right time!

What was the funniest part of the book to write?

I really enjoyed writing the banter and bickering between the two girls. Early on, I had an idea for Tilly to misquote Oscar Wilde. I liked how this turned out and decided to use this as a running theme throughout the book. I had a lot of fun thinking up other famous people for her to misquote!

Tilly and Jess, the main characters, have a brilliant dynamic despite being polar opposites. Was it fun creating their dynamic?

Yes, it really was. When I was at uni, I shared a house with a group of girls all from different walks of life – we had a real North/South split and a mix of rich versus ‘normal’ (or poor as Tilly might call someone who lives in a house with only one bathroom). There was lots of bickering and general hilarity as we bonded but, despite our differences, we became lifelong friends, going on to become bridesmaids and then even god mothers to each other’s children. I like to think those experiences inspired my writing about the power of female friendship.

Besides writing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love reading, movies, walking my dog, and you can’t beat a lie in on the weekends. I had a brief dabble with tap dancing tutorials on YouTube during the pandemic and quite fancy the idea of progressing to some proper lessons!

What are you reading right now?

I’m embracing the forthcoming spooky season with Big Bad Me by Aislinn O’Loughlin, a funny YA about werewolves, and I’ve just started reading the horror anthology, A Taste of Darkness (but only during daylight hours – I’m such a wuss!).

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

1. Find a critique partner (or more than one) – it’s a great way of learning to edit yourself and practise accepting constructive criticism with good grace! I still find critiquing others’ work really helps me to spot the flaws in my own writing.

2. Don’t worry too much about the ‘rules’ (you know: you must hit a certain number of beats, you should write every day, you can’t write and have a social life etc). Write the way that works best for you. For me, the magic is all in the editing, so I’d say don’t be in a rush to get your work out on submission. Give yourself the space to polish and refine.

3. Be nice and don’t be afraid to ask for help – there are lots of free opportunities and the writing community (especially for kid lit) is one of the most welcoming spaces online!

– Sue H. Cunningham

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Totally Deceased

Seventeen-year-old Jess wakes from an emergency heart transplant to discover she’s being haunted by the disgruntled ghost of her donor – teenage socialite, Tilly. And she won’t leave Jess in peace until they unravel the mystery surrounding her death. Their investigations take them deep into Tilly’s luxurious heiress life – from private schools to Swiss banks and high-end hotels. But the clues lead somewhere darker than either of the girls could have imagined. And if Jess can’t solve the murder in time, her own life may be at risk…

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