CJ Lyons grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. She got good grades, but her curiosity pulled her in so many different directions that teachers worried she'd never learn to focus. "No one ever dreamed that I would make it through college, much less medical school," she says. But she did make it, and she considers herself very lucky "because I've had two dream-come-true careers." It's hard to say which career – doctor or writer – is CJ's first one, because there was never a time when she wasn't writing. "I actually wrote two science-fiction novels when I was in medical school," she says. "It was the hardest four years of my life but also in many ways the most rewarding."
The fact that I'm successful enough so that our lives don't have to focus on money? That's a luxury we never had as children.
After med school, a shattering loss invaded the lives of CJ and her fellow pediatrics residents. "Halfway through our internship year, one of our fellow interns was murdered," she says. She grasped for ways to cope. Eventually, her writing helped. She put aside science fiction and wrote her first thriller. "I needed to explore good and evil and how the world could be so unjust," she remembers.
She kept writing thrillers. A traditional publishing company bought one of them, and then another. CJ came to a reluctant conclusion: "I can't give both my patients and this new career 120 percent." She left medicine behind, moved to a coastal community in South Carolina, and devoted herself fulltime to writing. "I thought I was in a good position to do that," she remembers. "I saved my money. I lived very frugally."
But then her deal with the publishing company fell through. "Suddenly, I was unemployed for the first time since I was 15. I was 1,000 miles away from home." She threw herself into finding ways to keep her writing dream alive and landed a new book deal, but she clashed with editors and publishing executives about things like whether readers should be forced to wait a year for the next book in a series. "My readers were clamoring for more," CJ remembers. "The books were already written. There was no reason to delay."
CJ felt stuck and wished she could call the shots. Luckily, this was right around the time that the Kindle Direct Publishing service launched and made it possible for anyone to put out a book. "It was like entering a magic cave," CJ says. "It was a new world after that. I can't even tell you what it meant to take that leap of putting those first books up and paying attention to what my readers wanted. Within the first eighteen months of publishing through KDP, I was making more in a month than I was making in a year from New York City."
She set up college funds for her sister's kids. "I don't want my niece and nephew to have to struggle the way I did during what should be such an exciting time in their lives. My sister is my biggest supporter. She's proud that I followed my dream. The fact that I'm successful enough so that our lives don't have to focus on money? That's a luxury we never had as children."
CJ has twice won the International Thriller Writers' best e-book original novel award, and she continues to work with publishers. Selectively. She's put out two books with Amazon Publishing's Thomas & Mercer imprint. "I felt like I was part of the team. They asked my opinion. They knew who my readers were, and they cared about them." Her readers, in turn, care about CJ and her characters. "Tell Lucy I said hi!" is a common refrain from fans.
Lucy is Lucy Guardino, an F.B.I. agent and mom on a crusade to stop child predators. CJ writes the Lucy series out of the same need that drove her to write that first thriller after her colleague's murder. "It's my way of making sense of the chaos around us," she says. "I want to show people that yes, heinous, horrible things happen, but you are not alone."
A few years ago, CJ received a note from a cancer patient who got completely caught up in one of her books and reported finally enjoying a night without pain. "I have so many emails that have just left me in tears," CJ says. "My readers are a special, select group. They don't read my stories solely for the escapism, the adrenalin rush that comes from any thriller. This is why I love my readers so much. They have the strength and courage to become heroes. And the fact that they see things in my stories that empower and inspire them to change their lives and the world around them is the greatest gift any author could ask for."