Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Conversation with Donis Casey

Donis Casey is the author of five Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, and Crying Blood (Feb. 2011). She has twice won the Arizona Book Award for her series, and been a finalist for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book.

Donis, you have some unusual titles for your Alafair Tucker mystery series. The series is obviously a humorous take on Western mysteries. How did the series come about?

Thanks, Jean. All my titles are taken from something that one of the characters says, which is often a well-known phrase of the period. When I decided to send the first novel around, I wanted an eye-catching title, but couldn’t come up with anything suitably ethnic. Until one evening when I was talking to my mother on the phone. I asked her about her colorful neighbor, and she replied, “I think that old buzzard has a girlfriend.” Voila! My country-raised mother had a penchant for using animals as descriptors--“that snake,” “he’s a dog,” etc.

There’s a lot of humor inherent in raising a bunch of kids, like my sleuth is doing, so I do have quite a bit of humor in the books. But I don’t think of the series as being comic. Rural Oklahoma in the 1910s was a tough place. Alafair and her husband Shaw have had more than their share of trouble and heartache.

Here is how the series came about: In 1999, after I closed my business and discovered I now had time to do research, I decided to write a family genealogy for my siblings as a Christmas present. In the course of the research, I ran across stories and anecdotes about ancestors, which led me to remember stories my grandparents and parents had told me about their parents and grandparents, and life on the farm. I began questioning my mother, and then to write down my own memories. When I shared my stories with my husband, he began to reminisce about his (extremely colorful) Oklahoma pioneering family. This led me to begin questioning his siblings. At the end of the process, I had a book length genealogy packed with stories from the French and Indian wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, ambushes, murders, adoptions, divorces and adultery — settlers and Indians, massacres, poisonings, axings, shootings, drownings, and smashing people in the head with beer bottles. In the end, I said to myself, “Donis, you have enough material here for ten books.”

Tell us about your background and how it influenced your writing.

I have written all my life. The first short story I wrote had to do with a little girl who turned into a cat. I was about six. My grandparents and parents were great spinners of yarns, so I came about my storytelling talents honestly. Of course, most writers are made from readers, and I was and am a voracious reader. My love of reading led me to become an English major in college, then an English teacher, and eventually a librarian with a specialty in U.S. government publication, which gave me a great background in American history.

Are your characters based on people you’ve known in Oklahoma?

Alafair and her family are all based on relatives of mine, living and dead. One of my great-grandmothers was named Alafair Wilson. Another was called Selinda Tucker. I interviewed many relatives for the series. Many of the details of Alafair’s life on the farm, such as using kerosine-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, come from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband’s (the less savory ones, he points out).

Briefly tell us about Alafair Tucker.

My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, is a woman in her early forties who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting involved in unsavory situations, and need their mother to get them out of trouble. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will literally do anything, legal or not so legal, for her kids.

There is nothing that irritates me more in a historical novel than a character who has modern sensibilities. So, as best as I can make her, Alafair is a woman of her times. She leads a life that is so busy that it wouldn’t be realistic if she could easily drop everything on a whim and go off to gather clues. But she has her army of grown and half-grown children to snoop for her, as well as her web of women relatives and friends who are willing to help. Her information network is better than the sheriff’s.

Which writer’s work influenced your own and why?

Though my Alafair series couldn’t be more different when it comes to time, place, and language, it is blatantly patterned after Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Just like Peters’ series, I wanted mine to be centered around a warm-hearted sleuth with a lot of insight into human nature. I wanted to have a very strong sense of place and time in my books, which is something that particularly impressed me about Peters’ books. I’m also very much influenced by Mark Twain’s use of language.

What’s your writing schedule like? And do you strictly adhere to it?

 Most of the time, I write in the afternoons. I long ago developed the habit of doing my chores and errands in the morning, before the Arizona heat is at its worst. I routinely take a break at about 3:00 for 15 or 20 minutes, to eat an apple, stretch, and maybe read something that has nothing to do with anything. However, if I’m on a roll, all bets are off. When I am on a deadline, I do set myself a goal of at least 1,000 words a day, about three pages. I often can do more. Sometimes eking out 1,000 words is torture.

How important are writer organizations?

 I think that for beginning writers, or for a yet-as-unpublished writer, writer organizations are extremely helpful. Conferences, festivals, fairs, and meetings are how a writer builds her network and learns the business as well as her craft. After one’s writing career is more established, conferences are where you keep up with the trends, meet the movers and shakers, share what you’ve learned. Writing is by it’s very nature a solitary craft. It’s most helpful to commiserate with other writers. We all need a support group, or it’s easy to fall into the illusion that you’re the only one suffering with your career. I guarantee you’re not. Even the Very Big Names eat their hearts out on a regular basis.

There is a group for every genre and type of writing that exists, I belong to several organizations myself, mostly mystery groups, but historical fiction groups and Western writers associations as well. Each writing niche has its audience and it’s peculiarities, and if you’re going to make a success of it, it’s very helpful to associate yourself with others who can support and direct you.

How long did it take to publish your first book, once it was completed? And did you go about getting published?

 In my youth, I wrote a long book and got an agent who shopped it around for literally years. She never sold it, but I did get a lot of useful feedback from editors. Years later, when I reached a point in my life where I didn't absolutely have to work to live I went home to write full time. It took me a little less than a year to write The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. When I was done, I intended to find another agent, and was getting my query package together when I checked the Poisoned Pen Press website and saw that they would read unagented material. Since they have a very good reputation, I thought, what the heck, I'll send them a query while waiting for a response from an agent. A week later, I got an email from the press asking me for an outline and 3 chapters. Then, in a few more weeks, they asked for the entire manuscript. Three or four months after that, before I had settled on an agent, Poisoned Pen made me an offer, which I accepted. Almost exactly one year from that first query, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming was published. It was received very well, winning the Arizona Book Award, becoming a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award, and the Benjamin Franklin Book Award, and being named an Oklahoma Centennial Book in 2007.

Believe me, how Buzzard got published is not the normal author experience. I expected the usual--many rejections before acceptance, and I was amazed that the very first place the book was submitted to accepted it. All those years of practice paid off, I suppose. And I also suppose that I finally wrote the book I was meant to write.

I know you've worked as a librarian. What about librarians looking for when acquiring books?

 I was a librarian for most of my working life, but I wasn’t really THAT kind of librarian. I worked in academic libraries, acquiring and referencing publications of the U.S. Government. I dealt with a specialized audience of researchers. However, all acquisitions librarians buy what their particular users want. If your book is young adult fiction, approach the YA librarian in a public library, or a middle/high school librarian. Most public libraries, and some colleges, will have a special collection of works by local writers. Always make yourself known to your home town librarians and booksellers, and offer to do programs and presentations as well.

Advice to fledgling writers.

Every writer should know that no matter what kind of book you write, no matter how you get yourself published, if you want to succeed, you have to write the most excellent book you can. You have to love what you’re doing, and you have to know your craft.

The way to write an excellent book, even more than having a brilliant idea or great skill or technique, is to park your butt in the chair and go, go, go. NY Times best-selling author Cara Black told me that her first draft is always crap. William Shakespeare’s first drafts were probably crap. You’ll get discouraged. But you rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And one day the book ends up finished, and even good and entertaining. It's a miracle.

Everyone tells you how hard it is. You may think that published writers know something that you don’t. That they’re way better or luckier or more skilled than you. But I’ll let you in on a little secret--not necessarily. Here’s the one secret no one tells you before you set out to live the writing life. You have to be unbelievably brave. You have to put yourself out there. You have to go for it. Success is lightning in a bottle. But you will never succeed unless you are willing to fail.

Thank you, Donis.
 Donis's website: www.doniscasey.com
She blogs at www.typem4murder.blogspot.com every Saturday, and at http://www.fatalfoodies.blogspot.com/

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Visit with Beth Solheim

Beth Solheim works in the human resources department at a hospital. At night she morphs into a writer who frequents lake resorts and mortuaries and hosts a ghost or two in her humorous paranormal mysteries. In her fictional world she's lived the life of a sheriff’s deputy, a funeral director, a child, a death coach, an embezzler, a ghost and a chef who’s been banned from cooking at the Witt’s End resort. With all those characters traipsing through her mind, there are still numerous stories yet untold.

Beth, you have a unique senior sleuth mystery series. How did you come up with the idea of Sadie Witt helping the newly departed into the hereafter?

Hearing a casual mention of crossing over to the other side as I channel surfed the television is how the idea developed. I chuckled and hoped the recently departed wouldn’t take a wrong turn on their journey. That silly thought grew into a notion, moved on to character development, and ended up as my Sadie Witt mystery series.

Tell us about the Witt sisters.

Sadie Witt is an eccentric, fun-loving resort proprietor who sees the dead. She’s not thrilled with her death coach responsibilities, but that doesn’t deter the fashion-challenged senior sleuth from welcoming a steady stream of deceased guests from the mortuary next door. Will Sadie’s guests cringe when they realize she was assigned to lead them on their final journey? Yes!

Jane, Sadie’s twin sister, is the polar opposite in both appearance and attitude. Prim and proper, and insistent on following old-fashioned protocol, Jane struggles to keep Sadie in line. Plus, Jane can’t see Sadie’s dead guests. This leads to trouble and shenanigans.

How long was it between sitting down to write that first chapter and publication? And what obstacles did you encounter along the way?
 Approximately three years from concept to signing a two-book contract. Then about six more months to publication. The biggest obstacle was losing my agent. Illness and other issues lead her to release her clients. It was back to square one. I wrote the second book in the series before I decided to approach smaller publishers on my own. That resulted in an offer for the series.

What’s the worst part of writing for you and the aspect you enjoy most?

Finding time to devote to writing is the most challenging. I work full time in human resources at a hospital and work on my books evenings and weekends.

The most enjoyable is completing an outline. I determine what goes into each chapter before I actually start writing. I need a roadmap. I wish I could write by the seat of my pants, but I’m not one who can do that. That road map keeps me on course and guides which characters appear and in what order. I do take liberties on making changes as new possibilities blossom.

How do you publicize your mystery novels?

I mail to a combination of 2500 bookstores and libraries around the country as well as participate in blogs and on-line groups. Facebook and Twitter are also good marketing avenues. Speaking at libraries, civic clubs, church, and women’s groups is an excellent source to spread the word.

Tell us about your soon-to-be released book, Outwitted.

The Witt’s End Resort in Northern Minnesota will never be the same when Sadie Witt assumes the role of funeral director’s helper after the untimely murder of the previous assistant. Shenanigans abound when the resort manager unwittingly rents Cabin 12 to the funeral director’s ex-husband, a raucous character who causes one outrageous funeral mishap after another.

Flamboyant Sadie isn’t your typical sixty-four year old senior citizen. She also functions as a conduit to the hereafter for those who failed to cross over. The recently departed arrive with issues, and she must help them unravel the puzzle.

After skeletal remains are discovered under Cabin 12, Sadie and her sister set out to solve a murder and reveal a secret that ties a prominent community member to a notorious crime operation.

BE WARNED…If you think Cabin 12 harbors a mystery, don’t check into Cabin 14, because no guest ever leaves alive!

Who influenced your own work and whose novels do you read most?

I believe Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series influenced me the most. I love her light humor and great characters.

I most enjoy reading Karin Slaughter and Harlan Coben. Readers can pick up one of their books, even without a cover indicating the name of the author, and immediately know who wrote it because of style, pacing and intrigue. Great writers!

How important is online social networking and have you used the various sites successfully?

If you know how to inform without over selling, yes, social networking is excellent. Knowing how to reach your audience is the most challenging. Facebook and Twitter are the two sources I use. Luckily, my posts have generated sales and I have met many great on-line readers.

I also have two blogs. One features Minnesota authors, illustrators, bookstores, etc., and that has opened up invitations to speak or blog on other blogs.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Never give up. There were times I was embarrassed by terse rejections and gave in to self doubt, but after a few days I put my writer’s armor back on and tried again. If you give up, it will NEVER happen. You also have to believe in your work.

Your web and blog site urls?

Thanks, Beth.

Beth's website: http://www.bsolheim.com/
And her blogsites: http://readingminnesota.blogspot.com/http://mysteriesandchitchat.blogspot.com/

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Vist with Alan Orloff

Bestselling author John Gilstrap said of engineer/novelist Alan Orloff's debut novel, "Make room on your shelves for a fresh new voice in mystery writing. Diamonds for the Dead has it all: compelling plot, great characters, and the kind of tension that keeps you screwed into your seat for a one-sitting read."

Alan, how did your Diamonds for the Dead concept come about?

I wish I could point to a specific event as the impetus for this story, but, like most of my ideas, it just popped into my head. I will say that, out of the eight or nine manuscripts I’ve written, this one has the most “autobiographical” elements. When I was about ten or twelve, my father found out that we had a cousin in Russia who was being persecuted—in and out of jail for being an outspoken professor. So I incorporated some of that background into Diamonds.

Tell us about the book.

Talk to anyone in Reston, Virginia, and they’ll say Josh Handleman’s dad, “Honest Abe,” was a real mensch. But when Josh returns home to bury his estranged father, he gets the shock of his life: his thrifty dad was filthy rich. Oy!

Who was this man who donated millions to charity, invested in the dreams of Josh’s friends, and shared his home with a strange vodka-swilling Russian? Apparently, Abe collected diamonds too. But when Josh can’t find the gems, he begins to wonder if his dad’s death was truly an accident.

Hounded by grief and remorse, Josh resolves to find his dad’s diamond stash—which could be his inheritance and proof of his father’s love. What he doesn't realize is that this emotionally charged treasure hunt is taking him closer to his dad’s killer.

My next book, Killer Routine, is the first in a series, and it features Channing Hayes, a stand-up comic with a tragic past. It will be out in April 2011.

Not many engineers write mystery novels. When did you start writing and why mysteries?

I didn’t start writing fiction until about six years ago. I never liked my English classes in school and I certainly didn’t like writing papers (maybe that’s why I became an engineer). But I’ve always been a voracious reader and I guess my latent desire to write a book finally blossomed. As for writing mystery and suspense novels, those are the kinds of books I like to read so it seemed only natural to write them.

You were born in Washington D.C. and still live in the area. Have you ever written about politicians? If not, why?

Frankly, I read about politics every day in the newspaper (yes, I still read the daily paper), and I hear about them nightly on the news. Boring! Having said that, it figures that my [work in progress] (the sequel to Killer Routine) is about a politician.

You’ve had a varied career, including working on nuclear submarines. What else have you done besides writing?

You probably don’t have enough space on your blog for me to list all of my careers. Some of my “jobs” have included supervising assembly workers in a factory, consulting at a newspaper (on the business side), managing a group of product planners for a TV/radio ratings company, and helping to commercialize spin-off technology from the Star Wars program.

For whom do you write?

Interesting question. Mostly, I think I write for my readers. I want my stories to be entertaining page-turners, full of suspense with threads of humor. Is it a coincidence that those are the same kinds of books I like to read? No. So I guess I write for myself, too.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you and the part you enjoy most?

The hardest part of writing is finding enough time to flesh out all my ideas. If you’re talking more about craft, then I’d say I usually have a tougher time with description. The parts of writing I enjoy most are those rare times when I’m in a zone and the words come flowing out too fast for me to type. That’s a very cool feeling.

How do you schedule your writing?

I’m a stay-at-home dad (I have an incredibly supportive wife, in every sense of the word). When the kids are at school, I can usually hear myself think. Otherwise…not so much.

Advice for fledgling writers?

I’ve got a five-pronged strategy I’ll pass along. Take classes and workshops. Get yourself into a critique group. Network with other writers, at conferences and in professional organizations. Read, read, read. And, of course, write, write, write. If you want to get published, perseverance is key.

Thanks, Alan, for stopping by.

Alan's website: http://www.alanorloff.com/
His blog site: http://www.alanorloff.blogspot.com/

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Visit with Gerrie Ferris Finger

Gerrie Ferris Finger's debut novel, The End Game, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition. The retired journalist lives on the coast of Georgia with her husband, Alan, and their standard poodle, Bogey.

Gerrie, what, in your opinion, is the future of publishing? Are electronic editions going to edge out print copies or eliminate them altogether?

I wish I had a crystal ball, as does every author, reader, agent, editor and publisher. I do believe that print will be around for a long time, but hard covers will be published primarily for Big Name authors. These same Big Names will be published in every other form: ebook, audio, paperback and anything else lurking around the corner to provoke and delight an author, reader, agent, editor or publisher. Ebooks are surging in popularity, and I don't see that slowing down any time soon. What could put a bug in ebook sales is every Tom, Dick and Jane publishing his own poorly-edited book. Every writer needs a professional editor and some would-be writers don't see the rewards of paying $500 to $1,000 to get their project edited.

How did your novel, The End Game, come about?

I was a staff writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A lot of foster children were going missing, many in the custody and control of the division of children and family services. Also, at the same time the Atlanta Police Department was raiding massage parlors and finding underage children working in the sex slave business. Thus the genesis of The End Game.

Tell us about your writing background.

I have written all my life, since the day at camp when I was five and the counselor asked me to write a letter home to mom and dad. I told them all about a little green snake that lived under the cabin. All made-up, of course. I majored in journalism in college, where I had to stick to the facts. Then, I retired to write fiction.

Did journalism contribute in any way to your award winning novel?

I have to believe it did. I learned to write clear, concise sentences without a lot of adverbs and adjectives. I write in different genres, so in some instances, adverbs and adjectives have their place, i.e., historicals. But in most mystery genres they lessen the tension.

You won last year's St. Martin's Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition, but The End Game is a bit outside the norm. With so many current mystery subgenres, how do you define a traditional mystery?

Think of Agatha Christie. In my opinion Agatha Christie is not necessarily a cozy writer as a lot of genre experts do. She dealt with very dark aspects of murder and mystery as did P. D. James. A true cozy will have an amateur sleuth, maybe one who owns a flower shop, or a book that has talking animals.

Traditional mysteries always have a satisfying ending; that's not to say a happy ending. I would say it's more hard-boiled than a cozy but not noir. Both cozy and traditional mysteries are whodunits. The violence and sex aspects are muted in both types. St. Martin's competition states that the protagonist can't be beaten up to any serious extent. My heroine is a runner which gives her the power to jump on and off trains and she's threatened with death, but we can be sure in this traditional novel, she's going to survive.

What's your writing schedule like and do you outline?

I have a lot of online promotion to do, so I usually get that out of the way early in the morning and write in the afternoon. If I try to write in the morning, which I do if I'm on a deadline, I find the phone and emails distract me. Less so in the afternoon. I don't outline, although I know where the story is going and how it's going to end. Otherwise, I'd create a mess. I know, I've done it.

How difficult is it to hire the right agent?

I wouldn't know since I've not "hired" the right agent. I had two very nice people who couldn't sell my books. I placed my ebooks with Desert Breeze by sending submissions to that publisher and was accepted, and I won the competition by entering the novel in a contest. Neither agent could sell The End Game to a New York publisher. I honestly don't know how hard they tried, but it didn't get to the right editor at St. Martin's. I probably could get another agent, but I have no interest now. I understand it's getting more difficult as publishers are offering fewer advances. An agent takes fifteen percent of the advance, which means the advance must meet their needs. Publishers are no longer "bringing along" writers at their houses. They want debut writers to sell like they've been around for ten years.

What advice would you offer aspiring mystery writers?

Love what you do because the road is long and hard and it's easy to get discouraged. Mystery is a crowded field. Be original and never give up.

Thank you, Gerrie.

Gerrie's website: www.gerrieferrisfinger.com

And her blogsite: http://www.gerrieferrisfinger.blogspot.com/

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Visit with Nancy J. Cohen

Nancy is a multi‑published author who earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Rochester and a master's degree from the University of California in San Francisco. After working as a clinical nurse specialist, she retired to write full-time. She made her debut onto the publishing scene with futuristic romance novels written as Nancy Cane. Her first book, Circle of Light, won the HOLT Medallion Award. Nancy wrote a total of four futuristic romances for Dorchester before switching to mysteries.

Nancy, how did your “Bad Hair Day” mystery series come about?

I started out writing romance, and my romances had mysteries in them. I liked plotting the mystery angle so much that I was thinking about doing a straight mystery series. But who would be the sleuth?

One day, I was at the hair salon getting a perm, waiting for the timer to go off, and I had nothing good to read. I glanced at the other customers who were staring into space waiting for their timers to go off, and I thought, we need something gripping to read to kill time. Let’s kill off one of these ladies! Thus Permed to Death was born. In the story, hairstylist and salon owner Marla Shore is giving grumpy Mrs. Kravitz a perm when the old lady croaks in the shampoo chair. Marla has to prove her innocence to handsome Detective Dalton Vail.

Marla is a businesswoman as well as a talented professional who cares about her customers. A stylist has to be a good listener, so she’s a natural for a sleuth. She knows many people around town, and clients confide in her. Plus the beauty salon is a great background setting for a mystery series. People are constantly walking in, gossiping, and exchanging information. A hairdresser can work anywhere if you think about it: weddings, film sets, funeral homes, fashion shows. It opens up the possibilities.

Why the switch from futuristic romance novels to mysteries?

Honestly, the futuristic market took a dive, much like cozies in recent times. I had no choice except to reinvent myself and I really liked plotting the mystery part of my romances. So I decided to branch out and try a straight mystery.

Why do you write? And what’s the best part of being a writer?

I write because I have to write. If I don’t, tension builds up inside me until I put words on paper. I believe this is the true difference between a career writer and a wannabe. You have to do it. As for the best part, I love hearing from readers. Reader feedback gives me the inspiration to keep writing.

What’s your writing schedule?

I’m an early bird, so I wake up before dawn and start work right away. My daily quota is five pages a day or more, then I spend the rest of the time on promotional activities.

How difficult was it to acquire an agent?

I wrote three books before I joined Florida Romance Writers. Then I got my first agent at the first conference I ever attended.

Which writer most influenced your own writing?

I first got hooked on female amateur sleuth stories by Jill Churchill’s humorous series. I went on to read mysteries by other women writers featuring strong female protagonists and a humorous slant and then decided to write one myself.

Tell us about your latest mystery novel, Killer Knots.

Florida hairstylist Marla Shore hopes for a romantic interlude with her fiancé on their first Caribbean cruise, but troubled waters lie ahead when their dinner companions disappear one-by-one. Then Marla learns a killer is along for the ride. Onboard art auctions, ports of call, and sumptuous buffets beckon, but she ignores temptation and musters her snooping skills to expose the culprit. She'd better find him fast, before her next shore excursion turns into a trip to Davy Jones's locker.

I've been on over twenty cruises and wanted to write a cruise mystery. I based the ship on a cross between the NCL Spirit and the RCCL Navigator. Then I made up an itinerary to my favorite ports. It was great fun doing the research in person.

Coming next in the Bad Hair Day series is Shear Murder in January 2012.

What’s the most difficult aspect of writing and the one that you enjoy most?

The most difficult aspect of writing are the distractions. There are dozens of things that jostle for my attention and it’s tough to tune them out. I enjoy it most when I’m in the middle of writing a book and the story just flows. It’s an innervating, glorious feeling.

Advice to fledgling novelists?

Follow the 3 P’s: Practice, Persistence, and Professionalism. “ Never Give Up, Never Surrender!” as they say on Galaxy Quest. It’s true for a writing career, too. Your career isn’t over until you say it’s over. So keep writing!

It was good to have you with us, Nancy.

Nancy's web site: http://nancyjcohen.com/

Her blog: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com/

Facebook: http://bit.ly/c3YchC

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/nancyjcohen

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Visit with Barbara Graham

Cody, Wyoming, novelist Barbara Graham writes mysteries featuring her favorite pastime: quilting. The former dance instructor and travel agent has a varied background.

Barbara, why do you bill yourself as a “mystery writer, quilter and village idiot"? You also call yourself a “flake.” Is that your funny bone running amok?

I think the first two are obvious and accurate. I feel like a flake. I have trouble holding my focus sometimes because I am trying to do several things at one time. I can lose my coffee cup while holding it in my hand or I put it down some odd place. I spend a lot of time retracing my steps. The “village idiot” goes back to the time my friend Michelle and I were used to diffuse a difficult situation at a meeting. We looked at each other and said something about being “the village idiot”. When we briefly had a pattern company the natural name for it was Village Idiot Quilters.

You’ve lived in various places, including Texas, Louisiana and Colorado. Why did you decide to settle in Wyoming?

It is really quite simple. My husband was offered a job in Wyoming. We moved here over 25 years ago and love it here. (The wind, not so much)

What is a mystery quilt and what are the clues planted in your books?

It’s really an extra for quilters. It has nothing to do with the solution to the book’s mystery. A mystery quilt is a pattern followed blindly, not knowing what the finished top is supposed to look like. It’s a bit like a treasure map. The “clues” tell the quilter how much fabric is needed of different values (dark, medium or light). More clues explain how to cut it and how to sew it together. No pictures. It does assume some familiarity with quilt construction.

I love it when someone shows me the quilt they made from one of the books.

How did you get into quilting and is it strictly a hobby or avocation?

I have done needlework since I was a child. While buying embroidery floss at a local shop I signed up for a basic quilt class. I was totally hooked and find I have no patience for some of my earlier crafts. I am addicted to quilting and enjoy not only the colors and patterns but the tactile nature of it. I find it very soothing. If everyone quilted, there would be no wars.

Do you plan to incorporate your former professions of dance teacher and travel agent into future novels?

Not really. The nature of the travel industry has changed since I left it. I can imagine killing off some passengers on recent airplane flights but that’s another story. As for teaching dance, I use the skills I used for choreography every day. Every move a dancer makes, position of the head, arms, hands, is not random but carefully choreographed. So when I send a character skidding down a hill, they obey my rules.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you outline your books?

I wish I was an outliner. I’m sure it would save me time and angst. I try to work every morning but sometimes I am distracted into playing in the garden or being slave to the dogs. Especially in spring, I am lured outside and end up playing in the dirt.

As far as working on the books, I consider my characters imaginary friends and sometimes we just sit and chat about what’s happening in their lives. What’s changed since I saw them last? What’s the gossip in Silersville? I do percolate the story line for quite a long time before writing much.

Why do you write?

I write because I cannot not write. I have plenty of other things I could be doing but when I go too long without writing I feel ill and edgy.

What are you working on now?

The third book in the series, Murder by Music: The Wedding Quilt will release next October and I am working on Murder by Vegetable: The Baby Quilt now. I also am trying to find a home for a suspense novel not connected to the series.

Advice to aspiring writers.

My best advice is, if you have to write, keep writing. Finish the book, story or poem. Only after it is finished and you step away from it for a while will you'll be able to assess what improvements it needs. Books require rewriting.

Thanks, Barbara, for stopping by.

Barbara's website: http://www.bgmysteries.com/, which she's in the process of updating and redesigning.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Visit with Sue Ann Jaffarian

Sue Ann Jaffarian makes her readers laugh with her three mystery series starring paralegal Odelia Grey, ghost Granny Apples, and her latest, Murder In Vein.

Sue Ann, how did your new vampire mystery series come about? Tell us briefly about Murder in Vein.

Funny thing, both my vampire and my ghost mystery series were totally unplanned. The Ghost of Granny Apples series emerged from an online chat with my first editor at Midnight Ink about an idea I had for a short story. As for the vampires, at the launch of Ghost a la Mode last September, I told my agent I had an idea for a vampire mystery. She loved it and asked for sample chapters and a synopsis. She shopped them to several publishers, including my current one. By the end of November, we had a contract for three books with Midnight Ink, who wanted to fast-track the series. A year after I mentioned the idea to my agent, the book was released!

Murder In Vein is not a vampire book as much as it is a mystery involving vampires. Young women are being murdered in the Los Angeles area and their blood drained. Madison Rose, a young street-wise waitress, is about to be the next victim when she is rescued by an elderly couple taking a moonlight stroll in the woods. When they kill her attacker, Madison realizes the Dedhams are vampires. She quickly learns that vampires living in California are very organized and put a lot of effort into not being detected. They are concerned that the recent killings will expose them, so they use Madison as bait to catch the killer. At first reluctant, Madison is soon drawn into their world and joins forces with the vampires and a mortal LAPD officer to draw out the killer. Just this week I completed the second book in the series.

Are you writing three mystery series concurrently?

Yes, I am. I know. I know. It’s insane. But so far it’s working beautifully. In addition to the vampire mysteries, I write the Ghost of Granny Apples mysteries, which feature a 100-year-old ghost who teams up with her great-great-great granddaughter to solve the murders of ghosts, starting with Granny’s own murder in Ghost √† la Mode. The second book in that series, Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini, will be out in February. I also write the Odelia Grey mysteries, which center around Odelia Gray, a middle-aged, plus size paralegal as an amateur sleuth. The Granny Apples and Odelia Gray books are both humorous mysteries.

Your paralegal protagonist Odelia Grey has been called gutsy, smart and loveable. How did the series come about?

It was a case of writing what I knew. Like Odelia, I am a middle-aged, plus size paralegal, so when I needed a career for my amateur sleuth, I looked to my own. Originally, the book started out as a dramatic-comedy about weight prejudice in our society. When my then agent suggested I turn my focus to mysteries, I easily converted the book and it worked. In fact, the manuscript took off. I guess Odelia was thrilled to finally find her niche, and it showed. Midnight Ink has contracted for twelve books in the series. I just completed book six, Twice Dead, which will be out in June 2011.

Tell us about your protagonist Odelia Grey.

Odelia is an ordinary woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances. She doesn’t view life through rose colored glasses, but rather through Groucho Marx glasses. She’s been hurt a lot in her life, but doesn’t let it get her down, choosing instead to turn lemons into lemon meringue pie. She’s in her late forties when the series opens, single and living a life of contented boredom. She can be cranky and crusty and will speak her mind more often than not, but she’s fiercely loyal to her friends and family, who understand that underneath it all, she’s a marshmallow. As the series goes on, Odelia is reluctantly drawn into one murder after another, always with the idea that she’s helping someone for the last time, then hanging up her sleuthing shoes.

How important is humor in a mystery novel and have you always written tongue in cheek mysteries?

I enjoy threading humor through my mysteries, using it to break up the heaviness of murder and mayhem. I love entertaining my readers and making them chuckle along the way. As for the importance in a mystery, I think that depends on the goals of the author for his or her story. In some mysteries, funny or slapstick circumstances would be totally out of place. In mine, it puts the focus on the characters and how they handle finding themselves in life and death situations. Both my Odelia Grey and Ghost of Granny Apples books contain a lot of humor. There is humor in Murder In Vein, but it is much darker and low key, not at all broad as in the other books.

Why did you take part in the Camp Pendleton Mud Run last year? How did that come about?

I was sitting on my sofa and channel surfing one evening and saw it featured on some show. I’d never even heard of the Mud Run before. (BTW, the Mud Run is a 10K (6.2 mi) through a military obstacle course over hills, walls, a river, tunnels, mud pits, etc.) I’m not sure why, but I got it in my head that I wanted to do it. That I could do it. Now, mind you, I was a serious couch potato, more than 100 lbs overweight and in my late 50’s, but even so, I set out to train for the one that was being held in 2009. And I did it! What’s more, I did it under the official time allowed to complete it, with nearly ten minutes to spare! I now have it in my head to do the Mud Run again in 2011 and have cleared my calendar for it. I want to better my time and get over the walls, something I couldn’t do last year. In a nutshell, I had to prove to myself that I could do something totally out of my box, especially since I’m as physical as a glob of Play-Doh. And look for the Mud Run in book seven of my Odelia Grey series!

Your first Odelia Grey novel Too Big to Miss was optioned for film. How’s that project coming along?

Actually, the option lapsed just a few days ago and we’ve heard nothing about it being renewed again. So folks, Odelia’s back up on the block for sale! We have, however, received some interest in Murder In Vein, but it has not been optioned yet.

What do you include in your newsletter, Hot Flashes?

Hot Flashes is an e-mail distributed newsletter that comes out about three times a year. It includes information about upcoming releases, launch parties, events and even fun tidbits (like the Mud Run) that we feel would be of interest to readers. I also like to give readers a heads-up on other books they might enjoy. To sign up, folks should send an e-mail to sue@sueannjaffarian.com and put “add me” in the subject line.

Advice to fledgling writers?

The Big C – COMMITMENT. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are, or how good your story idea, if you don’t have commitment to your craft, it’s never going to happen. And I don’t mean pretending you’re a writer by talking about it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I mean keeping your butt in the chair and pouring out the words hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, and also being open to constructive criticism to help hone your craft. If you’re serious about being a writer, put all the BS aside, set yourself a schedule and stick to it. That’s what writers do. And there are no short cuts or easy ways to get there. It’s like the Mud Run – to get to the finish line, you have to go over or through all the obstacles, but the sense of accomplishment is so satisfying in the end.

Her website: www.sueannjaffarian.com

Blog: www.sueannjaffarian.blogspot.com

Group Blog: www.midnightwriters.blogspot.com

Readers can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Vicki Delany Revisted

Vicki Delany has been called one of Canada's most promising practitioners of crime fiction by Dick Adler of the Chicago Tribune. The former bank systems analyst and single mother of three daughters took early retirement to write, and has come up with some interesting subjects for her mystery series. Her latest is Negative Image, which will be released early next month by Poisoned Pen Press.

What's this new novel about?

When renowned photographer Rudolph Steiner is found murdered, Police Sergeant John Winters learns that his wife is the prime suspect. The former supermodel was the murder victim's lover 25 years earlier, and although his beautiful young wife and photographic assistant have accompanied him to Trafalgar, Steiner lures Eiza Winters to his hotel room just prior to his death. There are other suspects but the Trafalgar, British, Columbia, police are focusing on Eliza. Constable Molly Smith is involved in the investigation and is torn between her desire to solve the murder and her loyalty to Sergeant Winters.

Vicki, tell us about Constable Molly Smith, the protagonist of this mystery series. 

Molly is with the Trafalgar City Police. Trafalgar is a small town in the British Columbia Interior. Outside of the big cities most policing in B.C. is done by the Mounties, but there are a few exceptions. Trafalgar is a fictional town, but it is based on a real place and that real town has its own city police force. They rely on the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] for a lot of things, such as major crime investigations and forensics.

Does Molly face discrimination because of her gender? If so, how does she handle it?

The real policewomen I spoke to in doing my research for the book, tell me that sexism is generally not a problem anymore, although there are some holdouts remaining in the police. In B.C. [British Columbia] over 20% of all police officers are women, so they can now essentially be women. Molly does have a problem with one of her colleagues, a constable whose ambitions exceed his ability. But she deals with it. In later books Molly will begin a romantic relationship with a fellow officer and it will not go well, as he will keep trying to protect her.

You moved from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to South Africa for a while. Did the experience influence your writing in any way?

Good question. Not directly no, although I would love to set a book in South Africa one day. But I do, I think, have a sensitivity to sanctioned injustice resulting from my years there during the Apartheid era. A fact that doesn’t get much attention is that in the apartheid years women, white as well as black, had very few rights. I lost many of my legal and property rights when I married.

Do Canadian mysteries, like those in the British Isles, differ significantly from those in the U.S. as far as popular genres are concerned?

Yes and no. In this, as in so many other things, Canadians take the best of both the U.S and Britain (or straddle the fence if you prefer). There are authors such as Peter Robinson and Louise Penny who I think write in more of a British tradition–slower pace, more ‘cerebral’, less of the slam-bang action and more of the puzzle of the mystery, and others who like the faster-paced American stuff, e.g. Rick Mofina. I read a lot of British books, and I write for an American publisher. I hope I combine the best of both!

I'm intrigued by the title of one of your novels, Whiteout. Have you experienced deadly whiteouts?

I live in Ontario, so I’ve been in lots of whiteouts. I live in a farming area, full of flat open spaces–the other day I couldn’t see the fields on the other side of the road. The only weather related accident I’ve ever had was in Alaska. I was driving back from Bouchercon in 2007 and hit a patch of black ice in their first snowfall of the year, about 100 miles outside of Fairbanks, and went off the road. The car was bashed up, but not me. I sold a book to the cop who came to help me! I was lucky as about 50 feet before where I went off, that ditch was a cliff. I spent most of last year in Nelson, B.C. the inspiration for Trafalgar, working on the book and soaking up the atmosphere.

Your novel, In the Shadow of the Glacier, deals with American draft dodgers who retreat to British Columbia during the Vietnam War. Why did you feel the need to write the book? Is it a serious problem?

It’s not a serious problem in the context of how it’s presented in Glacier, although the incident in the book is based on true events. A statue was presented to the town of Nelson, B.C, to commemorate the Vietnam era draft dodgers, a great many of whom settled in the B.C. Interior. (The parents of my fictional Molly Smith were draft dodgers.) It was very controversial for a short time and got international press attention, but the town refused the statue and the issue ended there. I wondered what would have happened to that small, close-knit town if the controversy didn’t die down, and thus I had the plot of the book.

However, the issue is back, as U.S. army deserters have come to Canada in protest against going to Iraq. There are not many, a few hundred, compared to the tens of thousands who came in the 60s and 70s. And this issue is different as these are deserters, not draft dodgers, and it is a lot more difficult to move between countries these days than it was, in terms of getting jobs and settling down. The Canadian government is refusing them refugee status and they are under threat to be sent back. Many Canadians want them to stay. Once again the B.C. Interior is the place they are coming to. The real-life Chief of Police of Nelson came out quite strongly, saying his officers would arrest these people if told do to so, but he didn’t agree with it. So we will see what happens. I have considered using that as a plot for a book, but I’m afraid that with President Obama vowing to withdraw from Iraq, it might become a moot point before the book is published.

How do you feel about the current publishing downturn? Do you foresee major changes in Canada's publishing industry?

I read recently that purchase of books is UP about 4% in Canada. It has long been said that books are recession proof, but indications are that it won’t be this time, so I am worried. My major publisher is Poisoned Pen Press, in Arizona, so I have much to worry about regarding the U.S. publishing industry! My Klondike Series (beginning with Gold Digger, May 2009) is published by Canada’s Rendezvous Crime, and I have heard that Canadian publishers are cutting back on their lists of new releases. But what can anyone do, other than to keep writing the best books they can and keep promoting them? I, for one, am not about to cut down on my reading.

Do you have advice for fledgling writers?

Read! If you want to write, you have to read. And read a lot. You need to know what’s out there, and what’s being written now. I believe that reading is the best way of sharpening your own skills–when reading any writer naturally falls into the rhythm of saying ‘what makes this work’ or ‘why is this scene just not right.”

What’s your writing schedule like?

I am in the highly fortunate position of not having a day job. I took early retirement in 2007. But I was working full time as a systems analyst for a bank when I began my writing career, and I am the single mother of three daughters to boot. It isn’t easy, but you have to find the time when you can. My advice to anyone who simply doesn’t have the time, is to wait. Make notes on what you want to do, keep it in your mind, read the sort of books you want to write in the snatches of time you do have, and wait. Your time will come.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Visit with Elizabeth Spann Craig


Elizabeth Spann Edwards writes two diverse mystery series, her Myrtle Clover novels and  cullinary mysteries set in Memphis, written as Riley Adams for Berkley.

How did your latest novel, Delicious, Suspicious, come about? Also Lulu, your Memphis barbeque-restaurant-owning, grandmother-sleuth?

I think, like so many things in life, I was at the right place at the right time. Berkley Prime Crime was interested in acquiring Pretty is as Pretty Dies (I’d queried them with the manuscript), but it got buried in a slush pile and instead was published by Midnight Ink. But Berkley was interested in having me write a different book—a culinary mystery set in Memphis, a city they thought would provide a rich setting for a mystery. I set to work right away writing the book. Lulu is an amalgam of all the strong, southern women who helped raise me. I love her humor and common sense.

You’ve written under your own name for your Myrtle Clover novels but this new series is billed as Riley Adams. Why the pseudonym?

As a writer with another series with a competing publisher, Berkley asked me to write under a pseudonym.

You’re a writer with young children at home. Why have you decided to write about senior amateur sleuths?

As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to older sleuths and love the wisdom they bring to the table when they investigate a crime. Miss Marple was one of my all-time favorites. My grandmother, who was strong and smart and funny was also a tremendous inspiration for me. Currently, I’m working on writing the third Memphis barbeque book and also working on a separate project…and yes, it does involve an elderly sleuth!

How did you go about acquiring an agent?

It wasn’t easy! I researched agents for weeks—checking their preferences and client list against my manuscript to see if it was a match. I was rejected...probably fifty-sixty times over the course of a couple of years. Some agents were queried more than once, for different projects. I actually ended up with a publisher before I acquired an agent and negotiated my own contract. Fortunately, I found my agent, Ellen Pepus, before hazarding my negotiating abilities (more like inabilities) with a second publisher.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you outline your novels?

My writing schedule is nuts. There’s actually no schedule at all—just a daily goal. As long as I make my goal, I fit my writing in where I can—in the carpool line at the elementary school, late at night, early in the morning, while taking my kids to the skate rink…wherever. I prefer not to outline my novels, but sometimes editors like to see a full synopsis. And I aim to please! But if left to my own devices, I make up my mysteries as I go along.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you and the aspect that brings you the greatest pleasure?Do family members serve as consultants and first readers?And does anyone else in your family write professionally?

My mother is my first reader and my father will read for me, too, time permitting. My mother is an avid reader and my father is an English professor. It helps! My father and grandmother have always written—articles, newsletters, etc, but weren’t novelists.

Tell us briefly about your writing background.

Starting out, I worked as an intern at a magazine in London when I was studying abroad there. After graduation, I married and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote articles (and did whatever else they needed…help selling ads or laying out copy) for an art magazine there.

Advice to fledgling writers?

 My advice would be to figure out what you want, in terms of your writing. Are you happy just writing for yourself? Could you be happy just sharing your work with a small group of people? Once I figured out my direction and what my intent was for my writing, I was a lot more determined and treated it more seriously.

Thanks, Elizabeth.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Visit with Patricia Stoltey

Patricia Stoltey is great example of an older writer with a sense of adventure and no fear of computers. Her favorite pastime is reading anything from light YA novels to dark thrillers. Well traveled, the Colorado novelist writes her murder mysteries about familar places.

Patricia, you have interesting titles for your books. How did you come up with them and in which areas are they located?

I thought hard about that first title, because I wanted a format and rhythm that would work for future books. My goal, if the characters succeeded as a series, was to tie each plot to a different part of the country and use that reference in the title. The first part of The Prairie Grass Murders is set in central Illinois, and the plot revolves around land use disputes. The debate about setting aside good farmland as prairie grass preserves is an element in the dispute.

The Desert Hedge Murders is set in Laughlin, Nevada, and Oatman, Arizona, so that’s the desert part of the title. In this case, a hedge fund scam is the crime that triggers the murders. Is that too sneaky?

If I decide to write more books in this series, I’m thinking of titles like The Banyon Tree Murders (set in South Florida) or The Cache la Poudre Murders (set in Colorado), etc.

Tell us about your latest mystery and your series protagonists.

There are two 60ish main protagonists in this series, retired circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn and her brother Willie Grisseljon, a Vietnam veteran. They dominated the first book in the series, but in The Desert Hedge Murders, they’re upstaged by their parents and Mom’s travel club, The Florida Flippers.

Sylvia agrees to escort the group on a long weekend trip to Laughlin for gambling and sightseeing. When they check into the hotel in Laughlin and find a body in the bathtub of one of the rooms, the stage is set for serious senior sleuthing.

How did you come up with the Florida Flippers, your madcap senior travel  group? 

The idea for Mom’s travel club came after I’d selected the Laughlin/Oatman location for the second novel. I was thinking of reasons why Sylvia and Willie would go there, and escorting the senior group seemed like a great idea. As I wrote each one of the characters, I imagined them as older versions of my three cousins and my sister-in-law. That helped me keep the characters from looking and acting too much alike.

One of my blogger friends described the book as “Golden Girls meet Murder She Wrote.” I think that’s a great logline.

When did you begin writing and when was your first novel published?

In my 20s, I wrote bad poetry and bad short stories, attended conferences and writing classes over the years, and knew I wanted to try a book someday. Working full time and raising kids interfered, until the mid-80s when I had a two year break (in France). I focused on the action/adventure novel my brother and I wanted to write about his experiences in the transportation industry in the 70s. We finally got that manuscript published in 1999, but only as an audio book. I also wrote the first draft of a romantic suspense novel during that break, but it still sits on the shelf, unloved and unpublished. I finally made it into print in 2007 with The Prairie Grass Murders.

You’ve lived in France as well as various areas in this country. What prompted the long distance moves?

 A spirit of adventure, the desire to reinvent myself after major life changes including the death of a spouse, a longing to experience more before I get too old to travel—I think all those things played a part.

In 1998, just before my husband and I retired and moved from Florida to Colorado, I took a solo jaunt to Norway to check out my maternal grandfather’s birthplace and meet the Norwegian cousins. That was also an amazing experience.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you outline your books or just have a vague idea of what’s going to happen when you sit down at the computer?

I’m a binge writer. I spend weeks and months thinking about a story while I’m working on other projects, pulling weeds, writing blog posts, etc. When I sit down to write, I write long and hard, for days at a time. I may have a few notes regarding timeline or plot twists, but I don’t outline until I’m several chapters into the story. Then I usually put together a chapter synopsis to keep the plot straight.

Do you have an agent? 

I do not have an agent, and I didn’t spend much time looking for one. I found Five Star/Gage through a conference workshop moderated by an editor from Tekno Books, the group that acquires books for this publisher.

I plan to search for an agent again as I finish up the two projects I have in the works. Neither one is well-suited to Five Star’s mystery line, but if I write another Sylvia and Willie novel, I’ll submit to Five Star without hesitation.

What's your current project?

I’m fine-tuning a novel set in frontier Illinois, circa 1830. I think of it not as a “Who done it?” but as a “Who’s gonna do it?” although it will probably be classified as women’s fiction. The title is Wishing Caswell Dead. I’ve also completed the first draft of a contemporary suspense novel, tentatively called Dead Wrong.

Advice to fledgling mystery writers.

Attend mystery conventions as a fan while you learn the craft so you can meet published authors and network, network, network. Establish an online presence and learn about blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media long before you publish. Buy a copy of Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery and read it very carefully. Try your best to find a traditional publisher approved by Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. If you end up self-publishing or going with a small publisher that has no in-house editor, hire a topnotch editor to help you fine-tune your manuscript.

Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia's website: http://www.patriciastoltey.com/.

Her blog site: http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com/.
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Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Visit with South African Crime Writer, Roger Smith

Photo by Shelley Christians

Roger Smith tells it like it is in his native South Africa. The brutality of his novels will shock most Americans but he writes about a way of life in the country of former apartheid.

Roger, you've been called the Elmore Leonard of South Africa and the shooting star of the crime scene. What sets your work apart from the other crime novels?

I’m very flattered to be compared to Elmore Leonard and I can only imagine it’s because Wake Up Dead is an ensemble piece like most of Leonard’s work, with the POV shifting between a number of different characters. And there’s something Leonardesque about the attraction/ repulsion hot American widow, Roxy Palmer, feels for conflicted ex-cop turned mercenary, Billy Afrika. But the body count in Wake Up Dead is way higher than in Leonard’s books – especially the later ones.

International readers tell me they are fascinated by the South African setting of my novels – which is new to most of them – and appalled by the brutally of the society I depict.

Why do you choose to write about violence, brutality, poverty, exploitation, gang and prison life?

I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. When apartheid ended in the mid-90s South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela, but the bubble burst when Mandela moved on: crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill.

We now have the highest homicide statistics in the world. One in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime, and nearly 1,500 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Most of those children were also sexually violated. A few days ago South Africa’s ex-commissioner of police – head of Interpol at the time of his arrest – was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for racketeering.

So I don’t portray anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be.

What about your own background?

I grew up under apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids.

In the 1980s I was a founder member of a non-racial film co-operative that produced anti-apartheid films for foreign TV networks. As a screenwriter I have written for movies and TV in Africa – everything from sit-coms to drama series. No soaps, I’m pleased to say. I now write crime novels fulltime.

Tell us about your latest novel, Wake the Dead.

Wake Up Dead opens with this line: “The night they were highjacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.”

Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Eurotrash rub shoulders with gangsters and hookers from the old USSR. Leaders of dubious African “liberation movements” live in lavish exile on the slopes of Table Mountain, while plotting coups in their home countries. And people of mixed race – two-thirds of the population – live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard, the Cape Flats, which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone.

Each African summer a skinny tribe of botoxed and Brazilian-waxed beauties from around the world migrate to Cape Town, hustling for shoots in the ad industry. And looking for husbands. Rich ones. Women like Wake Up Dead’s flawed heroine, Roxy Palmer, whose first bad decision was marrying a man for all the wrong reasons. Her second bad decision leaves her fighting for her life.

Wake Up Dead begins with a car-jacking, a violent collision between privileged Cape Town and the Flats, an incident so commonplace that it barely makes the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.
When Roxy’s gunrunner husband, Joe, is left dead after the car-jacking, the blame falls on Disco and Godwynn, the ghetto gangbangers who speed away in Joe’s convertible and Roxy becomes their target.

Billy Afrika, a mixed-race ex-cop turned mercenary, moves in on Roxy because Joe Palmer owed him a chunk of money – money he needs to protect the family of his dead partner who was butchered by the psychopath, Piper, who breaks out of prison to be with his prison “wife” Disco.

The result of these entanglements is, inevitably, bloody.

How important is humor in crime novels?

I’m not a great fan of comic crime novels – “capers” and whimsical cozies leave me cold. But all great crime writers like Chandler, Leonard, and one of my current favorites, Daniel Woodrell, weave humor into their novels, through dialogue or the dark and outrageous predicaments they contrive for their characters. The criminal world is rich with black comedy.

I think there’s a lot of humor in Wake Up Dead: albeit typically South African gallows humor. We do it well, because we’ve had so much practice.

How do you research your books?

Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town, and I fell in love with – and later married – a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats, a sprawling ghetto outside the city, home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me and the world she introduced me to changed my view of Cape Town forever and inspired me to write crime novels.

A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in prison. I knew I wanted to write about men like him.

My wife is my greatest critic. She keeps my work honest and realistic.

Here’s the YouTube link to a short video interview I shot with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats who closely resembles Wake Up Dead’s psycho-killer, Piper. He tells of life in prison – including a bloody gang-murder. Not for the faint-hearted. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrHVCjpyJrg&feature=player_embedded

How important is an agent and how did you acquire one?

Getting published without an agent is nearly impossible, unless you go the vanity press route. I was determined to have an agent in New York and pursued Alice Martell. She read the manuscript of my first novel, Mixed Blood, agreed to represent me and got me a two-book deal in a matter of days.

Is there a difference in the reading tastes of South Africans and Americans?

Not really. If you visit a bookstore in South Africa you’ll find pretty much the same books you’d find in the U.S. or the U.K. But there is more of an appreciation of noir crime fiction in the U.S. and Europe; South Africans tend to favor more conventional mystery fare.

Advice to budding crime/noir novelists.

Read voraciously. Learn from good (and bad) writers. Finish that first novel even if it’s a mess. When you rewrite your work (and you should, many times) be ruthless in your editing. In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard: cut out all the bits that readers skip.

Thank you, Roger.

Roger's website: http://www.rogersmithbooks.com/

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Visit with Tim Hallinan

Tim Hallinan lives and writes in Southeast Asia six months out of the year where he set his intriguing "Poke" Rafferty thriller series in Bangkok. He's giving away three signed, hard cover copies of his soon-to-be-released fourth novel in the series, The Queen of Patpong, as well as copies of all four of his Poke Rafferty thriller novels to lucky visitors who leaves comments here.


Tim, tell us about The Queen of Patpong?

The Queen of Patpong is different from any of the other Poke Rafferty books for two reasons. First, it really focuses not on Poke but on Rose, Poke's wife, a former bar girl on the infamous Patpong Road. Second, it's structured very oddly in that it sets up a thriller in the present day and then, about a third of the way into the book, it goes back more than a dozen years to pick up Rose as a shy village girl in the last moments of the life she's known -- the moments before she learns that her father is about to sell her into prostitution. We stay with her for the central portion of the book (the longest portion) as she gradually turns into the worldly woman Poke married. This is an important book to me because it follows the path several young girls set out on every day, the path that takes them from the dusty, impoverished northeast of Thailand into the brothels and bars of Bangkok.

I'd known for some time that I wanted to write Rose's story, but I couldn't find a way to begin it until an e-mail landed in my inbox. I'm part of a small group of people who put up a little money each year to pay parents in the northeast to keep their daughters in school rather than selling them into the sex trade. A member of the group sent me a description, complete with photos, of a meeting she'd had with the grandmother of a teenage girl. The teacher had heard that the grandmother was going to accept 60,000 Thai baht (about $1500 US) from a pimp in exchange for the girl. The meeting took several hours but by the end the grandmother (who really was living in dire poverty) accepted a little less than $100 per month to keep her grand-daughter in school. One photo of the girl, sitting on a metal stool, her back as curved as the letter C, gave me the first scene of Rose's section of the book.

I was very worried about this section since it's almost all women, and women at an intimate and difficult juncture in their lives. So I'm especially happy that female reviewers have been extremely kind -- even enthusiastic -- about it.

What's the premise for your Philip "Poke" Rafferty series?

Poke writes a series of travel books called Looking for Trouble -- his first two titles were Looking for Trouble in Indonesia, and Looking for Trouble in the Philippines. They cover a lot of material that most travel guides avoid, and they're strong on street smarts. When Poke came to Thailand, it was to write a book, but the country blindsided him (as it did me), and he settled down. He fell in love with a Thai woman who calls herself Rose, who was a dancer in a go-go bar, which means she was also a prostitute. She quits to be with him, and together they adopt a little girl, an eight-year-old street child named Miaow. As a unit, they become the first family Poke's known since his father abandoned him and his mother, the year Poke went to college.

For me, the series is primarily the continuing story of a cobbled-together family that's trying to stay together no matter what. Sure, the books are thrillers, but what matters most to me is this family. I could happily write the three of them for the rest of my life. I think the oddest thing about writing them is that Miaow is the easiest character for me – I always know what she's thinking, what she'll say, what she'll do. And I never had a younger sister, I've never had a daughter, and I think it's fairly obvious that I've never been a little girl. But she's inside me, and she's always impatient to get out.

Why did you leave your native southern California to live in Thailand and Cambodia?

Actually, I split my time about 50/50 between Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and I do most of my writing in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, because it's quieter and less distracting than Bangkok, which is probably the most distracting city in the world. I fell in love with Bangkok the first time I saw it, in 1981. It's the most cheerful big city I know. I'd washed up there by accident – I'd been on a tour of Japan with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a PBS series, and it was too cold to spend my vacation time there. So I called my travel agent, and she said, “How about Thailand?” I said, “I guess,” and that changed my life.

Your first six thrillers, set in Los Angeles and published between 1989 to 1994, were highly acclaimed by the critics. Why did you stop publishing for a decade?

Because no one was buying them. It was great to get all those reviews, but publishers' enthusiasm is directly proportional to sales, and I wasn't selling. I decided to focus on making money instead, and I'm happy to say I did – to the extent that I can now write full-time. I have to say, I missed writing, but that just made it all the sweeter when I could come back to it.

Why did you decide to write the new series?

On New Year's Eve 2001, I walked through Bangkok all night long, all by myself, and as I wandered through the back streets, the little neighborhoods tourists don't see, I asked myself why no one wrote about Thai life beyond the temples and the go-go bars. Within about half an hour, I had Poke and his entire family in my head, as well as one of the two main plots of A Nail Through the Heart, which was the first book in the series. What I liked best about the character of Poke is that he's an outsider who doesn't understand the culture and who has to learn more about it for his marriage to survive – and to live through some of the situations in which he finds himself. So he doesn't have to be the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. This was reassuring, because I know perfectly well that my understanding of Thai life isn't terribly deep. I went ahead and wrote the book and my agent sold it, which was like the biggest present the world had given me in years.

The quote on your website: “When you’re banging your head against the keyboard, a few kind words make a difference,” makes me wonder if you enjoy writing or whether it’s simply a job.

I'd rather write than do anything else in the world, but that doesn't mean it's always fun. Sometimes it's as much fun as removing my own appendix. When I'm writing badly, which is more often than I should probably admit, there's very little joy in the process. (I'm reminded at those times of Dorothy Parker's response when someone asked if she enjoyed writing; she said, “I enjoy having written.”) I love the fact that I've written all those books. I love the fact that I have more books to write and that publishers are waiting for them. I feel infinitely privileged to be allowed to take part in the magic of bringing new worlds into being. But there are times – and sometimes they last for weeks – when I can't write a simple declarative sentence, much less give a semblance of life to a complicated human being. And it's interesting how often it's precisely at times like those that someone writes to tell me that he or she likes my books. It picks me up every single time.

You were also a singer and songwriter, and in a band that became the bestselling-recording artists, “Bread.” Tell us about it.

I was, formally, at least, in college. In fact, I was living Bohemian, sleeping in a nightclub called The Troubadour at times, living in various rundown enclaves at others, staying up all night and polluting my system – just your usual misspent chemical youth. So I became a member of a band called The Pleasure Faire, which recorded an album for Universal International Records, and I wrote songs that were recorded by a very odd slate of artists, most of whom are long forgotten and others of whom should be.

Our album was produced by David Gates, and David formed a band with my extremely talented bandmate, Robb Royer, and a wonderful singer/songwriter named James Griffin, and that was Bread. I was sort of left out in the cold, but since I didn't play anything and both David and Jimmy could sing circles around me, the logic was obvious. But it would be dishonest to say I wasn't envious. I felt like the guy who invented Six-Up and then quit.

How do you feel about the state of the current publishing industry?

The business plan is broken, the audience is changing rapidly, many publishers are threatened by new technologies, and there is a weekly prediction of The Death of the Book. Other than that, everything's fine. With the demise of the print review, the basic pro forma marketing plan has become obsolete; some publishers are still catching up to the idea that the audience for mysteries is now mostly female; many are worried about digital theft and the end of copyright protection; and bang, here's the Kindle. Oh, and the chains are dying. Did I leave anything out?

Yes, I did: The economic downturn. In the past, sales of genre writing actually surged during these periods, but that was pre-TV and pre-online, so there's not much comfort there. I think we're looking at one of those dreadful periods that almost always produces something wonderful. These are the times when creative solutions are absolutely necessary, and I'm 100 percent sure they'll materialize. I mean, look – the Kindle, whatever else you may think of it, completely eliminates the enormous financial problem of returns; the Internet makes the market truly global (I order all the time from the Book Depository in the U.K.), and the book will survive. And, I think, thrive. Even if they are all written by James Patterson.

Advice to fledgling writers?

(a) Write the book you'd most like to read. Some people waste years trying to create a Great Novel they wouldn't read if it appeared one morning beneath their pillow; (b) Honor your writing by giving it an immovable place in your daily schedule and sticking to it; ( c) If you can't get it right, go ahead and get it wrong – but don't stop; the enemy, as someone has said, is not the bad page – it's the empty page. You can always go back and make it better; (d) Give your characters their freedom, and remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to put them in. (e) Finish your first novel even if it goes completely, spectacularly wrong; you'll learn more from the first one than from the next three combined, and you can't very well start the second until you've finished the first; (f) when you're not writing, read.

Anything you’d like to add?

It's an honor to be a writer. It's an honor to know that people read my books. As often as I've been through the process, it still amazes me. I spend a year or a year and a half shepherding a daydream, and the people at William Morrow make it into a book, and, like magic, there's something new in the world. What artists of all kinds do is make something out of nothing – they create fire by rubbing together imagination and experience. It's a magical act. Anyone who thinks he or she could write a book should give it every ounce of effort and discipline it requires. It's more than worth it.

Thanks, Tim, for taking part in the series.

Tim's web site: www.timothyhallinan.com, which includes his blog.