Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Visit with Michael Orenhuff

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson wrote of Michael Orenhuff's mystery: "The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras has all the components of a great read – an intricate plot, quirky characters, crackling dialog, and a surprise ending. What’s more, Orenduff successfully captures the essence of New Mexico through humor, romance, and even a little philosophical musing. New Mexico’s rich history, people, food, and landscape come alive on its pages. . ." 

Mike, you’ve had some great reviews, but how did you manage the one from Governor Bill Richardson?

I served as president of New Mexico State University back in the nineties when he was one of our Congressional Representatives. He was very supportive of higher education, and I worked with him (mostly his staff) on several projects, including one for Hispanic-serving institutions that tied NMSU with the University of Puerto Rico and some other universities in a federal project. So when I retired and started writing books, I asked him for the review and he graciously consented. And it didn’t hurt that my books attract attention for the state.

Tell us about your award winning Pot Thief Mystery series.

The protagonist was a “pot hunter” in his early days, digging up and selling ancient pottery. When that practice was outlawed, he was rebranded as a pot thief, but he rationalizes what he does. Unfortunately, his clandestine excavations often tie him to a murder which he must solve to clear himself. He’s somewhat clueless but often gets inspiration and assistance from his sidekick Susannah who acquired her mystery solving skills by reading murder mysteries.

How important is humor in a mystery series?

I think every mystery, no matter how noir, must have some humor if for no other reason than to break the tension. In my books, even the tension is funny. At least I hope it is.

Your series has been described as a “thinking man’s mystery.” How would you describe it?

The protagonist is part thief, part social critic who finds popular culture unfathomable. He cherishes the naïve belief that reason works.

What else have you written besides A Partially Truth-Functional Modal Calculus and Are Modal Contexts Referentially Opaque?

Dozens of other such papers. Were you to be stranded on an island with them as the only printed material, the chances are you would burn them for cooking fires rather than read them.

Why does someone with your advanced education decide to write mystery novels?

Because writing fiction is fun.

What are you working on now? And is there some project in the back of your mind you’d like to write about?

I also write plays. I have written two comedies, but now I am trying my hand at a serious play.

Who most influenced your own work?

Michael Bond, Lawrence Saunders, and Lawrence Block.

Advice to fledgling writers?

I wish I had some sage advice to pass along, but I don’t. One learns the craft of writing like one learns most skill – long hours of practice. Write, write, write. Take a break and read – you’ll see things in what you read that you wouldn’t have noticed before you started writing. Then repeat the cycle for a few years, always getting people to read your work and give you feedback. At some point you will look at your early attempts and shudder. That means you are making progress.

Thanks for stopping by, Mike. It's good to have you with us.

You can  drop in on Mike anytime at his website: http://www.orenduff.org/

His blog is temporarily suspended

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Visit with Marja McGraw

A native southern Californian, Marja McGraw has worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement. As a divorced, single parent she lived in a number of locations, including Wasilla, Alaska, and northern Nevada, where she worked for the Department of Transportation. In Oregon, she worked for the Jackson County sheriff and owned her own antique store/tea room. She's the author of the Sandi Webster and The Bogey Man mystery series.

Marja, why do you write mysteries?

Games and puzzles have always fascinated me, and a good mystery embodies both of those and a bit more. Half the fun of reading a mystery is trying to figure out who did it, and why – basically figuring out the puzzle. Writing mysteries gives me the chance to create the games and puzzles. I have the opportunity to develop the one who committed the crime, and the challenge is to make the solution and the cause make sense, while keeping the characters interesting.

The simpler answer is that I love reading a good mystery, and I hope I can entertain someone else with my books.

In what capacity did you work in criminal and civil law enforcement? And have you incorporated that experience into your novels?

I was a Deputy Clerk with the Los Angeles County Marshal (now part of the Sheriff’s Office), which equated to clerical with some legal expertise. At that time there weren’t any female deputies, so when there was a need for one, we clerks had to take care of business. Our jobs were many faceted. I was also a legal secretary. I worked for a female attorney, and there were occasions when we used our feminine attributes to elicit information from various sources. You’d be surprised how well the fluttering eyelashes and short skirts worked on some people. (I was younger then.) I was also a clerk with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon until I opened my own business, a Tea Room/Antique Store.

As far as incorporating my experiences, I have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous, so I’m careful when researching. I also have friends who are police officers and retired police officers, and a few of them are homicide detectives, so I have resources to fall back on.

You’ve moved around a lot. What were you doing in Wasilla, Alaska, and are you acquainted with Wasilla’s best known resident?

I have done some moving around, and loved almost every minute of it. After some of the curves that life threw at me, I moved to Wasilla in the late 1990s and stayed with friends, but I didn’t know Sarah Palin. I lived there for less than a year, and because of the cold I really didn’t get out much, other than to go to work and return home. With the wind chill it was extremely cold. Some people just aren’t cut out for Alaska, and I’m one of them. Give me a warm day in the desert anytime.

Tell us briefly about your soon-to-be released Bogey Nights.

This is the first in a new series that centers around a Humphrey Bogart look-alike, Chris Cross, and his wife, Pamela. In this story their 1940s-themed restaurant burns to the ground and they buy a vintage house to convert into a new restaurant. This lovely 1920s house came with a vintage body that was buried in the basement. The home had been a boarding house during the 1940s, the time period when the body was buried, so they have plenty of suspects to work with while they figure out what happened. Something that comes across in the course of the story is that senior citizens can be a force to be reckoned with, so don’t sell them short.

How important is humor and romance in mystery novels?

For me, it’s very important. There’s so much drama in the world today that I enjoy reading something to lighten things up. Consequently, I try to write something that will brighten someone’s day. Realistically, there’s nothing funny about murder, but I’ve learned that you can find humor in the people and situations revolving around the crime.

While I’m not a romance writer, I believe that some romance is required because of the interactions between people. In the Sandi Webster series, she has a romance with her partner, but it’s not the main focus of the stories. The main thrust is the mystery, and the characters themselves. In the Bogey Man series, you have a husband and wife team. Since they’re married, it’s likely that they’d share some romance, especially since they’re practically newlyweds.

How have your novels evolved since you began writing mysteries? And how do you categorize your mysteries?

Since we each grow throughout our lives, I try to let my characters change, too. I don’t want them to stagnate. I think that each story is better than the last one for just that reason. I guess that as my characters grow and change, so do I and so does my writing.

For me, it’s difficult to categorize my books. On the one hand, the Sandi Webster stories are soft-boiled P.I. On the other hand, they’re something like a cozy but with more action. The Bogey Mysteries are most certainly amateur P.I. stories. Overall, I have to say they’re simply mysteries, lighter with a little humor.

Who most influenced your own work? And, who in your opinion, has been the most influential mystery novelist?

Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) has probably influenced my work the most; not because my books are like her story, but because she made the characters so real to me. I’ve had several readers say they wish they could know someone like my characters in real life. That’s high praise to me, and it tells me that Ms. Lee caused me to honestly look at the people I create and it’s made me try to keep them real, to a point – after all, this is fiction.

Most influential mystery novelist? I can’t pin it down to just one. Over the years I think authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and more contemporary writers such as Mary Higgins Clark and Tony Hillerman have had a tremendous influence. I believe that each of us takes something different away from every book that we read and enjoy, and that no one author can be deemed the most influential.

Briefly tell us about your protagonists, Chris and Pamela Cross.

They’re amateur investigators who run a 1940s-themed restaurant and who were inadvertently involved in a crime at one time and earned a reputation for solving murders. Chris and Pamela have a seven-year-old son who would love nothing more than to solve a mystery with them. In addition, they have two yellow Labrador retrievers who have a penchant for finding bodies. This isn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill household, and yet in many ways it is.

Because of his resemblance to Bogart, Chris tends to walk the walk and talk the talk, wishing he could be a private eye like Bogey was in the movies.

Advice to aspiring mystery writers.

I can’t help it. When asked this, my first piece of advice is always the same; grow a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like what you write. However, be open to listening because sometimes you find a little pearl of wisdom hiding somewhere in the middle of the comments.

Remember that by becoming a writer, you’ve started a business. Leave emotions aside and handle your marketing and promoting as you would any out-of-the-ordinary business. Easier said than done, but still…
Strive to improve with every sentence you write, and when you feel you’ve done your very best work, persist. I’ve commented in the past that dreamers live forever. So do writers, so put your best foot forward and create something that will long be remembered.

Thank you, Marja, for taking part in the series.
Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to visit Mysteries Writers this week. I appreciate your time and effort. This is a fun place to be.

You can visit Marja at her website: http://www.marjamcgraw.com/

And her blog site: http://blog.marjamcgraw.com/