Friday, November 6, 2015

A Conversation 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.

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:

And her blog site:

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