Archive for Interviews – Page 2

Author Interview: Carrie Smith

Carrie SmithI was delighted to be able to interview Carrie Smith, a real discovery. I loved her first book and loved her answers to my questions.

Q; Let me say up front I’m a big fan of police procedurals, especially police procedurals written by women.  I’ve loved books by Lillian O’Donnell, Lee Martin, Margaret Maron, Barbara D’Amato, Leslie Glass and more recently Theresa Schwegel and Karin Slaughter (the excellent Cop Town) and ALL of them deal with the way women are treated in the workforce and how they must adapt to deal with it. Sadly, I think your book published in 2015 is dealing with some of the same issues that Lillian O’Donnell was writing about in 1972.  All that being said, was this something on the top of your list when you started your novel?

A: Writing about a strong female character was definitely at the top of my list. Claire’s Lieutenant, Dennis McGowan, does not like this strong, competent woman in his squad, and Codella constantly has to find strategies to deal with that. In much the same way, her second on the case, Detective Muñoz, a gay man, has to find ways to deal with the bullying of male colleagues in his unit. In a subculture built on the “fraternal bond,” both women and gay men are outsiders that threaten the order. At best, they are tolerated, and they have to work much harder than others to prove their worth. Claire’s childhood—revealed in Book 2—provides greater insight into where her toughness and determination come from.

Q: I loved the panorama of female characters here as well—there’s Marva, who I found very interesting, as she is a meek person, not as aggressive as some of the other women in the story, notably Claire and Margery, and to an extent, Dana Drew.  What are your thoughts about Marva’s character?

A: At first, Marva seems a bit unlikeable and unhelpful in the investigation, but my hope was that readers would ultimately see her complexity and sympathize with her. She’s had a tough life. She’s a single black woman who has risen to the role of assistant principal. But the people around her do not value her, and because she lacks confidence and self-esteem, she allows others to make her their pawn. Her mother has cast her into the role of primary caregiver to her. Hector Sanchez, her boss, expects her to do the school’s administrative dirty work while he takes all the credit for the school’s turnaround. Marjorie Barton completely discounts her abilities. Marva tries to take comfort in her religion, but she yearns for something more fulfilling in her life. The events in the novel bring her to a new place. She receives a major blow, but she also makes a breakthrough.

My goal in Silent City was to create a vivid cast of diverse suspects who all have very different and believable motives for wanting to murder the victim, and this requires the characters to be multi-dimensional. I want each of them to—even if they play a supporting role—to be memorable and real.

Q: I very much liked the school setting and the tie-in of the educational software into the plot (it sounds like a great idea).  Does this reflect the kind of work you do in real life?

A: Yes, it does. I am the publisher of Benchmark Education Company, a developer of core and supplemental curriculum resources for grades K-8. In that capacity, I have worked closely with teachers, principals, and district leaders. Regarding the tie-in to educational software: Educational publishers are at a crossroads. As more and more instruction is delivered digitally and adaptive software becomes widely available, print-only publishers will have no place. Over the last decade, I have experienced my company’s growing pains as we essentially transform ourselves into a technology provider in order to stay in the game.

It was hard not to use this rich context at my fingertips. I love it when a book I’m reading reveals a little world I knew nothing about (P.D. James is a master of that). I wanted to use my “insider” knowledge to create a setting and circumstances that would take my readers someplace they had never been.

Q: Of course making Claire a cancer survivor is so striking, it stays with you, and you are thinking about it as you read.  You’re worried about her running around and working too hard, not eating right, etc.  It added a lot of depth to her character and you seemed to have some inside info on cancer treatment.  Is that anything you want to talk about?  If not, please talk a little about the development of Claire’s character in general.

A: Claire’s backstory as a cancer survivor was definitely influenced by my own experiences, and I don’t at all mind speaking about that. My partner Cynthia developed an aggressive lymphoma six years ago. She was diagnosed on a Tuesday and in the hospital for her first treatment on Thursday. Lymphomas can be cured, but you have to hit them hard, so the treatment is particularly brutal. It usually involves six rounds of intensive chemotherapy. You’re in the hospital for three to four days at a time receiving a continuous infusion of drugs. When you come home, your platelet count drops. Your immunity is virtually non-existent. You usually end up back in the hospital a week later for transfusions. You develop infections and end up back in the emergency room between treatments. You are basically the walking dead. While it’s incredibly hard on the patient, it’s also really hard to be the firsthand observer of a loved one’s treatment. I wrote the first few sentences of what became Silent City as I left the hospital in tears one day. Looking back, I needed some way to objectify and transform the whole experience, and so I came up with this strong character used to chasing murderers who now is being chased by her own killer.

Q: I liked the way the book kind of unspooled the way real life does—eating late or on the run, driving all over the place for something that doesn’t always work out, calls at work you don’t have time to take, etc. and yet you kept the pacing of the story snappy.  I found it hard to put down.  Any tricks of the trade there that you’d care to share?

A: Let’s see…Always end a chapter leaving readers guessing or wanting more. Make sure that the dynamics between characters are interesting and real. Manage the output of information carefully. Vary the settings. Use dialogue to its best advantage. Writing a mystery is a balancing act between character development (backstory) and plot (the action that drives the mystery forward). You need both, and one can’t overwhelm the other.

Q: I also liked Claire’s counterfoil, Haggerty—will he be appearing in future books?  

A: Absolutely. In fact, readers learn a lot more about Haggerty’s past in Book 2—his childhood and some key moments he has shared with Claire. Their relationship will definitely continue and develop.

Q: How about Munoz?  I thought they worked well together.  

A: Muñoz is an important part of the Claire-Haggerty-Muñoz triumvirate. As the series progresses, his character will also come more sharply into focus. He is someone Claire has come to trust (and she doesn’t trust that many people). And he is devoted to her because she stood up for him when no one else did.

Q: How much research did you have to do on police procedure to write the book?

A: I spend a lot of time researching esoteric things as they come up. I have a few NYPD sources who answer some questions for me. And I have my forensic investigation manuals that I pore over continually.

Q: What book is a “transformational read” for you?  The one you read (maybe when you were 5 or 10 or 15) that has always stayed with you?

A: In terms of transformational reads, the first titles that come to my mind are Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. Those probably don’t sound like the titles a crime writer would name, but there it is. In my “formative” years, I imagined myself becoming a literary writer, not a genre writer (my first novel Forget Harry was definitely in the literary camp). What I have come to understand is that the best genre writers are literary writers as well. They bring a depth to the genre that allows them to develop memorable three-dimensional characters. In the crime genre, P.D. James is the writer who has most influenced me. I think that her books elevate the mystery genre because her writing is superb and her observations on human behavior are so insightful.

Q. What’s next for Claire?  Is this going to be a series?  (Please say yes!)

A: Absolutely! I’m doing the final edits on Book 2, Forgotten City, right now. Here’s a little synopsis:

Forgotten City:

NYPD Detective Claire Codella is chomping at the bit for a new case. Lieutenant McGowan is determined to keep her out of the news, but she’s about to be back in the public eye in a big way.

Broadway dance legend Lucy Martinelli Merchant has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For eighteen months she’s been languishing in the dementia care unit of exclusive Upper East Side Park Manor, the final home for many of New York’s aging and infirm “gentry.” When a night Park Manor caregiver finds Lucy Merchant dead, her daughter is convinced she’s been murdered and she seeks Codella out.

The complex investigation throws Codella into the path of a warring family, big business battles, and the administrators, nurses, and undervalued caregivers who serve Park Manor’s privileged clientele. Everyone has a motive for murder, and solving the case will force Codella to dig deep into their ugly pasts—as well as her own.

Author Interview: Steve Miller

Steve MillerSteve Miller is a highly regarded journalist who has lately turned his hand to true crime; he’s now written four and this one sparked my interest so much I wanted to hear what he had to say about it. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Q: True Crime as a genre is kind of looked down on—but to me it shows a real true side of human behavior; maybe not a nice one, but a true one.  What motivates you personally to write true crime?

A: True crime is the pornography of non-fiction. Literary agents steer you away from it and publishers treat it like a place for castoffs. Yet you see how many titles come out every year, and you see these TV shows in Investigation Discovery and truTV and the other networks. Someone’s digging it. And someone’s making money.

I come to it as a journalist, and it presents this opportunity to really dig into a case that I wouldn’t have in any other venue. There’s a bit of a puzzle in deciphering each case, and a challenge in bringing it to the reader in 80,000 decent words with structure.

Without true crime, I don’t think fiction crime and mystery writers would be able to feel so superior. I’ve been run down by housewives at book fairs who climb over me to get a chance to converse with a fiction crime writer. I mean, butt-in-face, push past me, it was pretty funny. They sure don’t want to talk to the scary guy who writes about things that really happen. That’s the stuff you read or watch in the privacy of your own home. And you don’t tell anyone.

Q: How did you decide to write about this case?

A: I was doing interviews for another book, Detroit Rock City, that placed me in the city a lot. I live about 70 miles from Detroit. It seemed every day that summer 2012 there was a twist in this case and I couldn’t avoid it. In the course of my interviews for the other book, I came across a couple people who were connected to the Bashara case and had some pretty good information and insights. So that fall I reached out to Bashara and we began to converse. He felt he was being railroaded and hoped that I might uncover some flaws in the prosecution’s case regarding the murder charges. With that kind of access and with the case having that BDSM twist, I felt it would be interesting. Especially if he was not guilty and the Wayne County prosecutor’s office was wrong. As it turned out, the office was not so far off base.

Q: You mention in your introduction that the victim’s family wouldn’t talk to you—was that a huge hindrance as you were putting the book together?

A: No, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t talk to a journalist if I were in their shoes. 

Q: I thought this book was especially excellent as it gave the reader a real picture of an actual killer.  I was saying to my husband, “He’s not exactly evil,” then described what he’d done, and he said “that’s evil.”  Maybe what actually makes people so uncomfortable with true crime is that it shows how absolutely banal bad and criminal behavior actually is.  What are your thoughts on that?

A: Evil is a funny thing. I can’t say Bashara is evil but he certainly made some choices that hurt people all around him. That’s some bad shit to carry around. It’s interesting how once people find out someone did some reprehensible things, they’re judged immediately. But before knowing those things, that individual was okay. Like the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club. Bashara was president of that club for some time, so someone must have thought he was ok. He raised money for a lot of causes around the Pointes, and no one handed back any of that money, that I know of.

But yea, a lot of people don’t want to know about the objectively immoral/indecent actions of those among our species, of which murder leads the pack. I understand that. I don’t even like to think about the subjectively amoral actions. I take news blackouts, where I don’t read any news for a 48 hours period to keep away from the noise, like the work of politicians who actively work to do bad things to the public in order to stay in office. So people avoiding true crime are taking on a strain of that avoidance. It hurts your spirit sometimes.

Q: Was it ever uncomfortable exchanging e-mails with Bob?

A: No. He would get angry on occasion over a question, but that’s cool, I understand. But I notice that he has never wavered in his stand that he had nothing to do with this. I’ve watched his post-conviction testimony and it is exactly what he told me at all times. That consistency is scary. I can think of nothing worse than being locked up for something I didn’t do, and that never really leaves the picture as I cover a case.

Q: When you start a book do you have to check your preconceptions at the door, or are there some that hold true for every story you write about?

A: I never have any preconceptions. Every case unfolds differently as all the players are different. If they start to look the same, it’s a bad sign. I try to approach each story differently, knowing that this is going to be a long exercise and I have some time to develop the story. Unlike fiction, though, these are real people and the only thing I aim at doing is ensuring I deliver an accurate portrayal of them. Of course many people make it hard to do, but that’s part of chronicling crime.

Q: I know Ann Rule became very focused in her writing on the investigative process, and on the police detectives, who she wrote about in glowing terms.  The cops in this book are a bit bungling.  Do you feel they could actually have nailed Bob sooner with a tighter investigation?

A: Rule’s books were tributes to law enforcement, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that. Or her books, for that matter. That kind of soft treatment of the cops sits really poorly with me. Some cop beat reporters today give the cops plenty of love because they are afraid that if they don’t, the cops won’t give them info. It’s a game that poorly serves the public, as we can see how corrupt cops can be. This is why it’s no surprise to see the recent emergence of citizen-recorded videotapes of shootings. These are not the only instances of cop abuse, they’re just the once that happen to get recorded. We can go back to Rodney King to see the impact of that.

In this case, the local cops had no idea what to do. They failed to get the security videotape outside the Hard Luck, where Bob was the night of the murder, before it was erased. In fact, that was one of the factors that got me interested early on in this case, when I was told about the video in an early conversation with a source in Detroit. The section in the book, the trial section, where the Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor lays into the Grosse Pointe cops during trial for their shoddy work and failure to meet deadlines and work with the prosecutor’s office tells a story of classic cop stupidity. Yes, the case would have been broken sooner with good cop work, although I don’t think there was a lot of damage done to the public overall due to the lag. Surely Jane’s family must have been aware that this was taking too damn long.

Q: Was there part of this story that just broke your heart and made it hard to write?  Often when I read a true crime book I feel so terrible for the victim it’s almost hard to read about.  I thought you were quite respectful of Jane Bashara, the victim in this case.  

A: In my first book, A Slaying in the Suburbs, it was a case in which both the killer, Stephen Grant, and the wife he murdered, Tara, were miserably angry at each other and really vicious at times. I had people tell me, ‘well, you know, I can almost see a guy getting so angry…’ But in this case, Jane Bashara was truly a good woman who did the right thing, walked a strong path and was absolutely a kind wife and good mother. Of course no one is perfect, and domesticity is a sticky, complicated thing that at times brings out the worst in people. But feeling, how decent she was really hurt me some nights when I would sit and think about justice in the universe. The justice system says Bob Bashara was responsible for the murder, but I couldn’t gin up the hate for him on the same level I could the sadness for Jane. 

Q: This is your fourth true crime book—what are you learning as you write each book?  Do you feel your investigative and writing skills evolving?

A: I hope so. I wish I could tell, but I can’t. It never gets easier, and I write a lot over the course of a year, articles for different magazines and news outlets. Sometimes it moves, sometimes it’s a struggle. I like reporting more than I like writing because it keeps you moving and takes you places, literally and figuratively. I can stay up all night researching a string of an investigation—an errant public official, or agency usually—if it’s hot. Crime is a lot like a football game; it unwinds in front of you. Things happen. That’s why you see a lot of crime on the news. It’s easy to report, people like to know when it happens in their community and it goes away as quickly as it comes when it’s just a news item. The books, well, that takes some dedication to get the whole story as both a reader and a writer.

Q: What’s next?  Do you have another case in mind you are planning to write about?

A: I have a book, Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Created (Da Capo) coming out in the summer. It deals with the Juggalo culture but also the FBI’s mislabeling Juggalos as a gang in a national report in 2011. That led to a lawsuit by ICP against the Justice Department, which alleges among other things a First Amendment infringement. It’s the first time a fan base has been officially deemed a gang, which is quite an interesting direction for the feds to go in.

As far as crime, I’m watching a case in Florida. I don’t know that I will write a book on it, but I am close to it and have good sources. That’s how it starts. Maybe it won’t be a book next time. There are a lot more ways to get this stuff out there than the traditional true crime books, which are ignored by the marketing people for the publishers. I think about that next time I hear of layoffs at a book publishing house; they don’t support a genre because they feel it’s unseemly. But they do so at the expense of profits. And ultimately, jobs. 

Thank you so much, Steve!

Author Interview: Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Philippi RyanHank Phillippi Ryan has been a part of the mystery community for several years now, racking up awards and praise for her Jane Ryland novels. Like Ryan herself, Jane is a reporter, and the real life edge the details of a reporter’s life bring to Ryan’s books really sets them apart. Hank herself is one of the nicest and most generous people in the mystery community, universally beloved for good reason! Hank graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Q: What do you think you have learned as a writer through now eight books, four with Jane, and four with Charlotte?

HANK: What have I learned? I really thought about this when you asked, because I wondered, too. And I guess two things: one, I have learned to write more quickly, in the first draft stage, to get myself through the story without worrying.

But I’ve also learned to write more slowly, thinking about each word, and each sentence, and each paragraph, and each scene. I am profoundly aware of how permanent a final manuscript is, a reflection of every careful choice I make. So “fine” is not enough, not at all, and I am consciously, actively, much more careful. I want it to be perfect, gorgeous, unusual, intriguing and the most surprising it can be.

That is hard work, harder than I ever predicted, and I revel in every bit of it. Usually.

Is it a paradox to say I have also learned to trust the process? I often tell myself: Come on Hank, you know what you’re doing. Just go on. It will all work out in the end.

Q: What kind of character arc do you have in mind for Jane moving forward?

HANK: Oh Robin, I have to laugh when you use the word plan. I have no idea what will happen to Jane. And I love that, because her life is like a real life, and of course we have no idea what will happen in our future. Sue Grafton once told me Kinsey Millhone reveals herself to Sue book by book, and that’s exactly what happens with Jane.

People often ask me if Jane will get married? I have no idea. To Jake ? I have no idea. Because they don’t either.

What fascinates me about this question is motivation. Why do people do what they do? Why do people make the decisions they make? A good novel of suspense is all about choices, and how a person behaves when faced with a big decision. So whatever happens to Jane, and Jake, they’ll  have to deal with it, separately and together.

I am so eager to find out myself! But plan? There is no plan. Should there be a plan? If there were a plan, it would change, right?

Q: I know your experience as a reporter adds to your writing – it gives it an added punch as it feels so “right.”  That’s from a layman’s point of view.  What is mostly true, in terms of Jane’s life as a reporter, and what is mostly fiction?

HANK: I can safely say my books are not only ripped from the headlines, but ripped from my own headlines! I have wired myself with cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals, and gone undercover and in disguise. I have battled with management, and with angry story subjects, had my notes and raw video subpoenaed, been threatened and stalked and yelled at.

In that sense, what happens to Jane is realistic and authentic and could happen to a real reporter. True, Jane’s life is a little more dangerous than mine, that’s the part that’s fiction. But nothing happens to her that couldn’t really happen.

What You See certainly comes from stories I have covered, about surveillance, and privacy, and child abduction, and a certain murder case in Boston where my husband defended a man who was accused of stabbing someone else near Faneuil Hall. You will recognize that scene on the book—it is straight from real life, up to the point where my imagination took over.

But even though the stories are inspired by my investigations and my husband’s work as an attorney, they are not fictionalized versions of a true story. They are a compilation of adrenaline-injected, polished and tweaked puzzle pieces that fit together, somehow, into a brand-new story.

Q: Is it true cops and reporters can’t date?  

HANK: Depends what you mean by “can’t.” It would be frowned upon, discouraged, and, bottom line, incredibly difficult. And unworkable. I’m trying to think if I know any reporters who date police officers, and I don’t think I do. It is an impossible journalistic situation and an impossible law enforcement situation… fraught with potential problems and hideously tangled in conflict.

Jane and Jake’s dilemma is realistic, and the idea that they are hiding the relationship from the world is also definitely realistic. A reporter who is dating a police officer would have to reveal that, if they were assigned a story he or she was handling—because a reporter would never be allowed to cover story for which they have a personal interest.

My husband is an attorney, and there are many times when I have to recuse myself from getting anywhere near his newsworthy cases. And there are many times I know something I cannot tell.

Also, if a police officer were dating a reporter, and there was a leak in the Police Department, the officer would be the first to be blamed, whether he or she was guilty or not.

So it is a huge mess, and best to avoid it at all cost. But what about passion? That’s what leaves Jane and Jake in their impossible situation.  Both are so honorable in their professional lives, and it is very difficult for them to be so duplicitous in their personal lives. What will they do? I have no idea.

Q: How do you start with a plot?  I read an interview with Ngaio Marsh where she said she created a group of characters, then imposed a plot on them.  I think a thriller is kind of structured story first, and that is then imposed on the  characters.  I think you write thrillers, but you also have a recurring character, so how do you balance plot and character?

HANK: That is such an interesting idea from Ngaio Marsh, but I think my experience is a little bit the opposite. When I began writing the Jake and Jane books, I actually started with the plot. I had read an article about Mark Sanford, the disgraced ex-governor of South Carolina who told everyone he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was really off with the other woman. There was a quote in that story that said “you can choose your sin but you cannot choose your consequences.” And I thought: my book my book my book!

Right then, and I get goosebumps remembering, I knew I wanted to write a big thriller about the consequences of being the other woman, and the pressures of politics, and the pressures of being a reporter covering such a story under a deadline.

And for that I needed a new character, and then I realized I probably needed two, since it was such a textured story. And poof. (Ish.) There were Jane and Jake. And on day one of The Other Woman that’s all I had.

Since then, each new novel has started with what I call the glorious gem of the one good idea, the irresistible core of the mystery.

I don’t have an outline, so I don’t know what’s going to happen until the next word and the next sentence and the next paragraph and the next scene. The plot advances based on what the characters decide when faced with an obstacle or goal or conflict or pressure.

I give each character a starting point, and then I see what happens. Since I don’t know where the story is going, I’m not shepherding them in any direction, I’m simply seeing what unfolds. In a strange way it’s as if I set up the first domino in a row of dominoes—even though I don’t know what the other dominoes will be!

And then I push it over, and see what happens.

So people say to me—wow, the end of What You See really surprised me! And I say yes, it surprised me, too.

Q: While I think you write thrillers your books seem to straddle traditional—with your traditional story structure—and thriller.  Do you think that’s one of the things that’s helping you find such popularity as an author?

HANK: What a great thing to say! Thank you! And if you say so, then, well, sure. That label “traditional,” or “thriller,” or “mystery”—that’s a tough one.

My books are certainly thrillers, in that you will never see a phrase like “two weeks later,” or “after a leisurely dinner” or “let me think about that for a couple of days.” There is a relentless sense of a ticking clock through the whole thing. What You See takes place in less than 48 hours. So that’s thrilleresque.  Jake and Jane are always in some sort of conflict, or danger, or high-pressure, or high-stakes, or some sort of critical decision-making. That’s thriller too.

But you won’t see oh, nuclear war, or terrorists, or an international ring of spies.  My books are designed to feel as if they took place in your hometown, with people you might know, in situations that might really exist. (Situations where people get killed, of course.)

Maybe they are… Investigative thrillers? Like an investigative story that a journalist would do. Imagine that!

Q: Any writers that are influences?  (I prefer this answer not be “Stephen King” or “Jane Austen” but if you must you must).

HANK: Definitely Edith Wharton, for her brilliant and insightful take on the spirit of the times, for wonderful dialogue, and her deeply human stories.
Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, for their bravery in storytelling, and their fearlessness, they’re incredible sense of voice and music. Sue Grafton, she’s so—thoughtful. Agatha Christie—diabolical!

Shakespeare, definitely, for theme and connection and throughlines and language.

And even though I know you are cringing, you have to love Stephen King. There is no one who is a better storyteller, no one who gets voice—myriad voices in every book—so recognizably differentiated. (In 1980, I called in sick from work when I wasn’t really sick, because I had to finish The Stand. I guess it’s okay to confess that now.)

My favorite book of all time may be Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It is magical.

Q: What book was transformational for you?  I think there’s always some book in childhood or early adolescence that is never forgotten.

HANK: I grew up in really rural Indiana, and used to read up in the hayloft in the barn behind our house. I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes stories, devoured them, and remember when I understood the music and rhythm of Conan Doyle’s writing, and the excitement of solving a puzzle.

Back then, I used to read books one after the other, as fast as I possibly could, but I remember reading Black Beauty, and when it was over, realizing I couldn’t just pick up the next book. Gosh, I must’ve been how old, nine? And I remember very clearly thinking: there’s more to this book then the story of the horse.  I guess that was my introduction to theme.

The Edward Eager fantasy/mysteries. (I have a stash of them I hand out to any kids who come over.) And Jane Langton’s The Diamond in the Window. Those books made it be okay to be smart and nerdy, and that doing good was valuable, and helped me understand there was more to the universe than we can easily understand. Visit to the Mushroom Planet, too. Later, in college, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Look Homeward, Angel.

Q: Any big surprises that came with writing mysteries?

HANK: I had been a reporter for 30-some years when I started writing mysteries, and I realized, when I sat down at the computer that first time, that for the first time in my life, I was about to make things up. And I wondered if my imagination would do that—create a new world that never existed before, rather then reporting on real life. What’s surprised me, so gloriously, is how the walls fell away, and time ceased to exist. When I’m in the midst of telling a great story, there’s nothing else but me and the characters. I have to say I never expected that.

Q: Finally, can you give us a teeny preview of what might be next for Jane?

HANK: I’m so excited about the new Jane and Jake book! It is called Say No More and will be out his time next year. It’s about campus sexual assault, and witness intimidation, about when we decide to speak up, and when we don’t, and why—and about the power of silence.

I’m almost finished, and now, because you know how I write, I cannot wait to see what happens in the end!

Author Interview: Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is an exciting new talent and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Ruth WareQ: I heard Ngaio Marsh say in an interview that she liked to create a group of characters and then impose the mystery on them to see how they reacted to a crisis. Were you working in a similar way, or did you come up with your story premise first?

A:  I came up with the “murder on a hen night” idea first, chiefly because a friend said to me that she had never read one and it instantly seemed like such a perfect idea that I couldn’t resist writing it. The characters were sort of secondary in that sense—they grew outward from me wanting a disparate group of people shoved together somewhat against their will. They’re also partly each an archetype of women I’ve met at bachelorette parties over the years—the one who doesn’t really want to be there, the one from the bride’s past who is completely different to all her current friends, the one who would prefer to be at home with her kids, the one who organised it and is totally stressed about the whole thing—I think they are all recognisable types to people who’ve attended a fair number of these things, and I’ve certainly been most of them over the years, in different settings! Of course, I chose to carry the roles to extreme because it made for better drama.

Q: I liked how tiny the suspect pool was! Very golden age.  How difficult a feat was that to pull off?

A: Actually it wasn’t something I really set out to do, but the premise sort of dictated the plot in that respect. I wanted it to be about people being forced together and rubbing each other up the wrong way, and you can only really do that in a confined setting – right from the outset I knew I wanted it to be set in a location where people couldn’t easily escape. It’s also probably a product of having read too much classic crime as a kid, I think some of those structures were coming out unconsciously as I wrote!

Q: One of the things I really, really liked about this book was that while it was a thriller, it was ALSO a mystery, so you were using both thriller and mystery tropes. Do you have a particular preference or do you like both mystery and thriller? 

A: I love both. I probably read more mysteries, but I adore a good psychological thriller. If I ever wrote a book as dark and twisty as  Gone Girl I would be very happy! I read the two genres quite differently though, and for different reasons; thrillers tend to be harrowing and emotionally immersive in a way that mysteries aren’t (or at least I tend to find them so). I can read a crime novel to wind down, because it’s essentially a puzzle, particularly in the case of classic crime, and “Golden Age” crime novels tend to be quite cool and detached and ultimately quite reassuring. But for some reason that’s not the way I write.

Agatha Christie is very focussed on the puzzle and the detection side of the crime, but for me, the moment I start thinking about a murder, my mind starts dwelling on the victim and the agony of the suspects and the emotional fall-out. The suspect pool in Agatha Christie novels always tend to stand the emotional strain very well and have complete faith in the powers of Poirot or Marple to get it all sorted out. I would be a nervous wreck if I thought someone suspected me of murder, and would be constantly second guessing how I ought  to be behaving rather than acting naturally (which is maybe partly why I liked Gone Girl so much—Nick’s constant worries about how the police and public are perceiving him felt very real to me!) I guess In a Dark, Dark Wood reflects that.

Q: Sorry to harp on the “Golden Age” but this book reminded me so strongly of Christie—you refer to And Then there Were None, but I was more strongly reminded of the creepy house and psychological set up of Endless Night.  Is Christie a big influence?

A: I wouldn’t have said so before I started writing this, but when I got to the end and read it back I realised that 20+ years of reading her had very obviously bled through into my writing. The set up, with the closed pool of suspects and the geographically isolated location is pretty much directly lifted from her technique. I found myself reminded of bits of The Sittaford Mystery when I read it back—the snowbound house, and the creepy seance. Even the title, with its nursery-rhyme echoes, is a sort of tribute to her I guess; she uses the same technique for so many of her own stories (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Crooked House, A Pocketful of Rye and so on). Endless Night is an unusual Christie, I think. It kind of contradicts what I said above about Christie being quite cool and detached, whereas Endless Night is anything but; it has a sort of nightmarish quality. I read that book as a teen and found it actually quite traumatising! I think I still have a copy but I haven’t read it since.

She is not the only Golden Age writer that I love, though. I also adore Dorothy L Sayers (who wrote so well about the anguish of the writer caught up in one of her own plots in Strong Poison) and Josephine Tey, who proved how much you can do from the setting of a hospital bed in Daughter of Time. I don’t consciously set out to imitate any of them (I can’t imagine Sayers letting her characters behave so badly!) but I can see the influences when I read back.

Q: Who is an influence in terms of contemporary writing? There are some great thrillers coming out of the UK at the moment—I’m a huge Sharon Bolton fan myself.

A: I recently read and loved Disclaimer by Renee Knight—I adore a good twist and this was one that felt absolutely right and not too “plotted” if you know what I mean. And a book from a few years back, but still definitely contemporary, The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. She does a past/present narrative so well, showing how wounds can fester and reverberate through the years.

In terms of non-Brit writers, I love a good Nordic Noir—Karin Fossum, Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason and so on. The last Erlendur mystery, Strange Shores, had me in bits by the end, although I won’t say why for fear of spoiling it for others!

And in terms of American writers, I love both Harlan Coben and Sue Grafton. I think both do character amazingly well, their characters feel absolutely three-dimensional and real. I’m not sure if all of the above are influences exactly—but they’re all writers I love to read. In general though I am quite a wussy reader, I can’t cope with anything too violent or sadistic so I don’t tend to venture to the more blood-spattered end of the crime/thriller spectrum. A lot of people have said they found In a Dark, Dark Wood deeply scary but I didn’t find it so to write, although maybe that’s partly to do with being in the driving seat and in control of what happens. I think of it as tense, rather than horrifying.

Q: Can we talk about length a bit?  I think a lot of contemporary mysteries are far too long, and you avoided this pitfall. Sometimes I almost think the author is too caught up in their own premise to tell a clear, well told story. So, snaps to you for writing a book where I wouldn’t have cut a sentence. I’ve read so many recently I’ve finished and wished the editor or somebody would have cut 100 or so pages.  Any thoughts on this topic?

A: I hadn’t really thought about this until you mentioned it. I do love a big baggy novel IF it earns its length, but I have definitely read books where I felt it could usefully have ended 100 pages before it actually did, or started 100 pages later (although the latter is more rare, I think). Diving into a world that sustains you for a long period is incredibly satisfying, but I guess I would always rather leave a reader wanting more, rather than less, if that makes sense. I also instinctively resist over-explaining. I’d rather leave space for the reader to guess, or explain, or decide for themselves. Ultimately though I think it’s just writerly temperament. My imagination seems to run in 90k word chunks! (Now I’ve said that I will probably find my next novel is 300,000 words).

Q: Another thing I thought was very well done is that you seemed to find some sympathetic angle to each character, even if they were a bit obnoxious (Flo) or snarky (Nina). What’s your trick there? I certainly wasn’t reading along as I do sometimes thinking “I hope he or she gets killed soon.”

A: I don’t think I could write a character I didn’t like at all. I think to write a character convincingly you have to inhabit them to some degree—walk in their shoes, understand why they make the choices and react the way they do. And that understanding is the first step to empathy and from there to sympathy, which undoubtedly filters out onto the page. I have read books where characters are consistently vile, and oftentimes they’re very good books, but I find them very wearing to read, and they must be even more intense to write, given it takes so much longer to write a book than to read it.

Q: Is there a pivotal book in your life? I think all of us who love to read have that book.

A: I can’t narrow it down to a single book. Maybe The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford? But that has nothing to do with my writing—I just love it, and I love her as a writer! There are not many writers who can combine comedy, satire and tragedy in such satisfying proportions.

Q: Have you always wanted to write a thriller, or did you start writing, and that’s what it turned out to be?

A: I’ve written all my life in just about every genre you can think of as the mood took me (including some absolutely terrible sci-fi/fantasy as a teenager, which I am super glad never saw the light of day. In fact I might go burn that manuscript now…) This one just happened to be a thriller, but I think it suits my style and my need for lots of drama and excitement to keep me writing. I love reading quiet literary novels of understated beauty, but I think I would have terrible trouble writing one. I’d always be throwing in deaths and near-fatal accidents and emotional scenes.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: Another thriller—as yet untitled so if anyone has any suggestions! It’s about a woman who witnesses a murder, and then finds the victim never existed. But I can’t say any more at this stage or I’d have to kill you…

Author Interview: Sam Thomas

267667_251594441524816_3284565_nSam Thomas is the author of now three mysteries featuring Bridget Hodgson in 1640’s York.  An historian and teacher, he brings expertise to his novels, but he’s also a wonderful storyteller and his latest book, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, is also his strongest.  He was nice enough to answer a few questions.

Q: Have you come to your historical series as an historian, or as someone who wanted primarily to be a storyteller?

A: In truth, I don’t see a significant difference between the two. Whether I’m writing history or fiction, I have the same goal: I want to talk about the past in a way that readers will find engaging and informative.

The funny thing is that since I started writing fiction, I feel more pressure to get the history right. If I made a mistake in my history book (Creating Communities in Restoration England: Parish and Congregation in Oliver Heywoods Halifax and yes, it really is $135), perhaps a dozen people would notice it. If I make a mistake in a novel, many more people would walk away misinformed.

Q: Why a midwife?  As a male writer it’s an even more interesting choice.

A: I actually came to midwifery first as a historian and entirely by accident. Bridget Hodgson, the protagonist in my series, is based on a real midwife of the same name. I stumbled across her will while conducting research in York, England, and immediately fell in love. (You can read more about the historical Bridget, including a transcript of her amazing will, on my website,

From a historian’s perspective, midwives are fascinating not least because they were women who had power at a time when few women did. They were key to the prosecution of a variety of crimes, ranging from fornication to witchcraft. In addition, their work drew me into a range of other historical genres. These include medicine and childbirth, obviously, but also crime, witchcraft, and gender.

As a mystery writer, midwives make perfect sleuths: they know things that other people do not, can open doors that would remain closed to a male sleuth, and – as I mentioned – they are an informal part of the law enforcement system.

Q: How did you settle on this particular time period?  It’s not one that’s gotten much coverage and I think it makes the series very fresh.

A: Again, this was pure chance. I modeled my characters on real people, and I know that Bridget was in York from the 1640s to the 1680s. These were incredibly tumultuous decades in English history, as King Charles was overthrown and executed, Matthew Hopkins led the largest witch-hunt in English history, and political and religious radicals rose to power.

When I decided to use the historical Bridget Hodgson as a model, it only seemed natural to start the series in the midst of the English Civil War and let her adventures play out from there. In the fourth book, I bring all the gang to London so they can be there for Charles’s execution – how could I not?

Q: I love the yin/yang of Bridget and Martha – one the strict law abider, one the skeptic.  Was that a plan or did that develop as you wrote the characters?  It’s certainly a classic mystery trope.

A: Thanks! I knew that Bridget would be rather conservative in nearly every sense of the word. She is wealthy, well-connected, and an adherent to the Church of England, at a time when the Puritans wished to see it pulled down. While her faith has been tested, it’s not until Martha shows up at her door that she really has to think about Big Issues such as the relationship between law and justice, and why – if God is good – He has seen fit to allow such evil into the world.

Overall, I think my goal in the series is to put Bridget into uncomfortable positions and see what she will do. Martha is key to that because she challenges a variety of Bridget’s core assumptions about how the world works.

Q: Have you been influenced by other historical mystery series?  Sharan Newman and Candace Robb come to mind when reading your books, a compliment – two of my favorite writers!

A: I hate to admit it, but I haven’t really. I was still a historian when I started writing the series, and hadn’t read a mystery (or any novel!) in quite some time. (When you read all week, it’s tough to keep reading on the weekends!) When I was talking with agents, one said that my series would fit well with Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death. I agreed enthusiastically and immediately Googled the title to find out what she was talking about. I’d never heard of the book.

Since then I’ve been reading more fiction, but not a lot of historical fiction. In part it’s for the same reason doctors hate medical shows: I tend to notice every little mistake and it ruins the book for me. But I also want my reading to make me a better writer, and that means going beyond what I know.

Right now I’m working on a stand-alone set in New England during colonial wars and witch hunts. To help with that, I’ve re-read some of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as well as some classics in horror so that I get better at dealing with violence and the supernatural.

Q: Can you name a book that was a life changer for you?  I think all of us that love to read have a book that made a difference or illuminated the world for us in a different way.

A; The big one for me was Laurel Thatch Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. I read it when I was in graduate school and it blew me away. She created such a rich portrait of life in 18th Century Maine, I felt like I knew the town and people of Hallowell better than I knew my own family.

When I finished, I said, “Now that is a book I want to write.” I had no idea that fifteen years later, I’d publish a novel with nearly the same title.

Q: Do you have a story arc in mind for Bridget, or is that developing as you write?  A point you want to get across?

A: For the first three books, absolutely. At the beginning of the first book (The Midwife’s Tale), Bridget is a young widow who has lost her children; she has nobody. Over the course of these books, she creates a family (essentially from spare parts), and then has to decide how far she will go to defend it.

The other journey she takes is one I mentioned above, as she comes to terms with the fact that what is legal and what is right are not always the same thing. As a woman who has been such a staunch defender of the law and the status quo, this is a tough lesson to learn.

These themes continue to some extent into book four (almost done, but no title yet!), but I’m trying to figure out where to take things after that.

Author Interview: Tim O’Mara

Tim O’Mara is a favorite new voice of both Jamie’s and mine—we love his Ray Donne, a teacher/private eye. O’Mara’s vigorous storytelling, great characters and setting make this series a real stand-out.

Tim O'MaraQ: First of all, why a P.I. novel? Are those the kind of books you always liked to read? If so, who are your favorites?

A: I’ve always been interested in crime fiction, from Encyclopedia Brown to Michael Connelly. My faves now include Don Winslow, Marcus Sakey, George Pelecanos, Lyndsay Faye. I’ve also just discovered some British writers and the couple who make up Nicci French really know what they’re doing.

Q: Your main character, Ray Donne, is a former cop, now a teacher. How much of your own experience and your own family’s experience (I think you have some cops in the family) do you draw on?

A: Being a teacher is like being a detective. It takes time to sift through the clues to find out what kind of kid each individual student is and how best to reach that student. And—you can ask any of my students—a good algebra problem is like a good mystery, all those unknowns and variables. I draw on my own personal experiences a lot, but am careful to not write a kid who may recognize himself and has a parent who’s a lawyer. My big brother, the cop, is my go-to guy when I have a police question. If I get any of that wrong, I’m in trouble.

Q: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of a great first sentence. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it so important, and what, in your opinion, makes a great one?

A: A great first sentence draws the reader into the action and the character right away. I work harder on my first sentences than any other sentence in the book, and I challenge anyone to stop reading after one of my first sentences. They’re like potato chips in that regard. It’s the same with movies. I always think of Murtaugh and Riggs in the car chase in the opening shot of Lethal Weapon 2; we don’t care who they’re chasing, we just want to go along for the ride.

Q: When it comes to plot, what’s your method? Your plots are often quite complex and I’ve heard all kinds of answers to this question, including poster boards of each location with sticky notes for each character. So – poster board? Outline? Seat of your pants?

A: I’m what’s now known as a “pantser.” I start writing when I think I know the first five scenes—forty or fifty pages. I’ve learned to trust myself that if the first fifty pages are good enough and filled with potential, the next three hundred and fifty will work. (He said with a shaky confidence.) Like a lot of crime writers, I’m constantly asking myself not only “What if?” but also “What next?” If I’m happy with the answer, I keep going.

Q: Is it difficult for Ray to continue to be believably drawn into the kinds of situations he finds himself in? Do you ever see him actually moonlighting as a private eye (as he sort of does in this book).

A: Yeah, there’s going to come a time when Raymond’s going to stop doing this teacher-by-day/crime-fighter-by-night thing. (I’m sure it’s against union rules.) I’m hoping that when he—and I—get to that point, I’ll have the confidence as a writer to retire Raymond and let him enjoy life a bit more. For however long the series goes, though, the main focus will always be on kids in peril. That’s what got me into the genre and that’s what the series is about.

Q: What’s your feeling about the Private Eye genre in general? I think it’s undergoing a change—your books are an illustration, as the private eyes in books today seem very reluctant or they actually are something else, like Ray. Brad Parks has a reporter, Steve Ulfelder an interesting vengeful recovered alcoholic, Alex McKnight, Steve’s Hamilton’s character, is always very reluctantly drawn into a new case. I know there are other examples.

A: I think the PI genre is as strong as it’s ever been largely because of all the nontraditional PI’s out there. Michael Sears’ Jason Stafford is a great example: an ex-con/financial expert who can only find work investigating financial crimes. Daniel Friedman’s Buck Schatz, the 88-year-old retired cop is another great example. Then you can add in all the “cozies” and it would be hard to find a profession where that person can’t be investigating a crime while trying to hold down a day job. That being said, few things are better than a good old-fashioned PI like Jim Rockford or Travis McGee putting in a good day’s work.

Q: I think one of the strongest parts of your books are the setting, which is weird, because New York has been used countless times as a setting, but you bring something a little special and different to the table. Can you talk about that a bit?

A: I grew up on Long Island (“Lawn Guyland”) less than an hour away from New York City and we didn’t go in that much. When I finally moved into Brooklyn back in 1987, I fell in love with the place—all five boroughs. I think it’s my love affair with the city—especially Williamsburg, Brooklyn—and it’s never-ending ability to surprise me that comes through in my books. I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now and it’s impossible to run out of things to write about if you’re paying attention. (“Writer’s Block” in New York City refers to a street where three or more writers live.)

Q: What’s ahead for Ray and Allison? (Or don’t you want to say?)

A: What’s ahead for Ray and Allison? Have you been speaking to my mother? I’m not sure what their future as a couple holds. They play well against each other and are constantly challenging each other’s world views. I can tell you they will never be Spenser and Susan. I can’t imagine Ray watching Allison spear a leaf of lettuce and getting all romantic about it. Allison’s a good foil for Raymond, and I see her staying around for quite a while. I may even let them dip their toes into living together and possibly marrying. That would make my mom real happy.

Q: Is there something more to Ray’s reluctance to call his mother in your latest book that you may get to in the next book?

A: I’m debating whether or not to actually bring Ray’s mom into the fourth book—Nasty Cutter. The story does involve Ray’s—and his dead father’s—past so it may be time to break the whole “Columbo’s wife” thing I’ve had going with Mrs. Donne. I think I’m just wary of having his mom take over too much of the book like mine might. (She’s not going to read this, is she?)

Q: Finally, do you have a favorite mystery (or book)? One that changed your life in some way?

A: My two favorite books of all time are probably To Kill a Mockingbird and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I wouldn’t say they changed my life, but they constantly show me how powerful novels can be. I know it sounds corny, but they also inspire me to be the best writer I can be. Another book I value greatly—and read once a year—is George Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Any writer who wants to see—and read—great dialogue—should make this required reading.

Author Interview: Lauren Willig

Lauren WilligLauren Willig is the bestselling author of the popular “Pink Carnation” series, which is drawing to a close.  Drawn to the cover of her latest novel, The Ashford Affair, I discovered a new author to love as I inhaled this story of London and Africa in the 20’s and a young Manhattan lawyer in the present day.  Ms. Willig will be joining us in September at the Kerrytown BookFest and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.  Welcome, Lauren!

Q: This is the first book of yours I’ve read, though of course I’ve sold MANY of them thanks in part to Tasha Alexander, who told me years back you were one of her favorite authors.  I think my first question is about the time period – have you always wanted to set a novel in this time frame?

A: First of all, may I say how much I adore Tasha Alexander?  She is both a wonderful writer and a lovely person, and there’s no one I would rather be stuck with on slippery back roads in the middle of a freak snowstorm.  (And I speak from experience in this.  Somehow, we managed a) not to die, b) to acquire Starbucks, and c) to make it to the library at which we were speaking.)

Back to the question… The answer is a resounding no.  I never intended to set a book in the 1920s.  I had always assumed that if I ever left my Napoleonic-set Pink Carnation series, I’d go back in time, and do something set in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, since that was, once upon a time, my area of academic expertise.  I’ve always enjoyed vacationing in the 1920s and 30s—I’ve been a P.G. Wodehouse fan since childhood—but I never intended to set up shop there.

Then a few different things happened all at once: I finished the ninth Pink Carnation book way ahead of schedule, leaving me with time to spare; Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green was finally released after a long ban, which set me on a Mitford/Waugh/Thirkell reading binge; and a friend gave me a copy of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.  And suddenly I found myself thinking a lot more seriously about the 1920s…

Q: The 20’s are such a rich time period, and you even have one of the characters reflect on how “big” the women’s lives were as compared to today’s smaller concerns.  Do you think that’s true?

A: I do.  To be fair, I know people who live “big” lives now—one of my old classmates is in the Sudan right now, advocating for women— but they’re the ones who have actively sought out those experiences and put themselves in the way of adventure.  The generation born around 1900, as Bea and Addie were, found themselves in the center of a series of cataclysmic events whether they wanted it or not.  World War I… the Jazz Age revolution in mores… World War II… There was so much happening, so much changing, so many dramas taking place from family to family.

One of the things that fascinated me as I was writing the historical sections of The Ashford Affair was the question of thwarted expectations.  My characters, pre-World War I, grow up with sets of expectations about their world and their place in it that are blown sky high by the war and the social changes that follow.  They have no choice in the matter.  Their world has turned upside down on them.  How they adapt—or fail to adapt—to these changes provided the meat of the story for me.

Q: I loved the dovetailing of the present/past storyline.  I was equally interested in both stories, which is not always the case for me in a book that utilizes this type of structure.  Did you yourself feel more passionately about one storyline over the other?

A: This book really originated with the historical story, with the tale of two cousins in an Edwardian great house, one the spoiled daughter of the house, one the poor cousin, and the ways in which their lives twist and turn and intersect, taking them all the way up through the twentieth century.  But when I sat down to write that story it sounded, in the words of one of my old history professors,  like “one damn thing after another.”  That story, the historical story, needed the modern frame to give it depth and meaning.  Once I figured that out, the two went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

I will admit, for the most part, I felt closer to the historical story.  But neither worked for me without the other.  I wrote them exactly as you’re reading them, in a rhythm of historical/modern/historical/modern.  Oddly, though, my two favorite chapters are both in the modern section.

In my upcoming book, That Summer, which goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849, it was exactly the other way around: I felt much closer to the modern plot-line—but the chapters of which I’m proudest are on the historical side.

Q: I know you have a law degree.  How do the skills you gathered in law school play out in your life as a novelist?  I assume research skills are a big one.

A: For research, I have to give the credit, not to law school, but to my pre-law school years as a grad student in the Harvard History department.  There is nothing like cramming for General Exams to teach you your way around the library or to make you master the art of assimilating large amounts of information in record time.  I followed that up with a year of dissertation research in England, which taught me how to navigate everything from the intricacies of the Bodleian to a one room regional archive where none of the papers in the box have been sorted because no one on staff can read seventeenth century handwriting.  (And greet you with cries of gratitude as they ask you if you can possibly take the time to catalogue the papers for them before you have to run for your train back to London.)

At the end of that research year, I came to the conclusion that academia was not for me and moved down the block from the history department to the law school.

By one of those odd quirks of fate, I signed my first book contract my first month of law school.  It was a two book contract.  One had already been written while I was avoiding working on my dissertation.  The other was only a glint in my eye and a few scribbled notes on scraps of paper.  I certainly wasn’t going to say no to the book contract—it was what I’d always wanted—but there I was, right at the beginning of the pressure cooker that is 1L year.

The biggest skill law school taught me?  Just how much caffeine you can consume before life-threatening palpitations ensue.  The second biggest skill?  How to get books written on deadline while juggling other obligations.  (Which, come to think of it, is closely related to point one, caffeine.)  I did revisions on my first book 1L year; wrote my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, 2L year; and scribbled my third book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, 3L year, in between desperately trying to make up my pro bono requirement, complete my 3L project, and deal with those pesky things called classes.

Currently, I’m putting those juggling skills to the test as I learn how to balance book deadlines with a rather lively eight-month-old who doesn’t seem to understand that Mommy’s laptop is for typing, not eating.

Q: I am interested in taking a long view of mystery fiction – I think historical mysteries kind of came of age with Ellis Peters and then Anne Perry.  There were many medieval mystery writers who were popular and successful for years and then many Victorian ones, still a strong trend.  Presently there’s a strong romantic element to historical mystery fiction, which I’m enjoying.  Do you consider yourself primarily a romance or a mystery writer?

A: Tracking the evolution of genres is one of my favorite pastimes!  It’s fascinating watching how they grow and change over time.  As the historical romance market has narrowed, I’ve seen many former romance novelists move to historical mystery, bringing with them that romantic element.

As for me, I call myself a historical fiction writer, which is my way of squaring the circle.

When I sold my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, way back in 2003, I thought I’d written a romance, and told my agent so.  He politely disagreed.  So did my publisher.   They decided I’d written something entirely new and different: historical chick lit!  (This being in the era where chick lit, the publishing term du jour, was pupping new sub-genres by the second: mommy lit, lad lit, goodness only knows what else lit.)

While the book was in production, chick lit died an abrupt death (picture a Monty Python character grasping his throat, emitting a loud “argh!” and keeling over).  On the eve of my first interview, I got a panicked call from my publisher, advising me that, whatever I did, I was not to call my book chick lit.  Or romance.  Just call it historical fiction, they said.

On my first book tour, my very first stop was at a mystery bookstore, where I was informed that it was, in fact, a mystery, and hadn’t I realized this?  I hadn’t, but it didn’t overly surprise me.  My favorite tipple of choice was a bit of Elizabeth Peters or Dorothy Cannell, so it was no wonder that mystery had seeped into the bones of my book.

During that first year, my book was called pretty much everything except sci-fi.  I was just happy to have it out there, whatever it was.  Since The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was shelved in that wonderful catch-all, Fiction & Literature, I was spared the agonizing question of what it really was, or, for that matter, what I really was.

These days, I’ve complicated life for myself yet again.  The Pink Carnation books were primarily historical, making it simplest for me to clump them as historical fiction (or historical romance, or historical mystery, depending on who I was talking to).  My recent stand-alones, The Ashford Affair and That Summer, have been in the new genre called time slip, a mix of historical fiction and women’s fiction.  While they do have a strong historical component, there’s enough women’s fiction in them that it’s no longer an easy out to call them historical fiction.  And, of course, there’s that mystery element in both of them, too…

So maybe I should just say that I write a little bit of everything?

Q: I also liked the contrast of Addie and Bea.  That must have been fun to write.  Did you feel it was difficult to explicate Bea’s character, and make her if not likeable, understandable?

A: I’ve always enjoyed writing about anti-heroines, taking difficult characters and trying to show what makes them tick.

For those who haven’t read the book yet, Ashford is the story of two cousins: Bea, the daughter of an earl, and Addie, the poor cousin, who become fast friends as children, a friendship that is tested by time and events, and, most of all, by their own characters.

The idea that motivated me, writing about Addie and Bea, was what I think of as a “poison friendship,” one of those legacy friendships that you maintain because of a childhood bond, but where the characters of the friends are such that, despite a deep and real affection, they consistently bring out the worst in each other.  In the case of Addie and Bea, each has something the other lacks.  In Bea, Addie sees the social status, the easy sense of belonging, that she herself will never have; in Addie, Bea sees someone who can navigate this strange, new, post-war world.  Each is uncomfortable and defensive with the other, but that resentment is complicated by a very real affection for each other and a nostalgia for their shared childhood.  Bea, in particular, is threatened by Addie’s growing independence and attempts to meddle in Addie’s life, “for her own good”—or, at least, so she tells herself.

As you say, it was, indeed, often difficult to present Bea in a sympathetic light.  But I felt, strongly, that I wanted to show how much her actions were motivated by insecurity and unhappiness rather than meanness, and how much, at the base of it, she really does love her cousin, even if that love sometimes takes rather warped forms.  That’s why I chose to have three narrators for the book: Clemmie, our modern heroine; Addie, the historical heroine—and Bea.  It was crucial for me to get Bea’s voice in there, so we could see her on her own terms.

Those Bea chapters were the most fun to write.  There’s nothing like a bitter, confused character to make for a very strong narrative voice…

Q: Do you feel like romance and/or historical novels are placed in a type of  fiction “ghetto”?  In our store it’s a solid, steady selling segment and we feature these books, but I don’t know if that’s the case everywhere.

A: Back in my grad school days, romance and mystery were kept underground, tucked away in the basement of the Harvard Coop.  Geography as metaphor?  Of course, even that basement section was a small triumph.  When I started at the Harvard history department, in 1999, there had been no romance in the Coop at all.  For my romance fix, I had to take the train down to the big B&N at Downtown Crossing, carrying away piles of novels to keep me until my next jaunt downtown.

That being said, I do believe that bit by bit, the barriers are being eroded.  My own suspicion is that the thin end of the wedge came with chick lit, which, in trade paperback, infiltrated the upper regions of the bookstore.  Over the past few years, romance has made inroads into previously hostile territory: Kirkus Reviews and the Washington Post, among others, now have romance blogs.

The real issue, though, is how we as readers treat these sorts of fiction.  I’ve heard so many friends qualify their enjoyment of a book with, “Of course, it’s not literature, but…” or “It’s just a romance, but…”  No matter where these books are placed in the store, if we belittle our own reading preferences, then we keep genre fiction in a metaphorical ghetto.

Q: I have to ask what your influences were writing this novel – obviously there’s some Out of  Africa/Isak Dinesen influence, and I always think of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth when I read a story set in this period. There’s even a bit of a “Downton Abbey” feel.

A: The direct catalyst for this book was Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, about the life of the notorious Idina Sackville, who racketed back and forth between England and Kenya, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way.  The entire Happy Valley set, of which Idina was at the center, and their associates, provided rich background reading for this novel—there are excellent biographies of Beryl Markham, Denys Finch-Hatton, and Alice de Janze among others.  In terms of the Kenya portion of the book, I also owe a great debt to Elspeth Huxley, whose semi-autobiographical books about life in Kenya (her most famous is The Flame Trees of Thika) provided a great deal of the sensory details of life as a settler.

But that’s just the Kenya bit.  On the England side, I wallowed in novels, biographies, and letters.  I’ve been a Mitfordian for a long time, so I used this as an excuse to re-read all my Mitford biographies, and the writings of the various Mitfords themselves, from Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels to all of Nancy Mitford’s novels, and any collected correspondence I could get my hands on.  Anne de Courcy’s biography of the Curzon girls, which I’d devoured years before, when I was living in England, provided a very real sense of what it was like to be a debutante in those immediate post-war years, as well as life in a great house with aristocratic and distant parents.  I also found myself both appalled and fascinated by the many World War I memoirs that illustrated just how much that war shattered the men who came back from it, particularly Rupert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, which is funny and heart-breaking all at once.  For the post-War period, I was very much struck by Juliet Nicolson’s monograph, The Great Silence, and—how could I leave it out?—the Testament of Youth.

Working my way back in time, there was also, over all of it, the shadow of the Edwardians.  My Addie’s parents were Bloomsbury sorts, so I got to use this as an excuse to re-read Howard’s End and generally wallow in E.M. Forster.

I guess the short answer to your question is that this book was a long-simmering stew of literature and monographs and biographies I’d read for the sheer joy of it over the years.  Looking back, it’s hard to pick apart just what influenced what.

I’d say a lifetime watching “Masterpiece Theatre” on Sunday evenings probably also played a large part in it!  “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “House of Elliot,” vaguely remembered programs about the Sackvilles that aired when I was in my teens, all of these went into the stew.  (Although, ironically, I didn’t start watching “Downton” until I was about three quarters of the way through writing Ashford.)

If anyone is curious about the books I used when researching Ashford, you can find a much longer list on my website.

Q: And what are your influences generally?  Favorite writers?  I usually forbid the answer “Jane Austen” because it’s so common, but in your case it makes sense!

A: Oddly enough, Austen wasn’t really the first person to pop to mind!  Although, of course, it would be disingenuous to deny her influence.  It seeps into everything I write, whether I mean it to or not.  My primary influences?  A hodge podge of L.M. Montgomery, M.M. Kaye, P.G. Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Diana Gabaldon, Judith Merkle Riley, and, really, above all, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels.  I stumbled upon Elizabeth Peters when I was twelve, and there was no looking back from there.

Q: And what’s next?  What are you working on now?

A: My next book, That Summer, comes out on June 3rd.   (Appearing soon on the shelves of Aunt Agatha’s!)  A modern woman inherits an old house in a suburb of London, where she discovers a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden in the back of a wardrobe.  Her quest to discover the painting’s provenance uncovers secrets deep in the family’s past—and her own childhood.  The story goes back and forth between 2009 and the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1849.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist co-opting Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a side character!

Right now, I’m finishing up another stand alone.  This one is set in 1927, about a young woman who discovers that the father she believed long dead is really alive—and an earl, with a whole other legitimate family.  Stung by this long betrayal, she enters society under an assumed name.  But is revenge really what she wants?   The 1927 book—still untitled—will come out in 2015.

In addition to these stand-alone novels, I’m also rounding off my long-running Pink Carnation series.  The eleventh book in the series, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, comes out this August, to be followed by the twelfth—and last!—book in the series, The Lure of the Moonflower, in August 2015.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the Pink Carnation series after all this time, but I’m having a ball working on the last book, which is set in Portugal in 1807.  And it does mean more free time to start working on other projects… possibly even a mystery series!

Thanks so much for having me here to the Aunt Agatha’s blog! (Or newsletter – ed.) If anyone wants to know more about The Ashford Affair or any of my other books, please do come visit me on my website ( or my Facebook author page (  I’m always delighted to have an excuse to procrastinate!

Interview: Janet Rudolph

Janet RudolphIn the mystery community, Janet Rudolph is virtually everywhere.  A tireless proselytizer and devotee of mystery fiction, she’s the editor of Mystery Reader’s Journal as well as the executrix of the annual Macavity Awards.  She runs a weekly—yes, I said weekly—book club and is, in short, one of the finest ambassadors mystery fiction has to offer.   I thought it was past time to ask her a few questions.

Q: Can you talk about how you started your book club?  What makes it unique?

A: I think our book group is unique because we are the longest running weekly mystery group in the U.S. We’ve been meeting for 35+ years, September-June, every Tuesday night. I began “the group” by teaching mystery fiction at UC Extension in the mid-70s as a way of supplementing my meager grad school income (non-existent income, actually). I first started by teaching Women in Science Fiction, but quickly turned to something much closer to my heart—The Female Sleuth. Our original class wanted more, as did I, and I expanded the offerings to a class on Agatha Christie, Women Mystery Writers, Religious Mystery Fiction, Art Mysteries and more. I also expanded locations to UC Santa Cruz, St. Mary’s College, the Graduate Theological Union, SF State and some other institutions and organizations. We always met weekly, so when I decided to have a more informal setting—my home—it seemed only natural to continue to meet weekly. Back then we read and discussed two books a week. Now we only read one. Still that’s a lot of reading. I’m thematic in my thinking, so the first 20+ years I ran 10 weekly sessions on themes, mostly, such as New York Mysteries, medical mysteries, food mysteries (a favorite), religious mysteries, etc. Over the years we’ve had people drop out and people join, people die and people move, but we still have many in the group who have been in it for over 25 years.

Unique? Well, the fact that we meet every Tuesday night makes us probably the longest running weekly mystery book group, I would think.  Another unique aspect of the group is that many of us have worked on mystery conventions together—either starting them, chairing them, or working on them. This grew out of the camaraderie we’ve developed. Our members come from so many different professions—doctors, lawyers, artists, librarians, teachers—but we all share the love of mysteries.

Q: Any favorite—or least favorite—books of the last 30+ years of reading?  I know our book club rarely is in complete agreement on any title, with some inspiring heated debate, some downright dislike, and only about 10 titles through 20 years of discussion that everyone liked,

A: It’s very rare that our group is in total agreement about a book. I think that’s what makes the group so much fun. The discussion can become pretty heated.

Over the years, I have become a fan of darker novels, and although I make up the list for our book group readings, these books are not to the taste of everyone in the group. However, I think our members usually like being exposed to the newer darker books. I like to mix it up so we revisit the classics now and again.

Lately we’ve had a split in agreement about the “open-ended” mystery. Many of the group members like a mystery to be wrapped up at the end—solved and the guilty punished. So many crime novels written today are  just not that way… I guess not just now, but in the past, too. Crime and Punishment, after all… But it seems more and more. Hercule Poirot no longer gathers the suspects in the drawing room, pronounces the villain and then justice is served.

Q: Can you talk about your salons and who your favorite guests have been?  You may need to explain what a “literary salon” is to our readers.

A: I host visiting authors at Literary Salons in my home. These are intimate evenings or afternoons with the writer. What’s so nice about these is the relaxed setting, the intimate nature of discussion. And, most of all, each author brings his/her own perspective and style and delivery. I love that they’re all different. There’s no set format, so authors can just talk about their life, their writing, their dog, their books… or they can read. Favorite? Hmmm… they’ve all been great. Jo Nesbo was loads of fun. Who knew he was a banker by day, rock star by night… and writer? Larry Block chose to read only! Peter Robinson treated us all to an afternoon with his characters. Elizabeth George was here with the publication of her first novel and again about a year ago. That was very fun. Same for Val McDermid. She did her first Lit Salon with us when she was in the U.S. researching her non-fiction work on women private eyes. Last year she returned. We all love Val. But really I’ve enjoyed every author who’s stopped by for the sheer surprise of what will happen and what I will learn, and I know the attendees do too. The Literary Salons are open to everyone, not just the book group.

Q: How about some of the other things you do—how did Mystery Readers Journal get started?  What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about publishing a magazine?  

A: The Mystery Readers Journal started from my work creating a newsletter for Bouchercon 1982 in San Francisco. I learned how to “paste-up” a newsletter… no computer program, although I had a computer. So I wrote everything in the first newsletter, including a review of a restaurant I liked. The first “real” issue came out in 1984, and since I liked themed mystery courses, it was a natural to do the same with the Journal. Each issue is devoted to a different theme. This past year we focused on Chicago Mysteries, Medical Mysteries, Murder in Transit and more. I used to print them with the help of bookseller Donna Rankin. Donna is a great friend and supporter of the mystery community and the Journal. The use of computer programs for formatting and spell check has made the world of difference to the quality of the Journal. And Associate Editor Kate Derie has brought us into the 21st century. She is an incredible editor with an eye for detail. Being a mystery lover certainly helps. I can’t thank her enough.  We’re going into our 30th year of publication. Quite a feat, I think, for a fanzine. We’ve grown from 4 pages to 90, and we’re still publishing quarterly. No advertising. It’s still a labor of love!

Favorite thing about publishing the Journal? Compiling names and contacting authors for the Author! Author section. Authors write up-close and personal essays about themselves, their books and the “theme” connection. Since we also include reviews and articles, I love learning about new “themed” mysteries and revisiting older ones. The Mystery Readers Journal is used by lots of bookstores and libraries to find books for their patrons. I’m very proud of that.

What don’t I like? Nothing, really. I love it. One thing that’s helped is that I used to do all the mailing myself, putting the Journals in envelopes, sealing them, stamping them, etc.. I didn’t really “enjoy” that, but it was necessary. Now I have a printer who also does the mailing! Yay! And, since the Mystery Readers Journal subscription is also available as a PDF download, that’s even easier. Sue Trowbridge has been an enormous help in setting that up, and now many back issues are online, too!

Q: And how about the Macavity Award—what’s the history there?  Can you explain how the Macavity is chosen, where they are presented, etc.  

A: The Macavity Award is nominated and voted on by members of Mystery Readers International, subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal, and mystery friends. We began with one category, but it has grown to 5. The Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award was added in memory of the ultimate Ellis Peters Fan who died too young. I usually present the Macavity Awards at Bouchercon, wherever it might be! I’m a fan of awards. I think it’s important to recognize good writing.

Q: And how about your blog, Mystery Fanfare?  It’s become an invaluable resource as far as I’m concerned.

A: Thank you so much. I guess I decided to blog about mysteries since it’s my personal way of mentioning and noting things that might not be suitable for the Mystery Readers Journal (not keeping with the theme). I try to keep things current. I post whatever comes to mind (related to mysteries), have guest contributors, a Partners in Crime (authors who write together) series, and, of course, post holiday mystery lists. My Christmas Crime list is actually 5 posts because there are so many novels. I also love to post quirky things like Raven book ends, mystery named roses and other oddities and news.

Q: How many cons do you attend every year?  Do you have a favorite?

A: I attend at least two, Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. I love Malice Domestic, too, and I attended the first three and several others. Favorite? Hmm… I guess I have to say Left Coast Crime because I was one of the three founding members. I’ve been on the Board of Directors for years, and I have had a very active role in at least 6 of them. I like the smaller size of Left Coast Crime. That being said, I love Malice Domestic because it celebrates a genre close to my heart. Also, the fact that it’s held in the same location (sort of) makes it seem like coming home each year. The great thing about all the conventions is meeting and chatting with friends and writers—in real time. Now with Facebook and Twitter I have even more friends, but being up close and personal is still the best!

Q: What are your thoughts about the changes, good and bad, you’ve seen in mystery fiction through the years?  I think the last 20 or so years have been a new golden age of crime fiction with some really great writing.

A:  Absolutely. As I mentioned, I love the darker mysteries. And, I like that through social media I learn about many novels that I might have missed. I see titles referred by friends on Twitter and Facebook. I also see many in various fanzines, but with the social media, it’s instant. There’s always been good crime fiction, you just need to know where to find it. Now we have multiple sources.

I just want to mention that it not just changes in my own taste over the years. The good thing about reading is that it also needs to fit your mood. A book I might not have liked last year might seem fab when I pick it up now.

Q: Final question—any favorite memories as a mystery enthusiast, supporter and proselytizer?

A: OK, maybe one of the most surprising moments—being chosen by my peers and awarded the Anthony for Special Service to the Field at Bouchercon in Madison. Such an honor. I love what I do, but I was surprised (and appreciative) to be recognized.

But I think my favorite memories are ongoing.. that might sound like an oxymoron, but I just love being part of the mystery community. It’s a group so supportive of each other—fans, writers, publishers, booksellers… I don’t think I’ve seen or felt anything like in in my “other worlds.” I’m so proud to be a part of it. So I don’t have one favorite memory… I have so many—every day! I just love the mystery community!

Author Interview: Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton has visited the store since his first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, was published in 1998.  Since then he’s been loyal, kind, and funny, and he’s long been a favorite with our customers. He is our bestselling author. We love his Michigan-centric series and look forward to every novel – I was happy to have the chance to ask him a few questions.

steve-hamiltonQ: One of the things I like best about your books is the way you use dialogue to tell the story.  Do you kind of think in dialogue?  Is that the way storytelling comes to you? 

A: I do think dialogue is the part that comes easiest to me, yes.  In fact, I really think that I “hear” a character first, before I see him/her, if that makes any sense.  (So of course when I tried to do the biggest book yet, in The Lock Artist, it was only natural I’d have a main character who never said one word out loud.)

Q: What do you feel you’ve learned as a writer through the arc of your books?  Is there an arc you have in mind for Alex? 

A: I honestly don’t know what I’ve learned, other than to maybe trust the process more, and to not worry when I have no idea where a story is going.  Along those same lines, I don’t have any kind of arc in mind for Alex.  None at all.  I barely know what he’s going to do in the next chapter!  I just keep going and I find out. 

Q: Where do you think P.I. novels are heading?  I’ve read quite a few lately that are P.I. in form but the main character isn’t actually a P.I.  Alex kind of fits that model, as he’s the most reluctant P.I. ever, and technically, he isn’t one. A few recent examples would be Steve Ulfelder (mechanic) Brad Parks (journalist) and Tim O’Brien (teacher, ex-cop). What seems to stick is the white knight aspect.  What do you think about the future for private eyes in fiction? 

A: It’s no secret that it’s a tough market right now.  I mean, it’s tough in general, of course, but the PI genre is especially hard hit – maybe because it’s the kind of writing that relies on a series and a slow buildup of readers, and that in turn requires a level of patience that most publishers just don’t have right now.  I’m the current president of the Private Eye Writers of America, mind you, so it’s a subject close to my heart.  But I’ve been reading the Shortcut Man series by PG Sturges, which is very recent and also very much in the classic PI tradition.  It’s good to see that it’s still possible to make it work!

Q: When you plan out a novel, how far out do you structure it?  Your books seem very meticulously assembled, if that’s the right way to put it.  Each part of the story seems to grow organically from the part before it.  For a reader, it feels effortless, but I’m sure it’s not.  What’s your method? 

A: “Plan out a novel,” that’s good!  And “meticulously assembled,” that’s even better!  You’re killing me here.  Honestly, all I do is try to figure out a good way to start, something that sounds right.  Like in this most recent book, Let It Burn, it was just like, “What would happen if Alex went back to Detroit, after all of these years?”  That’s literally all I have to start with.  From there, I just keep asking myself, “What happens next?”  That’s all I can do.  I have absolutely no idea where the story is going beyond the next few pages.  I just go and hope I never get too lost.  That’s my method.

Q. Your books seem to be getting steadily darker, not that they’ve ever been a light read.  Any thoughts on that?  Maybe it’s a natural progression? 

A:I think it might be a natural progression, yes.  Part of that is just growing a little older, seeing a little bit more in the real world.  It all comes out in the writing, even if it’s not that obvious or recognizable.  The first book I did after 9/11 was Blood Is the Sky, and I can still look back and see that in the book itself.  Not so much the events, of course, but the feeling I had when I was writing it.  (And maybe even a few half-hidden references, if you look hard enough.  Like the hornets and the moose and the bats and the bears.)

Q: When you started writing, did you think “I’m going to be a mystery writer”?  Or was this the format that came most naturally to you? 

A: When I was eight years old, I thought I’d be a mystery writer someday, yes.  Maybe I strayed from that original idea along the way, like around college, and thought I’d “outgrown” it and needed to write something else.  But funny how you always come back to that first love.  It’s the still the one kind of story that just grabs me and won’t let go.

Q: You’ve got a large body of work now.  Do you have a favorite of all your books?  Any of them you aren’t so fond of? 

A: I kinda like the second book, Winter of the Wolf Moon, because I was able to prove to myself that I could keep doing it, after that first book (A Cold Day in Paradise) did fairly well.  And I kinda like The Lock Artist, just because it was such a departure and because I had to go through so much to finally find the story.  The other standalone I did, Nightwork, is probably the least successful, just because the story didn’t have quite the right ending, looking back on it now, and because I might have let myself become a little bit too indulgent with the references to jazz musicians who 99% of readers have never even heard of.

Q: Your new book takes Alex back to Detroit.  Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a while – and you just couldn’t get him downstate? 

A: Well, he made a brief trip to Detroit in the third book (The Hunting Wind), but this was the first time he had to go back and deal with his past in such a direct and prolonged way.  With everything that Detroit is going through right now, it just felt like the right time to do it.  I mean, it was rough when Alex was a cop there.  But now it’s just a lost city.

Q: I also want to ask about Vinnie.  The way you include Ojibwe culture in the books is very natural and also very effective.  How did you learn about it?  Are there folks you ask when you’re not sure if you’ve got it right? 

A: I go up there at least once a year, and yes, I definitely run things by some of the tribal members, to make sure I’m being accurate and respectful.  I always try to remind people that I’m telling these stories from Alex’s point of view.  He’s close to Vinnie and he sees what’s going on up there, but at the end of the day he’s not part of that life.  He’s an outsider, just as much as I am.

Q: And what’s next?  Another stand-alone or another Alex book?  

A: I might do something new and different again, but I’m certainly not done with Alex.  I can’t imagine ever not wanting to know what he’s up to next!

Author Interview: William Kent Krueger

I’ve known Kent since he invited himself to the store when his first novel, Iron Lake, was published in 1998. As long as I’ve known him, I’ve been a fan of his work. His new novel, Ordinary Grace, is an extraordinary leap – a deepening of previous work. It was a pure delight to read.

Q: One of the things I found most interesting about this book was the voice. While it’s set in 1961, it doesn’t in any way seem like a period piece or an historical novel. How personal to you are the memories of 1961 in small town Minnesota?

A: One of the main motivations for writing Ordinary Grace was the opportunity to explore memories, emotions, and experiences out of my own life when I was, essentially, the age of the story’s narrator, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum.  For boys—maybe it’s the same for girls, I don’t know—that period in our lives is an important threshold. We’re about to step out of adolescence and into manhood, and the crossing over is sharp, significant, and full of deep emotion. Everything before seemed simple, and, afterward, everything so terribly complex.  Growing up, I lived in many small towns, and I wanted to capture the essence of those places, both for the benefit of the reader and, I suppose, to indulge my weakness for nostalgia.  So, yes, I mined a lot of my own background for this novel.

Q: The narrative feels more like a fable or a remembered dream. How did you accomplish this?

A: My own feeling is that this is the result of the way the narrative is constructed. It’s told by Frank forty years after the events took place, but the perceptions and the way in which occurrences, people, places, and emotions are described is often in the moment and from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old kid.  So the voice is both current and past. It’s like a recollection that drifts between dream and reality.

Q:I think most serious writers have certain themes they are working through in almost every book. I think in all your Cork books the themes you seem to be interested in are kinship and loyalty and what those things mean. Any thoughts on that?

A: Yeah, I have a few.  I write pretty close to the bone. In my series, many of Cork’s concerns and considerations are my own. So, Cork believes in justice; I believe profoundly in the necessity for justice in this world. Cork believes that you make commitments, and, come hell or high water, you stand by those commitments. That’s pretty much what I believe.  Cork believes that in this life, family is the most significant relationship you’re likely to experience.  Ditto for me. So what interests me in the stories is the struggle to hold to these ideals in a world that seems often bent on either forcing or seducing you from them.

Q: As this book comes after many Cork O’Connor novels, I am wondering if that writing journey led you to write this book? Do you feel like it was intensifying some of the themes you’ve written about in the past?

A: I think I had a lot to learn about storytelling before I was ready to take on the challenge of writing a novel like Ordinary Grace. It seems a rather simply told tale, but that simplicity hides a lot of depth, complexity, and meaning.  (At least, I hope it does.) And that point of view I mentioned earlier, the voice that is of the moment and, at the same time, of the past, is a tricky thing to pull off. I’ve learned a lot about storytelling with the Cork novels and a lot about myself as a storyteller.  I think I was aching to write this kind of book, and finally had to do it. Ordinary Grace allowed me to speak more directly to issues and themes that have been a part of the Cork O’Connor stories but seldom front and center, things like faith and the spiritual journey.  Having done it and believing that I did an all right job of it, I’m eager to try this kind of story again.

Q: At the center of this book is a minister. Many of your books have a spiritual quality, and it’s not a pounding it into your head type deal, it’s part of the fabric of your storytelling. While you often write about very grisly happenings – and there’s some grim occurrences in this one, as well – the ultimate outlook at the end of every novel is a hopeful or optimistic one. I think it’s a quality many of your readers cherish. Anyway this is a long way of asking why you chose a minister as the central character?

A: My first thought, when mulling over the story that became Ordinary Grace, was to make Nathan Drum a high school English teacher in this small town, because that was my father and that was an experience I knew well.  I wanted to write about a family that, in a small community, is watched carefully, and that’s definitely a teacher’s family.  But I’ve always wanted to talk about faith, really about the whole consideration of God, and so the ministry became a better choice of profession. Over the years, I’ve known a lot of PKs (preacher’s kids), and I’ve heard stories of the pressures they were under and of their rebellions. I thought that kind of kid would make a compelling narrator. Also, I realized early on that when the death in the family occurs, if Nathan Drum is a minister, the tragedy would be such a tremendous challenge to his faith that exploring his reaction—and the reactions of each member of the family—would be a fascinating journey for me as a writer. Was it ever!

Q: As I was reading this for the second time, I was wondering about the structure of this book. You foreshadow what will happen, but the central death doesn’t occur until almost exactly halfway through the novel, making the story a stark “before” and “after”. Was this structure intentional, or did it happen organically while you were writing it?

A: Although the death provides a compelling mystery element to the story (I am, after all, known as a mystery writer), this was not intended to be a mystery, as such. It was, from its earliest beginnings, going to be a story about a family in a small town who experience something awful.  It was going to be about love and struggle and faith and hope. I knew that eventually it would deal with a tragic death that turns out to be a murder and challenges a family, and, in a way, a whole community, to reconsider their values. So the first part of the book was intended to draw the reader into an engagement with the Drum family and the town of New Bremmen, so that when the tragedy occurs, if I’d done my job correctly, it would be an emotional blow not only to the characters in the story, but to readers as well. However, because I didn’t really outline this story, as I usually do with my Cork O’Connor novels, I felt my way along with the actual events. So, to a degree, I suppose, things did happen organically.

Q: Did this novel refresh your palate? Did it make you feel ready to dive back into the Cork novels?

A: These days, I never have to refresh myself in order to dive into a Cork O’Connor story.  I love Cork and his family and Tamarack County, and I’m not at all tired of writing the series.  I promised myself a long time ago that when I did grow weary of it, I would end the series, because I never want to offer readers a story in which I haven’t invested my whole heart.  But if that time does ever come, the way I’m feeling right now, it’s still a long way down the road.

Q: What’s next for you as a writer?

A: I have another in the Cork O’Connor series due out at the end of August.  It’s called Tamarack County, and I’m really pleased with it. That concludes my current contract with my publisher, but we’ve just negotiated a new three-book contract that includes two more in the Cork O’Connor series and another stand alone. I’m at work on the stand alone, a novel titled This Tender Land, which is, in a way, a companion to Ordinary Grace. It’s also set in southern Minnesota and in an earlier time, roughly the late nineteen-fifties. It’s the story of a wealthy farmer found dead in the Alabaster River and of the secrets, long buried in the soil of Black Earth County, that come to light during the investigation of his death.  Thematically, it’s an exploration of the extremes we’re willing to go to in order to hold onto the things—people, land, ideals—that we cherish. I’m having a ball with it.