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!