Thursday, August 31, 2006

Julia Pomeroy on Her Idyllic African Childhood, Her Movie with Matt Dillon, and The Dark End Of Town

Julia, you had a very interesting childhood. You lived in Africa for many years, and you “went to an Italian missionary school and had a pet baboon. [Your] house was full of foundlings – a monkey, a lynx, various miniature African deer, a giant tortoise, a dog and two chickens.” Wow. First, what happened to the pet baboon? What was his name?
I called her Babonghi. I don’t know where it came from, the name, I mean. She was a baby when she first came calling. I really loved her. She belonged to a woman who lived near us, a Somali Member of Parliament and she (the baboon) used to slip her chain and come to our house. We bonded, and she would hold onto me and I would cart her around. Eventually, the MP got sick of sending her servants over to retrieve her, so she let her stay. When we left Mogadishu I had to leave her behind so we gave her to an Italian couple. They let her go in the wild. I know adult baboons can be aggressive, but she was gentle and sweet. Our little monkey, on the other hand, was much more intense. If my brother and I fought, which we did all the time, she would dive bomb us from a tree, chattering and furious, ready to bite us. Come to think of it, my mother probably appreciated the help.

How does the landscape of your childhood affect the things that you write today?
I think children who grow up moving around a lot never really feel like they belong. I don’t mean that in a sad and pathetic way, but I think it is a sort of syndrome. I belonged to my family, but in every country we lived we were outsiders, different, and I definitely an outsider when I came to the States to visit. My mother was English, which confused matters a little more. So I think, though I tried at first to write a character who belonged to a small town, I realized early on in the process that she was going to be an outsider, no matter what. In her own way.

That's interesting, because Caroline Upcher (July 1st interview) said almost the exact same thing! You'll have to check out her interview--you two seem to have much in common.

After living in Africa, you moved to Italy, and you didn’t reach the States until you were 19. How many languages do you speak?

When we lived in Benghazi, in Libya, I started school at an Italian Missionary School. Both Libya and Somalia were ex-Italian colonies, with strong Italian presences. We were taught beginning Arabic there, but I don’t remember any of it, sadly enough. In Mogadishu we also went to the Italian mission school. Mog was a magical place to me – hot as an oven, small and dusty. And so many animals. People would come in from the bush and they’d have some starving creature for sale, in a box or on a string. We couldn’t pass up any of them.

Sorry, back to the languages. So at that school, we were also taught in Italian. The students were mostly Somali and Italian, I think. The nuns were lovely, warm and kind. I remember they wore white, and we learned the Italian national anthem, and did needlepoint. I’m sure we did some schoolwork, but I don’t remember it. And by noon, school was over because of the heat, and we went to the beach, miles of beach on the Indian Ocean.

When we moved to Rome I did one year at the Sacred Heart, the convent at the Trinitá dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps. The nuns there were very different from the missionary nuns. They encouraged the girls to tell tales on each other. I was Protestant, and every morning we prayed for all sinners and Protestants. I can’t imagine what they would have said if I’d been a Jew! It was a beautiful and austere place, filled with daughters of good Roman families. At the end of every school day one of the Sisters would police the front and shoo away any young bucks on motorcycles who were looking for their girlfriends. We went to Mass twice a week and wore veils and gloves, and all criticisms of us went back to our parents in French. I just saw online that the convent now takes in guests, dormitory style. If any one has been there, I’d love to hear about it! After a year, my parents thought it was time for me to start school in my own language, so when I was eleven I went to St. George’s English School. That was a melting pot! Forty some nationalities. I wore a maroon blazer and a tie and within a few years was skipping school and smoking hash in the basement along with all the other little brats. So, to answer your question, just English and Italian, and school-learned French! I rarely use my French and my Italian gets pretty rusty between visits.

But that is a fascinating education!

You started out as an actress, and you earned a SAG card while shooting a movie with Matt Dillon. Did you have a large part?

I played a young woman who ran the teen center where Matt and the other kids hung out. It was their picture, for sure. I had a couple of scenes, and played a pretty sympathetic character - I was lucky, most of the adults did not. It was Matt’s first picture, as it was for nearly all the other kids. A real adventure for all of us who had never made a movie before.

Now we have to look it up and watch it. :)

How did you meet your husband?
An old school friend of mine from Rome, someone I’d known since I was fourteen, was an editor for Metropolitan Home magazine. He had to do a shoot in some upscale restaurant downtown, so he asked me to join him there for lunch so he and I could sit in as real-people models for the shot. I was an out-of-work actor, I wasn’t going to pass up a free meal, so I went. I ended up marrying the photographer.

Together with your husband, you bought a restaurant and ran it for ten years. In your book the heroine works in a restaurant. Did you decide that this was a case of writing what you knew?
Actually, it was only four years, though it felt like ten. Definitely a case of writing what I knew. It was also a case of writing about an environment that I found interesting and quite dramatic in its own way. It was stressful, full of conflict, but was also full of fun. Interesting people and experiences, lots of comraderie. And it often reminded me of the theatre: lights, audience, backstage, fellow cast members, curtain time, villains, romance, etc.

Your novel, The Dark End of Town, has an intriguing premise. How did you come up with the idea? Is there a reason that you made your protagonist a widow?
I have a horrible feeling that I made her a widow just because I wanted to divest her of responsibility and simplify her life, in a way that I couldn’t or didn’t want to do with mine. So she has no mate that she had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I think, after raising children, I craved a character who lived alone. Who was allowed to be lonely. She lives on a hillside in a trailer. Low maintenance and responsibility. With a couple of dogs. Any mothers out there who can understand my need?

I'm one of those mothers. I'm sure I'll enjoy that aspect of the book. I often reminisce about alone time.

What’s more stressful: trying to learn your lines for a movie or play, or trying to finish writing a book?

I am a few weeks away from my first real deadline so I have to say, without question, finishing a book. In a play, you’re part of something, you work with others so the pressure is distributed. And you learn a lot of your lines just by rehearsing. Yes, there’s that opening night craziness, but it’s very different from writing. Writing, you’re alone. It’s up to you if you pull it off or not. You can’t blame anyone else if your plot is trivial or you bore your readers.

What have you learned in the process of writing and publishing your first novel?
I’ve learned what a tough business it is. That there are a lot of terrific writers out there.

What do your children think of their mother the writer?
They’re both proud of me, I know. My daughter has read my book and wants to read the manuscript of the next one, to make sure I don’t let a lot of mistakes slide by. She wants to keep her eye on me. My son is a freshman in college, and reads a lot of non-fiction. He’ll get around to it one day.

What are you writing now?
I am writing a sequel to THE DARK END OF TOWN. Same character. This time she has to solve a mystery that happened twenty years earlier. And something weird is happening at the restaurant. Its working title is THE AMANUENSIS. Is that too odd? Or dry?

I think it's cool, but I have twice had my titles changed by my publisher, so I'm afraid you can't go by me!

If you could choose two mystery writers—one living, one dead, whom you could meet somehow and share a drink with them—who would they be? Why?

That’s tough. Here’s a combination I like: Wilkie Collins and Ruth Rendell in her Barbara Vine persona. I remember reading The Moonstone and Woman in White when I was really young. I loved them, so gothic and mysterious, and Victorian enough to please the most demanding. And I think there are few living writers I’ve enjoyed more than Barbara Vine. Remember A Dark Adapted Eye? If I were sitting with the two of them, I would drink steadily and wouldn’t say a word.

Great choice! What’s something you like to do when you’re not writing? Do you have hobbies that relax you?
Not really. I do a bit of this and that; but I don’t have a specific hobby. I wish I did. I have a friend who is going to teach me how to do a little pottery. So one day I may throw a pot. Or two. If I had lots of money I’d travel more.

How can readers find out more about you and your novel?
I have a website: I like getting email; it gives me an excuse not to work.

Let’s see. I’ll be at Bouchercon at the end of the month, on a panel called: I’m Not My Character, Am I? I’ve never been on a panel before. It should be fun.

I will look for you there! Thanks, Julia.

The Horror of Entrapment

I woke at three AM to the sound of screaming. For a bleary moment I wondered if I was hearing one of the murders I only write about. But the keening went on and on, loud as could be. Was something being attacked by a predator? But the predator would eventually put it out of its misery, and this was an endless litany. Finally my husband trudged downstairs and outside to follow the eerie sound.

He returned to tell me that someone had trapped a raccoon in a cage--someone only three doors down--and the raccoon was telling everyone, at the top of his little bandit lungs, how much he disliked this reality.

This morning he is still there; perhaps they are waiting for the forestry people to come and pick him up. He's still yelling--don't animals get hoarse? And although I sympathize with anyone who has a raccoon problem, I can't help but look at it from his point of view. The Poe-like horror of entrapment; the knowledge that nothing good can come of this (at least not from the raccoon's point of view). But I suppose that's the writer in me. I'm tempted to go down there and beg them to let him out of the cage, if only to stop his caterwauling.

On the other hand, I let my dog out this morning and found that another raccoon had spread my garbage across my lawn. So maybe it's better if they do get relocated to the woods . . .

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Problem with Fairy Tales

  Posted by PicasaTen years ago today a divorce decree made final the end of the marriage of Charles and Diana, who had been married for fifteen years, only some of them happy ones.

It's common knowledge that the story, already sad, became much sadder. But I was disillusioned long before Diana's death, or even the divorce. The whole world saw their marriage ending, in painful public displays, long before it became official.

I am one of the romantics who got up at four in the morning to watch the royal wedding. I giggled when Diana stumbled over Charles' full name (was it Charles Philip Arthur George?) and ahhhed with everyone else at the sight of her dress, her smile, the shining carriage that waited to drive her and her prince through the streets of well-wishers.

It's one mystery, that marriage, that I truly wish I could re-write, especially Diana's final scene.

Mystery Writer Bob Avey Talks of Ghost Towns, Van Gogh, and The Nature of Perception

You wrote the most beautiful thing on DorothyL recently. You said, “Fiction is art, and to be effective it cannot reflect life as it is, but rather life as the writer wishes it to appear to be.” I thought this was fascinating. What made you draw this conclusion?
The idea came to me years ago when I was flipping through a magazine and saw a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a painting that is so full of emotion that you can’t help but be moved by it, and yet it looks nothing like what you or I would have seen had we been there, on location with Van Gogh. It later occurred to me that if one were to take a photograph of the same scene and place it next to the painting, the photo would, at first, appear to reflect something closer to reality. Why then does the painting seem more real to us? The answer is: We do not just see with our eyes. We take in the sensory data then embellish it with our own emotions before storing it in our memory. It’s the same with fiction. Writers of fiction do not simply recreate or record certain events of life. They create events that could have happened and embellish them with their own interpretation of life.

That is a terrific example.

You are an accountant in the Petroleum Industry. Can you give me some good tax advice?
Not really. I hate taxes.

Darn. You live in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and your book, Twisted Perception, is set in Oklahoma. What makes Oklahoma a good setting for a mystery? Aside from the fact that the waving wheat can sure smell sweet?
Have you ever been to a play with an inadequate stage and unimaginative props? Even if the story line is well written, and the actors experienced, one cannot help but be distracted by this. When I first wrote Twisted Perception, I used a generic setting, a city, which I simply called The City that was loosely patterned after New York City. Why I did this, I’m not sure. I’ve never been to New York City. I guess I thought that no one would be interested in Oklahoma. I put a lot of work into it, drawing maps and naming streets, and sections of the city. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t resonate, it didn’t ring true. When I came to my senses and rewrote the story using Tulsa, Oklahoma as the setting, both the characters and the story line, or plot came alive. The elements of story -- characterization, plot, and setting -- work in concert, each drawing from the other, and if one of these elements is lacking, they all suffer because of it. Just about any place can be a good setting for a mystery, as long as it rings true for the reader.

Your website says you like to spend time roaming through ghost towns. Are there a lot of these?
There are a lot of ghost towns in Oklahoma, but you have to know what you’re looking for to see them. The popular ghost-town image of empty, wooden buildings and tumbleweeds blowing through deserted streets is practically a myth. Towns like that do exist, but they are few and far between. For the most part, there are no buildings anymore, just empty fields, but if you look closely and in the right places you will begin to see remnants of sidewalks, parts of foundations where houses once stood, the rusted iron of old farm equipment, and the busted pottery of dinner plates and coffee cups. And if you are quiet and receptive to such things, the spirits of those who once lived there will speak to you.

Wow! You are deep, Bob.

Your blog today says that you are looking for people who can give you some info about pagan religion. Cool! Why is that?
I need correct information related to pagan religion, particularly of the Celtic variety, for my next novel, Beneath a Buried House, which will be the second in the Kenny Elliot series. The book will not be about pagan religion, but paganism will be part of the story. I just want to make sure I get the facts straight so I can portray an accurate picture.

Tell us about your book, Twisted Perception, and your protagonist Kenny Elliott.
My stories come to me in different ways. Sometimes an object, like a picture, or an old building catches my attention, or an idea stirs my imagination, but many times the story starts with character. So it was with Twisted Perception. I was sitting home one night when a thought came to me, manifesting itself as the thoughts of a character, and it went something like this: You can’t fill out a homicide report indicating the suspect to be a ghost. The more I rolled that snippet of character monologue around in my head, the more I liked it, and it wasn’t long until the complete character emerged as Kenny Elliot. So I guess you could say Twisted Perception is a character driven novel, though it possesses the sharp edge of mystery.

On the surface, the story is about Kenny Elliot, a Tulsa police detective who grew up in the small town of Porter, Oklahoma. During his senior year in high school, two of Elliot’s friends were found dead in a car. Most of the town suspected Elliot of the murders. He had been fighting with Jonathan Alexander, the boy who was found in the car, over the girl. But the Sheriff didn’t share the town’s convictions, and he convinced Elliot to leave town. Elliot finished school and became a police detective in Tulsa, Oklahoma, thinking the part of his life he’d left behind was over. But when a murder investigation catapults him into his past, he’s forced to face the fabric of his nightmares. On a deeper level, Twisted Perception explores the lasting and devastating effects of child abuse.

Your website is very attractive and well-organized. Did you do it yourself?While I had a lot of input, the website was actually designed and created by

You are also a public speaker, and you have an upcoming gig at Rose State College. What sorts of things do you talk about? I’m taking notes now.
I’m fairly new to public speaking; I’m about as shy and reclusive as a person can get. However, in an effort to promote Twisted Perception, I’ve come out of my shell, somewhat. I’ve spoken to both the general public and to groups of writers. When the general public is involved, I usually talk about the book and how it came to be. I always ask and that seems to be what they want to hear. With writers, I usually pick a writing related topic, such as character development, or creating plot. However, book promotion is becoming a hot topic, and I’ve talked on that subject as well.

What are you writing now? Is Twisted Perception part of a series?I’m presently working on Beneath a Buried House, the second in the Kenny Elliot series. I don’t how many books I’ll write in this series. The stories are intense, and I’m not sure a person, even one as dynamic as Kenny Elliot, could take much of what I dish out and maintain their sanity.

You’re an accountant; how long have you been a writer?
I’ve actually been a writer longer than I’ve been an accountant, and that’s a long time. To put it into perspective, however, I didn’t get serious about the writing until recently, about ten years ago. Before that it was more of a hobby, something I did to occupy my time.

Is there a mystery writer whose work has particularly inspired you?
My favorite mystery writers are James Lee Burke, John Sandford, and Tony Hillerman. However, I also read Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and John Saul.

I saw a picture posted on someone’s website of your car, which bears advertising of your book. What gave you this idea? What sort of responses have you received?
I’m not an ostentatious person by nature. But I was at my computer one day, depressed over my Amazon stats, and it occurred to me that the reason for this was that not many people knew about me, or my book. I suspected I was relatively unknown even in my hometown of Tulsa. It was then that I got the brilliant idea of having some magnetic signs made, which I could stick to the sides of my car upon occasion. I wasn’t thinking of anything huge, or showy, just a conservative sign that might quietly get the word out. As it turned out, every sign company I visited informed me that, due to the design and shape of my car, magnetic signs wouldn’t work. The wind would get behind them and blow them off. Had I stopped there, I would have been fine. But I had to visit one last place, a company that did make magnetic signs but actually specialized in vinyl wraps. Previous to this enlightening experience, I thought wrapping – not the musical variety – was something you did to lose weight. To my surprise these wraps had nothing to do with weight loss, but were instead surprisingly affordable enhancements for your vehicle. What can I say? The man talked me into it. When I first saw my car enwrap, I was shocked, mortified at the sheer size of the enhancements. “I can’t drive around in that,” I said. But I eventually got used to it. Now I often forget the signs are there and find myself annoyed, wondering why everyone is staring at me.

Is your family supportive of your writing career?
At first my family, like everyone else, snickered when I told them I intended to become an author. My time spent doing so was tolerated, sometimes begrudgingly so. Their attitudes have started to change, but not so much upon publication as they did when I began to receive positive reviews for the book, and when the fan letters started to roll in.

How can readers find out more about Bob Avey and Twisted Perception?
To find out about me, and my book, Twisted Perception, please visit my website at ( At the site, you can read chapter one and see some of the reviews the book has received. The book can be purchased at a local bookstore near you, or it can be ordered online at:, where you can get free shipping;; or

Thanks, Bob, for your poetic responses.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I'm Ahead of Myself: The Krakatoa Countdown

While the topic of Krakatoa is undoubtedly fascinating, I am a month ahead of myself, because I was under the impression that it is September, and it is, of course, not. Apparently my subconscious wants it to be a month from now. But instead, we can count down to the 123rd anniversary of Krakatoa, and throw some sort of party (or solemn ritual). Excuse my historical inaccuracy.

Mysteries of Nature: The Eruption of Krakatoa, September 27, 1883

In a stunning reminder not only that the most deeply affecting mysteries are often the mysteries of Nature and when it will show its wrath, today is the 123rd anniversary of the eruption of Krakatoa; the tidal waves which resulted claimed more than 36,000 lives on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. The Tsunami's recent devastation is what we remember, but these long-ago tragedies are a good reminder that Nature is timeless in its power for destruction.

(Image courtesy of

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Neuroradiologist, Mystery Writer, Researcher and Dad: Jeffrey Scott Anderson Explains How He Does it All

  Posted by PicasaOn your website you are wearing black and holding a skull. Is this an homage to Hamlet?
Wow – you’re good. Nobody else has even remotely commented on that. I thought it would be fun to have a few literary allusions on the web photo, sort of symbolic for what I’m trying to merge: a good story that incorporates serious themes with depth. I’m the first to admit my prose is not by any stretch literary, but the issues I try to bring up are what I see as this generation’s intellectual battleground. There’s one or two more allusions in the text scribbled on the scanner.

You are committed to “writing science thrillers without sacrificing plausibility.” I take it you’ve read some thrillers that did make this sacrifice?
I think almost all of them do. When it comes down to it, people want a good story, and authors have learned that most readers just want enough realistic details to suspend disbelief and give the air of modern science as context for the story. I’m trying to be a little more compulsive about scientific details because it makes for a more engaging intellectual challenge to come up with a solid premise.

All the same, I make a lot of mistakes. These things are incredibly multidisciplinary, and nobody has the training to follow story wherever it weaves and speak with authority about all the scientific angles. My Dutch is so rusty that a few Dutch readers were embarrassed how out of date Eva’s Dutch slang was. Readers catch your mistakes. In Sleeper Cell, there were a few errors in terms of firearms selection, a helicopter that flew outside of its range, stuff like that. In Second Genesis, for starters, I use the colloquial “monkey” to refer to “apes.” I’m still waiting for mistakes to come rolling in. And the project I’m working on now has a lot of quantum physics in it. I’m afraid I’m going to butcher that, despite my best efforts. But I’m giving it my best shot.

It is gratifying that a lot of the positive feedback from both books has come from university professors and people with a solid background in the subject I discussed. I got notes from a number of Homeland Security experts on Sleeper Cell, including some currently working in biodefense at the Pentagon, that word on the street at the Pentagon was that it was a pretty good idea. The inventor of one of the drugs I mention in Sleeper Cell picked up immediately on why I chose it, and sent a nice email. People who work in molecular biology are thrilled to see somebody talking about DNA microchips and transcription factor biology in a sensible way – it makes it hard for them to immerse themselves in the story when there are obvious impossibilities.

In your first book, Sleeper Cell, you invite readers to “Enter a world beyond anthrax, beyond Ebola, where mankind's greatest plague is engineered to outwit the world's greatest scientists.” This does not sound like a laugh a minute. Do you get depressed writing your own novels?
Never. It’s the best fun you can have. There’s something exhilarating about jumping into a new world with new characters and coming up with a twisted plot full of evil. Most thriller writers love this, and sleep perfectly well at night. A couple years back at BEA in New York, I had some beers with some horror authors, who probably sleep better than just about any other profession. It’s therapeutic to vent your darkest fears on paper. At the last ThrillerFest, there was a sorority group having a convention in the same hotel, and the running joke for the conference was how the thriller authors there could engineer the violent demise of all of the sorority girls.

Before you got your M.D. and P. h. D. at Northwestern, you studied Math and Russian Literature. So do you think Crime and Punishment is the greatest of all mysteries?
I think it’s a fabulous story. As it turns out, the main reason I learned Russian in the first place was to read The Brothers Karamazov in Russian. But I’m not sure about the greatest mystery. It’s a fabulous story, and you have to have a soft spot for something so elegant before the tools were invented for modern mystery and crime stories. It’s sort of like admiring Jules Verne and H.G. Wells for their science thrillers before such a thing really existed.

You started your graduate work in mathematics, where you “proved theorems about strategy spaces of infinite games.” What does that mean?
Game theory is a very cool branch of mathematics that has produced some elegant results in economics, politics, and social anthropology, among other fields. You study simple games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Ultimatum Game, or Domineering. Strategies for these games can be written in equations, and make a framework for a complex branch of mathematics. Some of the games are chaotic, with populations of strategies that can alternate between unpredictability and surprising order. Others are computational, like chess or go.

Whenever mathematicians talk about anything, various types of inifinity come up. What if you played a game an infinite number of times? What if you had an infinite number of players? What if each move of the game spawned a whole new game’s worth of possibilities, and you could play a recursive game. That sort of thing. It gets a little esoteric, but the results are amazingly beautiful.

I'll take your word for it. :) You have four children, and according to your bio you only work on your book when they are sleeping. What do you do when they are awake?
Very simple. It’s a demand a minute. #3 isn’t #4’s friend anymore because she broke her glass figurine last month and #2 is teasing #1 by singing about how he’s a “potato head” and whoops, #4 just bopped #3 because her feelings were hurt and can #2 have a glass of lemonade with cranberry juice mixed in, and no! she wanted the heart cup and why is #4 making sculptures with laundry detergent and who drew on the walls in the office with a black Sharpie and why do all of the Barbie dolls in the house have thongs made of paper on today and does somebody need the sex talk and is #1 going to do their piano practicing even though #4 scribbled on their music books and why is my wife burying her head under the pillow and pretending she’s asleep… you get the idea.

Sadly, I do. Tell us about your current project, Schroedinger’s Box.
It’s about a group of people trapped in a high-tech nanofabrication laboratory. They can’t get out. Someone or something is trying to kill them. It involves a solution for the origin of life – how did the very first cells arise from the primordial soup, and what if we could find out how to do it again… differently.

Wow. I'm going to try to use the word "nanofabrication" in one of my books.

You have lived in the States, Belgium, and Russia. Does one place stand out as the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever encountered?

They’re all beautiful. Live anywhere all your life, and it becomes mundane. Go someplace totally different than you’ve ever been before and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. That’s how our brains work. They’re novelty detectors. It’s true about the Flemish countryside, about the Volga river, about the canyons in Southern Utah.

You now live in Salt Lake City. Do you like it there?

I’m crazy about the place. Within 15 minutes you have amazing skiing, mountain biking, hiking, symphonic music, first-rate theater. The people here are friendly. It’s a safe place to live. And if you don’t like the weather, it’s guaranteed to be different in a few hours.

You are the third Jeff I have interviewed here; I also have a husband named Jeff. Do you think people named Jeff are simply drawn to mystery, or have I stumbled onto something you once proved a theorem about?
I think it’s a repressed need from your childhood. Surely there was some bully named Jeff who taunted you and made you feel an implacable need to fill your life with Jeffs to prove he hasn’t scarred you for life. That and the fact that you can’t throw a cat in this country without hitting a Jeff.

We won't get started on my repressed needs. But maybe I'll give my cat a toss after this interview and see if he hits a Jeff.

Is your wife also a doctor?

She’s not, but she is a fellow mathematician. We met in a math class. We got kicked out of the math lab for making out in the lounge after hours. She’s also worked as a software developer. Right now she’s gearing up to start law school.

Wow. You are a power couple.

Your book Second Genesis came out this summer. In it, “Science Prepares to Meet God.” This is a pretty impressive meeting. Why does it happen in the Amazon Basin?

Two reasons. First, it gives the story a primordial setting, takes it back to a fecund cradle where you might imagine life originated in the first place. It’s teeming with life and death. Second, there are a lot of very cool threatening animals that live there.

What do you do to promote your books?
Not nearly enough. Okay, basically nothing. I set up a website. Problem is that I’m trying to run full time a clinical neuroradiology fellowship and I’m setting up my research laboratory. I have three totally separate full-time careers and something’s got to give. I understand that it’s not a good idea to just throw a book out there and see if it floats without promotion, but I don’t really do this for the money. I don’t depend on writing for income. It’s all about the challenge of coming up with a good premise and losing myself writing the story for me. If the books sink, oh well. It was fun.

Does being a neurosurgeon cramp your writing style, or vice versa?
(Actually a neuroradiologist, but that does include endovascular neurosurgery on AVM’s and aneurysms and such so I won’t argue the point.) Yes, it makes me twice as likely to put jargon into the books because I think concepts I’ve struggled with for 12 years should be common knowledge. It also keeps me in touch with the coolest ideas in medicine and science that make great grist for stories. Ultimately, the publishing world doesn’t care what my day job is. They just want a good story. And as far as promotion, I think it would be more useful to have a job that looks interesting at cocktail parties. If I were Paris Hilton’s pool boy, now that’s something a publicist can use.

How can readers find out more about the fascinating Jeff Anderson?
Send me a note. I love to talk to readers. You can reach me at:

For the travel fanatics, come to ThrillerFest. There are a lot of amazingly cool people there, and I’m totally hooked on going to meet other interesting people.

Thanks, Jeff. You are a very interesting person, and your books sound terrific.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Happy Birthday, Graham!

Today is my son's eighth birthday. When I get home from work, we'll most likely go to an ice cream parlor and celebrate in the kid-tested way (he had his party long ago, when I still had time to plan it). Then we'll probably visit Gamestop, so that he can use his birthday money to buy a computer game. And dinner will, of course, be of Graham's choosing.

I'll be incredibly indulgent, because the fact is it was only yesterday that he looked like this:

And so I'm thinking I have to enjoy the little boy years while they last! Especially since my older son is already victimizing me with his razor wit on a regular basis. :)

Jess Lourey on Making the Most of Life and Writing Murder Month by Month

Among your many other non-writer jobs, you list "Waiting tables for Mafioso." Are they generous tippers?
Excellent question. When Mafioso remember to tip, they are very generous. However, their illegal activities are often distracting them, and it isn’t unheard of for a don or his henchmen to walk out of the restaurant without leaving anything. Interestingly, the restaurant that I learned this in was called Memories, it was on the West Bank in Minneapolis, and it was purportedly built atop an intricate maze of catacombs. A perfect first job for a fresh-scrubbed, recent high school graduate from high school in Small Town, Minnesota.

Kirkus Reviews said that May Day has “a likeable heroine and a surfeit of sass.” Are you sassy, too, or is it just your character?
My goal in life is to be sassier, but I often settle for crabbier, the ugly stepsister of sassy. However, I do share a very similar sense of humor with Mira James, the protagonist of the Murder by Month series.

Speaking of the Murder By the Month series: You started in May and are already on August. Do you write quickly?
It took me two years to write May Day. When I started, my husband had recently died, and I desperately needed to distract and focus my mind while I worked through the grief. In retrospect, I find it ironic that I chose a humorous mystery series as my vehicle, but it made great sense at the time. I could create a world where people were happy and there was justice at the end, two things I was lacking. When I got around to June Bug (due out March 2007), I had a rhythm going and finished that in a year. Knee High by July (due out September 2007) took me six months, and I think that is my benchmark for future mysteries. Two a year. :)

You are the mother of little children, but you teach and write and do book signings. How do you do all of this? (And I’m actually looking for advice here.)
I don’t wear make-up or style my hair. Seriously. I figure that saves me about a half an hour a day. Otherwise, I have myself on a strict schedule during the school year—-in the mornings, I play and read with my children and get us all ready to go. At work, I eat at my desk and try to keep socializing to a minimum, though that’s difficult because I work with some great people. But my goal is to not take any work home, so I work hard when I’m at my desk. Once home, I play and read with my children (or watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel), get their help to pick up the house, and send them off to bed at 8:00. From 8:30 (because they never go right to sleep) until 10:30, or until I get seven pages written (whichever comes first), I write. Weekends are for my kids and visiting friends and family. It took me a while to create a schedule that worked for me. My breakthrough moment was when I realized that the two things I’d most regret not doing in my life were spending as much time with my kids as I could when they were young, and not writing. After I decided that, the rest fell into place, though I won’t say it isn’t hard, and I do slip up and watch some trash TV or read US magazine every now and again when I should be writing.

Jess's cute children, above.

There's one lesson I can learn. I watch tons of T.V. :)

You teach Creative Writing and Critical Thinking at Alexandria Technical College. What sorts of things do they need to learn in the Critical Thinking class?

Describing what they need to learn—-how to find credible research, to always question their own beliefs and ideas, to seek out and fairly evaluate information that disagrees with their own beliefs and ideas—is much easier than actually teaching it. My focus is on teaching them to self-assess, so much of the class involves small group work, large class discussion, and scavenger hunts for information. It’s a class I enjoy teaching because it’s so important.

What are some fun writing prompts that you use for the creative writers?
I use Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing textbook, and it’s got great prompts, such as, “Describe what is in your protagonist’s trash can.” Burroway is fantastic at getting writers to look at the small stuff, which is what gives writing dimension. I keep the prompts to a minimum, though, because in my experience, all writers, even student writers, have an idea of what is important to them and what they want to write about. I tailor my feedback and guidance to their individual work.

What are your current writing projects?
I just finished a short story called, “The Locked Fish-Cleaning-House Mystery,” and I’m submitting that to the Minnesota Crime Wave ( for possible publication in their next anthology. I have a thumbnail sketch of the plot for August Moon, the fourth book in the Murder by Month series, but I also have a thumbnail sketch for a book I’m currently calling Witch. That one is going to have an Anne Rice feel. My goal is to write them both this year, and Labor Day is my deadline to decide which one to go with first.

You are an organized woman. Tell us about your panel at Bouchercon.
I love the topic my Bouchercon panelists (Gail Lukaskic, Julie Hyzy, Gammy Singer, and Susan Slater ) and I came up with--"Beyond the Mystery: Secret Stories--the Truth Behind the Fiction." The idea is that every author incorporates truth into their fiction, whether the sex scene you’re writing mirrors an experience you had last June, or whether your character comes from the same hometown and kinda looks like you, etc. In interviews, all us writers deny this and say the books are entirely fictional, but at Bouchercon, the five of us are going to rip the blanket off of that gentle lie and show the truth behind our fiction.

What’s the best thing about living in Minnesota? If I were to visit you in Minnesota, what would I absolutely have to see?
First, you definitely should visit me in Minnesota.


Second, the one absolute don’t-miss characteristic of Minnesota is impossible to see in one visit. It’s the changing seasons. Fall is magnificent reds, golds, and oranges with a nip in the air. Winter is crunchy clean snow, sledding and skating. Spring is messy and full of tulips and lilacs. By the time summer comes, brilliant hot and green, you’ve earned it. For someone as restless as me, it’s perfect.

That is beautiful! I'm convinced.

On your blog you mention that you spent the day canning “like a beaver”: (horseradish dill pickles, regular dill pickles, whole tomatoes, crabapple jelly, salsa, pickled peppers, and jalabeanos). First, what are jalabeanos? Second, do beavers do a lot of canning? Third, do you have an extremely high energy level?

Jalabeanos are spicy (jalapeno peppers), pickled (with dill) green beans. Yum. My mouth is watering thinking about them. And if beavers weren’t so busy building dams, they’d definitely pack a peck of pickled peppers. Like the beaver, I do get a lot done, but it is less about a high energy level and more about the belief that this is the only life I’ve got, and it’d be a crime to spend most of it in front of the TV or a mirror or behind a desk.

Critics have praised your likeable heroine, Mira James. How did you come up with Mira? Is she anything like you?
You’ll have to come to my Bouchercon presentation to find out. Ha! Actually, Mira and I have similar backgrounds (grew up in Paynesville, Minnesota, moved to the Cities to go to college, dropped out and ended up in Battle Lake for a while) and senses of humor, but she’s got much bigger balls than I do. I would never have gone into Lartel’s house in May Day.

You give a lot of good writing advice on your blog (and have given some good advice to me). What, generally, would you tell people who want to write but don’t know how to begin?
That’s a question I hear a lot, and I think it sprouts from the idea that writing is a grand and isolated venture only allowed to a select few. If you really want to write, I’d approach it the same way a hungry person approaches a buffet—-start with what you like, and go at it until you’re full. Jump in. Take the plunge. Grab a pencil and paper and write. There are supporting activities that make it easier to write—read a lot, carry a notebook around with you so you can jot down great lines you hear or plot kernels that seriously drop on your head from nowhere, join a writer’s group or take a class so there is some routine and pressure to your writing, be honest even when it hurts—but there is no trick to it.

That's great advice!

You and I have the same publisher, Midnight Ink, which has its headquarters in Minnesota. Have you been there?

I have. The building is new and glossy and set in the woods. EVERYONE there is friendly and quirky and celebrates Halloween (my favorite holiday) like their lives depend on it.

Will you speak to me at Bouchercon?
Yes. I’ve already told my bodyguards, publicist, and stylist to let you through. Or, if you managed to get a room at the actual conference hotel (I’m two miles away), I’ll sleep on your floor.

Sorry. I too am an outsider. But it's good that your entourage will allow me access.

How can fans of Jess Lourey and Mira James find out more about them both?
My website,, is regularly updated with news on appearances and publications, and my blog,, is embarrassingly personal but is also packed with writing and publishing tips. And if send me an email at, I’ll shoot you a brief email to let you know when my next novel (or short story) is coming out!

Thanks so much, Jess. Your interview has inspired me to stop watching television and looking at myself in the mirror. (The latter has ceased to be a temptation in recent chubby years).

See you soon!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Barbara D'Amato on Handling Tigers, How Magic Compares to Mystery, and Why Writing a Book is Better than Producing A Musical

Barbara, before I ask you any questions about your books, I must ask about this: you were once an “assistant tiger handler.” Why would you want to handle a tiger? How did this come about?
My husband and I had written a musical comedy called “The Magic Man,” which was David Copperfield’s first starring vehicle. One of the illusions involved turning a young lady into a tiger. You know the kind of thing—the magician places her in a cage, throws a drape over the cage, and when the drape is removed, there is a tiger in the cage. It turned out that the stagehands were afraid of the tiger. Its trainer needed an assistant to get it from its travel crate and in and out of the cage, and so forth. So I became his assistant. It’s not a skilled position, though, like the trainer’s.

Your biography suggests that you have an interest in magic, and you wrote, with your husband, two musicals about Houdini. Do you see a similarity between stage magic and writing a mystery?
In term of hiding the ball, there is a lot of similarity. But there is a major difference. A magic illusion blows open the story. People in the audience are asking themselves how it was done and forget the plot. So you have to bring them back into the story gracefully but clearly. Big events in a mystery novel ought to focus the reader on the story, not cause the reader to lose track of it.

That's an interesting distinction!

Going back to the musicals for a moment: you and your husband Anthony also wrote a Prohibition-era musical called RSVP Broadway. Was that a difficult process, writing and then producing your own show?

It’s very hard to get distance from the production. The other problem, of course, is that you have actors and directors who have their own ideas of how the thing should look. The great thing about a book is that it stays the way you wrote it.

What’s your favorite musical?
There are so many great ones. Just to name a few: The Threepenny Opera, Kismet, My Fair Lady, and wonderful movie musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis.

I once played Lalume in Kismet! At Bouchercon I'll sing the songs with you. Okay, now back to mysteries. You have taught mystery writing to Chicago Police Officers. Do a lot of them want to write?
A lot of them want to and they do it well.

Your latest novel, Death of a Thousand Cuts, deals with a murder of the director of a school for autistic children. You do a great deal of characterization of autistic people. How did you research this?
I had friends of friends who had autistic children, or actually in two cases autistic adult relatives. It’s very hard to put yourself in the head of an autistic person, and I’m not sure it’s even possible. But the challenge is the good part, the fun of writing.

What’s usually your first step in starting a novel. Do you begin with a title? An idea? Or do characters begin to “talk” in your head?
Interesting you should ask about the title. Yes, getting the title very early on sets the tone and approach for me. I’ve been lucky that my publishers have not changed any of the titles. Well, one, about twenty years ago, but hey--

You’ve won a host of awards for your writing: two Agathas, two Anthonys, the first-ever Mary Higgins-Clark Award, among others. Does the fact that you are an award-winning author ever make the writing process more daunting? As in, “I have to live up to my own reputation?”
I’m not sure I even have a reputation. But it seems to me the new book is always daunting. Not the first chapter or two. I don’t really get started until I think of some opening that seems powerful or puzzling. But that horrible sagging middle! I never get to the middle without wondering why I ever thought this stupid book was a good idea.

Is writing a mystery at all comparable to handling a tiger?

The tiger is much easier.

That’s funny!

You are a noted researcher, and your work researching the Dr. John Branion murder case earned you some fame and an appearance on Unsolved Mysteries. What did you learn about Dr. John Branion?
Dr. Branion was an optimist. He really believed that, since he had not killed his wife, he could not be convicted. He pushed his lawyer for an early trial date and did not have some of the research done that would have made it clear he couldn’t have killed her—for instance, having a traffic expert drive the route he took home from work, to see whether he could have made it in the time the prosecution claimed. [He couldn’t have.] Since then I tell everybody, if you’re ever accused of a crime, get the best lawyer you can find immediately and take it seriously.

People tend to connect your name with Chicago, but you are from Michigan originally. Where did you grow up? Do you ever go back to visit?
I grew up in Grand Rapids. I am in Holland, Michigan, right now, where the family had an old summer cottage. I’m growing tomatoes, squash, and herbs.

That sounds nice. You were once “a carpenter for stage magic illusions.” This means, doesn’t it, that you know all the secrets? And you can tell us how certain effects are achieved?
Yes, I could tell you. He! He! Ho! He! He!

All right, I get the picture. Your main mystery character is Chicago freelance reporter Cat Marsala. How did you come up with Cat?
It seemed she’d have to have nine lives. And marsala is a wine and a spice. Just seemed to suit her.

What are you writing now?
I’m working on a thriller about an archaeologist who is traveling the world doing research, and somebody is following her, trying to kill her.

Ooh! Sounds good.

What’s your favorite comfort reading?
Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. Mysteries. And suspense.

Where can Barbara D’Amato fans learn more about her and her upcoming events? There’s a contact me on it. Love to hear from you.

Thanks so much for the interview, Barb!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Neil Plakcy on Teaching, Writing Mysteries, and "The Edge Places" That Make Great Settings

Neil, this is the first burning question on my mind: how do you pronounce your last name?
Thanks for starting with an easy one! As I write on the board at the start of each semester, it rhymes with taxi. There’s no letter X in the Russian alphabet, which is why you often see names written like Aleksander. If my grandfather had chosen to spell the name Plaksy I’d have had a much easier time.

Thanks! You wear a lot of hats: you are “an Assistant Professor of English at Broward Community College and a freelance writer and web developer.” As I ask a lot of authors on this blog, when do you find the time to write?
Ah, but the life of a college professor provides lots of flexibility. When I worked a 9-5 job as a web developer I used to squeeze in writing time when my boss wasn’t looking. Now I have to discipline myself to get out of school when my work is done rather than hanging around chatting with colleagues. I write a lot during the summer. This summer I taught for our first summer session and then took off for the second. For six weeks I shlepped my laptop to Starbucks every day (to avoid the distractions of dog, internet, life partner, etc.) and wrote a new mystery in which the detective is a college English professor (big leap) whose golden retriever helps solve the mystery. That’s the biggest leap; my golden can barely figure out where his food bowl is (and it’s been in the same place for six years now.)

Your book, Mahu, came out in 2005, and Mahu Surfer comes out in 2007. You live in Florida; what made you decide to set the books in Hawaii?
I graduated from the MFA program at Florida International University in 1992 and was despairing of ever finding a corner of south Florida I could call my own, when I studied with, and went to school with, and read, so many wonderful mystery writers whose books take place in this area. Then I went to Hawaii and fell in love with the place—and realized that there were almost no mysteries set there. The little light bulb went off over my head. Florida and Hawaii are both tropical locations, with a fascinating mix of cultures, and a contrast between light and shadow that’s a nice metaphor for the combination of crime and beauty you find. They’re also both what I call “edge” places—and there’s a kind of person who’s drawn to live in such a place. In my mind, I’m writing about Florida, with Hawaiian locations and slight changes to accents & ethnicities.

Did you learn some lessons from publishing and promoting the first mystery that you will use in launching the second?
That’s a tougher one to answer. I’ve learned a lot by reading about other authors’ experiences, sharing notes, and trying to apply lessons from my business career to my writing career. It’s hard to pull any one lesson that I’ve learned from Mahu and will apply in the future—other than that you have to reach out to your audience however you can. If you sit back and wait for readers to stumble on you, you’ll be very lonely.

You teach at the college level, and you’ve written about using mysteries in your curriculum. How does this potentially help a student who might be anti-reading?
One of the things to me that defines a great mystery is that it’s a page-turner. You can’t put the book down because you’re drawn into the fictional world and you want to know what happens next. Too much academic writing is exactly the opposite—it’s too easy to put the book down because there’s no narrative thread pulling you along. And many of the selections in text books are short—so kids are more likely to say “I read the first piece. I don’t need to read the rest.” With a mystery, hopefully, they want to keep reading. And the books we’re using, particularly Christine Kling’s Cross Current, are so well-written that they can serve as great models for student writers, particularly when it comes to evocative descriptions.

Tell us about Kids Love a Mystery and your involvement with it. You’ve mentioned that kids can earn prizes for good mysteries—what sorts of prizes do they win?
The kids win gift certificates for books—last year, with the sponsorship of Barnes & Noble. The bookstores win, because they’re developing customers, and the kids win, because they get more books! I’ve helped out by judging the entries my local chapter of Mystery Writers of America receives. And it can be tough to pick the best ones—some of these kids have a great sense of character and plot, even as young as elementary school. Last year, one of our local winners went on to win at the national level.

Why do you think the mystery genre might be an especially appropriate one for reaching reluctant readers or writers?
Again, I think it’s the page-turning nature of the mystery. Plus at our college we’ve tried to pick books that are set locally and have characters and situations that our students can relate to. The plot of Cross Current revolves around smuggling Haitian immigrants into the US, and my Haitian students are empowered to discuss their culture with the rest of the class, and they’re surprised and pleased to see themselves in a book. I think many of them relate to the characters and want to keep reading to see what happens to them.

Mahu and Mahu Surfer are mysteries with a gay protagonist. You’ve mentioned that this puts them, potentially, into a “niche” market, but in Pat Brown’s Spinetingler review she wrote “I . . . recommend this crackling good book to anyone, gay or straight, who loves a good mystery.” Do you find that some bookstores want to shelve the books under gay interest rather than simply in the main mystery section?
Gay mysteries are almost always found in the gay & lesbian section of a bookstore, rather than in the mystery section. I wish they could be in both, but stores have limited shelf space. I have lots of straight friends who’ve read and enjoyed Mahu, and I hope to continue to build word-of-mouth that way. Some authors, such as John Morgan Wilson, have reached a crossover audience through awards (he won the Edgar for his first book, and it was the first time a gay mystery won that award). The very first gay mystery I ever read, one of Joseph Hansen’s, was given to me by a straight friend who was a mystery lover and recommended the book purely as a great mystery. To him, the gay material was simply background, the way a book might have a setting in the world of antiques or quilting.

Which makes sense. Your website is very colorful and attractive. Did you do it yourself?
Yup, I built the site myself. The rainbow is a gay symbol, and a friend helped me design a logo for the Mahu books that incorporates a lineup of colorful surfboards, whose colors match those in the rainbow. It’s subtler than using the rainbow itself. I used that palette of primary colors for the buttons on my website, and then just started throwing in anything else I could think of. When I worked as a web developer, we always had a test machine that we called the “sandbox” – where we could play around with new applications before putting them on a machine open to the public. My website is my own personal sandbox.

I tried to do a jigsaw puzzle on your site. I failed. Does this bode ill for my mystery-solving abilities?
Nope—it probably bodes ill for my ability to manipulate the JavaScript application that runs the puzzles!

Your character’s name is Kimo Kanapa’aka. How did you decide on this name, and when did you first have the inspiration for Kimo himself?
I’ve always had this strange fascination with names that end in O. The hero of my very first novel attempt, written while I was a teenager, was a teenager named Hugo. (Fortunately that manuscript no longer exists to incriminate me.) When I went to Hawaii the first time, I naturally was attracted to the name Kimo, which is the Hawaiian translation of James. The missionaries who attempted to translate the Bible into the Hawaiian language were stuck with a couple of problems. First, there are only 7 consonants and five vowels. So when a letter came up in English that didn’t exist in Hawaiian (like the J) the missionaries used the next available letter, in this case K. Also, every syllable in Hawaiian must end in a vowel—so James became Kimo.

I first envisioned Kimo as a private eye who had been a police detective—because I didn’t know much about police procedure, and I figured most private eyes had been cops. I showed some pages of an early draft to my MFA thesis advisor, the great mystery writer James W. Hall, and his first question was “Why did Kimo leave the police force?”

I didn’t know. And Jim told me that was something I had to know before I could write about this character effectively. I shelved that manuscript for a long time, and then, as I was going through my own coming-out process, I realized that Kimo was gay, too. And then I understood that I had to write the book in which he left the police before I could write about him as a private eye.

Unfortunately for me, once I learned enough police procedure and wrote that book, Kimo stubbornly refused to leave the force. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I hadn’t created a quitter. So now I’m stuck writing a police procedural series. Someday, maybe, the time will be right for Kimo to become a private eye—but I’ll trust him to tell me when that time comes.

You have done nothing to disprove my generalization that mystery writers all have pets: you have written a book called Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs. How did you happen upon this project?
Just over twenty years ago, I met my friend and co-editor, Sharon Sakson, at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. We’ve been critiquing each other’s work since then, and when a friend of hers went to work for Alyson Books, Sharon suggested that we think of a project to work on together. Since Sharon’s a breeder of Brussels Griffons and Whippets, as well as a dog show judge (and a very talented writer), and Alyson’s primarily a gay and lesbian press, the idea of writing a book about gay men and their dogs evolved from trying to find a project that would interest both of us. I’m jealous, because Sharon got to interview fascinating guys like Pulitzer-winner Edward Albee, and drag diva Charles Busch, while I was stuck in front of my computer. The best part of the project was reading all the wonderful essays that came in from professional writers as well as non-writers who just had great stories.

That is pretty cool. Your pet is a Golden Retriever, one of America’s top ten most popular (and beautiful) dogs. Does he have a Hawaiian name?
Nope. He’s got a literary name: Samwise, after the hobbit character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings who is the faithful companion of Frodo, the main character. I knew immediately that Sam would be my faithful companion. And even as I type this, he’s sprawled behind my chair snoozing peacefully. Plus, Sam was my grandfather’s name, so it’s a nice way to remember him.

What made a boy who grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania gravitate to Hollywood, Florida?
I was lucky to be transferred to South Florida about three careers ago, when I was a construction manager for a shopping center developer. My first day here, the cab dropped me off in downtown Miami on a street lined with palm trees, and I fell in love. A year later, when most of my colleagues moved on to the next city, I stayed here, and I’ve never regretted it. Especially not in the winter, when I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops and the rest of you suckers are freezing.

Point taken. :) Is Hollywood, Florida anything like Hollywood, California?
Well, both cities have palm trees, sunshine, and an adjacent ocean. But for celebrity sightings we generally have to head a little farther south, to Miami Beach.

What are your current writing projects? How can readers find out more about you?
I’m writing lots of short stories about Kimo at present, with an eye to eventually putting an anthology together. In each story, I try to create and solve a mystery, while moving Kimo’s personal journey forward in small steps. Some of those stories are available at, as part of their Amazon Shorts program. A couple of erotic stories about Kimo are in anthologies, including Cowboys: Gay Erotic Tales from Cleis Press, and another forthcoming anthology from them about “hot cops.” And there’s a Christmas story in Wolfmont Publishing’s forthcoming anthology, By The Chimney With Care, which will benefit Toys for Tots. And for more about me (if there’s anything more to tell, after this interview) readers can always come to my website, at

Thanks so much for inviting me to be interviewed, and for coming up with such interesting and thought-provoking questions.

Thank you, Neil! I’m glad to put a face with the name, and I’m glad I know how to say “Plakcy.” :)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Mary Jane in the Hill Country on Mysteries, Beautiful Places, Kiddies and Kittens.

  Posted by PicasaYou are the author of "25 years of lesson plans." What were some of the best ones?
It seems to me that the "best" lesson plans were never really written down.... but happened, with guidance. Particularly, I enjoyed introducing kids to various kinds of children's literature. (I've been retired for two years, so I'm having to go back to the archives to answer this question.)

One year, we sent out Flat Stanley. Some of your readers may be familiar with the series of Flat Stanley books penned by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. Now in my honest opinion, these books are not the greatest ever written... or even grammatically correct... but students LOVE the main character, Stanley, flattened when his brother knocks over the bulletin board.

In the classroom, we had a huge United States of America map, and we tracked Stanley's travels as we mailed him out to individuals all over the country. The host or hostess was asked to describe Stanley's day... then return him with an entry for our journal.

Let me tell you: That little guy got around! Some folks were extremely gracious about sending photographs of Stanley in different locations: classrooms, libraries, the Statue of Liberty, even the set of a television soap. And the class received many books (and other gifts) from teachers, librarians, authors. I was really touched by the kindness of people that never met me... yet freely participated in our class project. (And need I add that many of the host/hostesses were subscribers to DorothyL.)

I can't possibly list all of the concepts covered by this project: reading, writing, art, geography, math (as we calculated mileage)... social studies and culture...

The Jolly Postman or Other People's Letters by Janet & Allan Ahlberg provided another "fun" project. In this book, fairy tale characters write letters to each other, and then of course, students make up their own letters to write. We also enjoyed rewriting fairy tales, from differing points of view. And one of my favorite activities was reading the Cinderella stories from as many countries as possible... even Bigfoot Cinderella.

Who could forget The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg? Students
brought housecoats, houseshoes, teddy bears or other stuffed animals to school; we'd cuddle up on the rug, and read this book while drinking our hot chocolate. Now my grandchildren and I read The Polar Express and drink hot chocolate!

Have you always been a mystery fan?

Pretty much. My sister taught me to read, and then she'd make me write book reports. I still remember writing a book report about Donald Duck and the Chipmunks... When I was in the first grade, the teacher gave me a book and pushed me out on the stage to read to a school assembly. (I'm certain the other kids were bored to tears!)

I started reading Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton in grade school.... even "wrote" my own version of a mystery. (I remember thinking it was so cool to be able to use the word "analysis.") Then in the seventh grade, I wrote a book report on The Bat by Mary Roberts Rhinehart, which caused lots of excitement and conversation in our English class. I do believe that Mrs. Stuckey's head is still spinning around! She responded by handing me a list of books for "preferred reading."

Joining the DorothyL list in the early nineties, I re-discovered mystery books. And I've been "hooked" ever since.

Older sisters are so bossy. Mine was always the teacher when we played school. What are you reading right now?
Recently I finished Hard Truth by Nevada Barr and Bleeding Hearts by Jane Haddam. But like most readers, I have a huge "to be read" pile that keeps growing. Included in the wobbly pile of books are: The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein, Consigned to Death by Jane K. Cleland, The Trouble with Magic by Marilyn Alt, End Run by Steve Brewer, Deadly Patterns by M.E. Cooper, Sheet Music by M.J. Rose. and Desert Shadows by Betty Webb. I'm also interested in local literature, including books about ghosts and mystical sightings described in The Devil's Backbone by Bert M. Wall. I was involved in an automobile accident on the Devil's Backbone two years ago, so one of my favorite comments is, "Ten seconds earlier, and I could have been a chapter!"

That's so eerie!

On a different subject, tell me a bit about Smith Bears and how you got started making them.
I'm so proud that I have a blog: Two years ago, my dad died. Like most elderly gentlemen, he enjoyed wearing one-piece jumpsuits. My dad worked in the fabric industry most of his life, and he altered all of his clothing, including the jumpsuits. They were hemmed, patched, repatched... and no one in the family could even consider giving away those jumpsuits. Thinking that I might use the material to make a quilt, I brought the jumpsuits home... And while looking through a book dedicated to projects using men's neckties, I found a pattern for making bears. Four jumpsuits became four bears that could be shared with other family members. And the idea for Smith Bears became a reality.

If someone wishes to have a bear made from the clothing of a loved one, they can contact me through my blog and order a Smith Bear.

That's a great idea!

You recently posted on DorothyL some things that authors can do to get you to come to book signings. One was to clean your house. If some authors now come forward with dustmops and vacuum cleaners, will you honor the deal?
CERTAINLY! And I'm not that particular, either, about how well they clean my house! But the truth is that I'd attend a book signing anyway. (Although I'd really like to get that "pet" fecal testing done....)

Do you still teach? If not, do you miss teaching? What did you teach?
I'm a retired elementary teacher, grades 1,2,3. For five years, I taught computer curriculum for grades K-5.

My new philosophy is "You can take the teacher out of teaching, but you can't take the teaching out of the teacher." True, I don't stand up in front of a classroom of elementary kids anymore.... But I had a blast at Vacation Bible School this year! And I'll be substituting in the local elementary school. Of course, sometimes the grandchildren just want to turn on television and watch Sponge Bob, but hey! I have to find students SOMEWHERE, even if they aren't always willing.

You are, apparently, giving away kittens. Can I have one?
Okay, I admit to fibbing about the kitten. While I couldn't possibly give away any of my cats, I do have "friends in high places." Just one telephone call, and I can have the kitten here in thirty minutes, give or take a couple of minutes if color is an issue.

Good to know. What's the most beautiful thing about the hill country where you live? Where's the most beautiful place you've been aside from your house?
Man, you don't ask for much, do you? When I read the first part, I thought, "Hill Country sunrises. Nope... Hill Country sunsets." Then I remembered the magnificent sunrises and sunsets in West Texas. So I thought, "Overlooking the Devil's Backbone near Canyon Lake. But how about that drive down Fischer Road... or... the wildflower trail at the back of the LBJ ranch... the Cypress trees at Driftwood.... NO!... the old Confederate hospital in Driftwood (now the Salt Lick).... or.....

Good to know there's so much beauty! Now, back to mystery. Who are the writers on your top five list?
Can we change it to top 50? I can't possibly answer this question! Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth Peters, Sharyn McCrumb, Walter Satterthwait, Margaret George, Victoria Holt, Bill Crider, M.C. Beaton, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, Nikki French, Maeve Binchey, Suzanne Morris (what happened to her, by the way), Diana Gabaldon, Antonia Fraser, Susan Albert Wittig. (I've left out a ton of names!) Whew!

But those were some good ones. There was some discussion recently about teachers (or students) being too reliant on the internet. As an educator, do you think this is true?
It's probably true in some cases. But the reality is that everyone is an individual, and we're responsible for our own actions. If we're talking about students' cheating here... then yes.... some students are going to cheat. But then, they would probably cheat anyway, but perhaps in not such a sophisticated way as the internet. I wasn't part of the discussion, so I can't really comment on teachers' being too reliant, unless they're not checking sources responsibly. Sometimes, though, I must admit that I think "we" were better teachers when we had fewer tools. Too many choices can be a blessing or a curse.

Well said. What's an average day like for you?
Really, I can't describe an average day because our days are so varied. Jack (my husband), three cats, and I live in the Hill Country near Austin, Texas. Several days each month, I volunteer in the church office(receptionist, answering the telephone, etc.) and at least two days each month, I work with the local VFW. Often, on the week-ends, we have our grandchildren... and boy, are they energetic! (One of our great pleasures is to eat lunch with them at school.)

If I have a "free" day, I usually work on my quilts and other sewing projects. I'm teaching my grand-daughter how to sew on the sewing machine, and she has started her first quilt. Secretly, I'm writing children's books.... and I've completed the first chapter in an adult mystery.

Future projects include: getting Smith Bears up and running; getting orders to make Christmas stockings; substitute teaching in the local elementary school.

Wow! You are one busy person. And I have taken note of the fact that you are writing a mystery! We shall be looking for it on DL now!

How do you like your new kitten?
Well, you just had to ask, didn't you?

When I was a little girl, my mother was allergic to animals, so I didn't have pets, except for one dog that lived in the backyard. His name was Lucky, and he kept knocking me down! I would feed the stray cats, who never stayed around very long. When my daughter was a child, she had two dogs: Crickett, a beagle-bassett, and Muffin, a dachshund. After our daughter left for college, I really never thought much about pets...until the day we went to the boat show in Abilene, Texas!

Knowing the Phantom of the Opera is my FAVORITE musical, my husband casually mentioned, "Did you see the cat with the opera mask... in the cage over there?" It seems that Rescue the Animals had a display of dogs and cats to adopt. The first time I saw Niko, literally it was "love at first sight"..... and the one-year-old white & gray tabby found a home. Of course, my husband kept insisting that he didn't really "like" cats.... but I would find him sitting in the recliner with the cat on his shoulders... on his head....beside him in the chair. My daughter's comment: "Well, I guess you're going to drag that cat all over the state of Texas!"..... and we did!

I learned quickly that Niko would let you kiss her head.... but not touch her tummy. My husband still laughs at the time he heard me yelling, "Hey, hey, hey! I touched your tummy only one time!"

As Niko aged, we decided that she needed a companion. With full intentions of getting a kitten, we visited our favorite Abilene vet again... and I saw Smokey, a five-year-old Russian Blue, a beautiful cat. The vet aides kept saying, "Oh, you don't want that cat." Her elderly owner died and left her to the daughter, who promptly had the cat declawed, then put outside. Smokey was traumatized!

We took Smokey out of the cage, put her on the floor, and she was intimidated by a half-ounce scrap of hissing fur. Smokey promptly slinked over to the corner, huddled against the wall, and started purring. Well, that settled it! Smokey was coming home with me!

You can imagine the look of surprise on my husband's face when he came into the room, expecting a tiny kitten, and found me holding a 300-pound, five-year old adult cat, and whimpering, "I just can't leave her!" Of course, I explained that we were simply getting "the economical size".... more cat for the money.

I'm not sure that I would advise anyone to drive 200 miles (from Abilene to Austin, Texas) with a terrified cat, who quickly scooted underneath the driver's seat as soon as we turned off the car engine. I thought we'd never get that cat out! But with a little tuna (which I hope is good for the hair since I ended up with most of it smeared all over my head) and a great deal of patience, we managed to convince Smokey that we had her best interests at heart. Getting her into the house, we realized that she did, indeed, look just like a bear cub, so we gave her the name Smokey Bear. It was three days before we saw her again.

Okay, so Niko is five; Smokey Bear is six... and we're a happy, complete family. Right? Right!.... Right until we visit the local grocery store, and I spy a lady holding a laundry basket with a sign, "Free kitten!"... and then I see a furry, black face peering out at me. Jack grabs my arm and attempts to navigate me into the store, but I'm too quick for him! Later, when we check out, he says nothing as the cashier rings up the cost of Purina kitten food. My daughter's response: "Dad, you're just going to have to learn to say 'No!'" Of course, he says he was never asked.

What was the question? Oh.... How do you like your new kitten? Fine, just fine!

That's terrific! Did the new kitten get a Russian name?

Her name is Koshka Pillywiggin. Koshka is the Russian word for "cat." Pillywiggin is a Welsh word describing a "cute" pixie.

Mystery lovers and cat lovers are so often one and the same! Will your grandchildren be mystery readers, do you think?
Recently I bought three Nancy Drew books for my grand-daughter, so I guess she is, indeed, a "mystery reader." My grand-son reads anything, including cereal boxes and little tags on pillows. But right now, they're "into" telling scary stories. I think I may have "hit the jackpot" with my "killer with the bloody knife" story. Let's just say that no one slept much on our last trailer camp-out!

Well, I'm at the end of my question-and-answer session. But I would like to add one thing... On my tombstone, I shall have inscribed: "Here lies Mary Jane in the Hill Country. She never spent money on anything except books, cats, quilts, and grandchildren."

A wonderful epitaph. Thanks, Mary Jane.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Farewell, Sweet Summer Vacation

  Posted by PicasaOkay, I didn't actually spend my summer here. I spent it at home, for the most part, hiding from the heat in my air conditioned house and worrying about global warming when I wasn't feeding the children or playing on the computer.

But this picture is how summer FEELS--more leisurely, more warm and languid, more slow-moving. Summer is the chance to re-group, to avoid the constant hassle of scheduling one's life into the tiny little boxes that mean endless meetings, classes, obligations of the school year.

Tomorrow I return to that school year. Back to teaching, back to preparation, back to the occasional stress headache. It's fun, it's rewarding, but it's hard work. (See my previous blog about the life of an English teacher). On Wednesday evenings it's back to grad school and the reading with which I can barely keep up (not to mention keeping up with the tuition!).

So going back is necessary, but it's frightening. And those palm trees look farther away every time I look at them.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Wish Fulfillment in Mysteries

Sometimes when I read mysteries I feel that I am reading, along with the story, a hidden text of the author's subliminal intention, or perhaps a repressed desire. There are always patterns, recognizable repetitions in an author's work--beyond the recurring setting or character. Sometimes there are themes that return in different guises. Maybe the author is continually exploring issues of abuse, or unrequited love, or class snobbery. And sometimes I wonder--does the author know I see this? Does the author recognize the pattern at all?

In the case of Mary Stewart, my favorite author, it's the pattern of boys. Boys are an important part of many of her novels, and they range in age from about seven all the way to the teens. Mary Stewart herself was married but childless, and I always felt that I was seeing her desire for a son in these stories because of the loveable boys she created, the sweet, adorable, huggable boys who engaged so sweetly in memorable dialogues with Stewart heroines.

The first boy, of course, is David Byron in Madam, Will You Talk? This boy is protected by the heroine, Charity Selborne, from a man she thinks is trying to kill him. (Can't go into too much detail here). He is seen as vulnerable, despite his age (thirteen), and very much a little gentleman, despite his love of playing by the river with his mutt, Rommel. Charity falls in love with the boy in the novel, and the reader falls in love with him, as well.

Then there is nine-year-old Philippe, the Comte de Valmy, in Nine Coaches Waiting. Not only is someone trying to kill Philippe, but the bullet whizzes right past his head while he is in the charge of his young and devoted teacher, Linda Martin. After a series of events which build growing suspense, Linda goes on the run with Philippe in order to protect him. Before this, however, there are some lovely dialogues that establish her growing closeness with Philippe, as in this conversation where they discuss bears in the Valmy woods, and Linda tries to teach Philippe English:

"Then I hope to goodness we don't meet one today."

"They are asleep," said Philippe comfortingly. "There is no danger unless one treads on them where they sleep." He jumped experimentally into a deep drift of dead leaves, sending them swirling up in bright flakes of gold. The dirt was fortunately bearless. "They sleep very sound," said Philippe, who appeared to find it necessary to excuse this failure. "With nuts in the pocket like an ecureuil."


"Skervirrel. Perhaps you prefer we do not look for bears?"

"I would really rather not, if you don't mind," I said apologetically.

"Then we will not," he said generously. "But there are many other things to see in the woods, I think. Papa used to tell me of them. There is chamois, and marmottes and the foxes, oh, many! Do you think that when I have ten years--"

"'When I am ten.'"

"When I am ten years old I can have a gun and shoot, Mademoiselle?"

"Possibly not when you are ten, Philippe, but certainly when you are a bit older."

"Ten is old."

"It may be old, but it's not very big. You wouldn't be big enough to use the right gun for a bear."

"Skervirrels, then."


"Skervirrel. I could have a small gun for skervirrel when I am ten?"

"Possibly, though I should doubt it. In any case, it's what they call an unworthy ambition." (from Nine Coaches Waiting, c. 1958).

Phillipe is most loveable, and so is the seventeen-year-old Timothy Lacey, a boy who accompanies Vanessa March on a flight to Vienna in Airs Above the Ground. Timothy is an affable boy, misunderstood and largely ignored, Vanessa thinks, by his socialite mother, and so a bond is formed between the Vanessa and Tim. When the boy cannot meet up with his father in Vienna as planned, he continues to accompany Vanessa to Oberhausen, where she must try to find her own husband. Much of the charm of the book is due to young Tim and his relationship with Vanessa.

The boys in Stewart's books bring out the nurturing instincts of her heroines, and it reveals a maturity in them that they did not always realize they possessed. In This Rough Magic, a young, handsome Greek teenager named Spiro goes missing, and Lucy Waring, the young English protagonist, is distressed by this and eager to help find the boy and delve into the other mysterious happenings near her sister's house on Corfu.

In a similar manner, Nicola Farris, the English heroine of The MoonSpinners, wants to help a man named Mark find his young brother Colin; both men have witnessed a crime, and Colin has been taken captive. Mark fears for Colin's life, but is gunshot, and must depend on Nicola to determine the boy's location and whether or not he is still alive.

There are other patterns, of course, in Mary Stewart's books, and some elements of the romantic suspense novels hint at themes in the Arthurian novels that come later. But it was these stories that first captured my imagination, and I still wonder about them, about her, and whether these boys were the children of her heart.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Leann Sweeney on Learning from Elizabeth George, Learning to Speak Like a Texan, and Learning to Write While Battling Illness.

  Posted by PicasaYour second book was called A Wedding to Die For, and we see you pictured here at your daughter’s wedding. Any connection there?
Big connection. Two weddings (my daughter, then my son) in two years might make you want to murder someone. At times. Most of it was fun, but my expression in this picture is directly related to the shoes from hell I was wearing. I sold them to some poor unsuspecting soul on E-bay as soon as I could. No one should have such objects of evil residing in their closet.

I think every woman who reads this will relate! You were born and raised in Niagara Falls and went to school in Syracuse, but now you live in Friendswood, Texas. Was it sort of a culture shock, going from New York to Texas? What’s the biggest difference you encountered?
When we moved to Texas I was a new mother, had no car and was pretty much trapped in a house with very little furniture and a screaming baby who never slept. Now there's some culture shock. If I called people on the phone it seemed like they were speaking a foreign language. And they couldn't understand me, either. One reason I started the Yellow Rose series is because I began collecting the Texas-isms I was hearing. Like, "That man's so skinny he might need worming." It was a whole new fascinating language and now I use the sayings I've collected. I also have a few books and a long article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle way back when that give me ideas for what my editor calls "Abbyisms." (Abby is my heroine). My editor is from NYC vs Chicago. It's a new language for her, too.

You spent “a small fortune on writing books.” Did these books help to perfect your writing skills?
Absolutely. The very best one, which I have not given away, is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. I also have a worn and signed copy of The Writer's Journey by Christopher Volgler. But the investment that helped me the most was a 5 day intensive workshop taught by Elizabeth George. There were only 20 of us and we worked from dawn to dusk. She is an amazing teacher and I learned so much about writing.

Wow! That's fantastic. I would love to take that course. Had you read Elizabeth George before taking the course? Were you all in awe of her?
I had read and ADORED Elizabeth George before I took the class. We had to send in writing samples to be accepted and that alone was awesome when I got the word I was accepted.

To be honest, she is all business and we had no time to be in awe of her. We were working all the time and when we left class we had assignments to do. On the last day of class, a Sunday, she read aloud every scene all of had written for our WIP. I taped her critique of mine and treasure it because she said "You're ready ... go out and get published." Of course it took 6 years! LOL.

Why did you choose mystery as a genre?
I began reading mysteries when I was probably seven or eight. I have read outside the genre, because reading teaches you how to write, however mysteries, any kind, are what I love and now I read nothing else. It wasn't really a choice. I had to do it. Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George are probably my all time favorites. Their ability to layer human emotion is inspiring to me as a writer.

You worked for many years in psychiatry. Do you think this helps in terms of creating a fictional character?
It's my belief that if I wrote about ordinary people doing ordinary things I would never have been published, nor would anyone else. An understanding of human motivation is essential to writing a mystery and I had firsthand experience in some very strange motivations. I try to write characters who are not "way out there" but who readers can recognize and relate to—dysfunctional people. Like that uncle who you only see at Thanksgiving because he's just too weird to be around more than once a year. And if you ever worked with psychiatric patients who are sick enough to be institutionalized, you have to have a sense of humor. I try to draw on some of those very funny and crazy encounters I've had.

Your detective, Abby Rose, debuted with the novel Pick Your Poison. How did you come up with Abby?
I have no idea how I came up with Abby. I think characters like her come from the deep subconscious part of my brain. I never wrote her bio or "talked" to her. I just knew her from the minute I wrote my first paragraph. Other characters are harder work to create and I do think a lot about their motivation. If I don't know what my characters want and what's stopping them from getting it, I can't make the story move forward. I guess that's my version of writer's block. It's all about the inner and outer conflicts characters face—-something I learned from E. George.

This is called your “Yellow Rose” mystery series, and naturally all the books are set in Texas. Do you think you’ll write any other series? Will you ever set one in New York?
I have an idea for another series, but I don't know if I can handle more than one. I have Lyme and the last few books have been tough to write since the disease affects concentration. I used to be able to write eight hours a day and now I'm lucky if I get four. BUT, I am getting treatment and after eight months, I am beginning to feel some changes. Keep you fingers crossed for me! I also have a stand alone book I started in 1998. I would love to one day finish it and get it published. (There are also three other books I wrote that will never see the light of day and thank God for that—two of them Abby Rose books).

I'm sorry to hear that. I hope the treatment works wonders for you.

Tell us about the upcoming book, Shoot From the Lip.

The fourth Yellow Rose Mystery will be out January 2. It's a long book for a traditional mystery at 92,000 words-which I head about from my editor! But, no cuts in the book were made because that's just how long it took to tell the story. I tackled reality TV with this one—a show similar, but not as nice as Extreme Home Makeover. As a mystery writer dealing with murder all the time, I wondered what would happen if perhaps those TV types found something unpleasant when they tore down a house.

Does your family help you sell your books?
Sure. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing for a writer. Pick Your Poison came out 4 days before my son's wedding and every copy in Sioux City, Iowa, where my daughter-in-law is from, was sold out. But after my husband's fellow workers read some of my stuff, they asked him how he slept at night lying next to someone who could cook up ways to kill people with things like cyanide.

What’s your favorite Texas food?
Fajitas. But barbecued brisket comes in a close second. When I went to visit my sister in Seattle, she'd had some of my brisket in Texas and asked me to make it. But all they had in the grocery store was this little piece of trimmed brisket like they use for corned beef. Here, you get the whole huge thing in shrink wrap for real barbecue. They weigh about 6-9 pounds! DELICIOUS when cooked with the right method.

You are a member of Texas Mystery Authors. Have you met some fun Texas writers here?
There are wonderful Texas writers. Rick Riordan (also a great writing teacher, btw) Jeff Abbott and Bill Crider all gave me wonderful blurbs for my first book, as did Carolyn Hart—though she's from Oklahoma. Susan McBride has become a good friend as she writes about Texas—though she no longer lives here. I could go on forever about all the fantastic writers I've had the privilege to meet on this journey.

How can readers find out more about Leann Sweeney and her Yellow Rose Mysteries?
I have a website— and a blog, but I am not much of a blogger so I envy you, Julia, for keeping this up and giving us writers an opportunity to talk about ourselves and our writing.

That's nice, thanks--and thanks for sharing, Leann!
Thank you!

(One last mention: Leann has two more books contracted in the Abby Rose mystery series.)