Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Julia Spencer-Fleming Chats About Maine, Mothering, Murder and Mayhem

Julia, thanks for chatting with me. You are quite the publishing phenomenon. Do you feel like a phenomenon? Or do you just feel tired?
I suspect it’s constitutionally impossible to have three children, ages 14, 12 and 6, and feel like a phenomenon. Do phenomenons have to do laundry?

No. I understand that all of your books are named after Episcopalian hymns; yet In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite Christmas songs, I sing it every year in church, and I am a Catholic. Is this a hymn that spans denominations?
It is. The lyric is by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, who was deeply involved in the Anglo-Catholic movement, which sought to bring Anglican ritual, music and devotions back to their Roman Catholic roots. She’s had several poems set to music (Love Came Down at Christmas and None Other Lamb are the most well-known.) I think the beauty and simplicity of her work appeals to almost everyone.

I’m always curious how a person handles being married, being a mother and a member of a community, being a professional (you are a lawyer), and then finding time to write and promote books. How do you handle that? Is being a writer what you thought it would be?
Honestly, I seem to do it by always being bad at something. If I have my nose to the grindstone writing, I’m neglecting my kids; if I’m squiring the kids around to cross country meets, I’m ignoring publicity and emails; if I’m answering emails and sending out pub pieces, I’m blowing off my volunteer work, etc., etc. One thing I can cross off my to-do list is lawyering—writing has been my full-time day job since 2003.

I never intended to be an author—I’m not one of these people who crawled out of the playpen and began typing my memoirs—so I had only the haziest conception of what being a writer would entail. Sadly, none of it resembled the vaguely Judith Krentz-inspired picture of unlimited wealth, limosine rides, and trips to the Cote du Basque.

You live in Maine. Do you live on the ocean? Does Maine scenery inspire the artist in you? How often do you eat lobster?
I live in an 1820s farmhouse about 14 miles west of the ocean. Maine is a wonderful place for a writer to live—not only the breathtaking scenery, but because living in the country where there’s not a lot to distract me is a big help! We don’t eat lobster very often because the fact that the creatures are alive freaks my girls out. (I suspect we traumatized them by holding pre-dinner lobster races on the kitchen floor when they were very small.) However, we do enjoy sushi frequently.

You told me that your mother circles swear words in your works in progress, writing “Is This Really Necessary?” And mine once read a description of my main character’s mother and jotted in the margin, “I am not like this.” :) So why do we ask our mothers to read our manuscripts?
For the same reason our mothers are one of the few people who will answer honestly when you ask, “Do these pants make me look fat?” And in my case, in addition to her willingness to be brutally honest for my own good, my mother is an extremely widely-read former English teacher. Really, I’m surprised more authors haven’t plagued her to read their manuscripts.

Well, there is one I'd like to send her . . . :)

The problem with your book titles is that when I read them, I always walk away humming, because I know the songs. Do you have this problem, too? A sort of constant musical thrum beneath the surface as you type?

I do, but often it’s not the hymn—or at least, not the hymn of the title. I don’t listen to music as I work, but I find myself supplying a soundtrack in my head. When I reread my work, I’m a bit surprised by how many references there are to music on the radio, the cd player, etc. All neatly underscoring some mood or the other. Other times, I’m singing beneath my breath with no idea how the song fits yet. While working on the as-yet-unnamed sixth book, I’ve been singing “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” quite a bit. Don’t know why. It won’t cut it as a title: “I Bind Until Myself Today” sounds a bit B and D out of context.


Do your children think it’s cool that you’re a writer?

My children think its cool that I come back from bookseller trade shows and bookstores lugging many volumnes for their delight. And they seem to enjoy the benefits of having a mother who sets her own hours and works from home—I can almost always make the cross country meets in the fall or take off for a float down the river in the summer. But cool? No. No mother in the history of mothering has ever been cool to her children.

Good point. As your publicity people point out, “Julia Spencer-Fleming is an Agatha, Anthony, Dilys, Barry, and Macavity Award-winner. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Romantic Times RC awards.” In the world of Oscars, people always say it’s an honor “just to be nominated.” How do you feel about awards?
It is an honor just to be nominated. In some ways, it may be the best part—like getting ready for a first-time date. Then, it’s all soft lighting and great expectations. After, you eat rubber chicken while trying not to spill on your expensive dress, listen to speechifying, drink too much, nearly sprain your ankle in high heels, and still go home without getting lucky.

You are interested in writing romantic fiction. Do you already have some ideas for a grand fictional romance? Something along the lines of Scarlett and Rhett, Heathcliff and Catherine, Sonny and Cher?
I thought I was writing a grand fictional romance! In truth, I like my mysteries and thrillers with a steaming side of romance, but I don’t think I could ever write a book where the romance was the main plot. My imagination seems to go too much toward murder and mayhem for that. It veers off the road entirely at the thought of Sonny and Cher.

Readers seem to love the relationship between my two protagonists, the female Episcopal priest and the “very married” chief of police. I think there’s something very compelling about the whole “forbidden romance” thing, where this couple, who are obviously meant to be together, are forced apart by not only their circumstances, but also their own sense of honor and duty. Whenever the tension slacks off on the main, crime-solving plot, I bring the romantic subplot to the fore, and that has its own rising tension. The reader, I hope, never gets bored. My goal is to draw you in tighter and tighter, until at the end you’re stretched like a piano wire.

You write a column for Crimespree Magazine. You’ve written about how to promote a book, and you interviewed humorous mystery author Jeffrey Cohen. What do you plan to write about next?
I’ll be doing interviews with a phenomennal Canadian debut author, Louise Penny, and with Golden Dagger-award-winner Arnaldur Indridason. I’m having a great deal of fun with the column, because my brief from editor Jon Jordan, was, “Write about whatever you want to!”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned now that you’ve been thrust from the silence of book creation into the hubbub of book promotion?
That an individual author can make a difference in his or her book sales. We can’t all rise to J.A. Konrath’s herculean efforts—signing at 500 bookstores, publishing a short story every five minutes—but we should all hear his message, which is: no one will ever want your book to succeed as much as you do. As an author, you need to figure out what you’re good at and how much time and money you can afford to spend. Then come up with a marketing plan and get to it. I’ve seen too many wonderful writers’ careers stumble because they didn’t figure that out until three books down the road.

Your debut novel, In the Bleak Midwinter, received an unprecedented number of awards for a first book. It begins with the compelling line, “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” Did this just come to you as the perfect beginning, or did you struggle over a way to start this now-legendary story?

Oh lord, did I struggle. The original first line was, “The priest was putting on pantyhose.” I thought that was terribly clever—I’d drag it on for a bit and then reveal—tah dah!—that the priest was a woman! Then at some point it struck me if the thing ever got published, the flap copy would reveal who the heroine was, and my little joke would fall flatter than a pancake.

I must have written at least three versions of a first chapter, where we meet my protagonist, Clare Fergusson, and get some of her background, and then she discovers an abandoned baby on the church doorstep. Finally I realized that all that was backstory, and the real story didn’t begin until chapter 2, which opened with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne arriving at the hospital to check out the abandoned baby that’s been called in.

Readers tend to comment on these being Clare stories, but that first chapter of the first book is entirely from Russ’s point of view, and it’s his voice that enabled me to write that arresting first line.



Your next book, All Mortal Flesh, will be out soon. What’s it about? Besides mortal flesh in general?
The title was originally All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, but my publisher wanted it to be a “big book” and evidently “big books” have “small titles.” My agent said I was lucky they didn’t what to rename it Flesh. As to what it’s about, I think the flap copy gives the best flavor of it:

"Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne's first encounter with Clare Fergusson was in the hospital emergency room on a freezing December night. A newborn infant had been abandoned on the town's Episcopal church steps. If Russ had known that the church had a new priest, he certainly would never have guessed that it would be a woman. Not a woman like Clare. That night in the hospital was the beginning of an attraction so fierce, so forbidden, that the only thing that could keep them safe from compromising their every belief was distance. But in a small town like Millers Kill, distance is hard to find.

Russ Van Alstyne figures his wife kicking him out of their house is nobody’s business but his own. Until a neighbor pays a friendly visit to Linda Van Alstyne—and finds the woman’s body, gruesomely butchered, on the kitchen floor. To the state police, it’s an open-and-shut case of a disaffected husband, silencing first his wife, then the murder investigation he controls. To the townspeople, its proof that the whispered gossip about the police chief and the priest was true. To the powers-that-be in the church heirarchy, it’s a chance to control their wayward cleric once and for all.

Obsession. Lies. Nothing is as it seems in Millers Kill, where betrayal twists old friendships and evil waits inside quaint white-clapboard farmhouses."

Do you have spare time? If so, what do you like to do in it? (We will assume that your husband and children come first, but what about after that?) Do you have a fascinating hobby or secret pleasure?

I have no hobbies. My secret pleasures are: reading books I don’t have to (for blurbs, convention panels, etc.) doing the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle in ink, and early bedtimes. I live a life of surpassing dullness.

Your protagonist, a woman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest. What have Episcopalians learned about women in the priesthood that the Catholics apparently have not? (Sorry, Catholics, but this is a fair question).
That the penis isn’t the necessary organ for ministering to your fellow humans and preaching the good news of the gospel.

Succinct and so true.

If we, two Julias, were to go out for dinner in Maine, where would you take me? I’m always begging to be taken out for food.

If the kids came along, we’d go to our fave place: the Super Great Wall Of China Buffet! All you can eat, no waiting. Try the crab legs. For adults visitors to Maine, one of the tiny restaurants that jut out onto the piers of Commercial Street, Portland. Enjoy the freshest seafood in the world while watching the ferries and tugs and lobsterboats go to and fro on Casco Bay.

Thanks so much, Julia, for answering my questions. I hope to see you at Bouchercon!

6 comments:

Bill Cameron said...

Hi, Julia. we're on a panel together on Sunday morning! I'm looking forward to meeting you!

(And hi, Julia, proprietress of musings. Great interview!)

Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Bill! How's the air at Bouchercon?

Julia said...

Dry, Julia. Very, very dry.

Julia Buckley said...

The Julia above is the woman of the hour, Julia S-F. Did you find it dry, Julia? Dry as in witty, or dry as in you were parched? Which you probably were, since so many people demanded that you speak. Your Sunday panel was great, and I'm so glad I met you, Julia!

Steve Allan said...

Super Great Wall? Really? Definitely Fore Street, come on.

Julia Buckley said...

Okay, Julia--respond to the food challenge. :)