Monday, November 19, 2007

Roberta Isleib on Mystery Writing, Good Food, and Sound Advice

Roberta, you are a clinical psychologist, and you have likened a detective’s work to a psychologist’s. Can you expand on this?
Of course! For about 13 years I had a private practice in clinical psychology. When a patient would come to see me, I’d start with this question: How can I help? Usually they would describe the problems and symptoms that led them to consider professional help. In the psychologist/detective analogy, this would be the so-called “crime.” As often happens with the crime in mystery fiction, the obvious facts often turn out to be much more complex than originally presented.

Next I would ask lots of questions about what exactly was happening in their life and relationships, and explore their history, going all the way back to nuclear family. This would be the “investigation,” as we looked for clues to their distress and tried to bring old feelings and conflicts to consciousness.

Then with the patient’s help, I would try on possible theories, looking for ways they might be bound up in old patterns and carrying dysfunctional history forward into the present: “the solutions.” Of course, no one goes to jail in psychotherapy—more likely, they’re cut loose of historical baggage and end up feeling a lot freer.

Very interesting! On another note, you were just elected president of Sisters in Crime. Congratulations! This sounds like a big job. What tasks will you perform for that organization?
It is a big job, but also exciting and a great honor! Over the last two years, we’ve been focused on celebrating our 20th anniversary with library and bookstore displays, the SISTERS ON THE CASE anthology, and many other projects. Now it’s time to look ahead. The publishing world is changing and our goal is to figure out how to continue to support women crime writers even as publishing gets more challenging. We will be thinking of ways to strengthen our chapters, help our published authors get the most out of their books, and educate our pre-published writers.

You do many public appearances. Did you have a great deal of experience in public speaking before you became a writer?
I had very little experience with public speaking before I became a writer. Ditto, promotion. My husband is astonished at how vigorously I’ve taken all this on—he calls me the marketing juggernaut. When I had my own therapy practice, I needed to market my services but I was horrible at it! At any rate, I’ve grown to love speaking about writing.

That gives hope to the rest of us. Your book Deadly Advice came out in March. What’s it about?

When Dr. Rebecca Butterman returns home to find her neighbor an apparent suicide, she's wracked with guilt. As a psychologist and advice columnist, she should have been able to help the young woman. But the girl's mother suspects foul play, and soon persuades Rebecca to investigate. Before long, the newly single Rebecca wishes she had someone to advise her as she navigates the world of speed-dating and web-blogging, where no one is who they claim to be. As she uncovers the family secrets that tormented her neighbor, she's forced to confront her own personal tragedies. In the conclusion, Rebecca's quick wits and psychological training help her to capture a killer whose public face masks a twisted mind.

Will your upcoming novel, Preaching to the Corpse, continue the series?
Yes, it picks up at the holidays a couple of months after Deadly Advice. Dr. Butterman gets a call in the middle of night from the minister at her church. He's being questioned by the police after going to a parishioner's home and finding her dead. The murdered woman was the leader of a search committee charged with finding a new assistant pastor after the previous assistant left in a rush. Rebecca learns that the committee was divided and has to wonder if someone tried to eliminate the competition.

I’m turning book three of the series into my editor this week, and I believe it will be out next September. Right now it’s called Line in the Sand, though titles are always subject to change!

Sounds good! I just started Preaching, and I'm really enjoying it.

Since you are well versed in both psychology and detective fiction, I have to ask you if you’ve read Crime and Punishment, and if so, what you think of Dostoevsky’s famous psychological portrait of a murderer?

I have to admit I haven’t read C and P :).

Oh, you have a five hundred page treat waiting for you! But I'm guessing you won't get to that in the near future.

It says on your blog that you are hanging a “Go Away” sign on your door because you will be so busy in coming weeks. Still, I’ll be sending you these questions like the most annoying of reporters. :) Is it overwhelming to have so many deadlines? Or are you a person who thrives on a tight schedule?

I guess I must thrive on it because I surely should do something to change it otherwise, right? It’s a very exciting time for me, writing this series, heading up SinC, working on the steering committee for the New England Crime Bake, promoting my books. I feel very fortunate to be doing something I love, and I feel it’s my responsibility to give back to the community that has been so supportive. I also want to give my work the best possible chance to succeed and so I work at it constantly—both the writing and the promoting. I will look forward to a slightly slower time after the holidays. But knowing me, I’ll fill that time up with more projects!

Your fictional protagonist, Rebecca, likes food (as do I) and your blog contains some recipes that look so good, I was actually fatter after I read them. Do you cook for your family? Do you enjoy cooking?
Let me first assure you that these books are no-calorie reading! I like to cook, but I really love to eat. And eat good, but not fancy, food. And I enjoy reading about food and cooking—I love the descriptions of cooking in Diane Mott Davidson’s series. Since my last protagonist was a junk food junkie and never cooked anything, Dr. Butterman is fun to write about. And she uses her cooking time as a way of processing problems. I do cook for my family, but not the way she does! I also love to bake when I have time. Especially cakes. I make a chocolate cake to die for. Or there’s the yellow sponge with whipped cream frosting and strawberries…

Oh, yum. You were at Bouchercon in Alaska. Was it your first time in that state? What did you think of the Alaskan scenery?
I had never been to Alaska and found it to be just amazing. As my friend Lori Avocato says, you can’t take a bad picture in Alaska. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to see the Kenai peninsula through the authors to the bush program. Gorgeous scenery and lovely people! I don’t envy them the long dark winter however…

I have never met you, but in your photos you look like a person with great energy. Is this something people have noted about you?
My sister told me just this morning that I’m an overachiever! I recognize that I’m very determined, and if I get involved in a group, I’m likely to end up running it.

Well, we all rely on leaders. What drew you to psychology?
I wandered through a number of possible fields after college—my degree in French literature seemed more like a process than a destination. My first job was in a bookstore in New Jersey. Then I went to the University of Tennessee to get a master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation. After working at that for a couple of years, I realized that I enjoyed the psychological part of the job most of all. So back to school I went for a doctorate in clinical psychology. My father couldn’t believe I was giving up all those years of school to write mysteries! I tell him it’s all being put to good use…

Your last name sounds German; I could not find it in my German/American dictionary, but I did find that “leib” means “body,” and the German idiom “Mit Leib und Seele” means “With heart and soul.” Are you a person who does things with heart and soul? Are you in fact German?
Oh, oh you’ve stumbled into my husband’s favorite teasing story! I do have both German and Swiss ancestors. At first we thought the name must mean “is stomach.” All of my family enjoys eating and relaxing, while his family has to always be busy, usually engaging in as many sports as they can fit into the day. At a family celebration a couple years ago, he was talking about all the athletic equipment you’d need for a reunion with his family. My cousin noted that Isleibs need only bring a knife and fork. From there my husband determined that the true translation of Isleib is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

That's a great translation!

Do your friends ask for psychological advice? Sort of like Charlie Brown asked Lucy van Pelt? What do you think of Lucy’s advice to Charlie Brown? Was it psychologically sound?

Gosh I hope neither Dr. Butterman nor I are like Lucy! She was a crabby character with a sadistic streak, from what I remember. But I’ve always enjoyed reading advice columns—still do. My character’s advice is pretty much common sense—she says people usually have a sense of the best path even as they ask for help. She simply shines a light on the path.

In a related question, you have an “Ask Dr. Aster” feature on your website, but you warn people that “advice should not be considered a substitute for therapy!” Do many people take advantage of this feature?
Very few! With the proliferation of blogs, everyone’s an advice columnist. So Dr. Aster doesn’t get a lot of business!

Well, I just may send her a question, then. Thanks for chatting with me, Roberta!
Thank you very much for hosting me Julia. You do a wonderful job with your interviews and I’m honored to be included.

1 comment:

s.j.simon said...

lol. did you know that chocolate was banned in switzerland for many years. read this