Monday, July 31, 2006

Vicki Delany on Choosing Titles, Living in South Africa, and That All-Important Cup of Writer's Tea

Your biography says that you are the mother of “three high-spirited daughters.” In mother code that can either mean that they were fun, or they drove you nuts. Or was it a little of both?
Both, definitely both. They are all adults now, and a nicer, more down to earth, competent group of young women would be difficult to find.

You say that you “quit Carleton University in a huff, in the middle of [your] final year.” What happened? Why the huff?
Secrets shall be kept. The only significance of quitting university was that I went traveling and ended up living in South Africa for eleven years before coming back to Canada.

Your titles are great: Scare the Light Away, Burden of Memory, Whiteout. (And Golddigger, coming soon). How do you come up with them? What comes first, the title or the book idea?
Titles are very important, I believe, as are covers. A bad cover and dull title can cause .readers to dismiss a book out of hand. Each of my titles has been arrived at completely differently. As soon as I wrote the sentence about the dog snapping at the light from the flashlight trying to “scare the light away,” I knew it would be the title. In retrospect that might not be such a good title; meeting people at bookstores I’ve had quite a number say something like: Oh, I wouldn’t like that, I don’t like horror. Whereas the title is supposed to reflect the character being afraid to shine the light on her past. For Burden of Memory, I struggled long after the manuscript was finished to come up with a good title using the word memory, because the book is very much about the effects of the past haunting the present. Perhaps I was subconsciously thinking of Anita Shreve’s Weight of Water, which I think is a wonderful title, because I was also thinking of using Weight of Memory. My next book is titled Child of Mine, and I had that title before I wrote a word. As soon as I formed the concept of the book – lost children – I knew the title. So it’s all different. And always exciting!

You are a Canadian, and critics have lauded your sense of setting. Do you appreciate Canada more now that you’ve written about it?
I can’t say that writing has given me many insights into or appreciation of Canada, no. I lived outside of Canada for eleven years, and that is what made me really appreciate it!

After you left college you went to South Africa and met the man you were to marry. Do you ever feel a sense of destiny in looking back at your life’s events?
I can’t say I do. I seem to stumble from one situation to another. I do believe in luck – I’ve always believed that I’m lucky. And I have been.

Of South Africa you have said that it “gave [you] an insight into to the politics of power and oppression that few Canadians get to experience.” Can you expand slightly?
We lived a nice, normal middle class life in South Africa, just as I had been used to in Canada, but there was also this strange feeling of being one of the upper classes. Not only in the sense of having servants, but knowing that you were more important (by which I mean considered to be a person of more value) than the majority of the people around you. I knew that wasn’t right, and there was also the uncertainty of living in a sea of people who might someday rise up against you. That worry was always there, usually in the very back of my mind, about what might happen in terms of an uprising or revolution. On the other hand, as a woman, I lived under more restrictions than my Canadian or American contemporaries. South Africa was a good twenty or more years behind the times, in those days a woman couldn’t open a bank account without her husband’s permission; pay scales were clearly identified as “Male” or “Female”. (Guess which one paid less). Politically, I am very left, what the Americans would call a Liberal and what I saw in South Africa – how casual oppression leads to violence and counter-violence, thoughtless stereotyping, minor cruelty, just because one can, religious justification for any sort of prejudice- has a lot to do with that. .

You describe your writing desk, at least in the beginning, as a place with a cup of tea and a candle. Did you write longhand?
My cup of tea and the candle were always sitting beside my computer. I wrote a few silly stories when I was in high school on a typewriter, but all my adult work as been on a computer. I can’t imagine writing longhand; I get a cramp scribbling a shopping list. The candle is just for mood.

What is it that attracts you to the mystery genre?
I read mysteries overwhelmingly, so naturally that’s what I want to write. What attracts me? Hard to say. In many ways mysteries strike at the heart of a community in ways that mainstream novels don’t. I like stories with a strong sense of place, and mysteries are very good at that. I like fairly dark, serious books. As a writer, I enjoy the Canadian mystery community very much. I’m a member of Crime Writers of Canada and sisters in crime and I need that support.

Who are a few of your mystery writing inspirations?
Right now, I love Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler books. She is really turning the genre upside down. Robert Goddard’s one of my favorites, and so prolific. Giles Blunt has done a lot to make Canadian crime novels appealing to a wider audience. In Burden of Memory I went a bit outside the conventional suspense genre with a ghostly subplot, and Carol Goodman was an inspiration to me to attempt that. I like English police procedurals very much, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Jill McGown etc. but I don’t think my work is at all similar to theirs. Although I have an idea for a police procedural in the back of my mind.

Like many authors, you have a “day job” as a systems analyst at a Canadian bank. What does a systems analyst do? Why do you love this job?
A systems analyst is the person between the user and the programmer. The user wants a computer system that can do a particular something for them, and the programmer can create it, but they don’t talk the same language. So the systems analyst listens to what the user wants and translates it into a set of specifications the programmer can work from. It’s a good job, challenging, worthwhile. There are similarities between a systems analyst and a mystery writer. When writing a crime novel, I always start from the end - knowing who did it and why before beginning to draw in the rest of the plot, and when analysing computer systems, you also have to know what ends you want to achieve before you can even begin.

Is it difficult to promote your books when you also have to work eight hours a day?
Most certainly.

Aside from South Africa, have you visited other countries? What’s one you’d love to visit?
I’ve traveled a fair amount, but only through Africa, and what’s called “the West.” I’ve always wanted to go to Russia – I took Russian history at university and to go there has been my dream ever since those days.

How are you enjoying your group blog, Type M for Murder?
It’s lots of fun. We’ve put together a really great group of mystery writers and we’re taking a casual approach to the blog – we’ll write when we have something to say. Readers can find it at

Will you be at Bouchercon? How can Vicki Delany fans find out more about her?
I’m not planning to go to Bouchercon this year. I was dithering about it, and now I hear that all the hotel rooms are taken. I intend to go next year to Anchorage, and I’m going to book early. I plan to retire in February (very, very early retirement, I hasten to add) and I hope to hit the road for a big U.S. book tour in the spring or fall. My web page,, has a calendar of my events, so please check it out. I’ll probably be talking a lot about my plans on the blog as they develop.

Great to know. Thanks so much, Vicki.

Author Raymond John's Mysterious Malta: Why It's the Setting for The Cellini Masterpiece

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You live in Minnesota and your novel is set there. Garrison Keillor says that Minnesota has three seasons: "almost winter, winter, and just past winter.” Is this a pretty accurate assessment?
The way I heard it when I was growing up was “winter and the Fourth of July.” The novel is actually set on Malta, where it’s almost hot, hot, and hotter than h***.

Your book, The Cellini Masterpiece, has garnered some lovely reviews, including one from Midwest Book Review that states, “This one should be made into a movie.” What makes your book a likely candidate for movie-dom?
For one thing it’s a good story. Searching for lost treasure is always fun. For another, Rick and Caterina are appealing characters, and the love story is really a big part of the story. Another reason is that the novel is very visual; it’s like reading a movie. Finally, any movie that showcases the island of Malta would have to be a winner. I think it’s one of the most charming places on earth.

This question is posed on your homepage: “Why …would one of the world’s richest men resort to kidnapping and murder to possess a drawing for an unknown Sixteenth Century work by Benvenuto Cellini … especially when the work itself was lost more than half a century ago?” Well, why would he? :)
That’s one of the main hooks for the story and it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to let the cat out of the bag. Suffice it to say, it is a plausible reason. Another similar question is why a centuries-old sculpture would interest Suleiman the Magnificent and a modern day terrorist.

Your real name is John Anderson. You’re not that guy who ran for president, are you?
I certainly am. I ran for class president of Minnehaha Academy in 1958 and got ten votes. Proportionately, that is more than the votes received by the other guy in his candidacy against Reagan, but a smaller share of the vote than Pat Paulsen got in the 1968 election. I guess I just didn’t have Paulsen’s charisma.

Okay, you had me for a minute there.

You have had a lifelong interest in Malta, which is where your Minnesotan protagonist ends up. Why Malta?

My favorite question. My Maltese friends ask it of me all the time. It all began with a childhood stamp collection. My folks bought me an album and a cheap packet of stamps. One in the packet showed George VI and Verdala castle. I was smitten. By the age of twenty I had read everything available on Malta, and when I went into the stamp business in my mid-thirties, I named my business Maltalately, or Malta philately. I didn’t actually visit the island until I was in my mid-fifties, when my wife and I made our first trip to England. I loved everything about the place. Best of all, I found the setting for my novel. The Bellestrado Hotel from the novel is actually the Soleado Guest House in Sliema. I’ve visited the island seven times since.

You were a military intelligence specialist. What did you do in this role? How did it help in crafting your novel?
I was a reservist in Army and Navy Intelligence. I was in a Psychological Operations batallion while in the Army reserves and we did Area Studies and PSYOP campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the enemy. PSYOPs is a branch of combat intelligence. So I had to train in field intelligence work. Mostly analysis, but we learned some operations, too. Rick would have training in both and had trained with Navy Seals during one annual training tour. Though he is mostly an analyst, he knows his way around in the field. I also worked in Naval Intelligence and did imagery interpretation. This also plays an important role in the story.

Malta is halfway between Sicily and North Africa in the Mediterranean Sea. Has it ever been linked to Shakespeare’s magical island in The Tempest? (Which has roughly the same location)?
Not that I have heard. Malta does have at least two important literary connections. One is it is the site of St. Paul’s shipwreck on his way to Rome. The natives nursed him back to health and he named Publius the first Archbishop of Malta. There’s been an archbishop there ever since. The other important connection is in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus spent seven years on Calypso’s island. This was probably the island of Gozo, the other major island in the Maltese chain. Tourists can take a scary staircase down to her cave. I passed.

Good idea. You dedicated your book to “WB Frank Ronich, a lost treasure that, alas, can never be recovered.” This is a beautiful dedication. Who was Frank Ronich?
Worshipful Brother Frank Ronich was the master of my Masonic lodge when I was raised to Master Mason. He was one of the most funny, generous, and meanest taskmasters I have ever known. Frank had dedicated his life to Masonry and seldom got more than a few hours of sleep at night. He died at 51 from sleep apnea. At his funeral, one of his friends said: “I don’t know who Frank’s best friend was, but he certainly was mine.” I felt the same way.

Your protagonist, Rick Olsen, is a Minnesota farmer who is thrust into a world of international intrigue. How did you come to create Rick? Is he anything like you?
Rick is an avatar of me as a younger, hunkier scholar. I never was a physical specimen, and I expect he is much better looking than I ever was. He has my interest in puzzles and codes. He’s a historian, and he has an eye for pretty girls. I tease my wife Evie by saying if I had met Caterina first, we never would have married. I tried lifting forty-pound sacks one summer and threw my back out. I do have Rick’s compassion and love of Malta.

Rick meets a Maltese cabbie named Caterina who has a sultry voice and has rebuilt her own car; based on this, Rick thinks he might be in love. Is it a woman’s car-building ability, then, that ultimately will win a man?
Maybe, if he’s a NASCAR driver. But Rick is surprised that she is willing to get her hands dirty working on a car. It’s her generosity and compassion and sweet nature that ultimately means the most to him, even if she is fall-down gorgeous.

Cat tells Rick that “In some countries they drive on the left, in some they drive on the right. On Malta, we drive in the shade.” Is this true?
It certainly is in Valletta, the capital city. Drivers will drive wherever there’s a space for their car. It’s really ridiculous, too. Malta has a great public transportation system. I wouldn’t recommend any visitor driving in Malta unless they absolutely have to. The roads are poorly marked and the drivers are a bit on the crazy side.

What are you writing now? Will there be a sequel to The Cellini Masterpiece?
At the moment I’m in the middle of a psychological thriller involving a young man who as a boy witnessed the murder of his mother and has selective traumatic amnesia. The heroine of the story is a psychologist who is trying to help him and finds herself falling in love with him. I’ve also worked on a sequel to the TCM, with Rick and Caterina, called Language School. I’m stalled and will probably not put as much effort into it until later. My next major project is the true-crime theft and recovery of Cellini’s real-life masterpiece, the Salari, from the Austrian National Museum. It’s really hilarious and I can hardly wait to get at it.

How can readers find out more about The Cellini Masterpiece?
They can go to

Thanks for talking to me, Raymond/John.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Denise Dietz Dishes About Writing Humor, Her Exciting E-Mail Romance, and How We Can Eat All the Chocolate Cake We Want

You used to be a Weight Watchers lecturer. I’ve joined Weight Watchers three times, and each time my starting weight was higher. What would group leader Ellie Bernstein say to me?
It took Ellie two tries to reach her goal weight. The first time she attended a party and saw her ex-husband and his new wife—a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader—at the party, and she scarfed up the party goodies like a recently-repaired Hoover. Then she binged for weeks, always planning to go back on her diet “tomorrow.” When she finally rejoined Weight Winners and reached her goal, she called her experience “WW II” – “Weight Winners II.” As for what Ellie would say to you, she’d say, “You’re a wonderful person, Julia, thoughtful, intelligent and talented, and you deserve to be healthy and attractive. But losing weight isn’t everything. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve achieved.” She might also quote Dave Barry, who said “The leading cause of death among fashion models is falling through street grates.”

I like that! Ellie’s significant other, Peter, is a homicide detective. Did you interview a homicide detective in order to create Peter?
Absolutely. In fact, except for the equestrian trophies [if you like horses, give CHAIN A LAMB CHOP TO THE BED a try], Peter’s precinct office is a replica of the downtown Colorado Springs’ office that was inhabited by the Lieutenant I interviewed. And the “Cold Cases” I mention in BEAT UP A COOKIE are for real.

You had a “short lived singing career.” What did you sing? Why was it short-lived?
My first singing role was in South Pacific. I was in the chorus of nurses, but the girl who played Nellie didn’t want to “wash that man right out of my hair” twice a day (matinee and night performances). She threatened to quit the show unless the director changed the blocking and let her hide her dry hair under a towel. I cut my red, waist-length hair very short and took over the part. I subsequently appeared in Kiss Me Kate, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, The Sound of Music, and several revues. Then I joined a British rock band. Our biggest gig was on a cruise ship. Our most popular songs were “Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz…” and “Happy Birthday, dear Shirley…” My career was short-lived because my husband—now my ex-husband—demanded that I quit singing and become a full-time wife. That ex-husband is “Tony” in my diet club series.

On your recent blog you mentioned that, in a survey you read of 3000 Canadian people, no one listed crime fiction among their favorite books. Do you think they were saving their favorite mysteries for a different survey?
The diplomatic answer is “possibly.” But I believe there’s another reason, and it’s not only Canadians who respond to surveys in that manner. I think people are “ashamed” or maybe “embarrassed” to admit they read, and in some cases prefer, genre fiction. Instead, they feed a “surveyor” what they think he or she wants to hear.

What are you writing right now?
I submitted my proposal and partial for the fourth Ellie/Peter diet club mystery to my publisher. I’m also writing the sequel to EYE OF NEWT. It’s called TOE OF FROG, a.k.a. “The Da Vinci Toad,” and it takes place at a horror convention. In LAMB CHOP [the third Ellie/Peter mystery], I included Aspen celebs Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. In FROG you’ll meet some awesome horror film stars. Can you say Jason? Freddie? Adrienne Barbeau?

I also saw on your website that you and Gordon Aalborg married at a writer’s conference. How did you and Gordon meet?
We met on line, through Novelists Inc. [NINC]. I was living in Colorado Springs, Gordon in Tasmania. We decided to co-author a romantic suspense. Gordon is the author of 20 Harlequin romances under the pseudonym Victoria Gordon. We wrote FINDING BESS via back-and-forth emails. Only problem was, I kept wanting to kill people off and he kept wanting to get them into bed. Gordon and I fell in love while writing “Bess” and, sight unseen, he asked me to marry him. I felt we should meet in person, first [yes, I know, it’s a “girl thing”], so I hopped a plane for Australia. I spent a month in Tasmania,. Whereupon, we bought a cottage on beautiful Vancouver Island and walked down the aisle at a NINC conference, surrounded by editors and fellow authors. Gordon wrote his own vows and I sang “Evergreen.” Finding Bess [by Victoria Gordon] was published a year and a half later. Lest people think Gordon only writes romances, under his own name he’s the author of CAT TRACKS, a gem of a novel told from a feral Australian cat’s viewpoint, and THE SPECIALIST, a suspense thriller that stars a caver and introduces Bluey, a Jack Russell.

That's a great story! I also saw that, like all intelligent women, you love chocolate. What’s your favorite chocolate treat?
Chocolate cheesecake. NY cheesecake. Baked. You’re making me salivate, Julia.
If only my husband would say that. You’ve been a Weight Watchers’ lecturer, so tell it to us straight: can we ever eat what we want to again and still lose weight? Keep in mind that what I WANT to eat is a big chocolate cake.
Eat as much chocolate cake as you like. Just don’t swallow it.

I knew there was a catch. What helps you concentrate when you are writing?
Deadlines. Also, I have a stuffed vulture on top of my modem. His name is Michael, after my first editor. Michael keeps me from overwriting, which I have a tendency to do. I’ll look up and say, “Oh, Michael, I love that sentence. Can I keep it? Please?” and Michael the Vulture will say no, you can’t. And the funny thing is, he doesn’t even speak English!

The vulture is awesome! Do you write regularly?

Once upon a time I wrote every day, like clockwork, for 7 hours. Then I’d shower and wait tables at night for 7 hours. I no longer waitress. My new “day job” is fiction editor for a major book packager. So I’ve had to learn how to multi-task, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Trips off the tongue, eh? Mul-tee-task. So does “dis-or-gan-ized.” Unless I’m way behind deadline, I take Sundays off to watch NFL football. Go Broncos!

I can so relate. You mentioned once on your blog a story about “walking the dog” as an excuse for not accomplishing things in life. Have many people told you that they’ve borrowed this analogy?
Quite a few. In fact, it was referred to on another author’s blog. For what it’s worth, the same philosophy holds true for losing weight. If you write one page a day, by the end of a year you’ll have written a book. If you average one pound per week, by the end of a year you’ll have lost 52 lbs.

Okay. "A journey of a thousand miles" and all that. What’s been your best summer fun so far this summer?
Is it summer already?

Yes. :) Will you be on panels at Bouchercon?
They haven’t announced the panel line up yet, but I hope so. It’s the only time I can play stand-up (or in this case, sit-down) comedienne. I love having people laugh with me. I’m really looking forward to this year’s Bouchercon, since I’m a University of Wisconsin grad. I’m told Madison looks a lot different now. So do I.
If you need to do that underline-link-thingy, my website is: and my blog is: and Gordon’s website is:

But you probably knew that :)

But it’s always good to remind me. Thanks for chatting with me, Denise!
A pleasure, Julia.

Friday, July 28, 2006

On Writing Mysteries and Raising Boys

These two things don’t always go together—at least not as smoothly as I’d wish. For one thing, boys will ask for all the attention you have, and then lots of attention beyond that. They want to wrestle dangerously near the coffee table, pick up the cat under his stomach right after he drinks milk, and see what happens when you blow in the dog’s face. (The answer to the last one is—he goes insane and bites your baby lip, whereupon you cry and leave gouts of blood all over the house like you’re auditioning for Macbeth). They want to tattle on each other and jump on the neighbor’s trampoline (blast the neighbor) and argue over one Lego even while they sit in a veritable sea of them, wave upon wave of unwanted Legos that are good only for adults to step on in the dark.

Naturally this does not allow one to sit at the computer for a long, leisurely time, at least not without yelling “Cut it OUT!” at regular intervals, and this rather breaks the concentration. So one must write when one can. And when one is me, that means I write in fits and starts. Not only am I sometimes called away by my boys; there is my mother guilt to contend with. It’s always been there, of course, ever since that first day when I allowed the doctor to circumcise my baby at the hospital and then felt miserable for weeks afterward at what I’d let those evil doctors do. By the time my first infant rolled off the bed while I was hunting for a pair of socks, my guilt was firmly and permanently in place. I called the hospital, weeping harder than the baby, and the doctor asked me in a bored tone if the baby was, perchance, vomiting. No, said I, and he said, “Babies have hard heads.”

Due to guilt, one cannot write all day long, especially not when cute children ask, “Can you read this to me?” You can’t ignore that, not unless you want Harry Chapin singing in the back of your mind all day about cats and cradles and silver spoons. Sometimes you can’t write at all. I’ve had a lovely leisurely summer, but soon I’ll go back to work and night school, which I call Panic Attack Season.

Ironically, though, when one is inundated with non-writer responsibilities, one can develop writer guilt. Similar to mother guilt, it niggles at the back of one’s mind (also, ironically, to the tune of a Harry Chapin song) and asks why there is no new project in the offing and why the old project hasn’t been polished smooth.

So when I lie next to the boys at night and sing them a few lullabies—yes, I do it, but not in as Julie Andrews a way as I’d like—I find that my writer guilt is there, saying ‘Get downstairs and type something.’ But there’s always a boy with insomnia, always, and he’s not that thrilled with the idea of my departure. So I become half sweet lullaby mother, half grumpy military mother who wants to leave. It sounds like this:

ME: (soft and lilting) Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling—
BOY: How can pipes call?
ME: (not lilting) No talking. From glen to glen, and down the
mountainside . . . PUT YOUR ARMS DOWN! The summer’s gone . . . and all the roses falling . . . ‘tis you, ‘tis you—GET YOUR FEET OFF THE WALL!
BOY: Who farted?
ME: (Not even distantly related to lilting) That’s IT. I’m getting your

And the challenge continues. Not surprisingly, there are children in every book I’ve written so far. I’ve been told I write children very realistically. I guess it’s from being in the mother trenches. Does this help at all with writing mysteries? Well, writers who are parents deal with a daily mystery—how are they ever going to get anythi

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Deb Baker on Sled Racing, Book Promotion, and Why She Doesn't Dance with Her Husband

Hi, Deb! Thanks for chatting with me. Your website says that you grew up in Escanaba, Michigan, and that “growing up with the Swedes and Finns who settled in the area gave me a unique perspective on their strange and mysterious ways.” What’s so strange and mysterious about Swedes and Finns? And don’t The Swedes and The Finns sound like rival street gangs?
Yes, they are rival gangs. Scandinavians really dominate the cultural flavor of the Upper Peninsula. Every household has a pot of coffee going all day in case visitors stop by. No one calls ahead or waits for an invitation. They grow rutabagas the size of watermelons and have pastie contests to see which are the best. Saunas are the center of their social lives and always the hit of any party. Everyone goes in naked, of course. All the women go first, then the men. I’m sure there’s a lot of peeking going on, especially in the winter when they rush out of the balmy sauna and start rolling in the snow. To find out more about their mysterious ways, you’ll have to read Murder Passes the Buck.

Your life sounds very interesting and exciting. You have raced sled dogs, and you use your experience in your mystery, Murder Passes the Buck. How did you end up racing sled dogs?
I was fascinated with the sport. I read about the races and followed every Iditarod. One day I had an opportunity to buy two racing dogs. Once the real mushers found out they could unload their worst dogs on me, I had plenty of offers and bought two more. After that, I was hooked. My four dogs would follow a straight path as long as they didn’t see anything of interest, like wildlife. A squirrel would be an excellent excuse to leave the trail and drag me through brush and wire fences (electrified, of course) until they had treed the thing. Every run was a new adventure.

Sounds like my dog. :) You have another mystery series, the Gretchen Birch doll collecting series. When I look at the dolls on your website for too long I’m reminded of those Twilight Zone episodes (and there were several of them) where dolls come alive. Does that ever happen in the Gretchen Birch books?
I keep the dolls and the story grounded in reality as much as possible, although the dolls fight it. That way my editor stays happy. No Chuckys. Several people have thought the French fashion doll on the cover of Dolled Up For Murder is pretty scary.

You’ve spent time in very cold places, but you also lived in Scottsdale, Arizona. Which weather do you prefer?
I love them both. Ideally, I’d spent the really cold months in Scottsdale and the hot ones in Michigan, but I’m never that lucky. I’m usually in Scottsdale in July and Michigan in January. When I moved to Arizona, we arrived the second week in July. It was 107 degrees and the apartment’s air conditioning was broken.

That would be my worst nightmare.

You’re a member of the International Sled Dog Racing Association. Do they have some pretty good parties?
Every winter weekend is a party. We would finish up the race and get together to share stories. My husband was the official bartender. The stories were unbelievable. Losing our dogs on the trail was the most common source of tales. Every weekend my first year, I fell from my sled and watched my team disappear around a bend. Nothing beats real life for an amazing story.

Do you own any sled dogs?
At one time, I had twelve sled dogs in the back yard. Twelve howling, energetic Alaskan Huskies. But the weather changed. We’d spend the fall months training on carts, waiting for snow that never arrived. And I got two writing contracts, so my time was limited. My team is with a friend in northern Wisconsin where the snow still piles up. I miss them every day.

You call yourself a “late bloomer,” because you spent some time choosing a major and graduated from college later in life. Does blooming late have its advantages?
Definitely! I can say that now, because I’m doing what I love. I don’t think I would have had the discipline and experience to handle a writing career if I had tried earlier. And my late bloomer story seems to be motivational to others. There’s a whole cult of us, you know?

You have two books coming out simultaneously. Is this as stressful as I think it would be?
Gulp. Gasp. Not at all (lie). Right now, I have a manuscript to edit and the third doll book to write yet this year. I have to come up with an idea for the third Yooper mystery and promotion is taking up more time than I ever thought possible. I’m working 12 hour days and loving every bit of it. I encouraged my husband to try out for a local play to get rid of him so I could work. He got a lead part. Hurray. And my kids are teenagers. They HOPE I go away and leave them alone.

You’re attending Bouchercon. Having gone to college in Wisconsin, are you pretty familiar with the Madison area? Will you show me around?
Yes. Yes. I know all the hot spots. State Street is electric. We’ll have a great time.

You compare your evolution to that of a fine red wine. Do you enjoy wine?
I love all wine. One fall I gathered wild grapes along the country roads. I had to pick six pounds of itsy bitsy grapes from their stems and wash them up. It was a lot of work, but the wine turned out awesome (and very potent). I was so jealous when Michele Scott got the wine series.

You married in your mid-thirties. Where did you meet your husband?
Sitting down. We were both at a local festival, wallowing in misery over recent break-ups, when I sat down at his table. We connected immediately. Everything was perfect. Until we stood up. He’s six-four and I’m five-two. We don’t dance together much.

That’s a fun picture! How does your family help support your publishing career?

As I mentioned, my teenagers encourage me to travel and they always suggest that I take their father along. Yeah. Right. I was a teenager once. They also have picked up more of the housework without much complaining. Or maybe I’ve lowered my standards without realizing it. I’m looking around right this minute. Gads! What a mess. Hey, kids….

Nice to hear someone else has a messy house.

You mention on your website that you have a menagerie of pets. How many pets do you have right now?
I have two aging border collies and two house cats. A stray cat and her kittens are living in my garage. I’m not sure what to do about that. We’ve also had raccoons, opossums, deer, and turkeys roaming our backyard.

Where can readers find out more about your two new mysteries?

Visit my website and read an excerpt from Murder Passes the Buck.

Thanks for the interview, Deb! See you at Bouchercon!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

REVIEW: How to Seduce a Ghost

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I interviewed Caroline Upcher at the end of June and read her book a few weeks later. How To Seduce a Ghost was a delightful surprise of a mystery with a narrator I will be happy to encounter again.

Lee Bartholomew is a bit of a recluse, even though she has parents and a boyfriend who wishes she would marry him. But she clings to her independence and her solitude and keeps the loveable Tommy at arms' length. Lee knows that she is "different," because unlike the average person, she likes being alone. Opposing this, however, Lee has many neuroses, and her fears make her long for companionship. This basic conflict in her psyche creates tension throughout the book, even before Lee becomes embroiled in a murder. Upcher, writing as Hope McIntyre, makes the reader aware of this in a wonderful first sentence: "When Astrid McKenzie went up in flames at the end of my road I was fast asleep in bed, dreaming of my mother."

Lee's neighborhood is Notting Hill, and Lee, as narrator, acknowledges the link to the movie with wry humor: "The film's mammoth success meant the property prices went through the proverbial roof in Notting Hill. Now anyone with any sense is selling up and buying houses in Shoreditch or Hoxton or even a loft in Exmouth Market." This is typical of Lee's sensible outlook, and yet her fears make her sometimes not sensible at all.

Lee is a ghost writer, and when the story begins she has the chance to ghost for a famous American star in a British soap opera, which can mean good things for her career, one which she takes seriously even as other people question its validity. Things become complicated, though, when she meets the enigmatic Selma and her manager Buzz, who is both sexy and frightening, and creates a major complication in Lee's love life.

In fact, I must confess that I found Lee's romantic problems even more compelling than the mystery (which is compelling enough); it might be due to Lee's rather vulnerable persona, which makes the reader love her even when they question some of her choices. Also loveable is the long-suffering Tommy, Lee's lover, who puts up with her neurosis and her rather distant love for him because he loves her, too.

I found How To Seduce a Ghost fun and interesting, and I had trouble putting it down the few times I was dragged away to make dinner or do dishes or some other mundane thing. I'll be looking forward to Carolyn Upcher's (Hope McIntyre's) next book with great anticipation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mystery Writer Lea Wait on Adoption, Writing in Two Genres, and Marriage to the Right Man at Long Last

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Hi, Lea—thanks for chatting with me. Your adult mysteries are about the world of antiques, which has been much discussed on DorothyL lately. Did you get much of your early antiques training from your grandmother?
I didn’t think of it as training; I thought of it as life! I learned a lot from observation. My grandmother was an antique doll and toy dealer. She took me to flea markets, auctions, antique shops, and antique shows. Everywhere, I looked and listened and learned. As a teenager I collected old postcards and political memorabilia, and my grandmother helped me buy some end-of-the-day glass baskets, which I still have. She also told me what toys I SHOULD collect – paper dolls and figures of current movie stars and television programs. I wish I’d invested more in what she said would grow in value!

Your biography says that your grandmother encouraged you to read Shakespeare aloud to her. Do you have a favorite passage? Or did you hate Shakespeare?
I love the melodrama of Hamlet! I introduced my children to Shakespeare, too, taking them to a Shakespearean Festival each summer in New Jersey, where we lived, and encouraging them to read each play first. My daughter Elizabeth had only been in the United States 8 months when she first saw The Taming of the Shrew. She called it “The Story of the Two Angry Sisters.” She got it!

As a young adult, you adopted four daughters from Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and India. Did you adopt them all at the same time? Were there difficulties with the process because you were a single mother? Was there a reason why you adopted four?
I adopted my children at different times, when I was 30, 32, 35, and 39; they were aged 4, 8, 9, and 10. I was one of the first to adopt after a 1976 change in immigration laws allowed single people to adopt, and, especially at the beginning, it was not easy. Because of that, I founded a support organization for single adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents to help them find sources that could help them, and be a support for the parents and their children later. I also advocated for single parent adoption and for adoption of older children. I realized in my mid-thirties that I had followed the example of Jo March in Little Men, having a big house filled with children who had no homes. But after four – I decided that was enough!

The pictures of your granddaughters are beautiful. How many grandchildren do you have?
I’m proud to say I have six – four girls and two boys – although I take no credit for them! Three of my daughters are married, and one is engaged, so there may be one or two more grandchildren in the future, but that won’t be my decision. I’m looking forward to the time when they can read my books for children. Coming soon!

Your books for children are all set in the 19th Century, while your adult mysteries are set in the present. Is there a reason for this distinction?
My books in each genre are very different. I’ve wanted to write a series of stories in which the setting was really the main character, and that idea turned into my books for children set in the 19th century Maine seaport of Wiscasset. They’re all stand-alones. The main characters are fictional, but the setting and all the people in the town are real. I’ve been thrilled at the reception STOPPING TO HOME, SEAWARD BORN, and WINTERING WELL, have received nationwide. (My next book for children, FINEST KIND, will be published in October.)

My adult mysteries, the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, are lighter than the books for children. My contemporary protagonist, Maggie Summer, is an antique print dealer who solves crimes. But Maggie and her prints also have roots in the 19th century, so my books really do have some similarities.

The Maine Sunday Telegram said that your mystery heroine, Maggie Summer, “may yet become a new Miss Marple for a new time.” Do your fans respond positively to the “gentility” of Maggie Summer?
Maggie is a very sane 38-year-old woman who thinks logically. She calls 911 when necessary, asks more questions than perhaps she should, and is constantly balancing two careers (she is a college professor as well as an antique print dealer) and her desire to be a mother with her love for a man who does not want children. She isn’t as idiosyncratic as many mystery protagonists – although she does drink Diet Pepsi for breakfast! – but many readers have told me they can identify with her. To have a reviewer compare her to Miss Marple is a great complement!

You wrote that “October 28, 2003 I married Bob Thomas -- only 12,994 days after we'd met. The best things in life sometimes take time.” Why so hasty with the marriage? :)
Bob and I met when we were in our early twenties. There was an attraction, and we became close friends, but he was married. Then I got married, and he was separated. He was the photographer at my wedding! After that the relationship was on and off, depending on the year. We loved each other, but we had conflicting goals. One of the main problems was that I wanted children (yes, like Maggie!) and Bob did not. He got to know all of my children but did not want the responsibility of fatherhood. When my girls were in high school, and emotions and hormones were high, I told him that my family and I were a package deal: if he didn’t want the whole package he should leave. And he did. Ten years later, when life had changed, I was the one to get in touch with him. My girls were grown, and I was caring for my mother. Bob and I had both changed. I was more assertive than I had been; he was more relaxed. He had cared for his mother in her last illness, married, and then cared for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after their wedding. We e-mailed back and forth for about 9 months, and when we met again we knew it was finally the right time for us. Bob has always been supportive of my writing. Now he does the cooking and errands and frees me up to work, while also taking over more than half of our antiques business, including our website,, and working on his photography. Our time has finally come, and we’re very happy!

You and Bob seem to tour extensively for the books. Do you set up your own tour schedule?
Yes, although last year I did hire a publicist to help, and made over 110 appearances. (We also travel to about a dozen antiques shows each year, where I sell my books as well as our prints.) It’s very important for a new writer to get their name out so people recognize it. This year I’m hoping to stay home more, and do more writing. I’m planning to attend several book fairs and festivals in the next year. That’s a great way to meet a lot of people in a short period of time.

You also visit many schools. What sort of presentation do you give to young people?
I love visiting schools! Students are so eager to find out how I became a writer, and how books are written and published. I usually talk about my life as a writer of corporate nonfiction, and then fiction, and about the process of writing. Often I bring “show and tell” items like a manuscript, with my editors’ comments or the 19th century print that inspired SEAWRD BORN or the 19th century dictionaries I used to ensure I’m using words appropriately for the period or the medical illustrations that helped me write about an amputation done in 1819. I also talk about the process of research – it’s more than just searching on the computer! Kids ask wonderfully honest question on all subjects. (“What did you have for breakfast to make you smart? How much money do you make? What are your children’s names? Do you know Stephen King?”) I love working with them.

At New York University you earned an MA and a DWD. What’s a DWD?
A DWD is a doctorate without a dissertation. I completed all my requirements for a PHD, but I was in strategic planning at AT&T, the Bell System was breaking up, and I had three children. I never completed my dissertation.

You once worked in public relations. How handy for an author to have P.R. experience! Do you find it helps you with marketing your books?
All experience helps, and I do know how to write a press release and understand the need for sound bites in radio and TV interviews! But those skills can be learned. I think my background does make me more conscious of the need for people to recognize my name, in order for them to want to buy and read my books.

What are you writing now? How much of the day do you spend writing?
In the past I’ve divided my time between antiques, research for my books, writing, and marketing. For the most part, those activities were separate, and each involved 8-10 hours a day when I was focused on them. I’m now at a point when I’ve done a lot of research, and need to do a lot of writing. Unfortunately, I’ve had a frustrating summer. In early June I shattered my wrist, and, instead of writing, I was taking pain pills, having surgery, and doing physical therapy. I still have a way to go before all is normal. I’m working on something new – an historical mystery set in 1865 New York State, for adults. I also have a Shadows mystery in the wings, and ideas for two children’s books. My challenge for the rest of the year will be healing my wrist, writing at least one or two of those books, and fitting in 7 antiques shows in 5 states, and marketing for FINEST KIND, which will be out in October. A busy time, for sure!

Do you have specific writing goals?
My fantasy is to some day win an Agatha or Edgar and a Newberry! (SHADOWS AT THE FAIR missed being awarded a “best first mystery” Agatha by one vote!) We all have dreams! In the meantime, my goal is to write the best possible books I can, and to get them out the door and into the hands of readers. On a given writing day, having done research and planning first, I write about ten pages. Sometimes I can write up to 20 or 25, but that’s under extreme deadlines!

Do any of your children share your love for antiques? (Or for writing?)
My children are their own selves, as they should be. One of them has decorated her home with a combination of antiques and contemporary items. The others aren’t interested in antiques now. One daughter is a public relations professional, so she writes every day. Another is a photographer. I’m enjoying watching them as adults, as they develop their own interests.

You sound like a great Mom. Thanks for chatting with me, Lea!
Thank YOU! It was fun!

Peter James Quirk: The Mystery Writer Who Met Dame Agatha Christie

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Hi, Peter, thanks for chatting with me. You were born and raised in England, and your photo, to me, suggests that you look a bit like the dashing Rex Harrison. Do people ever tell you that?
I am sure when your readers see this question, they will assume I paid you to ask it. But no, I was never compared to Rex Harrison. I don’t even sound like him. However, a long time ago, a woman once thought I looked like Charles Bronson.

And Caroline Upcher assured me she looked nothing like Angie Dickinson. I'm 0 for 2.

You’ve taught skiing in France and Austria. Did you live at a resort?

No, I never lived in Continental Europe, although I have spent some time there both skiing and writing. When I was teaching skiing in France and Austria, I traveled there with my students, usually a tour group from the USA, but on occasion it was an individual who brought me along to ski with him for the week.

What’s a beginning skier’s most common mistake?
The most common mistake is not being in balance. This is due to the fact that skiers don’t create their own locomotion, gravity does, and as soon as novice skiers begin to slide downhill, their natural sense of self-preservation causes them to fall back on their heels in an attempt to slow down. However, with all your weight on the back of the ski, it makes much more difficult to turn it across the hill, which is how you control your speed. Now one has to muscle the ski around, which causes aching thighs and hamstrings.

Okay, let’s chat about your book. What prompted you to write Trail of Vengeance?
Some time ago I had a very serious accident, which kept me out of work for eighteen months. I kept myself busy during that time by reading (I was always a voracious reader) and playing solitaire on my computer. Then two things happened at roughly the same time: I tired of solitaire, and I read a truly atrocious book. It was that bad, I couldn’t believe anyone would publish it. And, with an “I could do better than that” attitude, for the remainder of my convalescence I attempted to write a novel, although I put it away when I went back to work. However, when I retired, I pulled it out again, and eventually I finished a manuscript that impressed an editor at Hopewell Publications, in Titusville, NJ.

Have you been attending mystery conventions?
I attended Deadly Ink in Parsippany, NJ in June 2006, and I joined Mystery Writers of America soon after that. It was at that conference that I heard about DorothyL and I thoroughly enjoyed Deadly Ink and will attend other conferences and conventions whenever I can.

Have you always been a mystery fan?
I love mysteries—my favorite mystery writer being Scott Turow. However, I read other genres too: my favorite authors are Richard Russo, who wrote Nobody’s Fool, and Empire Falls, among others, and English author Graham Swift, who wrote Last Orders, and The Light of Day. The Light of Day is the story of an English PI who falls in love with a client, who in turn, murders her cheating husband. The book unfolds as though he were sitting with you in a pub telling you his story over a cold beer. It’s a master class in narrative, and I thoroughly recommend it.

You’ve also been a fisherman and a member of the British Merchant Marine. Your website suggests you “spent several years at sea,” which has a romantic sound to it, like you’re a character from The Odyssey. Was it a romantic experience?
I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie novels, and the highlight of my life as a seaman was sailing with her when she was a passenger on a British ocean liner in 1958. It was a ten-week cruise for her, London to Yokohama and back, and she assured me at the time she was taking a break and wasn’t writing during the trip. Much later, after her death, I was in Torquay, where she was born in 1880, and they had a centennial retrospective of her life and works in the local library. I checked through all her books and publishing dates—none came out in 1958 or 1959, so I guess she was telling the truth, although at the time I didn’t believe her—it seemed to me like the perfect time and place to write a book. I also met several movie stars and other celebrities when working on the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, but nothing compared to my conversations with Agatha Christie.

You own a ski chalet. How does one go about owning a ski chalet?
In truth my ski chalet is a log cabin in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. It was my wife’s idea to call it a chalet in the biographical paragraph at the end of my book. However, I wrote most of Trail of Vengeance there during the ski season, and it featured in the book as the ski home of one of the characters, a French ski instructor named Jean-Loup Caron. To answer your question, just about any house one uses as a ski home can be called a ski chalet.

And how did you meet your wife? Is she European or American?
My wife's name is Elizabeth (Liz); she is first generation American, born in the Bronx to a Russian mother and a Polish father. We met at a ski club in New Jersey back in the early seventies, although we didn't start dating until the mid-eighties. We were married in 1994. It was a second marriage for both of us; I have two daughters from an earlier marriage. Liz is a director at Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

You’ve been all over the world in many lovely European locations, but your protagonist, Lisa Rossi, is from Brooklyn. Why this setting?
I wanted Lisa to have a background that American readers could identify with, the child of working-class immigrants, so her character could grow through her experiences during the story. Her mother was an Irish cleaning lady who died when she was very young, and her father was a chauvinistic Italian bricklayer with a fondness for Chianti and women who couldn’t put together a coherent English sentence. As you can imagine, Lisa’s relationship with him was deeply troubled. Consequently she distrusts all men with heavy foreign accents, which puts her at odds with almost everyone she meets in her investigation of European jewelry thieves. Then she meets the French ski instructor, who teaches her about gourmet food and wine while he teaches her to ski and speak French. Before the novel ends, the new, more sophisticated Lisa works undercover in France for the French police.

Are you working on another book?
When I finished Trail of Vengeance, I began a World War II story about the French resistance in Brittany. However, I left the end of Trail of
open to a sequel, and there has been a lot of interest. So I’ve put away the French resistance story for now, and have begun another Lisa Rossi book.

Will you be doing book signings for Trail of Vengeance?
I have done several book signings at bookstores and libraries, and I have arranged to do several more—notably at the Long Beach Island Library down the Jersey Shore on August 23, and in Florida at the Orlando Barnes & Noble on October 8 and the Daytona Beach Waldenbooks on October 12.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

INTERVIEW: Chester Campbell Chats about His Nashville, His Writing, His Idols, and His Favorite Food

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Hi, Chester. Thanks for chatting with me. You live in Nashville. Are you a country music fan? Whose music do you particularly like?
I cut my musical teeth on the big bands of the thirties and forties. I also loved balladeers like Perry Como and Andy Williams. So my country music tastes favor the old timers in the style of Eddy Arnold and Ray Price. My wife is a pure country fan, but I'm not too familiar with the current scene. Music City references in my books are more generic to the broad picture along Music Row. There's a lot more recorded in Nashville than country.

You got the mystery-writing bug early, and wrote a mystery while you were still in college. Did you have a sense then that you'd write more seriously one day?
Hey, I was dead serious back then. I was a fulltime journalism student during the day, worked a full shift as a reporter on a morning newspaper in the evening, then sat down at my little portable typewriter in my basement room in the fraternity house, whenever I could find time, and banged out the novel. Seriously, I always kept in the back of my head (is that where our memory chips are located?) that I would someday be a published novelist.

You've mentioned that your wife is a great supporter of your work. Does the rest of your family help to sell the books?
Not as much as I'd like--I need all the help I can get. (Just kidding, I think). They do promote the books among their friends and colleagues. Now if I could just get my daughter with two girls in Girl Scouts to sell books like she sells cookies, I'd have it made.

The New Mystery Reader has referred to your work as nothing less than "Campbellish." Are you pleased with the fact that they had to create this word to describe the essence of your books?
I'm thrilled at all the nice things reviewers have to say, like "this is one author a reader can count on," or "he continues to write fabulous mysteries," and "the plot is fast-paced, and the writing is top-notch." Hopefully all my readers will find that "Campbellish."

Tell us about Greg and Jill McKenzie.
The McKenzies have survived nearly forty years together. He's a little past 65, while she's just under that milestone. Greg came from a middle class family in St. Louis--his father was a master brewer for Anheuser-Busch. By contrast, Jill's father was a well-to-do life insurance salesman in Nashville. Both are college graduates. Greg started out as a deputy sheriff in St. Louis County, then enjoyed (more or less) a full career as an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent (think Air Force detective). Jill studied aeronautics and operated her own charter air service during Greg's military gig. As an investigator, Greg is a no-nonsense, no-compromise, put the blame where it belongs kind of guy. The series starts after Greg is retired, and in book three he and Jill go into the PI business. She's a caring, understanding, non-judgmental person who is especially good at getting information out of women. The really fun part of writing about the couple is doing the occasional humorous digs between them.

Your Greg McKenzie novels take place in Nashville. What makes Nashville a good place to set a mystery?
Having spent most of my 80 years in Nashville, I have watched the city grow from a leisurely-paced town that proudly called itself the "Athens of the South" to a moderately-paced city (we're not New York or LA yet, thank God) known as "Music City U.S.A." Nashville is schizophrenic enough to cling to the old image while beckoning newcomers by smiling through its modern face. It offers lots of contrasts to play with while creating nefarious plots. I put the McKenzies' home in the Hermitage suburb and their office on Old Hickory Boulevard, both references to President Andrew Jackson, who lived nearby. But the stories take them to locations like bustling Music Row and the ultra-modern Opryland Hotel. You can read an article I wrote for Mystery Readers Journal on Nashville as a setting by going to

Like many writers, you have some manuscripts that were never published. Is there one of those in particular that you would really like to see in print?
Funny you should ask. I have one titled Hell Bound that has been making the rounds lately. I wrote it just before tackling Secret of the Scroll, which became my first published novel. Hell Bound takes place in 1999 and involves a busload of seniors on a church trip from Nashville to New Orleans. One of the passengers, living under an assumed name, is a former Mafia investment counselor who testified against the mob. He is tracked down by a hit squad that doesn't know his current identity but is determined to single him out from among the male passengers. If there are any agents or publishers looking in, it's available!

Among many other jobs, you once worked as an ad executive. What's the best ad you ever created?
I worked on several national accounts like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Martha White Flour, but nothing I did really stands out in my memory. One of the most challenging was full page ads for a local undertaker who decided to build a high-rise mausoleum. When we got through, I had a great time creating a parody using all the old death clichés I could unearth. Some of my colleagues were afraid the client might see it.

You've authored some interesting articles, including one about the trial of Charles Manson and his murderous followers. This trial went beyond the bizarre shenanigans of even the O.J. trial; what was it that made you want to write about it?
When the editor of Web Mystery Magazine contacted me about writing an article, she gave me a list of possible subjects, including such famous trials as the Lindbergh kidnapping. I did a little research and was intrigued by Manson's background and the shocking way he manipulated people. There is a subplot in Hell Bound about a mass murderer, where I had mentioned Manson, but I had never looked into his character. One of my earliest non-newspaper jobs was free-lancing for national magazines. This gave me a chance to tackle non-fiction once more.

You've met a lot of other writers in your travels. Is there a writer you haven't met, but would really like to meet?
There are two whose writing I have admired and have heard speak at conventions or conferences but never met. They are James Lee Burke and Robert B. Parker. Maybe I like them because I also use a middle initial with my writing. Actually, Burke's sense of place and Parker's dialogue have inspired me to work harder at my own.

You'll be at Bouchercon in the fall. Do you know what panel you will be on?
I have corresponded with Jodi Bollendorf, one of the programming chairs, about some ideas for panels, but I've heard nothing definite yet. Incidentally, my closest contact with James Lee Burke came at the 2003 Bouchercon in Las Vegas. I was a newby then with one book out. After my panel, I sat at my table in the signing room like the Maytag repairman. Next to me a long line trailed out into the corridor. The table, unoccupied, bore no name. When I departed without signing a book, I inquired about the line. "James Lee Burke is coming," I was told.

I think many of us can relate to the Maytag Repairman analogy. What are you currently writing?
I have just finished the fourth Greg McKenzie mystery titled The Marathon Murders. It involves a bit of Nashville history and a fictional ninety-year-old murder. The Marathon Motor Works built a popular touring car in Nashville between 1910-1914 before falling victim to mismanagement. I've also just written my first mystery short story titled Double Trouble. The protagonist finds a look-alike to take the rap for a murder he plans. I'll soon be working on the fifth McKenzie book. What it'll be about is a mystery to me.

If I were to be invited to your Nashville home for dinner (hypothetically) and you and your wife were going to prepare me your favorite food, what would it be?
The menu would likely include chicken breasts cooked in sherry, green beans, corn, tipsy sweet potatoes (spiked with Jack Daniel's), yeast rolls, and green salad (made with lime Jello, cottage cheese, chopped celery, and pecans). We would drink fruit tea, my wife Sarah's (and Jill McKenzie's) concoction made with peach-flavored instant tea, pineapple juice, and Marachino cherry syrup. We'd have coffee (decaf for us) with the pecan pie dessert. Y'all come.

Thanks, Chester. That sounds fabulous. :)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Interview with SinC President and Mystery Writer Libby Hellmann

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Let's start by talking about your new blog, "The Outfit," which you share with Chicago writers Sara Paretsky, Barbara D'Amato, Marcus Sakey, Kevin Guilfoyle, Sean Chercover and Michael Allen Dymmoch. Wow! What an august group. How did you all happen to agree to share a blog? Were you all just having coffee one day?
Actually, it was rather cosmic. I’d been mulling over whether to start a blog– I was hesitant because I didn’t want to go it alone. I also knew I didn’t want to blog more than once every couple of weeks. I happened to be talking to Jon Jordan (editor of CrimeSpree Magazine) and wondered out loud what he thought of a Chicago Crime Fiction blog. He thought the idea rocked, and suggested a few people who he thought might be interested in joining in. I followed his suggestions, threw in a couple of my own, and we were off and running! I still can’t believe it was that easy.

Which day of the week will you be blogging?
We have a rotation, which basically gives us one blog post every two weeks. We’re not updating it every day--that’s too much. I don’t think any of us wants to feel chained to it or feel like it’s a burden. Plus, we’re all still learning what works and what doesn’t. And we’re dealing with the inevitable technical glitches (for example, I posted for the first time, got very few responses, figured I’d ticked off the world, then learned something was wrong at the end).

You seem to have limitless energy. I base this on the following: you make many public appearances, you write novels, you are currently National President of Sisters in Crime. When not writing fiction, you conduct executive training programs in presentation skills, speech delivery, and media interviews. You also write video scripts, articles, and speeches. Oh, and you have a family. How do you do it? Do you just naturally have lots of energy?
I guess I compartmentalize pretty well. Although something always suffers. Right now it’s my writing. Sisters in Crime has taken up enormous chunks of time and energy. And my daughter is getting ready to apply to colleges, another huge investment of time, travel, and “household management.” And I’ve pretty much let my day job(s) fall by the wayside. If someone – an old client, or a referral – comes to me, I’ll do the training or the script, but I’m not marketing myself anymore. The one thing I do want to do is get closer to the writing again, and I plan to edit an anthology over the next year, instead of getting involved in organizations.

There is a photo of you on your website at the Ellsworth Correctional Center in Racine, Wisconsin. How did you end up speaking at a prison? Was the audience receptive? Did you speak about writing, or about crime?
That was one of the most interesting – and rewarding - experiences I’ve had as an author. It actually came about through the CRM of a Barnes and Noble in Racine. Two members of the Racine book group worked at the facility, and they thought my 3rd book, AN IMAGE OF DEATH, would resonate with the women… the subject matter explores what happens to women who have no options, who are desperate, and yet have to survive. These are issues the inmates are familiar with. I must admit I was scared out of my mind when I started . . . but after five minutes, I relaxed. They’d all read the book, loved it, and we shared a very special hour or two together. I would go back in a New York minute, but only if I have the right book to share with them. Which hopefully I will in another year.

Your most recent book, A Shot to Die For, starts with a murder. Do you generally try to begin your books with action?
I do. I believe a murder is the catalyst through which the world of the book falls out of harmony and into chaos. It’s then the job of the sleuth to restore order and see that justice is served. In that respect, mysteries are quite structured. I like that.

How did you happen to create Ellie Foreman? Did she come to you fully formed, or a little at a time?
Ellie came to life in my fourth book. I’d written three previously, none of which were ever published. In fact, in two of the three, the protagonists were male cops, even though I knew nothing about police procedure, nor very much about being a man. When I finally “found” Ellie, by way of a short story that featured her father, she did “spring” fully formed onto the page. It was as if she was waiting for me, rather impatiently, wondering when I was going to find her. I’ll never forget reading the first chapter of the book that became AN EYE FOR MURDER to my writing group: a scene between Ellie and her daughter. When I’d finished, they were all very quiet. Then one member said, “You found your voice.” What a thrilling moment that was!

What's your latest writing project?
I just finished a PI book that’s really a spin off from the Ellie series. I had a character in AN IMAGE OF DEATH, a female cop, who was working the case along with Ellie in a kind of parallel play. Her name was Georgia Davis, and I knew she wasn’t finished with me. She became the protagonist of EASY INNOCENCE. I just finished the revisions and it’s with my agent now. And now, I’ve just started a thriller that goes back to the late ‘60s in Chicago.

You have a beagle named Shiloh. I have a beagle named Simon. Does your beagle howl? Does he ever accompany you when you're researching a book?
He’s a pretty laid back Beagle. He rarely howls. Unless he’s chasing rabbits or possums. I remember when we got him, we specifically asked the breeder for the most laid back of the litter. He was… and is!

Do your family members ever ask you to put them in your books?
All the time. In fact, I’m originally from Washington DC, and my family kept wanting me to set a book in DC. So I decided that AN IMAGE OF DEATH would take Ellie to DC to visit a “cousin” and the plot would develop from there. Except when it was time to take her there, I got writers’ block. I couldn’t write. I did laundry, cleaned the house, went shopping, paid attention to my family. It turned out that Ellie didn’t want to go to DC. She had no reason to, and she was letting me know. I ended up not setting the book in DC. So much for family in books. (Except Rachel, Ellie’s daughter, who might be based on my daughter. Then again, maybe she’s not. I’m not telling.)

You used to work in television news. What is more stressful: news production, or mystery writing? Do you use your news experience to create the details of Ellie Foreman's profession?
Interesting question, Julia. I would say mystery writing is more stressful, because it’s my own work. With news, I was reporting on a third party, and though I created the story, it’s still based on someone else or some external issue. With my own writing, I’m exposing myself, my talent (or lack of it), and, to some extent, my sensibilities to the world. That’s scary. I try not to think about it.

It’s funny… when I decided that Ellie would be a video producer with a news background, I figured that would be one less thing I’d have to research. Of course, I was wrong. I left production just when digital systems were arriving, so I had to bone up on the new technology and what it’s meant for producers, crew members, and their clients. Still, to answer your question, of course I use my experience to help define and create Ellie. She is always producing a video of some sort in each book, and sometimes the issues inherent in those videos actually help drive the plot.

Do you ever give yourself a vacation? Or are you always working a little bit?
Vacation for me is not writing and reading other peoples’ work. I love it. I try to take as many vacations as possible. Daily, in fact.

Tell us about Sex, Lies and Videotape. (Not the movie. Unless you want to.)
When I was first published, I toured with two other first-time authors, Deborah Donnelly and Roberta Isleib. Deborah wrote a wedding planner series, Roberta a golfing series, and Ellie, of course, was a video producer. Hence, the name. They continue to be blood sisters… although all three of us are in the process of moving on to other series and projects. We’re in touch almost daily, and we share everything. They are two of my closest friends, and I’ll never forget the great time we had touring. They literally changed my life. (More about that later. Maybe).

How can your fans find out more about you?
What a wonderful question! Go to my website: and if you STILL haven’t had enough, email me.

You were on four panels at ConMysterio. One was "Promotions: What Works and Why." I wasn’t there, but I'd love to hear this speech. Will you blog about it some time at "The Outfit?"
Sure. Stay tuned.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Libby!

INTERVIEW: Mystery Bookstore Owner Augie Aleksy on the Realities of Publishing, Signing Etiquette and the Best Signing Ever.

Hi, Augie. Thanks for letting me ask you some questions for my blog. Since people might not know this, I should mention that I have gone to your store, Centuries and Sleuths, for almost twenty years, and it used to be right across the street from me. Now you’ve moved to a new location and I was lucky enough to have a signing at your store.

Now the questions:

Why did you move from across the street from me?

I needed a location with more foot traffic. I had done all I could to market it, but the location wasn’t convenient to many customers. Also, the grants and plans that Forest Park had for the Madison Street business area were quite inviting. I have NO REGRETS about the move. It was probably one of the best decisions Tracy & I ever made. Art Jones (retired now) Vice President of Forest Park National took me on a tour of the area before I decided and specifically told me what the business community could do for me if I relocated. They fulfilled all their promises. The residents, business owners, government, police, fire dept, etc all have one goal, “to make Forest Park the best it can be!”

What’s the most successful book signing you’ve ever hosted?
Sara Paretsky in February, 1992 for her book, Guardian Angel was our most successful event... The place was packed. Sara spoke about her writing, V.I., the recently made movie of V.I. played by Kathleen Turner, and she answered audience questions. Everyone came away happy & satisfied. It is still my biggest single sales day ever.

Your store features history, mystery, and biography. Does one genre sell better than the others?
Mystery does the best in terms of sales by book and dollars. I think it’s due to the availability of inexpensive mass market books starting at $5.99 (for now) far more so than in either history or biography. However, as our History Discussion Group and Meeting of Minds and other historical performances prove both history & biography can hold their own. Even some titles cross both genres, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City… and Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time are good examples of such works.

I remember that once your store hosted Sir Peter Ustinov and the line went around the corner and down the street. Was he the most “famous” figure ever to sign at Centuries and Sleuths?
I think that Steve Allen and Sir Peter Ustinov are tied for “most” famous guest. Both were very delightful people. Both came early and stayed until the last person left. Both took the time to speak with my son A.J. who was about ten at the time. But Tracy and I had debriefed A.J. on both personalities and their performances. They were very professional as demonstrated by the fact that they were up and speaking to the audience at whatever time was announced for it to begin. Both Great Men.

How many books do you read in a year?
I probably read in excess of 50 books a year. I should read more; however, as many people don’t realize, bookselling is a business, and daily activities take of much of an owner’s time during, before, & after store hours.

You host many writers all year long. Is there one thing that you would like visiting writers to know? Maybe a little book-signing etiquette?
I think almost all the authors I have had behaved appropriately. It’s probably not polite to put down a competitive author when promoting one’s book. Maybe, a bit more understanding about the difficulty a small independent has in operating a business like bookselling. Also, that author’s loyalty to a given independent over a chain store is most appreciated.

What can writers do to help independent booksellers?

Make their fellow writers aware that good independent booksellers exist. Tell them, if they had an enjoyable experience at that store, who the owner is and what they did to make the event good. They should promote independents everywhere because they keep an author’s good books selling after they’ve left the “bestsellers” lists.

Do you have a favorite mystery writer? Do you favor the hard-boiled over the cozy, or do you just like a good read?
Besides Julia Buckley’s The Dark Backward, I have a weakness for Sherlock Holmes mysteries and historical mysteries. But a good writer like Bob Goldsborough, Max Allan Collins, John Connolly, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Barb D’Amato, Andrew Vachss, Sara Paretsky, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Donna Leon, etc. always make reading mystery enjoyable & worth the time spent.

You have impeccable taste. :)

You’ve had P.D. James in your store on more than one occasion, and once it was for an intimate little gathering where she discussed her memoir and reminisced about giving birth to one of her children while bombs were falling on London. This was fantastic! How do you get big name authors to leave the big downtown Chicago chains and come to your store?
Quite frankly, excuse the expression, by “bitching and moaning” to the publisher’s sales reps and publicist. Once the author is here and has a good time they become somewhat leverage with the publisher. However, many times the authors are only directed about the country by the publisher’s people. So, again you have to keep nagging the publisher with pictures of past programs, details of what you can do to make the event a success and, also, your past sales figures for various authors. But even than it doesn’t work most of the time. So, if you think it’s a good book & a good author & I want them to have the Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore experience, I just keep pushin’.

Will you be at Bouchercon this year?

You shall be missed, I’m sure.

Which history books are hard to keep on the shelves? How about mystery?

The Speckled Monster: Historical Tale about Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell
Intimate Voices from the First World War Edited by S. Palmer & S. Wallis
Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

Donna Leon’s Italian mysteries with Commissario Guido Brunetti
Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries
Will Thomas’ Cyrus Barker mysteries

Your son is older now; are he and your wife very involved with the day-to-day running of the store?
My wife is very involved as I need her for special programs & signings. My son is away at college now, but when I need him to help and it coincides with his busy schedule, he does fill in. However, for the most part it’s a one-man operation, and I am that one man.

And a fine man you are. Thanks so much, Augie!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Tomb of Abraham Lincoln

I'm just back from a mini vacation, during which we visited Springfield, Illinois and many sites honoring the great Abraham Lincoln. I wondered what it was that made Lincoln's tomb so much more impressive a place than the Capitol Building which houses the current leaders, including the governor (I asked how often he was there and was told it was classified information; we got to look at his empty office).

I suppose the biggest difference is that Lincoln earned his reputation of greatness in his own time, but has also retained it for more than one hundred and fifty years. Few people, even presidents, can match his legend. And so, in Springfield, it is the aura of history that makes the biggest impression, and the omnipresence of that man who once made it his home. Lincoln's tomb, which we visited to see the honor guard give its 21-gun salute and lower the American flag (as shown in the picture above), was a sacred and beautiful place, and when we were allowed to enter the very chamber that housed his body, and the bodies of his wife and three of his sons (all of whom died tragically young), it was moving beyond description.

I suppose the most appealing thing about Lincoln, to me, was his enduring humility. I'll end here with one of his quotes on that very topic.

"I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day."
Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Jeffrey Cohen Discusses the Genius of the Marx Brothers, His Five Favorite Movies, and Nice Guy Sleuth Aaron Tucker.

Jeff, I read the book As Dog is My Witness, and it was terrific!
Thank you!
I'm curious, because I've been introducing my sons to the joys of the Marx Brothers this summer, and you reference them a couple times in the book. Were they a big influence on you as a kid (or an adult)?
I first "met" the Marx Bros. when I was in high school. Late one night, when my father was asleep (he was a store owner, and got up at some ungodly hour), I happened across "Horse Feathers" and was cackling madly five minutes into the movie. My mother walked in, took a look, shook her head and said, "your father likes them, too," and then walked away. My life had changed.

Really I think all modern humor stems from Groucho in some way. But I'm a bit biased.
Yeah, but Harpo is sublime. The Marxes will be featured more prominently in my next book, actually.

Oh, I'll be looking forward to that! My sons love Harpo, too, especially when he gets out his scissors. What I love about your book is that it's very funny, but you also maintain tension--with family, extended family, a murder, and a looming literary deadline. Does this reflect your life at all?
Well, luckily there's been no murder... yet. The books reflect a portion of my life, but it's all exaggerated. All of it. No, really.

One of my favorite lines in the book is "Being nice to my brother in law was like sucking in my gut to look more appealing; it had little effect, and it felt so good when I stopped." There's so much truth in that line, for men and women alike. And it reflects the fact that Aaron is not a traditional gumshoe, but a normal guy. How did you come up with the character of Aaron Tucker?
Well, let's see. I'm a freelance writer who works out of his New Jersey home, is married to a lawyer and has two children, one of whom has Asperger Syndrome. Aaron, on the other hand, is a freelance writer who works out of his New Jersey home, is married to a lawyer and has two children, one of whom has Asperger Syndrome. So it was all clearly random.

Honestly, Aaron was created out of a need to have someone who really shouldn't be investigating murders thrust into that role. And I couldn't think of a less suitable candidate than myself.

Okay, I think I can vaguely see his origins there . . . while we're on the topic, the book does much to educate people about Asperger Syndrome, or A.S. Aaron maintains (as I believe you do) that people need to keep a sense of humor, and that A.S. isn't a terrible sentence, but a challenge--a sometimes difficult challenge. Do A.S. parents ever thank you for your positive stance on this?
I have gotten a lot of really wonderful emails from Asperger parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends and people with AS themselves. It's the most gratifying part of the job. Yes, I think we need to address this as a challenge, something to deal with, and not the Tragedy of the Western World. Our children are not in physical danger; what is needed is better education.

Shoot--there was a great line I had found in the book, but now I've lost it--it was something along the lines of "The A.S. child faces the challenges of every kid, but MORE." I know that's a rotten paraphrase, but can you correct me, and can you expand on that a little?
Well, I can't quote the book exactly, but I do tell people who ask me about AS that people who have it are just like everybody else--just MORE. It means that for smaller kids, what would be a tantrum becomes a nuclear meltdown. A picky eater becomes someone who will only eat Wendy's french fries at precisely 1 p.m. It's a question of degree.

I hate to generalize the condition, since autism spectrum disorders encompass such a wide band of experience. But for my son and others like him, it's a question of MORE.

Back to As Dog is My Witness. Your book titles are all literary allusions, and there are many subtle allusions in the book. Is that the English major in you?
No, it's the Allan Sherman in me. Any man who can refer to the "Drapes of Roth" deserves for his tradition to be carried on.

You referenced Larry Gelbart in the book, and I thought, "Larry Gelbart? I haven't heard that name since back when I watched MASH." And then later you mentioned MASH. Is Larry Gelbart really a powerhouse in Hollywood?
Larry Gelbart is possibly the best comedy writer of the past 50 years. He also wrote a blurb for my first book. These two things have nothing to do with each other, but yes, Mr. Gelbart is a tremendously well-respected writer and producer, and I make reference to him because he is what Aaron hopes someday to become.

While we're on the topic of Hollywood, you do nothing in your book to diminish the image of Hollywood as a phony and disenchanting place. Is this based on experience? Does everyone have to jump through all sorts of crazy hoops in order to get any kind of deal?
Well, never having actually SOLD a screenplay, I can only attest to a small number of hoops. But like everything else in the Aaron books, the Hollywood plotline is a gross exaggeration of stuff that has happened to me. I've dealt with some lovely producers who are wonderful human beings, and... the other kind, too. Someday, I hope to be able to satirize Hollywood from a much deeper experience.

Well said. And speaking of partial stereotypes, let's talk briefly about the gangster Hyman Shapiro. There are some great comic scenes with him and his henchmen. Am I crazy in thinking there's just a touch of Meyer Wolfshiem in him? Meyer and I don't hang out at the same bars. Actually, Mr. Shapiro is just an attempt to defy cliches by coming up with a dangerous gangster who seems like someone's Jewish grandfather. I had a great deal of fun with those scenes. And the three bodyguards, whom Aaron dubs "Big, Bigger and Biggest" were only supposed to show up in one scene and be threatening, but they just kept nosing their way into the book, and I've gotten a lot of very positive response about them.

There are some interesting parallels to the gangster in The Great Gatsby. But I'm not actually assigning you books to read. Satisfying enough that you have similarities with the greats. On to a new topic: there are lots of pop culture references that we baby boomers can enjoy: I spotted mentions of Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, Millie Helper/Laura Petry, and Perry Mason. Is pop culture creating new types of metaphor?
Let's not get too deep here, Julia. I'm only 5'5", and could drown easily. Pop culture is a shared experience, especially since the advent of television, so it's easy to make references that a large segment of the population will recognize. The tricky part is making a joke that's funny, and not just something that makes you nod your head and go, "oh, yeah, I remember that."

There is more than one J-Lo analogy. Is she a favorite celebrity, or does she just lend herself to humorous comparison?
Anybody who lives in the spotlight that much is asking for it. I don't have a particular grudge against J-Lo, or anybody else, for that matter. If I were writing the book today, it might be an Angelina Jolie reference.

And by the way, I love the North by Northwest allusions.
That's one of my five favorite movies, and I try to get people to watch it whenever I can. My son just saw it on DVD and said it was "pretty good." But he LOVED "V For Vendetta." You never know.

Aaron Tucker does his family's laundry. Do you?
I do, in fact. I'm the one who's home all day. But now that the kids are 16 and 13, I think they're going to start getting a little more responsibility around the house and give the Old Man a break.

There's been a lot of discussion on DorothyL about prologues. The prologue has been much maligned in this dialogue. Your book has both a prologue and an epilogue (as does mine). Any comments about the value of prologues?

I don't think about them, really. I use a prologue in the Aaron books because there are things the reader needs to know that Aaron, who tells the story in the first person, can't know. I wouldn't not use a prologue because some people find them annoying, and I wouldn't use one just to use one. If it fits the story, I'll write it.

There's this great running gag in your book about how cold and drafty the house is, even though it's heated. It sort of reminded me of the house in It's a Wonderful Life. How did you come up with that detail? Did it just seem an appropriate way to remind the reader that it was winter?
That is a detail that is actually true about my house. And since I work at home, I notice these things more than the rest of the inmates. My fingers are freezing during the coldest part of the winter, and yet, I still must type. Pity me.

I do. That is very sad. Now that we're picturing you typing, are you working on a new Aaron Tucker mystery?
Not at the moment, although I have some ideas. Today, as a matter of fact, I have received the editorial letter from my editor on the first book in a new series. SOME LIKE IT HOT BUTTERED is the first of (at least) three books in the Comedy Tonight series that will begin in 2007 from Berkley Prime Crime. So I'm starting on the revisions now.

I love it. Is Some LIke it Hot also in your top five movies?
Honestly, I've always thought that one was a little overrated. It's good, but as with much Billy Wilder, keeps the audience at arm's length. I like it, but I don't love it. The other four would include (and it's a revolving list) Duck Soup, Young Frankenstein, Diner and probably Horse Feathers.

Ah, Duck Soup. Did you just call me an upstart?

I still like "upstart" the best. Alas, the song that goes "if you think this country's bad off now, just wait 'til I get through with it" isn't quite as funny as it used to be.

No, but "Hail, Freedonia," still stands the test of time.

It all comes back to the Marx Brothers. I'm almost finished pummeling you with questions. Does your family help you promote your books?
My family hides in the basement while I'm promoting books and hopes it'll be over soon, like an air raid. They help, in that they put up with me not being around a lot after a book comes out. Feel free to pummel away.

It seems like you get some significant fan mail. What's the most memorable letter you've received?
My favorite, I think, was from a woman who said she'd been having a rough day and picked up FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS to lighten her mood. She said it helped, and the reason she'd been a little down was that her son, coincidentally, had been diagnosed THAT DAY with AS. She said it helped her realize they'd get through it. Doesn't get much better than that for a writer.

Wow, that's fantastic.

I don't have a LOT of fans, but the ones that are there are loyal. Like Cleavon Little said in BLAZING SADDLES, "I'm becoming an underground success in this here town."

Oh my gosh, Cleavon Little! Haven't heard that name in a while.

Back to the Marx Brothers--I recently watched some extras on my Night at the Opera DVD, and some experts were suggesting that Margaret Dumont was such a great straight woman because she didn't get the jokes. I don't buy it. What do you think?There are conflicting stories about Miss Dumont. Groucho insisted she didn't understand the jokes, while other insiders say just as vehemently that she couldn't have been that good if she didn't know what she was setting up. I think she was a lot more savvy than she let on, but knew not to puncture the illusion. But that's just a guess.

Do you think Margaret was an important part of the humor? I tend not to like the movies that don't contain her--at least not as much.
She was important to Groucho, who needed a figure of authority to lambast. I think Harpo and to a lesser degree Chico could stand on their own, although they have some great scenes with her in ANIMAL CRACKERS.

I don't know--MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS are among my favorites, so I can't say her absence was terribly damaging.

Not to dwell too long on this, but you make a great point there about needing to lambast a figure of authority. Richard Schickel (I think) recently wrote an essay in TIME Magzine in response to the latest Pirates movie, saying that we are forgetting what humor is in the wake of special effects, and that all Charlie Chaplin needed was a bench, a woman, and a cop--and the cop was there so that he could rebel against authority. Groucho knew that secret, too.
Sure. It's important to have someone stuffy and pompous, or mean, to make jokes about. In the Aaron books, I do that with Lt. Gerry Westbrook, who's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

I think in the same way you tap into the need for the average person (and in Groucho's case, during the Depression, that was the poor person) wanted to rebel against a higher-up. In your book, aside from Westbrook, you did it beautifully with the annoying brother, Howard. Okay, now I'm just making statements instead of asking questions.

Abby's brother Howard is there so he can react to (Aaron's son) Ethan's AS in a way I've seen some people react to my own son's AS: with too much sympathy. They treat him like the Poor Afflicted Child, and he sees right through that.

He's also there so Aaron and Abby can have a LITTLE friction in their marriage, as some people have complained that Aaron loves Abby TOO MUCH, a concept I have a little difficulty with.

But Howard is also a rude and annoying brother-in-law, and lots of people have those.
Sure. I'd like to be clear in that I DON'T have a rude and annoying brother-in-law, and I can prove it: I don't have ANY brother-in-law.

It's interesting that people complained about his love for his wife--do they find that unrealistic?
They think that it lessens Aaron as a character, to some degree, that it makes him seem less forceful or weak in some way. Some reviewers have also complained that Aaron tends to dwell on Abby's looks, but I think they're missing the point. Aaron loves his wife for everything she is, not just because of the way she looks. I've always been amazed that everyone takes Aaron at his word about Abby, that they don't assume he's looking at her through romantically rose-colored glasses. He's telling the story; isn't it possible his point of view is a little skewed?

Well, yes, and it's wonderful to see a male protagonist who is so devoted to his family. He's not only in love with his wife, he's in love with his kids, and I think that is great, even necessary, for people to see.
I was so tired of the alcoholic, beaten-down-by-love protagonist who lamented on and on about how life had treated him badly. And they think that Aaron is weak because he can sustain a loving relationship with his wife and children? Maybe it's me.

One more thing, Jeff. I found Aaron Tucker totally believable as a fictional character, and I didn't ever feel the need, as I was reading, to say, "This is really Jeffrey Cohen." However, there were one or two spots where I thought, "Okay, this IS Jeff talking through Aaron." One was when you discussed Ritalin. Do readers ever say they hear your voice popping through Aaron's?

Well, some readers think EVERYTHING Aaron says is just me channeling. They see that my circumstances, which I've borrowed for Aaron, are like his, and they assume he's just me with a different name. Maybe they have a point, but has there ever been a fictional character who DIDN'T come from somewhere inside the author's brain?

It's natural, too, that Aaron and I share some opinions. So if he feels, as I do, that every parent needs to make a choice about medication for their children, and everyone else should work very hard at NOT passing judgment on that choice--no matter what it is--is that me speaking through Aaron, or is it Aaron voicing an opinion we happen to share?

That's a good distinction.

Well, Jeff, is there a topic we haven't covered that you would like to cover? Shall we discuss summer movies? Favorite tv shows? Favorite foods? Places you've loved outside of New Jersey?
The summer movies so far have been a little disappointing, although I thought SUPERMAN RETURNS was better than the reviews said it would be. Favorite TV show: at the moment, THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART. Favorite foods: anything that's bad for me. Places I've loved: just got back from Rome a few weeks ago. That's hard to top.

Did you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain? Jon Stewart is great--do you also like Stephen Colbert?
I like Colbert, but I have to take him in smaller doses. He's playing a character, and that can get to be a little much. Did, indeed, throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. That means I'll be back, right?

I think it does, which is a lovely thought. Jeff, thanks so much for answering all my questions. Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
They can find out WAY too much about me at whenever they like, and find my books on the online sites and (hopefully) at their local bookstores. Thank you for asking such insightful and interesting questions. It's been a pleasure.