Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mystery Writer Pat Browning on Good Writing, Great Food, and Beautiful Places

Hi, Pat! Thanks for chatting. You’re a former schoolteacher; what did you teach?
Two semesters of English at Sapulpa (Oklahoma) High School; one semester of English and journalism at Cleveland (Oklahoma) High School.

Is it true you can take the teacher out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the teacher? Or something to that effect?
I don’t know how to answer that. I never felt I really got to teach. There was such a difference between a real classroom and “practice teaching” as done in college that I just wore myself out. Every night I was grading papers, doing lesson plans and devising exam questions.

Some nights I couldn’t even do that, because I was selling hot dogs at a ballgame, or running a meeting of some high school club I sponsored, or attending a PTA meeting, or directing a class play. My tail was dragging before the first semester ended.

I did all that for $200 per month, which went a long way in those days. I bought a fur coat on the installment plan and wore that thing for years.

Mid-year, I got married, taught another semester, moved to Cleveland and said, never again! But of course Cleveland High needed an English/journalism teacher for the spring semester. In those days little schools always needed a teacher, and you didn’t have to fill out nosy questionnaires or suffer interviews about your life goals. Basically they hired you on somebody’s recommendation and you showed up in the classroom the following Monday.

The only extra-curricular activity I loved was putting out the school newspaper at Cleveland High. I could have done that 24 hours a day, which gives you a clue. I never took a journalism class in college but I should have gone into journalism instead of teaching. However, that semester of hands-on experience worked well for me later, when I finally got into reporting as a stringer for The Fresno Bee. I was a part-time reporter for years and finally took it on fulltime after I retired from a job as a legal secretary and after I just hauled off and quit a job as a travel agent.

But you are also a former travel writer. Where have you traveled? Do you have a favorite place?
A shorter answer would be where I haven’t traveled: Australia, Ireland, Egypt, Middle East, Africa (except for Morocco). My traveling was done in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The world has changed since then, so I’m glad I could flit around when there was still a bit of romance attached to foreign travel.

Favorites? I never got tired of England. I always wanted to go back to India, one of the most beautiful and surprising places on earth, but a second trip never worked out. I loved Morocco. The first time I set foot in Casablanca it was like stepping into the Bogart-Bergman movie. But if I had to pick the most fascinating place I ever visited it would be the old Yugoslavia. You’re hip deep in history when you’re in the Balkans, and the scenery is magnificent.

Wow, Pat! Your travels put mine to shame.

Let's talk mysteries for a minute. Your book is called Full Circle. What’s it about?

Here’s the logline: It’s just another Labor Day weekend in the small California town of Pearl, until discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder.

It’s about small town secrets and getting away with murder when you have money and power.

A common theme, that last part, because it's true! Did you have trouble selecting a title? Or did your publisher choose this one?
I self-published, so I had the pleasure. The working title changed as the story changed. The first title was Room Thirteen. The second was Skeleton Crew. For a long time the title was Murder in the Round. About a week before I uploaded the manuscript to iUniverse I changed the title to Full Circle, which was a good fit.

I didn’t check to see if anyone had used that title but the first time I looked for it on Amazon.com I learned that it’s a popular title. So many people use it that now I search for it by Pat Browning, not Full Circle. I kept hoping that a few million people would buy mine thinking it was Danielle Steel’s. Didn’t happen.

Darn. But you have completed a second Penny Mackenzie mystery called Winter Moon. Do you like the adjective-noun title combination?
I never thought about it. Winter Moon is the name of a character, and the title has a secondary meaning because my characters are Baby Boomers and their elders. Unless I change the ending, the only character with a speaking part who is younger than 40 is a parrot.

What conflicts will Penny face in your second mystery?
Here’s the logline: Small town reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery.

Penny wants to solve the mystery of a long-dead Chinese man, whose records seem non-existent, and she wants to find out who murdered someone who seemed to have no enemies. On another level, she’s resisting marriage to the man of her dreams (and occasional nightmares) because she doesn’t quite trust him.

Very enticing! What sorts of mysteries do you like to read?

Anything that isn’t about rapists, serial killers, cannibals, vampires or child abusers. I like mysteries that make me laugh, and mysteries that make me think. I love mysteries set in the 1930s and ’40s.

On one of your websites you describe writing as “an adventure.” Is it a good adventure, a frightening one, a miserable one? All three?
It’s great fun, a challenge, an emotional experience. Sometimes I laugh when I’m writing and sometimes I cry. I’m my own best audience. Still, if I can’t respond to what I write, how can I expect it to affect someone else?

Exactly. What are you reading now?
Watching the Ken Burns documentary “The War” cut into my reading time, but I did finish two of Marilyn Meredith’s Tempe Crabtree mysteries, Calling the Dead and Judgment Fire. I also read Emerald by Phyllis Whitney, and the screenplay “Good Will Hunting” by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. I have bookmarks in Death and the Walking Stick by Linda Berry, and two Collin Wilcox mysteries, Silent Witness and Except for the Bones.

All people, therefore all writers, have a food vice. What is yours? Do you munch while you’re composing?
My food vice is food. You name it, I like it. Now that I’m living in Oklahoma, I miss California’s fresh seafood, and red snapper. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for some fresh red snapper from the Central California Coast. Oklahoma is a catfish state. I don’t like catfish. Never did, never will.

I drive my two sisters nuts by complaining that I can’t always find good blue cheese here. Two years ago one of them gift-wrapped a one-pound chunk of blue cheese and put it under my little Christmas tree. I keep hinting, but she has never done that again.

Munch? Peanuts, popcorn, candy … I gained five pounds just answering this question.

And I reading your answer. :) Beth Anderson writes of Full Circle, “I’ve rarely read a mystery with such a profound sense of place.” Is setting a primary feature for you when you’re writing? I know that P.D. James says setting is everything. What does Pat Browning say?
That’s kind of Beth and high praise coming from such a gifted writer. Her Night Sounds is an exquisite book and one of my all-time favorites. I’d say setting and character are equally important. Setting does shape character and I’m definitely a “place person.”

For almost 50 years I lived in California’s Central Valley, where there’s a little town tucked into every clump of trees along Highway 99 between Sacramento and Bakersfield. The settlers were the Greeks, the Armenians, the Swedes, the Brits, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Italians and people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, you name it. Add the local Indians and the Chinese who moved south after the Gold Rush of 1849 and you get a wonderful mix. I didn’t have to look for my setting. I was living in it.

You have lived, then, in both Oklahoma and California. Are there any similarities between the two places?
I was born and raised in Oklahoma, but lived in California for most of my adult life. After my husband died I had no family in California, so I came back to Oklahoma, where I have lots of family.

The two states are as different as night and day. I do miss California. Miss the climate. Miss the lifestyle. Mostly, though, I miss the past. I keep reminding myself that life is a forward motion. The only way to step backward across that line between past and present is to write about it.

I’m doing some of that. A short memoir I wrote about growing up in Oklahoma won second place (and $50, I might add) in this year’s Frontiers in Writing contest. The contest is sponsored by Panhandle Professional Writers in Amarillo, Texas, one of the most helpful and supportive writers’ organizations I know.

Another generous, high-energy group is SouthWest Writers, based in Albuquerque. I wish I lived close enough to attend all their meetings and workshops. Their newsletter, The SouthWest Sage, is available to members in hard copy and to the world online. I was thrilled this summer when the Sage used two of my articles, one on writer’s fatigue and one on charming an audience.

Maybe I should forget fiction and write non-fiction. But fiction is fun to write, and you can say so many things that you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say in non-fiction.

Congratulations! You are moving forward in a very positive way.

Back to the place question: Do people accuse you of having an Oklahoma accent?

When I first moved to California someone said, “I hear the south in your mouth,” but I probably lost that. A real Oklahoma accent is soft and slow, with a bit of a twang.

Does anyone ever insist on singing “Oklahoma” to you, as I probably would once I heard you were from Oklahoma?
Never had that experience! It’s a great song, though, and we hear it often during this Centennial year.

Thanks for chatting, Pat!

My pleasure!


Vicki Lane said...

Nice interview, Pat and Julia! I enjoyed learning more about one of Dorothy L's interesting posters.

Vicki Lane

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Vicki! Nice to see you.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Terrific interview! I love Pat's book, Full Circle, and am nagging her to finish the second.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Lonnie. And congrats on your new book release!

Anonymous said...

Lonnie, I'll add my congratulation on the new book release, and I sure do want to read it.

Julia, Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about myself. :-D

Pat Browning

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