Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Elaine Viets on The Joy of Good Editors, The Love of Great Mysteries, and The Horror of Giant Lizards

You got your start as a newspaper columnist. How did you eventually move into mystery writing?
I got fired, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I spent a month cleaning the house, getting the dirty wax buildup out of the corners with a knife and vacuuming every square inch of carpet. My husband walked around in socks, afraid to wear shoes in the house. Even the cats went around on tiptoe.

One day, a man came to fix the plaster ceiling. His boots were dirty. "Wait! You have dust on your boots," I said, and shined them while he stood there. open-mouthed.

After that, I resolved that I would either clean house for a living or write. I started writing mystery novels.

I am much happier now, but my house is a mess.

Do you have favorite mystery authors?
Many. I think we're in a golden age of mysteries, and there isn't room to list them all. Here are a few favorites: Nancy Pickard, Michael Connelly, Nancy Martin, Sue Grafton, Michele Martinez, Harley Jane Kozak, Sarah Strohmeyer, and David Balducci. I could probably fill this page with the complete list. I thought Charlaine Harris' series about the woman who finds dead people was amazing.

You are from St. Louis , but now live in Florida . When I interviewed your fellow Floridian Nancy Cohen, she described the giant flying cockroaches in her Florida town. Do you have those? If so, do they make you miss St. Louis?
No, St. Louis has giant cockroaches, too. We discovered some monsters when we rehabbed a hundred-year-old home. What made me miss St. Louis most was the day I encountered a six-foot monitor lizard sunning itself on Sheridan Road in South Florida. That was a dinosaur, not a lizard. I wanted to go home to St. Louis where lizards were little. I didn't want to see reptiles as long as my car.

I admire that sentiment. Your husband is a writer, too. Does he edit your manuscripts?
My manuscripts are edited by Kara Cesare at Penguin. She's one of those rareties, a real editor who worries about plot, pace and character. Many editors are too busy to really have time for that, but she cares.

Don always reads my manuscripts for me and is really good at spotting typos.

I notice a lot of kitties on your website. One is described as your writing partner. Are the others envious? Don’t they have literary aspirations?
Harry, our striped rescue cat, is my muse. Or is it mews? Anyway, Harry herds me into the office each morning to make sure I write.

Mystery, my husband's cat, is too lazy to be jealous. She has achieved her aspirations. Meals are served at her pleasure, she has a sunny place to sleep and she never works.

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind that, either.

You have won both the Agatha and the Anthony award, and have been nominated for both of them as well as the Lefty, the Barry, and the Macavity. Did you know, when you started writing, that there WERE that many mystery writing awards? Does being an award winner make you feel you must continue to win awards? (And this just in: Elaine's mystery Murder With Reservations has just been nominated for a Lefty Award at Left Coast Crime.)

I was thrilled to win both awards. Being nominated is always a delightful, unexpected surprise. When I actually won the Agatha, it was hard to pry that teapot out of my hands so I could sleep.

I had no idea there were so many awards when I started, but I didn't know as much about the mystery world as I should have. The recognition I get from an award is wonderful. But I can't predict which ones will be nominated. I just try to write the best possible book. The awards come second to the writing.

Well said. You named at least one of your characters after a real person: Margery Flax. How did this come about?
Margery bid on having her name as a character in one of my Francesca Vierling books at a charity auction. The series was promptly canceled, but I had a new one in the works. I gave Margery the choice of appearing in my Dead-End Job series as a young babe, a police detective or an older woman.

She chose to be 76-year-old Margery, a woman who smoked, wore purple and liked sexy shoes. It was a good choice. Margery has been in six novels and two short stories and readers seem to like her.

On your website, you recommend that people tip hotel maids. Do we have to?
Aww, come on. It's only a buck a day. Life is incredibly hard for hotel maids, and your dollar can make a huge difference to a working woman. Plus, you'll get huge amounts of towels.

You seem to really research your novels, often by living the life your character must live. Is writing your full-time job?
Yes. I love it. I spent too many years as a corporate wonk in St. Louis.

Last year you suffered a stroke, but made an awe-inspiring recovery. How are you feeling now?
I'm getting better, thanks. Recovery is slower than I wish. I'm an impatient patient. I really appreciate everything that friends, fans and fellow mystery writers did for me, with the "tour by proxy." The cards, gifts, chocolate, balloons and emails really kept me going.

It is the new year; do you have a new book in the works?
I'm working on the next Dead-End Job and the next Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper book.

What are you reading now?
Just finished Sue Grafton's "T Is for Trespass." I also liked Stephen White's "Dry Ice." He's the Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime and I'm looking forward to meeting him. "A Dog About Town," by J. F. Englert, was a hilarious paperback.

If I ever go back to Florida , what’s the one thing that I should see?
The ocean, especially at sunset. It's gorgeous. My favorite Florida sight was a flock of pink flamingoes skimming the water at sunset.

What a lovely image.

How can readers find out more about you and your much-acclaimed mysteries?

My Website,, lists all my books, with a sample chapter of each one. There are also reading group discussion questions for each novel, and a list of upcoming events.

Also, I blog every Wednesday at The Lipstick Chronicles. My blog sisters are Nancy Martin, Michele Martinez, Sarah Strohmeyer, Rebecca the Bookseller, and Harley Jane Kozak. Drop in for a good read.

Thanks so much for chatting, Elaine.


Anonymous said...

There are so many wonderful, awe-inspiring images that provide writers fuel for their pages. But Elaine's remarkable story of recovery has to be the most awe-inspiring event of last year.

I'm sure Don would agree that your recovery, Elaine, trumped the flamingos.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I wish I could take credit for the recovery, but it had more to do with a very good surgeon -- and the help of my family and friends.

Jessica Lourey said...

What a great interview! The two of you make a great team, Elaine and Julia. Elaine--I ordered Murder with Reservations last week as soon as the Lefty noms came out, and I'm excited to read it. Have you ever read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed? Your series reminds me of that, only with mystery and humor. And plot. And character development.

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, Jess! Thanks for the compliment, and congratulations to you for being nominated along with Elaine for the Lefty award!

Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Elaine Viets used to be a columnist in St. Louis, home of my relatively new fiction and crime fiction blog, nearlynothingbutnovels.

We miss her column, but it was great to read the interview and I now have lots of books to make sure I read. Best wishes, Jim

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for reading, Jim, and I hope you glean much enjoyment from your blog.

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