Monday, September 29, 2008

Farewell, September Old Friend

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."

--John Updike, September

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Praise from Dorothy Sayers

In case any mystery writers were ever to question their calling, the queen of the genre has words of inspiration:

"Detective authors, by the way, are nearly all as good as gold, because it is part of their job to believe and to maintain that your sins will find you out."

--Introduction, The Third Omnibus of Crime, 1935

"In detective stories, virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have."

--Lord Peter Wimsey, Strong Poison, 1930

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Fast Food Mystery

I know all of the problems with fast food. I've watched Super Size Me, and I've heard the criticisms of parents who let their children eat McNuggets. Sometimes, though, I still purchase fast food. It's not because I think it is delicious, and I am not swayed by annoying commercials. When I buy fast food it's because it is a convenient way of providing a meal in a day that has no breaks scheduled. If I am driving from work to night school and my children still need dinner (and I don't have a personal private chef), I will, yes, go to a burger joint drive-through window. It's not that I think it's great mothering--it's just mothering. They need food, I don't have time to make it, McDonalds here I come.

Today was one of those busy days. Despite the fact that it's a Saturday, I had to work this morning. I taught two sessions of grammar and writing for students preparing for the PSAT; after four hours it was lunchtime and my children were waiting ravenously at home. Grocery shopping was also on my list, so fast food seemed a reliable option.

Here's the mystery of fast food, though: they never, ever get the order right. Sometimes I'll be smart and sit there, risking the beeps of the cars behind me, making sure that everything in the bag looks correct (which takes a while when you've ordered for a whole family). Other times, though, I take things for granted that I should not, and later I have an unpleasant surprise.

Often the mistake will result in a strained relationship between me and my children. "I TOLD you nothing but ketchup," my son will wail. Then he will refuse to eat his burger, which is contaminated by vegetables. Today, though, it was I who had the unpleasant surprise. I unwrapped my straw, inserted it into my drink, and found that it was not the diet soda I requested, but regular. Since I hate the extra-sugary taste of regular pop, I didn't drink it. I was thirsty, too.

With a sigh I opened the little box that said "Chicken sandwich." Foolishly, I had assumed that a chicken sandwich would be inside. One bite, however, told me that it was fish. Thanks to either poor listening skills or poor preparation, my lunch was not at all what I ordered. I didn't eat it. I'm still hungry.

If I compiled a chart of all the times that what I order at the window is not what I actually receive, I think 50% would be a low and generous estimate. It is almost a constant. As pervasive as fast food is the reality of poor customer service and almost constant disappointment.

I understand this about fast food culture, and I know I am taking myriad risks, health-related and otherwise, just by driving into the line.

But just once, just once, I'd like to get food which looks the way it does on tv commercials, which is hot and fragrant and correct to the last detail. I've accepted the fact that it will never happen, but I still dream of that alternate world.

And now I still have to figure out what to have for lunch when the larder is bare.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mysterious Encounter

Let's say you could have one of the following experiences of jumping into a fictional world. Which one would you choose?

Tea with Miss Marple

A game of chess with Philip Marlowe

A long drive with Lou Archer

A hike in the woods with Adam Dalgliesh

Dinner made for you by Spenser

A romantic weekend with Richard Jury

A day at the beach with Kinsey Millhone

A pajama party with Stephanie Plum

Insert your fictional fantasy here

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mystery Writer Deborah Sharp Chats About Journalism, Zombies, and A Florida That's Gone

Hi, Deborah! Thanks for chatting with me.

You were a reporter for USA Today, but you “quit the news biz to write mysteries.” Were you thinking that would be a step up in salary? :)

Ha! I never was very good at math.

Seriously, though, what made you want to write a mystery?

I think after 20 years in journalism, I just got tired of all the sad stories and tragedies affecting real people. I wanted to write fiction, and I wanted it to be light.

Your book, Mama Does Time, will soon be on store shelves. You’ve described the series as “Agatha Christie meets My Name is Earl.” That means funny mysteries! Did you laugh while you were writing them?

That really is one of the best things about writing the series, getting a giggle every now and then. Not that writing still isn’t hard work, but I do chuckle when I type a line like, “Mama’s head swiveled like a one-eyed dog in a butcher shop.’’

That's a good one. You live in Florida, and you say that you are writing about a Florida that has all but disappeared. Where did it go?

It’s buried under concrete and asphalt, unfortunately. I grew up riding horses in orange groves on land that’s now all strip malls and housing developments. Natural Florida is still out there, but it’s harder and harder to find.

The “Mama” in question has three daughters: Mace, Maddie, and Marty. How did you arrive on the M motif for your character names?

I only found out after I wrote the book I’d violated a cardinal sin: giving my characters similar names. Oops! Two reasons I did it: Using family surnames as first names is a “Southern thang,’’ and the sisters’ names are shortened versions of Mason, Madison and Martin. (That their names show up nowhere in their own family history is a whole ‘nother story). Secondly, Mama wanted to save money on monogramming.

Mama is thrifty! It seems that while the daughters are bailing Mama out of trouble, they might have some romantic adventures of their own. Do you have romantic plans for all of the girls?

Well, Mace is the only single daughter, so she’s most likely to have romantic adventures (or, in her case, misadventures, since she commonly watches “Cops’’ on TV to check for exes.) But I do have some entanglements up my sleeve for at least one of the other sisters. .

Is each one of the daughters a sleuth, or will one of them take the reins in helping to save Mama from her predicaments?

Mace is pretty much the family sleuth, but her two sisters take more active roles as the series progresses.

How did you come up with this amusing premise? Did it occur to you on a train, the way Harry Potter occurred to JK Rowling?

I was looking through the newspaper one day for short-story ideas (a great writing exercise: use the most basic facts in the paper and expand into fiction by asking yourself the question: What if?) Anyway, I came across this great half-page color ad of an older woman driving a turquoise convertible, eyes filled with mischief, mouth open in a joyous laugh. That woman became Mama, and the roomy trunk of her convertible became the final resting place for the series’ first murder victim.

Hilarious! Mystery writers are always looking for a place to stow the body, aren't they?

You had a Master’s in psychology and were on your way to a Ph.D when you switched to journalism. Why the change?

That’s a long story. Short version: I got bored.

Your husband is also a journalist. How did you meet? Do two journalists always have fascinating dinner conversation?

Hmmm, fascinating conversation … you mean beyond “It’s your turn to clean up. Why do I always have to do EVERYTHING around here?’’

Just kidding. We’ve been married for 20 happy years. We met on a story in Immokalee, Fla., where we shivered at dawn, waiting to see if a rare freeze in southern Florida would kill the winter vegetable crop.

That's actually kind of romantic.

On a different Florida note, you describe your area of Florida as “swimming with mosquitoes.” Are you trying to prevent me from ever visiting there?

I did take a bit of literary license when I wrote that the mosquitoes would carry away a VW bug to get at the people inside. Just bring an industrial-sized container of Cutter (and a Hazmat suit) and you should be fine.

Ick. It looks beautiful in the pictures, but the mosquitoes don't show up on those, do they?

You must have done hundreds of interviews as a journalist. Do you have a favorite, or a most memorable one?

I’ve interviewed politicians, including former presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush I), and celebrities (Madonna once gave me her tummy-trimming tips). But the interviews that affected me most were always ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, like families struggling after natural disasters or with the devastating death or injury of a loved one.

On a lighter note, my favorite assignment ever was interviewing film director George Romero, because he cast me as a zombie in Day of the Dead as part of my story. I lurched beautifully.

Wow! My husband would be SO jealous! That's one of his all-time favorite movies.

Your Mama series continues next year with Mama Rides Shotgun. Will you ever pursue a different series, or are you focused on the Mama books for the time being?

I’m still loving my Mace Bauer Mystery series. (Even though Mama thinks she’s the main character, her daughter Mace is the actual protagonist.)

I’m working now on Book 3, Mama Gets Hitched, in which she’s fixin’ to marry Husband No. 5. The wedding has a Gone With the Wind theme, complete with ruffled parasols for her bridesmaid-daughters and a doggy top hat for her pet Pomeranian, Teensy, in his role as ring-bearer. Mace—-tomboyish, no frills—-is horrified, of course.

Oh yeah, there’ll be a murder, too. I did mention my books are not dark, right?

Sounds perfect. :) What are you reading right now?

I just finished a terrific book by fellow Florida author, Prudy Taylor Board. A Grave Injustice. It’s a paranormal mystery, which is kind of a departure for me, but I liked it.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Promoting Mama Does Time, laying some groundwork for the Summer 2009 release of Mama Rides Shotgun, and trying to finish Mama Gets Hitched. Somewhere in there, I’ll try to remember the little things, like eating and sleeping.

Thanks so much for the interview, Deborah!

Readers can visit Deborah at her website or they can read Mama's advice column to get a sense of her character's voice.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sophia's Mystique

Happy Birthday to the beautiful Sophia Loren, who turns 74 today. I have always enjoyed this actress, not only because she was a model of loveliness in her films, but because she always had an aura of dignity and an air of mystery. One of her most mysterious films was Arabesque, in which she was paired with the dashing Gregory Peck (after Cary Grant turned down the role). Peck played a professor who helped decode ancient hieroglyphics with Loren's glamorous spy character, Yazmin.

Loren should have been cast in more mysteries, because her face was perfect for films of intrigue (and it is not certain whether or not one can trust her in this film). This was also a humorous movie, though, and Loren was surprisingly good at comedy.

I sometimes yearn for the stylish movies of the sixties, especially those with scores by the great Henry Mancini, who provided the music for Arabesque.

The more I talk about it, the more I'd like to rent this movie again.

But Happy Birthday, Sophia--you are one of the icons of my childhood.

To read another post about Sophia and my look-alike babysitter, check out Poe's Deadly Daughters on Monday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fear Itself

There are certain mysteries I cannot begin to fathom--like the workings of the financial world and how things can suddenly "fall" and destroy what once was seen as permanent. Then again, perhaps I do understand, since everything is prone to destruction, and, as Yeats put it,

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . . ."

But it's not only the words of Yeats flitting through my head today. I have been wishing that the spirit of FDR, plain and practical and inspirational, would sit on my shoulder and explain it all. So I've summoned up some of his quotes as well. It wasn't so long ago in our history that Roosevelt himself was counseling people consumed by a Depression and assuring them, now famously, that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself."

What else should we remember, FDR?

"The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the goverment."

"We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon."

"Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."

Thanks, President Roosevelt.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie!

Today is the historic birthday of the great Dame Agatha. I blogged about her at Poe's Deadly Daughters--both about her impact on the world and her influence in my life.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Old Testament Mug Shots

In his latest concoction of disguises, my son Graham has managed to make it look as though Methuselah somehow came to the present, donned a trench coat and sunglasses, (probably bought a motorcycle), and began to dwell among us. In this mother-made mug shot he could also pass for a member of ZZ Top. It makes me wonder what other interesting mug shots the police get to take from day to day--aside from those entertaining celebrity mugs that we've all seen. Oh how I long for Glen Campbell's earnest Wichita Lineman days.

At least for my ten-year-old it's all a joke. Let's hope he doesn't plan to ever make it a reality.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Honor of The Day

"Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it."

"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."

The words of Abraham Lincoln, quoted here, seem most applicable to our inability to comprehend the events of September 11th, then and now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Colin Firth and Me

There is actually no link between Colin Firth and me, aside from the fact that I like him and he in turn is liked by me. :)

But today is his birthday, and I have been a fan of his since first I saw him as Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Since then he has played many compelling leading men. Ironically, he is turning 48, which is the age of my husband (and the latter assures me that he looks far better than Colin Firth. We'll let him go with that assumption).

Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Latest Crush

I tend to fall in love very easily. The latest fellow to win my heart is my neighbor's beagle/lab mix, whom I have watched grow from tiny puppyhood this summer. His name is Xavi; he's named for a famous Spanish footballer, because the boys next door are huge soccer fans. Xavi, unlike my very hyper dog, is calm, and spends much of his day dreaming in the grass.
When we go out to work on the yard or take out the garbage, however, he appears at the fence, wedged between the tomato plants and burgeoning pumpkin vines, to say hello and receive pats on the noggin. He's still very young (four or five months) and his head is still too large for his body, but that makes him somehow cuter to me.
Who could resist this little face? He rarely barks at us; just approaches with a rustling sound to see what's happening in the other yard. When the neighbors barbecue he frolics around, playing with his dish, his toys, his own feet (when he's not eyeing the burgers). He's a delightful little dog, and I look forward to meeting him when I go outside.

Photos: Ian Buckley

Friday, September 05, 2008

I Wish My Cat Would Pay the Bills

My cat, that imperious creature, took over my desk while I was trying to work. He doesn't want to be petted or bothered in any way. He just wants me to know that he is there. He didn't do any of my correspondence or deal with any of my debts--just hogged the secretary to assert his regal rights.

This is the same cat who bit me a couple of months ago, sending me to urgent care for antibiotics and a tetanus shot. (He was hurt, so I've MOSTLY forgiven him for biting me).

He's recovered well, as you can see, and is back to being cat-like.

If only I could train him to do office chores. I might be a bit less reluctant to share the space if he could claw through some invoices. What do you think? After all, people train their cats to use toilets and things like that. :)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sheila Connolly on Renovating Houses, Pruning Apples, and Searching for Ancestors

Thanks for agreeing to chat on the blog, Sheila!

On your website is a picture of you at twenty-one: you had selected it to be on a book jacket when you became a writer. Did you publish anything in your twenties? At what point did you begin to envision yourself as a writer?

I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember, and probably before, but I never planned to be a writer. I didn’t even try, except for one meager effort when I was stuck in a boring job with spare time and a memory typewriter (yup, that’s how long ago that was). I got about two pages into a medieval mystery and realized I had no plot, just an interesting first scene and a body, and that was the end of that.

Your book One Bad Apple, came out this month from Berkley Prime Crime. In it a woman takes on a “crumbling colonial house and an orchard,” which become the backdrop of the mystery. Is the setting based on personal experience?

In more ways than one. My husband and I spent fifteen years working on an abused Victorian, and I don’t think there was any part of the house that we didn’t repair or restore. Our current Victorian is less needy, but there’s always something going wrong. I’ve never worked on a colonial, but the house in One Bad Apple is very real-—it was built by my seventh great-grandfather, in western Massachusetts, and I’ve been able to stay there more than once. The house remained in the family for over two hundred years, and somehow that suggested to me a way to link a sense of belonging in a community, and the changes that any community must make if it’s going to survive.

My brother owned an orchard for years, until he and his wife both developed back problems from the endless pruning. Do you discuss some of the realities of orchard life in One Bad Apple?

Absolutely. Apples trees require a lot of work. In fact, in the second book of the series, Rotten to the Core (July 2009), I tackle the question of organic purity vs. chemical spraying. Consumers want perfect, large, shiny apples, but you don’t get that in nature.

Good point. You have a second mystery coming out in March, but you write that series as Sarah Atwell. How did you happen to become two people at Berkley?

I’ve been writing since 2001, and submitting to a lot of agents. Naturally Jacky Sach of BookEnds was on the list. With the last submission I sent, the SASE came back empty, so I contacted her and more or less said, “I know it’s a rejection, but . . . ”

It was, but she remembered the submission, liked my voice, and asked if I’d like to try writing for Berkley, with an outline that they provided. Major agent, major publisher—-I wasn’t about to say no. I put together three chapters and everybody loved it, and Sarah Atwell was born (I chose the name). However, I was arrogant enough to tell Jacky that I could handle writing two series at a time, so we dusted off that original submission, changed a few things around, and sold it to the same editor, under my name. I was naive enough not to realize that this was extraordinary.

To put it mildly! Good for you. Your books seem to have a romantic thread. I was also impressed that your bio introduces your husband as “my first and only husband.” That’s very sweet. How did you and your husband meet?

Many, many years ago . . . Actually it was in Cambridge. I was in graduate school, and he was sharing a house with two of my classmates, plus the spouse of one of them. They used to give great parties. We married in 1976, and have lived in North Carolina, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

And I’m glad you noticed the romantic thread. When I started writing I aimed for romantic suspense, but apparently that’s not my voice. But it’s fun throwing in a little love interest in a traditional mystery. I like my heroines to be independent and self-sufficient, but hey, they’re human. With Seth in One Bad Apple, I was being a little tongue in cheek—a plumber hero? But he’s a lot more, and he’s a great guy (no, he’s not based on my husband, or anyone else I know).

You’ve had many careers, including as “an art historian (medieval architecture), an investment banker in San Francisco and Philadelphia, a non-profit fundraiser, and a professional genealogist.” Does all of this experience come in handy in the writing of mysteries? Which career was your favorite?

Art history was my first love, but I had the misfortune of getting into it at a time when nobody was hiring. I was thrilled that I could finally sneak in a little of it into the second Glassblowing book, Pane of Death, in which my heroine Em gets a commission to help work with a fabulous collection of historic stained glass.

I think genealogy is genetic—you either have the gene or you don’t (my sister doesn’t), and if you do, you’re into it for life. Genealogy is great training for mystery writing, because most of the time you have very limited evidence from which to construct the whole picture/family. Sometimes you find yourself looking at things from unexpected angles (I’ve found one ancestor who had a dog license in 1798). Non-profit fundraising prepares you (a) for rejection, (b) for endless submissions, and (c) probably most important, for assembling information on unfamiliar subjects and presenting it in a coherent way that others can understand (so they’ll give you money!).

As a professional genealogist, do you recommend one method of finding family information over others? I’ve seen many genealogy websites, but they’re so expensive!

The first and most important thing you can do is to write down everything you know or think you know about your family, and to ask anyone living for what they remember (and label your photographs!). Often memories get jumbled or inflated, but there’s usually some truth buried in them.

The last decade has seen an explosion of information posted on the Internet (for example, U.S. census records), so it’s much easier than it used to be to find data. But there’s also a lot of misinformation out there too: someone will make a “discovery” and it will be repeated on endless loops or sites as true, even if it gets disproven later. Take everything with a grain of salt, and try to find more than one source. If you like to take vacations with a purpose, travel to the places your ancestors came from, check out local libraries and historical societies and cemeteries, and just talk to the local historians—-you’d be amazed what you learn.

You say you can fix just about anything around an old house. Say, would you like to come to my old house for some dinner? :)

Any time (um, where are you?). I love to cook, I love to eat. I collect old bakeware at flea markets and yard sales, and actually use some of the pieces. I can’t stop collecting cookbooks, although I have to admit that at least a third of them are cookie cookbooks.

Oh, you are a woman after my own heart. I'm in Chicago, Sheila--I'll send you the address. :)

You live in Massachusetts. Have you always lived there? What’s your favorite thing about it?

I went to college in Massachusetts because I had this romantic idea about New England, but I’m still in love with it. Then I got married, and we moved around a lot, and it took thirty years to work our way back to Massachusetts, but here we are. What I like best is all the dead relatives. I know, that sounds creepy, but I love the sense of connection with the past. I can’t pass an old cemetery without running into a relative or twelve, and it feels like saying hello to old friends, because I know who they are, and where they came from, and where their descendants ended up. I have a lot of family here.

What are you writing now?

Just finished the draft of The Glassblowing Series, Book 3 (of a three-book contract), and have to start a full edit of the Orchard Series, Book 2 aka Rotten to the Core (likewise a three-book contract). Then I’ll have the edit of Glassblowing Book 3, and, oh yes, I have to write Orchard Book 3. And hope that both will find enough readers to be renewed. I also have quite a few earlier manuscripts, both series and stand-alones, that I’d like to dust off and take a look at, if I ever have the time.

Wow. Do you read mysteries? What’s the current book at your bedside?
Of course. My TBR pile is over two feet high and very mixed, and I’m often reading more than one book at a time. This minute it’s Rochelle Krich and Laurie King, but I read fast so that will change. I try to read all the new authors at Berkley Prime Crime, and books that are recommended by people I know. I’m thrilled to have found outstanding writers unfamiliar to me until recently.

As an art historian, who would you say is an under-appreciated artist? What should we know about her or him?

Contemporary? Ha! I started as a medievalist, and never looked past 1900. But I think Andrew Wyeth has always gotten a bad rap for being kitschy and simplistic. I disagree, because I’ve always found his paintings evocative. The Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, is probably the single museum I have visited most, in this country or any other. And, yes, the man is still alive and painting (would you believe I wrote him a fan letter when I was sixteen—and he answered it?).

That's wonderful! What a treasure. Did you ever read The Heidi Chronicles, the play by Wendy Wasserstein about an art historian?

I don’t think so, but I loved her Uncommon Women and Others because it captured my college experience. Actually I find art historians rather effete and self-absorbed these days. Maybe they always were. I can still talk the talk if you stick me in front of a painting in a museum.

What are Sheila Connolly and Sarah Atwell planning for the rest of 2008?
Writing, of course. Editing. Promoting (that part they don’t tell you about when you’re trying to find an agent and/or an editor). I’m going to Bouchercon for the first time this year, and New England CrimeBake. If I won the lottery I’d take off for a couple of weeks in Ireland.

Thanks so much for talking with me.

Thank you for inviting me. Great questions!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Frankenstein and the Romantic Imagination

Mary Shelley and other Romantics were some of the last writers who believed they could tap into the "magic" of the unconscious, or other-worldliness, to compose creatively. I blogged about this at Poe's Deadly Daughters today, in honor of my own weird dreams and Mary Shelley's birthday.