The Mystical Mystery Sisters

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Guest Post by Amber Foxx

Marion Eaton and Virginia King and I have three different takes on the mystery genre, all of them unconventional. Our protagonists, in various ways, pass through the barrier between ordinary reality and something else—another time, or perception and knowledge not accessible by the everyday mind. We’ve come to appreciate each other not only as writers but as friends. Virginia and Marion have actually met—Marion, from England, happened to have already planned a trip to Australia, where Virginia lives, shortly after we started communicating. I haven’t been so lucky yet, but I feel fortunate in their long-distance friendship. To introduce my Mystical Mystery Sisters, I thought it would be fun for each of us to answer the same questions.

When you started writing the first book in your series, did you know where it was going or did it surprise you?

Virginia: I’m a “how would I know what’s going to happen, I’m only the author” kind of writer. The First Lie started with one sentence: All she had to do was jump. This applied to my main character, Selkie Moon, and also to me. I wrote that sentence with no plot and no plan. Selkie is named after the Celtic seal people—the ones who peel off their skins and dance in the moonlight on human legs—but The First Lie is not a retelling of the selkie myth. Selkie Moon is a Sydney girl who’s run off to Hawaii and got tangled up in the mythological layers of a deep mystery. The mythical elements that popped into the story as I wrote it became complex threads that converge in a stunning conclusion – because it certainly stunned me. It still makes me cry whenever I read it.

Amber: I knew what The Calling was about, but not how it would end. When I put the prologue up for my online critique group, one member mentioned that it was clear that Mae’s missing father was going to be a key mystery. Oh? I’d thought he was backstory. Mae’s struggle with her psychic gift was to be the main plot—but then I realized that her search for her father would be the unifying thread, in the background behind the family struggles and the mystery of what Dr. Tann can do with his own strange gift. Already the book was on a new track based on that observation. I didn’t know how any of the relationships would work out—or not work out. The characters had to go through all of it for me to know.

Marion: It surprised me. I had a rough idea of what I was going to write – a memoir of a special time in my life when I was young and the world was rosy. I started writing and came upon something mysterious to which I had never found the answer, and suddenly, the book took a completely different direction. From a rather boring factual account I suddenly found myself writing a fictional mystery thriller complete with ghosts and a time-slip.

Which of the mysterious phenomena in your book comes closest to something that has really happened to you?

Virginia: I’ve mostly taken true things and let my imagination make them bigger than my own experience. But there is one scene where Selkie has an out-of-body experience and heightened perception of her surroundings. This has happened to me several times—once for an hour in a garden where I felt completely connected to one rose, to every curve and tint of its petals, to every tiny flaw, to every drop of dew. I’ve also had amazing insights into my own mind through psychotherapy and there’s a scene where Selkie has to dive into the murky depths of her mind and discover a dark secret. I couldn’t have imagined the mystical layers of that scene if I hadn’t experienced the process myself.

Amber: Two come very close—one creepy, one beautiful. The creepy one is the wolf spirit. It would be a spoiler to say any more. Some of the visionary and energetic experiences Mae has when she starts practicing as a healer are similar to some things I felt when I had a little training in that field.

Marion: Actually, many of them are close to my personal experience. Perhaps the most unnerving was the sound of a horse being ridden fast up a deserted High Street late at night — when there was nothing to be seen. The experience was even more unnerving because it was so close and so real that my husband pushed me out of the way, and he was not normally given to flights of fancy. The most mysterious was when all the clocks stopped— the incident which provided the title of the book. But that was not my personal experience: I overheard the conversation between two of my friends.

What do you do to refresh your creative source—to water your inner garden?

Virginia: Writing itself refreshes me. I’ve almost finished Selkie’s next mystery, The Second Path, and as my imagination puts surprising things into the evolving story, I get energized to follow them. This is my idea of fun. Then in the middle of the night, connections emerge from that day’s writing, so I keep a note book by the bed and decipher my scribbles in the morning. The moments when I’ve not quite woken up often produce pages of notes and these subconscious connections inspire me back to the keyboard. I live in a valley full of birds in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, so I also carry my notebook when I walk.

Amber: My daily yoga practice smooths out my energy and helps me focus; it’s good for me that I forget about writing while I’m doing it (although I do get ideas for teaching yoga classes). I occasionally incubate dreams to get an answer to a plot problem. I dreamed one of the scenes in The Calling when I was stuck—a new minor character showed up. My best flow happens when I’m running, though. Something gets knocked loose; some little dam in my mind crumbles and ideas move. Often, I get back from a run and have to take notes before I lose track of all the inspirations. And I need to be around people, too. Go out dancing, do something social. Unlike many writers, I’m an extrovert. People give me energy—and they inspire characters, of course.

Marion: I love that you called it an inner garden, because my garden is the source of much delight and renewal. Spending time working or dreaming there, or walking in nature, always calms, refreshes and fulfils me. For many years I have had a daily practice that makes my day go swimmingly. In the morning, I do a little yoga or tai chi, followed by a dancing or breathing meditation, then I take my dog for a walk through the beautiful Sussex countryside. By the time I come back, I am full of ideas and itching to get on with the day, and particularly to write. I also meditate for 10 minutes before I fall asleep at night, so I wake refreshed and happy. If I find myself stuck when writing, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and call on my Muse for help. She never fails me.

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The Mystical Mystery Sisters have teamed up for a giveaway. Enter the drawing to win a paperback copy of the first book in each author’s series. To enter, click here: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/eb0a35092/

The drawing will be held midnight, Sunday April 26.

The Calling

The first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Amber Foxx, author of The Mae Martin mysteries

Amber Foxx,
author of
The Mae Martin mysteries

Obeying her mother’s warning, Mae Martin-Ridley has spent years hiding her gift of “the sight.” When concern for a missing hunter compels her to use it again, her peaceful life in a small Southern town begins to fall apart. New friends push her to explore her unusual talents, but as she does, she discovers the shadow side of her visions— access to secrets she could regret uncovering.

Gift or curse? When an extraordinary ability intrudes on an ordinary life, nothing can be the same again.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Amber has worked professionally in theater and dance, fitness, and academia. In her free time she enjoys music, dancing, art, running and yoga. She divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, living in Truth or Consequences during her New Mexico months.

When the Clocks Stopped

The Mysterious Marsh Series, Book One

Marion Eaton author of The Mysterious Marsh Series

Marion Eaton
author of
The Mysterious Marsh Series

When lawyer Hazel Dawkins decides to write some wills while she waits for the birth of her first child, she unwittingly triggers dramatic consequences. Mysteriously, she encounters Annie, a woman whose tempestuous life took place more than two centuries earlier when Romney Marsh was a violent place, dominated by smugglers.

Soon that past collides with the present, and Hazel finds herself pitted against an evil that has stalked the marsh for centuries. As her destiny intertwines with Annie’s in the shifting time-scape, Hazel confronts a terrifying challenge that parallels history—and could even change it. If she survives.

Retired from legal practice, Marion lives near the sea in the beautiful Sussex countryside with a long-suffering husband, a lazy Saluki, a wild garden and an urge to write into the small hours—all of which she attempts to keep in some sort of order. 

The First Lie

Selkie Moon Mysteries, Book One

Virginia King author of The Selkie Moon Mysteries

Virginia King
author of
The Selkie Moon Mysteries

Selkie Moon is a woman on the run. In a mad dash for freedom she’s escaped her life in Sydney to start over again in Hawaii. But her refuge begins to unravel and she’s running from something else entirely. A voice in a dream says that someone is trying to kill her. Not that she’s psychic, no way. But the messages and threats escalate until she’s locked in a game of cat and mouse with a mysterious stalker. Entangled in Celtic and Hawaiian mythologies, the events become so bizarre and terrifying that her instinct is to keep running. But is she running from her past? Or her future?

Virginia has lived most of her life in Sydney, but has travelled to many places. She’s been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, a producer of audio-books, a writer of fifty-plus children’s books, and an award-winning publisher. These days she’s a full-time writer who paints a bit, living in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband.

From April 21 – 30, each e-book will be on sale for $1.99 US.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/buy-books-retail-links

http://www.marioneaton.com/mysterious-marsh/

http://www.amazon.com/First-Lie-Selkie-Moon-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00K1VC20Y

To learn more about the authors and their series:

http://www.marioneaton.com/

http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com

http://selkiemoon.com/

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Interview with author Gigi Pandian

Gigi Pandian headshot 38 b&w vertical crop QuicksandToday I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, USA Today bestselling author Gigi Pandian.  Gigi is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern Tip of India. After spending her childhood being dragged around the world, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series (Artifact, Pirate Vishnu, and Quicksand) and the Accidental Alchemist mysteries (The Accidental Alchemist). Gigi’s debut novel was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and named a “Best of 2012” debut by Suspense Magazine, and her short fiction has been short-listed for Agatha and Macavity awards.

And last week, Gigi’s second novel, Pirate Vishnu, was awarded the Rose Award at Left Coast Crime!

Please welcome Gigi to the blog.

Tell us about your journey as a writer.

I’ve been making up mysteries since I was a kid. As a small child I adored Scooby Doo, so I made up my own Scooby Doo adventures so I could have even more of them. When I was a little bit older, I wrote a cartoon series about Minnesota Smith – a female Indiana Jones. This pattern continued, but I didn’t think seriously about writing novels until many years later.

I left a PhD program once I completed my Masters, because that’s when I finally realized I needed to be doing something more creative in my life. I got a part-time job, started attending art school, and spent my free time at cafes writing a mystery novel. Now that I was following my creative passions, my whole life fell into place.

What was your road to publication like?

I began to take my writing seriously when I was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant [ http://www.malicedomestic.org/grants.html ] for a draft of my debut novel, ARTIFACT. That’s what gave me the push I needed to learn more about the craft of writing, finish polishing the manuscript, and query agents.

I took the time necessary to turn a good idea into a polished book – through workshops, books on the craft of writing, and critique groups – so I found an agent relatively quickly. Finding a publisher was more difficult. I learned that my novel was in between mystery subgenres, which made it a tougher sell to big publishers.

While my agent was pitching the novel to publishers, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. With so much uncertainty in life, I wanted to be in control of something in my life. I decided to self-publish ARTIFACT, with my agent backing my decision that the book was ready for publication. I had a year of cancer treatments, so I used that year to learn how to self-publish successfully. My efforts were rewarded when the book was well received.

Self publishing was so much work that I was thrilled when Henery Press made me an offer to publish the whole series, and when my agent sold my second series to Midnight Ink. Even though it took a while to find my footing, I ended up signing two three-book deals within a few months of each other. The hard work up front paid off.

One of the inspirations behind the Jaya Jones series is the late Elizabeth Peters, a grande-dame of mystery writers. Tell us about that. What else inspired you to create Jaya’s character and the series?

My favorite books when I was a teenager were the Vicky Bliss mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. Vicky Bliss is an art historian who’s brilliant and beautiful, and who uses her PhD to go on adventures across the world, solving mysteries and being wooed by a charming art thief. The books are both escapist fantasies and also incredibly smart mysteries that teach the reader about history and involve clever puzzle plots.

When I started writing, I knew I wanted to write books that combined light-hearted adventure with deeper world history, just as those Elizabeth Peters novels do. I grew up going on research trips all over the world with my anthropology professor parents, so the academic life was very familiar to me. My dad is from India and my mom is American, so writing a diverse character from two worlds came naturally.

That’s how I created Jaya Jones, a history professor in San Francisco who was born in India to an Indian mom and American dad, and who solves present-day crimes linked to historical treasures related to India’s colonial history.

Jaya’s sidekick, Sanjay, is an equally delightful character. Where did he come from? The dynamics of the relationship between Jaya and Sanjay are a great source of interest and occasional tension in the books. Was that something you planned from the beginning, or did it just develop as you began to write?

I’ll let you in on a secret. Sanjay was never meant to appear on the page at all! I needed him to play a tiny part off-stage in the first book, but as soon as I put pen to paper, he sprang to life and there was no stopping him.

Sanjay is Jaya’s best friend, a stage magician who goes by the moniker The Hindi Houdini. Magicians are such fun in mystery novels because their art of deception gives them insights into mysteries. Sanjay turned out to be such a colorful character and so good at solving mysteries that I had to give him his own set of locked-room mystery short stories – otherwise he would have taken over Jaya’s books!

Speaking of relationships, the other main character in the series, Jaya’s love interest Lane Peters, is an equally charming guy. I sense shades of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief or Charade. Where did you find this handsome guy with a shady past?

From the loveable art thieves in novels (such as Elizabeth Peters’ John Smyth and Hailey Lind’s Michael X Johnson in her art forger series) to charming con men in movies (such as Cary Grant characters, and Neal Caffrey on the TV show White Collar), I’ve always loved this type of character.

Instagram-Mont-St-Michel-Quicksand-text-Gigi-PandianThe latest Jaya Jones, Quicksand, is set mostly in France in a series of stunning locations, including Mont Saint-Michel. (Movie rights, anyone?) Tell us a bit about this, including how you got the idea for the different locales and how you went about doing the research for the settings.

I knew I wanted to write a series that took the characters on adventures all over the world. Because of my academic background, I do a lot of research in libraries. Even today, there’s so much information you can’t find online! At least not easily. And once I have general ideas, I visit the locations in person. Again, even though there’s so much information available online, visiting a place in person provides perspective and ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise come to light.

For example, I knew that I wanted to set QUICKSAND partly on Mont Saint-Michel. The remote destination on the northern coast of France was once only accessible during low tide and over the years was used as a fortress, a monastery, and a prison. I read up on the fascinating history of the Mont, but once I visited I learned so much more. The experience of walking around the eerily silent cobblestone streets at night helped me create the atmosphere in the book, and my abbey tour guide told me history that I wouldn’t have learned from books. Based on her tidbits of history, I was able to do more research to verify the facts, but I would never have set off on an obscure line of research without that tour.

In Quicksand:

QUICKSAND by Gigi Pandian book cover mediumHistorian Jaya Jones finds herself on the wrong side of the law during an art heist at the Louvre. To redeem herself, she follows clues from an illuminated manuscript that lead from the cobblestone streets of Paris to the quicksand-surrounded fortress of Mont Saint-Michel. With the help of enigmatic Lane Peters and a 90-year-old stage magician, Jaya delves into France’s colonial past in India to clear her name and catch a killer.

Sign up for Gigi’s newsletter at http://gigipandian.com/newsletter/, connect with her on Facebook (facebook.com/GigiPandian) and Twitter (@GigiPandian), and check out her gargoyle photography on the Gargoyle Girl Blog (http://www.gargoylegirl.com/).

Gargoyles: Mischievous Monsters for over a Millennia

I’m pleased to welcome fellow Sister in Crime Gigi Pandian as today’s guest on the blog. Gigi and I share a fascination with gargoyles, the subject of her post, and Gigi’s latest mystery, The Accidental Alchemist, features a centuries-old female alchemist and her impish gargoyle sidekick who was accidentally brought to life by a French stage magician. Take it away, Gigi!

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I’ve always been fascinated by gargoyles, so when I began writing a paranormal mystery about an alchemist, the gargoyle character ended up taking over the story!

I’m not alone. Gargoyles have fascinated people for millennia. Though they were most popular during the medieval era in Europe, the first known use of gargoyles was in ancient Egypt.

Nobody has the definitive answer as to why drainage pipes were anthropomorphized as gargoyles, but many different forces contributed to their rise in popularity. Gargoyles reached the height of popularity in 13th century Europe. Since they look like tormented souls, and were often used on cathedrals in medieval Europe, one common theory is that gargoyles symbolize trapped souls, showing people they would be safe once they entered the interior sanctuary of the church.

Within this theory, it’s up for debate whether or not those tormented gargoyles were trapped human souls, fierce guardians warding off the devil, or creatures ready to harm people who didn’t attend church. As with much religious interpretation in the Middle Ages, it’s likely that all of these interpretations were used. After all, most people were illiterate, so different ideas spread in different areas.

But what was the intent of the stone carvers themselves? Gargoyles provided an outlet where they could let loose with their creativity.

Historian Janetta Rebold Benton speculates that gargoyles have always fascinated people because we’re naturally drawn to the mysterious and the macabre. “The modern horror movie,” she says, “like the medieval gargoyle, pretends to threaten us but does no harm.” And yes, I do read books about gargoyles by historians!

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Technically, a gargoyle is a water spout used for draining rainwater away from a building. But over time, the term has come to be used more broadly, applying to ornamental grotesques perched on buildings. And today, many of these modern “gargoyles” are have a much more benevolent appearance. The gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris are even said to keep watch for anyone drowning in the Seine.

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Architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was the man who created the gallery of gargoyles at Notre Dame, during the cathedral’s restoration in the 1800s. Those famous gargoyles are a “new” addition to the old cathedral.

I love to use real history in my novels, so in The Accidental Alchemist, I created Dorian the gargoyle using the real history of Notre Dame. Both Viollet-le-Duc and famous stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin are important figures in the Accidental Alchemist series.

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The Accidental Alchemist is the first in a series, so there’s plenty more fun with gargoyles to come.

In The Accidental Alchemist: Unpacking her belongings in her new hometown of Portland, Oregon, herbalist and reformed alchemist Zoe Faust can’t help but notice she’s picked up a stowaway. Dorian Robert-Houdin is a living, breathing three-and-a-half-foot gargoyle—not to mention a master of French cuisine—and he needs Zoe’s expertise to decipher a centuries-old text.

“Pandian launches a supernatural cozy series that hits high marks for a modern twist on an ancient practice.”Library Journal

Gigi Pandian is the USA Today bestselling author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series (Artifact, Pirate Vishnu, and the forthcoming Quicksand) and the new Accidental Alchemist mysteries. Gigi’s debut mystery novel was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant, and her short fiction has been short-listed for Agatha and Macavity awards. Gigi spent her childhood being dragged around the world by her cultural anthropologist parents, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Find Gigi online at www.gigipandian.com, connect with her on Facebook (facebook.com/GigiPandian) and Twitter (@GigiPandian), and check out her gargoyle photography on the Gargoyle Girl Blog at http://www.gargoylegirl.com/.

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Interview with author Amber Foxx

Amber Foxx 2014Please welcome guest Amber Foxx to this week’s Saints and Trees. Amber writes the mystery series featuring healer and psychic Mae Martin. Amber’s professional training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as her personal experience and travels, bring authenticity to her work. She divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, but Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is HOME.

SAT: Although part of the Mae Martin series, your new release differs from its predecessors in some noticeable ways. For me, the biggest change was the pace. While still character driven, Snake Face reads like a heart-stopping thriller, whereas the first two books, though certainly page turners, didn’t have me figuratively biting my nails throughout. Given the plot premise, the pace and anxiety level had naturally to follow, but I’m curious to know if you were consciously aware of that when you were writing.

AF: I like to vary the genre blend, and change the mood and the pace from book to book. If I’m going to be realistic with a series that’s not about murder or law enforcement, my protagonist’s life is going to vary that way. Each book will have a different feel. The Calling is more of a “paranormal realism” novel, with the mystery secondary to the development of Mae’s gift and her personal struggles in her family and her town. It’s been reviewed as literary fiction—with some disagreement also—but the pace is more like a literary novel than a conventional mystery. In Shaman’s Blues the mystery of Jamie’s layers of secrets is as important Muffie’s disappearance. I thought of it as an un-romance, with that genre turned upside down in many ways, as well as a mystery. As far as intending to write a nail-biter for the third book, I was very much aware that Snake Face was a departure from the previous books. I knew it would be as soon as I decided to write almost half the chapters in Jamie’s point of view. His emotional life tends to go over the speed limit, so that, as well as the plot, affected the feel of the book.

snake face man littleSAT: You state on your blog that the title, Snake Face, comes from a folk art statue you purchased in New Mexico. Did this statue spark the idea for the book, or did the connection occur to you later?

AF: The book was well along when I found the little snake face man in Mesilla. I have a few Oaxaca nightmare-art figurines, such as the two-headed winged deer that’s briefly mentioned in the book. (It is really evil-looking, but also beautiful.) The snake-face statuette intrigued me. Instead of portraying the creatures of the nightmare, it’s an image of the man who’s having the terrible dream. He has a snake crawling down his nose while he’s waving a useless little stick at it. The woman who sold it to me said, with a kind of empathy, “He’s fighting them off as best he can.” I gave Jamie that line, when he admires the figurine as part of the décor in a bar in Mesilla. The snake-face image was a perfect fit for the way Jamie often feels in this book.

snake face man closeup

SAT: So where did the idea for this particular book in the series come from?

AF: Before writing Snake Face, I’d written a scene that I never used in which a fortune teller in Santa Fe does Tarot readings for Mae and Jamie. (I recycle my works in progress into many forms before they finally come out.) Anyway, I drew cards for them and studied the meanings, and came up with a plot for book three from that. The suggestions from the cards became the plot when I interpreted them in terms of challenges that would disrupt their lives.

Given Mae’s marital history, starting a new relationship is a huge step, and then running into Jamie again adds another difficulty to that situation—one she isn’t prepared for. For Jamie, going on tour is progress for his career, but it’s also incredibly hard for him in many ways, above and beyond the road warrior aspect of it, due to—well, Jamie being Jamie. From the Tarot reading, I started with an image of him at a rest stop halfway across the country, where he realizes something awful has happened, and I worked forward and backward from there. The antagonist character showed up for me the way Jamie showed up, fully formed. I revised the book for two years, changed almost everything about it—but that turning point disaster never changed.

SAT: Jamie’s background is training in opera and his current career showcases his musical talents as a “world music” performer. You mention elsewhere that Jamie simply “came” to you, one of those wonderful gifts any writer would be grateful for. When describing his musical performances, did you have any particular artist or style in mind?

AF: When Jamie showed up, he showed up as a tenor. In my never-written backstory, Jamie’s parents took him and his older sister to the Sydney Opera House to see The Magic Flute when he was a musically gifted child of around eight years old, and he fell in love with opera. Whether it’s comic or tragic, it’s larger than life, and so is he. Before his family settled in Santa Fe (which has its own amazing opera house), he grew up off and on in Australia and also all around the world. With his father being an anthropologist studying shamanic cultures, he had contact with ceremonies like the Korean mudang’s ritual described in Shaman’s Blues. Such ceremonies have a lot of wild color and sound, music and dance.

In addition to these influences I had some elements of Robert Mirabal’s shows in mind, though I was not directly modeling on Mirabal. He’s a singer, dancer, composer and flute maker from Taos Pueblo. He plays, as one might expect, the Native American cedar flute, and he also plays didgeridoo and drums, and he dances. I’ve seen him leave the stage at Santa Fe Bandstand and dance with his audience. Mirabal’s eclecticism, his warmth and audience rapport, and his choice of instruments are part of Jamie’s music, but I added more and flipped it culturally, so I have an Aboriginal Australian who plays didgeridoo but also plays Native flute, and other flutes. I heard a collaboration that Carlos Nakai did with a musician who plays shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and the mix of ethnic flavors fascinated me. The music scene in Santa Fe is full of performers who do some original, out-of-the mainstream things. So I’d say Jamie’s music emerged from the nature of music in Santa Fe—opera, blues, indigenous music, jazz, folk—everything. I should add that Santa Fe has some great alternative country bands, but as you can see in Snake Face, Jamie is not influenced by them.

SAT: I know that you’re working on Book 4 of the series. How many more are planned? Do you have a fixed end point in mind for the end of the series, or will Mae continue indefinitely?

AF: I enjoy series that take the protagonists through major life changes. Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn, and Barr’s Anna Pigeon, are good examples. They grow older and wiser, go through relationships, losses, and renewals, and stay interesting. Book four is with its third round of beta readers right now. Book five is well along, book six is up to chapter twelve in the first draft, and I have ideas for at least the initial disturbance that starts the plot spinning for several others. I don’t have a fixed endpoint in mind, but I do want to wrap it up and give it an end when I get close to my own, if I get some forewarning.

This is something I thought about when James D. Doss died. I could tell from his final book that he knew it was the last, and he wrapped up Charlie Moon’s ever-struggling love life finally, though not Sarah Frank’s training as Daisy Perika’s shaman’s apprentice. Over the course of the seventeen-book series, Sarah grows up from a spiritually gifted child to a college student. I wanted one more book—no, a lot more—in which Sarah would come into her power as shaman. I admire that kind of story line. Mae is twenty-six at the start of my series and I like to picture what she’ll be like in her thirties and forties. As she becomes a more established and experienced healer and psychic, the kinds of mysteries will change. I have a sense of what she’ll be doing as her life moves forward, and it looks so interesting I don’t think I’ll run out of plots or characters. I may take occasional breaks and work on some stand-alone books, but Mae should be around for decades.

SAT: That’s good news for readers! Thank you, Amber, for sharing your thoughts.

To learn more about Amber and her books, visit her website at: http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/Snake Face, the third Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, has just been released. Shaman’s Blues, the second in the series, is the deserving recipient of a B.R.A.G. Medallion award.

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Snake Face
The third Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Trying to revive his career, singer Jamie Ellerbee is on his first tour. Mae Martin is venturing into her first relationship since her divorce. Bad judgment and worse luck force Jamie to ask for Mae’s psychic aid. His unrequited love for her makes it an awkward request, but she can’t refuse to help a friend. The more she looks into the problem, the more frightening it becomes and the wider its web expands—not only into Jamie’s past, but also a bad-boy celebrity’s private life, and even her new boyfriend’s history.

 

 

Interview with author Clea Simon

Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Clea Simon, author of the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe mysteries.

Clea SimonSAT: You write several mystery series, but the Dulcie Schwarz books are your longest running. What’s your secret for creating a great series and character who will keep the reader’s interest for so many books?

CS: Wow, thank you so much, Nancy. I think the only secret is that I love my characters. Doing a series means that I don’t have to leave them once a book is done, and I get to follow them through various adventures. In Dulcie’s case, this means watching as she not only solves crimes but also works on her graduate dissertation – and yes, she will finish it and get her PhD before the series ends!

SAT: As with all of your books, there is a cat involved. For those new to the series, what is the background of Dulcie’s relationship with her cat Mr. Grey?

CS: When we first met Dulcie, in “Shades of Grey,” she was mourning the death of her late, great Mr. Grey – her “heart cat” as some people put it. The friend who had been with her for years. Now, he was simply a regular cat – he didn’t talk or anything. But Dulcie always felt that he was special and that he was looking out for her. So it doesn’t really surprise her when, in that first book, she sees him again, sitting on the stoop of her apartment building. But when he warns her not to go inside, she doesn’t listen….

SAT: Early on—in the second book of the series, you introduced a new feline player, the kitten Esme. Tell us why you decided to give Dulcie a new pet and how you went about developing Esme’s very distinctive personality.

MusettaCS: Well, I wanted Dulcie to have an actual, live cat in her life. The spirit of Mr Grey hangs around, but he’s more of a guardian now than a pet. And I loved the idea of a spunky new feline in her life. And, yes, Esme – the Principessa Esmeralda – is modeled on my own Musetta.

SAT: The setting for Dulcie’s books, Harvard University—in particular Widener Library, is part of the charm. Did you attend Harvard yourself?

CS: Yes, I did. I studied English and American Literature and Language, as Dulcie does. But I stopped with an undergrad degree … Dulcie is rather more bookish and dedicated than I am!

SAT: As a beleaguered graduate student, Dulcie’s personality contains an appealing mix of self-doubt and a tough willingness to stand up for what she believes is right, whether it involves her research or questioning authority after a suspicious death. What inspired you to create her character?

CS: Well, I knew I wanted to use the ghost of Mr Grey after I had a similar experience with an apparent sighting of my own late, great grey cat, Cyrus. And I thought it would be fun to play with the idea of Gothic literature – the Gothics were (like mysteries) popular fiction, written largely by and for women and largely disparaged by the critics. So somewhere in there Dulcie was born, and she really developed her own personality, without much help from me.

SAT: Dulcie’s grad student world of teaching, wrestling with her dissertation topic, and money troubles is depicted with such genuine feeling and authenticity that I assumed you did graduate work yourself. Since you stopped with an undergrad degree, how did you go about depicting all these wonderful details of Dulcie’s academic life?

CS: Thank you! I do my research, and that includes talking to people who are graduate students.

SAT: One of my favorite aspects of this series is the way you interweave Dulcie’s area of expertise, the 18th-century Gothic novel, with the plot of the novels in her series. What was your inspiration for developing that?

CS: I have always loved books within books (like A.S.Byatt’s “Possession”) and so I’ve tried to pass that on.

SAT: You seem to be one of those fortunate writers who can turn out books at a rapid pace–this is the second Dulcie book to be released this year–without neglecting their quality, continuing to maintain the thoughtful and well written novels readers have come to expect from you. What is your secret?

CS: I’m afraid there is no secret. I work really hard – long hours – and toward deadline especially I become a hermit, quit working out, and rarely see the sun.

SAT: Mysteries and cats, the two just seem to go together! What in your opinion connects felines and mystery?

CS: Well, they are mysterious creatures! And their company is conducive to sitting and reading something cozy!

SAT: When you’re not writing, what is your favorite activity? When am I not writing?

CS: Well, I do love cooking and all things food-related (reading food magazines, browsing farmers’ markets, etc.) And I used to be a music critic and still love hearing live music – though these days, I’m more likely to be at a zydeco or Cajun music show than in a rock club (but I still make the occasional appearance for the right band!)

Thanks so much for having me here today! I hope you enjoy this as much as I have. – Clea

Read more about Clea and her books at: http://cleasimon.com/

Clea’s newest release is Stages of Grey:

stages of greyDulcie never considered herself a player. But when her friends drag her to a new local theatre company that is updating Ovid with a disco version of The Metamorphosis the grad student finds herself in the front row of a murder.

This could be the end of the struggling company, which is also plagued by money woes and romantic rivalries. But was jealousy the reason the performer was stabbed? Or are there darker secrets behind the scenes? And what role does Gus, the troupe’s feline mascot, play? As the classics get mangled, Dulcie must untangle the truth before she also gets caught up in deadly illusion.Pre-order now at your favorite local indie bookstore or at Amazon.

To order at your independently owned bookstore, click here

To order on Amazon, click here.

 

 

Interview with author Judith Rock

Today it is my great pleasure to interview one of my favorite newly discovered authors, Judith Rock, author of the Charles du Luc mysteries, set in 17th-century Paris.

Headshot1[1]For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively with the company and as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she researched the 17th- and 18th-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand.

In a startling leap, Rock then spent several years as a police officer before taking that experience back to the stage as a playwright and actress. Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries, and conferences across the United States and abroad. The Rhetoric of Death, her first Charles du Luc book, was a 2011 Barry Awards nominee. After several years in New York, Judith now lives in Sarasota, Fl., and when not writing takes care of injured birds at Save Our Seabirds.

SAT: Your bio includes a wide variety of careers and interests, ranging from modern dance to theology to work as a police officer. All of these interests come together marvelously in the Charles du Luc series, but I’m curious to know what drew you to police work after a career in the arts.

JR: There’s lots to say about that, but I’ll try to keep it short. I was living in NYC, had had some dance injuries, and could see the end of my performing career coming. I started noticing female NYPD officers on the street and wondering what doing that job was like for a woman. I knew that when I stopped performing, I didn’t want to do something tame—dancing is very untame. Physically and in other ways, the dancer steps off the edge into the unknown every time she goes onstage. As does the choreographer every time she makes a new dance.

So I followed my curiosity about those NYPD women and over the course of seven years was a volunteer officer and then sergeant in the NYPD Auxiliary Unit, doing street patrol; a reserve officer and later the first female part-time officer (state certified, sworn and armed) in the Northfield, Minnesota police department—while teaching full-time in a college dance department there. (I worked a lot of midnight shifts!) Then I decided to try for a full-time police job and went through a police academy in Florida, where I’m from. Before the end of the training, I knew that full-time police work wasn’t my future—I was forty-nine, my knees had had enough, and there were too many ways I didn’t fit in that world. But I finished the academy, one of only two women who made it through to graduation. We had to run every day, and on the last run, I was, as usual, near the end of the line. As my young fellow recruits passed on their return loop, they high-fived me, chanting, “Judith, dancer, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit…”

After all that, I took what I’d learned back to the stage in a commissioned one-woman show called Response Time. I was invited to do the show at a statewide meeting of the Minnesota Association of Women Police. It was the scariest performance I’ve ever done–me, with my small experience, doing a show about being a cop for several hundred career police officers? There’s a part of the show about getting to the scene of a chaotic police call: “I get out of the car, and pieces of life script are blowing around my feet. As though some library had decayed and collapsed, and forgotten languages lie there in the street, along with the candy wrappers and ATM receipts and broken umbrellas…” I didn’t know what my audience would make of that kind of allusive language. During the questions afterwards, a soft-spoken sheriff’s deputy from rural northern Minnesota raised her hand. She said, “You know that part where you get to a call, and you feel like everything’s collapsed and pieces of life-script are blowing around your feet? I thought I was the only cop in the world who felt like that.” I burst into tears. I felt like my life as an artist had been justified.

The end of the story is that, after a performance in NYC, a wonderful woman came backstage and said, “I love the writing in your play. I’m a literary agent. What else are you working on?” And that’s how I started writing fiction.

Jesuit ballet character Fire

Jesuit ballet character Fire (from The Sopron Collection via Judith’s website)

SAT: Tell us a bit about your view of the connections between dance and theology, something that appears central to your life’s work as well as to your character Charles.

JR: I think that the deepest human need is the need to make meaning out of being alive, and that making meaning is our deepest human ability. As I understand art and theology, both are human attempts to do that. The choreographer might find a vulnerable turn of the dancer’s neck in a moment of stillness that makes an audience see its own vulnerability and catch its breath in recognition. The theologian might articulate a systematic theology in which thought and feeling almost embrace in the effort to communicate God. The common thing is making meaning. I don’t mean that art or dance needs a religious intent. I do mean that an artist worth his salt is digging deep into what it is to be human.

I’m also interested in how artists and theologians have gone about all this in different times and places. The 17th century ballets produced in Jesuit schools are part of the Charles du Luc books because the ballets were an effort to communicate and teach Christian humanism through a cultural art form.

One thing I love about dance is that intense physicality brings us face to face with physical reality—its glory and its unchangeable limits. That’s a useful antidote to the cultural silliness about “overcoming” everything we don’t like—from weak abs to death. St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass,” and no one knows the truth of that better than dancers!

SAT: What is the writing process like for you?

JR: I write because I love language and have a good ear and memory for it. I can’t remember from one time to the next how to change a printer cartridge, but I can probably tell you what you said two years ago about popcorn or hurricanes or pot belly pigs… I love reading the Oxford English Dictionary, because it gives a word’s background and development and what it used to mean. I wrote art and theology articles and a couple of books while I was dancing and after, but didn’t think seriously of writing fiction until I did the one-woman show mentioned above.

I’ve found that the way I hear language helps enormously in writing characters. Speech rhythm (along with how different people move) helps me differentiate and define my characters. When I’m working on a book, I have to read it out loud—usually to my long suffering husband, or even just to myself. I don’t know if the words are right until I feel them in my mouth and hear them.

rhetoric of deathSAT: Once the first Charles du Luc novel was written, how did you go about finding a road to publication?

JR: My literary agent is the wonderful woman who came backstage after a performance of Response Time. Without her, what I wrote wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I wrote two novels which didn’t get bought, and kept waiting for her to say, okay, we tried, that’s it, goodbye. But she didn’t. She said, ‘Take what you learned and write another one.” Ten years after we met, she sold The Rhetoric of Death, the first Charles book, to Berkley/Penguin. There aren’t enough words in the OED to thank her.

SAT: How did you go about researching Jesuit life in the time of Louis XIV?

JR: I did my doctoral research in Paris in the mid-80’s, and that became (years later and to my great surprise!) the basis for the Charles books. My dissertation focused on the Jesuits’ use of baroque dance in their boys’ school in Paris, called Louis le Grand, and Louis le Grand became the main setting for the books. Part of Charles’s job as a rhetoric teacher is—as it really would have been—helping to produce the baroque ballets, because they were considered physical rhetoric. (Rhetoric meant, as it still does, communication, without any negative spin.)

As I’ve written the four Charles books and the novella, I’ve gone on doing research, on Paris as it was then, who lived there, how they lived, what they believed, what they wore, what they ate, what songs they sang, what they drank, how they saw the political and religious issues of their time, and on and on. I kept a large period map of Paris laid out on a table in my study all the time I was writing. When Charles went outside Louis le Grand, I went to the map.

As I see it, if the period world in a historical novel isn’t right, the characters won’t work, and the story probably won’t, either. I’ve tried to make the people in my books real people of their time, not mine. (One of the hardest things to do was to let Charles have a few fleas and fewer baths!) My characters can’t be democratic liberals, feminists, religiously tolerant, champions of gay rights, or many other things the twenty-first century author may be or value. They can think and argue about some of those things, but only on their own terms and within the truth of their time. They really weren’t just us in costumes!

I made a research trip back to Paris when I was working on the fourth Charles book. Otherwise, I’ve worked with the mass of primary and secondary material I already had, and have also gathered a small library on the social and material history of the 17th century. I also gathered experts for the books: specialists who would answer occasional questions about baroque dance technique, 17th century French cultural history, and Jesuit life and history, when I either couldn’t figure something out or didn’t have time to track it down. The whole process of putting together Charles’s world has been a deep delight!

SAT: I love the way you portray religious tensions between Catholic and Huguenot in the first Charles du Luc book. What inspired you to give Charles Huguenot relations? And what inspired you to place his origins in southern France rather than Paris?

JR: The Louis le Grand Jesuits produced several ballets about the violent Catholic-Protestant conflict of their time—from, of course, the Catholic side of the struggle. At the same time, many Protestant families sent their sons to Jesuit schools because the education offered was so good. So the religious division was present inside the schools, as well as outside. Protestants were especially numerous and strong in the south of France—Nîmes, the town nearest Charles’s family land, was a major Protestant center. Many families in that region would have included people of both religions, and as a Catholic, Charles would have had the experience of being in the minority there. From my husband’s career in inter-religious relations, I knew something about the feelings and fears of religiously mixed families. I wanted Charles to know that family conflict and those feelings and fears, to help him to see and love and take risks beyond his own religious commitments.

SAT: Charles is such an engaging character. How did you go about developing his personality?

JR: First, thank you for that compliment to Charles! Where characters come from is very odd. For me, they show up in so many ways. They’re visions, wishes, fears, memories, psychological projections, exorcisms, nakedly practical solutions to some need or problem in the book being written, descendents of characters in other books read and loved…

At the most superficial level, Charles is a lovely vision of a handsome man! Not being myself a man, I borrowed his “maleness” from men I’ve known—friends, my husband, students, fellow dancers, Jesuits—and also from a rag bag of things I happen to love about men. And no, I’m not elaborating on those!

I made him intelligent because I like intelligent people—and also so that he would hold my interest through several books. And, of course, he had to be intelligent to be a Jesuit—that’s one of the many things I’ve enjoyed and respected in Jesuits I’ve known. I gave Charles a strong sense of humor because I’m always suspicious if humor is absent, especially humor about self and religion—where humor is absent, humility probably is, too.

He struggles repeatedly with obedience, but without rejecting it, and that’s perhaps the most “countercultural” thing about the novels. Obedience is a very negative word in twenty-first century American culture. But Charles is a thinking and independent man who has chosen to be a Jesuit, chosen to be formed by a spirituality that demands very serious obedience. So he wrestles, sometimes refuses to obey, and grows, and I think that helps make him attractive to contemporary readers. Because I have as much trouble with obedience as most of us do, I had to find a personal way into writing Charles’s struggle with obedience. I used my own lifelong struggle to obey my vocation as an artist to do that.

There are many other things about who Charles is, but I’ll finish with just one. Madame du Luc, his always offstage mother, is demanding, generous, and funny, and has certainly shaped who her son is. She simply showed up while I was writing the first book, and I’m not sure where she came from. But I think she may be an ancestor of Peter Wimsey’s mother in Dorothy Sayers’ novels.

SAT: What’s next for Charles? I hope there is a fifth novel in the works!

JR: Sadly, The Whispering of Bones was the last Charles book. I had hoped to write one more, but the publisher felt that Charles wasn’t bringing them enough profit. The books will continue to be available, and I hope readers will go on discovering Charles and his world.

I’m about to send off the ms. of a contemporary mystery, set in an imagined town in south central Florida, whose heroine is a female police officer. And I’m working on two other books: a contemporary literary novel, and a 12th century historical novel, which begins in the pilgrimage town of Conques, ends in Paris, and draws together French and English characters—both real and imagined.

SAT: I’m sorry to say good-bye to Charles, but look forward to reading your next books. Thank you so much for visiting here on the blog!

Visit Judith’s website at http://www.judithrock.com for a complete list of the Charles du Luc novels, plus fascinating details about Jesuit ballet and other fun facts about life in 17th-century Paris.

Interview with author Elizabeth Zelvin

Today I am pleased to interview one of my personal inspirations, writer Elizabeth Zelvin, fellow member of Sisters in Crime. Please welcome Liz to the blog.

ZelvinHeadshot2014-300dpiSAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.

EZ: How much time have you got? The short version: I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old, I didn’t get published till I was over thirty (poetry), and my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. So the road was rocky. My big mistake was to try to do it alone for the first fifty years. I owe a tremendous debt to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies chapter (we were the Great UnPublished when I first joined in 2002), and Mystery Writers of America. My post-publication road has also been rocky, not surprising since both publishing and the whole world in general has gone through a complete paradigm shift in the past five years. I’d still be writing only mysteries if my first publisher, St. Martin’s (Minotaur) hadn’t dropped me because my sales didn’t soar when the economy tanked in 2009.

SAT: How did you come to write Voyage of Strangers?

EZ: Voyage of Strangers is a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the point of view of a young marrano sailor. It’s more about how I came to create Diego, who first appeared in my short story, “The Green Cross,” and who is the protagonist of Voyage of Strangers along with his sister Rachel. I’ve told this one before, and it never changes: I woke up in the middle of the night with Diego beating on the inside of my head, saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” I really didn’t want to get out of bed, and I hate research—make that hated—but he wouldn’t let me go. I found enough material online the next day to write the story, including Columbus’s log of the first voyage, which is fascinating, and Diego and I were on our way. I’m Jewish, I knew the Jews were kicked out of Spain at the same time that Columbus sailed, and I knew what everybody learns in school about Columbus, but nothing more. But once I started doing the research, I knew Diego had a much bigger story to tell, and that it was darker and deeper than the original mystery. Rachel came out of nowhere too. Diego comes back to find she got stuck in Spain when the family fled, and he has to keep her out of the hands of the Inquisition and prevent her—unsuccessfully—from coming along on the second voyage.

Caravel; Shutterstock ID 185020481SAT: Should readers read “The Green Cross,” the short story that led to Voyage of Strangers before beginning the novel?

EZ: I hope everyone who reads Voyage of Strangers will read “The Green Cross,” but I don’t think it matters whether it’s before or after. Before: readers can see whether they like Diego for only 99 cents. After: you can see not only Diego’s evolution, but that of Columbus, from the kindly detective who solves the mystery in “The Green Cross” to a much more complex and driven, even tragic figure.

SAT: What is different about writing historical fiction? Was the process of writing it different from the way you go about writing the Bruce Kohler mysteries?

EZ: There are two biggest differences. One is that you can’t write historical fiction without reading actual history. You can’t skate by with what you know from historical novels, any more than you can write police procedurals based only on what you’ve seen on TV crime shows—unless you want to be under constant threat of attack from readers. The other is structure. The basic armature of the traditional mystery, like those I write, is that a crime is committed, usually a murder; the protagonist investigates; and there’s some kind of confrontation and a resolution of the mystery. On that, the writer can hang anything she likes: any protagonist (eg my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler), other characters, relationships, and story arc; setting in terms of place (present-day New York City in the Bruce books and stories) and of the protagonist’s work or interests or environment (the 12-step programs in my mysteries); and a theme or themes (for Bruce and me, recovery from addictions and codependency, and a secondary theme, the power of friendship).

In a historical novel, the armature is what actually happened. The historical timeline at the end of Voyage of Strangers goes back to the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, more than twenty years before the period covered by the events in the book, because so many events had an impact on what happened in 1493 to 1495, the time that Diego and Rachel spend in post-Expulsion Spain and on the second voyage. I’m an into-the-mist writer, but instead of starting right in as I do with my mysteries, I have to do a lot of reading before I begin a historical novel. Then I have to make sure that the fictional characters (about half the cast in Voyage of Strangers) fit in with the historical events. All my characters taken from history, including Columbus, are doing exactly what they did in real life at any given moment in the book.

SAT: What do you like and dislike about writing historical fiction compared with works set in today’s world?

EZ: I’ve gone from being someone who hated research to someone who finds it fascinating, especially when what really happened is stuff you couldn’t make up. For example, did you know that the Santa Maria never made it back to Spain? How the ship got wrecked on Christmas Eve is told in the prologue to Voyage, and what happened to the sailors who got left behind because not everybody could fit into the Niña and the Pinta for the return voyage is a key point in the plot of my novel. I’ve now written two historical novels (to anticipate the next question, yes, there is a sequel), and for me, once I’ve done the research, the actual writing of the first draft has so far gone more easily and quickly for me than it did for my mysteries. My guess is that what slows me down is the puzzle aspect of the mystery. I sail through characterization and dialogue, but I really have to think about the puzzle. I know writers who are just the opposite. It’s very individual. With historicals vs novels set in the present, your characters don’t have to assume the attitudes and biases of the twenty-first century, which can be very freeing. Voyage of Strangers is about being an outsider, so Diego’s and Rachel’s views can be different from those of their contemporaries and, at the same time, different in some ways from what would be considered “correct” today.

SAT: I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel to Voyage of Strangers in the works. Please, tell us more! And are you planning on writing other historical novels beyond that?

EZ: I spent the summer writing the sequel, Journey of Strangers, which takes Diego back to Europe, then to the Ottoman Empire, and then to an island off the coast of West Africa because—well, I’ll just say that I found out about an astonishing historical event that very few people know about that gave me a terrific new protagonist and story line. Bad for the Jews, good for the writer. And I’ll write historical novels as long as I have a publisher who wants them. I find the prospect of getting my work published very motivating.

SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the book.

EZ: I started out online. It was fascinating to find some primary source material, such as Columbus’s log of the first voyage in English. Wikipedia is also a helpful starting place—though not a reliable source. You have to check the facts you find on Wikipedia very carefully. The Internet is also great for specific aspects of the setting. For example, I got a lot of detail about late 15th-century Seville from scholarly material I found online and details of the flora and fauna of Hispaniola by looking up plants and animals of the Dominican Republic. Google Images was great for how things looked. And I took much of how I presented the Taino and the Roma (“gypsies”) from websites created by people who self-identify as Taino or Roma. I also went to books. I used two main sources for the historical details of Voyage of Strangers. One was “The” biography of Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Morison actually sailed the routes of all four of Columbus’s voyages in his own sailboat. But his point of view is completely Eurocentric and patriarchal, which is not surprising, given the era in which he was writing. As a foil, I also used radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, written when Americans were finally getting it that the genocide of the Taino people in the Caribbean was, to put it mildly, a terrible thing. Morison and Sale disagree on just about everything, so I got to pick and choose what to believe to suit my story.

DWGYS-Cover-FinalSAT: Does your work experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and therapist have any influence on your writing apart from the fact that the Bruce Kohler series is set within the world of a recovering alcoholic who gets by only with the help of AA?

EZ: As a writer who got planted early but bloomed very late in life, I have to say that all my life experience has come in handy in my writing. In writing about the Caribbean in Voyage and the island of São Tomé in the new book, I drew on my memories of tropical sights and sounds and smells. One thing my sources Morison and Sale disagreed about was whether the indigenous Caribe, in particular the Canibale, were actually cannibals. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from.) I chose to agree with Sale, who makes a good case that the evidence isn’t really there in the primary sources, though it’s something that has been repeated as truth by historians for hundreds of years. I have a scene in which Diego’s Taino friend tells him it’s a joking insult people from different tribal groups throw at each other. I got that straight from my Peace Corps experience in West Africa. I had friends who would kid around by telling each other, “Your grandfather ate people!” As for being a therapist, I like to think the feelings, relationships, and emotional growth of my characters is authentic. That authenticity comes from both my professional and personal experience.

Liz CD CoverSAT: Tell us about your CD, Outrageous Older Woman? How would you classify it in terms of musical genre and style?

EZ: Outrageous Older Woman consists of songs I’ve written over the past thirty years. I sing and play guitar, but the reason the album is a dream come true is that a bunch of superb musicians and backup singers—all much better than me!—played and sang along with me on it. The genre is singer-songwriter urban folk with a dash of country and a pinch of gospel, klezmer, or whatever each individual song required. The songs cover a wide variety of subject matter on themes that aren’t too different from those of my fiction and poetry: love, family, friendship, aging, alcoholism and recovery, abuse and healing, inspiring characters. My song about 911, written in New York over the two days after it happened, is on it, as is a story song that’s based on a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. You can get the CD or MP3 download on CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon (where you have to look up Liz Zelvin rather than Elizabeth Zelvin—it’s not on my author page because it’s not a book). And you can hear samples and a few full songs on my music website at http://lizzelvin.com.

SAT: What’s next for Elizabeth Zelvin?

EZ: If Lake Union, which is the literary and commercial fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional publishing arm), keeps wanting my historical novels, the next one will put either Diego and my other protagonists or possibly their children into some other situation and setting where there was a Jewish historical presence in the right era. My e-publisher, BooksBNimble, would like to see another Bruce mystery, and I’m working on the first draft of that. The theme is compulsive debting (yes, there is a program, Debtors Anonymous), and the working title is Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about a mystery/urban fantasy novel featuring my other strong protagonist, Emerald Love, a rising country music star and shapeshifter who’s also a nice Jewish girl née Amy Greenstein. She’s already appeared in an e-novella, “Shifting Is for the Goyim,” (available on Amazon) and in a short story that will appear in the next Sisters in Crime Guppies anthology.

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of Voyage of Strangers, a historical novel about Columbus’s second voyage from the perspective of a young marrano sailor. She is also the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story and once for the Derringer Award. Her publications include two books of poetry and a professional book on gender and addictions. She has also released an album of original songs titled Outrageous Older Woman. Liz currently sees clients around the world on her online therapy website at LZcybershrink.com. Her author website is at http://elizabethzelvin.com. You can friend her on Facebook at http://facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin. Besides being a shrink, a writer, and a singer-songwriter, Liz is the doting grandma of two gorgeous, brilliant, talented, and well-behaved little girls.

Interview with author Clea Simon

Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Clea Simon, author of the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe mysteries.

Clea SimonSAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your journey to publication, and so on.

CS: I have always loved making up stories and have been writing stories since I could read. But it took me a while as an adult to think my stories had any validity. I became a journalist and wrote three nonfiction books in part because of this: I felt like if I was conveying information, then I had a reason to write. But I largely read fiction. It wasn’t until Kate Mattes, who owned the now-closed Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., told me, “You should write a mystery” that I started my first one, “Mew is for Murder.” I think in some way I needed permission.

SAT: Why do cats feature in most of your books?

CS: I’m not sure, except that I love cats and have long lived with them. When I started writing the Pru Marlowe pet noir, I didn’t intend for the protagonist to have a cat. I wanted to write a tough, dark heroine. But as I was writing it turned out that she had an even tougher tabby.

SAT: The heroine’s psychic abilities in the Pru Marlowe series come off to me as very realistic in the way that animal thoughts are portrayed. Did you do any kind of research for this series, for example, reading about how animals think and perceive the world?

CS: I do. This fascinates me — learning, for example, how parrots see or how ferrets express agitation. It’s just such a different language. Cats, of course, I know from experience, but other animals I have to research.

SAT: Are there are particular books or websites you consult for researching animal psychology?

CS: Not one particular one. Because of my background in nonfiction, I like to think I’ve got pretty good research skills. Plus, when I wrote “The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats” (St. Martin’s), I amassed a pretty great personal library of books about animals and I’ve got some great friends. Vicki Constantine Croke, who writes about animals, is often my first go-to person: she has connected me to some wonderful experts. Sometimes, it’s just a question of calling around: Who has a ferret? Who works with rescue dogs? There’s always somebody who is willing to share expertise. So many writers get things wrong that the experts are usually really grateful when one of us at least makes the effort! That’s why I try to always say in my acknowledgments that any errors are all mine.

SAT: Dulcie and Pru are such very different personalities. Which do you resemble the most? In what ways are you different from either?

CS: I think they’re both sides of my personality — as are all my characters, probably! If I can’t relate to a character, even a killer, then I don’t know how I’d write them. That said, I’m not nearly as tough as Pru (or Wallis) nor as studious as Dulcie. I do live a bit too much in my head, though, as she does — and in books.

SAT: Both the Dulcie Schwartz and the Pru Marlowe books contain elements of the paranormal, a cat-ghost in Dulcie’s case and a (sometimes unwelcome) psychic ability in Pru’s. What led you to include these elements in your mysteries?

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

CS: Dulcie’s first paranormal experience with Mr Grey, the scene that opens her first book, “Shades of Grey,” is something that happened to me… almost. I had lost my beloved gray cat, Cyrus, to age and kidney disease. I missed him terribly — but then one day, I swear I saw him. He did not tell me that anyone had been murdered, though. At any rate, the story just grew from there. As for Pru, well, don’t we all feel like we really know what our animals are telling us? And that this makes us a little crazy?

SAT: What is it about mysteries that appeals to you as both reader and writer?

CS: I love the puzzle aspect. But I think the secret to mysteries – at least to good ones – is that they’re about the characters. With a series, you get to revisit people you’ve come to know and, hopefully, love. That’s very appealing to me as a reader and very much so as a writer.

SAT: What’s next for Clea Simon?

CS: Well, I am pleased as punch to have just been contracted for two more Dulcie books — and that’s not including the one that is now in production (“Stages of Grey,” which will be out in October). I am also working on the next Pru book, and my contract covers another one after that so that carries me into 2016. Beyond these books — four still to write, five to see light of day — I don’t know. I really hope that my publishers will want to stay with me. I am beginning to think I would like to write something different. A stand-alone or maybe even a non-mystery. But I can’t see leaving crime fiction behind, and any mystery I write will certainly have kitties in it somewhere. So we shall see!

Read more about Clea and her books at: http://cleasimon.com/

Clea’s most recent releases are:

grey howlGrey Howl: A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery

A prestigious literature conference is convening in Cambridge and Dulcie Schwartz is the university liaison for the event, meeting and greeting some of the finest minds in her field.

But events do not run according to plan when one scholar’s presentation is sabotaged while another visiting professor disappears. As Dulcie and her boyfriend Chris struggle to solve problems and soothe egos, a strange apparition starts to haunt the bi-annual event. And even Mr Gray, the ghost of Dulcie’s late, great cat,,appears to be overwhelmed, leaving Dulcie to manage an increasingly backstabbing crew of professional rivals, one of whom may be a killer.

And, just released:

panthers play for keepsPanthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe pet noir

When Pru Marlowe takes a dog for a walk, she doesn’t expect to find a body. But Spot, a service dog in training, has too good a nose not to lead her to the remains of the beautiful young woman, and despite her own best instincts, Pru can’t avoid getting involved. The young woman seems to have been mauled by a wild cat – and Pru knows there have been no pumas in the Berkshire woods for years. And while Wallis, Pru’s curmudgeonly tabby, seems fixated on the idea of a killer cat, Spot has been sending strange signals to Pru’s own heightened senses, suggesting that the violent death was something more than a tragic accident. As motives multiply, a cougar of a different sort sets her eyes on Pru’s sometime lover, and another woman disappears. With panther panic growing, Pru may have to put aside her own issues – and her own ideas of domesticity – to solve a savage mystery.

 

The Ideal Bookshelf

I’m thrilled to welcome one of my favorite mystery authors, Sandra Parshall, as a guest on today’s blog. Her award winning series features veterinarian Rachel Goddard, a passionate, strong-willed character with hidden vulnerabilities. The writing is flawless, the characters three-dimensional and memorable, and whenever I’m in the midst of one of her books, I find myself haunted by the depths of the story, unable to get it out of my mind. If you are new to the series, you should read the books in order, beginning with HEAT OF THE MOON. Just be aware that you may not be able to put this book down.

Today Sandra offers some thoughts on the ideal bookshelf. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog.

Sandra ParshallWhile browsing the new books section of my neighborhood branch library, I came across a delightful book titled My Ideal Bookshelf , edited by Thessaly La Forge. For page after page, more than 100 writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative people talk about the books that have meant the most to them — the books that would make up their “ideal bookshelf” and represent who they are.

Which books changed their lives? Which made them the people they are today? Which books are their beloved favorites, the ones they read again and again? Each entry is illustrated with a painting by Jane Mount of that person’s ideal bookshelf.

Naturally, I went for the writers first. Robert Crais is a prime example of someone whose life has been shaped by reading. When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, he read “everything I could get my hands on” and picked up The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler at age fifteen because “the cover had this really hot chick on it.” Reading that book was the beginning of his love for detective fiction and his fascination with Los Angeles. It helped to make him the writer he is today. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human born on Mars who is a loner hero, further influenced Crais’s writing and his outlook on life. Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, a collection of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about the television industry, spurred Crais to leave Louisiana for Los Angeles and begin a career as a writer for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice.

 Francine Prose has a shelf filled with the works of Anton Chekov, who “saved my sanity, or what was left of my sanity” during a “messy time” in her life. Reading Chekhov is almost a religious experience for her, uplifting in the same way as gazing at great art.

Scott Spencer’s ideal bookshelf ranges from Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer at one end to A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene at the other, with the works of Alan Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Bruce Jaye Friedman, Vladimir Nabakov and Doris Lessing in between. The volume that represents his youthful ambitions, though, is Evergreen Review. When he was growing up on the working class south side of Chicago, that literary publication gave him a glimpse of a “dazzling bohemia that I would one day be a part of.”

As the essays in My Ideal Bookshelf prove, the written word can also have a profound effect on people who have never aspired to be writers themselves. Tony Hawk, a professional skateboarder, has found inspiration in books as varied as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”, about a shocking case of child abuse, and Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s account of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica that kept a ship of explorers helplessly adrift in Earth’s harshest climate for six months. These books taught Hawk that the human spirit can triumph over adversity and turn life’s worst experiences into something positive.

My Ideal Bookshelf  is filled with such testimony to the power of books, and browsing only a handful is enough to restore the flagging spirit of any writer who doubts that sitting alone at the computer, tapping out words on a screen, is a worthwhile way to spend her time. Books can change lives, and by changing lives they can change the world. The beauty of being a writer is that you never know when a book, a paragraph, a sentence you’ve created will touch another human being’s heart. I was stunned when a woman told me that after reading my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, she understood her troubled relationships with her own mother and sister for the first time. Could any writer ask for more than that?

My own ideal bookshelf would be crammed with works that have affected me. I grew up in a poor family, a family of non-readers, so I can’t explain where I got my love of reading and writing. The public library saved my life by showing me a world beyond the dreary one I lived in and giving me hope that I could be part of that greater world someday. Like Crais, I read everything I could get my hands on, ranging from Dostoevsky to Graham Greene. The writers who most influenced me, though, were Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, not because they wrote about exotic places but because they showed me that my own life contained the seeds of stories worth telling.

Poisoned Ground 300Today, I can hardly believe that after all the years of struggling to break into print, I am sliding my own sixth published novel onto a shelf with five that came before it. It might not measure up to the groaning shelves of authors with twenty, thirty, or more volumes to their credit, but it’s the book collection that makes me smile with pride.

What books would you place on your ideal bookshelf to represent your life and the person you’ve become?

*************

Sandra Parshall is the author of six Rachel Goddard mysteries, set in Virginia. Her 2006 debut, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest title is Poisoned Ground (March 2014). A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, she has served on the national board and managed the SinC members online community for many years. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a veteran Washington journalist, and their cats Emma and Gabriel. Visit her website at http://www.sandraparshall.com.


 

 

Cats in Fiction

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

I like cats and I like reading novels. Judging by the number of cats I see on book covers, I’m not alone. Here are some of my current favorite series where cats are among the continuing characters.

Clea Simon has to be the queen of mysteries that include cats. Her Dulcie Schwartz series is an academic semi-cozy that features the ghost of Dulcie’s recently departed and much-loved pet, Mr. Grey. Dulcie isn’t sure at first of what’s going on, and Mr. Grey’s appearances are deftly handled, with a nice degree of subtlety. As the series progresses, Dulcie becomes the unwilling custodian of a new kitten, but by the end of the third book, Dulcie and the new kit are beginning to forge a bond, even as Mr. Grey continues to grace her (and the kit?) with his ghostly wisdom. Fans of academic mysteries in particular will enjoy this series, which features graduate student Dulcie wrestling with her Harvard dissertation as she navigates the sometimes politically charged waters of the University’s English department. Ms. Simon’s knowledge of the Boston/Cambridge area gives us a good taste of local color in this most prestigious college town.

dogs don't lie

First in the Pru Marlowe series

Ms. Simon’s new series features a very different sort of heroine and a different twist on the paranormal slant. Where Dulcie is often full of hesitancy and self-doubt, Pru Marlowe is often surly and seldom out to please her fellow humans, as befits the heroine of this self-titled “pet noir” series who name cleverly echoes that of Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe. While Dulcie sees her cat’s ghost, Pru can hear animals’ thoughts. Though some of these thoughts drive her crazy (especially the inane twitterings of birds), she’s far more sympathetic to the four-footed among us, and her urgency to fight for the lives of animals who have been wrongly accused of murder gives readers a heroine to root for and a cause to celebrate.

Like Dulcie’s ghostly sightings, Pru’s talent is handled with surety and flair. The animals’ thoughts feel authentically animal-like, far removed from any suggestion of sentimentality, cutesiness, or anthropomorphism. One of the best realized characters in this series is Pru’s wonderfully grumpy cat, whose personality in some ways reflects Pru’s own.

No murders, just mysteries. Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret. The first Mae Martin psychic mystery Published December, 2013

A recent voice on the cats-in-mysteries scene belongs to Amber Foxx, author of the new series of “murderless mysteries” featuring psychic and healer Mae Martin. In THE CALLING, the first book in Ms. Foxx’s series, Mae’s very first intuition of her psychic stirrings occurs at a young age when she sets out to find her mother’s cat, which has escaped their house on the very first day of their move to a new neighborhood. Unlike Pru, Mae doesn’t hear the cat’s voice in her head, but she can see in her mind a cat’s-eye view of the discombobulated feline’s hiding place and is able to figure out where the cat has gone. Later in the book, a grown-up Mae reluctantly exercises her psychic gift to locate her neighbor’s injured cat—an act that turns out to have far-reaching ramifications for her reputation in the small-town, small-minded community.

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery Coming in 2014

The second book in the series, SHAMAN’S BLUES, features yet another cat, this time one who has been traumatized. This time, Mae doesn’t have any success, but a new friend in her life, the frustrating and often enigmatic Jamie, turns out to have a natural gift for healing this particular soul-injured pet. It’s a nice way of showing Jamie’s personality and talents on multiple levels, handled with great subtlety and sensitivity.

Here’s hoping to read many more in all three of these series. Brava to both authors!

How about you? What are some of your favorite novels with cats?

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