Mysterypeople Q&A with Larry D. Sweazy

  • Interview by Event Staffer and MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

See Also, Deception is Larry D. Sweazy’s second book to feature indexer Marjorie Trumaine. This time she uncovers dozens of her small North Dakota town’s secrets as she looks into a librarian’s apparent suicide. MysteryPeople’s Meike Alana caught up with Larry about the book, its setting, and the lead character.

 

Meike Alana: Marjorie is an incredibly strong, resourceful, independent woman—particularly given her environment of living in a small, rural farm community. What was your inspiration for the character? Was she based on a particular person in your life?

Larry Sweazy: I was raised by a single mother until I was ten years old. My mother supported the three of us kids the best she could on her own, and with the help of family, of course. My grandmother was diminutive in size (4’9”), but big when it came to heart and strength. So my early role-models were two very strong, determined women. I’m sure some of the traits I witnessed as a boy went into creating Marjorie. But I also think that the era and the setting are also a huge part of character building. Marjorie was a Depression baby, so she was impacted by that time of strife, as well as the uncertainty of the farming life. The weather of the plains that she had to endure through the years helped to form her character, too. Winters in North Dakota are not for the weak of spirit or strength, especially when all you have to rely on is a wood stove and your wits in frequent blizzards and brutal subzero temperatures.

“I also think that the era and the setting are also a huge part of character building. …Winters in North Dakota are not for the weak of spirit or strength, especially when all you have to rely on is a wood stove and your wits in frequent blizzards and brutal subzero temperatures.”

MA: You do an incredible job of conveying the loneliness and desolation of the North Dakota plains. How did you decide to base the series there?

LS: I spent two years stationed in North Dakota in the United States Air Force. I was a security policeman (SP) and it was in the middle of the Cold War. One of my duties was to spend four days at a Launch Control Facility (LCF) and respond to any alarm that went off on a Minuteman missile site. There were four of us to a team and we traveled a lot of miles on the backroads going from one site to another, so I got a pretty good feel for the land. When I knew that Marjorie was going to be a farmer’s wife, it seemed natural for me to put her in North Dakota. Indexing, and farming for that matter, is work that demands isolation. I couldn’t think of a lonelier place than the western plains that I had experienced in the Air Force.

MA: Marjorie works as an indexer, a vocation that most people don’t know anything about—and your descriptions of the work are fascinating.You have worked as an indexer—how did that job come about for you? What impact, if any, has that had on your approach to writing fiction?

LS: I was writer before I was an indexer. I had committed to being a writer and I was working as a maintenance man to earn an income in an office building that housed a non-fiction publisher (Macmillan, at that time). Over time, I struck up a conversation with some of the editors, and before long I was studying indexing. It was a perfect fit for me. I’m detail-oriented, curious, had some writing skills, loved puzzle-solving, and have always been reasonably well organized. It was a lucky fit, and it fed my love of reading books and writing in ways that I had never considered before. To date, I’ve written 830 indexes.

Indexing has had a huge impact on writing fiction. First, it’s as much a science as it is art, and brevity is a requirement for obvious reasons. There just isn’t space to be too descriptive. An indexer has to convey a concept very succinctly. As a writer, brevity goes a long way. And then there’s the research skills that come along with being an indexer. A curious mind is a must, along with the ability to organize and sort through dense text and boil it down to the most important points. An indexer has to think like multiple readers. What would they look up? What questions do they need answered? One access point won’t do. Not everybody thinks the same way, or searches for information with the same keywords. So the reader is always present in an indexer’s mind. And, indexing is a very demanding job. There is usually very little time at the end of a production schedule to write the index. Two weeks is normal, but sometimes it’s less. Deadlines must be met because the book has already been scheduled at the printer. Miss the date and there is a cost to the publisher, either in time or money. If an indexer misses a deadline, or too many deadlines, they won’t be working in the field very long. I’m always aware of the deadline for my novels as much as I am for my indexes.

“Indexing has had a huge impact on writing fiction. First, it’s as much a science as it is art, and brevity is a requirement for obvious reasons. There just isn’t space to be too descriptive. An indexer has to convey a concept very succinctly. As a writer, brevity goes a long way. And then there’s the research skills that come along with being an indexer. A curious mind is a must, along with the ability to organize and sort through dense text and boil it down to the most important points. An indexer has to think like multiple readers. What would they look up? What questions do they need answered? One access point won’t do. Not everybody thinks the same way, or searches for information with the same keywords.”

MA: You’ve written a lot of different types of works—short stories, series, a stand-alone thriller. What brought you to the decision to not only write this particular series, but write it in the first-person from a female POV?

LS: One of the ways that an indexer received training in the past was through a correspondence course administrated by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). The course was designed to give farmers’ wives something to do in the winter that would also generate some income. I loved the idea right away, and began thinking that a farmer’s wife in a remote location like North Dakota would make a great amateur sleuth. I couldn’t figure out how to write this story any other way than in Marjorie’s voice. I tried, but it made so much sense to me that it had to be her story that I couldn’t shake it. Finally, I had to get out of my own way and try to write the story. It was a big risk, but I’ve always believed that a POV risk like this was worth taking artistically. It’s less dangerous than telling one’s self that something can’t be done just because of gender. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy accessing a female voice, but writing in Marjorie’s voice became a creative challenge to me. I didn’t know if I could do it successfully, or if anyone would buy it. At first I wrote a short story. That story was eventually nominated for SMFS (Short Mystery Fiction Society) Derringer award, and that gave me the confidence to try a novel and a series. I knew there was more to Marjorie’s story than could be contained in one book. Luckily, Seventh Street Books was willing to take the risk with me to see Marjorie into the world.

MA: This book deals with the many layers of secrets that can exist in small towns—they can seem idyllic on the surface, yet that image can hide a mass of dark secrets. Does that come from personal experience?

LS: I grew up in a small town, so I’m sure that’s part of where I write from. But small towns exist in big cities, too, in neighborhoods, districts, and boroughs. Anytime you put a mass of human beings in a small place there are bound to be betrayals, secrets, or good deeds gone unnoticed. One of the reasons I chose Dickinson, North Dakota for these books was because there was a college there. I thought the juxtaposition of the academic and rural worlds (both small in their own right) would supply Marjorie with some added tension since she dropped out of college and was educated via a correspondence course. The town is also like an island in a sea of grass, so there’s going to be some characters there that wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“But small towns exist in big cities, too, in neighborhoods, districts, and boroughs. Anytime you put a mass of human beings in a small place there are bound to be betrayals, secrets, or good deeds gone unnoticed.”

MA: Can you tell us what’s next for Marjorie?

LS: There will be at least three books in the series, though I do have ideas for more. In the next book, due out in 2017, Marjorie ventures out of North Dakota to work alongside a reclusive author who wants her to index his next book. And, of course, she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation in an unknown place, where she knows no one. It will be true test of all of her life skills. I’m having a lot of fun writing this book.

You can find copies of See Also, Deception on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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