Q&A with Sarah Pinborough

While Cross Her Heart was my first time reading a book written by author Sarah Pinborough, it definitely won’t be my last: Her plotting, pace and twists were amazing.

Cross Her Heart: A Novel Cover ImageAmid best selling authors like Gillian Flynn working with unreliable narrators I find myself wondering, when reading new books with female protagonists, if THIS is an character I can rely on. And this one avoided the clichés, the predictable twists of many other authors and instead provided a completely original book that will keep you reading all night.

As the Independent wrote, “Once the first reveal hits you in the face, you’ll be lucky if you can put the book down to go to bed.”

The author, who has also written 20 novels and novellas and written for the BBC,  was nice enough to let me interview her via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Sarah Pinborough: The central subject matter – which I can’t really talk about without giving away the twist! – has always fascinated me, especially the fallout and how people continue to live their lives in the aftermath. In the UK in particular we have a fascination with these cases and I always wanted to write something that explored it. God, this is so hard to answer 😉 But once I had that the core twist in place, the rest of the story came easily.

Scott: Which comes first for you, the plot or the characters?

Sarah: Often I’ll start with a situation, or a scene, but the characters are very close behind. It’s very symbiotic. But when writing thrillers you need to have the engine of the plot and then house it with characters that people will care about. They don’t have to be likeable for me, but they have to like themselves, even if that particular character is an awful human being. Then you have half a chance that the reader will root for them.

Scott: How do you come up with so many disturbing ideas for novels?

Sarah: Ha! Sometimes I think I’d love to write something funny but my brain tends to go to darker places! When I was a kid I never slept because I was always scared of the monsters in the dark, and that endless death-like quality of night, so I figure I’m just destined to think of the terrible things rather than the fun ones. I hope that there are some uplifting moments in my books, though!

Scott: Am I right in guessing that you outline your books? I would think you would have to do in order to plan the twists and keep the pacing at atmosphere going.

Sarah: Yes, I definitely plan. I don’t always stick to them but they help point out the problems if nothing else. I always have to have the end solidly in place before I begin and that never changes once it’s locked in. If the ending doesn’t feel right I can’t really start. I do screenwriting as well, and there structure is everything, and that has carried over into my novel writing. I kind of get key beats in place but they often change as ideas or characters change!

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

Sarah: Mainly, I hope they just have a few hours entertainment. Entertainment is much under-rated in this difficult world we live in, and I love to get lost in a story, and forget about any problems I have, and hope that my readers have the same experience. But, also, the story stays with them for a while, or makes them think about people in a different way, that’s good too.

Scott: You have quite the collection of past works. What prompted you to write modern re-tellings of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?

Sarah: Well, that was actually my old editor at Gollancz’s suggestion! We’d both been watching the first scene of Once Upon a Time and loving it and she asked if I’d ever consider re-telling fairy tales and they’d want to publish them if I did. I didn’t think I’d be able to write something like that but then I was thinking about Snow White and wondered what kind of man would fall in love with a dead girl in a glass coffin, and then I had my way in. I’m very proud of that trilogy, and it was fun to be able to write dark, saucy humour.

Scott: I understand Stephen King was one of your earlier writing influences. What’s it like to have King, along with Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Harlan Coben and others, praising you?

Sarah: Oh my gosh, it’s just amazing. There’s always lots of fear in this business (I mean, I’m not bigging up writing, it’s not brain surgery or saving people from fires etc, but we have fragile egos and always worry) and whenever i have a moment of wondering if I’m making a mess of a story or if it’s all going to go wrong I think, ‘Well, at least all these people I admire have at some point enjoyed what I’ve done.’ It’’s a great way to calm down. 😉 I love all of them, but having grown up in total awe of Stephen King his words almost made me cry!

Scott: What are you working on next?

Ah! Well, I’m describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s fun and sexy. It’s set in America, and it’s lots of terrible, wealthy people doing terrible things to each other … but I love them. Especially the main women characters.  It is a change because it’s third person past rather than first person present and it doesn’t have past chapters like the last two books but thus far, I’m pretty pleased with it. I think it will be a bit different.

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Interview With Alison Gaylin

Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight uses the thriller to examine how social media affects our lives. It shows different points of view when a teenager is sent into a coma from apparently stopping a car jacking involving a one hit wonder from the eighties, and how rumors moving at light speed effect the lives of those caught up in the situation as well as those investigating it. Alison was kind enough to talk about the book and life in the era of Twitter.

Image result for alison gaylin booksMysteryPeople Scott: Social media plays a big part in If I Die Tonight. What did you want to explore with that subject?

Alison Gaylin: I’m really fascinated by social media as an unreliable narrator. In the book, the kids and the adults use it in this way – the grown-ups falsely glamorizing their lives on Facebook, the kids (and I suppose anonymous Reddit posters as well) using social media to spread rumors, lash out at each other, bully each other with untruths. I always say I like to write about things that scare me, and in this day and age, social media can be terrifying.

MPS: You have a teenage daughter. Do you think she will be formed in a different way than when we were teenagers by social media?

AG: Yes, I do. As I mention in the book, I feel like when I was a kid, we blasted music, clomped around in our Doc Martens, tied up the family phone and basically wore our heart on our sleeves. Our power was in making noise. This generation is about earbuds and sneakers and personal devices… They’re so much quieter and more secretive, which makes them harder to know, help, save.

If I Die Tonight: A Novel Cover ImageMPS: How much did having a daughter help you get the voices of the teenage characters?

AG: It did help in terms of getting a grasp of teenagers’ concerns. And it was a story that my daughter told me – about a hit and run in a neighboring town – that gave me the initial idea for the book.  She also helped me understand SnapChat, which was invaluable! But my daughter’s voice is very different from that of the two teenage boys in the book. She’s a lot more open than they are – thankfully!

MPS: This is one of those thrillers that probably wouldn’t have existed five years ago. Is there anything as an author you have to keep in mind when you’re writing a story so of its time?

AG: I think the one thing to keep in mind is to make sure that there is something timeless about the story. Yes, this novel has SnapChat and Reddit and Facebook Live in it. But it is ultimately about guilt, secrets, and the terrifying process of raising teenagers – all of which have been around forever.

MPS: If I Die Tonight is a something of an ensemble thriller told through the point of view of several characters. What made you decide this was the way to go for this story?

AG: When I first decided to write a story about a teenager who may have committed a carjacking/hit and run, my first thoughts were, “What if I were his mother?” “What if I were his little brother?” “What if I were the woman whose car was taken?” and “Who is going to solve this crime?” All seemed like valid ways to approach the story, so I decided to go with all of them.

MPS: Aimee Em is the third character you’ve recently used in a novel or short story tied to eighties pop culture. Has anything drawn you to this period?

AG: What is that thing they say about the songs you used to listen to as a teen making the biggest impact on you, emotionally? I am fanatical about pop culture – I always have been — and I think that having grown up in the early 80s, I’m especially obsessed with that time period.

WITHIN A GENERATION OF THEIR EXTINCTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JOY

Our Pick Of The Month, The Line That Held Us, is David Joy’s third book to take place in his home of Jackson County, North Carolina. It concerns Calvin Hooper who helps his friend Darl Moody hide a body he accidentally shot. The body belongs to the brother of Dwayne Brewer, the county’s most vicious criminal. What occurs is a tense thriller that also looks at family, friendship, and search for grace in a place that is going through a lot of changes after it seems to have changed little for over a hundred years. We got a chance to talk about the book with David Joy himself.

MysteryPeople Scott: As in all of your books, family plays a major part in the story. Dwayne is avenging his, and Calvin is trying to save his before it even gets started. What makes the dynamics rich subject matter for you?

David Joy: Maybe more than anything it’s the idea of unconditional love that interests me. I think familial bonds, and deep-seated friendships that become familial, make for some of the richest ground to plow. People will do things that defy reason and that defy even their own morality to protect the ones they love. That’s an interesting place to put a character. There’s immediate conflict. There’s this “I know I shouldn’t do this but I’d do anything for you” kind of conflict. Any time you can create that kind of tension in a story you’re going to have movement, and that’s what a story has to do. It has to move.

MPS: Family seems to be a staple in Southern literature. Do you feel it has a special place in the culture?

DJ: That’s definitely true about Southern literature, but I think the reality is that it’s less a matter of the South or the North or the Midwest, and much more a matter of the rural nature of the setting. Family is an integral part of the rural identity. You could go anywhere in the country and if you get far enough out to places where people are largely isolated and seldom leave and that’s all you have is family or families. Take the county where I live, Jackson County, North Carolina. You go back to the late 1800s when that county was formed and the names on that paper the Brysons and Hoopers and McKees and Dills and Fowlers and McCalls and Shulers and Greens and all these names, those names are the same names that are here now. That’s the culture and place that I’m writing about. The work mirrors that reality.

MPS: Dwayne is such a great antagonist, in fact as the book continues he grows more into a counter-protagonist if there is such a thing. Is there any thing you have to keep in mind when writing for a character like him?

Image result for david joy author

DJ: I think one of the scariest things that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make perfect sense. When, as a reader, you find yourself nodding your head. There’s this great moment in Larry Brown’s novel Father And Son when one of the main characters, Glen, catches this giant fish that everyone had been trying to catch for years. Glen is a bad dude. He’s come out of prison for killing someone. He’s raped at least one woman that we know of. Anyway, he catches this huge fish and he has this moment where he could take it to town and show it off and for once in his life be a hero. Instead, he turns it loose. When they ask him why, the line is something like, “Because that fish never done nothing to me.” Tom Franklin asked Larry about that scene once and he said Larry told him that even the worst people had moments of humanity. I think that’s absolutely right and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. With Dwayne Brewer, I wanted his logic to make sense. I wanted readers to see him doing incredibly horrific things and somehow feel empathy toward those actions. He’s some sort of balance between instinct and reason, between what we feel in our guts and what we think in our heads. At times, we all wash back and forth between those places and that’s part of why characters like that resonate with us. I think he might be the character I’m most proud of. If nothing else, he’s unforgettable.

MPS: In some ways Calvin is even more difficult to pull off. He’s comes off as the friend you want to have and workmate you respect, but I never felt like we had to like or side with him. Is there a way you approach someone like that?

DJ: Calvin Hooper is really an indifferent character altogether, and maybe that’s what you were responding to. He never struck me as a decision maker, as a leader. He reminds me of friends of mine who always wound up in the back of the car riding along to places they had no business going, with people they had no business being with. There were times, especially when I was younger, when I did the same thing. There were times I wound up in the back of a police car because I went along with something someone else wanted to do. Early on in the novel Calvin makes some pretty horrible decisions based on his love and commitment to his best friend, Darl Moody. After those decisions backfire and things go from bad to worse, there’s this sort of detached reaction toward everything. It’s like he just sort of removes himself and thinks if I just leave everything alone maybe it will settle. Well, of course things don’t settle and one of the biggest conflicts in the book is Dwayne Brewer forcing Calvin to acknowledge what he values most and to make a decision based on that acknowledgement. In that way, I think Calvin shows a lot of growth as a character. There’s that question Dwayne asks Calvin toward the end of the book, he asks, “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that there is nothing.” I think that question lies at the heart of what this novel is about.

MPS: It seems like with each book, the outside world is closing in tighter on your character’s communities, posing the same cultural threat to the area as gentrification does to cities. Do you see this as an ever-growing problem in real life?

DJ: When a lot of outsiders think about Appalachia, they imagine the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Where I live, that’s not our reality. I’ve said for a long time that unrestricted land development, tourism, rising land costs, and the resulting gentrification, that’s our coal mining. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge tourism as an extractive economy, but it is. It’s not as ugly on the surface as the timber industry was a century ago, or as coal mining was and is, but the result is the same. The result is the destruction of landscape and the displacement of people.

The jobs that are created from tourism-based economies are low paying jobs. What value there is is in the land. There are places here, entire coves, entire mountains, that have belonged to single families for hundreds of years. That land has been divvied up and divided over generations and nowadays its worth more than it ever has been. The thing about that value though is that it forces the hand. Sure you can sell the property to some out-of-state goon looking to build a second or third home that they can come visit for a few weeks out of the year and sure the money you’re going to make on that acreage is more than you’ve ever had in your life, but there’s no lateral move. You can sell the farm but it’s not like you can drive down the road and scoop up another. There’s no other place to go. Those places don’t exist anymore. The family land is broken up and sold and the local people move away. I think we’re looking at the very last remnants of this culture and these people. We’re within a generation of their extinction.

MPS: All three of your books are stand alone novels. Are there any plans for a series, trilogy, or return to any of your surviving characters?

DJ: I’d never even heard that term “stand alone” until I had a book out. I don’t know, I’d just never really thought about books like that. I didn’t grow up reading series. I typically don’t want to stick with characters that long. I like to jump around. I might read something Southern then jump into something South American. Sometimes I’ll read nothing but poetry for months. I won’t say I’d never write something like a trilogy, but the story would really have to warrant the structure. Other than that, my style lends itself more to individual books.

As far as my novels, I do like to throw anecdotes from earlier books into new ones, things that work whether you’ve read the other books or not. So for instance with The Weight Of This World, the time period when that book is set and what’s happening with the methamphetamine culture is largely resulting from the end of the first novel, Where All Light Tends To Go. With The Line That Held Us there’s mention of an event that happened in Weight Of This World. There’s also a lawyer that shows up in Where All Light Tends To Go and The Line That Held Us. The book I’m working on, one of the main characters from The Weight Of This World appears and I don’t know whether that will stick or not, but the point is that I do enjoy playing with things like that.

All of my books are set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina where I live and it’s a small place. You get to know people here. It’s the same names in the newspaper week in and week out. When things happen, you hear about them, and when things happen, especially big things, the stories root themselves into the landscape. Nothing is easily forgotten here and I want my books to mimic that reality.

INTERVIEW WITH WALLACE STROBY

We talked with Wallace Stroby about his latest, Some Die Nameless.

MysteryPeople Scott: Some Die Nameless is a bit different from your other work. How did the idea for it come to you?

Image result for wallace strobyWallace Stroby: After the fourth Crissa Stone novel, The Devil’s Share, I decided both she and I needed a break. The end of that book had left her damaged, disillusioned, and on her way to Europe, so it felt like a natural time to do a standalone. I was also interested in writing about the lingering effects of war. The main character, Ray Devlin, is a former mercenary haunted by atrocities in which he’d participated. And one of the chief villains, Lukas Dragovic, is an orphan who lost his entire family in the Balkan wars of the early ‘90s, and bore the effects of that. Lukas has a substantial chip on his shoulder, and for good reason.

MPS: One of the protagonists is a journalist. What did you want to express about your former profession?

WS: I miss it, though the business has changed dramatically – and not for the better – since I left it in 2008, after 23 years. I’d at one point considered pairing Devlin with a female FBI agent, but that seemed too much of a cliche. I realized if I was ever going to write about journalism and newspapers, now was the time. The business has been savaged in the last few years with layoffs, cutbacks and closures. Papers have been gutted by hedge-fund managers, and thousands of journalists have been thrown out of work. Things have only gotten worse since, with a violent attack on a Maryland newsroom in June, and a U.S. president who regularly refers to the free press – a cornerstone of democracy – as “the enemy of the American people.”

MPS: How did you go about constructing a character like Ray Devlin, who could have turned into more of a Jason Bourne type, instead of the more down-to-earth vein you were going for?

WS: I love those types of films and books, but don’t think I could write one. I wanted Devlin to be in his mid-to-late 50s, with physical limitations consistent with his age. He can handle himself in a fight, but not as well as he used to, and the aftereffects last longer. Also, Devlin was never any sort of elite special forces operative. He was just a grunt who left the Army to join a private firm, and whose primary function was to train indigenous forces in basic military tactics.

MPS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first time you have two protagonists working together. What was that dynamic like for you?

WS: I guess I got tired of writing about isolated loners, and though both Devlin and Tracy are that (Devlin by choice, Tracy not so much), I liked the idea of bringing them together. They each have pieces of the puzzle, without knowing how it all fits together – if it fits together at all. As they figure it out, it puts them both in danger. So they’re wary of each other at first, then drawn together for self-preservation.

Some Die Nameless Cover ImageMPS: You’ve dealt with political corruption before in your books, but not at this high a level. Were you wanting to explore something about our country’s policies? 

WS: I think it was less politics and policies than just the general tone I’m feeling in the country these days. Everyone’s unapologetic-ally on the grift, using their offices to enrich themselves, punish their enemies and reward their friends and investors. Ethics are for losers. It’s disheartening on a daily basis. We left normal in the rear view a long time ago.

MPS: Were there any other books or movies that worked as an inspiration for Some Die Nameless

WS: I wanted to do something where there was a street-level crime linked to a much-bigger conspiracy, an idea I explored a little in Devil’s Share, where a simple truck hijacking was tied to the looting of Iraqi artifacts. So I had that general concept even before I knew what the plot would be. I also had in mind books like William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, in which everyday crimes – muggings, dope dealing – were actually part of global conspiracies, but only experienced by the characters at the personal levels in which they were involved.

At the same time, there are homages in there to two of my favorite crime writers – John D. MacDonald and James Crumley. Like MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Devlin lives mostly on a boat (though not a houseboat). And in Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, his detective, C.W. Sughrue, drives a Chevy El Camino. For Devlin, I switched the model to a Ranchero, which was Ford’s version.

MPS: What are you working on next for readers?

WS: Another change of pace. Working on a standalone, a relatively small-scale suspense novel. No title yet. I’ll also have a Crissa Stone short story in an upcoming anthology, At Home in the Dark, edited by Lawrence Block. That should be out at the end of this year or beginning of next. And hopefully at some point she’ll be back in a novel.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROB HART

Rob Hart has put his hero, unlicensed private detective Ash McKenna, through the wringer both physically and emotionally. He hasn’t even let him stay put in one city —  he has had to leave New York, Portland, a commune in Georgia, and then Prague in each book. In Potter’s FieldAsh returns to his Big Apple home, hoping to get his life together and find peace, but not until his former boss drag queen crime boss.

Potter's Field (Ash McKenna #5) Cover Image

MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to have Ash in only five books?

Rob Hart: This may sound ridiculous but Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series was five books, and I got it in my head that five was a good number. But as I was laying out the arc of Ash’s story, it made a lot of sense—three wasn’t enough, five was just right. And as much as I love writing him I needed to have an endpoint. The series is about a kid growing up and finding his moral compass, and it doesn’t work if he never finds it.

MPS: This is the final book, so, did Potter’s Field end up how you thought it would or did it change as you developed the character for the series?

RH: I was actually pretty locked-in early on, in that I knew he would come back to New York in the final book. But I didn’t realize how much of the fifth book would end up on Staten Island—nearly the entire thing, with a brief jaunt into Manhattan. I live on Staten Island and writing Potter’s Field made me realize how much I appreciate it, and this felt like I was doubling down on that. Especially since Staten Island hasn’t always had the greatest portrayals in arts and media. It’s so much more than a giant garbage dump and loud Italians.

MPS: You deal with Staten Island’s drug scene in this book, what did you want to convey about that world?

Image result for rob hartRH: The problem is much bigger than the individual user. If anything, I think users are unfairly demonized. The opioid crisis can be traced back to pharmaceutical companies that knew opioids were incredibly addictive, but did their best to hide that so they could maximize profits. And now a whole generation of people are hooked on heroin because of a bunch of rich craven assholes. I think there needs to be a lot more thought and compassion for what this crisis looks like on the ground level.

MPS: Do you feel New York has changed since Ash left or it is more seen through the eyes of someone who has changed?

RH: It has and it hasn’t. New York is a city of constant change—as much as the people who live here want it to remain the same, that’s not the nature of it. You just have to hold on and go along with it. If anything, that’s the feeling I wanted to get at. In New Yorked, the first book, Ash was one of those people who rages against every old business that closes, so by the fifth book, I wanted him to find that place of serenity, accepting the things he cannot change.

MPS: Ash runs into a couple other detectives as he searches for someone to apprentice with. Were you hinting at any new projects down the road with him?

RH: My publisher keeps reminding me that Dennis Lehane took a ten-year break on the Kenzie and Gennaro books. I am not opposed to writing more Ash, but definitely not for the foreseeable future. I needed those grown-up, real-deal private detectives to ground Ash’s journey and give him a reference point. The series, as a whole, is the origin story of a private detective, but he’s never even met one before.

MPS: How did it feel to finish Ash’s story, at least for now?

RH: Bittersweet. Ash’s voice is like an old pair of sneakers: comfortable to slip on, fits great, and you can walk for miles. But wear them for too long and they’ll break down and fall apart. I’m happy to be moving on to new things, but I’ll keep the shoes in the closet, just in case.

Meike talks to Martin Walker about Bruno, Chief of Police

Martin Walker’s character Bruno, Chief of Police, is a perennially popular figure in crime fiction. We look forward to each new book, and since Taste for Vengeance is just out, we got to talk with Martin about his inspiration, his writing, and Bruno. If you missed our event with Walker, you can buy signed copies of Taste for Vengeance in our store or on our website.

MysteryPeople Meike: You have an extensive background in journalism.  How and why did you make the transition to fiction?

Martin Walker: I was so entranced by the prehistoric cave art that I felt compelled to write about the kind of ancient society that could have produced such masterpieces and wrote ‘The Caves of Perigord.’ (2002) But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to write about the place now, its lifestyle and the its food and wine and the way the history weaves its way into everything so I began to write the Bruno tales.

MPM: You’re originall

y from the UK but now you split your time between Washington DC and the Perigord region of France, which is where the Bruno series is set.  What was it about that region that drew you in originally and what do you love most about it?

MW: At first it was the landscape and the food and wine and the sweetness of life there, but soon I became fascinated with the history and prehistory of the Perigord, the extraordinary work of the cave painters at Lascaux 18,000 years ago. Visiting the 25 painted caves and the hundred-plus caves with engravings, one can never again think of these people as primitive. Their artistic sensibility is instantly and movingly familiar to us.

MPM: What is the biggest misconception that Americans have about France and its people?

MW: That they behaved pitifully in World War Two. I have learned enough about the Resistance to know better. And never forget that under Napoleon, they took Moscow – something Hitler’s Wehrmacht never achieved.

MPM: Food is an important theme in the Bruno stories, and in addition to being a celebrated writer you have received recognition for your knowledge of foie gras and wine.  Can you tell us a little about those honors?

Photo of Martin WalkerMW: I was elected a chevalier of foie gras by the regional confrerie, which brings together producers, vendors and gastronomes and we run the annual competition to find the best. And I was elected a Grand Consul de la Vinee de Bergerac (founded 1254) by the other Consuls, people in the wine trade, so I began making my own wine, Cuvee Bruno, with friends in the region. I chair the jury of the Prix Rageneau, the regional cookery prize, and Bruno’s Kochbuch,’ which I wrote with my wife for the German market, was awarded by Gourmand International the prize of ‘world’s best French cookbook’ of the year in 2016.

MPM: Food and wine are an integral part of your novels, and indeed an integral part of French culture. What led you to explore the cuisine so fully in your novels? What can we Americans learn from the French in our approach to food?

MW: We all have to eat so we might as well take time to enjoy it and make a ceremony of necessity. It is also a sacrament of community; there are few greater pleasures than dining with old friends and pleasing them with your cooking, even more when the fruit and vegetables come from your own garden. The key is to take your time: think about food, find the best sand freshest ingredients, plan your meal and the wines. And remember the old saying that a Frenchwoman takes greater care in choosing her cheesemonger than in choosing her lovers.

MPM: Can you describe your “dream” dinner?  Who would you invite, and what would you prepare?

MW: If it’s summer and we’re eating in the open air, I’d make my own version of gazpacho from the garden, then fresh trout from the river, grilled with lemon slices, then aiguillettes of duck cooked in honey and mustard seeds and served with pommes de terre Sarladaise, with garlic and parsley and a truffle grated over the potatoes at the table, just before serving. Then cheese and salad and finish with a tarte au citron to echo the lemons with the fish. For the first two courses I’d serve a Cuvee Quercus dry white Bergerac from Pierre Desmartis and then for the duck a Tour des Verdots red from David Fourtout.

MPM: Bruno has a penchant for falling for strong, independent women thus he’s still the most eligible bachelor in the area–will we see him settle down any time soon?

MW: Who knows? He hasn’t told me yet. I keep trying to set him up with interesting new women but Isabelle keeps hauling him back. I learned when I tried to have him seduced by a wicked femme fatale (and he refused) that he has a mind of his own and sometime won’t follow the plan. It’s interesting; he’s more real to me than some of my friends.

MPM: Bruno is a marvelously nuanced character–a decorated war hero yet a gentle soul who doesn’t like to carry a gun, volunteers with local youth, and devotes tremendous time and effort to organizing elaborate meals with his friends. What was the inspiration for Bruno and what is it about him that keeps drawing you back to his story?

MW: The inspiration was my village policeman in France, who may be old and fatter than Bruno and has a wife and family, but the skills and character traits are there. He’s also my tennis partner.

MPM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

MW: Once I have the book planned, chapter by chapter and the research and character notes complete, I start to write and set myself a firm target of producing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, wherever I am and whatever else I’m doing. For an old journalist, that isn’t difficult.

MPM: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

MW: Write every day, read what you write aloud to yourself and never stop for the day at the end of a chapter, nor even at the end of a paragraph. It makes it much easier to start again tomorrow.

 

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTEVIEW WITH CHERYL A. HEAD

Cheryl Head is a fresh voice whose mysteries include references to diversity and tolerance, in addition to humor and good plot twists. This is all on display in her new book, Wake Me When It’s Over, the second in her Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series.

The new book is set in Detroit as Charlie Mack’s team of investigators is hired to try to head off any attempts at terrorism during the annual Detroit Auto Show. The book is full of rich characters, a good plot and surprises.

Cheryl Head readingCheryl Head is originally from Detroit but now lives in Washington, D.C. Before writing this series she worked as a writer, television producer, filmmaker, broadcast executive and media funder.

Cheryl, herself a women of color, explores race as part of the mysteries, which feature Charlie Mack, who is black and a lesbian. At one point, for example, a character notes she does not know why terrorists might attack but is “glad that Mack woman is in charge of this. Because in America, I know black people have way more experience with terrorism than white people.”

Her first book in the series, Bury Me When I’m Dead, was a finalist for the 29th annual Lambda Literacy Award for Lesbian Mystery.

Cheryl was kind enough to let me interview her via email.

Scott Butki: How did this story develop?

Wake Me When It's Over (Charlie Mack Motown Mystery) Cover ImageCheryl Head: I’m a real fan of the mystery/thriller genre.  I read quite a bit of it (but there are so many good novels I’m finding it hard to keep up) and I love to watch movies/TV programs in the genre.  I lived in Detroit almost 40 years. I’m quite aware of the city’s influence of my world view on culture, politics, social issues as well as how the city has shaped my personality.  There are cultural events in Detroit that have always brought together a broad cross-section of people who live in the region-one of those events is the North American International Auto Show; known by most as the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a big deal in the city…and in the automotive world. Since my books are set in the mid 2000’s in Detroit, I began doing research on the 2006 Super Bowl.  Detroit had a huge opportunity with the Super Bowl XL to promote a different view of the city at a time when it’s reputation was dismal. It occurred to me that the auto show, a month before the world’s spotlight turned on Detroit for this global sporting event, would be a temptation for people who are up to no good, to create serious mischief. That’s how Wake Me When It’s Over came to be.

SB: What kind of research did you do for this book? Had you been to the auto show before?

CH: Yes, I’ve been to the Detroit Auto Show many times.  Growing up in Detroit, it was the place where anyone could go and see the best cars in the world, and dream about owning one.  The Auto Show brings in three-quarters of a million people during its run, but it also feels intimate. You can touch the cars, see the latest concept cars, breathe in the new car smell, feel the power as you sit behind the steering wheel of a truck. I did a lot of online research on what models and technology were available in 2006. I spoke to a former convention executive to hear what goes into producing a show of this scale, and I made a visit to the area around the Cobo Convention Center, the home of the Detroit Auto Show. Cobo has undergone massive renovation in the last five years, but the area around it wasn’t different, and the show’s general schedule, hype, and activities haven’t changed. What was of great interest to me, and became a plot point in the novel, was 2006 was the first time a Chinese automaker had exhibited at the Detroit Auto Show.

SB: The press materials for your book says you often have “themes of diversity in the broadest sense, acculturation and tolerance, sometimes with a bit of danger and always with a lot of humor, food and music.” I love that. Why did you decide to include those themes in your book?”

CH: I believe race and class are still critical elements of the American story.  I’m also an African-American woman of a certain age, and my experience has been colored (no pun intended) by how I am perceived by the people I interact with in life.  I believe my work as a writer is to provide a fuller picture of what it means to be a person of color in America. I have consciously chosen this path, and my goal is to do this without being didactic. I’m also a lesbian and that brings with it further perceptions, and misconceptions, by people I see, meet, and speak with. I know tolerance and civility and empathy are the values our country needs to embrace right now, and I think that comes with knowing, more intimately, the stories of people who are not like us. I’m writing fiction but my characters are composites of people I know or have witnessed. On humor, food, and music?  You don’t grow up in Detroit without having a street Ph.D. in all those subjects.

SB: What made you decide to use fiction as a way to explore these and other ideas?

CH: I’ve been a non-fiction writer most of my adult life.  I worked in public TV and radio for more than 30 years in Detroit and Washington, D.C., writing scripts, news stories, proposals, magazine articles, reports to Congress, that kind of thing.  I’ve always been a storyteller. I was working as a national executive in public broadcasting when Ken Burns produced his acclaimed documentary series on World War II. What I was struck by at the time was WWII stories always seemed to focus on the heroic acts of courage in battle. Of course, those dramatic stories are important, but those were not the stories I’d heard from my father, and others in the black community, about their WWII experiences. Their stories were of faithful service far away from battlefield glory. Their courage was exemplified in their steadfastness and pride in doing a good job in a segregated, and discriminatory, U.S. military environment.  Regardless of their uniforms or ranks, they were often relegated to a second-class status. I wanted to tell the story of black, U.S. soldiers-men and women-whose acts of valor were carrying out their duties under those demoralizing conditions. That’s why I wrote Long Way Home: A World War II Novel. I self-published this book, I couldn’t find a publisher who would take it on at the time. It went on to become a double finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the African-American Literature, and Historical Fiction award categories.

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from these books?

CH: First, and foremost, I hope readers of my books will be entertained. I really do laugh at myself, I don’t take myself too seriously, and I want readers to see and enjoy my writing where it pokes fun at various aspects of the human condition. Not every situation has glimpses of humor, but many do. I also hope to reveal the power of empathy. I often acknowledge to myself that I am writing for white readers. That was certainly the case in Long Way Home.  I wanted to provide an insider’s look at what it’s like to grow up as a black person in rural America in the 1940’s. In my Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series, I hope I’m attracting a broad audience. Not just readers of lesbian fiction (that’s the primary audience of my publisher) but readers who like a complex mystery or thriller. I want to create a puzzle about how human nature and human frailty can create chaos, and then proffer a world in which an African-American woman can be the protagonist in solving these puzzles.

SB: Can you talk about the work you do around diversity? Is it as a speaker, a writer, an organizer?

CH: My diversity work has changed since I formally retired from my corporate work. Before, I was a regular speaker about the merits of a diverse workforce. I wrote position papers, and funded media projects with a focus on diversity and inclusion.  As a volunteer, I’ve been an organizer and board member for organizations doing diversity work. Now I consult, formally and informally, on diversity activities including writing diverse characters, serving as a so-called “sensitivity reader”, and employee recruitment. 

SB: I understand you serve as the Golden Crown Literary Society Director of Inclusion. Can you say more about what that is and why you do it?

CH: The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) is the premier, non-profit membership organization focused on supporting and recognizing lesbian-themed literature.  I applied for this position to help GCLS broaden and diversify its membership, and to increase the inclusion of younger, and more diverse attendees at the organization’s annual conference.  I’m doing that by assisting GCLS in identifying new partnerships and advising on internal processes and practices.

SB: How has your background in public broadcasting helped you as a fiction writer?

CH: I had amazing opportunities in public media to travel.  My writing themes are a culmination of my experiences growing up in Detroit, and the insights I’ve gained through the national and international travel I’ve done.  I’ve been in the room, and often at the table, with national politicians, heads of state, celebrities, academics, community organizers, educators, artists, and engaged citizens who have shifted my paradigms, and expanded my interests.  I’ve been on both sides of the microphone/camera in public (and commercial) media but the best part of that has been to sweeten my powers of observation, and increase my intention to be an active listener.

SB: What are you working on next?

CH: The second book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series, Wake Me When It’s Over has just been released and is in launch phase now. I’ll be doing a small book tour this summer. Book 3 in the series is completed, and under contract with my publisher, Bywater Books. It is about an investigation of a series of heinous crimes against homeless people in a neighborhood of Detroit. I’m currently writing the fourth book in the series; it’s set against the backdrop of a grand jury trial.  I’m organizing a dozen short stories –not mysteries — to be published in a collection. I’ve been included in a couple of recent anthologies, and I’ve begun to explore the possibility of re-issuing Long Way Home: A World War II Novel with a publishing house that can give the book more air. I wrote that book five years ago, and I’m still getting requests to read from, and talk about the book. The Amazon reviews also continue to trickle in. It’s amazing to me how much WWII books resonate with the reading public.