We put some interesting questions to this year’s nominees for the Agatha Best Contemporary Novel award. Here are their answers, plus a special mini-interview with nominee and legendary mystery author, Margaret Maron…
QUESTION: What would you do differently if you were starting out as a writer again?
LOUISE PENNY: I think I’d enjoy it more. I’d spent decades dreaming of what it would be like to actually have a book published, that I expected when it happened I’d be overjoyed. And I was, when word came down that my agent had found a publisher. Lots of celebrating and dancing. But as the publication date got closer I got more and stressed. Suppose it’s a failure? Suppose no one likes it. No one buys it? I was riddled with insecurities. My agent finally sat me down and spoke quite sternly. “You’re not only living your dream, but the dream lots of other people have, who don’t get this far. If you can’t enjoy it, then it’s wasted on you.”
Bit like a frying pan in the face, but it worked. I still get fearful, as a pub date approaches, but I always remember her advice. Enjoy it. Revel in it. And now I do!
That’s the start as a published author…but when I started out to write, I suffered from 5 years of writers block. It was only later I realized I was trying to write a book to impress my mother, my brothers, my colleagues, my former teachers. It was so daunting, that I was paralyzed. I finally realized, as I staggered under the weight of my own expectations, that I needed to just write a book I would read. For me, and no one else. One I would love writing…. and one I would love reading. That did the trick. And Still Life, and all the characters, sprang from that realization. Though, I have to admit, those years of writers block were humbling, and I learned a lot about myself, my weaknesses and strengths. And I gained even more respect for people who write, published or not. Traditionally published or self-published. It doesn’t matter to me. I know how much courage it takes to write. And I am filled with admiration for anyone who starts to write, never mind actually gets to “The End”.
ALLISON BROOK (AKA/ MARILYN LEVINSON): My first children’s novel, And Don’t Bring Jeremy, came out in 1985 or 6. It received a lovely review in Publishers Weekly and went on to be a nominee for six state awards. Great! I thought. Now every book I write will be published. Only that wasn’t the case. Some of my manuscripts were published; others were rejected. Maybe my problem was never having taken a course in writing books for kids.
I decided to try my hand at writing romantic suspense and mysteries. I joined the Long Island chapter of RWA, Sisters in Crime and the Guppies. I made good writing friends, took on-line courses and started publishing with small presses. Several of the houses I’d signed with had money problems or went out of business. Then I sent a series proposal to an agent whom I knew on Facebook, and she sold it to Crooked Lane Books, and the first book did very, very well.
I can’t say I made any grave mistakes regarding my writing-career decisions. In retrospect, however, I think I would have become more active in writers’ organizations and attended more conferences. Though I’ve made many friendships online, I’ve learned there’s nothing like getting together in person. I also wish I would have had more faith in myself and kept a positive attitude instead of letting rejections and disappointments get me down.
ELLEN BYRON: I would have done more homework before sending my first book out on submission.
In 2013, I won a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for my first manuscript, You Can Never Be Too Thin or Too Dead (then titled Reality Checked). The logical next steps were landing a literary agent and selling my opus. I’ve had agents my entire career and have a manager for TV, so I thought hey, I’m a pro, I know the business, I’ll get representation pretty quickly. Wrong. I knew the TV and film business, but I knew nothing about the publishing business or mystery world.
Talk about a humbling experience. It took me nine months to get an agent. I got a lot of, “Great writing, but…” responses. I didn’t know there are specific mystery genres, so I had no idea my first book wasn’t really a cozy but wasn’t really a traditional mystery either. Plus, my first victim was seventeen. Granted she was a self-involved, horribly nasty reality star (anyone come to mind?), but technically she was still a child. I soon learned that killing off a child is verboten in both genres I had a foot in.
Yet I did do something right. I acknowledged how little I knew and dove into the world, joining Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, two organizations I’d never heard of before going to Malice, which I found through a Google search. (I didn’t even know mystery conventions existed until I came across Malice.) I took classes through the Guppies – a SinC subgroup – and drove down to San Diego to spend a day attending MWAU. And while waiting for my first book to sell – it never did – I wrote a second one. Using what I’d learned by then, I wrote it as a straight-up cozy, inspired by my favorite region in the country. That book, Plantation Shudders, did sell, kicking off my “Cajun Country Mystery” series, and more wonderful experiences than I ever thought possible… like being nominated for an Agatha along with these extraordinary authors.
ANNETTE DASHOFY: I’ve given this a lot of thought and came up with a lot of things I could second-guess over. Should I have parted company with my first agent sooner rather than let a bad relationship go on? And on? Maybe. Should I have gotten serious about publishing sooner? Should I have gone left instead of right at this or that fork in the road?
The fact is I could have done many things differently and ended up somewhere else. But as I look around at where I am right now…at the company I’m keeping right here…I can’t imagine why I would change a thing.
And now, to Margaret…
Margaret, you’ve written over thirty crime fiction novels. There’s debate between pantsers and plotters: people who write by the seat of their pants and people who plot. Which are you, and why?
MARGARET: I fell into being a pantser by default, not design. In writing short stories, plot was more important to me than characters My first novel began as a short short story, and, like all my short stories up to then, I thought I knew who dunnit and how and why. To my surprise, when I decided to expand it to a novel, my designated killer refused to do the dirty deed. That’s when I learned that characters in a novel would take precedence over plot. Happily, another character was lurking in the background and he volunteered. After that, I quit trying to plan too far ahead. I just set my characters down in a situation and let the action unfold. I began each book at the beginning and wrote straight through to the end, leaving lots of room for serendipity. (In one of the later books, the killer changed three or four times. Instead of panicking, I just went with the flow.)
Takeout is the last book in your Sigrid Harald series; two years ago, we bid goodbye to Deborah Knott. What was it like to know you were writing the last book of each?
Margaret: Writing Long Upon the Land (the last Deborah Knott book) and Take Out (the last Sigrid Harald) were both bittersweet experiences. After living with these characters for over 35 years, I knew I was going to miss them, but I also knew it was time to let them go. Reviewers have been kind. In both cases they said I was going out at the top of my form. That’s much better than being told “You stayed too long at the dance.”
Who’s the first person you told after you found out you’d been nominated for an Agatha Award this year, and how did you celebrate?
Margaret: My husband. (Coincidentally, there was a bottle of champagne in the fridge that didn’t survive the night.)
Readers, anything you’d do differently in your writing or life journey?
Louise Penny: Louise began her career as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The support of her late husband Michael allowed her to quit and write full-time. She is the author of the international bestselling Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, which has been published in twenty-three languages and won many awards, including multiple Agathas and Anthonys. In 2013, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada. She is the Guest of Honor at this year’s Malice Domestic convention.
Margaret Maron: Margaret’s Deborah Knott and Sigrid Harald mystery series, along with her stand-alone novels and short stories, have made her a legend in the mystery community. She is the recipient of numerous awards and was designated a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2013. She is also a founding member and past president of Sisters in Crime. Born and bred in North Carolina, her work is on the reading lists of many courses in contemporary southern literature.
Annette Dashofy: Annette is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. She’s a three-time finalist for the Agatha Award: Best First Novel of 2014 and Best Contemporary Novel of 2015 and NO WAY HOME has been nominated for the 2017 Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel. UNEASY PREY (March 2018) is the sixth in the series.
Allison Brook: Marilyn Levinson writes mysteries, romantic suspense, and novels for kids. As Allison Brook she writes the Haunted Library Mystery series. DEATH OVERDUE, the first in the series, came out in October to much acclaim. It was a Library Journal “Pick of the Month” and on Goodreads’ list of the 200 “Most Popular Books Published in October 2017.” READ AND GONE, the next in the series, will be released on September 11, 2018.
Ellen Byron: Ellen writes the Cajun Country Mystery series but is best known as a former cater-waiter for the legendary Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing. A Cajun Christmas Killing and Body on the Bayou both won the Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery and received nominations for the Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. Plantation Shudders, nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards, made the USA Today Bestseller list. TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly Odd Parents; published plays include the award-winning Graceland.