AN INTERVIEW WITH ELAINE VIETS - conducted by Pamela James.
Elaine Viets not only writes one of the best mysteries series on today’s market, but she has actually worked those dead-end jobs. Elaine’s characters are real people with real meaning, and they are as profound and unique as is the location of South Florida itself. Sunshine, humor and murder are just the beginning, as Elaine makes murder as appealing as a wintertime tan.
Here’s an introduction to Elaine Viets, in her own words, stolen (with permission) from her website at www.elaineviets.com :
I’m an addict. I admit it. I have to have a mystery to read at all times.
I get twitchy if I can't find a good one. It’s not easy feeding my habit. I read between four and five a week. So when I couldn’t find the kind of book I wanted to read, I wrote it.
I like mysteries with strong, smart women. I hate bimbos who wander half-clad into the house where the serial killer is hiding. (“Hmmm. There may be a dangerous killer who strangled sixteen women hiding in the attic. Think I’ll take a look.”)
I also like a little humor. Murder is serious business, but a laugh can get you through the grim times.
My heroine is Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job series.
Helen used to make six figures at her job in St. Louis, until she came home from work early one day. Her husband, Rob, was supposed to be working on the back deck. Instead, he was nailing their neighbor, Sandy. Helen picked up a crowbar and well…
Now Helen is on the run in South Florida, working dead-end jobs to stay out of the computers and away from her ex-husband and the court. Both want her, but not for anything good.
The following interview was conducted by email in December, 2004. It previously appeared in Mystery*File 47, February 2005.
PJ: Elaine, your Dead-End Job mystery series is refreshing and unique. Tell us why you decided to write this type of mystery series.
EV: My first series was set in St. Louis. Readers expect you to have standards in the Midwest. Also, morals and taste. This is a terrible handicap. So I set my new series in Florida, where there are no such expectations, and the series really took off.
Seriously, my Dead-End Job series is a post 9/11 series. After the stock market crash, life changed for many middle-class people. Instead of talking about buying a new house, going to Europe, or retiring early, they were suddenly wondering where their next nickel was coming from. Now people are working two and three jobs to pay the mortgage. These are part-time jobs with few rights and expectations.
My series is a funny look at a serious subject, the minimum wage world. My main character, Helen Hawthorne works these jobs – and so do I.
PJ: Let’s talk about Helen. Why do you think she appeals to so many readers?
EV: Helen is very much like her readers. She’s smart, she’s savvy and she’s been around. She’s made some mistakes, but that doesn't stop her from enjoying life or trying new things.
PJ: Will we see more of Helen Hawthorne in 2005, and what else might we look for by you?
EV: You'll see lots of Helen. This February, I have a new novella coming out. It’s part of an anthology called Drop-Dead Blonde. Each of the four authors had to kill a blonde. My story, “Killer Blonde,” takes place in the early 70s, and you'll meet a much younger Margery, Helen’s landlady.
In May, the fourth Helen Hawthorne novel will be out, Just Murdered. Helen works at a fancy dress shop. It’s the kind of place where people spend $250,000 for a wedding. I kill a mother of bride – but everyone wants to do that.
PJ: Give us a glimpse into your daily routine as an author and how you spend your time away from the computer.
EV: I just finished the fifth Helen Hawthorne book, Dog Gone, which is set at an expensive dog grooming salon and boutique. I emailed that book to New York. It felt odd, emailing an entire novel, but it sure beats dealing with FedEx.
Then my husband, Don Crinklaw, and I went off for lunch to the Blue Moon Fish Company to celebrate. The Blue Moon is right on the Intracoastal Waterway. We watched the boats and saw a manatee. I really needed that celebration. I wrote that book during four hurricanes and a move to a new condo.
Normally, my writing day starts and stops at least twice. I usually wake up at about three a.m. and write until six. It’s a terrific time to write. It’s so peaceful. My cat curls up by my chair and occasionally meows for a scratch, but that’s the only interruption.
I stop to watch the sunrise, then go back to bed for a couple of hours. I like to go to the Sea Ranch diner for breakfast. It’s a wonderful diner that sits under half a concrete dome painted with clouds and blue sky.
After breakfast, I’ll go back and write until three or four in the afternoon. For recreation, I like to meet with my writer friends, drink wine and complain.
PJ: I understand your husband is an actor and do you both do a lot of traveling? Does he attend your books signings when schedules permit?
EV: I do a lot of traveling – way too much sometimes. Don does not have to attend my book signings. There’s only so much you can expect a loyal husband to do. My jokes get pretty stale for spouses by the third or fourth book signing.
PJ: As an author, what is hardest part of the writing process, and how long does it take you to pen a mystery?
EV: I’m currently on a three-book-a-year contract with Signet. I used to be a newspaper columnist, so I’m used to writing a lot, and I’m happiest sitting in front of a computer.
The hardest part for me is working out the plot – making sure it’s convoluted enough to keep my readers interested, and tying up all the loose ends. I enjoying working it out. It’s like having one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, except it’s in my head, not on my card table.
PJ: What advice do you have for the novice mystery author?
EV: Write hard, die free.
PJ: Do you have a mentor or someone who has been the biggest writing influence in your life?
EV: My agent, David Hendin, and my editor, Kara Cesare, have both been big influences in my writing career. I am lucky to have a real New York editor, who actually takes an interest in my work. That is so rare these days.
My husband, Don, is always supportive. He’ll answer those 3 a.m. questions: “Do you really think I should have killed that guy? I mean, was his death plausible?”
PJ: Life isn't easy for an author. After the book comes publication, promo, book signings and a whole host of other daunting tasks and demands. How do you keep the zing in your step and still stay on top of it all?
EV: I need that contact with my readers. I love to meet them at signings and speeches, and listen to what they say. They seem to like Phil, the invisible pothead. Because so many readers have mentioned him, Phil is getting a bigger role in the series.
Sometimes, I do come back tired and discouraged from a signing. But writing mysteries has perks that no other job does. I’ve been invited to be a guest author on the Queen Mary 2. Imagine that – a free cruise because I write mysteries. My grandfather was a security guard, and nobody invited him to be the guest guard on the QM2.
PJ: Tell us when you realized you really were an author and your reaction to this realization.
EV: I still can’t believe it. Some days, I’m afraid I’ll wake up and it’s all been a dream. But I think I finally realized it this year, when I was nominated for seven major awards.
PJ: How much research goes into your books that you haven’t lived through?
EV: I was never a topless bartender, even though Helen was in Dying to Call You. And I never had sex in a coffin, although I did go to a casket showroom and check them out. The caskets have a nice mattress, a soft pillow and they’re about as wide as the back seat of a Buick, so sex in a coffin is possible. But the lid was up the whole time I was there, and I had a chaperone.
PJ: Is there something in writing you would like to do or try that you haven’t had the time to make happen?
EV: Yes, I’d like to write a serious stand-alone.
PJ: In your books we get down to the nitty gritty of Florida – not just the tourist view, but the real Florida, to the point where the reader can feel, taste and smell the state. My question is, will all the books be set in Florida, or will Helen take a trip in the future books? Will she always live in Florida?
EV: Right now, Helen plans to stay in Florida, but remember, she’s on the run. She doesn’t know if some day she’ll have to take off for Arizona or New Mexico or even California. But for now, wacky, slightly wicked Florida seems to suit her well.
PJ: Elaine, thank you the interview. Would you please leave us with some mysterious words of wisdom from Helen Hawthorne?
EV: The one thing Helen has learned in her new life is to take time to toast the sunset. It’s a Florida ritual to sit out by the pool at the end of the day with your friends. Helen and I hope you will all be able to toast the sunset in your own way in your own home town.
BIBLIOGRAPHY, compiled by Steve Lewis
The Francesca Vierling series:
Backstab, Dell, pb, 1997.
Rubout, Dell, pb, 1998.
The Pink Flamingo Murders, Dell, pb, 1999.
Doc in the Box, pb, 2000.
The Helen Hawthorne, Dead-End Jobs series:
Shop Till You Drop, Signet, pb, 2003.
● Nominated for the Agatha and Lefty (humorous novel) awards.
Murder Between the Covers, Signet, pb, 2003.
● Nominated for the Barry award.
Dying to Call You, Signet, pb, 2004
Just Murdered, Signet, pb, May 2005
Dog Gone, Signet, pb, 2006?
“Red Meat.” Blood on Their Hands, Lawrence Block, editor; Berkley hardcover, 2003.
● Reprinted in World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories: Fifth Annual Collection, Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, editors; Forge hardcover, 2004. Nominated for the Agatha award.
“Sex and Bingo.” (Helen & Margery). High Stakes, Robert Randisi, editor. Signet, pb, 2003.
● Nominated for the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards.
“Killer Blonde.” (Margery; novella). Drop-Dead Blonde, Martha Bushko, editor [uncredited]. Signet, pb, February 2005.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. stevelewis62 (at) cox.net
This interview and bibliography previously appeared in Mystery*File 47, February 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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