I have an upcoming stand-alone mystery The Lost Artist. The book is scheduled to be released by Five Star/Cengage in May 2012. This is the publisher's description:
"When Rose Caffrey, a struggling Chicago performance artist, uncovers four nineteenth century murals in an old southern Illinois farmhouse, her quest to discover the unknown artist unearths buried crimes and secrets going back over four hundred years with the potential to transform American history—if she can escape the fate of the other lost artists before her."
You began as a dancer and choreographer. What impact has it had on your writing, either your poetry or your mysteries?
Dancing and choreography taught me the importance of timing. Writing a scene is very much like performing a dance piece with highs and lows; places where the music slows or speeds up; and to keep things moving along. Timing was always a part of my poetry. Words to me are like musical notes. I don’t know if that sounds strange but that’s how I hear words.
Also my sense of aesthetics came from dance. I have a real need to express myself in a beautiful way. That doesn’t mean I write only about beautiful things, obviously I don’t. But in a dark scene I’m thinking how beautifully dark can I make it.
Finally, I approach writing poetry and mysteries with the same dedication, discipline and hard work that I learned from studying dance.
There are a lot of similarities between your life and your protagonist's, Leigh Girard. Where do you end and she begin?
Though Leigh’s a former college lecturer from Chicago who once was involved in dance, that’s where the similarities end. I’m not a breast cancer survivor. I’m happily married. And trust me, I would never live in a mobile home. I consider Leigh Girard my alter ego. She says and does things that I would never say or do but wish I could.
That said, I believe writers put fragments of themselves in all their characters whether they’re aware of it or not. Our understanding of the world is filtered through us. That’s why it’s so important that writers have broad and deep experiences, do research, and conduct interviews before they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I did a great deal of research and conducted many interviews before I wrote Death’s Door. The scene where Leigh and Joe are on the Mink River looking for the missing girl was based on my own experience canoeing the Mink River on a chilly and rainy Memorial Day weekend.
How has being an academic (you hold a Ph.D. and have been a professor) helped or hindered your mystery writing?
My training in the academy was an enormous confidence builder and mind-expanding experience for me personally and professionally. It exposed me to a community of like-minded writers and helped me be a better critic of my own work. My Ph.D. is in English with a specialization in creative writing/poetry. Obtaining that degree took me five years of thrilling and rigorous work.
Although the degree gave me enormous confidence to try new kinds of writing, like mysteries and creative nonfiction, I don’t think you don’t need a Ph.D. in English to write a successful mystery. What you need is an understanding of the genre, a unique voice, and an ability to write good, clean prose. If anything, I’ve had to self-edit myself sometimes so I don’t sound too literary. But overall, my degree has been more of a help than a hindrance.
You've lived in Cleveland and in Illinois (at least). Why did you choose Door County, WI as the setting for your book?
I consider Door County my spiritual home. Its beauty; its serenity; and its isolation are qualities that drew me to it. When I decided to write a mystery I considered setting the book in Chicago. I know Chicago quite well having attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago for seven years. But I didn’t want to use setting to reinforce my mystery’s noir qualities. I wanted a place where I could work against the setting. My initial concept was to present this beautifully serene place but under the surface were these darker undertows of secrets and lies.
There are a lot of sinister characters in Death's Door. Do you feel this reflects any truths about small towns and rural areas?
I’ve never lived in a small town or a rural area. But when I recently started research for the third book in the series I had a lengthy conversation with a local historian who told me about some scary murderers who’d lived in Door County going back to the 1800s. So whether small towns and rural areas harbor sinister characters, I don’t know. I suspect every place has sinister characters.
I hope this doesn't sound pugnacious, it's not intended as such. I'm just curious, and maybe some other readers are curious as well. Some of the female characters are not terribly sympathetic, but none of them are sinister. Is there a reason all the scary, warped characters are men? or did it just turn out that way?
The initial spark for Death’s Door came from a real crime that occurred in the Chicago area. A teenage girl was murdered by her uncle who left her body along the Des Plaines River. Around the same time or shortly after, Door County published a list of registered sex offenders. As part of the plot, I decided I was going to include the release of the sex offenders’ list.
As I wrote the book, I had the actual Door County list of registered sex offenders with accompanying photos to refer to. I studied those offenders’ crimes and photos, creating in my mind the type of person who would commit such a crime. But I didn’t use anyone from the list. I should say, however, that there were no women on that list to answer your question about sinister men. So the plot determined the direction of these characters.