Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hmmm…since I used to fictionalize my diary as a teenager, you are taking a chance on this one, Warren. But I will try to keep it honest. I was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan. My dad built ships, and we grew up playing on huge vessels, from cargo carrying boats to car ferries that went back and forth across Lake Michigan. After a stint in the convent, college in Missouri, and teaching high school Latin, I lived lots of places, working in Pittsburgh PA on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, a brief time in Washington DC, more TV work in Bloomington IN where I got my Masters and met my husband, a lovely Jewish man. Now Kansas City is home, though two of our three grown children give us nice excuses to spend time with them in Gloucester MA, and Costa Mesa California. Our youngest son stayed close and lives in KC.
I’ve written 26 or so published novels in the last twenty-five years, always while doing other things: raising children, teaching philosophy and creative writing, editing bioethics journals and animal health publications. As of a year and a half ago, a nice contract with Penguin has given me the ultimate luxury of writing full time. It’s a gift—and a lovely one.
Can you tell us a little about your writing?
I imagine this question as having two angles—the writing process…or the writing content. I’ll concentrate on the process here. I think every writer has his or her own unique way of getting those words out. Do you agree? I struggle with plot. That initial idea—the synopsis-- that an editor wants to see before sending me on my way— is difficult for me. That’s because books unravel for me in the writing itself. I don’t outline. I breathe deeply and hope the characters take me by the hand and lead me along to the finish line. But one has to have at least a seed of an idea in order to start, and that’s hard for me, those basics—the “who is murdered, who did it, and why?” Sometimes that seed comes from talking to other people, sometimes from magazine articles, sometimes from eavesdropping in Starbucks (!). I’m struggling with that right now as I try to flesh out a plot for the sixth book in the Seaside Knitters series.
But once that idea is real enough to require a little action, I sit down every day and write. Usually it’s in a coffee shop or the library or in nice weather, on my porch. And I write, even if it’s drivel. I can always throw it out, but it’s important to have words captured, for better or worse. When I am totally stuck on what happens next, I will usually throw it out to my writing friend, Nancy, and we’ll toss it around a little. She will remind me that this happens to me in every book and it doesn’t mean I should throw the manuscript away. I am usually short on time since my deadlines are fairly stringent, so near the end of a book, I write like crazy. It would be a lovely time to have a cabin in the woods so I don’t subject family and friends to this period. But I don’t.
From your website bio I deduced that you have written other kinds of novels before you started writing mysteries. What other kind of novels have you written? Do you intend to return to writing that genre again?
I have always wanted to write a stand-alone novel—general fiction-- and should I deviate from the mystery genre, that’s where I’d go. That was actually my plan 25 years ago, but I was never able to finish a book. Then I met a nice Jewish girl from New York who had recently moved to KC—her goal was to write a children’s book, but she, too, never seemed to finish a book. So we decided to join forces and write something together that we would force one another to finish. We went to the bookstore, saw that the Romance category had the most books on the shelves, and decided to try to write one together. Surely a nice Jewish girl from NY and an ex-nun could pull that off. We weren’t very familiar with the genre and the book we wrote certainly reflected that. It was awful. But a NY agent set us straight, told us to write a romance that resembled the old Cheers sitcom—something light and with humor— and said she’d represent us. We did—and she did. And we wrote a dozen or so books together, then an equal number alone. Those were great happy days. We laughed a lot and ate way too many wheat thins.
With so many varieties of mysteries being written, what was it about craft and time cooking mysteries that attracted you to write them?
Actually, it wasn’t crafts that lured me to writing mysteries. I would say I fell into it that aspect of the writing. First, my writing cohort was finishing up a culinary mystery series – and she asked me to help with the last one. She literally taught me how to write a cozy mystery in the process, and I found I really enjoyed it. Then a local publisher invited me to write a mystery series based on a group of women who quilted. And so I did, hanging out with a delightful group of Lawrence quilters who taught me about the craft. And then…my agent from years and years ago read one of the quilting mysteries, contacted me, and suggested I create another series, similar in feeling to the quilters. She explained that craft-based mysteries were very popular at that time. We agreed together on the knitting angle. But the mysteries are as much about women’s bond of friendship and living in a small town as they are about knitting or food. There are four protagonists, actually—one is a lobsterwoman, one a wealthy matron, one a retired nonprofit director, and the fourth a yarn shop owner. So I’ve plenty of directions in which to go, though it’s Izzy’s yarn shop that pulls the women together every week for wine, food, friendship, and their shared passion--knitting.
I’ve read mysteries by Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen (actually Fletcher Flora) that included recipes but I confess that I don’t know when cooking and crafting became such an integral part of mystery writing. Can you tell me when that started?
I don’t know if mysteries were so specifically categorized until recent years. We don’t think of Rex Stout, for example, as writing culinary mysteries, though food certainly figured prominently in some of his books. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was an avid knitter, though we don’t categorize her as writing craft mysteries, do we? So it’s all rather mysterious to me. But in the last 20 years, mystery series specifically categorized as “culinary” or “craft” have proliferated like baby rabbits.
Your writing really engages readers and you have the ability to give readers a distinct sense of place. How do you do that?
Thank you, Warren. I try hard to do that. I spend so much time writing that I want to be in a place I enjoy—that’s one small part of it. I love the coast, the smell of the sea. And I see the town of Sea Harbor (in the Seaside Knitting mysteries) as almost another character in the book, so I try to picture it for my readers and make it as real as it is in my own mind. That’s one of the special things about writing, don’t you think? You can create the loveliest of places, taking out the things that roughen up a place—garbage in the streets and the like—and add in everything you like in your own world. I spend time looking up plants and trees and kinds of fish to make it as authentic and real as I can. I think of it as a movie, but without the scenes up there on the screen. So instead, I try to describe them in words.
With the first of your books that I read, I made the mistake of starting on an empty stomach. Have you thought about putting a warning label on your books: Do not read while hungry?
Ha! You make me smile. I suppose that the scenes with excessive food were written just before dinner time or when I had forgotten to eat breakfast. I do love to eat…and to cook.
You have two ongoing series. Do you alternate between them in your writing? Do the characters or ideas from one series leak over into the other one?
Actually my contract for the first series was negotiated without an agent and I pretty much gave the rights away to the publisher. My agent is looking into getting the rights back so I can continue the Queen Bees Quilters with my new publisher, but I don’t know if that will happen.
On your website you say that and Nancy Pickard are “porch writers” together. What does that mean and how does it work?
I happen to have a nice screened-in porch on the back of my house, and for several summers, Nancy and I have been on the same deadlines, needing to finish books by summer’s end. So we camp out on the porch with our laptops open, and write way, taking breaks to eat or walk about the yard, but porch rules require a “quiet when someone’s writing” rule. It works for us, especially when fighting deadlines, to impose a kind of discipline on the other. Many times I’d have thrown in the towel (laptop?) and stopped writing sooner in the day, but I’d look over and Nancy would still be going at it, so I’d write another hour or two. In winter we gravitate to coffee houses, libraries, or sometimes my house (but inside….).
As a former nun, philosophy teacher and bioethics editor, do you believe your writing reflects your personal values?
I suppose that’s true of all of us, right? Every experience shapes us in some way. I wouldn’t say my books are particularly religious (nor would I say I am), or that they’re philosophical. But those experiences certainly shaped who I am in a broader sense, and, in turn, influence what I write.
Do mysteries in general have value beyond entertainment?
Hmmmm. Another tough question. I think it depends on the reader. Speaking for myself, I read to be entertained. And in my own writing, I don’t pretend to be teaching life’s lessons, though I do manage to get in my views on certain things. And sometimes my characters surprise me with their insight. But in general, I hope they entertain and that readers come back because they want to spend more time with the Seaside Knitters—because they are their friends and want to walk with them through an entertaining story.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished (today!)1/5/11 the copy edits for The Wedding Shawl, the fifth book in the Seaside Knitting series. (A Holiday Yarn came out in November.) It will be released in May, along with the paperback edition of Moon Spinners (#4 in the series). And I am beginning work on the sixth book in the series. I’ve submitted a proposal, but am revisiting it (as I said—this is the painful part for me!). Wish me luck. And thanks so much for letting me visit. I have loved talking with you, Warren, and wish you the very best in your own wonderful writing career.