Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for May: (5/4) Linda Norlander, (5/11) Connie Berry, (5/18) Mary Keliikoa, (5/22) Annette Dashofy, and (5/25) Rosalie Spielman.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Interview with Dorothy St. James

Dorothy St. James’s first novel, Flowerbed of State, released by Berkley Crime in May 2011, began a new series featuring the escapades of White House gardener, Casey Calhoun, who digs up more than her share of trouble. Next month, Berkley releases her second book of the series, The Scarlet Pepper. Please welcome Dorothy St. James to WWK.  E. B. Davis

EBD: Was Flowerbed of State your first novel published, and if so, is it Agatha eligible?
DSJ: Although Flowerbed of State isn’t my first published novel, it is my first mystery. I was pleased to learn that according to the Agatha guidelines, it’s eligible for Best First Novel. I hope it garners a nomination. But even if it doesn’t, I’m going to have a blast at this year’s Malice Domestic. This will be the first year that I’ve been able to attend, and I can’t wait to finally meet everyone in person!

EBD: Would you give us the hook of Flowerbed of State?
DSJ: Free-spirited Casey Calhoun, the White House's new organic gardener, has a lot on her mind with her upcoming presentation to the First Lady outlining her plans for implementing organic practices on the White House grounds. All her carefully made preparations begin to unravel after she's mugged in the same park where a Treasury accountant was murdered. Things spiral out of control after she accidentally pepper sprays a Secret Service agent, a senator begins a campaign against organic gardening, and Wall Street's most eligible bachelor takes a sudden romantic interest in her. Not to mention the President's new puppy is constantly nipping at her heels and digging holes in the South Lawn.

The FBI and Secret Service assure her that they are on top of the murder investigation, but something isn't adding up. While they thwart a plot to assassinate the President, Casey follows the clues she’s found all the way to the Easter Egg Roll where she saves a senator from being killed by the Easter bunny.

EBD: The White House and gardening are the hooks of your books. How did you learn about each topic?
DSJ: What a challenge it’s been to learn the ins and outs of the White House. For some inexplicable reason, much of what I want to know is classified as Top Secret. Sheesh! To help fill in the blanks, I’ve taken several tours, interviewed past employees, reporters, and read tons of memoirs and research books on the topic. It’s gotten to the point where I dream about walking the White House halls and talking with the staff.

To help prepare me for the gardening aspect of the story, I completed the rigorous Master Gardener program offered by my local extension office. I also volunteer at a city garden where I get to work alongside horticulturists who face many of the issues Casey would face.

EBD: Enmeshed in your plot, Casey understands the connections of politics, money and power. You have an insider’s view of DC. How did you gain this perspective? 
DSJ: I finally found a use for my Masters of Public Administration education. Well, I had made a career out of it, working in every level of government and a few non-profits, but writing fiction is way more fun! Although I had never worked within D.C., I worked closely with federal agencies based there. I used that experience as a jumping off point, adding in current information on the banking crisis and policy formation from my research for this book.

EBD: How long have you written fiction? Was Flowerbed of State your first manuscript?
DSJ: I’ve been writing full-time for ten years. Wow! That’s a long time. I’m getting old. I’d started out writing cozy mysteries, but couldn’t sell anything I’d written. I switched to writing historical romance and published several books. However, the wise editor for my most recent romance release, The Nude, saw something in my writing and suggested that I try my hand at cozy mysteries. That’s how the White House Gardener Mysteries were born. With the publication of the first book in the series last year, I feel as if I’ve come full circle. When I first started out, Berkley Prime Crime was my dream publisher. And now so many years later, I’m finally writing for them. Funny how fate works!

EBD: How much promotional help did Berkley Prime Crime give you?
DSJ: I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime fiction than Berkley Prime Crime! The publicist assigned to me has been helpful in providing guidance and in getting my first book out to reviewers and bloggers and helping with running a giveaway on Goodreads. And then there’s all the behind-the-scenes work that they do in selling the books directly to the booksellers. I consider myself lucky to have landed here. Berkley Prime Crime was, after all, my dream publisher from the beginning.

EBD: What is the hook of The Scarlet Pepper?
DSJ: As the official organic gardener for the White House, Casey Calhoun is usually up to her elbows in something or other. But when someone starts tampering with the Presidential vegetable garden, she soon finds herself in way over her head.

As if it wasn't bad enough that red chili peppers are growing instead of green ones, cabbage is popping up where the First Lady's favorite lettuce should be. Casey finds herself in a compost heap of trouble when a hard-nosed investigative reporter is found dead after targeting the President's unpopular Chief of Staff.

Raking over the clues and rumors, Casey knows that someone is sabotaging both her garden and the First Lady's reputation. But when she has one close call too many, Casey realizes that the next thing buried in the dirt might just be her

EBD: Are you a member of SinC? Why mysteries?
DSJ: I am a fairly new member to both SinC and Mystery Writers of America and still learning my way around. I hope to become more active in the coming year.

“Why mystery?” you ask? I think it goes back to wanting to write what I love to read. Everyone knows the saying, “Write what you know.” I think someone should add to that, “Write what you love to read.”

My family got me hooked on the Cat Who series by Lillian Jackson Braun when I was growing up. We’d all read those books, passing around the dog-eared paperbacks. As a young adult, I discovered and fell in love with Elizabeth Peters’s mysteries, especially her Vicki Bliss series. I couldn’t resist trying my hand at writing one, too.

EBD: I noticed on your website, Dorothy St. James that you have pets. In your first book, the presidential dog starred in a role. Will this role continue or will Casey get a pet?
DSJ: What would a cozy be without a cozy puppy or kitty? What would the real-world be like? I love animals. It’s been a blast writing about Milo, my fictional president’s oversized golden-doodle rescue. Milo is definitely back in The Scarlet Pepper. And up to trouble, too. He’s found his way into the kitchen garden and is making a mess of things. Casey doesn’t have the heart to scold him, he’s too darn cute. And his naughty behavior might be the key that leads her to the killer. Go Milo!

EBD: What is your favorite flower?
DSJ: I love, love, love growing plants that feed me. Some of my favorite flowers in the vegetable garden are the bright yellow cucumber flowers on trailing vines, the beautiful purple eggplant blooms, and the large exotic okra flowers that last for such a short time, but produce such delicious results.

In the last couple of years, however, spring flowering bulbs have captured my fancy. The daffodils are spouting in my yard. With all this crazy warm weather we’ve been having, a few are already blooming!

One of the best things about the garden is that it’s always changing, so my favorites often change with the season. Like old friends, the plants come and go and return again.

Dorothy will answer questions today, so please post your comments or pose your questions.
Thanks—E. B. Davis


Warren Bull said...

Welcome to WWK. It sounds like you have two books completed. Are you working on a third for the series now?

E. B. Davis said...

How was your book sold to Berkley? Do you have an agent?

Tina said...

Your protagonist sounds fascinating -- what skills does working with plants provide that come in handy for facing down murderers?

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

Hi Warren,

I'm so happy to be spending the day with y'all today. I am currently working on the third book in the White House Gardener Mysteries. It's working title, which I hope will be kept, is OAK AND DAGGER. And the deadline will come crashing down on my very, very soon. Oh my!

Casey, my mild-mannered organic gardener, gets buried up to her neck in the world of seed saving and espionage.

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

*my should be me (Rolls eyes)

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

My sale to Berkley didn't follow any of the normal pathways. There was an agent involved in the sale, but he wasn't my agent.

I don't currently have an agent.

I had sold a Regency romance, THE NUDE, to Five Star/Gale. They are a small press that produces lovely hardcover editions. At the time, the editorial staff at Five Star were contract employees through Tekno Books, which is a book packager.

Book packagers employ writers to develop series ideas and then write the novels, which they then sell to major publishers. There used to be more of them around.

My editor for THE NUDE invited me to put together a proposal for the White House Gardener Mystery series. I was given very general guidelines and told to have fun with it. And I did! She liked what I sent and Tekno then took it out through their agent to be sold. Berkley Prime Crime, who was already publishing Julie Hyzy's White House Chef Mysteries (a fantastic series that was also developed by Tekno books) bought this series as well.

What I've learned through this is that there is no straight path and no "right" path to publication.

My new motto is, "Just keep yourself in the game. You never know what will happen."

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

Hi Tina,

Casey's gardening skills comes into play in a big way in THE SCARLET PEPPER when a journalist is poisoned and Casey knows all about the yew that killed him. It makes the detective investigating the murder sit up and take notice.

As you know from your own gardening experiences, it involves a lot of detective work and attention to detail. Why are the leaves wilting? Why is the grass turning yellow? I've learned from working in my local Master Gardener office that I need to ask probing questions to get to the root of the plant problem. It's often not the obvious answer.

I've taken that experience and translated it into Casey's life as organic gardener at the White House.

Gloria Alden said...

Another welcome to WWK. Your books sound like books I'd love to read since gardening is a passion of mine, too.

How much did Michelle Obama with her White House vegetable garden influence you?

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

Hi Gloria,

Thanks for the welcome! I definitely used Michelle Obama's Kitchen Gardening experiences as an inspiration for my April release, THE SCARLET PEPPER. As you might have guessed in the political world, you can never make everyone happy.

People have said the garden is too organic. Others have complained that it's not organic. (The truth lays in the middle. The White House Kitchen Garden is not an organic garden, but it uses organic practices. The distinction confuses some reporters and has caused controversy where none exists.) I used that idea and twisted it to fit my murder mystery where a reporter is killed.

The great thing about this series is that there's never any shortage of great news items that I can use as inspiration.