Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An Interview with Toni (Leigh Perry) Kelner

Toni L.P. Kelner is a delightful woman; nurturing wife, mother, and family member; shrewd editor; and savvy writer. Her own background as a displaced Southerner with an academic spouse living near Boston made her a natural for penning the eight Laura Fleming mysteries, about a North Carolina-born computer programer who lives in Boston with her Shakespearian professor husband. Toni says, “My husband was in academia when I started the series, but he left that world long, long ago. For which our bank account is very grateful.” Toni also was a natural for writing the "Where are they now?" books because she’s a popular culture addict. Toni’s novels have been nominated for RT BookClub awards, and she has received an RT BookClub Career Achievement Award.

As an author of short stories, Toni has been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity awards, and has won the Agatha award for “Sleeping With the Plush” published in May 2006 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Charlaine Harris is her co-editor on five anthologies, featuring both the mysterious and paranormal. They have a sixth anthology due out next year.
In the midst of all her myriad activities, Toni has taken on a new challenge, and a new nom de plume. Welcome, Toni. Thanks for visiting with Writers Who Kill.

Now, who is Leigh Perry, and what has she done with Toni Kelner?

When I started a new mystery series, Ginjer Buchanan, my editor at Berkley Prime Crime, delicately broached the subject of a pen name since the new stuff isn't much like my Laura Fleming or "Where are they now?" books. Well, they're all traditional mysteries, but there's a paranormal element in the Family Skeleton series that wasn't in those other books. Anyway, I think Ginjer thought I'd hate the idea, but it didn't bother me. If it'll help the sales for it to be a "new" author, that's fine. And my dual identity isn't exactly a big secret.

As far as the name itself, we tried a few variations, but this one is my middle name and my maiden name. In other words, now you know what the L.P. of Toni L.P. Kelner stands for.

Your new series, beginning with A Skeleton in the Family, to be released in September, has a number of unique characters. Its protagonist, Georgia Thackery, is an adjunct instructor who has traveled from one college to the next to maintain employment, before landing her latest position in the town where she spent her childhood and where her parents are tenured professors. How would you characterize Georgia’s approach to life and her life experiences?

Georgia, bless her heart, has always had to scrape by. She's a single mother, and had her daughter Madison before finishing her doctorate. Her intention had always been to work in academia, but having a new baby made it harder for her to find a tenure track job, so she took adjunct faculty positions instead. Later, when she was ready to try for something more permanent, she'd been typecast as adjunct and she's been stuck there ever since.

She's not bitter about it though. She wanted Madison more than she wanted tenure. She enjoys teaching, too, but she's still hoping she might get tenure some day. She'd like the bigger paycheck, but mostly she wants to make sure Madison gets the home she deserves.

Georgia’s unique companion is a skeleton named Sid who was found in a carnival, and followed the family home. Most people would think of a skeleton as having a left-over personhood, but that’s not the case with Sid. Tell us about Sid. How did he come to be, and how did you determine his “creature” characteristics (including his sense of humor)?

Sid remembers nothing about his former life before "waking" as a skeleton. Georgia really has no idea why he's alive and kicking, and since he's been part of her family for so long, she doesn't worry about his existence, any more than I wondered why I had two great-aunts who were no relation to me. (They later decided they weren't my aunts after all, but that's another story.) Anyway, Sid is Sid. He's been Georgia's best friend since she was a little girl.

Georgia's parents did speculate when Sid first showed up, and their best guesses were that he's a ghost haunting his own skeleton or a very skinny zombie. Or perhaps he was bitten by a radioactive spider skeleton. Wait, do spiders have skeletons?

As for his being humerus... I mean humorous, that was part of him from the day he appeared in my brain as a character. Skeletons smile all the time because of that whole no lips issue, so why wouldn't he make jokes?

A Skeleton in the Family is a novel that is very much about coping with family issues in a modern world. It spans generations and disciplines. How did you learn what you needed to know about such diverse subjects as anime, forensics,  detection, and adjunct faculty members?

I steal from other people.

My daughters are anime and manga fans, and we've attended a huge convention called Anime Boston for the past few years. I'm not overly conversant with the field, but the girls are, and it was Maggie who suggested using Lord Shinigami from Soul Eater for Sid's cosplay. 

Forensics is something I've picked up over twenty years plus of writing mysteries, and some people I've met via Facebook and web hunting. I doubt I'd be able to do the research I need without the web. Also, Dana Cameron helped me with some of the background about how bones are treated and handled in academic settings -- she's a recovering archeologist herself.

As for adjunct faculty, a friend of mine was a perennially untenured psychology professor for years. She'd get a job, teach a slew of intro courses, but after a certain point the colleges would say, "Hey, we can't keep you unless we give you tenure and we can't afford to do that, so...bye!" (I'm happy to report she did eventually get tenure.) I thought it would be a good background because I could keep Georgia in place for a book or two, and then change settings. I've been in touch with a few other adjuncts and I'm trying to show that it's really a tough life -- low pay, skimpy benefits, and very little chance of making tenure. I was worried I'd get it wrong, but was reassured when I found out my copy editor's wife is an adjunct. He corrected a few minor points for me, but overall, said I did them justice.

When we were at the Malice Domestic convention, you told me an interesting progression of how Georgia’s dog kept “evolving” from one type to another. Could you tell our readers a little about that process?

Poor Byron. Early on, my editor Ginjer suggested I put a dog into the books for humor value. Dog, bones... I do love dogs, though I haven't had one for years, so I liked the idea. My first thought was to have a poodle because I grew up with a house full of poodles, but Laurien Berenson does an excellent poodle series. Besides, I couldn't see Georgia and Madison with a poodle. So I decided on a Keeshond, because a friend of mine had an adorable Keeshond named Byron who had passed away. I thought it would be an homage to a sweet dog. Ginjer was fine with that, and the cover people at Berkley Prime Crime made up several versions of the cover with a Keeshond -- Prime Crime readers seem to like dogs and cats on their covers. But they couldn't get a Keeshond that looked cute enough. So Ginjer and I went back and forth on other breeds, and we finally settled on a Shiba Inu. They're cute and kind of trendy, and the personality seemed right for Georgia and Madison. But when I got the cover, It was an Akita. Apparently the Shiba was too small to look right on the cover. So Byron is an Akita now.

I know this sounds insane, but honestly, I'm okay with it The breed of the dog didn't make a huge difference in the story, and if the people at Berkley think a cuter, bigger dog will make a better illustration, I'm happy to trust them. People really do judge a book by its cover, and having a skeleton on mine might scare people off. That cute Akita will lure them right in.

You have excelled in writing both short stories and novels. How do you approach writing each discipline?

Thank you, but please, never use the D word. I'm not a disciplined writer at all. I procrastinate, I miss deadlines, I'm awful.

That being said, I'm pickier with novels. You see my novels have been series, so I need a protagonist I can live with for a long time. (At least, I hope it's a long time.) That means I have to like her, but there still has to be room for character growth and change. Plus I need a milieu in which I'll be happy: lots of characters to play with, different settings I can use, stuff thrown in to use later. I want growing room, and that's tough to set up.

On the other hand, I'm more experimental with short fiction. I'll write about anybody: obnoxious, snarky, male, alien, vampire, werewolf, witch, zombie raiser. I'll try settings like carnivals or circuses. I'll go noir, or historical, or erotic. I'll try just about anything in a short story.

Do you have a writing routine or schedule?

Um. Not a good one. I gravitate toward writing into the wee hours, which is a terrible way to work. 

Oh, if I lived alone it would be fine. Work late, sleep late, repeat as necessary. But I've got a husband with a real job, and we have to coordinate schedules. Plus I've got two daughters to get to school, drama class, art club, summer camp, and back again. So I end up with short nights and daily naps to try to get the right amount of sleep. 

Your writing has spanned genres. What advice do you give to people who want to write mysteries and does it differ from advice you offer to authors of paranormal stories?

Actually, both my mysteries and my paranormal stuff rely heavily on the same kind of world-building. I always start with the real world. Admittedly, I might be writing about worlds less familiar to people: Southern mill towns, entertainment reporting, adjunct faculty life, carnivals, juke joints. Or I might add paranormal stuff -- vampires and werewolves exist, or people can raise the dead, or witches have specific powers, or there's a skeleton walking around. No matter what, the setting includes something that's going to be unfamiliar to most readers. So my advice is to sneak the needed exposition in as you go, with dialog or very short explanations. Don't stop the story for big expository lumps.

The one piece of advice I would particularly impress upon paranormal writers is to be consistent. If your witch can't cast spells during the full moon in one book, don't have her doing it in the next. Readers want to accept the world you're creating -- make it easy for them!

What’s the subject of the new anthology that you’re editing with Charlaine Harris? How do you select your anthology topics and what is your process in soliciting and selecting stories?

Up next is sports and games! The title is Games Creatures Play, and it'll be out in April 2014. We've got a great team, too: Jan Burke, Dana Cameron, Adam-Troy Castro, Brendan DuBois, Caitlin Kittredge, William Kent Krueger, Ellen Kushner, Mercedes Lackey, Joe R. Lansdale, Laura Lippman, Seanan McGuire, and Brandon Sanderson. And Charlaine and I both have stories in the book too.
When we start an anthology project, we brainstorm a bunch of ideas, and narrow it down to two to four we really like. We run these past our agent, Joshua Bilmes, and he may make suggestions or may just pass them all on to Ginjer. (She edits my novels and the anthologies.) The idea that makes Ginjer snicker is the one we go with. 

Once we've got the theme and a working title, we make up a list of the people we want to invite, pulling from mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and thriller writers. We want people we know will write good stories and who we can work with. Often this is somebody we know, but sometimes it's somebody we've never met but whose work we like. On a practical level, we try for several bestselling authors per book. I know that sounds mercenary, but anthologies can be a tough sell, and it's easier if you have recognizable names on the cover. 

Once Ginjer approves the list, we start sending notes to those people. If we get any turn-downs, we come up with more names until we get the whole book filled up. Soliciting and selecting stories is pretty much the same process. We very rarely reject a story we have solicited.
I never expected to be an anthologist, and I had no idea how much fun it would be. Charlaine and I have been honored by the people who have trusted us with their stories.

How do you enjoy attending conferences for different genres and what is some of the best information that you’ve learned at a conference?

I have been to a wide variety of conferences -- conventions for romance, science fiction and fantasy, anime, comic books, even one for circus fans -- and enjoy all of them, but I feel most at home at mystery conventions. Funny how a group so devoted to murder can be so friendly.

One of the best pieces of advice I got was at the science fiction convention Readercon. My husband and I were talking to the writer Barry Longyear and his wife Regina, and though I was unpublished, they both knew I was writing. Regina asked what I was working on, and I told her and followed it with the admission that I really should have been working instead of attending a convention. And Barry said, "Don't shit on yourself!" In other words, he explained, don't attach guilt and negative feelings to the writing. You don't have to slave away every second of every day to be a successful writer. You have to have a life.

But honestly, though various bits of information have been invaluable, it's the networking that has really made conventions continue to be worthwhile. I met my co-editor Charlaine at a Bouchercon in Seattle, never guessing that we'd be working together someday. I also met my agent and my editor at conventions, and plenty of booksellers and librarians and forensic experts and other writers and just fascinating people. I don't go in with the idea of  meeting somebody useful -- I just want to meet other fans. It's always great fun.

E.B. Davis always likes to ask our guests if they prefer the mountains or the beach. Do you have a preference?

Beach! Without hesitation. I was born in northern Florida, and lived in Gulf Breeze, where I could get to beaches in every direction. Nothing soothes me like listening to waves at the beach.

Toni, thank you so much for being with us. Best wishes to you, Leigh Perry, and Sid!


  1. Nice interview. Toni, you mentioned how helpful and nice mystery people are. You should know. You've lended me a hand a number of times. I'm looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon next month.

  2. Nice interview here! So interesting to hear about different writer's approaches, schedules, etc.—and nice to get a glimpse at how you wear your anthologist's hat as well!

  3. Hi, Toni,

    What a great, in-depth interview! So nice to learn more about you and your upcoming novel.

  4. Interesting interview ... Enjoyed the glimpse into the decision making aspects of your writing - imagination, fact, and practicality (dog breed). Also appreciated your comments about balancing life and writing and not being guilty if one is unable to write every minute. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for sharing on WWK. It sounds like your heroine will be around for a long time. And "Don't shit on yourself" is great advice,

  6. Nice interview, Paula and Toni. Seemed like the two of you were having a cozy chat (and we all got to eavesdrop!)
    Best wishes with your new paranormal, Toni. Sounds like a fun concept - can't lose with a skeleton named Sid. When I went off to college years ago, my mother insisted that I bring along a conversation piece - a skeleton puppet. (Yes, my mom is a bit, er, special.) And of course all the girls on my floor loved him, dressed him for holidays, and named him - Sid.

  7. Such a great interview, and it was nice to learn a bit more than I have sitting around the bar at Malice Domestic ;). I'm looking forward to checking out the new series!

  8. Barb, any little thing I've done for you was a pleasure.

    Art, the anthologist biz is crazy sometimes--when I have to niggle people to turn in stories, sign contracts, etc--but I meet the best people!

    Jacqueline, thank you.

    Debra, guilt totally kills creativity for me.

    Warren, I sure hope so. And Barry Longyear said it first!

    Shari, I always have cozy chats with Paula. And if you've got a photo of Sid the puppet, I'd love to see it.

    Gigi, one learns very different things at the Malice bar. (g)

  9. Thanks so much to everyone for checking in today. Such wonderful comments. Thanks, Toni, for all your kindness to me, and for sharing Sid with all of us.

  10. Such a good and interesting interview, Toni and Paula. I look forward to reading your book with Sid in it. My third grade class had a skeleton named Egbert in it. Egbert was a good example of what happens to kids who don't study - they stay in 3rd grade forever.

    Gloria Alden from out-of-town on her daughter's computer.