by Grace Topping
Left at Oz
Jennie Connors is crazy about her handsome husband, but she dreads his reaction when she tells him her car was stolen. When she finds a message hinting that the vehicle was left at Oz, she jumps at the chance to find the car before he returns from the West Coast. Following directions given in the message, Jennie finds the car. Problem is - there's a body in it. It gets worse. Turns out the victim is Robin Langley, babysitter for the Connors' two young sons. What motive could anyone have for killing Robin? Why steal the Connors' car to hide the body, then leave a message directing Jennie to it?
Sandra Carey Cody has lived in various cities in different parts of the country. She says that wherever she goes, books have been her bridge to each new community and new friends. Although she is now settled outside of Philadelphia, she continues to build bridges to new communities and friends through the books she has written, reaching people with her characters and stories. I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy at a Malice Domestic conference a few years ago and have had the good fortune to see her at subsequent conferences. Her stories explore the challenges facing a single mother as she learns to balance independence with family and career responsibilities—all while solving the occasional murder.
I am delighted to welcome Sandra Carey Cody to Writers Who Kill.
|Sandra Carey Cody|
The first thing that drew me to your book was its intriguing title: Left at Oz. Only a fan of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz could have deciphered the clues Jennie Connors follows to find her stolen car. What inspired the Oz reference?
Actually, I didn’t have a title until after I’d finished the first draft. I was reading the manuscript, editing, trying to paint the picture of the farmhouse in the first chapter with as few words as possible. The colorful Land of Oz, after dusty Kansas, was the image in my head. I started to describe the flowers, their colors, etc., when I realized it would be better to just mention Oz and let the reader’s imagination take it from there. Once I did that, I had my title and, equally important, I knew more about Jennie because I knew what kind of books she’d loved as a child. Plus, you’re right—the Baum books are favorites of our family.
Left at Oz is a prequel to the series you’ve already written. What made you write about something that occurred before the first book in your series?
Left at Oz was the fourth book published, but it was the first written. I wrote Oz, sent it off to a couple of agents, all of whom rejected it. I was new to the publishing world then and naive. When the book was rejected the fourth time, I thought that was the end; the book was unpublishable. I vowed to treat it as a learning experience and move on. In the meantime, I’d written a sequel, Put Out the Light. I put Oz back in the drawer and started submitting Put Out the Light. By this time, I’d done some research and had a better idea of where my books fit. I sent it to Avalon Books, who published G-rated books and sold mainly to libraries. They accepted it and I was on my way—over-the-moon happy I might add. I wrote two more Jennie Connors mysteries, which were published by Avalon, but I couldn’t forget Oz. I re-read it and thought it deserved another chance, so I emailed my editor and asked if Avalon would consider publishing a prequel. She said to send it along and, if it met the guidelines, it would get the same consideration as any other manuscript. I did that. They accepted it. Happy day! My firstborn had a home!
What have you learned writing your series that may have helped you with the prequel?
I think I covered the part about writing a prequel in my previous answer. As for lessons learned writing a series, I’ve discovered the importance of making personal relationships, especially those between on-going characters, interesting. By interesting, I mean complex. They have serious disagreements, but they always cover each other’s backs. One example of this is the love/hate relationship and constant conflict between Jennie and her boss, Leda.
The murder victim had a close connection to the main character’s children, which made the murder even more horrendous. Was that aspect of your book difficult to write? Or are you able to distance yourself emotionally from what you write?
I’ll answer the last part of the question first: no, I can’t distance myself emotionally from what I write. Was that part difficult to write? The answer is twofold. I have two sons. They’re grown now, but as young boys, they were very much like Tommy and Andy in the book. When I write about the Connors’ children, I think about my boys. It’s easy because I know how little boys react in certain situations and fun because I have an opportunity to include their slightly skewed sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s difficult because I don’t want to imagine anything bad happening to them. When Jennie’s sons are threatened, I think about how I felt (in fact, still feel) when anything threatens my sons. After writing those scenes, I am totally exhausted. I feel like I’ve run a marathon. (A tip for anyone else with this problem: chocolate has wonderful restorative powers.)
When Jennie discovers her husband’s secret, it has a tremendous affect on her in many ways (I don’t want to give too much away). How does she garner the strength to carry on?
There’s a lot going on that Jennie doesn’t understand. She’s not a particularly brave person; the thing that keeps her going is her determination to protect her children, not just physically, but also emotionally. This is what impels her to investigate the crime herself. She needs to know what’s coming so she can anticipate a situation that might threaten the safe world of her sons. She’s walking a tightrope. She has to give her children the information they need to protect themselves and, yet, she doesn’t want to destroy their sense of security. I think that’s something most parents can relate to.
Your portrayal of Jennie’s fear for her children’s safety is very realistic and heightens the suspense in an already suspenseful mystery. How do you categorize your mystery series?
Traditional mystery—traditional in that there’s a puzzle to be solved, a limited pool of suspects, and a murder committed in a place deemed to be safe. They’re the kind of books referred to as “cozy,” although they don’t feel cozy to me when I’m writing them. Violence takes place off stage. Still, a violent act has occurred and the characters are forced to deal with a situation outside their comfort zone. As a writer, these characters are real to me and I worry about them. How can they go on after what has happened? Will they be able to regain their lost innocence? I wonder if other cozy writers feel this way.
Jennie has just started her job as the activities director at a retirement center and nursing home. What is it about Jennie’s personality that makes her right for this job?
Jennie’s a people-lover and an optimist (despite the fact that people she knows keep getting murdered). She loves the residents of the retirement center where she works and is genuinely interested in their lives. She appreciates their life experiences and wants to learn from them. She looks at these old people and sees them as a source of wisdom.
I’m sensing a real connection between Jennie and Detective Goodley. Am I off the mark there?
Ah, yes, Goodley. There is definitely a connection between him and Jennie. I won’t say more because I hope you’ll read subsequent books and see what happens. I will say this: expect something, but not too much. I want Jennie to retain her independence.
How has living in various parts of the country contributed to your writing?
The more people I come into contact with, the more diverse their backgrounds, the deeper the well from which I can draw to create characters, their little quirks, different speech patterns, mannerisms, that sort of thing. I’ve seen how superficial differences can lead to major misunderstanding, and how misunderstandings can escalate. I haven’t actually seen them lead to murder, but add a dash of imagination and ... there you have it.
The nice thing about reading this prequel first is that there are three more books in the series to look forward to. What awaits readers in the series? Anything you can reveal?
In subsequent books, the residents of Riverview Manor assume a larger role. In Put Out the Light, I introduce Nate, who just may be my favorite character. (I know. You’re not supposed to have a favorite among your children, but ...) Nate is 84 years old, a former Shakespearean actor, and an egomaniac. He’s not a nice person, but I think he’s interesting. In Consider the Lilly, readers meet the Tea Ladies, six feisty seniors who are smart, fearless, and determined not to mind their own business. Tess, a former FBI agent, plays a big part in By Whose Hand and Lethal Journal. If you’ve been counting, you’ll notice that there are five books in the series. The first four Jennie Connors books were published by Avalon, which was bought out of Amazon. When that happened, I decided to try my hand at self-publishing. Lethal Journal was self-published through Amazon’s CreateSpace. I wasn’t sure how this would work out, but have been pleasantly surprised at readers’ willingness to go along with the change.
Jennie’s stop at a flea market is such an innocent thing but plays an important part in the mystery. Do you stop for flea markets?
I’m not much of a shopper, but I do love flea markets—both as a source of bargains and as a great place to people-watch. I’m fascinated by the things people collect and what those things say about them. If you’re looking for ideas to create distinctive characters, there’s no better place than a flea market. Watch both the buyers and the sellers. Thanks for having me, Grace. This has been fun.
Thank you, Sandy.
For more information about Sandra Carey Cody and a list and description of her books, visit her webpage. She is also on Twitter and Facebook.