Wednesday, November 25, 2015

J. A. Hennrikus/Julianne Holmes Interview by E. B. Davis

Ruth Clagan may be an expert clockmaker, but she’s always had a tendency to lose track of time. And when trying to solve a murder, every minute counts…

Ruth’s beloved grandfather instilled in her a love of timepieces. Unfortunately after her grandmother died and he remarried, Ruth and Grandpa Thom became estranged. She’s wanted to reconnect after her recent divorce, but sadly they’ve run out of time. 

Her grandfather has been found dead after a break-in at his shop—and the police believe he was murdered. Now Ruth has been named the heir to Grandpa Thom’s clock shop, the Cog & Sprocket, in the small Berkshire town of Orchard, Massachusetts. As soon as she moves into the small apartment above the shop and begins tackling the heaps of unfinished work, Ruth finds herself trying to stay on the good side of Grandpa’s bossy gray cat, Bezel, while avoiding the step-grandmother she never wanted. But as old secrets and grudges start to surface, Ruth will have to kick into high gear to solve the killer case before someone else winds up dead…

I met J. A. Hennrikus at the SinC table during Malice. We had both volunteered along with a few of our friends to staff the booth for a few hours and answer questions about SinC to conference attendees. We fulfilled our duties, but I have to admit, most of the time we talked and talked and talked…volunteering can be so much fun! When I found out Julie had written Just Killing Time for Berkley under the name Julianne Holmes, I wanted to interview her and find out more about the series.   

Please welcome J. A. Hennrikus/Julianne Holmes to WWK.                                                E. B. Davis

Experiencing divorce has prompted Ruth to cathartic screaming in her car. She doesn’t bake or cook. Doesn’t do small talk or have warm, fuzzy hobbies. But the clock shop mystery series is still cozy. What elements did you include to attract cozy mystery readers?

I am a cozy/traditional reader, so I thought a lot about what I like in a series. A strong sense of place. Full characters who have their own stories. A need to bring order back to a community that has been disrupted by a crime. I like to learn something while I am reading, but not enough to pull me out of the book, so I kept that in mind while writing the book. The clock shop isn’t a traditional cozy setting, but the trade requires skill and determination, both of which serve a potential sleuth well.

Ruth is a likeable character. She admits to loving technology, coffee, baked goods, and above all else—clockmaking, her profession, handed down from generations of clockmakers. Why did you choose to write about clocks?

The idea of this series came from my editor at Berkley, Allison Janice. She decided on the location, and on Ruth’s profession. I wove her wonderful ideas into a story, which she also helped shape. I don’t know if I would have come up with this on my own, though I do like Kate Carlisle’s book binding series, and this has that same vibe to me. 

Ruth’s family was one of a few that started the town of Orchard, Massachusetts, located outside of Marytown, a larger, more metropolitan town where Orchard residents are often forced to go for box store items and chain store purchases. Is this an accurate assessment?

You know, it really is. Orchard is in the Berkshires, out in the Western part of Massachusetts. Every town is different and runs on its own. But in the Berkshires, or down the Cape (that’s how we refer to Cape Cod), or in other towns throughout New England, the small business owner is valued. They may own a franchise in a chain, but they take great pains to make it their own and to fit into the community.

Ruth inherits The Cog & Sprocket, a clock store, from her Grandpa Thom, whom she nicknamed G. T. Organization didn’t seem to be one of G. T.’s skills. Missing documents and clocks, a cluttered store, and haphazard bookkeeping occupy Ruth’s time. Is the chaos part of the problem or part of the solution to the mystery?

G.T. had his own systems, that’s for sure.  He had card files on which he kept records of the clocks he’d worked on over the years. When the novel opens, Ruth goes back to the shop and discovers that the already small shop is packed to the gills, since G.T. had recently bought two estates worth of clocks. That chaos is both part of the problem and part of the solution, since there are important documents that are lost. G.T. would have gotten it all under control, but not with upgraded systems for inventory.

After Ruth’s beloved grandmother died, Ruth and G. T. became estranged due to their dislike of each other’s new spouses. Ruth needs to work with Caroline, her step-grandmother, since she worked at Cog & Sprocket and knows the day-to-day operations. I was surprised that Caroline didn’t have more of a negative attitude toward Ruth, especially since she inherited the store. Why didn’t Caroline resent Ruth?

Caroline feels guilty that Ruth and her grandfather had become estranged, and partially blames herself, since she married G.T. quickly after Ruth’s grandmother died. She also understands that the shop has to stay in the family, especially since Ruth has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, and is a clockmaker in her own right. In Just Killing Time, we get to see Ruth and Caroline circling each other, trying to honor the man they both loved. In a lot of ways, the growing friendship between Ruth and Caroline is the heart of the story.

Caroline has hardship in her past, which the reader isn’t privy to. Will you reveal her story in coming books?

Caroline’s story is the backbone of the next book in the series, Clock and Dagger, which will be out next August. You’ll learn a lot more about what makes her tick and why.

The theme of dysfunctional families runs through your book. Every family in Orchard seems to have issues. Is this nothing new or commentary on the current culture?

This is such a great question. My grandmother, who was mostly Irish, would describe people with snippets about their lives rather than physical characteristics. “I saw John Smith today. You remember John Smith, don’t you? He’s the man who’s wife left him for a ballroom dance instructor” or “Poor Jane Doe. Her brother started drinking again, his wife kicked him out of the house, so he had to move into her spare bedroom. I know he’s her brother, but why she has to be the one to take him in when their older sister has a five bedroom house and no children I’ll never know, but anyway, not for me to say.” So from childhood I learned about people’s complex lives.

Then there’s Agatha Christie. I read the Jane Marple novels first, and she reminded me of my grandmother. She noticed everything and was able to connect threads that other people never noticed. I didn’t dream of being a writer back then, but I did dream of figuring out the mysteries. If I didn’t, I’d go back and reread them to figure out what I’d missed.

I also wanted to make Orchard complicated, so there were plenty of suspects and enough intrigue for readers to care about what happened. Maybe there is a lot of dysfunction.  Isn’t there always in communities? I think we talk about it more openly now.

Ruth’s childhood friend Moira Reed now owns the Sleeping Latte, a breakfast and lunch coffee shop/restaurant. Her father, Pat, works at the Cog & Sprocket. Mother, Nancy, bakes for Moira’s shop and others. During Ruth’s childhood, the Reed home gave her the warmth and security her own lacked. What happened in Ruth’s life to have her crave that family life?

Ruth’s parents are academics who were more focused on their own work than on Ruth. She found respite when she visited her grandparents, and loved the vacations she spent in Orchard. But Ruth pined for a normal family, and the Reeds came as close to that as she ever knew. They treated Ruth like a second daughter, and that meant the world to Ruth.

Jeff Paisley, Orchard’s Police Chef, seems like an odd duck. Tell our readers about him.

Jeff Paisley has his own story that will come out in later books. He used to have a higher-level job with a large police force, but left under difficult circumstances. Grover Winter, who had been the defacto mayor in Orchard for years, hired him and gave him a five-year contract. In the Berkshires the State Police are on duty nights and weekends for many towns. Jeff is the sort of policeman who never wants anyone else to do his job for him, and he also has taken G.T.’s murder personally. He’ll loosen up a bit over the course of the books.

Hiring a town administrator bites the town leaders who have hired her. Her leadership results in splitting town opinion. Why can’t they limit her power?

In many small towns, the Board of Selectmen run the town business, there isn’t a mayor. Grover Winter had been in charge for years, and when he retired it was his idea to hire someone as town manager as the needs of Orchard became more complicated. He actually helped hire Kim Gray, but he came to regret it. Unfortunately he died before he could get her fired, and the other members of the Board of Selectmen started being swayed by Kim’s plans for Orchard. The town is split, and part of the work in this series is to get Orchard back on a better track.

The Cog & Sprocket has always had a shop cat. Bezel, the current shop cat, keeps Ruth company. Is there a story behind the cat’s name?

A bezel is a clock part. It keeps the crystal in place. The Clagan family doesn’t just fix clocks, they love them. Naming pets after clock parts would be natural for them. Bezel owns the shop; she just lets everyone work there. I’ve been owned by cats, and I know how they control their environment. Bezel is a fun character to write.

Ruth is split between resuming her old life and assuming a new life in Orchard. What was Ruth’s passion in her old life that still draws her?

Ruth had been working on building the life she thought she wanted. It was stable, constructed, and had a clear path. She married a professor, same profession as her parents. She stopped working on her career per se, making it more of an avocation than a vocation. Being a craftsman takes courage, and daring. Being a master clock maker doesn’t mean life will be easy, or lucrative. Ruth is attracted to stability. For her, Orchard doesn’t offer that, at least not at first. Part of Ruth’s journey is her being braver about taking on life.

Ruth observes, “Maybe the best thing to do right now was to act less like myself and more like the person I wanted to be? Yeesh, turning thirty was changing my game.” (Loc 1642) This statement doesn’t resound “To thine own self be true.” Why does Ruth want to change?

When we meet Ruth, she’s at a difficult moment in her life. Her marriage has recently ended, her job lost its grant funding, she just turned thirty, and she just found out that her estranged grandfather has died. She has spent the past five years playing the part of a dutiful faculty wife, and now she is trying to figure out who she is on her own. Going back to Orchard lets her get some parts of her past in order, even if she can’t reconcile with her grandfather the way she wanted to. Rather than regret what she can’t change, we see her wrestling with herself to make better choices moving forward. That’s one reason she doesn’t just shut Caroline out of her life—she decides to try and act differently to see what happens. We see Ruth coming into her own in this series.

What’s next for Ruth?

Clock and Dagger is the name of the next book in the series. It takes place right before New Year’s Eve, when a lot is going to change in Orchard. Becket Green is about to open his bookstore, but he is in cahoots with Kim Gray. Ruth continues to fight town government and make her grandfather’s dream of rebuilding the clock tower come true. Unfortunately she stumbles upon a murder in Ben’s barbershop, and that leads to secrets being revealed that threaten the peace she’s been building, so she fights back. Ben is more handsome than ever, the State Police are pushing Jeff Paisley out of the investigation, and Nancy Reed is poking her nose in everyone’s business. Just another day in Orchard, Mass!

How did the deal with Berkley happen?

Berkley had the idea for the series and was looking for a writer. I blog with the Wicked Cozy Authors, and my name came up as a potential author for the series, so I wrote a proposal and got the job. That’s the short answer. The long answer is that I joined Sisters in Crime over fifteen years ago, then I joined the New England chapter and the Guppies. I wrote, took classes, went to conferences (like Malice Domestic and the New England Crime Bake), joined boards, and made wonderful friends. Those relationships are what led to the Berkley deal. I’ve often said that writing is solitary, but getting published requires community. I have a great community and am very blessed.

Do you have any advice for unpublished novelists?

Holding Just Killing Time in my hand was a dream come true. It took a long time and was a different path than I expected, but it happened. So part of my advice is to keep writing, editing, learning, and believing. Be open to opportunities, even if they aren’t what you expected.
But more than that—be happy for your friends when it is their turn. The Guppies are a great example of that on a large scale. The Wicked Cozy Authors are an example of that on a smaller scale—we cheerlead, support, critique, and balance each other on an almost daily basis. This is a tough path, and it isn’t guaranteed to be successful. But it’s a lot more fun with other people. Figuring out when a book is ready is a balancing act—perfect can be the enemy of good, but then again you need to make sure your book is ready to go out into the world. Keep working on becoming a better writer. Stories can be edited, but art can’t be taught. It has to be learned and honed over time. Final piece of advice—celebrate every goal you reach before you set out for the next one. Every step is a victory—most people don’t reach them. So stop, acknowledge the goal you reached, and then set off for the next part of this adventure.

In combing through your website, I found we share something—a pin of a pig with wings! I wear mine to every conference I attend. If you tell me what your pin symbolizes, I’ll tell you what mine means.

I bought mine at Malice Domestic a couple of years ago. In fact, this past year I bought a back- up just in case I ever lose it. My day job is working in theater, another field where the path is uncertain and the journey is a roller coaster. When I saw the pin, I thought about all of the naysayers who crush dreams by saying it will happen when pigs fly. The pin reminds me that sometimes pigs sprout wings, and do indeed fly. It reminds me to keep believing.
What does yours symbolize?

Same as yours, Julie!

Why is J. A. Hennrikus blogging for Henery Press?
I am one of the contributors to Writes of Passage, which was published by Henery Press. I was delighted to blog for them recently. I’m a big fan of Henery, the people involved, and their brand.

Anything else to fess up to?
Nothing much—I’m a big fan of social media, and am on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I love being part of the mystery writing community and really appreciate this thoughtful interview. 



  1. Hi Julie, welcome to WWK. What a super interview. The book sounds fantastic. I cannot wait to read it (I interrupted myself between reading the interview and writing the comment to make a side trip to Amazon--it's nice to shop in jammies). The depiction of a New England town and its various denizens sounds like home to me. Ruth already feels like a friend.

    Your statement, "Stories can be edited, but art can’t be taught. It has to be learned and honed over time," stood out. This is so true. And sometimes the hardest part of writing well. Indeed, it is a process of patience and constant learning. Definitely one for the quote board.

    Congratulations on Killing Time!


  2. Welcome to WWK, Julie. As always E.B. has found an author to review with a book or series that I know I'll love. I've written it on my TBO list and can't wait to read it.

  3. Congratulations on the publication of your book, Julie. I'm so happy for you. After years of hard work, it has to be satisfying to see your manuscript finally published. I love books where I learn something new, so your book sounds just perfect. I know nothing about clocks, so I look forward to learning more. Wishing you lots of success with your book and series.

  4. Sounds like a fun series! Thank you for letting us know about it. And especially thanks for letting us know the path that has led you to become a published author with a major press!

  5. Another fabulous interview, Elaine! I knew much of this from knowing Julie/Julianne well, but even I learned a few things. And people? The book is a great read!

  6. What a wonderful interview! Especially love the "long version/short version" of how you came to write the series, Julie. Many congratulations...

  7. Thank you all for the warm welcome. A specisl thank you to Elaine for such a thoughtful interview. Holding JUST KILLING TIME in my hand was a dream come true. I have much to be thankful for this year!

  8. Thanks for the interview, Julie. Please stop by and visit! Good luck with the book, and your next one!