Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

An Interview with the 2015 Agatha Nominees for Best First Novel by Paula Gail Benson

Malice Domestic’s 2015 Agatha Nominations for Best First Novel:
Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Tessa Arlen (Minotaur Books)
Macdeath, Cindy Brown (Henery Press)
Plantation Shudders, Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Just Killing Time, Julianne Holmes (Berkley)
On the Road with Del and Louise, Art Taylor (Henery Press)

Tessa Arlen, Cindy Brown, Ellen Byron, Julianne Holmes, and Art Taylor are enjoying having their debut novels celebrated this year at Malice Domestic. We are so pleased to welcome them to WRITERS WHO KILL to answer a couple of questions about their work. Thanks so much to Tessa, Cindy, Ellen, Julianne, and Art, and best wishes!Paula Gail Benson

For many debut novelists, their first published novel may not be the first one they have written. What was your path to your debut published novel?

TESSA ARLEN: Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is my first novel. I had always enjoyed writing, but I had never had the time before to concentrate on actually committing myself to a full length novel. When our third daughter went to college in 2008 I decided that winter to see if I could pull off writing a novel. I chose to write a mystery simply because I thought that if the plot sagged in the middle I could always bump off another victim. I chose the first decade of the 20th century because it was a time of colossal social and political change (rather like now) where the aristocracy led lives of privilege and excess, and the have-nots were no longer willing to lead quiet lives of desperation. I wrote the book for myself with no intention of it being published, until my husband gave me a persuasive shove in the right direction. From putting down the first words to finding the right agent who sold the book to Minotaur (in five weeks) to being published was a little over six years!

CINDY BROWN: Like Ellen, I began writing for the theatre—out of necessity at first. While working as an actor, I often supplemented my income with various acting-related gigs. One summer I was teaching drama camp and couldn’t find any scripts that had enough roles for all my students (and their various talent levels), so I wrote a few short plays. The feedback was great (Snow White and the Seven Aliens was especially popular), so I kept writing. I had over a dozen one-acts produced in Phoenix, Arizona, and a couple of short films, too. Then when my husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon, I woke up one day with a character in my head. I knew her name was Ivy Meadows; I knew she was an actor and part-time private investigator; and I knew she didn’t fit into a play or screenplay, but needed her own series of novels. It took me several years and tons of rewrites to get Macdeath ready for readers, but I loved every minute of the ride (okay, maybe not the rejections, but everything else).

ELLEN BYRON: I began my writing career as a playwright after some lame attempts at acting. (Although I did do voiceovers to some success. I’m proud to share that an ad agency once got a Cease and Desist letter from Dr. Ruth’s lawyers after people thought she was doing commercials for Middlesex Auto Dealers, thanks to my canny impression of her.) I balanced that with being an entertainment journalist—Shirley MacLaine once gave me brandy in the middle of an interview at her NY home when I confessed that I had bad cramps—and eventually moved out to Los Angeles to write for TV. During a long hiatus, suffering from writing-for-sitcoms burnout, I decided to try my hand at my favorite literary genre, mysteries. My first novel was Reality Checked (now named You Can’t Be Too Thin or Too Dead), and I was thrilled when it won a William F. Deeck Malice Domestic Grant. I was less thrilled when it failed to sell. However, to ease my anxiety while my agent was shopping it around (to no avail, sigh) I wrote Plantation Shudders, which found a wonderful home at Crooked Lane Books.

JULIANNE HOLMES: Four years ago, maybe longer, an agent wrote to Sheila Connolly, then president of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime, and told her he was interested in talking to writers who wrote cozy. He and I couldn’t find a project to work on, but several of my friends got book deals because of that connection. Two years ago, when Sherry Harris wanted to start a blog, but didn’t want to go it alone, the Wicked Cozy Authors were born. I was invited to join them, even though at that point I didn’t have a contract. That summer, an opportunity came up to write the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime, and because of all of these circumstances, I was given the opportunity to audition for the gig. Which I got. I signed the contract in the fall of 2014, and Just Killing Time was published last October. My debut came through a different route, but it was and is no less thrilling.

ART TAYLOR: Oh, I hesitate to even talk about the manuscripts that have been piling up under the bed over the years—though these days they’re less likely printed and piled than simply languishing in some combination of files in a lonely corner of the hard drive. At the same times that I struggled with several novel projects that ultimately fell flat for one reason or another (plotting and pacing issues generally), I’ve also been fortunate to have enjoyed some much-appreciated success in the short story market, and it was that success that helped me find a different route into what became my first novel. On The Road With Del & Louise is a novel in stories, the first couple of which appeared in earlier forms in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before Henery Press became interested in this book as a novel following the title characters’ longer journey.

Do you consider your writing plot-driven, character-driven, neither, or a combination?

TESSA ARLEN: A bit of both. If an idea doesn’t translate well into plot, I discard it. My second book in the Lady Montfort series Death Sits Down to Dinner, just flowed right from the start! But I rarely pick up my pen so to speak until I have replayed a skeleton of the plot over in my head for days. I enjoy gardening so weeding, transplanting, and pruning are wonderful activities for plotting. I usually start each book with a list of characters and a bio for each of them, but the people who populate Lady Montfort’s world kind of creep up on me as I write and their personalities become clearer and their idiosyncrasies more evident as the story unfolds. My two main protagonists in the Lady Montfort series are like old friends now that I have finished Book 3: Death By Any Other Name, and I hope that each story brings out a bit more about their particular characters.

CINDY BROWN: I love character-driven fiction—as long as it has a compelling story. That’s what I try for in my novels. Character comes first, partly because I like to write comedy and feel that most humor springs from character. Sure, situations create opportunity for comedy, but to me it’s the character’s viewpoint that makes scenes funny. The story angle, however, carries almost as much weight in my books. Though I love it when my characters lead me by the nose, I do need to corral them into a story. To that end, I use a three-act dramatic structure to make sure I have a viable plot, to create story arcs, and to keep myself from wandering off on subplot side roads.

ELLEN BYRON: Definitely both. I may lean more toward characters, given my background in theatre and TV, but I always map out a general plot. Sometimes I do find myself having too much fun with a couple of characters’ subplots, at which point I steer myself back to plot. My Cajun Country Mysteries series allows me the best of all writing worlds; I get to create interesting (I hope!) stories, write entertaining (I hope!) scenes between unique characters, and paint a written picture of a world that I love.

JULIANNE HOLMES: What a great question. Cozy series are very character driven—the protagonist and her team are the center of the series. That said, I am a huge fan of the Golden Age novelists, especially Agatha Christie. I really like the puzzle aspect of the mystery, and keeping the reader on her toes. That requires some plotting. So, it is a balance. I won’t sacrifice a character to the plot, i.e. make him/her do something out of character to get me out of a narrative jam. But I also want the reader to have a satisfying experience when the book is finished.

ART TAYLOR: While I’ve had some situations that have sparked the ideas for stories, character is almost definitely what drives my work—though after a point, I think that character and plot should be so intensely intertwined that it’s difficult to separate one from the other. The adventures the title characters take in On The Road With Del & Louise cover a range of plot types in the mystery genre—a traditional whodunit, for example, and a twisty wine caper and an episode of domestic suspense—but throughout, it’s Louise’s voice, her observations, her desires, and her struggles that keep the whole thing moving along. I was just reading a quote from Raymond Chandler about a magazine editor pulling a bit of description from one of his stories because it held up the action; Chandler theorized that readers “just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.” That’s a long quote, I know—thanks for indulging me!—but maybe it serves as a reminder that what all of us care about isn’t just what happens next in a story, but who it happened to and how it affected her and what sense she made of it all.

Thanks to you all for joining us at WRITERS WHO KILL. Here’s some additional information about these talented writers:

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. Tessa’s first novel is Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. She lives with her family on an island in the Puget Sound.

Cindy Brown is a theater geek, mystery lover, and award-winning writer who recently combined her passions to produce madcap mysteries set in the off, off, off Broadway world of theater. Her books star Ivy Meadows, actress and part-time PI, and are published by Henery Press. They include Macdeath, The Sound of Murder (3rd place in the 2013 international Words With Jam First Page Competition, judged by Sue Grafton), and Oliver Twisted (coming June 2016). Check out Cindy’s slightly silly look at mystery, writing, and drama at

Ellen Byron’s debut novel, Plantation Shudders, was nominated for a Best Humorous Mystery Lefty Award, as well as being chosen by the Library Journal as a Debut Mystery of the Month. Body on the Bayou, the second in Ellen’s Cajun Country Mystery series, launches in September. Her television credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me and Still Standing, as well as pilots for most of the major networks; she’s written over 200 magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland and Asleep on the Wind. Ellen is a recipient of a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for mystery writers.

Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime. The first in the series, Just Killing Time, debuted in October. Clock and Dagger comes out in August. As J.A. Hennrikus, she has short stories in three Level Best anthologies, Thin Ice, Dead Calm and Blood Moon. She is on the board of Sisters in Crime, and Sisters in Crime New England and is a member of MWA. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. He has won two Agatha Awards, the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and a selection from On the Road with Del & Louise was chosen for the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine as well as blogging at Criminal Minds and SleuthSayers.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Congratulations to all of the nominees and thank you for sharing your stories.

Warren Bull said...

Thanks for sharing on WWK. You are a talented and persistent group.

Julie Tollefson said...

Congratulations to all of you. I always love to hear road-to-publication stories, and yours are all inspiring. Thanks for stopping by WWK!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much for hosting us today, Paula! Look forward to seeing you at Malice.

And thanks everyone for the kind words here in the comments too—such fun to be a part of this!

Ellen Byron said...

Thank you so much for this opportunity and great post!

Unknown said...

I used to dream of being interviewed about my books - now it's a reality. Thank you!

J.A. Hennrikus said...

Thank you so much for hosting us today! This is all such a thrilling ride! Julianne aka Julie aka J.A.

Gloria Alden said...

I've already read two of those authors' books, and both are excellent. I probably won't have time to read the other three, but congratulations to all of you. I'll probably being buying the books of the authors I haven't read yet at Malice.

Kait said...

Great interview and I'm proud to say I cyber know most of the nominees! Congratulations to ALL on writing wonderful, compelling, books.

KM Rockwood said...

What a great overview! I've read some of the books (trying to read them all before Malice Domestic) and they are a great bunch. It'll be hard to choose which one to vote for.

Edith Maxwell said...

What a great crowd! See you all in a few weeks in Bethesda.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

congratulations, best wishes, and good luck to all

Shari Randall said...

So happy for all of you! Very glad to know some of you and look forward to meeting all the nominees at Malice. Best wishes to you all!

Unknown said...

Great interview, Paula, as always. I enjoyed all the insights these authors offer--and the humor, too, of course. Congratulations and good luck to all!

G.M. Malliet said...

Congratulations to all the nominees. What a tough call to choose just one this year!