Wednesday, May 11, 2016

An Interview with Author Cynthia Kuhn by E. B. Davis

English professor Lila Maclean is thrilled about her new job at prestigious Stonedale University until she finds one of her colleagues dead.  She soon learns that everyone, from the chancellor to the detective working the case, believes Lila—or someone she is protecting—may be responsible for the horrific event, so she assigns herself the task of identifying the killer.

More attacks on professors follow, the only connection a curious symbol found at each of the crime scenes. Putting her scholarly skills to the test, Lila gathers evidence, but her search is complicated by an unexpected nemesis, a suspicious investigator, and an ominous secret society. Rather than earning an “A” for effort, she receives a threat featuring the mysterious emblem and must act quickly to avoid failing her assignment…and becoming the next victim.

While reading The Semester of Our Discontent, two questions came to mind. Was the author a professor, and was the Terribleness of getting Tenure as Torturous as the book described? When I researched Cynthia, sure enough, I found she teaches literature and writing at Metropolitan State University of Denver, CO. Now that I know the answer to my first question, I’m not sure I want to discover the truth about my second question.

Henery Press released Cynthia’s first book in the Lila Maclean Mystery series last month. Please help me welcome Cynthia Kuhn to WWK.           E. B. Davis

Let’s get my second question taken care of first—is the process of getting tenure as horrible as you describe in the book? It seems as though politics or the arbitrary opinions of professors and/or administrators could wipe out an untenured professor’s life-time of work?

Much depends on the climate of the particular school. In general, the process seems to be anxiety-producing for most people, but there is a spectrum, from the uncomfortable-but-successful tenure bid to the horrible-on-every-level experience.

What does having tenure mean, and how long does it take to obtain? Are you tenured?

Yes, I am. Individuals hired onto the tenure track are expected to apply for tenure after a number of years (depending on the school’s guidelines); seven years is not uncommon. At the core, tenure means that you are able to stay at your school. It originally was intended to protect academic freedoms—what you research or teach—as well. People can still be fired after they are tenured, though, if they do something that is viewed as breaking institutional rules.

When two murders and an attack on English Department professors at Stonedale University, where Dr. Lila Maclean is starting her professorial career, occur, Lila knows that the contentious nature of the tenure process could be the motive in the murders. Why does this motive occur to Lila?

Because she knows how high the stakes can be. Although she’s a new professor, she’s been in academia for quite a few years already as a grad student—and students hear all sorts of things about what’s going down behind closed doors in a department. 

Coming from NYU, Lila seems naive in an upside down way. At the beginning of the book she proposes a course to the department head, which is outside of his canon. Can you explain this concept for our readers?

She doesn’t understand the culture of her new department yet. Each department has its own way of doing things as well as certain “hot buttons” that newcomers may unwittingly press.

The literary canon is comprised of texts that have come to be viewed as “great” or essential in terms of artistic value and cultural influence. In other words, if we study literature, what should be the must-reads? Traditionally, the canon focused on so-called “dead white male” writers, but it is ever-evolving, which can lead to intense debate. During the latter half of the twentieth century, efforts to make the canon more inclusive were even labeled “canon wars” (some claim those are over, while others suggest we’ll be fighting forever). And longstanding tensions between what is viewed as “literary” versus “popular” (or “commercial” or “genre”) are part of this as well. Lila’s confrontation with her department chair begins with the latter aspect—she proposes a course on mysteries—and his response takes them into the former.

Warring factions in the department fighting for more variety in the courses and books presented to the students provide another motive for murder. Having received my undergraduate degree during the 1970s, I was unaware of conservative factions within academia and was surprised by your depiction of the department’s politics. Was there a backlash in the 1980s and 1990s to the changes, which occurred as a result of the 1960s, unleashing conservatism?

There are a variety of political positions in academia (I know it’s common to hear that higher education is 100% liberal, but that’s not accurate).

Do gargoyles or all statues give you the creeps?

That’s funny. And no. It’s true that Lila was creeped out at Stonedale, but I love them. In fact, I’ve had a gargoyle on my dresser for about twenty years. And another gargoyle lived in my garden until one cold winter cracked him.

I’m feeling like an old fogey, but most of my professors dressed in jeans and Earth shoes. Do women professors dress fashionably now?

There are all kinds of styles out there...

Calista James, Lila’s cousin, who she grew up with, seems to be a built-in ally. But Calista isn’t much help since she won’t talk and is arrested and jailed. I was surprised Lila didn’t get her a criminal lawyer immediately. Why didn’t she, and why did Lila leave it to her infamous, artist mother?

Calista had a lawyer already, but Lila’s mother (and money) got her a better one. And you’re right—Lila did think about trying to do that herself but was distracted by everything that was going on.

Lila makes the observation that egotism, or as she terms it, pomposity, can result if someone has little self-worth or too much self-worth. How does anyone determine which is the cause?

Good question! I guess I’d say that it’s one of those things that either reveals itself at some point or remains a mystery.

Simone Raleigh makes herself Lila’s nemesis and also seems like a universal character. Is there a “Simone” in every workplace?  

I hope not...

Detective Archer wants Lila to dish about the department. Aware of her newness to the university, she doesn’t know what to say or if she will inadvertently incriminate someone. Are college departments that insular?

They can be, though it would depend on the school.

Judith Westerly, Lila’s faculty mentor, was my favorite character. She seems professional, but being professional also means not actually voicing her opinion, letting Lila make her own judgments. But doesn’t Judith’s reticence also put Lila in an uneducated and defenseless position?

I’m so glad you liked Judith! And yes, she is in a difficult position where Lila is concerned.

Are secret societies in academia real or the fodder of cinema?

They have existed—some famous examples include Skull and Bones at Yale and the Cambridge Apostles.

Will your fiction “count” as a resume builder in your academic career? Do you expect negative criticism from you colleagues? Is genre fiction still a stigma?

The university kindly granted me a sabbatical to finish the novel, so it’s been “legitimized,” and my colleagues have been supportive, for which I’m very grateful. As far as genre fiction having a stigma, it likely depends on whom you ask. I taught a course called “Advanced Studies in Literature: Mystery” this spring, so it’s probably clear where I stand on the issue!

What’s next for Dr. Lila Maclean?

When the next semester begins, she finds herself involved in a whole new campus mystery...and sleuthing ensues.

Thank you so much for having me at Writers Who Kill!



Jim Jackson said...

Welcome to Writers Who Kill, Cynthia. Loved your description of the "canon" wars. Best of luck with your launch.

Warren Bull said...

It has been said that in academia the conflicts are vicious because what they fight over is trivial.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Kate Fansler, step aside for Lila Maclean. I look forward to reading Lila's adventures.

E. B. Davis said...

When I first contemplated reading this book, I wondered if it would be dry and academic. It wasn't. I really enjoyed it. Bravo, Cynthia. I wish you great luck on this series.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thanks for letting me visit Writers Who Kill today--great, thoughtful questions. Excited to be here.

Jim, thanks for the comment and good wishes!

Warren, yes, that's a popular refrain. The stakes don't feel quite so low when you're all caught up in them, though. :)

Margaret, I am a huge Amanda Cross fan too! Thank you and hope you enjoy Lila...

EB, I so appreciate your kind words and wishes!

Kaye George said...

Thanks, Elaine and Cynthia, for another fun and informative interview. I was so happy to meet you, however briefly, at Malice, Cynthia! Good luck with the next launch. I assume you'll be squeezing in your writing after the sabbatical is over.

KM Rockwood said...

Sounds like a great series.

Since I'm married to a (retired) academic and thus part of an academic community (if peripherally) I can attest to the drama and angst surrounding tenure decisions. One unfortunate aspect is that many places will only tenure a certain percentage of their faculty in any given field, so there is not a tenure "opening" until someone leaves.

Looking forward to reading these.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Kaye, thank you! And it was so lovely to meet you. The sabbatical was only for one semester in 2014, so I'm back to squeezing in--you are exactly right! :)

KM, thanks and good point: that is unfortunate on so many levels. Nice to meet you at Malice, too!

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Great interview, Elaine and Cynthia!

Cynthia: I have a gargoyle in my front garden. When we moved here, there was a small stone rabbit, which I moved to the side garden. One day I got a knock on my door from a neighborhood mom, whose little girl wanted to know what happened to the rabbit. So now the rabbit's back and he sits next to his friend "the alligator," as Sophie calls him. The mom still eyes me suspiciously (what kind of a monster would have a gargoyle in their garden?) so I'm glad to know Im not alone! :-)

LynDee Walker said...

Wonderful interview, ladies! Cynthia, this was such a wonderful book, and I can't wait to read the next one! :)

Lynn C. Willis said...

Really enjoyed this interview! It was very insightful. Bravo!

Liz Milliron said...

What an awesome interview, Cynthia! Based on your descriptions, I'm not sure I'd make it very long in an academic environment. Makes me glad I gave that aspiration up a long time ago!

Art Taylor said...

Great interview! I really enjoyed the glimpses both into the book and into the world of academia (a place you and I both know maybe too well). Congrats on the book!

Kate Lansing said...

Awesome interview, Cynthia! Such interesting (and enlightening!) questions and answers. Congrats again on your fabulous debut; can't wait to read the next one!

Gretchen Archer said...

I would like to take one of your classes next fall. Are they already full?

Kait said...

I read this book and gave it five stars. Something I don't often do. I have long suspected the tenure process is deadly, but I didn't know it was murderous too! Can't wait for the next installment. Cynthia, if I lived closer, I'd be signing up for your classes along with Gretchen.

Gloria Alden said...

Cynthia, this sounds like a great series I can't wait to read. I have a gargoyle in my garden, too, as well as several small ones on my book shelves. My daughter-in-law thinks it's a form of devil worship, even though I tried to explain they were to ward off evil spirits.

Cindy Brown said...

Canon wars and gargoyles - love it!

Sue Star said...

Yes, I can totally see murder as a possible outcome in the tenure process!

Peg Brantley said...

What a terrific interview... and what a terrific debut novel!

You had me running to Amazon to find a book by the female writer your protagonist researched... so my question is this: Is there one? A contender for a place on the list with the dead white guys?

Shari Randall said...

Cynthia, you had me at "unexpected nemesis and secret societies"! Your series sounds wonderful and I am with the others who would like to sign up for your mystery class. Thank you for stopping by WWK.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Marla, that's a great story! Gargoyles for everyone, I say.

LynDee, thanks so much...very kind of you.

Lynn, appreciate your stopping by and commenting!

Mary, thanks--and I think you'd rock anything you decided to do (academia included).

Art, "maybe too well" = ha ha! Thanks for the comment.

Kate, you're so kind, thank you!

Gretchen, that would be a dream come true!

Kait, so nice of you, thank you! And would LOVE to have a class together!

Gloria, thank you! Maybe we should start a Gargoyle Decor club...

Cindy, sounds pretty dramatic when you put it that way. YES. :)

Sue, it is fraught with danger...

Peg, thank you so much. Yes, there's more than one--the canon is always changing. Here are some cool projects: and

Shari, that's very nice of you, and I'd love to have a class together.

Terri L. Austin said...

Loved getting that insight into the academic world. Congrats on your new release, Cynthia!!

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thanks so much, Terri! Appreciate you stopping by. :)