Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shawn Reilly Simmons Interview by E. B. Davis

“It’s just the shock of it, I think. The idea that something so random can happen to anyone, something so life changing, just when you least expect it.”
“Exactly. Unfortunately, things like that are happening every day, all over the world,” Nadia said, nodding in agreement. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around.”
Shawn Reilly Simmons, Murder On The Rocks (Kindle Loc. 744)

Murder on the Rocks (Red Carpet Catering #5) 
Shawn Reilly Simmons has cooked up something rocky this time, and it’s going to be a delicious read. After surviving a brazen attack at one of her favorite local cafes, Penelope Sutherland is ready to escape the big city and head to her next film set. She and her Red Carpet Catering crew set up their kitchen on location in the tranquil mountains of Vermont. But peace and quiet aren’t on the menu. It starts to get hot when a series of accidents befall the celebrity tennis pro consulting on the film. Then mix in an uptight director, an isolated location, and a quirky bunch of locals with secrets of their own and that’s a recipe for disaster. Penelope soon suspects a connection between the cafe attack and the incidents on set, and you know what comes next. She must uncover the truth before her goose gets cooked. This page-turner is serving up the coziest of entertainment, and you do not want to miss it.

I love books that have elements of reality in them. And in Murder On The Rocks, reality abounds—from real historic figures to apparent terrorism to drug dependence. Shawn Reilly Simmons weaves all that reality into fiction capturing readers’ interest. This book was hard to put down.

Historic figures are fun especially when they are trailblazers of their time, relating to present day in terms of role models. Unfortunately, real realities of terrorist attacks and the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and drug dependency followed by death aren’t so fun. But I’m glad that authors, like Shawn, are addressing these issues. For readers, it allows contemplation of these realities without having to experience them—a luxury, but also a good exercise for if, and when, reality stops lurking and pounces.

All my favorite characters returned in this fifth Red Carpet Catering Mystery, released on February 6th, with a few additions. I’ve always enjoyed main character chef Penelope Sutherland. Joining her is a new-hire chef, Tama, old friend and tennis pro, Nadia, and a new partner for Joey, Clarissa. Like most folks, all of them have good and bad aspects of their personalities, which Shawn portrays well. You won’t struggle to remember their names and who they are in the story. 

Please welcome Shawn back to WWK.                                                                                      E. B. Davis
Glendale, NJ, where the first few chapters of the book take place and where Penelope and Arlena call home, is supposed to be a suburb of New York. But the real Glendale is closer to Philadelphia. Why did you change the location?

When I first moved to New York after graduating from college, I lived in Glendale in Queens, so I gave the fictional town in New Jersey that name as a personal touchstone for myself. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of the little town Glendale, NJ until after I’d done this, even though I lived in New Jersey for many years! It is a large state, though, and I lived near Hoboken, and spent most of my time working and playing in Manhattan.

Arlena hires Nadia Westin, a professional tennis player, to help her during the filming of Grand Slam, the new movie Arlena will star in. How did Arlena meet Nadia?

Nadia is an old school friend of Penelope’s who has now gone on to have a successful professional tennis career. Penelope has always been very driven as far as her career goals and attaining success as a chef, so she and Nadia were drawn together because they were both ambitious, and as a result of that in a way, loners. Their chosen pursuits, cooking and tennis, are solitary at times, and both rely on individual talent and drive, which I believe cemented their friendship early on. 

What is the Grand Slam?

A Grand Slam happens when a player or team of players wins the four major tennis tournaments in the same calendar year: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. To give you an idea of how difficult it is, the most recent Grand Slam was in 2014, and the last Americans to achieve a sweep of the majors were Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in 1984 playing women’s doubles. (Others have achieved career Grand Slams, but they haven’t occurred in the same calendar year). 

When Penelope, Arlena, and Nadia met in a café, a young man with a hockey stick proceeds to attack the diners while another young man bars the café’s door trapping people inside. The attacker keeps saying “plate it,” but Nadia knows what he’s really saying. How does she know Russian?

Nadia has traveled extensively during her tennis career, playing tournaments around the world. And part of her training took place in Russia, where she picked up some of the language while living there.

In Grand Slam, Arlena plays the part of Helen Wills, a tennis star of the 1920s and 30s, whose eight consecutive wins at Wimbledon wasn’t surpassed for fifty-two years until Martina Navratilova won nine in 1990. I thought she was a fictional character you made up, but she wasn’t. What drew you to Helen Wills? Was a real movie ever made about her?

To my knowledge there hasn’t been a movie made about Helen Wills. Most of the time in my books, I create a movie I think should be made, and I think a movie about her life would be an excellent choice. I’ve always been fascinated by tennis players, I think because I went to the same middle and high school as Chris Evert, and we heard about her a lot from the nuns and priests, who held her up as an example of how you can reach success by hard work and having a dream. When I thought about Arlena starring in a biopic about a tennis player, I wanted to highlight someone who perhaps people didn’t know much about, and I thought Helen was perfect. While doing my research for the book, I was intrigued by Helen’s life story, both on and off the court. Her athleticism was matched by her love of art and writing, and she was such an elegant and beautiful lady, a reluctant celebrity of her time. And for me it was fun to picture Arlena and her costar playing tennis in wardrobe true to the 1920s and 30s.  

Penelope seems thrilled, but old biddy that I am, I wasn’t. Why did Joey ask her to live with him—not marry him? Is that really the next logical step in today’s world?

I think it’s up to the individual, but I’m always fascinated by how the newer generation seems to be marrying and having children later in life, when it used to be something people did quite early on. It began with my generation, I believe (I didn’t get married and have my son until I was 39!), and the trend seems to be holding. That being said, I’ve just finished the first draft of my next book, and my readers will find that Penelope is torn by this decision, and the very issue you raise is one that she is seriously pondering before taking the leap.

Thomas and Jeremiah Truegood are the directors of Grand Slam. Shouldn’t their last name be Toogood? They’re just a bit hard to take with exacting standards, especially given the demands on Penelope and her personnel.

Ha! Yes, they do think they have seen the error of all of our ways, don’t they? I was inspired to create the Truegood brothers because I hadn’t had a team of directors yet in the books, and in thinking about the setting of Vermont, my impression every time I visited there was that the residents really valued the beauty of where they lived. I was further inspired to make them kind of a pain about environmental awareness when I read several articles about Hollywood being one of the biggest pollutant industries in the world. And finally, I did meet one executive producer on a movie who had flown in from L.A. to visit the set for the day and could barely hide her disgust at the food we were serving. She had a very negative emotional response to eating meat, which she felt was morally wrong. But we had been hired to do a job, which we were doing very well, and she told us as much (trying her best to not look at the food!). That was a weird day on the set, and I tried to convey some of those emotions through Penelope in the book.

Do chefs critique other chefs’ techniques?

Absolutely, just as writers critique other writers. The opinions may not be voiced out loud, unless a request is made, but I think in every profession there is an innate impulse in us all to consider the similar work of others and compare it to our own, for better or worse.

What is:

Craft Service— Craft service is essentially a snack station, where you can grab something like a muffin or a bag of chips, coffee, water, whatever you might need to keep going between scheduled meal times. This is usually run by someone other than the catering crew, but can be managed by the team on smaller productions.

Mise en place assignments— Mise en place is a French term that basically means everything in its place. When you’re making a stew, for example, you wash, peel and chop all of your ingredients before you begin cooking them. Or when baking a cake, you set out your pan and measure out all of your ingredients before you begin assembling. This pre-work makes pulling together your dish easier, and results in fewer mistakes—and eliminates that sinking feeling of having no butter and then having to run out for some to make that cake! 

Have you plotted all your major characters’ arcs for the series?

I know at the moment I have five more books to go at least, so I have been laying out whose relationships will be evolving, and at what pace, for the near future. My characters do have a way of surprising me during the writing process, though. I can’t count how many times they’ll do or say something that was not in the plan, but it fits, and we go from there. That’s one of the most fun parts about creating characters, watching them take on a life of their own in your imagination.

What’s next for Penelope?

In the next book it’s the holidays and everyone is together to celebrate. Randall and Arlena are teaming up to shoot a documentary in and around an old theater in New York City that features a big Christmas extravaganza each year, and Penelope is on hand to cater for the crew and the performers. Arlena’s grandmother was a Big Apple Dancer, and her death is shrouded in mystery, which mirrors some of the things happening there in current day. Several characters make big decisions about their relationships, and the bonds between friendship and family are at times tested and at others strengthened. Penelope continues to balance her love of her demanding career with the idea of beginning a new phase of life with Joey. And there’s lots of big filling meals to prepare, because it’s the holidays!   


Kait said...

Great interview! I love this series and I'm thrilled that I not only have this book to look forward to but five more in the plotting stages. Well done!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on your new book!

Shari Randall said...

Congratulations on your series, Shawn! I'm looking forward to the Christmas story with the Big Apple Dancer (might bear a resemblance to the Rockettes, I hope?)

Warren Bull said...

It's good to hear from a successful author, reminding us to keep plugging away.

KM Rockwood said...

I'm familiar with Shawn's work, and I'm pleased to have not only a recent one to read, but to be able to look forward to several more!

Gloria Alden said...

Congratulations on your series. I'm looking forward to reading all of your books.

Grace Topping said...

Your books sound fascinating. I look forward to reading them. Congratulations on your latest release.

SRS said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm so thrilled to be on WWK today answering these great questions! And to hear from all of you is truly special--you've made my day!!