Interview by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Bestselling author JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is the winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, and an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist. Who were […]

October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Uncategorized

Bestselling author JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is the winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, and an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist.

Who were your literary influences growing up?

First, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Brains Benton. Then Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John D. MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner. All-time favorite book? To Kill A Mockingbird. Oh, to have written such a perfect book.

How did it feel to win the euphoniously named St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Contest (“SMPMDBFTMC” for short…)?

Well, you tell me. First, to get a call from Ruth Cavin, an iconic editor in the mystery world. Then a congratulatory email from the much-honored winner two years’ previous. Oh, wait. That was you, wasn’t it? Frankly, I’m a bit slow-witted. It took months for it to sink in.

I spent years listening to writers talk about how they “broke in” (the active, even violently criminal implication of the phrase “broke in” was not lost on me). I eventually discovered there’s no one secret path to publication – there’s a different path for each author. However, I feel particularly blessed that my path was SMPMDBFTMC. What a wonderful path it’s been!

Why did you decide to make Avery Andrews an attorney?

People fight for their lives (and livelihoods) in courtrooms every day. What better place to wrestle with the important, the difficult, and the bizarre? I know you very deliberately avoided casting a lawyer as the lead in your books, but while practicing law, I met people and dealt with cases that, even years later, left me asking, “So, what’s the moral of the story?” Planning trial strategy is much akin to plotting a novel. The nice thing about fiction, though, is you get to pick the winning side—though that hasn’t always worked out for Avery!

Is Dacus, South Carolina based upon a real locale?

Yes. In my head, it looks suspiciously like Walhalla, South Carolina, the small Upstate town where I grew up. It’s easier to set a mystery in a large city like New York or LA and not worry about killing off people you really know. But in a small town, killing off the mayor – or, worse yet, casting the mayor as the murderer – might inadvertently involve someone I went to high school with. This way, I can avoid misunderstandings and still keep the streets straight in my head.

Tell us about Hog Wild.

I like this one a lot. It’s a return to a more traditional puzzle mystery format, after the heavy courtroom focus in Done Gone Wrong. It hearkens back to what I love in the Golden Age English village mysteries: poison pen letters and poisoned chocolates. Avery’s decided that she’s back in Dacus to stay. While the police are chasing down a runaway pot-belly pig, Avery is tackling a developer who’s taken advantage of a woman up on the mountain. When he’s found dead a stuffed into an abandoned gold mine, things are off and running.

Have you quit your day job yet? Which is what by the way?

I’m a tenured professor in the school of business named for the fellow who put together Bank of America. Actually, though, I mostly teach at nights because I prefer the graduate students who are returning to school part-time, bringing their real-world experience with them. I’m blessed to be able to indulge two passions—teaching and mystery writing—and one feeds the other in interesting ways. I have to admit, though, that juggling it all is a bit crazy-making at times.

Do you define yourself as a mystery writer, or a Southern writer?

I’ll have to give the lazy answer to that one. The two are entwined in me. I’m a mystery writer by choice – my life-long dream. But once you hear me say “Hey” (which has at least two syllables, three at times), you know where I hail from. The South has a rich storytelling tradition and can be both hilarious and Gothic—good ingredients for mystery.

We both write about small town life, with a supporting cast of characters. What do you feel to be the advantages and disadvantages of setting your story in a small town?

The “Jessica Fletcher syndrome,” where someone keeps stumbling across dead bodies in a small town, is a problem. Surely the police start looking askance at the one conveniently involved in so many inconvenient deaths. But I’ve always loved the snow-bound country house murders or small college campus murders because of the finite cast, the sense that the capacity for great courage and great evil exist in the most ordinary people.

Which brings us to writing (or trying to) a book a year. Outline of freestyle?

I laugh when I say I outline because “outline” implies a carefully linear plan. Ha! My “outline” looks like an art project gone bad, with arrows and swoops and colors adorning Post-It notecards stuck haphazardly on a large sketch book. And the book resembles the “outline” in only the broadest sense. But I like a roadmap as I write, even if I wander off the path. Unfortunately, though, more outlining doesn’t mean less rewriting. Oh, were that so.

Who are some new voices you enjoy in crime fiction?

Some of my favorite “new” authors are some of my long-standing favorites who are trying new directions: Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains is a wonderful book, and Susan Dunlap has started a new series with A Single Eye.

Do you think that “cozies” are taken less seriously by critics and publishers?

Hmm. I tend to say yes, especially “funny” cozies. Noir, hard-boiled, or thrillers imply more momentous subjects. But to me, the stereotypical fictional serial killer is less frightening than the evil that can sit next to us in church or lie next to us in bed.

Grits! Buttered or not?

Is this a trick question? Grits are merely a vehicle for getting butter and salt into your mouth in the proper proportions. Don’t let anybody serve you grits that aren’t swimming in butter. And for Pete’s sake, keep the sugar away from your grits. Save the sugar for your green beans.

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