Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
When and how did you decide to become a writer?
I was eleven when I decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I worked on school papers in junior and senior high school and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. I had a trench coat and smoked Chesterfields and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins (a famed war correspondent for The Herald Trib). I still have a trench coat. I quit smoking (thankfully) 37 years ago. I met a young law student on a student trip to Europe and that changed the course of my life. After we married and started a family, I decided to write fiction and I’ve never looked back. Or not often. My passion for reporting resulted many years later in my creating a retired reporter protagonist who had the career I thought would be mine.
When did you first get paid for writing?
During college, I worked on the Oklahoma Daily which paid student reporters. My first job beyond the University was as a feature writer for The Norman Transcript in Norman, OK.
You’ve written 17 books in the Death in Demand series about bookstore owner Annie Darling and her husband Max. Did you have any idea when you started that Annie would have this long a run?
Heavens, no. I didn’t know I was starting a series. When the ms. sold, the editor said, "This is the first in a series?" I quickly said, "Yes, of course."
Annie and Max are very happily married. Did you take their love story from life?
My decision to portray a happy relationship was deliberate. At the time I wrote Death on Demand, most women in mysteries either had no relationship or the relationship was dysfunctional. From my own life experience, I knew it didn’t have to be this way. I wanted two characters who loved and respected each other. My own marriage was fun when it began and we are still having fun.
How has Annie developed in the course of the series? Does she keep on growing? Does she ever surprise you?
Over time I’ve come to a clearer sense of Annie and all the characters. Annie is cheerful and steadfast, honorable and eager, determined and resolute, kind and caring. This has been true from the first, but I now know that she has moments of uncertainty. She’s learned that life is complex and human passions often both appealing and heartbreaking.
What prompted you to begin your second series, about retired newspaperwoman Henrie O?
I wrote a short story about Henrie O. It came across my then editor’s desk and she immediately requested a series. Henrie O much more reflects my personality than Annie. Annie is patterned after my daughter Sarah although Sarah is extremely equable. For purposes of fiction, I gave Annie a quick temper. Henrie O is taller, thinner, smarter, and braver than I, but her attitudes reflect mine.
You’ve said that, like Henrie O, you’ve worked for a newspaper. Have you ever owned a bookstore? Besides writing, what jobs have you had?
I simply love going to bookstores, especially mystery bookstores. Death on Demand was inspired by Murder by the Book in Houston, TX. During and after college, I worked for The Transcript, then in public relations for the University of Oklahoma while my husband was in law school. Later, I was a stay at home mother and wrote fiction. I taught professional writing at OU from 1982-85. Otherwise, I have been a full time writer.
Do you research your books, and if so, how?
I have a bookcase filled with books about South Carolina. Each book poses its own demands. I did a great deal of research for Death on the River Walk, which included visiting San Antonio. The new book, Set Sail for Murder, is based on a Baltic cruise Phil and I took in 2004.
How do you manage to juggle your two series characters and their worlds?
Each world is distinct in my mind. When I go to Death on Demand or join Henrie O in a new locale, I am immediately in that particular world.
Do you work on more than one manuscript at a time?
Only in the sense of occasionally doing revisions on one book while engaged in writing another. Otherwise, I write them one at a time.
Have you ever lost track or gotten them mixed up?
No. I sometimes get confused about which books I’ve finished and in what order. Set Sail for Murder will be out April 10, but I have already turned in two books for 2008.
Do you have a favorite, or do you love your protagonists equally?
I enjoy every book I write.
You’ve been awarded three Agathas for Best Novel and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for your stand-alone novel, Letter from Home. What did these awards mean to you?
The Agathas are such a wonderful honor from readers who treasure traditional mysteries.
Did winning the first one change anything for you?
Absolutely. It encouraged me enormously.
How did you feel about the Pulitzer nomination? Did it seem different from the mystery-specific awards to you?
The Pulitzer nomination is special because it was an affirmation from home for my book about home. The nomination was made by the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers and Letter from Home is my book about Oklahoma. Yes, it was a great honor.
What made you decide to write Letter from Home?
Oddly, a lousy movie was the impetus. I saw Pearl Harbor a few years ago. It was not only silly but supremely off the mark in reflecting the mores of the time. I wanted to write a book that gave a true flavor of the home front in the 1940s.
Was it your only stand-alone?
I had some extra time between deadlines when I decided to write Letter from Home. At the moment, I am committed to write the Death on Demand and Henrie O series and I am launching a new series in 2008 so I rather doubt I will do any more stand-alones.
Where, when, and how do you write? Do you have any rituals attached to writing?
I have an office behind my house in space once used by a previous resident for making pottery. It contains two computers, three desks, a bookcase, and a filing cabinet. I am a morning person so I usually start about eight. If I am having a productive day, I may work until four in the afternoon. Often I work in the morning, then walk or run errands in the afternoon. No rituals. I am a restless person so I pop up often. If I’m not making progress, I’ll take a walk and think and usually the story will begin to move again in my mind.
Do you plan or outline your plots or write "into the mist"?
I love "into the mist." I do not outline. When I start a book, I know the protagonist, the victim, the identity of the murderer, the motive, and I have a working title. The choice of the protagonist determines the tone and background. The choice of the victim provides the cast of characters. Those involved in the victim’s life will be suspects after the death. I have to know the murderer because the motive has to be strong enough to justify the crime. A working title gives me a sense of the book.
How have you managed to stay so fresh in your long career?
I consider that a great compliment. Personalities determine stories. The marvelous truth is that every single person we ever meet is unique. Everyone we know is fascinating if we truly know them. Whatever the circumstances of a book, it is the individuality of those involved that give the story, always, a fresh flavor.
Can you tell us something about Set Sail for Murder, the book that’s just coming out?
Set Sail for Murder is the latest in the series featuring Henrie O, a retired newspaper reporter. I always think of Henrie O as having a talent for trouble and a taste for adventure. In this one, Henrie O responds to a former lover’s call for help. He persuades her to join him, his rich wife, and her step-children to cruise the Baltic on a small luxury liner. Henrie O’s presence is supposed to defuse the family tension, but one of their fellow travelers has murder in mind.
At this year’s Malice Domestic, you’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement award and be interviewed by Nancy Pickard. Are you looking forward to that?
Nancy and I have been having fun at mystery gatherings since 1989. We know each other well. We laugh a lot. I am exceedingly fortunate because she is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever known, which is no surprise for a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She’ll keep our visit light and lively.
What’s next for Carolyn Hart?
The 18th in the Death on Demand series will be published in winter 2008. My working title was Fox in the Night. However, we are still considering titles. A possible choice is Murder in the Fog. Max is trying to put behind him the events in Dead Days of Summer, when a clever killer tabbed Max to be the fall guy. He turns down an appeal for help from a woman who is then found dead. The packet she claims to have hidden may be connected to a million dollar coin theft. Annie puts her life at risk by figuring out the secret.
You said you’d turned in two books for 2008 already. What’s the second?
Ghost at Work, a new series featuring the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn of Adelaide, OK, debuts in fall 2008. An impetuous redheaded ghost, Bailey Ruth returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, liberates a neglected dog, inadvertently destroys the police computer system, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who saw too much.
Bailey Ruth sounds like a lot of fun. Did you enjoy starting a new series?
I loved writing Ghost at Work. I hope readers will enjoy it.
And soon I need to start a new book ….