Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Donna Andrews

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Donna Andrews is the award-winning author of the humorous Meg Langslow mystery series, featuring a female blacksmith from Virginia, and the Turing Hopper series about a virtual sleuth. Her career as a mystery author began when Murder with Peacocks won the St. Martin’s Press contest for the best unpublished mystery novel. The latest book in the Meg series, The Penguin Who Knew Too Much, will be published by St. Martin’s in early August. Donna lives in Northern Virginia, where she indulges her love of gardening when she isn’t meeting her 1,000-words-a-day writing quota.

Have you always wanted to make people laugh? Were you the class clown when you were a kid, and did it ever get you in trouble?

I wasn't the class clown as a kid--actually, during my childhood and adolescence, I was rather shy and retiring. I was that little kid with thick glasses who always had a book in front of her face. But I began writing humor early.

When I was third grade, my father, who was a marine biologist, brought a salt-water aquarium in for Miss Gregory, our teacher, to use in science lessons. One of the clams died, and Miss Gregory washed out the shell and gave it to me--I presume she intended for me to take it home as a subtle hint to Dad to bring in a replacement clam, but that's not what happened. I made a hinge for the shell with some strips of white first-aid tape, drew eyes on one side with an indelible marker, and named it Winifred H. Clam. (I have no idea what the H. stood for.) And I began writing stories about Winifred's adventures as she walked around the world on the ocean floor.

The Winifred stories actually produced my first tangible reward for writing--my teacher shared them with a friend, and her friend liked them so much that she sent me a small gift--a gold-colored clam charm. I lost the charm at some time over the intervening years, but the association had been made--you wrote funny stories, and people rewarded you. It took a few decades for it to happen again, with the publication of Murder with Peacocks, but I like to think that early success helped me keep going during the long dry stretch that followed.

About the bird theme to the Meg Langslow books: Have you ever had a moment of regret that you started that, or has it made planning the books easier? What comes first, the bird or the plot -- do you come up with a plot and decide on a bird that will fit, or is it the other way around?

I haven't really regretted the bird theme, because it's not that hard to work birds into the books. Birds are all around us, one way or another. And whether the bird or the plot comes first varies from book to book.

With Peacocks, putting the bird in the title was almost an afterthought. I was about to send the manuscript in for the St. Martin's contest and needed a good title. I called up a friend and asked her to help me brainstorm. "Which book is this?" the friend asked, since she knew I had several projects in the works. "The murder mystery with the peacocks in it?" Bingo!

With The Penguin Who Knew Too Much, the book that comes out in August, the penguins came first. I'd wanted to use penguins for a book, because they feel inherently funny, but didn't think it would work to take Meg to Antarctica--half the humor comes from Meg's interaction with her family, and I couldn't see the entire clan packing up and trekking
across the ice floes.

So I back-burnered the idea of using penguins until I was attending Mayhem in the Midlands and saw penguins at the Omaha Zoo. Eureka! I didn't need to take Meg to the penguins--I could bring them to her, courtesy of a zoo and her nature-loving father. And once I had invented a zoo for Meg's new fictional home town of Caerphilly, it seemed logical to bring all sorts of other creatures into the mix. In addition to the title bird, the cast of Penguins includes llamas, camels, sloths, lemurs, wolves, hyenas, naked mole rats, accouchis, and a few large cats.

With the book I'm writing now, whose working title is Cockatiels at Seven, the title came first. Someone suggested it, and I knew I had to find a way to use it. I'd tell how, but--that would be a spoiler.

Many mystery writers said they had trouble writing after 9/11. Was it hard for you to get back to writing a humorous book at such an awful time, or did you see the world of your book as a refuge from the real world?

It was hard, yes. I didn't write on 9/11--I spent time online with my friends--Laura Lippman wrote a wonderful article on how the Internet kept a group of us in contact that day: I spent the day tidying my apartment, chatting with those friends online, and trying to feed people.

But on September 12, I sat down to write again. Didn't much feel like it, but I had quit my day job in June of 2001, and I figured that was what writers do during difficult times. They write. It might have been easier if I'd been working on one of my Turing Hopper books, which are darker than the Meg series. But the book I was working on--the book I had a deadline for--was the book that eventually became Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon. That was the other problem--not only did I not feel much like writing, I certainly didn't feel very funny.

But since I outline, I knew that there was a place near the end of the book where Meg and some other characters would be held at gunpoint by the villain. And I knew Meg would make a wisecrack--I had no idea what. I figured I'd fill that in later, when my sense of humor returned. But I knew what happened after Meg's wisecrack, and here's the first small bit of writing I was able to do after 9/11:

"What kind of heartless cynic are you?" Rico exclaimed. "How can you make jokes at a time like this? This is serious!"

"Very serious," I said. "Or at least way too solemn."

Which seemed to baffle him. He stared at me, and looking back, I could see that I was doing so from the other side of a gap--in fact, an uncrossable chasm. The chasm between people who take life very seriously and those of us who laugh to keep from crying. The people who stand around lugubriously at funerals saying things like, "At least he didn't suffer" or "Doesn't she look lifelike?" and those of us who want to tell tall tales about what a wonderful old reprobate he was and imagine how she'd laugh if she could see the sideshow. The people who sob long-neglected prayers on the steps of the guillotine and those of us who know God will forgive us if we have to banter with the executioner to keep our courage up, as if laughter were a gauntlet we could throw in the face of death.

Or maybe I'm just a heartless cynic. "Sorry," I said. "Just ignore me. It's how I cope."

I wasn't even sure when I wrote that whether it would fit into the final book. But I know it got me writing again. When I went back again to write more, I was able to write some of what came after that moment, and what led up to it, and eventually I got back into the groove and finished the book.

Do you have any plans to write a serious stand-alone mystery or suspense novel?

I have several ideas for stand-alones rattling around in my head--some serious, some humorous. I think St. Martins would be happier if I did a humorous stand-alone--something that would bring additional readers back to the Meg series. But I also have a couple of darker ideas. And I've assured them that if I ever do write a dark, violent, gory book, I won't do it under my real name. I have the pen name I'll use all ready--Lee Child gave it to me during a conversation we had this year at the Virginia Festival of the Book: Andrew Donner. Has a ring to it, don't you think?

One thing I like about short stories is that you can experiment with different voices in them. The first short story I had published, "The Unkindness of Ravens," in The Mysterious North, an anthology edited by Dana Stabenow, was not humorous at all--it was dark, with a little bit of woo-woo. And another story coming out this year--"A Rat's Tail," in the September-October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine--has some humor in it, but is noticeably darker than the Meg books. Doing different things helps you go back to a series refreshed and re-energized.

Does your sense of humor save you from life's embarrassing moments? Would you tell us about an experience that mortified you at the time but which now makes you laugh?

I'm not sure it saves me from the embarrassing moments, but at least having a sense of humor makes them less painful to think about afterwards. And writing humorous books gives me the opportunity to distill those embarrassing moments into fiction.

One example from my college days: the guy I was dating asked me out to dinner. Somehow he failed to mention that this wasn't just an ordinary dinner, at the Arby's where he worked to help pay for his tuition or someplace with an equally relaxed atmosphere. His roommate was taking his girlfriend to dinner for her birthday, and we were tagging along.

They were a little nonplussed when they showed up at my dorm and I was wearing jeans--quite a contrast with the rather formal dress the roommate's date was wearing. But they were running late, and there was no time for me to change. At least I was wearing a nice blouse. And when we arrived at--horror of horrors, Charlottesville's fanciest steak house!--I tried to look nonchalant as we strolled through the dining room, but in reality, I was mortified. I knew I'd feel tons better as soon as I could hide my jeans under the tablecloth. So when we reached our table, I slid into my chair and--boom!

The waiter had pulled out my chair with such a flourish that he'd pulled it completely clear of where I was starting to sit, and I landed in a heap on the floor.

I'd almost recovered from this embarrassment, and was telling an amusing story while we ate our steaks. The story was going quite well; I was acting it out with facial expressions and gestures--

Unfortunately, I was gesturing with my fork, and when the chair-stealing waiter bent solicitously over my shoulder to ask if madam was enjoying her meal, I whacked him in the nose with a bite of steak.

I don't think we ever went back to that steak house. But several decades later, after retelling that story to friends when we were driving through Charlottesville, I realized that the chair episode was the perfect thing to happen to Meg in the book I'm currently writing (working title: Cockatiels at Seven). Nothing is ever wasted; it's all fodder.

Visit Donna’s web site at


Lois Karlin said...

Donna was a helpful technology panelist at Deadly Ink in 2006. I thought the idea of an artificial intelligence persona for a sleuth was so original!

-Lois Karlin

Lonnie Cruse said...

I adore Donna's books and try to throw new readers her way whenever I can. Oh, I hope none of them landed on her. Oh, dear.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Can't wait to see how Donna uses naked mole rats, which are among the ugliest creatures on earth, in a cute sort of way. And I was moved by the September 12 passage--great example of depth in a cozy. I wrote a song that day--my way of starting to work it through--and sang it to a busload of Red Cross mental health volunteers on September 13.