By Lonnie Cruse
Today's interview is with author Carolyn Haines. I first met Carolyn when I was president of the SINC-IC chapter and she joined. I hornswog--er talked her into a volunteer job fairly quickly. We also appeared on a panel together at the Southern Festival of Books. Fun gal!
LC: I love reading your popular Mississippi Delta series. How did you come up with the idea for the series?
CH: I just finished writing Touched, a novel set in 1926 Mississippi and based a good bit on my mother and grandmother's very strong love for each other and the way things can go horribly wrong in a place where prejudice rules common sense, and I was sitting at my computer thinking of what I might do next. This is the best time for a writer--that moment when all ideas are pure potential and anything seems possible. I'd thought up several stories I wanted to write, and I also wanted to try my hand at humor. So I was sitting, staring out the window at my beautiful horses, and all of a sudden I heard Jitty and Sarah Booth going at it. Jitty was bossing her up one side and down the other. Sarah Booth was giving it back pretty good, but as you know Jitty fights dirty. I simply sat there and listened to them bicker until I began to get a clear picture of what they looked like and who they were. I saw Dahlia House, and I saw the cotton fields out the window and the long front porch just perfect for sippin' a little Jack Daniels--and I put my fingers over the keys and started writing. Once I had the characters on the page, then I had to stop and figure out what the story was about.
LC: Wow, I love that! How do you keep the series fresh? And will you keep the series going? Fanatic readers (like me) wanna know!
CH: Yes, Ham Bones was released this week (June 26) and next summer Wishbones will be out, but with a new publisher, St. Martin's, where I have my darker historical mysteries. I think the characters are so much like my friends, that when I write, it's like getting all involved in the traumas that my friends go through. And to be honest, I have no real control of Sarah Booth and the gang. I know the mystery, but the emotional turmoil is something they sometimes generate themselves. Like I never planned that Tinkie would become Sarah Booth's partner. Suddenly, I was just writing that--and it was the perfect thing to happen.
LC: You write stand-alones as well as the Mississippi Delta series. How do you juggle them all? Writing one at a time, or are you able to work on more than one?
CH: I can write more than one thing at a time--but time is a real problem. I have a full time teaching job at the University of South Alabama where I teach the grad and under-grad fiction classes. I meant to teach for one year, while the school did a major search for a teacher, but I fell in love with the job. I have such talented students, and it is such a pleasure to see them grow and learn. Several of my students are about to sign with literary agents, and that is immensely satisfying to me. And I have 21 animals, 8 of them horses, that I take care of on a 25-acre farm. During the summer the farm kicks my butt! All those fence lines and pastures to be bush-hogged. All those hooves to be cleaned! Some of the horses are rescue, so we're also gentle breaking them to ride, and I'm lucky to have two gal friends who help me with the critters. Aleta and I ride, but Ginny is far more talented at easing an unbroken horse along. The 8 cats and 5 dogs are all rescue animals, and I adore them. I lost two of my older pets this year, my most beloved Maybelline, who is posed with the sunglasses and the scarf in some of my pub shots. She was 17. And Gumbo, a feral cat that I trapped and who became the most loving of felines. She passed away at age 18 this month. It just breaks my heart, and there is nothing to replace the loss of such a good friend. But that's a long, long answer to a simple question. I write multiple things simultaneously, including screenplays, which I'm branching out into. Just because it's such a challenge!
LC: MY MOTHER'S WITNESS was your first published non-fiction book, and it tells the story of someone close to you. I imagine that was far more difficult than writing the fiction mysteries. Would you tell us how you went about it?
CH: Peggy Morgan contacted me and asked me to write her life story. I told her that I'd given up non-fiction when I quit being a news reporter. I really didn't want to get embroiled in a "true" story. But Peggy persisted, and at last I went to talk to her--just to hear her out. By the time she finished, three-hours later, telling me the highlights of her life, I was hooked. I didn't know if I could write a non-fiction book that would sell, so I told Peggy I would write her life story for her. I would take the facts and put it into creative non-fiction form. But I made no guarantees. It took me two years of going to her house and sitting at her kitchen table while she told me, beginning with the stories she'd been told about her birth. And I wrote it all down in notes, and then put it into story form. It took a long time, but I think that for Peggy and me both, a lot of good things happened. Sharing those intensely personal moments with her was gut-wrenching, and there were many afternoons that I would cry as I wrote the things she'd endured. Then, magically, River City Publishing wanted to publish the book and they did a fine job.
LC: Assuming there is such a thing, what is your typical writing day like? And how do you manage it along with caring for your animals?
CH: I get up early and attend to e-mail and start writing, then feed the horses, run errands such as going to get feed and such, then write more, then do more chores, then write more. The pattern repeats itself until I fall over from exhaustion. If I have to teach, then I add that in, along with thesis consultations and things, and if I'm promoting a book, then the book signings and appearances have to be put in. I am very busy. Perhaps too busy, but I feel that my career is finally starting to move forward at a significant pace.
LC: Your character, Sarah Booth Delaney, claims you let your dreams control your writing. Is she right? How so?
CH: I've been told that I have an "open door" to my subconscious. I work out a lot of my writing problems while I'm asleep. I'll wake up and know how to fix whatever is wrong with my story. I also see and hear my characters very clearly, and there are moments when I'm writing (these are the blissful, incredibly powerful moments) that I am living the story. I am no longer aware of the computer or the room or anything else. I am transported. And the characters are so fully alive that they carry the story for me--doing what comes naturally to them. These are the moments all writers live for. The rest is amazingly hard, solitary work--but this hard work is what pays off. Blissful moments are lovely, but that doesn't make a writer. It's the hard work, the writing when it isn't bliss, when it's really torture--those are the moments that make a writer.
LC: How tough is it for you to switch gears between writing thrillers and Sarah Booth Delaney?
CH: Most of the times it's easy. I read different kinds of things, and sometimes I read several books at once. So I can pick up a thriller and love it, and then the next time I grab a book, it's something lighter and more fun. I have no trouble moving around when reading, and it's the same with writing. I love the darker stories. I'm drawn there to explore those emotions that are more troublesome and disquieting. But I like to end my writing day with Sarah Booth and her friends. When the light fades from the sky, I like to be in Zinnia, where I feel right at home.
LC: Your background was journalism and you list some mighty interesting experiences on your website. Do you miss those days, or is writing full time where it's at for you?
CH: I miss a lot of things about journalism--the camaraderie and the newsroom and the editors and the pace. It was an adrenalin trip to be on deadline on a big story. And I also felt that I served the community by digging for the truth. Journalism isn't like that today. It's an entertainment industry, not always a place where the truth is sought. Now there are fine journalists who are working, and who tell the truth. But I think it's a sad commentary on the state of the Fourth Estate when I watch Comedy Central to get my daily dose of the news from Jon Stewart rather than one of the network news shows. It's unfortunate for the serious journalists working today, but many newspapers and broadcasts are owned by huge conglomerates that dictate editorial policy. So what I miss about journalism doesn't even exist any longer. I miss what was, not what is. But I do miss it. Yet I feel I can tell more truth in my fiction. I tell emotional truth in my books. There is no factual basis to any of my stories other than Peggy's book. The other books are a mix of lore, legend, and my wild imagination--but they are emotionally truthful.
LC: Anything else you'd like us to know about you or your writing?
CH: Ham Bones just hit the shelves today! I'm excited about that. And I'm moving to a new genre Aug. 28--a thriller set on the Mississippi Coast pre-Katrina. And it is about a journalist, Carson Lynch, who is drainking heavily to try to kill the pain from the murder of her daughter. Carson's national career is over because of her drinking, and she's back on the Gulf Coast hanging to a newspaper job by a thread. When five bodies, all buried with bridal veils and missing ring fingers, are uncovered beneath the parking lot of a notorious Biloxi nightclub, Carson gets the story. She thinks she's working a cold case murder until two young women are murdered and found with their throats cut and wearing only a bridal veil. Has the murderer returned after a 25-year hiatus, or is this a copy cat killer? Carson has to find out before more innocent people die. This is a new publisher for me, MIRA, which is the mainstream imprint of my old friend, Harlequin. It's a mass market book rather than hardcover, and I'm eager to see what happens next. My loyal readers have followed me into the past for my darker thrillers, and now this is a contemporary thriller. So I'm eager to see it on the shelves--great cover. That's about it for now. Anyone who wants to check in can do so at http://www.carolynhaines.com/ I'm giving away some books and collecting some wedding stories for my website. I'm also trying to set up a blog. (I am hopeless at computer stuff!). And you can sign up for my newsletter by just dropping me an email at email@example.com Thanks so much, Lonnie.
Thank you! I love hearing how other authors tackle the job of writing, and I know other writers do too. Not to mention readers. Appreciate you dropping by to chat.