Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Romance, murder, a witty heroine, and a filthy rich cat -- what more can you ask for in a humorous mystery? In Gabriella Herkert's first novel, Catnapped, Seattle attorney Sara Townley is at the bottom of the legal food chain, and when a cat worth millions disappears Sara is ordered to find him. The missing feline, whose owner left him a massive estate managed by the law firm Sara works for, leads her straight to a dead body. At the same time, the Navy man Sara married in Vegas after a (very) brief acquaintance returns from sea duty and informs Sara he wants a real marriage, not an annulment. The author of Catnapped describes herself as "an evil corporate lawyer working in-house for a high-tech firm near Seattle" and assures me that this drawing is an excellent likeness of her.
When most people think of lawyers writing crime novels, they think of authors like Grisham and Fairstein. Did you ever consider writing a legal thriller?
I've written a series of short stories (as yet unpublished) that include a character named Michael Morrow. They fall more into the thriller category in that they involved darker themes and are more plot dependent, although I think Michael makes a great character, too.
What inspired you to write a humorous animal-themed series?
I admit I'm bent. The smart-aleck part of the book is in my genes and since that is the case, I wanted to make my parents laugh out loud. As for the animal theme, Catnapped is based on an actual case that included a cat. Since I'd grown up with animals, I just let the cat in the story take on the personality of my cat, Flash. That feline always cracked me up.
Have you always wanted to write, or is this a recent interest? Why did you choose the mystery genre?
I've been writing, one way or another, since I was eight. It was a natural outgrowth of loving to read. I didn't choose mystery so much as it chose me. I write what I enjoy and I've loved mysteries since Nancy Drew.
How long did it take you to write the first book? How did you fit writing in with your day job?
The first book took a long time. I had written the first fifty pages of Catnapped and submitted it to the Maui Writers' Conference contest. When it won a Rupert Hughes award, I thought I could go home and use that energy to power through the rest of the book. Flying home from Maui, I couldn't wait. It was September 9, 2001. I didn't feel funny for a year. I wrote a lot and that was okay, too, but I didn't make progress on the book. I finally finished the first draft in late 2003. I polished for a year and it took another year to get my first agent.
You went the contest route – Catnapped was short-listed for the Debut Dagger Award, the St. Martin’s/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel Award, the Kiss of Death and Maui Writer's Conference awards, and it won honorable mention in the Writer's Digest contest. How did these competitions benefit you? Would you recommend that aspiring writers enter contests?
The contests were great. Not only did I get great support and feedback from people who had a lot of experience in the field, I met several great people who continue to form the basis for my "community" of writers. I would recommend that aspiring writers take every opportunity to get read. Share with family and friends. Enter the contests. Dare your writer friends to enter, too. Blog. Whatever. Every experience encourages and keeps you on the path to putting pen to paper. The big bonus is every day you write, five more stories will be waiting for their turn.
Tell us about your path to publication. Was it easy or difficult to find an agent? To find a publisher?
Because I'd had success in the contests, I thought getting an agent would come easier than it did. I had very specific criteria for the agent I wanted and that made it harder. My short list was very short indeed. Then again, the positive results I'd had helped me stay confident that my work would find a home -- a great home with an agent and a publisher who really believed in me and my writing. Having said that, I am working with my second agent now. The relationships are evolutionary and it's helped me to keep an open mind.
Did anything about the publishing process surprise you, or did things happen pretty much as you expected?
The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend on getting the word out myself. Even with a big house and a supportive publisher, most of this still falls on the author. These are time pressures on top of meeting deadlines and the day job, friends, family etc. I am so lucky my "peeps" understand.
How have your colleagues in the legal profession reacted to news of your second career?
My boss has been incredibly supportive as have my colleagues in the legal group. Of course, they look at me funny when I ask if they've ever been stuck in the trunk of a car. Naturally, every "ex" thinks he's the hero and every family member thinks I've turned them into a killer. As for the people I am negotiating deals with, it works for me that they know I know where to dispose of a dead body.
Do you have a critique group or individuals who read your work before your agent and editor see it? What aspects of writing have they helped you with most?
I couldn't have finished without my critique group. If nothing else, these are the people who will kick you in the butt if you haven't written anything to bring to group. They'll tell you the sex isn't sexy and the jokes aren't funny. I am better because of them. And they still showed up at the first signing.
How much promotion do you have planned for Catnapped? Which conferences will you be attending?
I just came back from Bouchercon in Anchorage. There's nothing like the conferences to motivate and encourage finishing the next book. It's not just the big name authors I'm thrilled to meet, either. The biggest push comes from the readers who come to share their own stories and tell me how Sara or Russ or one of my other characters reminds them of their crazy cousin Lucy or hilarious next door neighbor. It's the biggest high there is for a writer. I'm doing some more local signings in and around Seattle. I've got a library reading coming up next week at my local library I'm really looking forward to and several more conferences on the schedule: Left Coast Crime in Denver in March, Malice Domestic in Virginia in April, Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, and Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis as well as several romance writers conferences. My schedule is listed on my website at www.gabriellaherkert.com. I'd also love to talk to any book clubs who want to talk with me. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set something up.
What’s next for Sara Townley?
Let's just say that marriage and mayhem will plague Sara for some time to come. She's also got to learn to speak 'Connor' and deal with his less-than-predictable family. Catnapped: An Animal Instinct Mystery is available now. Doggone! comes out in September 2008. An as-yet-untitled book 3 is scheduled for 2009. I expect Sara's quick wit will carry her into even worse trouble than a bigamy rumor. I can't wait!