Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Cynthia Riggs describes her Martha’s Vineyard mysteries, featuring 92-year-old poet Victoria Trumbull, as the kind of mystery you can read in front of a fire with a cat on your lap “without being scared that someone is going to jump through
the window and strangle you.”
Cynthia was 70 when she published her first mystery, Deadly Nightshade, which she wrote while earning a master’s degree in her late 60s. Her seventh novel, Shooting Star, is available now, and book number eight, Death and Honesty, is scheduled for publication by St. Martin’s Press in spring of 2009. Deadly Nightshade and her second novel, The Cranefly Orchid Murders, have been reprinted in a single volume paperback from Vineyard Stories, an island publisher, under the title Double Murder on Martha’s Vineyard.
After graduating from Antioch College with a degree in geology, Cynthia wrote nonfiction articles for Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Petroleum Today, and several scientific journals. She has also been a mariner, captaining tour boats on the Potomac River, teaching at the Annapolis Sailing School, delivering boats to Europe and the Caribbean, and operating a ferry service on the Chesapeake Bay. A 13th-generation islander, she now lives on Martha’s Vineyard year-round and has turned her family’s 18th century house into a bed-and-breakfast inn for writers and artists.
Q. What made you decide, in your sixties, to go back to school for an advanced degree in creative writing?
A. I manage the Cleaveland House, a bed & breakfast that caters to poets and writers, in my family homestead on Martha's Vineyard. Shortly after my mother died, one of my guests, a writer, was getting her degree in a low residency program at Vermont College. She suggested that I go back to school and get my masters. "No, no, no!" said I. "Never! I've had enough of school. And not at sixty-eight. Forget it!" She persisted. Nagged me, had the college send me an application form, and finally, to shut her up, I applied, knowing I'd never be accepted. Sure enough, I was, and back to school I went.
Q. Why did you choose mystery as your genre? Was this a long-time ambition?
A. I've always liked reading mysteries, but hadn't really thought about writing one. My father was an early member of the Mystery Writers of America, Number 416. He was dabbling in mystery writing, but was never published. Once I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College, I had to decide what to write. I asked my friend, Jonathan Revere, for suggestions -- The Great American Novel? Significant Short Stories? Creative Non-Fiction? -- he told me, "Murder mysteries. That sounds like fun." So that's how I got started.
Q. Victoria is such a wonderful character – unique in the mystery world. Can you tell us how you created her, how you decided what kind of person she would be? Were you at all wary of making her a woman in her nineties? And did you intend from the beginning to keep her the same age forever?
A. Victoria Trumbull is based on my mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, a poet, a strong woman, and someone I wanted to keep alive forever in the mysteries I'd decided to write. She was almost ninety-nine when she died. I figured it was stretching credulity to have a ninety-nine-year-old sleuth, so I made Victoria much younger. During the MFA program, I wrote a paper analyzing how writers dealt with time in their mystery series. I learned that as long as the writer is fair with her readers and they understand the rules, they willingly suspend disbelief. Victoria will remain ninety-two forever while time passes in the background. That way I don't have to remember what life was like five or ten years ago.
Q. Mystery writers are always hearing that our characters need to “grow and change” in each book and over the course of a series. Is this possible with a character of Victoria’s age? Has she changed since you began writing about her?
A. Victoria's character remains fairly stable. I've noticed, though, that from identifying her totally with my mother, I've come to see her as a character on her own. My recurring characters grow and change, and that's fun to watch.
Q. What do you enjoy most about fiction writing? What aspect has been most difficult for you to master?
A. Before I wrote fiction, I'd written quite a lot of scientific articles, edited a couple of scientific periodicals, and wrote and edited for National Geographic's books. My facts had to be accurate and every word had to be the exact right word. I had to know where the piece I was writing was going, had to outline it, and kept prodigious notes. You can't imagine how freeing fiction writing is after that. I can make things up, can sit down in the morning at my computer not knowing what my characters are likely to do or where my story is likely to lead me. It's great fun. While it's work to put words together so they make sense, writing continues to be a fascinating process. The most difficult aspect for me to master was time management. That's where the MFA program made a difference. I'm not a disciplined person in general, but when it comes to my writing time, I'm disciplined.
Q. Do you have a strict writing schedule? How do you balance writing with your other work?
A. I sit down at my computer at ten a.m. after my B&B guests finish breakfast and work steadily, seven days a week, until five or six. I'll break to make beds, do laundry, pull weeds, do errands, but I get right back to work.
Q. How long does it take you to write a book? Do you outline first or just plunge in?
A. Usually it takes about six months to complete a book. I start with the title -- all my books have plants in their titles -- and a vague idea of what I want to include, current gripes about Island affairs, irritations with people I'd like to get even with, and then away I go, not planning ahead at all. For instance, a future book will be titled Poison Ivy and will deal with academic politics in a wannabe college on the Island. There are a couple of pompous asses around here I'd like to deal with.
Q. What mystery writers do you read? What have you learned from the writers you admire?
A. One of my favorite writers is Donald Westlake, who's not exactly a mystery writer, but I find him one of the funniest writers ever. I try to copy his manic sense of humor in my writing, but of course it can't compare with his. I love Agatha Christie, Rex Stout's Nero Wolf, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin. I tend to keep the mystery books I buy, and have run out of bookcase room. I probably read two to three books a week, mostly mysteries, and borrow a lot from my local library. Just last night I learned a tip from reading Patricia Highsmith, how to allow a point of view character to see into another character's thoughts without the reader suspecting it's a trick.
Q. Are you still a manuscript screener for Poisoned Pen Press?
A. I was a manuscript screener for awhile, but found it difficult to read the manuscripts, many of which were single-spaced, some printed on both sides of the paper. My eyes are not that great, so I gave it up, although I loved critiquing. Very, very few of the submissions I read seemed publishable, probably less than one percent. I learned a lot about what not to do, and that helped me in my own writing. I liked being able to be candid in my reviews, knowing that Poisoned Pen Press would protect their aspiring authors from my terribly clever, cutting, nasty comments, something I would never write to the writer herself.
Q. You say that your inn “caters to writers and artists”, which brings to mind an image of fussy creative types who need special handling! What is it really like to have a stream of writers and artists as guests? Do you have many guests who return year after year? Is the inn open year-round?
A. As the manager of the Cleaveland House B&B, I screen out potential guests who might need special handling. I have a spiel that goes something like this: "This is an old house. The floors creak, doors don't shut, shared baths, no television, no recreational facilities, and books and papers all over the place." The poets, writers, artists, and people sympathetic to creative types who come to my B&B find a relaxed place with creative vibes. The house is large, but has only three guest rooms, so people can get to know each other if they wish. Most guests come back year after year, often for a week-long stay. Because this is my home, the B&B is open year round. However, there's no heat on the second floor, where two of the guest rooms are. Some people thrive on sleeping in a chilly room with fireplace and down comforters and come off-season. But the B&B tends to be quiet from mid-November to mid-April.
Q. During your career as a nonfiction writer, you spent some time in Antarctica. Do you remember that as a good or bad experience?
A. My Antarctic trips -- two of them -- were incredibly amazing and humbling experiences. I went the first time as a Smithsonian technician working on board the Eltanin, an antarctic research vessel, for two months. We never got onto the Ice, as the continent is called. There were something like eighteen different scientific programs going on twenty-four hours a day aboard the ship. The waves in the Antarctic Ocean were unbelievable. Keeping our footing was an adventure, and it was all wonderful. When the vessel reached an area of icebergs and lots of floating ice, we headed north. I cried when the ship docked in Chile.
The second time, the National Science Foundation sent me as a journalist to cover scientific activities on the continent. I spent about two weeks visiting the scientific stations of other nations, crawling around penguin rookeries, meeting seals, and being awestruck by the fact that I was safe and warm in a Hercules aircraft, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, while following 20,000 feet above the footsteps of explorers like Scott and Shackelton. We flew to the South Pole and to a scientific station that was completely buried by ice. A sign at the entrance read, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here!" The sun circled the horizon all day and all night. Being there was such an adventure, I tried to make use of every minute of daylight. Impossible, of course.
Q. Looking back on all the writing you’ve done in your life, what would you say has been the most fun?
A. The absolute most fun of all is right now. I've learned a lot during my past writing years and continue to learn today, this minute, while I'm writing now. It's satisfying to be able to write something that people might read and enjoy. Every day I learn how to work around problems such as too many "he saids," or how little or much detail to include, or how to make a reader laugh, or how to build suspense. Learning to write is like learning to master a musical instrument to please myself and others.
Q. What do you see in the future? More books about Victoria? A new series, perhaps?
A. I'm hoping to keep Victoria going for a total of twenty books. I'm on nine right now. I've started a second series set on the waterfront in Washington, DC, where I lived on a boat for twelve years. My protagonist, a former call girl, is a far cry from Victoria Trumbull. She lives on a houseboat at a yacht club, a neighborhood of live-aboard individualists. I've finished the first book, Murder On C-Dock, and am shopping it around right now.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. Sit down and write. Set a regular time, whatever is best for you, even if it's only an hour a day, and don't let anyone or anything disturb you. Treat that time as if it were a job. Some days the muse won't strike, but write anyway. It's like practicing a musical instrument. Keep at it. Much too often aspiring writers say, "I don't have time to write," yet they'll watch three or four hours of television an evening. Cut out a couple of shows and write. Just write.
Cynthia Riggs’s books are, in order: Deadly Nightshade, The Cranefly Orchid Murders, The Cemetery Yew, Jack in the Pulpit, The Paperwhite Narcissus, Indian Pipes, and Shooting Star. Visit her web site at www.cynthiariggs.com.