Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Joanna Campbell Slan’s first scrapbooking mystery, Paper, Scissors, Death, has just been published by Midnight Ink. Joanna is known to Sisters in Crime members as one of the organizers of the SinC Forensics University, an annual workshop at which experts instruct crime fiction writers on forensic techniques and bring them up to date on recent developments. Joanna lives in St. Louis with her family and pets.
Q. Tell us about Paper, Scissors, Death.
A. Mousy soccer-mom Kiki Lowenstein feels the only two things she’s ever been good at are scrapbooking and getting pregnant. When her husband George is found – naked, dead aand alone in a hotel room – she doesn’t believe he had a heart attack. Butt before she can track down his killer, Kiki must find a way to support herself and her eleven-year-old daughter Anya. So she turns to her one socially acceptable skill: scrapbooking. From her job at Time in a Bottle, St. Louis’s premier scrapbooking store, Kiki plays amateur sleuth. Her snooping around not only uncovers George’s sordid secrets, it may cost Kiki her life.
Readers can preview the book by viewing an excerpt booklet at www.youpublish.com/joannaslan.
Q. Every time I go into a craft store, I see shelf after shelf of scrapbooking supplies, and I feel like the only person in the world who isn’t pursuing this hobby. What do you think explains the popularity of scrapbooking?
A. In two words: It endures.
Years ago, women came together over quilting. The product – the quilt – was about the only domestic “chore” which had lasting value. You could hand it down to the next generation, point to scraps from outgrown clothes, and tell stories as you ran your hands over it. You don’t get that sense of immortality from cleaning a toilet, cooking a meal, or washing clothes. (At least I haven’t. If you have, email me. I need to know what I’m doing wrong.) Today scrapbooking fills a similar need. None of us wants to be forgotten. So scrapbooking is all about writing love letters to life. And scrapbookers hope that these missives will live on after we are gone.
Q. How do you work scrapbooking into the plot of a murder mystery?
A. I have been blessed with a wealth of experience in the scrapbooking industry: I have written seven non-fiction “how to” books on the subject, started a contest for scrapbookers in England that still runs today, taught classes all over the world, and worked for two of the major scrapbook magazines. I started my scrapbooking website nearly ten years ago. (www.scrapbookstorytelling.com) And I publish a free ezine (electronic magazine) four times a year.
Since scrapbooks include so much personal information, since scrapbook stores are gathering spots, since crops (scrapbook parties) are places where people share personal information, working scrapbooking into the plot was easy. Remember, too, scrapbooks deal with all that we hold most dear: family, friends, home, religion, and so on. When these important parts of our lives are threatened, violence may seem to be a solution.
Q. I’m always curious about the way writers “build” their protagonists. Is Kiki Lowenstein based on anyone you know (such as yourself!), is she a composite, or did you create a character who would fit into the kind of mysteries you wanted to write?
A. It’s a bit of both. Kiki and I share certain traits – we apologize too much, we get overwhelmed, we are overly emotional. Obviously, we both love to scrapbook. And I set the book in St. Louis, where I live, because this is such a fascinating town.
One decision I made was to have Kiki involved in a mixed marriage. She has grown up Christian and her husband was Jewish, but they have a Jewish home. That’s taken directly from my life. I field a lot of questions about our situation, and I saw my book as a way to use what I’ve heard, learned and observed. I hope readers will enjoy seeing the intersection of those two religions.
That said, it was also important to give Kiki’s life BIG problems, ones that I don’t have, thank goodness.
Q. Tell us about your road to publication.
A. I traveled to Sleuthfest expressly to pitch my book to a young editor from New York. He heard me out and said, “Why would anyone be interested in a book about scrapbooking?” I explained that one in every three homes in the USA has a scrapbooker. He still thought I was nuts.
I left with my tail dragging. I felt gobsmacked. The next day, walking into the conference, I ran into Patricia Smiley. We chatted. I told her about my no-good, rotten, awful day. She told me that Elizabeth George is a huge scrapbooker, and even though we’d just met, Patricia was incredibly supportive. With my spirits renewed, I pitched Liz Trupin-Pulli, who is now my agent, and Barbara Moore, who was my acquiring editor.
Q. Why did you choose to write mysteries? Were you a long-time mystery fan?
A. Both my grandmothers read mysteries the way most folks eat potato chips. Next to their beds were stacks of books, leaning towers of well-thumbed paperbacks. I often borrowed from their libraries. I feel right at home in the genre. I love the structure, but most importantly to me, mysteries matter. The stakes are high, the characters are conflicted, and the information comes to the reader in a slow strip-tease sort of way.
Q. What crime fiction writers do you read faithfully? What writers do you feel you’ve learned from?
A. I’ve had fabulous mentors who have shared with me, cheered me on and educated me along the way. Folks like Shirley Damsgaard, of the Ophelia and Abby books, Elaine Viets, of the Dead End Jobs series, and Emilie Richards, of the Ministry Can Be Murder series. These women have been incredibly gracious.
I have a philosophy: I can learn something from everyone. Whether it’s what I like or what I don’t like, want to do or want to avoid. I make it my job to approach everyone and everything looking for a “take-away.” Life is a potluck, and everybody brings something to the party, but some dishes are soooo good you just have to ask for the recipe. And I’m a willing learner.
Q. Tell us about your writing habits. Do you outline before you start? Do you have a strict writing schedule? How long does it take you to write a novel?
A. I write as much as I can every day. My family comes first, but I’ve been known to start at 7:30 a.m. in my jammies and write until that time at night without regard for personal hygiene, and only taking bathroom and food breaks. (I rely on the crockpot and take out food.) I check my email first thing, because most people know I’m available that way.
I start my books and stories with an idea, with characters and scenes in mind. I work to get a solid voice going and to define the world I’ll work in. Then I tear paper into small pieces to use as note cards and jot down scene ideas. (I find index cards too intimidating!) I arrange those in order, turn them into an outline, then I flesh out the outline chapter by chapter. I look over what I have and ask myself, “What would my reader expect? What’s the exact opposite of that?” I aim for something unexpected but true to my characters. I spend a lot of time making charts. I like to think through what each character knows that the others don’t. I do research before, during and after. As I do my work, I use my “dream time” to help free my creativity. That is, right before I get out of bed and before I fall asleep, I visualize the scenes. Sometimes new aspects come to me. I also use exercise time to visualize my scenes.
I find that by thinking about my work away from the computer, I free myself to explore new aspects of the story. I begin each day by editing work from the day before, and I often act out the dialogue to make it more realistic. It took me a month to write my first draft of Paper, Scissors, Death, but I rewrote the book four times in the two years before it was published. This was not because Midnight Ink asked for rewrites, but because I was growing in my skills and I thought of ways to improve the book. An old motivational speaking colleague of mine, Mark Sanborn (http://www.marksanborn.com), used to say, “Strive to always cheat yesterday’s audience.” I have taken this to heart. I want to improve daily, so that every book I write is better than the one before.
Q. What do you enjoy most about fiction writing? What aspect has been most difficult for you to master?
A. Plotting is hard for me. But I’m getting better. Lots better. I think creating an alternate universe is the most fun you can have without room service and copious amounts of alcohol. I love funny scenes. One night I woke up my husband because I was laughing about an idea I had. He thought I was having a seizure. I love creating characters, and it’s fascinating how real they become to me (as the author) and to others (as readers). Research? Man, oh, man, do I enjoy that. After all, I majored in journalism just so I could ask questions. Writing? I get lost in my work. I lose track of the time. My poor dog, Rafferty, grabs me by the sleeve and yanks it after six p.m. when he thinks it’s time for me to call it a day. (I can ignore it for an hour or so!) Promoting? I think that’s a blast. Coming up with ideas is my idea of a great time. Um, are you getting the idea I LOVE what I do? I’m the luckiest girl in the world!
Q. Like me, you’re an animal lover and include animals in your fiction. What purpose do you think animals can serve in fiction, aside from being part of the background in the characters’ daily lives?
A. First of all, I can’t imagine life without animals, so I can’t conjure up characters without pets. Sorry. No can do. No want to do. Huh-uh.
I think of animals as characters. I believe that how humans interact with animals tells you a lot about them. In Paper, Scissors, Death there are a couple of scenes where Gracie, the uncropped harlequin Great Dane, helps reveal my characters’ inner selves. She’s also comic relief. And an action hero. Plus, I blush to confess, she’s a purebred rescue dog because that’s one of my passions – finding homes for unwanted pets. When I was in college, I worked doing that in a pet shop.
I’m so passionate about this that we’re planning a Virtual Book Signing Event with a Great Dane Rescue Group. Because of the economy and the housing crisis, a lot of big dogs are now homeless. That’s just WRONG. Purebred dogs need homes, too.
Q. How did the Sisters in Crime Forensics University in St. Louis come about? How much of your time is devoted to it?
A. Michelle Becker and I wanted an intensive educational experience for writers and fans. The sitting board of SinC – especially Libby Fischer Hellmann, S.J. Rozan, and Rochelle Krich – was generous and trusting enough to support us. Jan Burke, Eileen Dreyer, Dr. Doug Lyle, and Lee Lofland came on board and offered all sorts of technical assistance. (So much so that we named Doug our dean!)
We came in under budget, we hosted 115 people, received rave reviews, and garnered attention overseas as well as at home. Folks told us they couldn’t imagine it being held anywhere else because of the quality of local resources. I concur. The experts we had were outstanding. I spent a couple of days a week for ten months working on ForU in the run-up, a full month before the conference, and six weeks afterwards. The Greater St. Louis Chapter members all devoted countless hours and personal resources. They are the real heroes of the event because they bought into the idea and were the support team. Now the chapter has a new working partner for Forensics U, and we’re looking forward to announcing the next one which will be in 2009. I tell myself that since we’ve set the groundwork, this will be easy-peasy. (Don’t you dare tell me differently!)
Q. What do you see in your future? Will you concentrate on mysteries, or do you plan to continue writing nonfiction as well?
A. I have all sorts of projects in mind – both nonfiction and fiction. I’d like to do a nonfiction book about marketing and promoting your books. I have tons of ideas. This will be my son’s first year away at college, and I hope I can discipline myself to use my time efficiently.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. You have to believe in your dream long before anyone else will. And you must dream big, work hard and keep the faith. If your work isn’t real or important to you, you’ll never get published. I’m always amazed by the “big” authors at conferences. Most of them are writing in their rooms at least part of the time. This observation has taught me a lesson. I need to put my writing first as much as humanly possible. (As I’m writing this I’ve been waylaid to iron a shirt, answer the door, and discuss whether my husband and son should get haircuts! So my advice is just as important for me as it is for anyone else.) Oh, and join Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. You could go it alone, but why? These organizations will help you reach your goals faster.