Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shrink to Shrink: Roberta Isleib Interviewed by Elizabeth Zelvin

Liz: With the third Dr. Rebecca Butterman mystery, Asking for Murder, just out, I’m delighted to have Dr. Butterman’s creator, Roberta Isleib, visit us on Poe’s Deadly Daughters. As a therapist myself, I get a big kick out of Dr. Butterman and her adventures. Roberta, what prompted you to make Rebecca an advice columnist rather than having her sleuthing come out of her therapy practice?

Roberta: Besides being a psychologist, I’m an advice column junkie—my fave is “Can this marriage be saved?” in the Ladies Home Journal. When I was looking for a hook, the column seemed like a natural. As it turns out, clues come to her in both kinds of work—advice and therapy.

Liz: I particularly appreciate the concern Rebecca has for maintaining the boundary between how she works as a therapist and the kind of advice she gives as Dr. Aster. What’s the difference?

Roberta: These two jobs set up quite a bit of internal tension for Rebecca. The kind of therapy she does allows her patients to plumb their psychological depths and root out old baggage that interferes with daily life. Advice is very different—no plumbing, more of a jazzy style of delivery (or I should say, Rebecca and I try to sound jazzy), as she skates over the surface.

Liz: How easy or hard is it for you to come up with advice-column dilemmas and snappy answers? Which is more fun to write: the questions or the answers?

Roberta: Definitely the questions! I’m here to say writing the answers is not as easy as the columnists make it look. If I wrote a column, I’d worry a lot about whether millions of readers are taking my pearls as gospel. What if I was totally off base and some poor sucker made an important decision based on my advice? Rebecca worries about that kind of thing too.

Liz: Your first series featured Cassie Burdette, whom you characterize on your website as a “neurotic professional golfer.” I think a lot of people still think of “neurotic” as meaning “slightly crazy in a Woody Allen kind of way.” But I find that nowadays professionals tend to use “neurotic” as a synonym for “reasonably healthy considering our crazy world.” So what’s neurotic about Cassie? And is that a good or a bad thing?

Roberta: I would lean toward your first definition—mildly crazy! Cassie had “issues” that kept her from performing at a high level in the golf world. Her father was a golf professional who failed to meet his own goals and acted out his disappointment by leaving his family. So Cassie’s strong connection to golf is tied up with her feelings about being abandoned. And she wonders (unconsciously of course) whether it’s okay for her to be successful if her father wasn’t. (Isn’t it wonderful how real these characters become to us?)

Liz: And how about Dr. Butterman? What issues would you expect Rebecca to bring to you if you were her therapist? What would you hope for her to accomplish in treatment?

Roberta: Rebecca had a double-whammy as a kid—her mothered committed suicide when she was four, and then her father left the state. (He explains more about that in Asking for Murder.) So I wouldn’t expect her to be able to find a strong relationship until she sorts that out. It amazes me how well people function sometimes in spite of their tragic histories—Rebecca is one of those people. She’s a wonderful therapist, but she has blind spots in her personal life. She’s working on those!

Liz: Let’s talk about emotional health and murder. Why do we love murder mysteries? What do they do to us, and what do they do for us?

Roberta: There are different theories about this. Some people say reading murder mysteries is a way of containing the violence we can’t contain in the real world. Folks like to see the perpetrators caught and punished: Justice is served. Other people like mysteries because they enjoy the puzzle—working out the solution as the sleuth does (or ahead of the sleuth!) And some people read for the characters, the feeling of a familiar set of old friends who reappear in new books. I think I fall in that category.

Liz: Me too! Characters I care about with plausible relationships get me every time. You and I are different kinds of mental health professional: you’re a clinical psychologist, I’m a clinical social worker. So how come you made the social worker the victim in Asking for Murder?

Roberta: I couldn’t very well kill off my main character! Seriously, it was interesting when I was in training to notice the undercurrents between psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. While they do similar work, the length and depth of their training can be very different. There was definitely a hierarchy and some snobbishness. I worked some of that conflict into Asking for Murder, though in the end, I’d say the social worker comes off very well. Don’t you think, Liz?

Liz: Therapy is about change and growth, while advice of the kind Dr. Aster gives is more about snappy solutions. As the series continues, will Rebecca change and grow? What kinds of challenges will she face? Will we see anything dark in future books?

Roberta: IF the series were to continue (and that’s always a question in these uncertain times,) you will certainly see Rebecca change. She learned a lot from her experience with sandplay therapy and she will apply that. Like Cassie before her, she has some issues to work out with her father. She’s on her way to that! There’s a snotty teenager who makes an appearance at the end of AFM—you could look for her in future installments!

Liz: The kind of mystery series you write are often categorized as cozies. And how do you feel about that? (I had to get shrinks’ favorite question in there somehow.)

Roberta: I’m so glad you did! I don’t really care what you call the books as long as they sell and people enjoy them. But I don’t want to shock readers who are expecting some other kind of book. This series is a little darker and more realistic than what most folks think of as “cozy”—I warn people about that.

Thanks so much to Liz and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for your hospitality!


Sandra Parshall said...

Great interview, ladies. Best of luck with the new book, Roberta!

Laura said...

This was fascinating Roberta and Liz. I felt like I was there on the couch--I mean, there in the office, getting the inside scoop. Great post!

(Roberta, are you just totally exhausted? You'll need a vaca after this amazing tour!)

Roberta Isleib said...

Thanks for the welcome Sandy!

Laura, isn't Liz the best? You can see why she makes a good shrink--she drained every last bit of information out of me...

And yes, even my husband is exhausted by this book tour. It's so much fun to visit these sites--each post is different. As you can imagine, I'm not getting much else written:)

Jan Brogan said...

I'm intrigued by your explanation of the difference between therapeutic advice and advice column advice -- but of course it makes perfect sense. As does an advice columnist as sleuth. It's just a terrific setup for a great series.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the interview. I don't think most people mind a "darker" mystery now and then. Good writing is enjoyable no matter what!

©Hotbutton Press said...

What a great interview and tour idea. Love it. I'm anticipating the next book for the romance that's developing... oh, please say you'll work on that! I can't wait. I think cozy mysteries are becoming more interesting all the time because they're crossing genres a bit, and developing characters more. I couldn't be happier about it.


John said...

Really enjoyed the grilling, Roberta!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Roberta, and for joining us today. I do treatment online in text--it's as close as I get to a day job--so this was pure fun for me.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

AH...almost missed this!And so glad I got here. You two are quite the team. Very revealing!

Laura, I agree. I hope Roberta gets some couch time to recuperate--without having to be analyzed.

And totally off topic--Sanda, the chipmunk is really cute. Can't go wrong wth a chipmuck photo.

Helen Ginger said...

Well, this was interesting! A "shrink to shrink" interview about writing and character psychology.


Maryann Miller said...

Another great interview, Roberta. I especially related to what you said about Rebecca being a wonderful therapist but having blind spots in her personal life. I can see that with my daughter who has a degree in psychology, yet sometimes misses issues in her own family. As does her husband who also has a psychology degree. :-)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Maryann, a time-honored reason to study psychology is to be able to get a handle on the heavy stuff, such as family issues, without having to admit you need help. ;)