Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
My guest today is Suzanne Arruda, author of the Jade Del Cameron mysteries set in 1920s Africa. Everyone who leaves a comment for Suzanne will be entered in a drawing for a trade paperback of her novel The Serpent’s Daughter.
Suzanne grew up Greensburg, Indiana, reading about people like Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham and dreaming of a life of adventure in exotic places. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and instead of becoming an explorer she worked as a lab technician, a museum employee with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and a biology teacher. When she took the leap into a writing career, her fascination with colonial Africa served her well. At last she was able to live some of her dreams through the adventures of Jade Del Cameron, an American with an exotic family who leads safaris in the bush and becomes embroiled in more than her fair share of murder and mayhem.
Visit Suzanne’s web site at www.suzannearruda.com and her blog at www.suzannearruda.blogspot.com.
Q. The paperback of your third book, The Serpent’s Daughter, will be out shortly, and the hardcover of your fourth book, The Leopard’s Prey, will be out in January. Can you tell us briefly about each of them?
A. The Serpent’s Daughter (paperback Oct. 7, 2008) finds Jade in Morocco where she was meeting her mother, Inez, for a brief vacation and possible reconciliation. Inez is kidnapped and her guide stabbed, leading Jade into the winding souks of Marrakech and amongst the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains as she battles her deadliest foe yet.
In The Leopard’s Prey (hardcover January 2009), Jade is back in Nairobi and strapped for cash. She takes a job as a wrangler for a zoological capture company, hoping that way to also save a pair of leopards that are earmarked for extermination as Nairobi and the farms encroach on the animals’ homes. Jade’s friends find a body in their brand new coffee dryer and Jade’s would-be beau, Sam Featherstone, is the prime suspect. As Jade tries to clear his name, she finds herself confronting more than one kind of brutal killer.
Q. Your fascination with history comes through clearly in your writing. Why did you choose this particular time and place to write about?
A. I grew up reading that place and time. My two older brothers lived and breathed all things Tarzan, but the town librarian was horrified to think that their little sister would read about “naked savages” and pushed other African tales on me instead. (I still read the Tarzan.) So I read missionary tales, Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen, and Osa Johnson. I love that time period. The world was so undiscovered.
Q. Were any of your characters inspired by real people who lived in East Africa in the 1920s? Jade, for example – does she have a bit of Beryl Markham in her?
A. She does, as well as all those other ladies mentioned above. Plus there are some real ambulance drivers jammed in there, too. Mix in some Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island) and Laura Croft and you get Jade.
Q. The animals of Africa are featured prominently in your books, in often endearing ways, but for some readers the very word “safari” conjures images of big game hunters gunning down exotic species. What would you say to those readers to get them to try your books?
A. “Safari” is just the Swahili word for “journey.” I take my readers on a journey to a different place in a different time. To be true to the time, I need to portray some hunting. Lions were as like to eat a wandering farmer as his or her stock so they were frequently shot. And people on safari needed to hunt to eat, otherwise you couldn’t carry enough food with the laws governing the weight porters could carry. But while Jade may have to shoot animals in self-defense or for food, she saves many more.
Q. The sense of place in your books is so striking that it’s hard to believe you haven’t lived in those places for a good part of your life. Have you traveled very much in the places you write about? Are they so different now that they don’t provide inspiration for your historical settings – or have some things remained the same through the decades?
A. When I traveled to Morocco, I tried to see 1920 Morocco. There was a big bus depot at a very important Marrakech gate that I wanted to see. And there are satellite dishes in the Atlas mountains. I do want to get to old Zanzibar and parts of Tanzania, but my best way to “see” the old world is through old newspapers, diaries, and other books of the time.
Q. Why did you choose the mystery form rather than mainstream historical fiction?
A. I like mysteries, for one thing. A puzzle or crime to solve is a good motive for having someone run around doing feats of daring. And mysteries still carry those other themes in there as well. Jade faces social issues of the times and romance and family trials. So I like to call these mainstream historical mysteries.
Q. What made you decide to start writing, after years of working at other things? Can you recall a particular event or revelation that made you turn to writing as a career?
A. Well, the waters of the toilet bowl didn’t part – if that’s what you mean. I began with correspondence courses when my twin sons were born. Writing seemed like something a stay-at-home mom could do, or a summer career in between the teaching years. I mostly concentrated on the children’s magazine market. Then I branched into some young adult biographies. One of those biographies on Osa Johnson (From Kansas to Cannibals) resurrected all those adventuresome women I’d grown up with. After that, Jade grew in my head and took off.
Q. How long did it take you to write the first book, Mark of the Lion? Did you have a good grasp of how to construct a mystery novel, or did you learn as you went along?
A. I learned as I went along. At first, Mark of the Lion (then called Stalking Death) was meant to be more of a suspense/thriller. My editor wanted it to be a true mystery. Who’s going to say no? And she helped me a lot with suggestions. Frankly it’s a far better book as a mystery. I have a very smart editor.
Q. Tell us about your road to publication. Was it easier to find an agent and publisher than you expected, or was it harder? Did you work with your agent and editor on rewrites along the way?
A. It’s work to find either one. For every Cinderella story that makes the news, there are a lot more writers that slog through rejections and don’t give up. I think I was just better at handling rejection. (Remember, I taught junior high and high school.) I found my agent at a conference. She found my editor and I know she worked very hard at it, too. Yes, I worked with both of them on rewrites. I have to believe that they know a lot more about this business than I did or do even now and I should listen to them. And they haven’t steered me wrong.
Q. What would you say is the best part of being a published writer? Do you see any downside to it?
A. The best part is getting paid to send people on a fun adventure, one that I enjoy going on myself. A downside? Trying to fly to a book signing when there’s yet another ice storm. Ick.
Q. You must do a tremendous amount of research for each book. Do you try to do it all before you start writing, or do you research as you go along and the need arises? Has research ever thrown you off-track, when you discovered that something you had in mind wouldn’t work?
A. I do most of the research in advance, but I can’t anticipate everything. Then, it’s back to the books and the library. For example, towards the end of book 5 (Treasure of the Golden Cheetah – Hardcover, October 2009), I needed to delay a train for two days. That sent me on a search to learn about that particular rail line: the gauge of tracks, the locomotives, etc.
There was one problem that came up in Mark of the Lion that altered everything. At first draft, coffee farmers Madeline and Neville Thompson were supposed to go on safari with Jade. While researching coffee farming, I discovered that they would be entering a main harvest. They can hardly leave then. So Beverly, who was not supposed to be in the book after chapter 1, got married and the pair of them came out to see Jade on a honeymoon trip just so I could get another couple on that safari.
Q. You seem to be on an accelerated publishing schedule. How do you manage to cram so much research, writing, and promotion into one year? Do you have much time left for relaxation?
A. I like to hike and so I always find time to get into a forest and walk. When I can’t, that’s why God made 1,000 piece jig-saw puzzles. I find they help me clear my mind a lot. But in order to do all the aforementioned work, some things have to take a back seat. I don’t clean house much. I don’t miss it either. Funny how that works.
Q. When you read purely for pleasure, whose books do you pick up?
A. I’m a very eclectic reader. I love to go back to some old favorites: Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Pride and Prejudice, H. Rider Haggard. I love the Amelia Peabody series, Tony Hillerman, Dana Stabenow. I’m discovering Claire Langley-Hawthorne and Cordelia Biddle as fresh faces in historical mysteries, too. And anything by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. Persevere! When Mark of the Lion sold, I’d garnered over 350 rejects for all my articles and short stories, etc. I operated at a 7.5% success rate and was told that was good. If you want to do the book market, don’t ignore the magazine market. You want a resume to show a would-be agent or editor that you know how to meet deadlines and guidelines and can work with them. Finally, they say you never become successful until you can paper a wall with your rejections. So... choose a small room with low ceilings.