Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Classic Approach to Mystery: An Interview with G.M. Malliet

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

G.M. Malliet’s Death of a Cozy Writer, first in a series featuring Detective Chief Inspector St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, has been described as "wicked, witty, and full of treats" by Peter Lovesey and hailed as "a delightful homage to the great novels of Britian's Golden Age of mysteries" by Nancy Pearl on NPR. It has been nominated for the Agatha Award for best first novel (winners will be announced at Malice Domestic on May 2) and the Left Coast Crime/Hawaii Five-O Award for best police procedural. It was selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books of 2008. Her recently released second novel, Death and the Lit Chick, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

An American, G.M. attended Oxford University and holds a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. She is a former journalist and copywriter and lives with her husband in Virginia.

[Note: The other four Agatha nominees in the best first novel category h
ave also been featured on Poe’s Deadly Daughters in recent months. If you’d like to learn more about Sheila Connolly, Krista Davis, Rosemary Harris, and Joanna Campbell Slan, enter their names in the blog search box to bring up their interviews or guest blogs.]

Q. Congratulations on your Agatha and Hawaii Five-O award nominations for Death of a Cozy Writer! How does it feel to be honored this way for your first book?

A. It feels incredible—like winning the lottery, only better. In the case of awards and nominations—as you know, Sandra!—you first have to work incredibly hard before you get lucky. It is extremely satisfying to have the effort acknowledged.

Q. What inspired you to write a series modeled after the classic British cozies? Do you reread any of your favorites while you’re writing?

A. I wrote the type of book I love to read. I’d read all the “Golden Agers,” some of them several times over, and while I didn’t think I could match them, I did think I
might have fun sending up some of the conventions of the genre.

When I’
m writing, I read a lot of non-fiction. The third book in the St. Just series has a sculling and rowing theme, so I had the excuse to indulge my love of the sport with so-called research. I also try to read The New Yorker religiously, hoping the magnificent writing therein will wear off on me. I just discovered the “Eminent Lives” series—Bill Bryson’s contribution on Shakespeare’s life is wonderfully funny. All the writers in this series are masters.

Q. You take some chances in Death of a Cozy Writer – using omniscient viewpoint and a Golden Age tone for a modern story. Did you encounter resistance from agents or editors when you were marketing it? Were there some who just didn't get what you were doing?

A. I didn’t set out to mystify anyone with Death of a Cozy Writer, but that is what frequently happened, yes. The funny thing is, I really had no idea I was doing anything unusual. As a writer, I love omniscient viewpoint, because it allows you to get inside the heads of all the characters. That is much more entertaining, I think, for both writer and reader. The challenge for the writer comes, of course, in not getting too far inside the killer’s head and giving the game away.

Q. You’re obviously very fond of Britain. What draws you to that setting? Do you travel there often?

A. I’m not sure where the anglophilia came from: It may have started with early exposure to National Velvet or Black Beauty. I try to get back to Great Britain once a year. This year I’m hoping for an extended stay to include a pilgrimage to Wallingford, where Agatha Christie lived many years with her husband Max, and Greenway, her home in Devon. Added bonus: I just read somewhere that Wallingford is frequently used as a setting for the Midsomer Murders TV series.

Q. Death of a Cozy Writer is written in a distinctive, wryly humorous voice. Does that style came naturally to you, or do you have to consciously work at maintaining it throughout a book?

A. I have tried to “write serious” and I find I can’t maintain the tone for long. Some bit of nonsense always wants to creep in, so I let it.

Q. What do you see as the differences between the classic British mysteries and the crafts, cooking, and cats cozies being published today in the U.S.? Any thoughts on why Britain, where cozies were born, produces so few cozy writers these days?

A. I don’t know what’s going on in Britain with all the gloomy books. But I have the idea Agatha Christie—despite the humorous mannerisms she gave Poirot and Marple—felt she was accurately depicting a world fraught with evil. Perhaps nothing has changed, except that the depictions of violence have become more graphic.

Q. Was this the first book you'd written, or do you – like most of us – have a few manuscripts you weren't able to sell?

A. I have a romantic suspense novel that I didn’t try very hard to sell (I think I knew without the need of formal rejection that it was middling at best). I also have in my possession many mysteries that were abandoned at the fifty-page mark. The first fifty or so pages of Death of a Cozy Writer won the Malice Domestic grant and I wonder if, without that encouragement, I would have finished the book. It’s a scary thought.

Q. Did you, like so many authors, spend a long time writing, rewriting, and polishing your first published book before it sold? How long, altogether, did you work on it? By comparison, how long have you spent writing your second and third books? Do you plan to be a book-a-year author, and if so, how difficult has the adjustment to that schedule been?

A. A book a year seems to be the norm but I would much rather have eighteen months: I’m a stupendously slow writer and, like Oscar Wilde, I can spend a day deciding whether a comma should go or stay.

I guess it took me over a year to finish Death of a Cozy Writer once I’d won the Malice grant, and I spent a lot of time trying to sell the completed manuscript. Then for some reason I decided that even though the first book hadn’t sold, I’d start work on the second book in the series. I have no idea why I didn’t immediately register this effort as futile. But, it was a lucky thing I did something so quixotic, because when Cozy Writer finally sold the acquiring editor asked me if I had a second book planned. Well, yes, I did, as a matter of fact, so she offered a two-book contract. The third book took me a little longer than a year, and that’s because so much of the responsibility for promotion at every publishing house has fallen onto authors’ shoulders. Authors quickly find themselves on a rolling tumbrel, promoting one book or another, to the point of forgetting which book we’re supposed to be talking about. Authors need, I think, that eighteen months to do it all—especially authors with fulltime jobs and kids to raise—but I also don’t think it’s going to happen.

Q. What aspect of fiction writing gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction? Which has been most difficult for you to master?

A. Looking back and seeing that from the first tentative swipes, a manuscript is emerging—a book that has come from nowhere, and from everywhere. That process is fascinating.

What is difficult is keeping all the characters straight and even remembering what room I left them sitting in. Especially in a traditional British-type story, there tend to be a lot of suspects, and it’s easy to leave one in the bedroom dozing on a window seat only to find he’s somehow moved over to the drawing room and furthermore he’s now perched on an ottoman. Plus, he’s grown a goatee. I use schematics, sketches, lists, charts, and diagrams galore and still spend a lot of time looking for the inconsistencies that creep in.

Q. How is your life different now that you’re a published author? Is everything working out the way you expected, or have you been surprised by some aspects of publishing?

A. I now write fulltime, seven or eight hours a day once I settle into a story, and I try to take the weekends off. That is good advice from Nora Roberts I read somewhere—to treat writing as any other job and not let it consume you. When I moved to fulltime writing, I was afraid I’d develop weird, loner tics and walk around all day in my bathrobe (Louise Penny describes this as the tendency to sit around watching Oprah whilst eating gummy bears). It hasn’t happened yet (knock wood). I am living my dream and extremely grateful for it, although I do wish someone would invent a chair that is comfortable to sit in eight hours a day.

Q. Have you found writers’ organizations helpful? Would you advise aspiring writers to become active in mystery writers’ groups even before they’re published?

A. Absolutely. If you don’t join Sisters in Crime, you are probably only prolonging the agony of being unpublished. The networking, the good advice, the camaraderie—priceless.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are still struggling to break into print?

A. I’m not sure I’ve been around book publishing long enough to be dispensing advice. But the “trite” and true advice holds: Write every day, if only for an hour. A manuscript will emerge, or a short story. Enter reputable contests; submit to anthologies—this gives you a deadline, which focuses the mind wonderfully.

Most of all, develop a Zen-like patience. If you love what you’ve written, rest assured someone else will love it, too—eventually.


Sheila Connolly said...

As another reader of classic mysteries, I found your book delightful. Tell me--what kind of response have you had from readers who don't bring that kind of literary/historical context?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...


I'm just laughing, picturing you deciding about the comma. And the decisions turned out so nicely!

Let me ask--after getting your contract, how did your idea of "yourself as a writer" change? Deadlines, responsibilities, that it's an actual job where someone is wating for the results? That readers are--out there, waiting?

Congratulations to all the Agatha nominees!

G.M. Malliet said...

Sheila - Thank you so much! To a certain extent, I think you have to be a fan of the classic Golden Age-type mystery to "get" my books, and not all young readers have that anymore, alas. The fast-paced novel with short, Twitter-like chapters and a murder described in gory detail on the first page may be more what they're used to.

A lot of this is driven by the marketplace, I know, which is probably why Cozy Writer took so long to sell. I simply wasn't what anyone was looking for.

G.M. Malliet said...

Hank - You would be laughing even harder if you saw how long it took me to compose my response to Sheila just now. I am such a ditherer.

I can only tell you that while having an editor buy my book and turn me into a mystery writer at last was exhilarating, it was also scary. If it were a matter of just writing the books, that would be one thing, but the publicity machine seemed relentless. I am more used to it now but in the early days I was truly overwhelmed, trying to juggle too many things.

Alan Orloff said...

Hi G.M.,

Nice interview.

You suggested that aspiring mystery writers join SinC, as a way to learn how to write and learn how the business works (in addition to writing every day). What is your opinion about critique groups? Now that you're a published author, do you belong to one?

And what's so wrong with weird, loner tics and walking around in one's bathrobe?

G.M. Malliet said...

Alan - It may depend on what color bathrobe. If it's yellow chenille with a tufted frog applique, like mine, it may already be too late to save you.

I think it was with Hank I had a discussion about critique groups, in which we both said we were not joiners in that regard. I tend to listen to the last thing anyone tells me, and I think I would soon go mad changing this and that, and maybe changing it all around again, probably to the detriment of the story.

But SinC is useful in so many ways, because its members are so generous with their time and knowledge. Just lurking around the listserves you pick up so much good advice.

Sandra Parshall said...

I want to put in a word for G.M.'s second book, DEATH AND THE LIT CHICK, which I found absolutely hilarious. Any writer will see characters in it who remind them strongly of real people they've encountered in the book business.

G.M., I don't suppose you'd be willing to reveal whether a particular person inspired the Lit Chick at the center of the story...

G.M. Malliet said...

Sandra, the honest answer is no! My characters are partly imagined, but they also contain bits and pieces of me (good and bad). This sounds very strange but I've heard other writers say the same about their process, which came as a huge relief: I'm not alone.

I am so glad you liked Lit Chick!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Gosh, GM, omniscient is hard to spell--much less master. You'll have to share your secrets!

G.M. Malliet said...

Joanna - Spellcheck saves me every time. Well, almost every time. ;-)

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the great interview, Sandra and GM! Count me as a fan of the golden age mystery.

Writing for 8 hours a day sounds intimidating, but I doubt I'll ever have to worry about that schedule. ;)

The rowing and sculling sounds interesting!

G.M. Malliet said...

Julia - It's more like sitting at a desk all day, with a lunch break. Some days it is mostly writing. Those are good days.

N. J. Lindquist said...

I will be looking for your books. I thought I was the only one writing Golden Age/traditional/classic or whatever you call it mysteries - though mine are set in Toronto, not England. :)

Don't know why more people don't write them - I keep having to reread Christie/Heyer/Marsh, etc. They're just so much broader or genteel or something.

G.M. Malliet said...

N.J. - The classic mystery is comfort reading. And when you consider that the subject is murder, that is very odd!

N. J. Lindquist said...

Yeah, I think about that sometimes. Why is it that we're so attracted to stories about murder when it's the very last thing we'd want to happen in real life? And how can you have a genteel murder? But it's possible. And it is comfort. You know there will be justice in the end. And good will triumph over evil.

I have your books ordered! :)

G.M. Malliet said...

N.J. - thanks so much! I hope you enjoy them.

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