. . . and writing and community service.
Not all that long ago, the cozy mystery could be spotted a mile away: cats, tea, quirky characters, a police officer who despaired of getting any work done because of the interfering amateur detective, etc. In the last few years the tradition has changed, but publishers insist on using the same terms. Today Sharon Fiffer, author of the Jane Wheel mystery series talks what it means to be labeled a cozy writer.
How did you become known as a cozy writer?
When St. Martin's bought my first book, I didn't know what a cozy was, was unfamiliar with the term, and my editor told me that "cozy" might be my marketing niche, but my books weren't really that cozy, so I wasn't to worry about it or any label. After that, in every review and on every panel at every convention, I was referred to as a cozy writer. At first, I thought that particular label diminished my books—wasn't I a mystery novelist? Why the categories and why the marginalizing of writers into categories—especially, why was I relegated to "cozy?" Neither I nor Jane Wheel even own a cat! I begged conference planners to mix up the panels (thinking I was the first to think of that!) and wrote a "give-and-take" article for a fan magazine with a noir writer and took every opportunity to explain that I wasn't a cozy, cozy writer.
Then, a few years ago, after a Bouchercon panel, a reader/fan approached me and asked why all the writers she loved spent all their time denying they wrote the very type of books she loved—cozies! And I realized that all this self-loathing, this need to identify myself differently or deny any category was only important to me—not to my readers, not to anyone who loved Jane Wheel and looked forward to her adventures. I could talk until I was blue in the face about Jane's story arc and the novelistic approach I take—rather than the heavy action and break-neck speed—how I long for a sense of place and development of character more than the plot-heavy story—but all of that was only important to me. My readers demand a good story, an honest problem, a sensible solution and a lot of Jane Wheel, her friends, her mother and the stuff which she obsessively gravitates toward.
What is that stuff that Jane gravitates toward?
Bakelite and old photos and old books and depression glass and crocheted potholders, etc. that tell her the stories of peoples' lives, of what people leave behind.
Jane almost swoons for Bakelite. What is it? How do you recognize a really good piece of it?
Bakelite is an early plastic that was invented primarily for use in industry—it was sturdy and didn't melt, so could be used for electrical plugs, etc. It could be colored and carved and it begin to have a second and wildly successful life as dimestore jewelry. Bangles bracelets, pins, some with intricate carving and dangling fruit, dress clips, beads, pendants—all in gorgeous saturated colors. And when metal went to the war effort, I think it got an even greater boost as colorful, cheery decorative pieces.
Production stopped because, as with many beautiful, colorful things (think gummi bears and jujubees) it turns out to be not so good for you. The production of Bakelite was highly polluting. Formaldehyde was used or given off as a by-product—my chemistry is a little weak here—and that very formaldehyde smell is what will reveal a true piece of vintage Bakelite.
Take a piece of what you suspect—a butterscotch bracelet with nice deep carving—and rub the piece between your thumb and forefinger. Does it give off a chemical, formaldehyde smell? If it does, it’s probably Bakelite, particularly if the red, green, or butterscotch piece has a muted, deepening of color. The patina of true, vintage Bakelite makes us all go a little weak in the knees.
I allow Jane Wheel to find it for almost nothing in the books, but I can't afford most of it in real life, except for the way I fell into it years ago. Before everyone was collecting buttons, I would find a big tin at a rummage sale, open the lid and the chemical smell was overwhelming. I'd buy the whole thing for $2 and take it home to sort through, finding all kinds of beautiful Bakelite buttons. I felt like a prospector panning for gold! Alas, those $2 tins of great-grandma's buttons are a distant memory.
Do you still make the rounds of estate sales, garage sales, etc? What's it like to handle possessions that were once a part of people's lives and are now discarded? Do you get immediate vibrations of a story from some items, or do you have to bring the piece home and possess it for a while before it will tell you its story?
I still go to sales, although not quite with the same fervor. I went through a period where, I, like Jane, would go through the classifieds on Thursdays like a pirate might study a treasure map. I would lift out the most desirable ads with scotch tape and then put them on a big sheet of white paper, in a logical driving order, and voila! My own Saturday morning itinerary. I don't do that now, but there are rummage sales I don't miss and I still pull over at the sight of a well stocked yard on a Saturday morning. I even work occasionally for an estate sale company.
A few years ago years ago, I paid for something at a conducted sale with a check, and the cashier asked if I was the one who wrote the books. When I said yes, she took me around and introduced me to everyone and the estate sale company owner, Walter, asked if I wanted to work a sale to see what the other side was like. I did—for research—and was hooked. I try to work a few sales a year with the company.
Prepping a house tells me a million stories. It also reveals secrets: what people hoarded, what they thought should be treasured. I always ask the children/heirs if they know the stories behind certain things. They might not know what I ask them, but they tell me other stories of their house memories and it's always evocative and real.
I've told this story before, but I probably should say it again, as briefly as possible. I wandered into a house sale well over twenty years ago at the end of the day. I had never gone to a "house sale" where the entire estate is being sold off. This was a small nondescript house and it was almost cleaned out. In a back bedroom, I found a box of frames and while looking through them, found wedding pictures. It almost broke my heart. Didn't this couple have anyone who wanted those, who wanted to take them home? Wasn't there a cousin who could stick them in a drawer rather than let strangers paw through them? And to add insult to injury, they were still there at the end of the sale. So, I bought them. I brought them home and began telling my husband and eventually my kids when they asked that yes, they were strangers, but someone had to adopt them. I believe that's when Jane Wheel was born.
As far as specific objects that tell a story, when I was writing The Wrong Stuff, I discovered a small typewriter ribbon tin with great art deco graphics. I felt that it demanded a place on Jane's shelf and then I used her find of a similar tin to help her figure things out. Part of what Jane has naturally—an eye for detail and a love of the objects themselves—is perfect for a detective. Part of what she learns from Detective Oh about listening, observing, allowing yourself to be a part of someone's life so they will tell you things helps develop the other side of her detecting personality.
I can't tell you—well I could, but I won't—how many old wooden recipe boxes I have. Okay, I'll tell you. Fifteen. I always think I'll remove the recipe cards and use them to store my other little things like buttons, industrial safety pins, sewing notions—stuff—but I have never been able to discard any of those recipes and scraps of paper stuffed into those boxes. I love to cook, but I don't save them for the jello recipes and brisket marinades. I save them because they seem like history to me. This is what what one woman prepared for her family, or more likely, wanted to prepare for her family or believed that she would make someday for a Sunday supper or a birthday party. The more margin notes and yellowed newspaper tear-outs, the better. Now those boxes tell me a story. They certainly gave me Lula, an important character from Buried Stuff.
You and your husband wrote a non-fiction book called Fifty Ways To Help Your Community: A Handbook for Change. Tell us about why you feel that communities are essential to bringing about change.
My husband was raised to believe that one should always give back to the community: coach a sport, serve on a community organization, volunteer, etc. I was brought up by parents, the real Don and Nellie, who believed you should work back-breakingly hard, be honest and mind your own business. I was also brought up marginally Catholic, and at Bishop McNamara high school, we all belonged to various service organizations, so some kind of volunteerism was built into my life. When Steve and I got married and had children, we coached, we volunteered in the schools, all the usual things, but we felt something was missing in the example we were giving our children.
Steve is Jewish, I was raised Catholic, but we didn't practice organized religion. We thought we could just raise them to be ethical and humanitarian and spiritual, but a funny thing happened. We realized that all around us, through their churches and clubs, people were trying to help others in a very hands-on way. We talked a good game, but we weren't really doing much beyond the minimum.
This led us to starting a "books and breakfast" program at our children's elementary school. Once we did it, and organized so many families in the school to participate, we realized that if we could take a problem—children coming hungry to school, facing conflicts on the playground before the first bell—and do something about it, there must be many others, all over the country tackling problems in their own neighborhoods. We wanted to profile these problem solvers and offer a blueprint to others who might be able to learn how to tackle similar problems in their own communities. Who knows your problems better? What's the simplest solution? You won't know if you can be effective until you try. Since Steve and I are writers, we chronicle just about everything we do, and my diary of the Books and Breakfast Program is the last chapter of the Fifty Ways book. The message was supposed to be if we can do it, believe us, anyone can!
In an attempt to break the stereotype, some people have changed from referring to books as traditional mysteries rather than cozies. What do you think are the important elements of the kind of books you write?
Readers want Jane to be real, honest, and to touch their heads and their hearts. And I want her to be funny and capable and able to right the wrongs in her world and inch toward self-awareness, and to get along better with her mother and not be so hard on herself! And it is only recently that I realized all those labels—cozy, noir, suspense, police procedural—don't matter. My job is to write the best books I can, to not take any shortcuts or easy ways out, and especially not to worry about any labels or categories.
Tell us about your new book.
Scary Stuff is a little bit of a ghost story in a personal way. I don't want to give away too much, but in SS, Jane discovers a family secret, a skeleton in the closet so to speak. It's based on a real secret in my own family. I wrote about it in the introduction to a collection of memoirs that Steve and I edited for Pantheon—Family: American Writers Remember Their Own—so it's not like I'm revealing it for the first time.
It is, however, much different for Jane Wheel. Highly fictionalized and different, but nonetheless, puzzling to her. How can a family give up one of its members? And since she's about to face some issues in her own nuclear family, it will continue to resonate. Oh yes, there's a mystery, too: internet fraud, attempted murder, and a battle over stuff—lots of kitchenalia!
Nellie also has a heavy hand in this story. My own mother, Nellie, died a few years ago at age 92, and she was as feisty as Jane's mother Nellie. I think one of the real advantages of being a writer is that I get to keep Nellie young and vital and funny and mean and ornery in the books, just as cantankerous as she was the whole time I had her with me.
To find out more about Sharon, her books, stuff, and to see wonderful wedding photos that people have rescued, visit Sharon’s web site. Scary Stuff will be in bookstores September 29, just in time for Halloween.
Canada Calling returns next month in it's usual 3rd weekend slot.