Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A New Voice: Tina Whittle

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Tina Whittle’s first mystery, The Dangerous Edge of Things (February, Poisoned Pen Press), moved a Kirkus reviewer to comment, “If you’re wondering who can give Stephanie Plum a run for her money, meet Tai Randolph.” Library Journal called it an exciting debut with “an original, well-constructed plot” and “a cast of unforgettable characters.”

Tina lives in southeast Georgia with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens). In addition to being an author, she is a professional tarot reader. Visit for more information about her writing and to read about her tarot philosophy and practice. 

Q. Tell us about your book and its protagonist.

A. The Dangerous Edge of Things is the story of Teresa Ann “Tai” Randolph, a former tour guide, who moves to Atlanta, begins working at the Confederate-themed gun shop she inherits from her uncle, and finds a murdered corpse at the end of her brother’s driveway. She also meets a sexy guy (Trey Seaver) who frustrates almost as much as he fascinates. And she decides to quit 
Tai represents that stage of life we all go through where you’ve hit the crossroads. You can continue on the path you’ve been following — which in Tai’s case has been many gypsy years of sampling various professions, dabbling at adulthood — or you can take that strange twisty path off to the left. She has several such crossroads to navigate in the book (including some presented by that sexy guy). But she’s smart, and tough, and not afraid of making a fool of herself. Plus she knows when to ask for help. I think she does pretty well solving her first crime, enough to get a taste for it (which is why I’m hard at work on Book #2 in the series).

Q. Why a gun shop? Are you knowledgeable about guns, or did you have to research the subject?

A. I was having a hard time deciding what kind of life change could drag my heroine from the marshes of Savannah to the urban thicket of Atlanta. Then I met Teri Lowery, a wonderful woman who occupies an unusual demographic niche — she’s a politically liberal female gun shop owner. I immediately signed Tai up for an unexpected inheritance.

Here in Georgia, guns and politics intersect in surprising and challenging ways, especially in Atlanta. As I was writing the final draft of The Dangerous Edge of Things, the rules and restrictions regarding concealed carry were changing almost daily. We had politicians threatening to bring their firearms into the pick-up lanes at Hartsfield International Airport, and law enforcement officers vowing to arrest them on the spot. In the quasi-fictional Atlanta of my novel, there‘s Phoenix, the sleek corporate security agency where my character Trey Seaver works, with its well-armed and well-funded agents. And then there‘s Tai’s ramshackle little shop. Two distinct subcultures. I think fiction, especially mysteries, provides a way for us to explore such complexities.

I grew up in rural Georgia with a father and brother who were hunters, and a mother who was a crack shot even if the only game she bagged was mistletoe. Even though I’ve never hunted, I learned to shoot at an early age. Most importantly, I learned to respect firearms and to treat them with care, seriousness, and common sense.

Q. Which comes first for you, the characters or the plot? 

A. I am such a character-driven writer — I can’t imagine creating a plot without knowing my people first, especially since my plotting strategy follows that old adage of put your characters up a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them down. Of course we mystery writers also like to have branches snap and tumble every now and then, just to keep things interesting. But I always begin with character. Each element of the action flows from the choices and decisions of my people, so unless I know their personalities, the plot is just a series of unconnected events.

That said, I always have a general idea of the kind of story I want to tell and the initial complication or crime that will start the narrative rolling. But if I’ve done my character work well, all I have to do is run them up that tree and watch what they do while I throw those rocks.

Q. Poisoned Pen Press editor  Barbara Peters calls Trey Seaver “a character who can rip out your heart.” Where did this emotionally damaged man come from? Was he inspired by someone in real life, or is he entirely a creature of your imagination?

A. A friend described Trey as “sexy, scary and heartbreaking all at the same time.“ He is Tai’s most intriguing complication, and I’ll admit, I find him fascinating too. Unlike Tai, he has no real life counterpart, but he does have a factual inspiration, an article in Scientific American on aphasic stroke victims (people who have lost the ability to speak resulting from stroke damage to certain parts of the brain). This article explained that such people were much more gifted than average at knowing when other people were lying. In fact, their abilities were CIA-caliber, without any special training.

I decided that a person with such abilities would make an interesting detective, even if this one strength came packaged with many challenges. And thus Trey, my fictional character, was born. His injury isn't aphasic, but as I researched the neuroscience that went into figuring him out, I read about real life traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivors dealing with some of the most profound and baffling changes the human body can throw at you. I hope Trey represents the never-say-never spirit that TBI survivors bring to their daily lives.

Q. Is this the first novel you’ve written, or do you have others that weren’t published?

A. The Dangerous Edge of Things is my first traditional mystery novel, but there are three paranormal romances lying under my bed, probably morphing into some zombie-like single entity.

In a strange turn of events, several hundred copies of [one of them], By Blood and By Fire, were printed as demo works by a friend of mine in the printing industry. She needed some unpublished work to show potential clients what her company’s snazzy new printer could do. I consented, only I made her promise she wouldn’t put my real name on it. She didn’t — she credited it to Tai Randolph. So in a sense, my fictional heroine was a published novelist before I was.

When I asked myself the crucial question, though — what did I enjoy reading? — the answer wasn’t paranormal romance. My To-Be-Read stack was a toppling skyscraper of mystery novels. So I signed up for a class in writing crime fiction at my local university.

The first draft of The Dangerous Edge of Things was completed in the summer of 2003. It too spent a lot of time under the bed, being shaped in stages. I owe an immense debt to the Guppies critique group I found through Sisters in Crime and to my cherished writer friends. I especially owe Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen Press, who worked patiently with this newbie writer. She suggested the title — it’s from a poem by Robert Browning — and helped me shape my manuscript into an honest-to-goodness real book. A good editor is a necessity, but a great one is a blessing. And Barbara is one of the greats.

Q. What writers have influenced you most? Which authors are on your must-read list?

A. Since I am influenced by every piece of prose that runs through my head, for good or ill, I make it a point to read only really good stuff now. For crime fiction, Dana Stabenow and Julia Spencer-Fleming are my idols — I love their plots, but it’s their series characters that bring me back time and again.

Q. Who was the first person you told after your novel was accepted for publication?

A. The stupendous news came as an e-mail, so my husband and daughter and I found out almost simultaneously. My husband said he could tell by the look on my face before I said a word. And then the rest of the day was a variation on this theme:

Me: (babbles news)
Friend: SCREAM!

I kept watching for the e-mail that would take it all back, the one where Barbara would apologize for the error, say that she’d had too much cough syrup or something, and then rescind the offer which was obviously meant for some more talented writer. That e-mail never came. And the paranoid worries have mostly vanished. Mostly.

Q. Do you feel ready to become a published writer? What are you looking forward to most?

A. I’ve already experienced a lot of the things I had been gleefully anticipating — the first good review, the first time I introduced myself as a mystery writer, the first time I held a hard copy of my book in my hands. What I’m most looking forward to now is connecting with readers, hearing what they have to say about these characters I’ve created, and sustaining the relationship with my audience as I write Book #2 (and hopefully Book #3, and so on). Writers write because we seek a home in the wide world for our visions and ideas and these crazy people who live in our imagination. Getting to do this for fun and profit is beyond my wildest dreams.


Bobbye Terry said...

Great interview Tina. This book sounds great because it's different! You deserve the wonderful reviews you're getting. My best on exploding into stardom.

Tina said...

Thanks, Bobbye -- and congrats on your own successes! I'm going to take you up on your dare and see if I can spot the killer in Coming to Climax when it comes out on Labor Day (you promised clues, so we'll see how adept I am at that end of the game).

Thanks for stopping by!

Pauline Alldred said...

Interesting interview, Tina and you confirm what I have come to believe that a writer has to let characters and stories perk for a while before they are fully understood. Congratulations on your reviews and I look forward to reading your series.

Tina said...

Thank you, Pauline. I am a big fan of perking in any creative endeavor -- glad to see that you agree. Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you enjoy the book.

Susanna Ives said...

The characters and setting make the Dangerous Edge of Things wonderful. The plot is great, but it's Tai's voice that keeps everything moving along. Great read.

Tina said...

Thanks Susannah! That means a lot coming from a writer I admire as much as I admire you! Thanks for stopping by!

Liz Fichera said...

Wonderful post! I've got Tina's book in my hot little hands. Waiting for a nice quiet weekend to get lost in it. Go, Tina!!