Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Bernadette Pajer's first novel, A Spark of Death, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.
Tell us a little about A Spark of Death.
A Spark of Death is an historical mystery set in 1901 Seattle. The sleuth is Benjamin Bradshaw, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. A widower with an eight-year-old son, his carefully controlled life is shattered when he finds a colleague dead in the engineering laboratory, and as the only suspect, he sets out to find the killer.
How would you describe Professor Bradshaw? What kind of man is he?
He's a highly intelligent and deeply emotional man who protects himself by being withdrawn and avoiding society. He tends toward obsession when ideas strike. He's a practical hands-on inventor, loves the precision and absoluteness of math but finds more abstract theory challenging (this makes him an excellent teacher because he finds graspable descriptions for both himself and his students). Behind his dour exterior lurks the heart of a poet, touched by beauty, haunted by his past, and devoted to his small family.
An electrical engineering professor is an unusual choice for a hero, and electrical forensics is a previously unexplored area in mystery novels. Why did you choose this protagonist and this specialty? Do you have a background in electrical engineering?
I know it sounds cliché, but I don't feel I chose Bradshaw's profession. The idea of him came fully formed, as characters sometimes do. There he was, in my head, in my heart, this wounded, dour Professor, thrilled with electricity and its promising future. Since I am not an electrical engineer, I knew I had a lot of research and much studying to do. I should have been daunted, but I was determined to bring Bradshaw alive on the page and willing to do the work. Almost the instant the manuscript sold, I went in search of an engineer to check the technical portions, and I found Bill Beaty, a research engineer at the UW. He generously and enthusiastically read the entire manuscript and provided valuable suggestions. I was pleased that I'd gotten most everything right, and Bill helped me fine tune the detail to a level that would satisfy even an electrical engineer (such as using the term "electric discharge" in some places rather than "electricity.")
Moving Bradshaw into electrical forensics as the series progresses was my idea (and Bradshaw is cooperating), because I wanted to give him a legitimate reason for being involved in future investigations. Like Brother Cadfael in Ellis Peters' series, Bradshaw's ability to solve puzzling crimes will bring murder often to his doorstep.
Why did you decide to set your story in early 20th century Seattle? What does the historical setting offer you as a storyteller that you might not have in a modern setting?
Distance. Seriously. I like that filter of time. It frees me to write honestly of subjects I wouldn't feel comfortable addressing in a contemporary setting. I'm a bit of an odd duck for a writer – I don't like to journal or keep a diary. When I try to write about here and now, I censor too much, am too aware of an audience. I wrote a contemporary mystery a couple years or ago. My agent was going to send it out to make the rounds, but I decided at the last minute to shelve it for awhile. I don't know whether aspects of that story are too honest, or not honest enough. Probably some of each. But I knew it, and I, weren't ready yet. But my historical with Bradshaw was ready, and my wonderful, supportive agent resubmitted A Spark of Death, and this time it sold.
Is this the first novel you’ve written, or do you have others stuck in a drawer, the way many writers do? Tell us about your development as a writer.
Oh, goodness. Well, I dug into my old files and here's the scoop. I submitted my first manuscript to an agent in, gulp, 1988. A contemporary romance, the typical first-novel coming of age sort of thing. The agent said I wrote “with warmth if not yet with sufficient discipline,” which was generous of her. I had no idea, really, what I was doing. She kindly put me in the care of a new agent, and I thought I would soon be published. Hah!
Another ten manuscripts (three never left home) and at least sixty-three rejections later, I was still unsold. I was writing historical romance by then, and some time-travel romance, and the editors were saying very nice things, and I was feeling confident in my work. I'd gotten a few revision letters, and worked once with an editor for a year on a proposal she ultimately didn't buy. I went through a bit of a crisis at that point, both professionally and personally. Besides pursuing writing, I was pursuing motherhood, and not succeeding there either. I decided to make a fresh start with everything. I left the literary agency I'd been with all those years with thanks for all the support they'd given me, and took some time to rediscover my joy of reading and writing.
That's when I wrote A Spark of Death, with Professor Bradshaw, who I'd first written about years before. It felt like coming home. I loved being in his world, doing the research, exploring old Seattle, learning about life and love and electricity through him. By now my craft was solid (although one never stops learning), and I believed whole-heartedly in the manuscript. I found a new agent, Jill Grosjean, who luckily felt the same way. It took about ten years, two revisions, an interim manuscript (that contemporary never sent out), and 22 rejections before I finally got a yes. There's more to that story, but this answer is long enough. Oh, and in that time, I returned to college and got my degree, and most wonderful of all, my son was born.
What draws you to crime fiction, as opposed to mainstream or literary writing?
It took me years to figure out, but this is where my voice belongs. I enjoy reading literary works, but I don't have a literary voice. I'm a commercial fiction writer. I love a good story, I love escaping into another world, and I like a happy or at least satisfying ending where the good guy wins and I get a sense of closure. I like to read books where every word serves a purpose, either to move the plot forward, heighten tension, or ground me in the setting, and I try to write in that same way.
What writers have influenced you and served as role models? Whose books do you rush to read as soon as they’re published?
Dick Francis for his tight writing, P.D. James for her depth of characters and detailed settings, Ruth Rendell for her haunting emotions, and some of the classics like Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers for their clever plots and distinct voice. I'm not a rush-out-to read sort of person, and I'm as happy discovering a book at the library that was published twenty years ago as I am seeing a favorite author's new title released. So many books, so little time!
Has anything about the publishing process surprised you? Do you feel ready to become a published author?
I feel like Dorothy walking out of her house into Munchkinland. For so many years, I was in that black-and-white world on the other side of the publishing door. And then it opened, and nothing's been quite the same since. Well, I still have laundry and dishes to do – why don't publishing contracts come with housekeeping clauses?
I've been surprised at how time-consuming promotion is. Website maintenance, writing blog posts, contacting bookstores, joining writing and reading groups and interacting with them. I must confess I waste a fair amount of time searching the Internet to see where my book pops up (after decades of reaching for this goal, I figure I'm entitled to a little self-indulgence). The first time I saw my title and name online, you should have heard my squeals. That's when it felt most real. I had an ISBN!
A year ago, when the manuscript sold, I didn't feel ready for the public aspect of being a published author. Good thing it takes so long to get a book out! I've learned so much since then, and while I'm nervous about beginning my tour, I'm also eager. This is my dream come true!
Visit Bernadette’s website at http://www.bernadettepajer.com.