Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cornelia Read: From Stringbean to Maddy Dare

Interviewed by
Sandra Parshall

Cornelia Read is a refugee from the Social Register who was raised by hippies on the California coast. Her first novel, A Field of Darkness, was published in 2006 to rave reviews and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second book, The Crazy School, will be out in January 2008. She lives in California with her husband and two daughters.

Loved the photo of you in a tux at the Edgars banquet. How much work was involved in getting into it?

You can’t tell in the photo, but it’s actually tails. I got the shirt, vest, tie, and collar from Brooks Brothers. The shirtbox was printed with an eight-step set of directions for getting all of it on, which took half an hour with my sister Freya’s and friend Heidi’s assistance.

I have gained a new and profound empathy for the plight of Victorian men.

What was it like to be at the Edgar Awards as a nominee? Stressful, dream come true, or less exciting than you expected?

I cannot remember ever having more fun during the course of a single twenty-four-hour period. I mean, getting to hang out in a banquet hall jammed to the rafters with my favorite people… the only thing at all comparable would be joining up with a bunch of scathingly well-read and articulate pirates to commandeer a super-tanker of Dom Perignon off the coast of Monte Carlo.


Now that you’ve accumulated all the rave reviews, plus an Edgar nomination, you can relax in the knowledge that your first book has been a success. But did you have any doubts and fears before it was released? Did you have nightmares about it ending up on remainder tables, marked down to $2.95?

I still have those nightmares, only there’s a huge DayGlo sign on each table that says, “Three for $.99! Burns like a charm in campfires, woodstoves!”

How long were you writing before you published? Did you always want to write mysteries?

I’ve been writing since second grade—mostly dreck, but it was fun.

I was more about espionage than mystery, as a kid. Passed through a serious Harriet-the-Spy/Ian Fleming phase, following close on the heels of my Batman/Lawrence-of-Arabia period.

I wrote the diary of a child CIA agent when I was in sixth grade. The title was “Call Me Stringbean.”

Like most writers, you probably spent a long time perfecting your first book before you sold it. Do you remember how many drafts you did of A Field of Darkness?

I started writing it the week before 9/11, 2001 and my agent was finally happy with the final version just before New Year’s, 2005. I did two more rewrites with my first editor, Kristen Weber.

I don’t know exactly how many drafts that was, all told, but I still have every page of them piled up in the top shelf of my desk—each incarnation of the thing, in chronological order—and the stack’s over two feet tall. Weyerhauser loves me.

Was the second book more challenging, or less, than the first?

Writing The Crazy School was terrifying. Partly because I didn’t want to disappoint the people who were so kind about Field, and partly because I am a total wuss whose self-confidence is a delicate little flower—pale and wan, trembling in the slightest zephyr.

Did you always intend to write a series, or did you want to write stand-alones?

I hoped a publisher would like A Field of Darkness well enough to entertain the idea of a series featuring Madeline Dare. She seemed like a chick it would be fun for me to embark on continuing adventures with, but I didn’t know if anyone else would agree.

I’ve just started the third novel in the series, but am hoping to try my hand at a World War II thriller for number four. I am completely, obsessively smitten with the idea I have for that book—very much hope my agent and editor think it’s worth doing.

Does your editor require that you submit an outline or proposal for a book before you start writing?

They didn’t for the first two. I described the third one over the phone and my new editor, Les Pockell, liked the idea. Madeline travels to Kashmir around 1990, and the first line is, “ ‘I hate India,’ said my mother. ‘It’s just so Sixties.’ ”

For the fourth they’ve requested a written pitch.

You’re a wife and the mother of two daughters. Has it been hard to balance home life, book promotion and travel, and writing?

Very, very, very hard… on everyone. I never feel as though I’m doing any of it well enough: parenting, writing, promotion, marriage. I live with a constant undercurrent of guilt and unfolded laundry.

I’ve started daydreaming about kibbutzes—also polygamy.

Do you still have the same critique partners you had before you sold your first book?

Yes, and they’re amazing. I am lucky lucky lucky lucky to have found my writing group. May blessings rain upon them for all eternity. [Cornelia, second from left in the above photo, is shown with her critique partners, Daisy James, Sharon Johnson, and Karen Murphy.]

What’s the best thing about being a published writer? What’s the worst?

The best thing is the people I’ve had the great good fortune to meet as a result. See above: Pirates. Dom Perignon.

The worst is when things don’t go the way I want for fellow writers. This is a subjective, no-backs-no-gives, despite-our-best-intentions-and-purity-of-essence crapshoot of a business, for all concerned.

I want the good guys to win, damn it.

What aspects of your writing have you worked hardest to improve? Who are some of the writers you’ve learned from, and what have you learned from them?

I have the hardest time with tangents. I get carried away, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the… um… yeah.

Suffice it to say that my revisions require stout boots and a sharp machete.

Listing the fiction writers who’ve taught me by example would crash your server. Every book you read can teach you about writing—both what works and what doesn’t.

The last three books I’ve read are examples of what works superbly well: Ken Bruen’s Priest, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Alan Furst’s Dark Star.

Books specifically on writing that I’ve learned crucial stuff from include:

You Can Write a Mystery
Gillian Roberts

Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel: How To Knock 'Em Dead With Style
Hallie Ephron

If You Want to Write
Brenda Ueland

On Writing
Stephen King

Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott

The Art of the Novel
Milan Kundera

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
John Gardner

Self-editing for Fiction Writers
Renni Brown and Dave King

A friend of mine says it’s bad enough that The Sopranos is coming to an end and The Wire’s new season doesn’t start till September -- why does she also have to wait so long for your next book? Can you give her a little taste of the story to help her survive?

Can I say I am in love L-U-V with your friend? Because I so am.

Here is a brief rundown of The Crazy School: Madeline has fled Syracuse, New York, for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. She’s teaching at a boarding school for disturbed kids, but soon discovers that the only true psychos on campus are the grownups in charge. The book also features a helicopter, Sixties nostalgia, Eighties ennui, contraband caffeine and nicotine, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and a missing batch of C-4 explosive.

Visit Cornelia’s website at


Julia Buckley said...

Cornelia, the next book sounds fantastic. I can't wait to read it. Thanks for the fun interview, girls. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

Terrific interview, thanks, ladies!

JT Ellison said...

As usual, any time I read something that involved Ms. Read I come away with a smile on my face. Nice interview, ladies. And Cornelia, can NOT wait for the new book. Hurrah!!!

Cornelia Read said...

Aw you guys, thank you! Sandra asks the best questions ever, and I'm honored that she wanted to interview me.

Unknown said...

It's reassuring to know that The Divine Miss R is sometimes plagued with self-doubt (even though it's kind of like a Siberian tiger worrying that her coat pattern lacks drama).

Thanks for the plot tease, Cornelia.

Cornelia Read said...

Divine Miss Carol, you are most kind. Today I have to say I feel more like a Siberian hamster. Actually, that's probably true most days. There's still plenty of drama, but most of it involves trying to avoid becoming a tasty appetizer course at the local tigers' barbecues.

Sandra Parshall said...

Cornelia, allow me to introduce you to Carol, the friend who can hardly bear to wait for your next book. She luvs you too. :-)

Cornelia Read said...

Yay Carol, and thank you!

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