Monday, July 23, 2007

A Chat with Marja McGraw

by Julia Buckley

Hi, Marja! Thanks for chatting with me on the Deadly Daughters Blog.

Your bio says that you spent several years in law enforcement. Were you a cop?

No. I started out as a Deputy Clerk in a small division with the Los Angeles County Marshal’s Office (civil law enforcement) in the 1960’s, but that title is a bit deceptive. At that time there were no female deputies and no matrons. Consequently, when female assistance was needed, the Deputy Clerks were called upon to help. This included everything from assisting with evictions to searching female prisoners who were taken into custody in court. I even had to search a women’s restroom for a bomb once—without training.

I later worked for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which included clerical work and serving process in the office.

You say that when you were a kid you wanted to be Nancy Drew. Do you still? :)

No. Now I want to be Marja McGraw, mystery writer, who creates her own mysteries. I sometimes wonder what Nancy might have been like as she aged and the life, technology and times around her changed. Can you imagine Nancy Drew at, say, age 80?

Not really. :) You and your daughter lived in many different places. Are you a gypsy at heart, or were you just following opportunities? Which places was your favorite?

Actually, I lived in Southern California until I was in my late thirties. California had grown so much that I wanted to get back to a smaller town life. I wanted my daughter to experience a quieter atmosphere, so we moved to Northern Nevada, where we lived for about fifteen years. It was a good move. Circumstances led me to a year in Oregon and a brief time in Alaska. I moved back to Nevada, met my husband and we retired to Arizona. Every place has positives and negatives. I couldn’t choose which one I liked the best. Maybe pre-freeway days in California, when things were simpler.

Your books are called BIG TROUBLE FOR A LITTLE LADY and SECRETS OF HOLT HOUSE. They have a sort of nostalgic sound, like the old Phyllis Whitney novels. Was this intentional?

This wasn’t intentional, and the books are nothing like the Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt books. To me, these titles indicate mystery, and that’s what I was looking for with words like Big Trouble and Secrets. My stories are mostly light, with a touch of humor. My protagonist is a bit na├»ve, and probably got into the investigating business for the wrong reasons, but she’s open to lessons and she’s growing all the time.

In the beginning you tried self-publishing. What was your experience with this? How did you advertise your books?

In the beginning I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing business. I didn’t know any other authors and hadn’t done my research. My brother sent me an article about self-publishing, and it fascinated me. I was a Babe in the Woods about advertising, too. I built a website and began contacting bookstores. I’ve done a couple of television interviews and a few radio interviews over the past few years. Since then I’ve studied publishing and marketing, and I’ve begun networking with other authors. I’ve come a long, bumpy way, and I’ve learned a lot. It remains to be seen whether I learned my lessons well enough to make a dent in the book world.

You write in your bio that “Being single and a single parent gives a woman quite an education, too.” What was one of the most important lessons that you learned as a single mom?

I was extremely shy when I was young. Working in law enforcement didn’t leave room for shyness, which is something I’ll always appreciate about that time in my life. After moving past the shyness, I learned how to be persistent and how to stick up for myself, my daughter and others. (Unfortunately, there are times now when my big mouth gets me in trouble.) Being a single parent was comparable to on-the-job assertiveness training.

You are now married to your supportive husband Al, who has recently retired. Have you been traveling a great deal?

Due to a 94-year-old mother-in-law, a 14-year-old dog and going back to work full-time, we actually travel less than we used to. However, with two new books coming out in 2008, that will change. My mother-in-law and employer are very supportive. The dog only cares about my writing when I have cookies to share with him while I sit at the computer.

What do you think drives you to write? And what made you choose the mystery genre?

I honestly can’t tell you what motivates me to write. I think some of it goes back to that shyness. I had trouble voicing my thoughts, but I could put them in writing and entertain others. I can tell you that writing is the most fun I’ve ever had, even though I call it work.

As for the mystery genre, I’ve always loved games and puzzles. My grandmother bought the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books for my sister and brother, and later they were passed on to me. Reading those felt like playing a game and trying to solve a puzzle. I also love surprises, and I hope I’ve included a few in my stories.

Your book, A WELL KEPT FAMILY SECRET, is now in production. What lessons have you learned as a novelist now that you are on book three?

A Well Kept Family Secret is a story that I had to write, one that wouldn’t let go of me. I don’t feel it’s the best of the series, but I love it and I think readers will, too. This is actually my third published book, and I’m about to start on my seventh story. Throughout the process I’ve learned a lot about humor in writing and when to keep it serious. I’ve learned that I must keep the dialogue and mannerisms true to each character. I’ve also had to learn to let the story flow-—it can’t be forced, or the reader will know it.

How do you come up with your plots?

My plots come from life and the people I meet. For instance, I met a woman who was a P.I. in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The woman’s daughter had a child’s memories of her mother that weren’t reality. I was so taken with this that I created a story where a woman (who was a P.I. in the 1940’s) asks my protagonist, Sandi Webster, to solve an old murder that she hadn’t been able to solve. The story is not based on the real P.I., but meeting her and her daughter inspired it.

Having divorced shortly after my daughter’s birth, I was a single parent for many years. BUBBA'S GHOST, coming out in July, 2008, is loosely based on something that actually happened to me when we lived in an older, “affordable” house and a strange man started harassing me. I’d tell you more, but then I’d be giving the story away.

Sounds intriguing! What’s your writing schedule? Do you write every day? How do you write and still make time for fun and family?

Before I went back to work full-time, I wrote a minimum of four hours every day. The rest of my time was devoted to fun and family. Now I find myself hand-writing things on my lunch hour and breaks, and putting it together on weekends. It seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day anymore.

I can relate! Now, as a cool-weather gal, I must say: Arizona is mighty hot. Do you enjoy the hot weather? Do you ever miss the more balmy climes of California, where you were born?

I’ve lived in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, going from extreme cold to extreme heat. I much prefer the heat to the cold. As for California, I miss what it was like when I was a child, before all the freeways went in. My family goes back several generations in Los Angeles County, and it was very different when I was growing up there.

What are you writing now?

I’m just about to start an untitled piece about three women who must save a friend who’s been lost in the shuffle of life. This one will not be a part of my Sandi Webster series. I’m still in the planning stages at the moment, and having a great time putting the story together.

How can readers find out more about you and your mysteries?

I have a website at, but it’s sorely in need of updating. I’m working on finding someone to build me a new site. In the meantime, I can be reached by email at

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