Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Conversation with Martha Grimes

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Martha Grimes is the author of 21 novels featuring British police detective Richard Jury, many of them bestsellers, as well as several novels about the 12-year-old American amateur sleuth Emma Graham. In 1999, she published Biting the Moon, which introduced the teenage heroine Andi Oliver and focused on animal rights. The author donated two-thirds of her royalties from the book to animal rights organizations. Andi returns in Grimes’s new book, Dakota, and this time she takes a job at a pig farming facility and exposes the truth about “the dark art of modern livestock management” while trying to elude a dangerous stalker who has been on her trail for more than a year. Of the public’s response to the animal rights cause, Grimes has said, “I do not believe that people are indifferent to the welfare of animals. Possibly, the exact opposite is true – people are so affected by stories, pictures, accounts of animal abuse that they simply do not want to know.”

Q. What was it like to return to Andi after being away from her for several years?
Did you have to get to know her all over again now that she’s older, or had she been aging in the back of your mind all along?

A. I was never "away" from Andi. Less than two years [in Andi’s life] have gone by since Biting the Moon, and her age has always been in question.

Q. You are so passionate about animal rights that I have to wonder whether describing the abuse in Dakota was an emotional ordeal.

A. Yes, it was an ordeal to research and write Dakota.

Q. Are you afraid that some readers will avoid the book because you’re unsparing in your descriptions of factory farming?

A. I'm sure some people will avoid the book. Or be sorry they hadn't.

Q. Do you have to make a mental adjustment when you switch from British characters to American?

A. No, it's pretty automatic to go from British to American.

Q. What type of character do you find the most fun to write about? Which is the most challenging?

A. The most difficult characters to write about are the villains. That's why I really like The Old Wine Shades, because the villain is the most interesting person in it. It might be my favorite Jury book. When it comes to pure laughs, I'd say (1) the Crippses, and (2) the bunch sitting around the table in the J & H.

Q. Did you collect rejection letters in the beginning, or did publication come easily to you?

A. Yes, of course I got rejection slips. Probably fifteen or twenty publishers turned down The Man with a Load of Mischief. I had no agent until the 12th or 13th Jury book. (I should have kept it that way, too. See Foul Matter.) It would be even harder for someone starting out today because it's just as hard to nail down an agent--and they probably should be--as to get a publisher. Agents pretty much rule these days. I did an "over-the-transom" thing with my book and got lucky. But there's only one rule to follow and that's to keep sending your book out after looking at Writer's Market to see what publishers will still accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can also get information there about agents.

Q. Does a magic moment arrive when you decide it’s time to sit down and get started on a new book, or do you schedule a day to begin?

A. Believe me, there is no "magic moment" to usher in the writing of a book. Nor do I schedule a time to begin. Usually I just start writing another book when the last one is finished.

Q. You have said in interviews that you don’t outline before you start a book and may not even know who the killer is. Does this method lead to a lot of rewriting? Do you have to adjust the timing of clues, for example, or the timing of character revelations?

A. This doesn't cause as much re-writing as one would expect. And I don't know that clues are ever sprinkled about and so must be re-sprinkled. Clues come quite naturally as a result of what a character is saying or doing.. If I can't keep track of characters, should I even be writing?

Q. Did you have a real-life feline model for the cat Cyril?

A. Years ago, I had a friend with a cat named Cyril, who served in looks and temperament as my model.. No cat, however, could do what Cyril does.

Q. Did you purposely make Melrose Plant’s Aunt Agatha annoying or did she just turn out that way?

A. Yes, I made her what she is on purpose. Agatha is to Melrose what Racer is to Jury. The way that M. and J. react to Agatha and Racer says a lot about M. and J.

Q. You could live anywhere you choose, and you’ve chosen the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC. What is it about life in Washington that appeals to you?

A. Nothing about D. C. especially appeals to me. The area just happens to be where my family lives. I've probably been at this address for a long time out of lack of momentum. I have now bought a house in Bethesda, so I'm trying to work up the energy to move. I find it interesting when people say "You could live anywhere you like." But if you could go anywhere, there's really no place to go, is there?

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. Here's the best advice for aspiring writers: Raymond Chandler said that you don't need to write unless you want to; i.e., if you're not inspired then don't do it. But he added, of course, you have to set aside time for writing--2, 3, 4 hours. But you don't have to write during that time. The only thing is, you can't do anything else during that time--you can't clean or pay bills or anything. You can walk around or roll on the floor, but you can't put the time to "good use." I think this is wonderful advice. And, boy, I bet there'd be writing done. It's somewhat the same as Flannery O'Connor's comment that she sat down at her desk for four hours and if nothing came to her, nothing got written. But she sat there for four hours.

This of course is the sort of thing that makes aspiring writers a lot less aspiring. This is indeed the cutting edge. If you can't stand doing this sort of thing, forget about writing.

(Ellen Taylor would have other suggestions. See The Horse You Came in On.)

Visit the author’s web site at


Kenna Coltman said...

As an 'aspiring writer' setting aside 3-4 hours a day for writing doesn't work for me, since I have to do the work that actually pays the bills. Guess I'll stay aspiring until that's the case, and continue to improve my writing when I find the spare time.

Martha, thanks for sharing your time and experience!

Sandra Parshall said...

Kenna, I often wonder how anyone with a full-time job ever manages to finish a book and get it published -- but many, including some well-known authors, have done it, and so can you. Even if you have only one hour a day, or snatches of time here and there, what really counts is getting those words written.

Sofie Kelly said...

Kenna, I wrote my first book in a lot of little chunks of time. If you can squeeze out five pages a week writing here and there you'll have most of a novel in a year. You can do it.

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, thanks for the wonderful interview.

Martha (if I may be so familiar), I am a long-time fan and it was great to read the interview and get some added perspective to your work. Thank you!

G.M. Malliet said...

Ms. Grimes: I was delighted to come across this interview with one of my all-time favorite authors, having read and reread all your books with such pleasure. Just for example: I think you are one of the few authors who writes successfully and with great good humor about children, and without being cloying. This has got to be harder to do than anyone could imagine.

(Wonderful comment about agents, by the way. It really is time for writers to take back the night.)