Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Katy, Chaz, and the Dead Detective

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Katy Munger has been absent from the mystery world for several years, but she’s returned with two 2009 novels: Desolate Angel, the July debut of the Dead Detective series written under the pseudonym Chaz McGee, and Bad Moon on the Rise, a new mystery in the Casey Jones series that is due out in September. Katy is also the author of the Hubbert & Lil series, written as Gallagher Gray.

Katy was raised in Raleigh, NC, and describes her childhood as “a crazy, chaotic parade of odd people moving in and out of our house on their way to and from all corners of the world” that taught her to “appreciate the insane diversity of the human species.” She became the black sheep of her bohemian family when she moved to New York City to work on Wall Street. After 16 years, she retur
ned to North Carolina, where she has lived for the last 11 years. She divides her time between her daughter Zuzu and their cats and dogs, fiction writing, business writing, political volunteer work, and fishing. Visit her website at for more information about her books and her appearance schedule.

Q. After keeping up a hectic schedule for years, you took a break from writing fiction. Did you have any qualms about letting some time go by without a new novel – or about jumping back into a demanding round of promotion with not just one but two new books?

A. I took a break for two reasons really: too many family responsibilities and disenchantment with the world of publishing. My family duties eased a lot as my daughter grew older so, for the last three or four years, I actually have been writing a number of different books and trying out new voices. I probably could have returned a few years earlier but still needed more of a break to re-align my attitude about writing as a business and fin
d the joy in it again. So, by the time I did jump back in this year, no qualms were left! I am worried about the time needed to conduct enough promotion, though – it’s just not there. And self-promotion is really not effective unless you can put ALL of your time into it. So I have reconciled myself to building the Chaz McGee series by word of mouth, more slowly. And that’s okay with me!

Q. How did you come up with the concept of a dead detective who must solve the cases he mishandled in life before he can rest in peace? Did the character come to you fully formed, or did he develop as you wrote the story?

A. Kevin
Fahey, the dead detective, came to me as my first and only “Aha!” moment of my writing career. All of my other books emerged as a sort of ensemble vision, i.e., envisioning how different characters would interact. But he came to me on the verge of sleep one morning, and I got my butt out of bed and wrote down the concept quick before I forgot it! I had been reading a lot about Buddhism at the time — a standing joke among my friends was that I had my own brand of “in your face Buddhism,” which is, of course, a contradiction — and somehow it intertwined with my love of more hardboiled novels and I came up with a hybrid! As I wrote the book, I found the core of him and he developed beyond a melancholy loner into someone with wisdom to impart.

Q. Desolate Angel is different from anything you’ve written before – a lyrical, melancholy style (although not without touches of humor), and a wrenchingly emotional story. Do you feel that you used a different set of writing muscles on this book and explored new territory?

A. I think I have become a totally different person over the past ten years, and developed a whole new set of writing muscles, and that is what long-time readers of mine will pick up on when reading Des
olate Angel. First, having a child and confronting my own childhood memories deepened me emotionally and made me more forgiving. Secondly, I have faced a lot of lifelong patterns of mine squarely in the eye and worked through them in the past decade. It’s left me more thoughtful, less angry and more open to accepting the flaws in others but without blinding myself completely to them. All of that probably comes through. I still have a bawdy side, thank god, and my new Casey Jones, Bad Moon on the Rise, proves it. That comes out in September.

Q. The belief in ghosts is ancient, and there have been countless tales of restless spirits unable to leave the world behind and find peace. Do you believe the dead are still among us? Did you research various concepts of existence after death, or accounts of hauntings, before you wrote Desolate Angel?

A. Yes, I absolutely believe that parts of the dead linger among us. What parts I do not know, and I do not feel a need to pinpoint that beyond imagining. I am happy to accept that the essence of humans, some vestige of their being, can linger and that it is possible to learn from these vestiges if you are open to them. We have never been able to pinpoint what that indefinable spark o
f life is – how a bag of chemicals, essentially, which is what our bodies are, can be alive one moment and dead the next. What changed? I think there are planes of existence we aren’t meant to know about until we arrive in them. But I am quite content with this plane, so maybe that is why I don’t have the burning curiosity to prove life after death that others do. I don’t need to prove it; I just know it’s true. And other than being a hardcore X-Files fan and doing lots of reading about weird stuff since the time I could hold a book, I did not research other death accounts specifically for this book. Kevin Fahey came alive in my head and lives there still, and that’s really where this book comes from.

Q. When you began writing, you used the pen name Gallagher Gray. Now you’re writing the Dead Detective Mysteries under the name Chaz McGee. Why do you use pseudonyms? Where did these two names come from? Do they have any special meaning to you?

A. I use them to differentiate very different series from one another. I have always been a reader and I treasure my authors, but also expect very sp
ecific things from them: a certain tone, a certain dimension to their characters. I chose my author to fit my mood. I want my readers to always be able to do the same. The pen names do have significance to me. Gallagher Gray consists of the maiden names of my grandmothers put together and Chaz McGee was the name of an invisible friend my daughter had as a little girl. I thought that was fitting!

Q. You’ve had a long career, much of it during times of upheaval in the publishing business. What are the most striking changes you’ve seen in publishing? What changes have you welcomed, and what has saddened (or maddened!) you?

A. I’m welcoming the advent of small presses made possible by publishing on demand. I think that will allow more authors to find their readership niche without the pressures of diluting their books to fit all tastes. I’ve been active in publishing since 1990, and it seems to me that it has always been very, very cluttered with authors who do not have distinct voices and are not partic
ularly original with either their characters or their plots. They are basically emulating other authors, which is why publishers are buying heir books, in hopes of emulating a bestselling author’s success. But you can’t chase someone else’s voice as a writer and expect to be either fulfilled or a good writer.

The sheer number of writers that has come from this marketing-first mindset has created such a crowded book landscape that it makes it harder for everyone to get noticed and reviewed. And, of course, the demise of book review sections and journalism in general is not gong to help! But if my history serves me, it’s never been easy for writers, it shouldn’t be easy for writers or the field would be even more overcrowded, and people have been bemoaning the loss of reader intelligence since at least 1895 when Arthur Conan Doyle bitched about it. So, I find myself blissfully unconcerned about the publishing landscape these days. I can’t do anything about it. I can only write the books I want to write and hope that readers who are kindred spirits find me. The most striking change has been in the average age of editors. They used to be women in their forties and fifties. Now I believe they are all about twelve.

Q. Do you plan to continue the Casey Jones series? What is it about Casey that makes you want to write about her life? If I remember correctly, she’s not fond of children – will that change now that you have a young daughter you adore, or will you let Casey hang on to her attitude toward kids?

A. I am continuing the Casey Jones series for sure! Bad Moon on the Rise will be out on September 1st from Thalia Press and I loved writing this book. Casey has always been an alter ego of mine, in part because she is physically strong and that’s such a factor in how confident women are. But I do love her humor and I love the side characters so much, I never want to leave them behind! As for children – hah! If I even let them in my Casey books, they’ll be lucky to survive. I’m joking a little, as one of the main characters in Bad Moon is fifteen years old. But Casey will continue to avoid small children on the grounds that they are uncooperative and sticky. Unless maybe she meets a tiny Casey one day – that might be pretty fun to write about! Hmm…

Q. You’ve promised that new editions of the Casey Jones books will contain “censored” scenes that were originally deleted to protect the tender sensibilities of some readers. Can you give us a hint about what’s in those scenes?

A. Sex, of course! The good kind, as in the kind left more to the imagi
nation than detailed on paper so we can all fill in the blanks the way we want to! I’m adding in more sex not just because that’s an important part of her character but also because writing about sex is a huge untapped reservoir of humor for that series! Finally, I just thought it would be fun to rev up the books a little before I re-released them!

Q. Who are your favorite writers? Which crime fiction writers have you learned from by reading their work?

A. I love Joseph Wambaugh above all others: his characters, his humor, his intertwining plots, and his love of all creatures large and small. He is gentle but such black humor is at play. He never makes fun of his characters, no matter how down and out they are. He gives them dignity and a place on his fictional earth. After him, there is a huge tier of crime fiction writers I admire and learn from, too many to list, and then I have to get into the realm of forgetting to list friends, so I’ll just stop and say: I read. I read a lot. I have never lost the joy of reading crime fiction or any other genre. I think
it is a huge mistake when writers do stop reading! You lose touch with words and how characters and plots can be played around with. Reading is essential to being good a writer!

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers in this unusually tough market?

A. Moi, give advice? Oh, well, since you asked:

1) Read so you don’t inadvertently imitate someone else and go out there thinking you have a brilliant new idea only to be confronted with the fact it’s already been done.

2) Accept that you are not going to make a living at this and that it’s actually good for you to have another life or profession to draw on in addition to writing. It keeps your life larger and the character ideas coming. And if you ever manage to earn a living at it, then good for you – you are one of the lucky ones. But if you don’t – you still get the immeasurable reward of writing and creating worlds. Be glad for it!

3) Don’t make the mistake of promoting yourself so much you take time away from your writing. As mentioned before, self-promotion is only going to make a difference in your career if you are willing to eat, sleep and breathe it. The same goes for conventions – if all they are is a bunch of writers hoping to get more fans… from a bunch of other writers who are also hoping to get more fans… stay home and write instead. Often, your best strategy is to take that time and put it into another book, even better than the first one.

4) Listen carefully to criticism from agents and editors when you receive it. They know what they are doing. Don’t take it personally, mind you, but learn from it and, depending on what your goals are, adjust accordingly. Accept that agents and editors come in all stripes, just like actual human beings, and that some books and voices just aren’t going to resonate with them. Find new ones to approach and move on.

5) Never compare yourself to anyone else, ever. Not your sales, not your voice, not your success. Just hone in on what you want to say, how you can best say it and pour your energy into creating the book that is you and you alone. If you write it, they will come.

6) Stop accepting other people’s definitions of success as your own. If you don’t get a big fat contract from a huge publisher and become the next NY Times bestselling author, then so what? Some of the most miserable people I know have occupied that lofty position and it has not made them any happier. Find a smaller press. Publish it yourself. Concentrate on finding your readers, the ones you were speaking to when you wrote the book, and don’t worry if it’s twenty readers or twenty million.

7) Remember why you write: because you have to, because it makes you feel whole. Be careful what you compromise, because if you start writing books that aren’t you, you are going to destroy the very reason why you are doing it in the first place: so you can sit down and have the joy and privilege of writing, and give life to the characters inside your head, and touch the lives of other people, namely readers who recognize something in your writing they feel connected to… and vice versa.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Sandy, and for those of you who read to the very end of this interview and who decide to give my books a try — I hope you enjoy them!


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

"Desolate Angel" will be added to my reading list.

Nice to meet a fellow North Carolinian. And another writer who struggles to balance writing with a family.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lonnie Cruse said...

I sooo agree with your advice about getting it published, even if it's with a small publisher or self. And that those on tahe best seller list aren't always the happiest! Thanks for your down-to-earth look at publishing.

Sheila Connolly said...

Terrific advice, every piece.

I found your first point interesting, because there are so many writers who say, I can't read in my genre while I'm writing because I "lose my voice." I always think that means the writer-reader has a weak voice or is too easily influenced. I read of lot of my peers (oh, no, they aren't competitors) both to see what's selling and to see what I admire and would like to work toward. Most often it's the language, not the plotting.

Janet said...

I was so excited when I read the copyright info in Desolate Angel and saw Katy Munger's name. I greatly enjoyed the book. I'm currently rereading the Casey books in anticipation of the new one in September.

Julia Buckley said...

Great interview! Thanks for the good advice, Katy.

Unknown said...

Thank you, both Katy and Sandra for the excellent interview. Will be looking for "Desolate Angel."
Nash Black

Maggie Bishop said...

Thank you for the advice and for promoting small presses. My guilt for not marketing my books all the time has subsided after your words. Now I'll accept that an hour or two a day on the internet will be enough.

Unknown said...

Great to see you have new books out, Katy, and that your old ones will be back in print. Looking forward to reading the new ones!

Pari Noskin Taichert said...

Old Beeg pointed me to this interview today and I'm so glad she did.

Your bits of advice come from a deep center of experience, one that I laud and appreciate.

Of the many excellent points you make, the ones about defining your own successes and never, ever comparing yourself to others, should be etched in every single writer's mind.

Thank you,