Saturday, June 26, 2010
Authors @ The Teague - Women Who Kill
(Left to right: Zoë Sharp, Juliet Blackwell, Sophie Littlefield, and Jeanne Matthews. Photo: copyright Ed Sharpe, CouryGraph Productions)
What a treat to host the program "Women Who Kill" for Authors @ The Teague. It was a celebration with friends. I welcomed back Zoë Sharp, who did the very first authors program at the Velma Teague Library three years ago. She kicked off the series that became Authors @ The Teague. Juliet Blackwell is the author of the recent book, A Cast-Off Coven. Under the name Hailey Lind, she writes the Art Lover's Mystery series with her sister. Sophie Littlefield's first book, A Bad Day for Sorry has been nominated for all kinds of awards, and it won the RTBookReviews Reviewers' Choice Award. Her latest book is A Bad Day for Pretty. Jeanne Matthews is the author of a debut traditional mystery, in the style of Agatha Christie. Bones of Contention, though, is set in the Top End of Australia. After that short introduction, I turned the program over to Juliet Blackwell.
It was flattering when Juliet told the audience I was a treasure in the world of mysteries. She said I'm a reviewer and reader, and it's wonderful to have librarians who love books, and spread that love of books.
She went on to say the authors were all in town for the Poisoned Pen Conference, and you could find the entire program on the bookstore's website, www.poisonedpen.com.
Then, Juliet said, the program was called "Women Who Kill," so how many people have your protagonists killed? Or how many have you killed off? Is killing ever justified?
Jeanne Matthews' protagonist is southern, from Georgia, in her debut, Bones of Contention. She does know how to shoot. Dinah is a wannabe anthropologist. She's diverted by the planned euthanasia in Australia of a man she regarded as a father. Her life falls apart all at one time. She finds out her boyfriend is unfaithful; she loses her job, and her uncle is planning an assisted suicide.
Jeanne asked if we'd heard, "The past is a dance. It isn't ever past." That's the story of Dinah's life, childhood, and the myths of family. The book involves Dreamtime, the Aboriginal beliefs that they can communicate with their ancestors. Dinah as to deal with secrets of her family, and then she's confronted with murder. Family members are all suspects.
Bones of Contention is set in the Northern Territory. That area makes up 20% of Australia's land, but only has 1% of the population. There's colorful slang, with the language, Strine. The characters are colorful. And, of course there's the Aboriginal language. Matthews said she was only in Australia for six weeks, but she read a lot, and did a great deal of research. So, the final answer? Her heroine would kill if she had to, but she'd shoot to wound first.
Juliet mentioned that Sophie's protagonist has killed. Sophie Littlefield's character, Stella Hardesty, is a fifty-year-old rural housewife. She suffered from years of abuse from her husband. She finally killed with with a wrench, but it was an accident. After that, she thought she should offer to kill other abusive men. But, the publishing world wasn't really ready for a woman to kill, at least not a woman who isn't glamorous. She's a housewife. So, once the editors were done with her, she "retains, restrains, and retrains men." Sophie laughed and said she just thought of that phrase. Her books have been called bondage cozies. Stella is overweight, medium height, not beautiful. Sophie said she learned SO much about restraints online. A Bad Day for Sorry is her second book. Sophie is not an advocate for violence or vigilantism. Although she knew she was speaking in a state where residents can carry. Juliet mentioned that Sophie's latest book is written up in People this week.
Juliet didn't have to ask Zoë if her character kills. Sharp's Charlie Fox does kill, but not on a regular basis. But, it's her business, since she works as a bodyguard. She does use deadly force. And, Zoë corrected Jeanne, saying you don't shoot to wound. You aim for the central body mass, and fire until the person goes down.
She did say, however, that she may have to pretend that she is Australian. She was heading to New Orleans next, and she understands the British are not very popular there right now. So, she's changing her name to "Sheila," and going to talk about the barbie.
(Photo: copyright Ed Sharpe, CouryGraph Productions)
Charlie Fox discovers her ability to kill early on. The first book in the Charlie Fox series has finally been released in the U.S. Killer Instinct is published by a small press, Busted Flush. This is the start of Charlie's story, where she discovers her inner strength. Charlie's backstory is that she was a victim. This is the turning point, and she's no longer a victim. She's now a woman who kills.
Zoë said women who kill seem different than many of the male protagonists. Robert B. Parker's Spenser can shoot someone, and then go out and have a drink with Susan. But, it's not that easy for Charlie. She responds to threats, but she's not happy to live with herself afterward. Sharp's eighth book has just been released in the U.K., and she's delivered the next one to the publisher. She's put Charlie through the wringer.
Juliet asked if Zoë was tempted to rewrite the first book when it was released in the U.S. She answered that she's never quite finished with a book, so she was tempted to redo it. But, it's as if a snapshot was taken when the book was published. She could go back and photoshop it, but it was right for Charlie's life then. Sharp said she hopes she continues to progress with her craft. When asked which book is her favorite, it's always the next one.
As Juliet started to move on, Zoë reminded her that she was a participating author on the panel. She said as Juliet Blackwell she wrote Second Spirits. The second book in that series, A Cast-Off Coven, is just out. Juliet's character is a natural born witch. She has paranormal abilities, and was run out of her west Texas hometown at an early age. She lands in San Francisco in Haight-Ashbury, a good place to fit in as a witch.
Blackwell told us she takes witchcraft seriously. She does lots of research about it all over the world. Witchcraft and the healing arts often overlap. And, women are often the healers in a community, and tend to be the first accused of witchcraft.
Now, if you had powers, would you be tempted to use them? Blackwell's series character, Lily Ivory, doesn't hesitate to use hexes and charms. But, she's going to have Lily confront those issues. How far should she take her powers?
Now, in Sophie's book, Stella has no memory of killing her husband. Often, people don't, because they were too traumatized. Compare that to Charlie Fox, who was trained to kill in the military. Juliet said she learned to shoot when she was ten, and her father gave her a gun. He was a military man, and that's how she bonds with her father. Now, he likes to help her, and tell her what kind of gun her character would use. At the same time, her father taught her, if you use a gun in self-defense, you must be ready to kill. So, Juliet said she took killing seriously, even at ten.
Juliet wanted to discuss something a little different, so she asked everyone the same question. What's your character's drink of choice. Jeanne said Dinah drank dirty martinis. According to Sophie, everyone knows Stella drinks Johnny Walker Black. She buys it at Costco, and keeps her "soldiers" in a cabinet.
She said when she first went to a conference, everyone told her crime writers needed to drink scotch. So, she learned to drink scotch. And, fortunately, since she and Juliet ususually go to conferences together, she has a friend who drinks it, too.
Zoë said she's a teetotaler. But, she still stays in the bar with the other authors until 3 or 4 in the morning. Charlie does drink, whatever's at hand. But, she doesn't drink much, because of her job.
Sharp went on to say that guns are no longer allowed in Britain, in the U.K. You're no longer allowed to shoot. She herself was a competitive shooter. Even so, at the beginning of June, a man in Cumbria, where Zoë lives, took a shotgun, and killed twelve people. He was the thirteenth. He also injured another thirteen. The other tragic aspect was, in the U.K., the police are not routinely armed. So, they were following him, but they couldn't stop him.
Juliet couldn't think of a time when her witch drank. Sophie reminded her she must have had champagne because there were some champagne brunches. Juliet said Lily probably drank tequila. Now, there's a question. What affect does alcohol have on a witch? Juliet couldn't know because it hasn't happened yet. Sharp suggested slurred spells. Blackwell countered with, they're all helping her write her fourth book in the series.
Blackwell said on screen, tough women seem to be portrayed as men with breasts. So, how are they all exploring themes of murder, death, and self-defense, with women?
In Killer Instinct, the first Charlie Fox book, she's teaching self-defense to women. Sharp said, if you have to do it, you've failed. The trick is not to put yourself in that position. It's been shown that more people will respond if a woman shouts "Fire" than if she shouts "Rape."
Zoë went on to tell the story from Bouchercon, a mystery convention. Meg Chittenden is a very petite woman who looks like a wonderful granny. She and Meg were going to do a workshop on self-defense, "You Can't Run in High Heels." So, they practiced at the end of one room ahead of time. And, there Zoë was, with her hands around Meg's throat, and no one paid attention.
When questioned, Sharp said avoidance should be the first lesson to everyone, even men. Young men, 17-21, are more likely to die violently than any other group in the U.K. Zoë had an excellent instructor who taught karate, pressure points, and knife work. She said she'd get home at the end of a session, and have the bruises from pressure point practice. Self-defense is a last resort. You learn to use an opponent's size and weight against them. You use leverage. She practiced her her husband, Andy, who is 6'3". She knows how to dislocate a shoulder, but you don't want to do that.
With a laugh, Sophie said she certainly didn't try everything that Stella does. Stella actually doesn't have an attitude of violence. She's a community nurturer, a defender of the weak. She thinks that comes from her own role since she's been a mother for seventeen years. But, when her baby was born, she discovered she was a rage vehicle. She'd do anything to protect him. So, she sees Stella protecting people who can't protect themselves. The longer people are abused, the more opportunity they have to become a victim. It's a failure of the system. There are wonderful people, police and others, working to prevent violence, but the system is at fault. If someone threatened your sister, or mom, could you take someone out?
Jeanne admitted she committed a no-no and gave Dinah a relationship with a policeman. But, she ended it on page one. Dinah had heard of violence, and knows about it. But, she had few occasions when violence was appropriate until she went to Australia. She tries to sneak out of it. How can she avoid violence? She uses her brain. That doesn't always work, but she does survive.
Juliet mentioned cozy mysteries such as Agatha Christie wrote. If there are cats and knitting, chances are it's a cozy mystery. People who read cozies say they're not as violent as other mysteries. But, Juliet said she's always found them more twisted. There they sit with a cat and knitting, and deal with a dead body. It makes more sense for a bodyguard to deal with a dead body.
Matthews said she needed to give her protagonist enough gumption. Dinah isn't risk adverse. She just doesn't anticipate violence. She tries to solve the mystery, but tries to avoid violence. When asked, she said firearms are very restricted in Australia.
One of the audience members said Juliet mentioned acknowledgements at one time. What do you acknowledge people for? Blackwell answered that many people were very generous with their time. She met with a homicide detective for two hours over coffee, then she followed up with him. He did that because he wanted people to get it right. Sophie went on to say many people are acknowledged because of help in a field where they're specialists. People like to talk about their passions.
Juliet used the example of Cameron House in San Francisco. The next book in her Art Lover's series, Arsenic and Old Paint, comes out in September. It includes some of the history of Cameron House in Chinatown. It's a mission that is also a community center. Donaldina Cameron, who worked there, rescued Chinese girls who had been smuggled into the country, and sold as property in the "yellow slave trade." There were tunnels in the basement where she hid the girls. The staff at Cameron House gave Juliet a tour, showed her the tunnels. They were generous with their time. She acknowledges the staff at Cameron House because she wants people to know it's a real place, and an active community center.
Zoë Sharp mentioned Doug Lyle, who she acknowledged. He is a cardiologist and mystery writer. He answers all the strange questions and forensic questions that mystery writers ask. In one book, Charlie is shot. She's injured for 3/4 of the book, and that alters the way she deals with things. As part of her research, she talked to Doug as to how that injury would affect Charlie.
Zoë went on to say you do research, then throw away 90% of it, and use just snippets, nuggets. Readers are on a magic carpet ride, and anything that is wrong, anything that bumps them off is a wrong mistake. It spoils the book.
Juliet said in personal acknowledgements, you can thank all of your family. She once forgot her parents in a personal note.
Jeanne Matthews said, although Bones of Contention is published by Poisoned Pen Press, Carl Lennertz at HarperCollins spent several months editing her book. He was her lucky charm. She also acknowledged her writing group, since she's been it for years.
Sharp said she still goes to a local writing group. To her, it's important that you read your book out loud. The voice attracts you to a book. When a reader starts a book, you know almost immediately if you like the author's voice. Reading it out loud helps.
A writer's community, of some sort, is important. Juliet said she and Sophie go out for chicken and waffles with another friend. They can talk about what doesn't work. Sophie's brother is also a writer. She said she gives all the hard questions to her brother and her friends. Her deadlines are now more demanding. She values the input of her fellow writers. They know her weaknesses and strengths.
Juliet brought up titles, and wanted to know who picked them. Jeanne's title, Bones of Contention, comes from the Aboriginal myth of pointing bones, plus the contention between the family members. So, it was a double entendre. Sophie came up with Juliet's next title. Blackwell's publisher likes a combination of vintage clothing and witchcraft in the title. Sophie came up with the idea in a bar. Juliet said she couldn't come up with a title.
Sophie submitted about forty titles for her first book. She had a hard time. Author Craig McDonald told her to go with the Bible and country songs. But, it was a painful title process. She submitted about forty titles, and they finally went for A Bad Day for Sorry.
Zoë asked if they ever had a title they wanted to use, and no story to go with it. She's always wanted to use the old Shakespearean stage direction, "Exit. Pursued by a bear." They did mention that titles aren't copyrighted.
I asked the authors what they were working on, or what their next book would be. Sophie has a YA paranormal series coming out. The first book is Banished, followed by Unforsaken. It's for readers thirteen and up. Then, she has a new series, a Post-Apocalyptic one, coming out under another name.
Jeanne Matthews' next book is called Bet Your Bones. It's set in Hawaii, and deals with Hawaiian myths.
Sharp has already delivered her next Charlie Fox book. The titles have caused problems. Her fourth book was called First Drop. The book starts on a roller coaster, and when you hit the first drop, there are no brakes, and you're stuck until the end of the ride. That symbolized the book. But, that was the first book published by the American publisher. They wanted that to stand as the first book in the U.S., and the next one to be called second something. So, it became Second Shot. That book was supposed to be called Fall Line. It takes place in New England. And, the fastest way downhill when skiing is the fall line. Then, there was Third Strike. She changed publishers. Her current book out in the U.K. is Fourth Day, about a cult. She's working on the next book.
Juliet's next book is due out Sept. 9th. It's under the name Hailey Lind. Arsenic and Old Paint is a book in the Art Lover's series, written with Juliet's sister. It's a continuing story, and she joked that she wouldn't know if it was good until Lesa reviewed it.
Then, Blackwell has a new series starting, the Haunted Home
Renovation series. Her character is a failed anthropologist who took over her father's construction company. It's two years later, and there are paranormal elements in the book. Juliet also said her own father is the father in the book. That book, called If Walls Could Talk, is due out December 5th. The third book in the witchcraft series is due out in June or July next year. It's called Hexes and Hemlines.
One audience member asked why authors use different pen names. Julie answered that Hailey Lind is a family name that she uses when she writes with her sister. But, she might have changed it anyways when she wrote the paranormal series because readers expect authors to write a particular type of book. There's a contract between authors and readers. Sometimes, a new publisher wants another name. Tim Myers, a cozy writer, was mentioned. He writes under a number of names. The publisher wanted female names.
Sophie thought about using a male name for her Post-Apocalyptic book, because most of the authors are male. However, this publisher has a number of female readers, so she's using a different name, but it's female.
Zoë might have picked a male name if she was doing it over. Thriller writers tend to be male. She once had a review that said the book was, "The best thriller written by a woman." She might have changed to a male name because there is a prejudice against women in thrillers.
The final question of the afternoon involved setting. Is it easier to choose a place you know, or more fun to pick an exotic setting. What's easier to write? Jeanne Matthews enjoyed learning while she wrote about Australia. She learned a euthanasia law passed in the 1990's in the Northern Territory was very contreversial. The Aborigines feared it, because they thought they would go to the doctor, and be euthanized. They had been experimented on in the past. Matthews was able to put her own spin on the setting, using an outsider, Dinah.
Zoë's Charlie Fox is a Brit looking at the U.S. through a Brit's eyes. She's an outsider. So, she's looking at things slightly off from how Americans see it. It's been said we're two people divided by a common language. But, Sharp said the best books are ones in which the setting becomes a character, and the story can only be in that place.
In talking about language, Juliet said one phrase Americans never use, but a British friend used to say to her, was, "I'll knock you up." Sharp's answer was that came from mill towns in England. No one had clocks, and a man would bring a stick and wake people up with it. In north England, they would "knock you up."
Juliet said Sophie's books are set in rural Missouri. And, the people talk in a special way. Blackwell tried to move her book to Oakland, where she lives. She loves it. But, her publisher said let's keep it in San Francisco. Zoë ended the program by saying it's hard to think of books as being set in the "mean streets of England," as they are in American cities, such as LA or Detroit.
It was a wonderful afternoon! Maybe the last picture will show what a good time we all had with "Women Who Kill."
(Photo: Copyright Andy Butler, ZACE Photographic, used with permission)