Saturday was a special day at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, as owner Barbara Peters welcomed two award-winning mystery authors, Louise Ure and Laurie R. King. It was a treat to hear both authors, in back-to-back interviews with Peters.
First up was Louise Ure. She won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel for Forcing Amaryllis. The Fault Tree, her second novel, was a Mary Higgins Clark nominee, and has just been nominated for Best Novel for a Macavity Award. Ure is on tour for Liars Anonymous.
In talking about Liars Anonymous, Ure said she herself is a congenital liar. She always lied, even as a child. If she was late, she had a story about finding a stray dog. On the second telling, she had saved the dog from a runaway truck. By the eighth telling, she had saved the dog from a runaway truck, delivered its puppies, found homes for all of the puppies, including giving one to a little girl who had a disease. But, she decided it was not a good trait to be a liar. So, a couple years ago, she looked up all of the 12 Step Programs in the phone book, and discovered there was one for everything, but not for liars. So, she decided to create one for a character.
The other part of the of the plot came about when she was watching an On-Star commercial in which the airbags deploy, and the operator asks the driver if he's okay. She thought, what if the operator heard someone killed. Ure thought it would be an interesting idea to have a Roadside Assistance Operator as a sleuth, and, in the course of the job, she hears someone murdered. When she told a friend about this, the friend knew the woman who invented On-Star. So she had the chance to meet with her. Ure made up some of the stuff that the Roadside Assistance device could do, and used some of what the inventor said On-Star could do.
Ure said people would be overwhelmed if they knew all it could do, sort of like Big Brother. Peters commented that rental cars can track you, and the companies even restrict drivers so they can't go some places. Car companies are using the technology to monitor drivers. According to Ure, they can use the technology in accident investigation, and tell the tire pressure of the car at the time of an accident and how fast the car was going. And, the device can even prove how many passengers were in the car, whether they were belted in, where they were seated, and how much they weighed.
In Liars Anonymous, Jessie Dancing, the operator, could re-institute the call when the connection is lost, but it's against company policy. It's actually against the law to do that. Jessie has interesting secrets of her own, and she shouldn't snoop. Snooping could reveal her past. And, she has a terrible relationship with the Tucson police department. Her own issues caused problems for her father, who was a cop.
Ure read the opening of Liars Anonymous. "I got away with murder once, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn't do it. Well, not all of it anyway." She said she doesn't like to tell you too much too soon. Peters commented that she made Jessie's life hell. Ure responded that she doesn't outline, so she never knows what is going to happen. So, she thought, what is the worst thing I could do to this character, and she does it.
According to Peters, some reviewers have compared Ure's work to that of Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters. Ure said she doesn't really understand the comparison, except the books are all character driven.
Liars Anonymous is set in Tucson, and, although it's a standalone, Louise once told me she was writing her Arizona trilogy. She moved away from Tucson in 1976, and then lived only in S cities after that - Singapore, Sitka, San Francisco, and others. She thinks she sets her books in Tucson because she can't see a place clearly until it's a distance. She said she couldn't write a book about San Francisco right now, since she lives there. Despite the fact that she finished the "Arizona trilogy", Ure's next book is set in Tucson as she writes it, but it might not end up there. There's really no reason to set it there.
Peters said authors aren't writing about Tucson the way they write about New York or Miami or San Francisco, so maybe there is a reason to set Ure's books there. Ure agreed, saying Tucson has a blend of cultures, opportunities for chaos and crisis. She knows the city well, the good and bad. Peters added that it would be easy to lose a body there, with the wilderness, unlike Phoenix.
When Ure teased Barbara about plotting, Peters said she was gifted to write books, but she has fun with authors. It's fun to talk to authors about plot ideas. Donis Casey, a Poisoned Pen Press author in the audience, said it's nice to have someone (Barbara) to tell you you're going in the right direction in your book.
Peters said as we get further into the 21st century, it's interesting to see how similar it is to the 20th, with slight differences. They had anarchists, and we have terrorists. Both centuries have war and financial troubles. So, Ure said she had a question for Barbara. In these tough times, do people want serious, dark novels about finances and war, or do they prefer escapism? Peters had mentioned Ian Pears' new novel about finances, so she responded that with Pears', the book is set a century ago, so it could be a comfort for readers since they know how the issues came out. Barbara said she was born in 1940, so she remembers growing up with the terror of the Cold War and bomb shelters. It was a big deal then. But, she can understand how there's a comfort factor in the comic book heroes of the movies.
Barbara Peters said this year there is an amazing variety of books. This year, there is the Alexander McCall Smith factor - publishers want something different that they know works. They're like lemmings. This year, everything is set in Africa. Before 9/11, authors couldn't set books in the Mideast. Now, thrillers are set there. Books weren't set in China, because for so many years, no one could go there. But, it's becoming more global in mysteries. Publishers just need a brand they can compare it to.
Ure said her New York friends say Tucson is like a foreign country to them. Mysteries are becoming more regional, with diverse locations in the U.S. Peters said that one reason is because small towns are not immune to crime, such as crimes relating to meth. She said she's just swamped with the number of books coming out in June and July.
When the topic switched back to Liars Anonymous, Ure said authors research the tiniest thing. Jessie Dancing is a bodybuilder, and she uses buckets of sand as weights when she can't get to the gym. She didn't know if that would work. She originally thought of using water, but in contacting a bodybuilder friend, she was told they would use sand.
Louise Ure's books aren't series books, and in some mystery series there has to be more of a suspension of disbelief than in others. Ure likes to write standalones, and she quoted Marilyn Stasio from the NY Times, "Unrestrained by the housekeeping duties of a mystery series, Ure uses the freedom to push her themes to their limits." Ure went on to say, although some of her characters would work in a series, she doesn't want to write a second book about the blind auto mechanic from The Fault Tree. It's too hard to move the plot along. Although she'd never do a second book with her, and doesn't really want to write a series, Peters said Ure's series character could be Tucson.
According to Ure, one of the things she likes about standalones is there is no guarantee of a happy ending. In a series, the reader knows the detective will show up in the next book. Ure likes to read books with no limits, in which the reader doesn't know if the hero is a hero.
The other advantage to a standalone is that Ure likes to do world building and backstory building. She likes to stretch.
Barbara Peters asked her what she was working on next. Louise answered that she always starts with the title. Forcing Amaryllis was a gardening tag she saw. In 2003, when scientists were investing what went wrong with the shuttle, she heard them say they were going to do fault tree analysis to determine what went wrong. She liked that, so her book became The Fault Tree. Liars Anonymous came about because she couldn't find a 12 Step Program.
Louise said her next book is giving her fits. The title is Doing Hadley Time. The story involves a man (although that could change) named Hadley, who, by the time he turns 70, is out of money, and has no family. He decides to kill the most evil person he ever met, and then turn himself in so he can go to prison and be taken care of for the rest of his life.
When Barbara asked if she was most interested in the plot or the character first, Louise immediately said the character. She said when she starts the book, she doesn't necessarily know how the crime occurred, but she does know the character.
Ure said she only has one good idea a year. She hates those people who have so many ideas they have to write them down to remember them. She has no trouble remembering hers, since she only has one. And, she said it's easiest for her to write the beginning of the book.
She was asked if she finds the beginning the easiest to write because of her background in advertising. Ure said that was an interesting idea, because she never wrote copy. She was in management in ad agencies. But, she said, on average, a thirty-second commercial only has fifty-one words. She said her first paragraph sets the voice and tone, and says, here's what the plot is going to be. Once it's written, she never changes a word. But, Peters said there might be something to it. Clive Cussler and James Patterson were both in advertising.
The last question involved her writing process. She said she composes on a computer, with a goal of 1,000 words a day (which might have been different last year when she said it, because she's a liar). She revises with paper and pencil.
That led to Barbara Peters final comment, and unrelated one about the Kindle. She said she has one, but she'll never be a proponent because it's a "portable electronic device", and, if you're stuck on the runway for forty-five minutes, as she was, you have to turn it off.
It's always a pleasure to see Louise Ure, at the Poisoned Pen, the library, or a conference. Tomorrow, the summary of Laurie R. King's appearance at the Poisoned Pen.
Louise Ure's website is www.louiseure.com
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Liars Anonymous by Louise Ure. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN 9780312375867 (hardcover), 288p.