Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Salon-Jane K. Cleland at The Poisoned Pen

Jane K. Cleland recently spoke at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, on tour to promote her latest book, Killer Keepsakes. She's the author of the Josie Prescott Antiques mysteries. They've been called "Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans." Josie uses her knowledge of antiques to solve crimes.

Since Cleland has an MBA, the business and growth of Josie's antiques business are important elements in this series. Killer Keepsakes is the fourth in the series. But, Cleland said she writes standalones with the same characters, so readers can pick up any one of the books.Killer Keepsakes answers all of the questions about one of the characters, Gretchen. Gretchen was introduced in the first book, Consigned to Death.

Jane Cleland provided the background to the series. A few years ago, auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's were involved in a price-fixing scandal. Prior to the first book in this series, Josie worked for a big auction house in New York. She was the whistle blower in a similar case. And, whistle blowers are often shunned and fired. Since she was often guided by her father's principles, she quit and moved to New Hampshire. She's been in a small town there for four years. One of the audience members mentioned that New England is a great place for antiques, because houses have remained in families for generations. Cleland said she had been in the rare book business, and in that business, The Bay Psalm Book, is sought after. There were only a couple hundred printed, and five known extant books. People in the business think there must be more than five out there.

When Josie was getting ready to open her business in Consigned to Death, she placed an ad for an assistant. Gretchen showed up, and Josie liked her, and said she needed to do reference checks. But, Gretchen insisted that she hire her then, saying "I need the job." So, despite her normal practices, Josie hired her without checking her background. The reader never knows anything about Gretchen. But, in book four, Killer Keepsakes, Gretchen goes away on vacation, and doesn't come back. Starting to worry, Josie goes to her apartment. She doesn't find Gretchen. She does find a dead guy on Gretchen's couch.

For every book, Cleland picks a pivotal antique ahead of time. For Killer Keepsakes, she picked the Chinese vase pictured on the book jacket. Then, she read a newsletter with a "Did You Know?" column. It showed that same Chinese vase, and told about the owner, Henrietta Howard, Duchess of Suffolk. Cleland researched further, and all of the details about Henrietta and the cover vase are true in the book.

There has been a progression of Josie's character over time. With the first book, Josie had lost her job, her father, and moved to start a new business. Josie is evolving, but the books don't need to be read in order. But, after the third book, Cleland's editor told her Josie needed to get a grip. And, in the review of Killer Keepsakes, a reviewer Jane respected (me), said it was about time she went ahead with her life. Jane said she can take a hint.

There was a great deal of audience discussion about the sayings that Josie remembers her father using. Those are based on Jane's mother's saying. One person said, the dad's sayings are not platitudes; they're practical sayings. Jane said she is very methodical. She takes risks, but she is not impulsive. She and Josie share that.

After Cleland read from Killer Keepsakes, she said the book is doing very well. Publishers Weekly called it "absorbing" and "ingenious".

When she was asked what she's learned, Cleland said that every eighty or ninety pages, you need a surprise. The book needs a rhythm, and it's hard to do. Alfred Hitchcock once discussed the difference between surprise and suspense. He said suspense is crucial; surprise not so much. With surprise, it's a momentary feeling. Suspense leaves a reader hanging on, waiting to see what happens. Lorri Amsden from the Poisoned Pen said when Jerry Ford (author G.M. Ford) was there, he said authors have to leave cookies to keep readers going, and cookies are sex, death or money. Cleland quoted Alan Alda as saying to keep the attention of the ordinary person, you need to destroy property, defy authority, or have naked people.

Jane Cleland went on to give a little background to her books. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago does all of Cleland's appraisals for the books. She's been very helpful. Cleland is also active in the Wolfe Pack, a literary society devoted to Rex Stout's character, Nero Wolfe. With 300 members who are "lovers of all things Wolfe," Cleland sometimes slips in antiques that aren't true, and connections to Nero Wolfe that his fans will recognize.

It was mentioned that the town of Rocky Point is so incredibly rich as a setting, and Jane said she considers setting important. The next book, Silent Auction, takes place in September, so Cleland can incorporate some of New Hampshire's incredible fall foliage. And, she mentioned that scrimshaw is the pivotal antique in book five.

She went on to discuss her writing. Book 2 was Deadly Appraisal. Her editor told her Josie cried too much, and there was a sappy middle. The ending also needed snap. So, her editor didn't like the beginning, middle or end, but loved the book. When you get that kind of letter, you pour yourself a Jack Daniels, drink it, and wait three days. Then you go back and read the letter, and find the instructions are signposts to fix the book.

Josie dates the former police chief of Rocky Point, Ty Alverez, but Cleland had to send him out of town in Deadly Appraisal. He's in California with a dying aunt. Now, he's in a new job, Head of Homeland Security for the tri-state area, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, and travels a lot. Cleland's editor said the books were becoming woman in jeopardy books because Josie was always dependent on Ty, her lawyer, or her reporter friend, Wes, to get her out of trouble. She was depending on the men in her life to take care of everything. So, she sent Ty out of town frequently. Wes, the local reporter, is crucial to the books because he does research, and has a network of sources.

Cleland's original plans for book five were for a Boston lawyer to hire Josie to appraise antiques in an acrimonious divorce that would end in murder. It would show the growth of Josie's business. But, her editor wouldn't let her do it. Josie can't leave Rocky Point yet because readers like the town. And, the bigger issue is that Wes would never be sent out of state. So, in the new book five, Cleland has Wes working on an article that might be picked up elsewhere. Jane wants to get Josie to New York eventually. Her father was murdered, and Josie is going to get his missing wallet in the mail. So, Cleland needs Wes to be in New York at the same time. Josie won't be as dependent on his sources because she herself has contacts in New York. Cleland knows the future story arc for the books.

She said she knows where she wants the character to go, but, if she does it well, the readers won't see it coming. She's trying to create a family of characters as Robert B. Parker did in the Spenser books. Cleland said a friend said to her, do you know why you don't like Susan? You're jealous of a fictional character's fictional girlfriend. In Parker's books, Paul is a character that was introduced in Early Autumn. Now, in later books, it's wonderful to run into Paul again. He's part of Spenser's family of characters.

She did say she's on page 340 of the book she's writing, and the killer just changed. Josie told her it was a different character than Jane thought. Her books are plotted out, and her editor approves the synopsis. But, surprises happen. Lorri told her if the plot surprises her, it's guaranteed to surprise the reader. Cleland said her characters have turned very real. Eric, Josie's back room supervisor, has just received a big promotion. Silent Auction brings good news for him. And, Jane said the books will always end with a sweet scene between Ty and Josie. Her readers can count on it.

There are two short stories that feature Josie. "Killing Time", available on Cleland's website, was nominated for an Agatha Award. "Designed to Kill" is in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They are standalones.

When asked what she's reading, Cleland said, And Be a Villain by Rex Stout. She said she's reading for a major award, so she can't talk about what else she's reading, but she's overwhelmed.

She would eventually like to do two books a year, a Josie, and something else, since her contract is for one Josie mystery a year. She's presently working on a young adult mystery, but has some major changes she wants to make to her original cast. So, eventually, fans may be able to look forward to two books a year from Jane Cleland.

Jane K. Cleland's website is

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Killer Keepsakes by Jane K. Cleland. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312369446 (hardcover), 304p.


Margaret said...

Really enjoyed all of the information on Jane and Josie. Thanks for the posting. I missed Jane's bookstore appearance last year when she came to the Chicago area.
Margaret Franson

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Margaret. It was fun. I planned to go last year when she was here, and, like you, missed it.