Author Mary Kay Andrews ~ Interviewed

Mary Kay Andrews is the author of the New York Times bestselling SAVANNAH BREEZE and BLUE CHRISTMAS, (HarperCollins) as well as HISSY FIT, LITTLE BITTY LIES and SAVANNAH BLUES, all HarperPerennial.

A former reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she wrote ten critically acclaimed mysteries, including the Callahan Garrity mystery series, under her “real” name, which is Kathy Hogan Trocheck.

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida (and a diplomate of the Maas Bros. Department Store School of Charm), she started her professional journalism career in Savannah, Georgia, where she covered the real-life murder trials which were the basis of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.

As a lifelong “junker” the author claims to know the location of every promising thrift store, flea market and junkpile in the Southeastern United States, plus many parts of Ohio.

She has a B.A. in newspaper journalism from The University of Georgia (go Dawgs!), and is a frequent lecturer and writing teacher at workshops including Emory University, The University of Georgia’s Harriet Austin Writer’s Workshop, the Tennessee Mountain Writer’s Workshop and the Antioch Writer’s Workshop. Her mysteries have been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha and Macavity Awards.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

My forthcoming novel THE FIXER UPPER, features Dempsey Killebrew, a fledgling lobbyist in a high-powered Washington public relations firm who unwittingly gets mixed up in a political scandal involving her boss and a crooked politician. When the dust settles, Dempsey is out of work, broke and homeless. Out of options, she accepts her father’s offer to help restore the old family homeplace he’s recently inherited in the Podunk town of Guthrie, Georgia, a place Dempsey has never been to. All it will take to return Birdsong, the family “mansion” to its former splendor, Dempsey is assured, is a coat of paint and some TLC. Dempsey, a big city career girl and novice do-it-yourselfer, is in for a surprise when she lands in Guthrie. The house is a mouldering dump, and it’s inhabited by an elderly distant relative who has claimed squatter’s rights and has no intention of moving out. As Dempsey dives into the restoration, she finds herself being courted by two handsome locals—and being stalked by the FBI, who want her to assist in investigating the congressman and her former boss.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

My journey as a writer has had some interesting changes and switchbacks. I majored in journalism in college, and spent fourteen years as a newspaper reporter, with most of that time being spent at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Unhappy with the direction of newspapering, I left journalism in 1991, and in 1992, my first book, a mystery called EVERY CROOKED NANNY was published by HarperCollins under my real name, which is Kathy Hogan Trocheck. I wrote eight installments of the Callahan Garrity mystery series, and then, in 2002, I switched paths again. I reinvented myself as a women’s fiction novelist, publishing SAVANNAH BLUES under the pseudonym of Mary Kay Andrews. I’ve been truly blessed to have been at HarperCollins for all 17 of my published novels, and to have had the fortune to work with two talented literary agents, Sallie Gouverneur , and for the past nine years, Stuart Krichevsky.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Like most novelists, I struggle with self-doubts, procrastination and lack of discipline. It’s a challenge to stay on a book-a-year schedule and at the same time juggle the demands of family and career—and living the kind of fulfilling life that makes me a better novelist. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I will admit to laziness and lack of focus. That said, I’m a deadline-driven creature who gives herself daily page quotas. When deadlines loom, I run away to our second home on Tybee Island, Georgia, and lock myself up to churn out the chapters. I also enlist the aid of my editor and agent to help keep me on track, by emailing them each chapter as I’m writing it.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I think a writer has to travel a certain path before they can understand the journey they’re on. My first literary agent was amazingly helpful at teaching me how to be a professional novelist and at helping me hone my craft, but I gradually came to understand that commercial fiction was not her strong-point. I only sought a new agent when she sold her business. In hindsight, maybe I should have left earlier. But then again, maybe I wasn’t ready to change career paths until I did.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I don’t have a single favorite source for finding story ideas. They come at me from everywhere—overheard conversations, news articles, dreams, and from just observing the everyday foibles of life in my little corner of the world.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

When I was researching SAVANNAH BREEZE, I got the idea that my protagonist should try to steal a multi-million dollar yacht. So I walked into a yacht brokerage in Savannah and asked the salesmen there…”How does one go about stealing a yacht?” At first they looked at me like I was nuts. Then they told me it was impossible. I left, went to a nearby bookstore and bought one of my own books, to assure them that I was not just some kook off the street. Finally, once they were convinced that I was actually for real, they let me pick their brains and figure out just how the impossible could become possible. All I can say is, thank God for author photos.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

If I were giving myself advice about starting this journey again, I’d tell myself that the path to publication is just plain hard work. There really aren’t any shortcuts. You have to approach the business of writing and selling a book….like it’s a business. And at the same time, remember that writing is an art. I’d tell myself to ask questions, seek the advice of the pros, and continually push myself to stretch and grow my artistic horizons. And I’d remind myself not to embrace failure.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

Switching genres—from mystery to mainstream women’s fiction, changed me as a writer, gave me new challenges and forced me to grow. At the same time, working with a new agent who really pushed me and challenged me to try a new direction was amazingly helpful.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

When my older sister was killed in a traffic accident on the way to visit me on July 4 weekend two years ago, I wanted to let the world know about Susie, and why it would miss her. I wrote a piece which was published in our hometown newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, and which I also later read on Georgia Public Radio.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Pet peeves? About publishing? Only one? I’m annoyed by “celebrity authors”—rock stars penning children’s books, spoiled pro athletes writing tell-alls. I’ll never forget the year Pamela Anderson’s “book” released the same time as mine—since fiction is shelved alphabetically I spent months staring at the lurid pink jacket of her “book” right next to mine. I did some teeth-gnashing for sure.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

I’d love to have a New York Times number-one best-seller to prove to my former managing editor that I really can write.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

The greatest buzz is having readers email me that they found or rediscovered a love of reading through my books. Of knowing I spread a little joy on a gray day.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

As a journalist I had the opportunity to ask tough questions of lots of folks—from drug lords to crooked politicians to everyday housewives. Observing people in difficult situations helped me to better understand—and write convincingly about people under pressure.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

I love to stretch out on the sofa in my sunroom with my laptop propped up on my lap, and an aromatherapy candle burning.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Tight plotting is the most difficult thing for me. I don’t know that I’ve conquered it at all. I wrestle with story structure each time I start or finish a new book.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

The first thing I do when starting a new book is come up with the title. It’s gotta be great. Not just okay, great, memorable and a perfect fit for the characters and plot.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

Quirks? I have to write two pages before I save a document and call it a chapter. I send each chapter, as I write it, to my editor and agent. I give myself daily page quotas. When I’m plotting longhand on a yellow legal pad, I write the date, chapter and the location of where I’m writing.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I’m a pants-plotter.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

Saggy middles are the bane of my existence. That and my regrettable tendency to rush an ending. I shape it up by plodding along, trying to tighten as I go, and by keeping an eye on the finish-line. And I always know I can go back and cut or expand.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

SAVANNAH BLUES was nominated for an Edgar award for best mystery of the year, and HISSY FIT was nominated for a Quill Award.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?

I don’t have any real secrets for marketing or promotion. I’ve invested heavily in having a great looking website, try to blog regularly, and am now on Facebook and Twitter. In addition, I do a good bit of public speaking and am represented both by my publisher’s speaker’s bureau and an independent speaking bureau. I try to promptly answer reader mail, and I have a great publicist, Leslie Cohen, who stays on top of requests for events or publicity. In addition, I recently hired my own free-lance marketing professional.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Parting words? If you can’t be good, be lucky. Both would be better.