Fifty-seven years! I wanted to be a writer from the age of seven on, and I hoped my first novel would be published by the time I was twenty-four. Instead, it came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. I’ve come to believe that nothing is wasted, though. All the life experience that went into Death Will Get You Sober—and now Death Will Help You Leave Him—makes my mysteries a lot more worth reading than the autobiographical first novel I would probably have produced in my twenties. I published other kinds of work in the interim, including two books of poetry and a book about gender and addictions. But for me, “being a writer” has always meant being a published novelist.
What mistakes did you make in seeking publication?
The fifty years I spent trying to do it alone were probably my worst mistake. There was so much I didn’t know about how to go about it. I’ve been very lucky in that my chosen genre, mystery, is well known for how helpful and supportive its practitioners are to each other. And I was doubly lucky in joining Sisters in Crime, and especially its online Guppies chapter, at the time I finished my first draft and started sending out queries to agents. One mistake I made at that point was not listening to people who told me to revise and get a lot of critique before submitting to agents. But I learned a lot from rejection letters and the cumulative experience of my fellow aspiring and emerging writers in Guppies, and I did eventually revise and revise and finally rewrite that first manuscript. I couldn’t hear it until I was ready. The same was true about “killing my darlings”—letting go cherished passages of backstory or one too many clever remarks in a paragraph. The mistakes are part of the process.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
Every writer goes through those swings of the pendulum where at one moment you look at what you’ve written and think, “That’s brilliant!” and then, at another moment, you think, “This is awful!” But at this stage, I don’t think the issue is self-doubt any more, or at least not about my ability as a writer. They say it takes talent, persistence, and luck to get published. I can’t do anything about the luck, and I have learned to apply the persistence, persistence, persistence. I have no doubt whatsoever that I’m a talented writer. However, sometimes what comes out on the page (or screen) is deft, witty, felicitous, moving, hilarious. And sometimes, it’s lifeless, forced, hackneyed. When that happens, I don’t think, “I’m a lousy writer.” I think, “This sucks.” Either I need to revise it—or seek critique from trusted “critters” and then revise it—or discard it and try again.
Where self-doubt comes in is the fear that I won’t be able to do again what I’ve already done, ie produce a novel or short story that I’m proud of by the time I’m through with it. Especially with a first draft, I’m afraid I won’t make it to the end, that somehow I’ll run out of story. I’ve been reassured to hear successful writers with a huge body of work admit they sometimes feel the same. My husband, who’s stuck with a front-row seat when I’m going through these agonies, once said that my process always begins with “I can’t,” and I’ve come to believe he’s right about that. “I can’t” still feels horribly real, but it helps to be able to tell myself, “Here it is again—it’s your process.”
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself?
For me, that’s not quite the right question. Figuring out which suggestions and critiques to trust and when my own instincts are the best guide is an evolving process that will probably never end. In retrospect, I can see the value in some suggestions that I couldn’t take in when they were first made. And my own ability to self-critique has grown in quantum leaps, both through the process that led to my first contract with Minotaur and since then as I’ve continued the series and written and published short stories as well. Passages I loved when I wrote them and even through the first couple of revisions may jump out at me a year or two years later, crying out, “Too much! Cut me! Cut me!”
As I said, nothing is wasted. I try to pay attention to critique that’s coming from several people whose opinion I respect, even if I feel a lot of resistance. As the saying goes, if three people tell you you’re a horse, buy a saddle. But if I’m hearing a lot of different opinions, I will probably sit with what I’m hearing and my own intuition about the work in question before making any changes. I guess I thought this process would stop once I had a publisher, but that hasn’t been the case for me. In fact, I’m pleased to discover that I’m still—maybe even increasingly—teachable.
What is the theme of your latest book?
My mystery series from Minotaur, which started with Death Will Get You Sober, features recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, computer genius Jimmy and world-class codependent Barbara. The theme of the series as a whole is recovery—from alcoholism and other addictions, from codependency and addictive relationships, from eating disorders and other compulsive behaviors. The new one, Death Will Help You Leave Him, is about bad relationships. There are several in the book. The murder mystery involves a woman who becomes the prime suspect when her abusive boyfriend is murdered. Bruce gets involved in the investigation because Barbara, who’s a compulsive rescuer, drags him in, but he also develops a crush on the bereaved girlfriend. At the same time, he’s still hooked on his compelling but destructive ex-wife, who is in turn locked into an abusive relationship that she can’t let go of. Bruce has to juggle the investigation, his sobriety, and his feelings for the two women. In the end, he has to make some hard choices. In a way, each book and the series as a whole are about what we have to do to grow up—which alcoholics and addicts stop doing when they start using substances and have to go back and do right in recovery.
Are takeaway messages important to you?
Absolutely. Our society is riddled with misinformation about alcoholism and false beliefs about love and relationships. I wanted to open a window into the hidden world of recovery, and particularly 12-step programs like AA and Al-Anon, which people who don’t know much about them think must be depressing and/or sanctimonious. I’ve tried to show the unexpected fun, the staggering self-honesty, and the deep commitment people in recovery have to becoming better human beings. Bruce doesn’t make those changes willingly. In fact, he’s usually kicking and screaming in his sardonic way, but he also has a good heart, and that starts to show as he keeps showing up and doing the work—and solving murders along the way. In a sense, the “message” of any mystery is that wrongs need to be righted, and that’s true of my books.
How do you craft a plot?
Plotting is a little easier when you’re writing mysteries, because there’s a basic structure—crime, investigation, denouement, and resolution—that I often say is like a sturdy coat hanger on which you can hang anything you like: a location, a theme, an occupation or community. But for today’s mystery, that’s not enough.
Fifty years ago, in a traditional whodunit, the puzzle was all-important. Relationships were considered a distraction. Now we have character-driven mysteries, which I much prefer. In fact, the series format gives the author a tremendous opportunity to develop the protagonist and secondary characters in a process of emotional growth, changes through the life cycle, and what may be a complex web of relationships. So you have to weave the personal subplots in and out through the thread of detection.
And more and more nowadays, you have to have action. In writing every chapter, you have to ask yourself, “What happens?” And even the amateur sleuth usually experiences some kind of personal danger. I’m an “into the mist” writer—I don’t outline—so in writing the first draft, I’m telling myself the story as I go. A lot of the crafting, especially the clues and red herrings that make it a mystery, takes place in revision.
Nowadays, you have to kill your first victim near the beginning of the story—no leisurely buildup of the world of the folks who will become suspects first—but I don’t always know who the murderer will be. In fact, the suspects are secondary characters who may not even exist in my mind until I start to write, knowing I have to populate the victim’s world with people who have something at stake.
How much marketing or publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
If you’re a new or midlist author and not a celebrity with a pre-existing platform (ie you’re not already Oprah before you write your novel), expect to have to put a lot of energy into marketing. It’s not optional. I was lucky enough to join the e-list Murder Must Advertise a few years before my first book came out. I heard a lot of authors talk about all the creative ways they publicized their books.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
I’ve had many, but I’ll share three that, cumulatively, tell me that to some extent I’ve realized my dream and reached the people I hoped to reach.
“You are the first professional that I have come across that really seems to get it. I’m coming up on thirty five years of continuous sobriety.”
“I was profoundly moved by the struggle of the recovering addict. I finally got what it means to crave something so bad for you.”
“As a judge, my experience with the addicted is mostly with failure. I was entertained by your realism, and happy at your hopefulness.”