I met Debbie Levison at a talk she was giving to the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. Her debut book, The Crate: A Story of War, a Murder, and Justice, is a true crime story, and seemed like an unusual … Continue reading
Lynne Constantine and her sister Valerie together form a writing partnership, Liv Constantine, whose nail-biting psychological thriller, The Last Mrs Parrish, has become a breakout international best-seller. It’s now available in 22 countries/territories, including places like Brazil, Croatia and China. … Continue reading
I was surprised to find myself at a reading given by award-winning children’s book author Susan Hood, because she’s written more than 200 books for small children, and I don’t read many of those. But I heard about her debut … Continue reading
Linda Legters’ debut novel, Connected Underneath, is unusual in several respects. Its chief protagonist, Persephone, is a confused teenager whose life becomes even more complicated when her tattooing habit, which she pays for with sex, gets in the way of … Continue reading
With the rise of self-published books, it’s hard to know which books are worth buying. So when I find one I think is excellent in its class, I like to give them and their authors a shout-out. One such is Monster In My Lunchbox, an illustrated book of family-focused rhyme. The poems are by Leslie Chess Feller and the illustrations by her late sister, Shelley. I asked Leslie how the book came about and her answers were quite unexpected. Read on to find out why.
GC: Can you tell us something about the book?
LCF: Monster In My Lunchbox is a collection of light verse that celebrates family. It includes simpler poems for early readers and others for kids in elementary school and beyond. But it’s also for Moms, Dads, Grandmas and Grandpas. I like to say that anyone who has ever been a kid will get a laugh out of these poems. They are meant for the whole family to enjoy together. Here’s a sample:
GC: How long have you been a poet?
LCF: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, the second of five siblings. My sister Shelley, older by 15 months, was the alpha sibling and with three younger brothers there was never a dull moment. Our father was a physician who loved the poet Ogden Nash. Whenever he had something to say to our mother, a psychologist, he would do it with a clever Ogden Nash-ian rhyme. And my mother would rhyme right back.
You could tell anybody anything in my family, even our father, if you did it with a poem. Every occasion became a poetic roast. Like my siblings, I began to rhyme as soon as I could write. So when my daughter Dania brought home Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic in the fourth grade, I looked at it and said, “I can do that.”
GC: How did you get your first poems published?
LCF: In 1985, a few of my Kidstuff poems ran in a local newspaper and attracted the attention of editors at a Westport, CT, magazine, Profiles. As soon as I found out they wanted me to do a monthly column and were open to me bringing in an illustrator, I called Shelley. By then, she was the world’s best middle school science teacher. But as a student, she used to get in a lot of trouble for cartooning all over her schoolwork. “Hey, Shelley,” I said. “I’m getting these poems published! Maybe you could do some cartoons?”
GC: Did you continue to publish poetry?
LCF: I did two other light verse columns for Profiles. Both Rhyme or Reason and Poetic License won Connecticut Press Club awards, but ran without illustrations. Soon my editors started assigning me articles which put my writing career on a different track. I went from local articles to the New York Times to national magazines as a freelance journalist for almost thirty years. Writing in light verse became something I enjoyed doing for family events.
GC: What made you decide to publish your poems now?
LCF: This book is also a celebration of a very special sisterhood. Over decades, my sister and I cheerfully perfected the art of never, ever agreeing with each other – except that we didn’t want to fight. Agreeing to disagree was our solution, the catalyst for what became an extraordinary friendship. Shelley died of leukemia two years ago. It was a terrible loss.
Six months afterwards, I was standing in my living room feeling very black. For no reason, I opened a cabinet door. Something fell on the floor in front of me. It was a xerox copy of fifty of my poems with fifty illustrations done by my sister. I had forgotten ever writing them. The fifteen Kidstuff poems in my writer’s portfolio were what I remembered. But at some point, decades ago, I had given more to Shelley and she had chosen to illustrate them.
I felt her right beside me. “Publish these,” Shelley said. The words were sweet. I threw everything out of that cabinet in a mad search for the pen and ink cartoons. Eventually I found 110 of my poems, each with the perfect cartoon. My sister and I disagreed about everything, but clearly we shared the same sense of humor. Monster In My Lunchbox is a collaboration that includes eighty of my favorites.
GC: How are you promoting your book?
LCF: Monster In My Lunchbox was published in November, 2015.
The website is http://www.monsterinmylunchbox.com On the website, you can listen to me read the title poem. Then click links to videos of other poems in the collection.
And I’ve been giving talks and readings at libraries, and for parent groups among others.
Kate Manning’s second novel, My Notorious Life, was six years in the making, and it was worth the wait, so far as I’m concerned. It’s the story of Axie Muldoon, an orphaned child from the streets of 1870’s New York, … Continue reading
I met Chris Knopf at the CrimeConn conference recently, and was intrigued to find that not only is he a writer of several crime series, but is also Connecticut liaison of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and is one of the publishers at The Permanent Press, which publishes award-winning crime novels. The main protagonist of Cop Job, the sixth novel in Chris’ Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mysteries series, is an intelligent, well-read man who is a master cabinet-maker as well as an amateur sleuth. Sam has a nice way with women, and a sense of humor, too. The novel is somewhere between a crime novel and a thriller, with a little grown-up romance thrown in for good measure, and so well-paced that I found it a pleasure to read.
GC: I don’t read many “thrillers” or gritty crime novels, but I loved your book, Cop Job. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. There’s mystery, suspense, romance and a limited amount of violence. How did you come to write this kind of book, rather than something easier to categorize?
CK: Thanks for that. I like not being pigeon-holed in any particular genre, though most people who are heavily into mysteries would categorized the Sam books as hard-boiled, amateur sleuth. Many years ago my creative director at the ad agency was approached by a Hollywood producer looking for movie concepts. My boss thought it would be fun to get a roomful of copywriters together to brainstorm ideas. Out of this I came up with Sam Acquillo, an ex-corporate burnout who discovered the body of an old lady who’d lived next door. The setting was the Little Peconic Bay in the Hamptons, and included a potential love interest named Amanda. That was all I had, and the partially-written script went nowhere, but about ten years later I turned it into a novel and things went from there.
GC: Your main character, Sam Acquillo, reminds me a little of Spenser (from the novels by the late Robert B. Parker) or Travis McGee (John D MacDonald). They too, were resourceful private eyes with integrity and intelligence who live slightly outside the mainstream. Were these writers/characters favorites of yours?
CK: Yup. Along with Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer. Of those five influences, I always loved Ross MacDonald’s prose and Parker’s dialogue. I also liked Paul Newman’s characters in The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool. Put it all together and stir in my father’s sense of humor and engineering talents, my grandfather’s toughness (a champion boxer) and, of course, my own take on things, and you get Sam Acquillo.
GC: There’s a sense of humor that infuses the book. Is that something you have to think about, or does it come naturally to you when you’re writing? Do you laugh at your own writing?
CK: It comes naturally as I’m writing, though as noted above, my father had a very sardonic wit. I channel some of that. And yes, I often chuckle at Sam’s humor, though usually long after I’ve written the lines when I’m getting the manuscript ready to go to the copy editor.
GC: I know you’ve written two other series, one of which uses Jackie Swaitkowski, who features in the Acquillo books, as the main protagonist. If you had to pick one character to stick with long-term, which would it be?
CK: Sam for sure will always be with me. Jackie, of course, as a key sidekick, will also live on though she could easily turn up again in her own book. I’m probably going to keep Arthur Cathcart’s series as a trilogy. But one should never say never.
GC: You’re very active in Mystery Writers of America. What are the benefits of joining an organization like that?
CK: It’s very important for mystery writers to be part of our rather robust sub-culture. There are lots of conferences, publications, Facebook pages, etc., where we communicate. By we, I mean other writers, commentators, fans, bloggers, etc. It’s a great crowd, and we support each other through thick and thin. I highly recommend joining MWA, but also International Thriller Writers (if you write thrillers), Sisters in Crime (for men and women, though the skew is obviously female) and the International Association of Crime Writers.
David Handler’s writing career has taken him from journalist to writer for films and television to mystery novelist. This prolific author has produced several series of mystery novels, with different detectives in each. The first novel I happened to read was The Coal-Black Asphalt Tomb. It’s the tenth (and latest) in the Berger-Mitry series, which features a mismatched pair of detectives in a small coastal town in Connecticut. The eleventh book, The Lavender Lane Lothario, comes out in February. When David answered my questions, I was fascinated to learn how he develops his characters, and the number of tries it takes to get them right.
GC: You have one of the most unusual setups for a cozy mystery. Your two main characters are about as different as they could be: Desiree Mitry is a black policewoman and her life partner is Jewish New York City film critic, Mitch Berger. What makes the situation unusual, I think is the fact that they both live in a sweet little coastal town in Connecticut. How on earth did you come up with this mix?
DH: Strictly by accident, believe it or not. When I was writing the first book of the series, The Cold Blue Blood, my plan was that it would be about New York City film critic Mitch Berger and his landscape architect wife, Maisie, renting a cottage on Big Sister Island and finding their landlady’s estranged husband buried in the vegetable garden. The first 60 pages or so felt very blah to me so I set the project aside for several months, came back to it and decided to make Mitch a young widower who rents the cottage as a means of trying to heal himself after Maisie’s death. Right away, that gave it a lot more moral weight. When he finds the body a Major Crime Squad homicide investigator is sent to the scene. At first, I wrote him as a black male officer. The dialogue felt flat. So I tried making it a black female officer instead and, wham, sparks started flying and I suddenly realized I was writing a novel about an interracial romance.
GC: I like the town of Dorset, which seems like an amalgam of many little places in Connecticut (apart from its unusually high murder rate). Do you find it restricts your plot opportunities to be in one location?
DH: No, not at all, because what I’m mostly doing is studying people. If you study people then you never seem to run out of ideas. People are endlessly fascinating. My eleventh Berger-Mitry installment, “The Lavender Lane Lothario, will be coming out in February and I have many more ideas for stories to come.
GC: How do you ensure that your technical information is correct? Is it all on Google? And if so, is Google reliable?
DH: I began my career as a journalist so I’m always aiming to be as accurate as I can be. I’m grateful to friends in the profession who provide with me much of the technical detail that I use. Google can be a very valuable resource as well, but you have to be mindful of the reliability of the sites that you are choosing to use as sources. Some are less credible than others.
GC: Tell me honestly – are you a film buff like Mitch, or did you make him up out of thin air?
DH: I am totally Mitch, minus the excess blubber. Think Mitch, except sculpted, and you’ve got me. I spent my entire childhood watching old movies on late night TV and my college and young adult years haunting movie revival houses in Los Angeles and New York City. I began my career as New York cultural correspondent for the Scripps-Howard News Service, which meant I was their Broadway critic and book reviewer. I was also a syndicated television and film critic. In addition – and here’s where I depart a bit from Mitch — I actually wrote for television and films for 20 years before I gave it up to devote my time to being a full-time novelist.
I had been living in Old Lyme, which is the real life model for Dorset, for over ten years before I decided to take a crack at writing about it. I think it’s inevitable that if a writer lives in a place long enough he or she will end up wanting to write about it. That’s just how we’re wired. I had lived exclusively in big cities before I moved here, so this is foreign territory to me. In fact, I am still considered an outsider even though I’ve lived here for 30 years. That’s small town New England! Right now, I’m working on a new Stewart Hoag novel, my first in nearly 18 years. And it has been a genuine joy to write the first two Benji Golden novels, Runaway Man and Phantom Angel. I’d love to keep all three series going. That is certainly my hope.
You can connect with David via his website, Goodreads and Facebook
Clinical psychologist Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib) has published 14 mysteries, including the latest in the Key West food critic series, Fatal Reservations. As you’ll find out below, she’s written more than one mystery series, but she’s used her real name for some and Lucy Burdette for her latest. Like many crime writers, she’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. Her next book, Killer Takeout will be released in April.
GC: First of all, why the pen name?
LB: As I was signing the contract with Signet/NAL, my new editor asked if I’d be willing to use a different name for this series. This would differentiate the Key West series from my previous advice column and golf lovers mysteries which were not as cozy. I was happy to do whatever would help sell books. And I was very happy to choose my grandmother’s name, Lucille aka Lucy Burdette. I get a kick out of carrying her name forward.
LB: About nine years ago, my husband and I drove down the string of islands and bridges that leads to Key West, agreeing that we’d never live in a place so fragile, so isolated, so exposed. But instead of listening to our practical voices, we fell in love and moved in.
The island is totally gorgeous, with its palm trees and turquoise water and eyebrow windows and gingerbread trim. And there’s a thriving artistic scene, and fabulous food, and an amazing literary history.
About this same time, I was planning to pitch a new cozy mystery series. Where should I set it but in Key West, with its delicately balanced development, and its conflicts between old-time Conchs and newcomers, between the richest of the rich, the homeless, and the millions of partying visitors. To find characters and plot ideas, all I have to do is step outside the door…
GC: You have a great website, with a lot of features like recipes (with photos) and blog updates. Do you have help with it, or do you do everything yourself? I’m asking because I know writers need a web site, and many are too frightened of it to even try.
LB: I had help setting this up on WordPress, which is fairly easy to learn. Now I can update things myself, which I’m woefully behind in doing. Look around for websites you admire, and then ask the writers who they used for design, etc. There are tons of resources out there, and many inexpensive designers who can make a website look professional.
GC: You previously wrote a mystery series based on a sleuth who was an advice columnist and another who was a golfer. Now there’s the restaurant critic. Are these all personal interests of yours or did you have to research these careers?
LB: Golf, psychology, and food are all great passions for me. If I love the subject, I find the book easier to write.
GC: Like most mystery readers, I love a series. Seeing the main character develop, and finding out about the people in their private life. Hayley Snow lives with an eccentric 80-something, Miss Gloria, and I love their relationship. Is it easier to write the crime-solving, or the personal life of your characters?
LB: I‘ve always been a huge reader. I tore through the Nancy Drew mysteries, then moved on to my brother’s Hardy boys adventures, gobbling lots of teenage romances in between. What stays with me even years after reading a book are the characters and their conflicts. So I shoot for that when writing my own series. I have lots of ideas of where the characters’ lives will go–and that is my favorite part of writing. But they can still surprise me, which makes it more fun!
Like me, Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London, not far from where I lived, as it happens. He lives in the US now, and I met him at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, where he was giving a talk on how to write crime novels. I wanted to read one of his books immediately, because he made me laugh. I know you’re thinking it’s all about that British sense of humor, but I think you’ll find his mysteries, which take place in London, refreshing and a bit off-beat. Being a person who likes to start a series at the beginning, I read his first book, An Embarrassment of Corpses, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve got the next two sitting on my electronic To Be Read pile.
And if you want a taste of his sense of humor, you could do worse than check out his blog.
GC: When did you start writing novels, and what made you choose crime as your genre?
AB: I dedicated my most recent book, This Private Plot, to my late parents, and I note there that my mother started it all by giving me The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot whodunit) when I was twelve. I reconnected with the world of crime as a college student when I read P.D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, having heard it reviewed on the BBC. And after a couple of misguided attempts at get-rich-quick screenplays with friends, I switched my mystery-reading habit to a mystery-writing habit when I settled down to write my first novel, A Nasty Little Murder. Never heard of it? It’s crap, and it was rightly never published, despite being shunted around several British publishing houses. But it taught me what voice not to use.
GC: Do your fans love your books more for your characters and plot, or for your sense of humor?
AB: From the letters and emails I get, it’s clearly the characters, which is the way it should be. Plot and humor should flow from characters and their situations – or at least look like they do by the time you’re finished. Although I am pleased when readers note that there is, in fact, a plot, and I hope a good one. I’m writing a mystery, not a soap opera.
GC: How did you come up with the extraordinary names of your characters?
AB: I found several of them in the old four-volume London telephone directory. “Strongitharm” – presumably a contraction of “Strong in the arm” – which is the name of one of my lead characters, came from those. Ever since I was young, I’ve kept notes of good names, or words that aren’t typically names but could be – belfry, welkin, moldwarp, mormal. The last review of This Private Plot that I posted on my blog was by the magnificently named Sue Millinocket. That’s going on the list. There are also a few bad jokes shoved in (Mark Sandys-Penza? Hoo, Watt and Eidenau? I mean, come on), including a particularly filthy one in the name of the company Oliver works for in the first book. Nobody’s noticed so far. (GC: Must go back and look…)
GC: Of all the characters in all the novels, which is your favorite?
AB: Effie. They’re called the “Oliver Swithin” mysteries, but she’s almost the co-hero. Effie Strongitharm is Oliver’s girlfriend, but also a Scotland Yard detective sergeant, who works for Oliver’s uncle. I work harder on Effie, because it’s a challenge for a male writer to create a convincing female character, especially a woman working in a sexist, male-dominated environment like the police. Her appearance, especially her unruly hair, is based on that of a much-loved girlfriend from my teenage years (who tolerates her fictional incarnation), but her character is every woman I’ve ever loved, and her insecurities are probably mine.
GC: How much promotion did you have to do once your books were published? And what’s the most effective way to promote a book, in your view?
AB: How much did I do? Not enough. It’s never enough, these days. I have a blog, I contribute to other people’s blogs, I do signings and readings . . . Still not enough. I think I’m destined to be a boutique. Maybe it’s enough to have a few devoted fans. One of them even tattooed my initials on her back. (If you’re reading this, hi Rebecca!)
GC: What’s in the works? More of our hero, Oliver Swithin?
AB: I’ve started the next Oliver Swithin novel. I’ve also had a non-Swithinian short story published, one that started out as a romance, but inevitably became a mystery. But the past year has thrown up a few distractions, some good, some bad, so I don’t currently have a good chunk of writing time on my schedule. This will, of course, all change as soon as someone offers me a couple of million for the screen rights to An Embarrassment of Corpses, or the BBC decide the Swithin series is a worthy successor to “Lewis” or “Midsomer Murders.”