After reading Susan Kandel's latest mystery, Christietown, I knew she would be the perfect guest for our Twenty Questions column. And I was right! Not only does she share how she got started writing mysteries, she gives some great advice to all writers.
1.Susan, just how did you get started writing mysteries?
My becoming a mystery writer was totally serendipitous. I was actually on vacation in Ventura with my husband, strolling around this charming seaside town when we came across an interesting old building at the corner of California and Main. There was a bronze plaque affixed to the side of the building indicating that it was a state of California historic location: the birthplace of Perry Mason. As it turned it, it was the building in which Erle Stanley Gardner practiced law in the 1920s, and, always in need of some extra money, came up with the idea of writing stories about a fictional lawyer. My husband and I snuck upstairs and saw the actual office, which was the exact prototype for Perry’s famous office, down to the hat rack in the hallway. My first thought was, “Wow, somebody should write a mystery and set it in this building.” I thought it would be cute to make the novel sort of retro, maybe feature a character who was obsessed with Perry Mason and had a Della Street-esque secretary with great legs, something like that. By the end of the weekend, I was thinking, “Why can’t I write this mystery? I think I can!”
2.In your bio you mention you were an art critic. Was art your first love and do you think you'll ever write an art mystery?
My first love was books (I was the kid who spent recess in the library), my second love was art, and art history is what I pursued as a career, never intending to wind my way back to literature, which just goes to show—I don’t know what, but something. While never saying never, I don’t think I’ll write an art mystery, which is not to say I don’t feature all sorts of art themes and references in my books. Not a Girl Detective, for example, is all about a shocking painting that comes to light and causes problems for all sorts of people. I am still extremely passionate about art, and spend much of my free time in museums and galleries. But I was looking for a change when I left the art world, and I’m not in a great hurry to run back.
3.You've said you have a passion for the mystery genre. When did this happen or have you always loved mysteries?
I skipped Nancy Drew as a kid and went straight to Agatha Christie, whose mysteries I read one after another in seventh grade. I adored them. I read mysteries here and there for many years after that, but my main interest was literary fiction. It was only once I had children that I became obsessive about murder mysteries (what does that say? Children predispose one to thoughts of gore and mayhem??) I think I was kind of overwhelmed with my life at that point, and was attracted to the predictability of genre fiction — you know, there’s a good guy, a bad guy, and justice is served at the end. The challenge for me as a genre writer, of course, is finding a way to reinvent and maybe even subvert those clichés, while at the same time giving the reader what she (or he) comes to the genre looking for.
4.I love your character Cece Caruso. Besides the obsession with clothing, do you and she share any other traits?
I think of Cece and I being twins separated at birth: we share the same height and weight, but the circumstances of our lives are completely different. I grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish home in Beverly Hills and barely dated til I went off to college. Cece grew up in an Italian-Catholic home in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the daughter of a cop, and wound up pregnant at 17. Okay, besides dress size, I suppose we do share the same dark sense of humor and deep loyalty to our family and friends.
5.I noticed Cece's birthday is Oct. 31st. Is there any special reason for that?
Couldn’t you guess that I was born on Halloween? And at the stroke of twelve, which both my daughters insist explains everything about me!
6.How cool! Maybe you really are twins. You left a job as art editor to stay home and write your first novel. Did you do a lot of financial pre-planning or was this a spur of the moment decision?
My husband is incredibly supportive of me, and always has been, so he was behind me 100% when I had this crazy idea I was going to quit my job and write a novel. We agreed I’d give it a year, and see what happened. I didn’t even know if I’d make it through the first chapter, but to tell you the truth, it was the best year of my life. I had so much fun, and it was so liberating writing fiction, especially because there were no expectations. It was an experiment, really.
“By the end of the weekend, I was thinking, “Why can’t I write this mystery? I think I can!”
7.Taking that year off sounds wonderful, and it's so nice when our spouse is supportive. What about the rest of your family and friends?
Everybody was great. My daughters were really proud of me. Their babysitter was a godsend. And my best friend is a novelist, so we’d talk every day about how tortured we were. It was wonderful.
8.Many of us struggle with our writing schedule. Do you do the 8-4, 9-5 thing or have a schedule you stick with every day?
I am mostly very disciplined. I treat writing like a 40 hour a week job. That means during the day I am very focused (except for the 12-1 o’clock break to watch ALL MY CHILDREN) and after about four in the afternoon, I’m done. My kids are home, I’m cooking dinner (which I love to do), and I’m relaxing. No work on weekends ever. I can keep to this schedule and get a book a year done because I do not believe in writer’s block. I believe in gluing your rear end to the chair and sitting there until something happens. Maybe it’s garbage, but it’s something to look at the next day instead of a blank page. I think of writing as brute labor as opposed to divine inspiration. Brick after brick after brick, and after a while you have something.
9.I love that "building a novel" analogy. I think I'll borrow it for my own work in progress. Once you finished your novel, what was the agent finding process like for you? How long did it take to find your agent?
I was really lucky on that count because I had a friend who worked in publishing, and I was able to drop her name in my query letter to the agents. The fact that I could say someone at XYZ publishing house was enthused about the manuscript meant that it didn’t go straight to the bottom of the pile with all the other unsolicited manuscripts. I sent the query letter to three agents, and two weeks later I’d signed with one of them. I know this isn’t everybody’s experience, and I feel very, very lucky at how it worked out.
10.Your first novel, I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason was nominated for an Agatha Award for best first novel. How did that come about and what was your reaction?
The Agatha is a fan award, meaning the mystery fans vote for their favorites, as opposed to the Edgar, say, where a panel of judges chooses their favorite. I was very honored to have been nominated by the people who actually read and love these books, and to have been included in the company of the other wonderfully talented nominees.
11.How very cool! One thing I noticed as I read Christietown was all the details of Agatha Christie's life you included. How much research do you put into each novel? And do you do the research all before you start or as you write?
I find research extremely reassuring. It combats the terror of the blank page. When you have a body of material or texts to work with, you always have a place to start. I think structuring my mysteries around other books and other writers’ lives was what gave me the confidence to try my hand at fiction in the first place. I do 90% of my research before I begin writing — reading the author’s texts, reading whatever biography or criticism exists.
The plot usually suggests itself to me during the course of that research. In the case of my first novel, I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason, I pitched the mystery around the fact that Erle Stanley Gardner practiced law in the sleepy town of Ventura, California, which I learned was built on the oil business. While researching Not a Girl Detective, I found out that Russell Tandy, the illustrator of the
original Nancy Drew dust jackets from the 1930s, was an old drinking buddy of Salvador Dali’s, so I created a mystery that stemmed from that relationship.
Shamus in the Green Room features a femme fatale in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy mold, and is set against the backdrop of the movie business (present and past), which many feel exacerbated Hammett’s real-life downward spiral (THE THIN MAN puts a fine gloss on the desperation). In Christietown, I focused on Agatha Christie’s eleven-day disappearance in December of 1926, which has
never been fully explained. Before I started the research, I had no idea she had a real life mystery!
“I believe in gluing your rear end to the chair and sitting there until something happens.”
12.What was the most fun thing about writing this book?
Agatha Christie had such an interesting life. I really enjoyed learning about her, and of course, from her. Her novels hold up spectacularly well. What amazed me about her life was the fact that despite her great success as a novelist, she considered herself first and foremost a wife and mother — she was a true product of the Victorian age, very understated and humble about her achievements. I also was fascinated by her eleven day disappearance, which occurred just after her first husband asked her for a divorce. There was all sorts of speculation during her absence — that he’d killed her, that she’d committed suicide, that she’d left to shame him into coming back to her, etc. I worked this mystery into my book, and had it parallel aspects of my character Cece’s own past history.
13.Do you do a complete outline before you start writing or just have a general idea the direction you want to go and write as it comes?
I know how it begins, and how it ends, but I have no idea about what goes in the middle. That I figure out as I go along, usually working in 2-3 chapter increments.
14.How important do you feel it is to give your reader the clues needed to solve the case along with the character doing the investigating?
Essential. That is one of the rules of the genre, dating back to Christie’s day: you have to present the reader with all the information necessary to be able to figure out whodunit. You don’t have to showcase every clue in flashing lights — the subtler you drop them, the better — but the attentive reader should, conceivably, be able to figure it out from the information she is given. Of course, if she does, you sort of blew it.
15.As a writer who doesn't do well with first person, why did you decide to write your novel from Cece's point of view? Is it easier to get inside her head verses using third person?
The choice of first person was based on my lack of experience. I didn’t really think it through when I started the first book, I just plunged into that Cece voice that comes so easily to me and let ‘er rip. Once I was a little deeper into the book, I realized how difficult a choice I’d made: nothing could transpire in the novel that my character didn’t experience directly. Anybody taking a creative writing class for the first time gets this, but for me, it was like, yikes! Knowing what I know now, four books later, I think I’d probably make the same decision to go with first person, but were I to do something other than a Cece Caruso novel, I’d love to try my hand at third person. What a luxury it would be to have multiple perspectives on the same events.
16.You were a journalist before turning your hand to fiction. Did your previous writing experiences help you writing your novel? If so, how?
Absolutely. While I had no experience whatsoever writing fiction, my journalistic experience did give me a deep and abiding understanding of the DEADLINE. There is no greater motivating force than knowing you have somebody waiting on the other end for something you’re writing, and your failure to produce it means the system comes to a shuddering stop. Spending your advance immediately provides further motivation.
17.I'd be way too afraid to spend my advance ahead of time. What advice would you give a beginning novelist to help them reach those deadlines?
Forget the laundry. Embrace a messy house. Say no to everything you can say no to, and focus on the writing. Don’t get up from your desk without having written something, even a sentence. And persevere.
18.Now that's advice I love! We all know the author's job isn't finished with the writing. What kind of promotion are you doing for Christietown?
I go to bookstores for signings, attend conferences and panels, give talks to local groups, appear at local libraries, maintain my website, etc. I could do more, of course, but with two young kids, my travel time is limited.
19.What's next on the novel writing agenda for you?
I’m working on VERTIGO-A-GO-GO, which is the fifth Cece Caruso mystery. This one is about Alfred Hitchcock, and in it, Cece finds out what it’s like being the object of someone’s obsession (a la Kim Novak in Vertigo) and in the wrong place at the wrong time (Cary Grant in North by Northwest).
20.Where will you be appearing for the next couple months? Book signings, workshops, conferences, etc.?
I will be signing books at Metropolis Bookstore in Los Angeles on August 25th; speaking at the luncheon for the L.A. Chapter of Mystery Writers of America on September 23rd; on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair on September 30; and speaking at the American Association of University Women Author's Luncheon at the Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Ca. On November 3. Check out my website www.susankandel.com
WOW! wants to thank Susan for thanking time from her busy writing schedule to chat with us. I really enjoyed getting to know her and her writing a bit better. And, I want to encourage each of you to give her books a try. I have a feeling you'll enjoy them!
Susan Kandel is the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed Cece Caruso mystery novels, which include I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason; Not a Girl Detective;
Shamus in the Green Room; and most recently, Christietown. A former art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Kandel has taught art history and theory at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, NYU and Art Center College of Design. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.