Leave Room for Serendipity

Since then I’ve often started books without a clue as to who did it. A murder occurs and Sigrid and her team arrive to investigate. With Deborah, it’s setting. I’ve been saddened by the mean-minded backward path North Carolina has taken in the last few years. I was a short story writer the first few years of my career and was convinced I could never write a book. What I really learned from that book though was to leave room for serendipity. More than once you called me at 11:00 p.m., to talk plot. She has been president of Sisters in Crime and MWA and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. I’m also toying with the idea of a set of linked short stories set in Rome circa 197 AD. As a writer yourself, Sue, you know that writers never walk away from their keyboards entirely. But how did you do that? Deborah’s very first appearance was in a short story — “Deborah’s Judgment” — and I’ve always thought that might made a good one-episode pastoral TV program without the complications of her large sprawling family. You were the second president of Sisters in Crime. And yes, I do play solitaire, but that’s to unblock my subconscious when I’ve reached an impasse with the book. The first little tickle of an idea. I’ve never wanted to use my books as a soapbox, yet funding for mental health, better schools, a more humane medical system, fairer taxes, or sensible drug laws that are less about punishment and more about rehabilitation can make me forget that I’m supposed to be entertaining, not preaching. Weekends at your house revolve around Scrabble in the gazebo, Scrabble in the breezeway, Balderdash in the living room, and when midnight has passed maybe just another couple games of Scrabble. Greenwich Village has changed very little. your time. It’s what makes your characters who they are. (My own choice would be Bootlegger’s Daughter.)
There have been nibbles but no solid offers. Picking up a series after 25 years has to present challenges. I can see what an achievement it was, describing 10, give or take, characters so clearly and amusingly and with the little mysteries that make up chapters. So I made Deborah self-confident, impulsive, ready to laugh at herself and her large rambunctious family. Basically, I just see myself as a citizen who wants the fairness of a level playing field for everyone. It’s a new adventure! It was a bit of a juggling act to give each of those characters enough individuality to let my readers keep them separate, but remember: it was a college art department, and art departments thrive on individuality. Sigrid doesn’t care about fashion or contemporary music, so that was nothing I had to notice either. What was the idea for Take Out? Now I began to wonder just where he’d been headed when he decided to drive in those hills. They needed to be found. MARGARET MARON: Fugitive Colors was supposed to be the last Sigrid Harald novel, but as I was winding up my Judge Deborah Knott/North Carolina series, I realized that I had left several loose ends dangling back in New York: Sigrid’s artist lover had died in a car crash out in the hills above Los Angeles. And rewrote and redoubled again till you had not the 10,000 words we might assume, but 60,000. You yourself have protested with Moral Mondays in Raleigh, lifted a hammer with Habitat for Humanity. Sigrid had been left almost paralyzed with grief, and I wanted to show her getting on with her life. Sigrid is uncomfortable in her skin, a loner with no siblings, slow to open up to others, and with such a dry sense of humor that people are surprised she even has one. What about the murder itself? What advice would you give a new writer? “I’m not that kind of person,” she said — and she was right. Margaret Maron is the author of 33 books, 20 featuring Judge Deborah Knott in Colleton County, North Carolina (near Raleigh), nine with NYPD Police Lieutenant Sigrid Harald, two stand-alones, and two short story collections. Not the mean streets and not Deliverance either. Have any of your works been optioned? Did you add more characterization? AUGUST 30, 2017

MARGARET MARON CONCLUDES the NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series with a story that Publishers Weekly calls “the top of her game.” Take Out combines the best of both of her series settings — i.e., she has created a small town within the city. You make it sound as easy as unfolding a sheet of paper again and again. You have walked the tightrope of taking a stand on social and political issues in the context of compelling mysteries. Where did that come from? It didn’t sell, so I gave him a sex change and broadened the scope. What would you say would be the most likely? My question is: Was there anything you learned in doing that much description? In any case, what are the challenges and perhaps surprises of writing someone so different? My favorite writing quote is from Walt Whitman: “I am large. Her books are New York Times bestsellers. Somewhere in the conversation it would strike me that it was 2:00 a.m. What was the process? I just had to remind myself that cell phones were not ubiquitous but tethered to a wall jack, the Trade towers still stood, subways still took tokens, and one could smoke in restaurants, bars, and at work. At least, I try to. Deborah Knott seems similar to you — a gregarious woman who grew up in North Carolina, as you did. (She has 11 older brothers.) I used to say that writing Sigrid was like putting on a jacket that was one size too small so that I felt constricted. Writing Deborah was like driving too fast down a backcountry road with all the windows open. Usually, I content myself with letters to the editor, but sometimes it does spill over into the books. The gears simply don’t start meshing till I’ve been up for at least six or eight hours. In fact, in one book, the killer changed three or four times. Plot idea, character, setting, something else? Not much sex or violence or exploding cars. Now, after this long and impressive career she says she is retiring. I love the way the BBC adapts modern mysteries set in sleepy villages, but that’s not likely to happen here. And read, read, read! That didn’t sell. Where do you start with a book? It’s liberating to feel that I’m done with contracts and deadlines and I have no plans to write another novel, but I did begin with short stories and I will continue with them. But Sigrid Harald is in many ways your inverse — different background, different personality, reactions, and who lives in a place with which you are very familiar, but where you do not live. Was the poison meant for the man who wound up dying? ¤
Susan Dunlap is the author of the Darcy Lott and Jill Smith mystery series. I do love games and I think it’s so kind that you indulge me when you come to visit. How do you write? If so, how does that change you? Have games always been a part of your life? Thankfully, another character volunteered and not only did he have a better motive, but he also had a more inventive method. How do you see your role as a writer, a New York Times best-selling author and a writer particularly well known in North Carolina? Because she came first, Sigrid Harald is actually the positive of Deborah Knott’s negative. Rural America less so. When you are writing Sigrid, are you Sigrid? By the time I had added all the adjectives and adverbs I could get away with, I bit the bullet and interpolated a long subplot that finally brought the word count up to book length. Seems to me, you write of life as it is. Or had it been meant for the person who had left it there? Now to move to the other end of your career — i.e., the beginning: the story I’ve heard you tell is that you wrote a short story with a NYC detective, a 2,500-word short story, which did not sell. ¤
SUSAN DUNLAP: Let’s talk first about your latest, and you say is the last book featuring NYPD Homicide Detective Sigrid Harald. Clearly, I never learned how to outline. Thank you. She has tied up the loose ends in the Deborah Knott series, and Take Out does it for Sigrid Harald, and, I have to say, it is very satisfying. I see, feel, taste, smell, hear whatever that character would be experiencing in that scene. I decide what aspect or locale of North Carolina I want to explore and then I send her to hold court there and watch what happens. Physically shuffling the deck and laying out a hand on the counter behind me (not on the computer) lets my brain switch sides. Resegregation along economic lines is a reality, as are the efforts to curtail the reproductive rights of women, the redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the one percent, and redistricting to achieve voter suppression. One more thing. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve actually seen sunrises in the same context as larks instead of after working through the whole night. Back then you were surrounded by the life you were writing about. I’ve always been a night owl. What were the biggest challenges? At my age, 20 years wasn’t that long ago. With the Sigrid series, it’s usually plot. So you rewrote it, doubling its word count. But the sheer length of a novel meant giving the characters more depth. But if it is, are you really “retiring”? Finish the book. Some valuable paintings were hidden in a tatty historical house. In fact, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine just bought two that should be published in the coming year. How did you manage to set it in the mid-’90s and make it seem contemporary? If we must leave Sigrid Harald, this is the way to do it. Now you have to think about settings, attire, assumptions, et cetera. You say this is your last book, not that I entirely believe that of you or any writer. What if the take-out food was poisoned? I like to think I was one of the early proponents of the regional mystery, much like Tony Hillerman, for instance, where the setting is as important as the characters. I used a familiar street down in Greenwich Village where I had seen people from that neighborhood leave take-out food on a bench for the homeless and the what-if? And how do you feel about that? So, big challenge to write Take Out. You are a games player, a legend for a game of Scrabble you won by making three seven-letter words! Mystery Writers of America chose her as 2013 Grand Master, the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing. After two or three hands, my subconscious will usually come up with a solution for going forward on the book. I don’t think the Sigrid stories are gritty enough to interest a producer. But, for those of us who live in California, it also shows us North Carolina as it is, and the problems of New York in 1990 through a number of lenses. The street life remains similar, so I only needed to sprinkle in a few key details to bring the ’90s back. Her first Deborah Knott mystery, Bootlegger’s Daughter, won every single US mystery award presented for Best Novel. New roadblocks? But the short story market had almost completely dried up so I backed into writing that first novel. I would invent a plot and then create characters who would jump through the necessary hoops. How do you write on a short schedule? New York has always been a popular setting. I had never outlined my short stories. I contain multitudes.” When I get behind the eyes of whatever character is telling the story, I do become that character. Yes, it began with a short story about a murder set in a college art department and the police lieutenant was male. She wasn’t. Did you create an entirely new plot? I couldn’t make myself stop reading at the end of the chapters even though there were things I needed to do. And why? Were the first three chapters, in which you describe the college and the professors part of the additions? After I read Take Out, I interviewed Maron over phone and email. Do you sleep? Imagine my surprise when the person I thought was the killer refused to do it. Their struggles are what creates the richness of the stories. New subplot? factor kicked in.