I've done lots of interviews over the past decade-plus, but one I particularly like appeared in Poe's Deadly Daughters, which has since been discontinued. The interview was done about the time I started my second PI series with The Surest Poison. It includes some views on series writing and the pros and cons of small presses. The interview was done by Sharon Wildwind; "PPD" stands for Poe's Deadly Daughters.
You now have four books in your Greg McKenzie series. Why did you decide to write another PI series with a different type of protagonist?
I enjoyed writing about Greg and Jill McKenzie, a pair of sleuths in their late sixties. Writing their snappy banter was particularly enjoyable. Several reviewers referred to them as cozies. I didn’t think of the books that way, but they’re certainly not hard-boiled, and I felt I’d reached the place where I wanted to strike out on a bit edgier path.
The Surest Poison deals with the dumping of a large amount of a toxic chemical behind a small plant in a rural community west of Nashville. When the state comes after the plant’s current owner, PI Sid Chance is hired to find the real responsible party. He soon finds himself, and his associate, Jaz LeMieux, beset by three seemingly unrelated murders, an explosion, and shadows from Sid’s past.
I gather Sid has—what’s the current term—issues?
He was formerly a National Park ranger, then spent ten years as a small town police chief. After he was disgraced and forced to resign, he spent three years roughing it in a hillside cabin in the woods fifty miles from the city. Jaz got him out of that cabin, back to Nashville and into the PI business.
Jaz is sharp, sexy, and fourteen years younger than Sid. Do we see romance ahead?
A. Sid has never been married, or even had a serious relationship. He and Jaz clash now and then, but they’re obviously coming closer. Who knows what may lie ahead?
Where did the plot for The Surest Poison come from?
I have a friend in Nashville named Norma Mott Tillman who is a private investigator specializing in finding missing persons. She’s pretty well known, being on Oprah and several other shows. She told me about a case she had investigated in West Tennessee a few years ago that involved a similar scenario. I saw the possibilities, moved it closer to Nashville, and the story took off.
I should have given Ralph Waldo Emerson credit for the title, but I don’t guess he’ll complain. He wrote an essay in The Atlantic back in 1862 in which he said substances like prussic acid and strychnine “are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time.” I thought it fit the story. The actual poison took years to affect the community, while time took its toll on the characters.
The Surest Poison is published by Night Shadows Press, your second small publisher. What are the pluses and minuses of going with a small publisher?
I’ve heard a lot of New York editors are only concerned with acquiring manuscripts. With a small press, I got to work closely with my editors. I learned an awful lot from my first editor.
I’ve also been fortunate that my editors have stuck with my suggested titles. The only change in mine was with the first book, which I called The Secret of the Scroll. I was rightfully told to leave off the first “The.” Covers involve another plus. I have had total input on all my covers. An additional favorable aspect is production time. From the time I sent the manuscript to the editor, it was no more than nine months until the release date.
On the minus side, the chief problem is distribution. The books are available through Ingram and Baker & Taylor and can be ordered through any bookstore. However, the stores do not routinely stock them. They will only be on the shelf at places where I have done signings. Also, the major review sites mostly ignore small publishers. Library Journal is the only one that has reviewed some of my books. However, respected review sites like Midwest Book Review and Crimespree Magazine always come through.
I’m not telling secrets to say that loads of us in the mystery community envy your ability to do top-notch book signings. Got tips for the rest of us?
I’m always looking for any kind of venue where I can sell. One of my grandsons’ school has a Market Place. I went there and to a street fair in a small town not far from here. My book launch for The Surest Poison will be at my church. Church members are always asking, “When will your next book be ready?” So I know I’ll sell a bunch of books there. I do some signings in larger chain bookstores as well, and we have a small mystery bookstore in Nashville that pushes my books and has ordered several copies of the new one.
I’m pulling out all the stops for this new release, primarily on-line. With the economy as it is, I’m cutting back on travel this year, spending more on venues where I can sell books. I’ve recently done the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, and will do the Kentucky Book Fair in November. I’ve always done well at book fairs.
So I guess my tips are get on the road, do bookstore signings when you can, and constantly keep your eye out for other places to sell. Build a team. I’m very fortunate that my wife plays such a big part in all of my appearances. She’s my shill: she passes out small promo folders and directs people to where I’m signing. If you’re not as lucky as I am, with a ready-made co-conspirator, build a team to help you sell.
It sounds like retiring to write books has been very rewarding.
I’d say there are several rewards. The first is that I simply enjoy writing mysteries. I wrote eight before the first one sold, and I guess I’d still be writing away if none of them had. Another is the satisfaction I get when readers tell me how much they enjoy reading my books. And being a bit vain as we all are, I get a charge out of reading a good review, like the one Jon Jordan wrote in the current Crimespree Magazine that ended, “A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer.”