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Author Update: Charlene Bell Dietz

Before retirement, Charlene Bell Dietz never planned to be an author. But with so many stories to tell, after a long-term career in education and decades of volunteering, she devoted herself to learning the art of storytelling. She published the first novel in her flapper/scientist series in 2016 and the second in 2017. The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut (2019) is her newest installment. You’ll find Charlene on her website at InkyDanceStudios.com and on Facebook. Read more about her writing in her 2017 SWW interview.


What do you want readers to know about the story you tell in The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut?
Sometimes we all have an inspirational moment of not knowing what we know. The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut takes readers on a dream vacation to the Caribbean with a bio-medical scientist and her rather neglected husband. Beth, an obsessive and inquisitive scientist stirs up an angry nest of islanders. She’s unnerved when she discovers some of her fervently protected truths may not be truths at all. Beth, up until now, has always defended the hard-cold evidence of science. Similarly when things are not as they seem, the impossibility of it all baffles her—such as poisonous fish that appreciate music, an old woman whose cups of tea change everything, and then there’s the business of objects and people reappearing in unexpected places. Beth, perplexed by the nut, struggles to merge her scholarly beliefs with these strange new events in her life.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This story became a blending of four cultures: islander, voodoo, Rastafarian, and tourist. When each of these groups appeared and interacted with each other, I didn’t want to write my characters with stereotypical behaviors. I strived to unveil the unique humanism within each.

Tell us how the book came together.
My first two books (The Flapper, the Scientist, and the Saboteur and The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker), both stand-alones, had a central unanswered question concerning the main characters. I knew when I wrote the first book that this new book would need to be created. Essentially, while writing the others, I was thinking, plotting, and researching this third story. I guess you could say it’s been in my writer’s mind since the very beginning.

When I finally sat at the computer in July 2017 and started writing seriously on The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut, I was in the final stages of writing book two. It’s strange how this happens, but I never seem to only write one story at a time. However, before my books go to a professional editor or publisher, I have a critique group as well as a select handful of wonderful beta readers look them over. They are ruthless and don’t hesitate to send me running back to my computer. I’m forever grateful for their sharp eyes and high intelligence. With their help, the book was published in November 2019.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
There’s no counting the number of times and different ways I’ve experienced the magic of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, in September 2017 two category five hurricanes (two weeks apart), Irma and Maria, devastated many of the islands and some of the places in this story. When I started writing the book, the Internet showed Mad Dog Saloon on Virgin Gorda had been totally destroyed, and Little Dix Bay was pretty much wiped out. The charming Hotel 1829 on St. Thomas suffered severe damage.

With a heavy heart, I kept writing and checking the Internet. I started following blogs about people who may have been hurt or missing. Next, the lovely Hotel 1829 lost all its charm when someone turned it into a storage facility. I finally finished The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut and again, with heavy heart, checked the island news one last time. Someone had rebuilt Mad Dog and reopened it for business. A company had purchased Hotel 1829, and it’s now being restored. Reservations and rooms are being booked at the newly renovated Little Dix Bay. In some private, tiny magical way in my mind, my story helped participate in the rebirth of these wonderful places.

The titles for all your novels are intriguing. How did you choose the title for this latest book?
Ah, the titles! Conundrum comes to mind. It all started with the unending search for the title of my first book. This novel took forever to write, and in the final hour it still didn’t have an appropriate title. A solid title should tell the reader what to expect from the story without giving away the plot. The title possibilities left me totally flummoxed because this book had two story lines. One night, I sat next to the husband of a good friend at an awards banquet. He leaned over and said, “So, I understand your book is about a flapper and a scientist.” And—BAM!—there it was. I answered, “Yes, and a saboteur!” Not only did I have the title for this first book, I now had a format for the other two in the series: The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker and The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut. Right up front the reader knows the strange array of characters who populate the story as well as a hint about the plot. (I liked the word play for nut—it could refer to a person or to part of the plot.)

When did you know the story/characters were strong enough for a series?
Way back in 2005, I sent my draft of book one (under its first title Behind Smoke and Mirrors) to a New York editor. He came back with high praise for my characters and voice. However, he informed me I had three books in one. He told me the book would never be published in its current form and sent me back to my computer to do a complete rewrite. He also told me I hadn’t a clue about plotting. Plotting? Well, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. He offered to help me learn, but warned that writing novels or any book has to be out of pure love, not out of expectations to be published. He insisted all my characters, even secondary ones, needed to learn and grow throughout their journeys.

Right from the first, I knew my material would have the strength to become three books. This was validated when I learned both The Flapper, the Scientist, and the Saboteur and The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker had received Kirkus Starred Reviews and were named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2018.

Besides novels, you also write short stories. What is it about the short story form that draws you to it?
Writing short stories helps me focus. Whenever I puzzle over some plot point or some confusing concept that needs to be developed, or I just need time to think, I write a short story. Some of my award-winning short stories took me only a few hours to write—but days to polish. These short stories never have anything to do with my other works-in-progress.

Now that I’m forced to think about it, I believe it’s the control of the short story that attracts me. Every single word must be necessary. If it doesn’t drive the story forward, it needs to be cut. Still, you have all the elements of a novel to work with except for numerous characters, subplots, and multiple settings. Usually it doesn’t take long to develop the story, so there’s the reward of quick closure on the task. I have so many ideas, incidences, and exciting experiences dancing around in my head, it’s a relief to organize them, fictionalize them, and then corral them into something readable.

Which do you prefer: the creating, editing or researching aspect of a writing project?
Creating can be energizing as well as exhausting. It uses parts of the brain that require divergent thinking that must be presented in an intelligent, readable form. My books require abundant research, which I really enjoy. Except there’s always underlying fears with research: “Do I have it right? Have I left something important out?” Editing has many hats: looking for typos, misspellings, faulty word usage, grammar and punctuation, or plot holes. I detest this type of editing. I’m terrible at it and can’t spell worth a plastic banana.

However, I absolutely get lost in revisions. Revising is the whipped cream on top of it all. Thoughtful, mindful, careful revisions can make or break a good story. They help a plot flow more logically with a simple tweak such as moving a sentence or paragraph around. Reading the words out loud helps discover if the sentences are smooth and have an engaging cadence with the right tone. If the out-loud reading reveals rough passages, then rewording or finding a more powerful or correct word can make all the difference. Out-loud reading also lets the author actually hear the various characters speak. The last thing a book needs is all the characters sounding the same. Distinct voices can make the emotional parts of the story soar. If an author loves revision, the reader will love the book.

Tell us about your writing process or your writing routine.
I have no daily ritual. When I am inspired with an idea, I check to make sure it can actually be a good book. I do this by drafting a beginning (which always changes as I get into the story), and I draft the ending in my mind (because I want to know where I’m going but understand at this point the trappings of the ending will change). Then I do some research, if needed. When I’m satisfied, I start by jotting down several plot markers between the beginning and the end. If it’s a murder mystery, I can guarantee that the person I select to be the killer, won’t be.

And I think, research, and think some more. Long walks and driving helps this process. When the voices start talking to me, when I can actually hear the characters get emotional and discuss their conflicts and desires, I start to write. Halfway through each book, the characters wake me up in the middle of the night, screaming at me that I’ve got the wrong assassin. It happens every time. Unfortunately, they leave me to figure out who really dunnit.

What writing projects are you working on now?
My current project, a historical biographical novel, takes me away from the flapper-scientist series. Margaret Brent, one of thirteen children, was born in England in 1601 to an aristocratic Catholic family. She became a powerful-driving force to insure the security of Maryland. Today the American Bar Association still recognizes her accomplishments through a yearly Margaret Brent Award given to talented women attorneys who mentor other women. Little is known about her early life in England, and she left no diary or letters. As a spinster in 1638, she and a sister and two brothers sailed to the coast of Maryland to become part of the first 400 Englanders to settle there. Others share my questions about her: What motivated her to make the dangerous voyage across the ocean in a time when Catholics were prohibited to do so, probably on penalty of death? Why did she never marry? How did she gain the skills to present case after case (over 100 documented) to the Provincial Court and the General Assembly? Her aptitude to discuss political and legal matters reached the degree that Leonard Calvert, the Governor of Maryland, on his deathbed appointed her as his executrix.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?
If you’ve read a book you enjoy and want to show gratitude for the author’s work, there is no better way than to leave a book review. Authors love their readers, especially readers who let the world know how much they enjoy our stories.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




An Interview with Author Rhenna St. Clair

Rhenna St. Clair is an author, artist, and poet who practices Chinese medicine and acupuncture in northern New Mexico. She began writing her debut novel, Getting New Mexico, in 2016 and published it through Pace Press three years later. Anne Hillerman calls the book “part love story and part comedic hero’s journey…filled with quirky and diverse characters and unlikely situations right out of real life.” You’ll find Rhenna on her website at RhennaStClair.com and on Facebook.


What is your elevator pitch for Getting New Mexico?
Getting New Mexico is a universal story about bad life choices, poor judgment, mean deeds one later regrets, and the desperate hope that we are still lovable despite those times when we are a tarnished version of our higher self. I love what is ridiculous, odd, and unpredictable about life and the characters we encounter while living it.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Blending my experience of life in New Mexico and what I knew of Pueblo people, with what I knew about East Indian culture and customs, was challenging but, at the same time, fun. I appreciate the mix of cultures in New Mexico and have never had more fun than when writing Getting New Mexico.

Who are your main characters, and why will readers connect with them?
The main character is a transplanted New Yorker, Aaron Schuyler. The love of his life, Anita Chatterjee, is a close second as a main character. I think readers will see something of themselves in those two (and the other characters) and will appreciate Schuyler’s interactions with all of them, as well as his moments of comic mistake or pathos.

Why did you choose New Mexico as the setting for the book?
I have lived mostly in New Mexico for twenty-eight years. I can’t imagine living anywhere else! The house Aaron Schuyler moves into in Getting New Mexico is the home I lived in north of Santa Fe, in Nambe. The old house has a unique feeling, and I tried to bring that out. I shop all the time at Sam’s Club, so that seemed the obvious place for Schuyler to land a job.

Tell us how the book came together.
Getting New Mexico began with a prompt in 2016 in an ongoing writers’ workshop here in Farmington. I thought about the prompt — Where’s the fun in a funeral? — and came up with a guy in New York City who is down on his luck through his own fault. To get a free meal and some booze, he crashes funerals. It was great fun, and the fun continued as Aaron Schuyler learned some lessons in life. I finished writing and editing around the end of 2017 (I should mention that I am a licensed acupuncturist and have limited writing time). I did several edits myself, not counting what I was asked to do by Pace Press. I signed my contract with them in summer 2018, and our published date was November 5, 2019.

When did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go?
I knew we were done when Aaron Schuyler had learned the hardest lesson of his life: if you aren’t there for your kids, they won’t be there for you. It was time to bring his saga to a logical but sad conclusion, and the chapters following that episode were some of the most fun to write. It was time to “put it in the can” as they used to do with old movie reels.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
I had two favorite parts. The first one was writing the scene where Schuyler visits his deceased uncle’s bookstore. I enjoyed developing the bookstore atmosphere. Secondly, I very much enjoyed developing personalities for the secondary characters so that what they did in the story made sense and contributed to the main action.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
My list of favorite authors is endless, beginning with Charles Dickens—there is nothing funnier than The Pickwick Papers. Other authors include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Abbey, Anne Hillerman, John Kennedy Toole, Louise Penney, Michael McGarrity, Daniel Tammet, and Dostoevsky. These are just the beginning!

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I would like to think there is a theme of strong women dealing with the challenges of daily life. Many of my stories take place in my old Nambe home which is the setting for Getting New Mexico.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Death scenes. The finality is hard enough to grasp in life, let alone on paper.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I have just finished a crime manuscript titled West Coast that is set in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, and I am starting a manuscript about a librarian in Farmington, New Mexico.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
I love to cook. I do oil painting. I can’t get enough of the beauty of New Mexico.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




Author Update: Shirley Raye Redmond

Award-winning author Shirley Raye Redmond has published romantic suspense and historical romance novels, over 450 articles, and nearly thirty nonfiction children’s books. Two of her children’s titles have sold more than 200,000 copies each. Her newest nonfiction release is Courageous World Changers: 50 True Stories of Daring Women of God (Harvest House Publishers, 2020). You’ll find Shirley Raye on several websites (ShirleyRayeRedmond.com, StitchesThruTime.blogspot, and WriteChildrensBook.com), as well as on Facebook. For more about her books, read SWW’s 2015 interview and visit her Amazon author page.


What is your elevator pitch for Courageous World Changers?
Faithful Christian women are salt and light in their communities. They all make a difference. But some have such a vibrant faith that—like a stone tossed into a pond— their influence ripples throughout the world. The fifty women included in this book fall into that category.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Some of the women in the book, such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, have been written about so many times already. Many readers, even kids, would suppose they know everything about those women. I wanted to find little known facts about their lives that would make readers say, “Wow, I had no idea she did such-and-such.”

Tells us how the book came together.
The Harvest House editors sparked the initial idea and let literary agents know they were looking for book proposals on the topic. My agent gave me the heads-up and told me to hustle because many other writers wanted to take on the project. I dropped everything to put together my list of 50 women and a couple of profile samples. I was delighted when the publisher made me an offer. I was given 16 weeks to turn in the completed manuscript.

What makes this book unique in the children’s market?
Well, there are many books about gutsy women and even several about spunky Christian women. But I think my list covers a wider ethnic diversity—Chinese, African American, Filipino, Romanian, Dutch, British, and others. I selected women as far back as Catherine of Siena (who was born in 1347) to contemporary women such as Joni Eareckson Tada, who actually wrote a lovely letter thanking me for including her in the book.

Did you discover anything surprising while doing research for Courageous World Changers?
Oh, lots of interesting things! For instance, I had no idea writer Flannery O’Connor made “doll clothes” for her pet chickens. Or that one of the child prostitutes rescued by Josephine Butler in England eventually was placed in the home of Antonia Keville, the daughter of a wealthy British family, who eventually became a midwife, took Holy Orders and became known as Sister Monica Joan—yes, the same Sister Monica Joan in Call the Midwife.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
I wanted to find quotations for each woman—something that revealed personality. For instance, on her deathbed, Katharina von Bora said, “I will stick to Christ like a burr to a topcoat.” I think that captures her spunky determination quite well. Harriet Beecher Stowe, while reflecting upon the enormous success of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said, “The power of fictitious writing, for good as well as for evil, is a thing which ought most seriously be reflected upon.”

What was your first reaction to seeing Katya Longhi’s cover and interior art?
I was delighted with the illustrations. Each portrait is colorful and friendly—I immediately noted all the smiles. And I love how Katya carries the artistic theme over onto the page of text. As the publisher arranged for all the illustrations, I did not know Katya nor was I familiar with her work. She lives in Italy, but we have since become “friends” on Facebook.

In your 2015 interview for SouthWest Writers, you said Patriots in Petticoats, Heroines of the American Revolution (Random House, 2004) was probably your favorite writing project. Courageous World Changers seems to be of a similar theme. What is it about these types of projects that draws you to them?
I love history and the thrill of the chase, digging up nuggets that others may overlook. It has proven to be a lucrative avenue of exploration for me as both of my first nonfiction titles for children were published by Random House and are still in print nearly twenty years later: Tentacles, Tales of the Giant Squid and Lewis & Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President—which became a Children’s Book of the Month club selection when it was first released.

What do beginning writers misunderstand about writing for children?
Many think writing for kids will be easy because the books are shorter. They don’t realize they still need a marketable story plot with character + action + conflict + climax + resolution. Even a nonfiction book like my Pigeon Hero! (Simon & Schuster), which is less than 600 words, still has a story arc.

Also, marketable books for children should tie-in to the school curriculum somehow. At least, that’s been my experience. Courageous World Changers is useful for teachers and librarians looking for something to use during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Women in Science week, etc. When schools focus on a transportation unit in reading and social studies, teachers and librarians look for novels, picture books, and nonfiction titles about the Oregon Trail, trains, planes, and cars. I once had a lively picture book about Teddy Roosevelt’s reorganization of college football rejected because I’d aimed it at 5 to 8 year olds. The editor pointed out that young children seldom play football and elementary schools don’t sponsor football teams. Even successful fictional stories for kids often have a seasonal tie-in observed during the school year, such as Valentine’s Day or Halloween. When writing for adults, one doesn’t need to keep that sort of thing in mind.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




2020 Call for Submissions: SWW Annual Writing Contest

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Hurry! Deadline is May 15th.

The SouthWest Writers 2020 Annual Writing Contest—SEEING the WORLD in 20/20—encourages first-time writers as well as seasoned professionals. You do not have to be a member of SouthWest Writers to enter.

First-, second-, and third-place winners will be awarded in twenty-two categories (eleven categories for both prose and poetry).

Deadline: Midnight May 15, 2020 (Mountain Time).
Entry fees: $10 for each entry.
Submission: Online only.
Prizes: First place, $50. Second place, $25. First through third places also receive medals. Top three winners in each category have the option to be published in the next SWW Winners Anthology.

CONTEST RULES

  • Each entry must be an original work, in English, not published electronically or in print anywhere, or submitted previously to an SWW writing contest.
  • No limit on number of entries per person. The same piece can be entered in more than one category but will cost $10 for each entry/category.
  • All entries must be submitted electronically via the SWW website. NO mailed entries accepted.
  • Entries must be submitted in Times New Roman, 12 pt with double spacing. Acceptable files: .doc, .docx, or .pdf.
  • Author’s name cannot appear on the submission.
  • Prose: Limited to 3,500 words, including the title.
  • Poetry: Limited to 250 lines, including the title.

Go to the SouthWest Writers contest page for more details and to enter the contest. Good luck!




An Interview with Author Joan E. Berish

Joan E. Berish began her first book after serving thirty-three years with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Retirement allowed her the time to examine decades worth of personal field journals and write her memoir. Fire and Fauna: Tales of a Life Untamed (Texas A&M University Press, 2019) reveals the author’s experiences in wildlife research and her “commitment to and passion for the natural world—and the fascinating people and animals who inhabit it.”


What is your elevator pitch for Fire and Fauna?
Fire and Fauna: Tales of a Life Untamed recounts my exploits as a wildland firefighter and wildlife research biologist at a time when women were not common in those fields. The paths I traveled to become a wildlife biologist yielded misadventures that ranged from humorous to terrifying. I outran treetop flames as a helitack firefighter in New Mexico, spent a night in a small-town Georgia jail with a threatened species, and survived a near disaster in Florida when a small plane’s engine stalled as I was searching for a wandering, wee gopher tortoise. This memoir not only covers my career evolution and adventures, but also provides insights into both animal and human nature via stories of colorful characters.

When readers turn the last page of the book, what do you hope they will take away from it?
I want readers to glean a better understanding of wildlife research. In a nutshell, we field biologists gather information that game wardens use to enforce necessary protective laws and that wildlife managers use to enhance the habitat for specific animals or a suite of species. My hope is that my book will inspire young women and men to pursue careers in wildlife biology and will encourage folks everywhere to conserve our precious natural resources. Additionally, it is my belief that we all have stories to tell, and I hope my readers will think about documenting their own experiences, further highlighting the quirkiness of life.

When did you know you wanted to write your memoir?
I have always been both a bibliophile and a storyteller. Throughout my career as a wildlife research biologist, I seasoned my scientific and popular presentations with colorful anecdotes. I continually heard, “You need to write a book!” Alas, that isn’t possible when one is afield sometimes seven days a week gathering data. Moreover, I was generating scientific manuscripts for publication and dealing with the bio-politics of conserving a high-profile species in a rapidly developing state. I always thought that I might tackle writing a memoir when I retired.

Tell us about your path to publication.
After retiring from Florida Fish and Wildlife in 2014, I gave myself a year to settle into my new burrow here in the Land of Enchantment before starting my memoir in July 2015. The comprehensive draft started with perusing field journals from my wildland firefighting, grad school research, and Florida studies on gopher tortoises. I completed that first draft in 1.5 years and soon realized I needed a professional editor. Through a circuitous path that began with SouthWest Writers, I found an outstanding editor who had a strong understanding of animals and writing. At a 2017 Wildlife Society conference in Albuquerque, I met the then acquisitions editor for Texas A&M University (TAMU) Press. In 2018, I submitted my condensed and edited draft to both University of Florida (UF) Press and TAMU Press. UF Press wanted only Florida stories, but TAMU Press, located between Florida and New Mexico, wanted all my stories. As with scientific manuscripts, my draft was sent out for professional review and was officially accepted in fall 2018. I spent 2019 working with my TAMU Press editor to hone the book for its eventual publication in November 2019. I liken this four-year writing/editing/publishing journey to hiking on a long, uphill, switchback trail! And now I am learning the fine art of book marketing.

Is there a story in Fire and Fauna that you’d love to see play out in a movie?
Actually, I think a number of stories in my book would translate well to film, such as my firefighting adventures, my travels through South Georgia to interview local characters about indigo snakes, and the crazy (and often unexpected mishaps) I endured to gather data on a burrowing turtle, the gopher tortoise. Additionally, there are almost unbelievable (but true) stories of misadventures in the deserts of California and Mexico and on high seas in the Bermuda Triangle. On a humorous note, my hubby thinks Reese Witherspoon should play me as a young biologist. She successfully starred in the movie Wild based on the popular and adventurous memoir.

While writing your memoir, did you ever worry about revealing too much about yourself?
Overall, I have considered myself merely the raconteur of the experiences and stories that form my life and career. I have had no illusions of grandeur; moreover, many other colorful humans and critters populate my tales. Fortunately, I can laugh at own mistakes and foibles. I have an innate lack of physical coordination. After hearing a presentation about potential liability when writing and publishing memoirs, I was careful to use primarily first names only and was especially cautious in telling of being sexually harassed as a nuclear medicine research technician here in Albuquerque. For different reasons, I also tread carefully in telling about the break-up of my first marriage. Author Pam Houston (Deep Creek and Cowboys are My Weakness) talks of doing a final compassion read of one’s memoir to mollify stories of family members or friends. As far as revealing things about myself, there’s an old saying that my Florida wildlife colleagues and I liked to quote (imagine this with a strong Southern accent): “I don’t believe I’d told that if I was you!” That has rarely stopped me from telling a good tale!

What was your favorite part of putting this project together, and what was the most challenging?
Reaching into my memory bank and searching through field notebooks were the most enjoyable parts of this journey as I created the initial draft. Fortunately, the actual writing came easily to me, probably because I had waited a lifetime to tell these tales in book form. Alas, the editing was more challenging as I struggled to decide which stories to retain and which to delete. The most demanding tasks came in 2019 and had little to do with  actual writing or editing. I have since sworn to never do these three things again: use other people’s photos because of the difficulty in tracking folks down and obtaining permission; use old photos that were frustratingly problematic to put into a modern publication format; and include an index. An index compiled by a professional was required—and cost me a small fortune. Despite the challenges, I am glad I persevered, and I feel quite fortunate to have TAMU Press as my publisher. I believe that having this highly-regarded, academic press publish my book has further enhanced its “field cred” (a biologist’s version of street cred).

Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
After writing and publishing many scientific manuscripts, I was not surprised by the challenges of editing and honing a draft. And I certainly was extremely lucky to find an outstanding publisher without waiting for years. However, I was not at all prepared for the demands of book marketing, especially in the time of Covid-19! I had set up a number of readings/signings at local indie bookstores, and those will have to wait. I was fortunate to attend two wildlife conferences specific to the conservation of tortoises, and I sold over 100 books total at the two events. Also, my local East Mountain community has been quite supportive; however, I feel I need to find additional ways to spread the word about my memoir. I am heartened that both scientists and non-scientists seem to be enjoying the book.

Where do you feel a memoirist’s responsibility lies, with the truth of the facts or with a perception about what occurred?
As a scientist, presenting happenings accurately was extremely important to me. And many of the details came from my field journals. But I also feel that merely reciting facts can diminish the stories and would make my memoir more like a scientific treatise (which was not my goal in this case). Therefore, my reactions and feelings were essential to fleshing out the tales. There are stories where I will never know what really happened (e.g., an ill-fated camping trip in the California desert), but I can certainly convey the anxiety and uncertainty.

What genre do you enjoy reading the most?
My office bookcase spans an entire wall and overflows with primarily nonfiction field/travel guides, travel essays, tales of adventurers, memoirs (especially by those who work or play in the great outdoors), books about other conservationists (e.g., Wild Lives by Lori Robinson and Janie Chodosh), delightful photographic and art books, and the list goes on…and on. I also enjoy select fiction, particularly stories set in the great outdoors or mysteries set in the West including works by Tony and Anne Hillerman, Craig Johnson, and C.J. Box. I’m currently reading Peter Heller’s wilderness thriller The River. And like many readers, I enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing (both the Southern setting and the author’s background as a biologist). Canine, equine, and wildlife stories are also on my shelves. I have enjoyed Spencer Quinn’s whimsical books narrated by Chet, an endearing canine detective. Editing my own book during much of 2019 put me behind on my reading, but I look forward to indulging in the many treats that beckon from my bookcase.

Why do you think people like reading memoirs and biographies?
I think that reading about other people’s lives gives a sense of commonality, of belonging to the human race. Often, memoirs are quite inspirational and allow us to believe that we too can overcome adversity. In many cases, truth is indeed stranger than fiction—and some of my favorite memoirs/biographies read like the most exciting novels. We ask, “How did this person survive that?” Memoirs often highlight human compassion, fortitude, stamina, determination, dedication, and other desirable attributes. And some memoirs tell of almost unspeakable circumstances, either self-imposed or a result of fate. People who are going through such crises can feel connected and may even find hope in these books.

What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
My memoir is divided into three parts, each with a title related to biology (e.g., Evolution of a Wild Biologist) and with a germane quote. Those quotes have helped guide my life and my writing—”Keep thou thy dreams…the tissue of all wings is woven first of them. Press on—persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Is there a common misunderstanding or fear about reptiles you would like to dispel?
Many folks and cultures embrace turtles and tortoises. And lizards are generally ignored, though some people may be fearful. But, not unexpectedly, snakes unfortunately conjure up fear and a host of misconceptions. Rather than list all the myths and misunderstandings about these maligned creatures, I will refer readers to a new book from a colleague of mine: Secrets of Snakes, The Science Beyond the Myths by David Steen. This slim book was also recently published by TAMU Press and is highly recommended, even for the ophidiophobic (those with a more extreme or even irrational fear of snakes). It is exactly what has been needed: an engaging, entertaining, and informative book that answers the questions people ask about snakes.

What writing projects are you working on now?
Right now, I am in the book marketing phase for my memoir. There may be additional literary journeys in my future. Time will tell. I love to write and have considered trying fiction; however, I know that finding a publisher can be daunting.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
One of my mantras is related to our need for a home while still considering our fellow creatures: Save Space for Wildlife!


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




An Author Interview with RJ the Story Guy

RJ the Story Guy (aka RJ Mirabal) is a former high school teacher who began a writing career in earnest in his retirement years. After publishing a fantasy series set in an alternate New Mexico, his adventurous rescue dog inspired a new direction for RJ’s writing. Trixie Finds Her People (Trixie the Brown Dog, Book 1), released in 2019, is his debut children’s book. You’ll find RJ and Trixie on their websites at RJMirabal.com and TrixieTheBrownDog.com, on their Facebook pages at RJMirabalAuthor and TrixieTheBrownDog, and on Instagram and Twitter. Read about RJ and his fantasy series in his 2015 and 2017 interviews for SouthWest Writers.


What is your elevator pitch for Trixie Finds Her People?
The ordinary life of a rescue dog may not seem adventurous—unless you’re that dog. When an uncertain older couple and their granddaughter Abigail adopt Trixie, their lives turn into a series of wonderful, humorous, and sometimes scary experiences. Chapters touch on everything from surviving frightening Big Booms of lightning to setting out on challenging fantasy episodes in Trixie’s dreams. Every day stirs the dog’s curiosity and sharpens her intelligence. Trixie Finds Her People launches readers (middle elementary ages 8 and up) on a journey of discovery, facing fears, and finding love. Interaction with Mommy, Poppa, and Abigail adds richness and new sources of fun for the lively, mixed-breed Brown Dog.

This is a departure from your previous projects of speculative fiction (not only in genre but audience). What challenges did this new direction pose for you?
I had to force myself to write more simply, use shorter sentences and paragraphs, and create imagery that was more immediate and straight-forward. I couldn’t indulge in the kind of inference and sophisticated vocabulary like I had in my Rio Grande Parallax series. Actually, that turned out to be a very worthwhile endeavor because I feel my writing is now more appealing. Writing this book challenged me to create clear images, dialogue, and action with more impact. Of course, there’s the obvious need to view everything I write through the eyes, ears, and imaginations of young readers. Somehow, I believe that should benefit all my writing from this point on.

Tell us how the book came together.
It started with my experience with my newly adopted rescue dog, Trixie. She is so bright, inquisitive, and funny that the idea of sharing most of my experiences with readers came to me within a few months of adopting her. I started observing her in terms of creating character and finding story lines in her explorations, personality, and antics. Very soon I thought it would be necessary to view the story from her point of view while still including human dialogue which she, logically, can’t fully understand but could sense the feelings behind human communication. It is not first person, but everything is presented from her point of view.

The writing process, once started, fell neatly into chapters each about 8-15 pages long, easily written in a sitting. Those episodes merged into a loose plot that took me through Trixie’s progress from being raised outdoors with 14 other dogs (and her 8 puppies) to becoming the sole animal living indoors with three people. Her life blooms in this new situation as each chapter adds more range to her lively, strong personality. Since I don’t usually write in long, day-after-day sessions, the episodic nature of the story made the writing easier when life interrupted. In less than a year, I had the first draft. From there I shared chapters with my critique group to begin the editing/revising phase before I prepared the book for publication.

What makes this book unique in the children’s market?
I believe a significant number of books like this either take on strong elements of fantasy or they are strict nonfiction or they become vehicles to explore current social justice issues. I decided I wanted a book that had a gentle, family friendly approach that inferred finding simple joy in life is as important as social significance. And, as for fantasy, I thought a little would be fun, so I wrote a few chapters that enter Trixie’s mind as she has various dreams. Dogs sleep a lot and the actions and noise they demonstrate during sleep suggest they have lively dreams, so I created fantasy stories that were suggested by incidents in her daily life.

Why did you use a pen name for Trixie Finds Her People?
I spent a lot of time promoting my adult fantasy trilogy as a story definitely for mature readers with a fairly sophisticated vocabulary. Since this new book is aimed at younger and family audiences, I had to separate it from the perception of my previous writing, so I went with the friendly pseudonym of RJ the Story Guy. I’m not going to great lengths to cover who I am, because I’m promoting the book to my earlier readers, but I’m also gathering new readers through promotions that emphasize this new persona.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Putting myself in Trixie’s body and mind and then reflecting her joy for life was my favorite thing. Of course, some of the episodes have scary moments, so I had to think how a dog would react to something like a thunderstorm and fireworks (which play a role in two of the most important chapters in the book). It’s always exciting to leave my ordinary life behind and enter another one when I write—one of the joys of writing which you can’t put a price on.

You have played the hammered dulcimer for years. Has the creativity and discipline you employ as a musician (or music itself) helped you in your writing journey?
Being a musician is another channel of self-expression, but it is through the creation or re-creation of sounds presented with emotion. Writing is the process of creating and re-creating events, emotions, and people through words. Similar, yet through different means of expression. Both writing and music require serious commitments of time, imagination, and revision. In the end, both are usually shared with others. You end up putting your deepest self out in front of other people. Music, unless recorded, is very transitory. But writing is for the ages, even if what we have written ends up collecting dust on shelves somewhere in forgotten rooms.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I have completed the first draft of a dragon story for middle-grade children, ages 10-14. In my Rio Grande Parallax adult fantasy, I created all my own creatures as well as used actual animals who happen to communicate like humans. Recently, I decided there was little point in resisting some durable creatures that already have a huge following among fantasy readers, such as dragons. Automatically, when people see a dragon on the cover and in the title of a book, they are intrigued. So, why overlook that attraction to acquire readers? I came up with a unique twist that I have explored with a dragon as one of my main characters and a fifteen-year-old farm boy as my other lead character.

Trixie continues to develop her personality and reactions to the world, so there are more dog stories to tell, both real and imaged. So far, response by readers has been positive, so why not tell more stories about Trixie and her people?


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




An Interview with Author Cody W. Benjamin

Cody W. Benjamin spent two years in India as a Peace Corps volunteer, two years in Sudan (East Africa) with a non-governmental organization, and five more years with the Peace Corps in East and West Malaysia where he completed his tour as the program’s country director. Of the time he spent overseas, it was his experience in Malaysia that drew him to the writer’s path. The result is his debut novel, Shaitan, released by Ink Smith Publishing in December 2018. You’ll find Cody on his website at CodyWBenjamin.com and on Facebook and Twitter.


What is your elevator pitch for Shaitan?
When Jim Fairchild arrives in Borneo to take over the Peace Corps program in East Malaysia, he becomes involved in a web of murder, sex, international intrigue and Malay black magic.

What sparked the story idea for the book?
I was a staff member for Peace Corps/Malaysia from 1979-83. The Peace Corps was in Malaysia for over twenty years, and I closed the program as the last country director on December 15, 1983. My wife is Malaysian-Chinese, our daughter was born in Kuala Lumpur, and we return to Malaysia on a regular basis to visit her family. I had such a great time in Malaysia, I felt compelled to write about that experience.

Share a little about your main characters.
On one level, Shaitan is a love story, but my thriller includes many aspects: espionage, the protection of the environment, gay rights, two strong female characters, and Malay black magic or the supernatural. My two protagonists are young. They fall in love and face what appears to be insurmountable difficulties in their personal and professional life. Yet, in the end, love conquers all. Love stories are commonplace, but the exotic location, colorful characters, and my protagonists’ unique set of problems (which include the paranormal) make Shaitan a thriller with many twists and turns.

How did the book come together?
After Peace Corps/Malaysia, I returned to the United States. My wife and I made our home in Albuquerque, and my life as an expatriate came to an end. I soon realized how much I missed Malaysia. The desire to write about that part of my life became a compulsion. Like many novice writers, I looked around for a writing group. Eventually, with the help of SouthWest Writers, I found one that I liked, and we have been together for many years. The constructive criticism and encouragement provided by the members of my writing group has been instrumental in turning my manuscript into a finished product. With my manuscript finally done, I went to several literary conferences. I also kept my eye on the internet. If a literary agent expressed an interest in thrillers from aspiring writers, I submitted a cover letter, synopsis and writing sample. It took eighteen months, but I eventually signed a contract with Ink Smith—a print-on-demand publisher.

Describe one of Shaitan’s main settings. Why is it the perfect place for your story to play out?
My story begins with Jim Fairchild and his old friend Bob Clancy, both connected to the Peace Corps in East Malaysia, in a bungalow on a lonely stretch of beach on the island of Borneo. While a tropical storm pounds the bungalow with high winds, torrential rain, lightning and thunder, the two discuss a Peace Corp volunteer and his relationship with a local woman. The volunteer believes his lover is what Malay folklore calls a shaitan—a beautiful woman that men find irresistible or a tiger with supernatural powers. Jim’s investigation into the volunteer’s death and the woman’s disappearance leads him to CIA agents, Chinese spies, and a plot to train shaitans as super weapons against the West. I use the scene in Bob’s bungalow to set the stage for the rest of the story.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I included a number of themes in Shaitan to make my thriller a more compelling read. At times, keeping all the themes in the proper order, while still advancing the story, proved a challenge.

What was your favorite part of putting the project together?
What I enjoyed most was the actual writing of Shaitan. I had a great time in Malaysia, and my thriller was a way for me to relive that period in my life.

Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing? How do you feel about research?
Having spent two years in India as a Peace Corps volunteer and almost five years in Malaysia, writing a thriller about the Peace Corps in Malaysia didn’t require much research on my part. What I enjoy most about writing is the creative element.

What writing projects are you working on now?
The working title for my new book is Arbor Day on the Saigon River. As the title suggests, my thriller will have a connection to Vietnam. During my tour with Peace Corps/Malaysia, many Vietnamese left the country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thousands fled by boat to neighboring countries. When large numbers of Vietnamese boat people arrived on the shores of Malaysia, they were placed in temporary camps. Most of the Vietnamese who reached Malaysia were resettled in countries around the world. Neither Peace Corps/Malaysia nor I had any direct involvement with the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people, but I plan to write about this historical event in Arbor Day.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
My one and only visit to Vietnam was in 2016 when I spent five days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as a tourist. On February 19, 2020, while answering the questions for this interview, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had hoped to go back to Vietnam on that trip to Asia to do research for Arbor Day on the Saigon River, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) in China and neighboring countries disrupted my travel plans.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




An Interview with Authors Vicki Turpen and Shannon Horst

It took twenty-five years for Vicki Turpen and daughter Shannon Horst to bring their debut novel, The Delicate Balance (Terra Nova Books, 2019), from story idea to publication. During that time, they have seen their fictional plot regarding climate change begin to play out in the world. Both authors live in an intentional family community on a farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley and strive to do their part to replenish spaceship Earth. You can connect with Vicki and Shannon on Facebook.


What is your elevator pitch for The Delicate Balance?
In The Delicate Balance, people all around the world try to do what has never been done on a mass scale—change the way they live their lives to avert what they believe is certain impending death. When atmospheric data from around the world indicates the delicate balance of gases that make up air has begun to shift as a result of climate change, United Nations’ climatologist Jesse Forester lands in the hot seat. To avert mass extinction, Forrester and Hannah Koenig, Senior Counsel to The Secretary General, create Operation World Salvation—a worldwide mandatory (on threat of being shot) shutdown of all use of fossil fuels and burning. Amid the chaos that ensues (abandoned hospitals with patients still inside and hordes of roving, starving people), Forrester and Koenig search for ways to put some semblance of civilization back together. Just as they discover pockets of people who have long been living carbon-neutral lives that are rich in many ways, new data appears that indicates the original figures on gases were falsified. Who would do that and why? And, does it matter?

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
We wrote the book with the hope that readers will love the story and the characters. And if climate change does exist, it is an outcome of the way humans live their lives. If that is true, it is entirely within our power to reverse it. There are solutions we can implement right now, no more research needed. If we had the political will, we could restore soil carbon on a massive scale. This would offset huge portions of the legacy load of carbon and the annual increase load. It would also rebuild fresh-water aquifers, increase food production, produce healthier food, restore wildlife habitat, contribute to human health, etc. To reverse the course we are on will require that we all live simpler—but in many ways richer—lives. When people quit pursuing consumptive material things and focus on relationships and restoration of habitat and caring for creatures, their lives aren’t poorer, they’re richer.

We also hope the reader will choose to quit finger pointing, being a victim or allowing others to be victimized. Very few people get up every day and say, “I’m going to destroy biodiversity and throw carbon into the air.” All of us live our lives doing the best we can. We are all in this together. There are people already living rich lives with carbon-neutral or carbon-negative footprints. The reader will meet some of them (or their fictional twins) in the book and ask, “Why aren’t we replicating this on a grand scale?”

Who are the main characters in the book?
Jesse Forester is a tree-hugger and the chief atmospheric scientist for the United Nations who watches ozone levels and trends in climate change. As a result of the worldwide mobilization to halt all use of fossil fuels, he sends his spouse and two teenage boys to his childhood farm in Iowa where he hopes they will be safe. He is then thrown into a working relationship with Hannah Koenig, chief legal counsel to the Secretary General of the UN. Their task is to create and implement a worldwide ban on all fossil fuels and all burning (agricultural, industrial, etc.). And then to find ways to rebuild civilization without repeating the patterns that created climate change. Jesse and Hannah are a mismatched pair—even antagonists—at first. But they quickly build a bond out of the intensity of the chaos they are creating and then attempt to mitigate. They try to make ethical decisions in a world where everyone is just trying to survive. They face dilemmas we may one day face. Do you let prisoners go before you run out of gas to transport them or just let them starve in situ? What about hospitals? Assisted living facilities? Jesse is also faced with the very real prospect he will never see his family again. He is too aware that Hannah is beautiful and intelligent and, if they survive at all, someone he might build a new life with.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The many challenges included: 1) trying to make sure the book read smoothly and not like it was written by two different people; 2) making the story simple—but not simplistic—around the science of climate change; 3) challenging each other many times over what had to get cut, added, or changed in the manuscript (and probably wanting to kill each other, but we survived in the end and remain good friends to this day); 4) being willing to let go, to be okay with the possibility of never getting published; and 5) when we began this 25-year journey, we both had full-time jobs (one of us still works full time), so writing, editing, pitching, and getting published was a real labor of love.

What sparked the story idea?
The kernel of the story came from a conversation one of us had with a colleague who had been working on issues related to the loss of biodiversity, desertification, and the inevitable result of climate change. We brainstormed ways to tell a compelling story about the relationship between soil carbon, soil carbon destruction, the attendant release of carbon to the atmosphere, etc. At the time, we also looked at the fact that most of the movies about global warming proposed it was going to come as just a big series of climactic events that destroy civilization. We considered that we have never mobilized to ward off a tragedy we could see coming. Generally, we wait until the crisis happens and then clean up the mess. Our plot came from all of these musings. There were already plenty of technical books, but the average reader doesn’t read them. So, we put together a mystery plot. As the years went by, the fictional plot we created began to play out around us—increased extremes in weather, increased diseases related to breathing, etc.

Tell us how the book came together.
We divvied up the major characters and the settings where they appear. Vicki wrote most of the short snippets where a character appears only one time but tells the reader things like what really happens when a zoo can no longer feed its animals because there is no fossil fuel. The full manuscript was ready after about 15 years. We edited and reworked it for another five years while also trying to get it published. We sent letters of inquiry, went to various conferences where we pitched the book, etc. Vicki did most of the pitches because she was already retired. And she kept her ear to the ground through SouthWest Writers (SWW). Vicki signed up to do a pitch for two publishers at an SWW conference in 2018. The editor from Terra Nova/Golden Word Books showed sincere interest. Within about a week of the pitch, we had an agreement for them to publish The Delicate Balance, and it was released in 2019.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Our favorite thing about writing this book was the fun times we had together. For example, one time we were working on the book while on a trip and Vicki was updating Shannon about the plot. Vicki had murdered a couple of characters along the way and after the third murder, Shannon (a bit put out) said, “How many of our characters are you going to snuff out?”

What are you most happy with in your writing?
Vicki: I love discovering characters. There is a wonderful world out there of interesting, fascinating people. Once I latch on to one of them, I allow him or her to do the talking and acting for me. Characters in my authored works have said and done things that came from them, not from my own experience. As a long-time drama teacher and director, I visualize the story, scene by scene. I may argue with my characters, but so often they are more creative and ingenuous than I could ever be.

What has writing taught you about yourself?
Vicki: We all learn and remember more when we sit down with a pen or open a computer and write. That is a fact. If we are forced to edit what we write, we discover the myriad ways to say the same thing. We discover what is clean and valuable, or worth thinking and writing about, and not just flotsam and jetsam. During my master’s program in education at UNM, I loved writing for the class about the students I was teaching and learning more about teaching from the vast variety of other teachers in the class. One morning at home after breakfast, I went to write in my study. Later I decided it was probably time to eat lunch only to discover it was already 5:00 pm. I thought, this is fun, and I would love doing this when I retire.

What writing projects are you working on now?
Vicki: Right now, I have in the works a short young-adult novel based on my real experience with #MeToo when I was fifteen. I have a historical novel about what it was like to be a woman in the late 1800s/early 1900s, if you didn’t bend to the rules created by men for women. Lastly, I have a few chapters of a memoir about my 51-year marriage and raising five children.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




Author Update: Patricia Smith Wood

Author Patricia Smith Wood credits her father, a career FBI agent, for sparking her interest in law enforcement and solving crimes. After retiring from a business career that included working at the FBI and owning her own computer company, Pat published her first of the Harrie McKinsey Mysteries in 2013. Murder at the Petroglyphs (Aakenbaaken & Kent, 2019) is the fourth book in the series that once again follows editor and amateur sleuth Harrie and her business partner Ginger as they attempt to solve a complicated murder. You’ll find Pat on her website at PatriciaSmithWood.com and on Facebook and Twitter. For more information about previous books in her series, read her 2015 and 2017 SWW interviews.


What is your elevator pitch for Murder at the Petroglyphs?
Are the Ancient Ones responsible for the body discovered at Petroglyphs National Monument? Why did Harrie McKinsey have a prophetic dream about it? Why haven’t the media in Albuquerque reported on this unexplained death? And why can’t the Albuquerque Police, the FBI, or the CIA discover the identity of the victim?

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I found myself doing a lot more research on this book than on the other three. Even though I’ve lived in Albuquerque since 1951, I had never visited the Petroglyphs until I decided to set the mystery there. Also, I’m not what you would call an “outdoor girl” type. I’ve routinely taken walks around my neighborhood, but hikes in the desert or mountains are not my bag. So I had to find a twist to anchor the story and justify using the Petroglyphs.

Tell us how the book came together.
It was actually my husband who suggested the Petroglyphs as a setting. I had just come out of the swirl of activity connected with the release of my third book, Murder on Frequency. I always think I can sit back and relax once a book is finally out there. But I immediately started being questioned about the next book and when it would be published. In the past, I had an idea at least. Not this time. So when my husband suggested it, I told him I knew nothing about the Petroglyphs. That’s when he picked up the car keys and said, “Let’s go take a look.” We spent most of our time at the Visitor Center and at the Amphitheater. I took many photos so I could have a picture in my mind while writing the book. It was also in a location relatively close to the George Maloof Air Park where model airplane and drone hobbyists gather to fly their machines. Since I wanted to include drones in the story (to satisfy some of my Ham radio buddies), that worked in very well.

It took me a little over two years to write. Then, of course, came the editing. That took about four months. In the middle of that two-year period, my 98-year-old mother passed away. We had all sorts of details to take care of and deal with her property and possessions. So that made it more difficult to focus on the book. The editing process is really the best part. You’ve finished the book—now you can “pretty it up” and make it shine (with any kind of luck at all!)

Who are the main characters in the Harrie McKinsey Mystery series, and why will readers connect with them?
Since the first book, The Easter Egg Murder, I’ve had the same six characters in the series. In the second book I introduced a new female police detective sergeant and I’ve kept her in every book since then. The main characters are Harrie McKinsey and Ginger Vaughn. There’s DJ Scott (an FBI agent), Steve Vaughn (Ginger’s husband), Caroline Johnson (DJ’s mother and Harrie and Ginger’s office manager), and homicide detective Lt. Bob Swanson (Swannie). The new “regular” added in book two is Detective Sergeant Cabrini Paiz. In book number three I introduce her husband and son.

I hope readers see Harrie and Ginger (who are somewhere in their late thirties or early forties as the books proceed) as women they might know and want to hang out with. I hope male readers can identify with the men I feature. DJ and Swannie are featured the most, and I really like them.

Is there a scene in the book you’d love to watch play out in the movie?
Actually there’s more than one, but I guess I’d pick the first chapter. It would have the most visual splendor. When I first wrote it, I included all sorts of descriptions about the sunset over the Petroglyphs on a lovely May evening, and the rising of the full moon over the Sandia Mountains. Then the park ranger takes a short walk around the area to make sure all is well. He encounters a coyote, and then discovers the body. That chapter, and its flowery and scenic descriptions, was radically modified by the editors at the publisher. They wanted a body to appear at the end of page one. Still, as a movie, seeing it would substitute for all the words they had to cut!

If your book did become a movie, who would you like to see in the roles of the main amateur female detectives?
Sandra Bullock (with hair tinted a deep auburn) as Harrie McKinsey. For Ginger, I’d like to have Geena Davis (with black hair.)

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Getting to read it to my critique group. They always had positive reactions and came up with some great comments and suggestions.

You began your fiction writing career later in life. What did your mature self bring to the writing table that your younger self never could have?
I’d have to say my mature self has a huge advantage over my younger self. I’ve lived an interesting life, with lots of interesting people, jobs, relationships and situations. I’ve experienced many ups and downs that give me perspective and appreciation I didn’t have as a young woman. I can use that stuff with my various characters. I’ve either been there, done that, or know somebody who has been there and done that.

What are the challenges of writing for the cozy mystery market?
That’s a great question but not an easy answer. First, the definition of cozy is very complicated in today’s world. Traditionally, one describes it as akin to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The thread running through those stories is an amateur sleuth who solves a murder (which never happens on the page—only discovered there) and does so before the authorities can solve it. Nowadays, there are so many sub-genres of cozy it’s confusing. I heard someone recently imply an authentic cozy needs comedy, romance, and a protagonist who solves everything without the help of law enforcement. That’s not the sort of cozy mystery I write. In my mind, there’s no on-screen violence, the murder takes place off stage, there’s no foul language (there may be a “hell” or a “damn” now and then), and there are no sex scenes. I wanted my mother to be able to read my books without needing to chastise me. So one of the biggest challenges is explaining to people what a cozy mystery is—at least what MY kind of cozy is.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




An Interview with Author Katayoun Medhat

Katayoun Medhat was raised in Iran and Germany, studied anthropology in Berlin and London, and worked in an adolescent psychiatric unit. For her PhD in medical anthropology, she researched mental health and alcohol rehab services on the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States. Her first novel, The Quality of Mercy (book one in the Milagro Mystery series), was inspired by her fieldwork on the Navajo Nation and won the 2016 Leapfrog Fiction Award. Lacandon Dreams (Leapfrog Press, 2019) is her newest book and the second in the series. You’ll find Kat on her website at KatayounMedhat.com and on Facebook and Twitter.


What is your elevator pitch for the Milagro Mystery series?
“The travails of Don Quixote recast in the Southwest featuring Milagro small-town cop Franz Kafka and Navajo tracker Robbie Begay” just about sums up the Milagro Mysteries. Against the backdrop of the rugged Southwest in all its natural splendor and cultural diversity, rebel with a cause (and unlikely cop) Franz Kafka aka ‘K’ confronts the demons and dragons of contemporary America—frackers, meth-pushers, gang-bangers, vigilantes—the good, the evil and the misguided. K has the help of Navajo cop and soul-brother Robbie Begay who has learned how to survive historic injustice without necessarily forgiving it and who has all the investigative skills and shrewd insight that K lacks.

“…a buddy novel, a work of history and collective and inter-generational trauma, a play with genre, from noir (…) to road movie…” is how the European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling reviewed The Quality of Mercy (Milagro Mystery I) and I am more than okay with that.

What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in book two, Lacandon Dreams?
An encounter with an environmental activist leads K to a quagmire of environmental destruction and corporate corruption which is tolerated—and perhaps even encouraged—by Milagro’s good ol’ boys’ network. K, still shaken by the tragic consequences of a previous case (The Quality of Mercy), finds himself once again on a solitary quest taking on the establishment, while also trying to solve the baffling disappearance of a model student. Robbie Begay, laid low after a shoot-out with meth-pushers, comes to help his old buddy K. Though Begay’s investigative methods do not always gel with K’s principles, together the odd couple uncovers a tangled web of deception leading to a ruthless vendetta involving Milagro’s upper echelons. Lacandon Dreams has some unforeseen and rather intriguing developments in store for K.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This is my second book in the Milagro Mystery series, and as such the main challenge was to create a continuation between Lacandon Dreams and The Quality of Mercy without being repetitive or predictable, but also without disappointing returning readers who appreciated the particular setting, characters, and themes of the first book. Writing your first book you enjoy the privilege of innocence: everything is virgin territory (though that’s something you only appreciate, like so many things, with the benefit of hindsight).

Tell us more about Lacandon Dreams and how it came together.
Lacandon Dreams came out of a particular time. The 45th president had just come into office, and there was a lot of rhetoric that I, as a descendant of various peoples who experienced Diaspora and displacement, found very disturbing. I wanted to write something that charted the cultural diversity of the Southwest and that reflected a wide spectrum of histories and experiences. I wanted to write something that celebrated the invisible network of cultural roots that connects us all with each other. There is so much to be admired and celebrated here—and so much to be worried about too!

What sparked the story idea for the first book, The Quality of Mercy? When did you know the storyline or the choice of characters was strong enough for a series?
Fieldwork for a PhD left me with an enduring fascination with, and love of, the Southwest, in particular the Navajo Nation. I spent some time observing and volunteering in mental health services and in an alcohol and substance rehab program on the reservation where the ways in which history still casts its shadow on the present became quite obvious. Luckily the tribal ethos of community and communality is enduring and strong, as is the system of extended families and family support. The greatest thing for me was the Navajo sense of humor. Someone once told me, “Wherever you find a group of Navajo, you will hear laughing.” And this is true. During this time I heard so many stories and gained so many impressions that stimulated my imagination that trying my hand on a mystery became a tempting new challenge. Writing a PhD thesis you have to reign in and discipline your imagination. Writing fiction you are king (or queen) of that great realm in your head. It is so liberating! Once I started I found a whole new world of ideas for plots and storylines opened up. So I intend to keep on going!

Tell us about your main characters and why readers will connect with them.
My main character is Franz Kafka aka ‘K’ who suspects that his choice to be a police officer is so far from his natural sensibilities that it makes it akin to self-harm. K is a stranger in a strange land. He has plenty of hinterland, frequently feels out of place, but he has his principles for which he will fight relentlessly. He is a natural anarchist, and being subversive is his default mode. And he has a very keen eye for the absurd. Robbie Begay is a Navajo police officer and a preternaturally adept track reader who is the Yin to K’s Yang. Begay is robustly pragmatic, not to say an outright cynic. He is very perceptive and shrewd and provides grounding to K who is more of a dreamer. Most importantly Begay has a sharp sense of humor and deep psychological insight.

Begay and K are two characters who complement each other. They have a strong friendship, though neither would care to admit to this. They prefer ribbing each other and tend to express their mutual affection mainly through sarcasm, as many men do. The tenderness is all between the lines with these two. Together they are a pretty renegade team and often act out and challenge the establishment and subvert hierarchies in ways that most of us wish we could.

Why did you choose the Southwest as the setting for the books?
The mesas, the plains, the colors, the cultures, the never-ending sky, the peoples and their languages, history, history, history…I love it! And so much here reminds me of the country of my birth—Iran.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of writing this series?
Learning to trust my characters enough to let them go where they wished to. Really, characters sometimes escape your custody and do their own thing. They will go ahead and say things you had no idea they would. I sometimes marvel at K and Begay’s wit. They say stuff I could never dream up! And they make me laugh and sometimes cry. I once heard a famous writer say that whoever claims their characters talk to them needs their head examined—so be it! To me as a writer nothing beats having characters you supposedly created surprise you.

What inspired you to become a writer?
Wanting to write was an abstract thought. I always thought I would get to it at some point when the time was ripe. People used to tell me I should be a writer. By trade I am an anthropologist and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. These occupations involve observing, listening and (most of all) being interested in people—as does writing. One day somebody told me about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I thought, “Well, I’ll try that.” That’s how the first draft of The Quality of Mercy was born—50,000 words in two weeks. Compared to the torturous tightrope that was writing my PhD thesis, writing fiction was a walk in the park! I submitted an edited version of my manuscript to Leapfrog Press’s Fiction Contest, and The Quality of Mercy was their 2016 Contest Winner.

Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
That it is pretty lucky to get a starred review in Publishers Weekly with your first published book, which in turn will get your book into public libraries throughout the country, and that is a great privilege!

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
The world is dark and dystopian, but it will be the small acts of kindness that will save us. I’m not sure. But that could be one message. The other one is that laughter and tears go side by side and make up life. All is bitter-sweet or sweet-bitter, but there’s no avoiding either flavor.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I am currently nearing the completion of the first draft of Milagro Mystery III. The working title is Flyover Country, though the final title may be different. I am very excited about the book. It is going to be pretty dark, I think—but these are the times we live in.


KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.




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