Ellen, thank you so much for taking time to answer some questions for members of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook group.
Let’s start off with, where do you live?
I live in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, just a little south and west of Minneapolis.
As you probably know, writers rarely like to toot their own horns…lol, but what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
I guess it would have to be sustaining a career for twenty-five years. It’s hard to get published, but equally hard, if not harder, to stay published. I just turned in my 31st book (eight were published in the Sophie Greenway series.) I think that’s a fairly significant accomplishment.
Without getting too personal, would you share a little about your home life?
I live with my partner of thirty-six years. (JM-Wow! Congratulations!) We were married in our home last September, with family and a few friends in attendance. We have two daughters, two sons-in-law, and five grandkids. And of course, we’ve always lived with dogs. Currently, we share our townhouse with Newton, a 17 year old miniature poodle (black). He can’t see, can’t hear, and is very creaky, but he’s still with us.
Do you fly by the seat of your pants when writing or plot out your storylines in detail?
I do a great deal of thinking about a story before I start writing (and often do research.) Generally I need to have the title in place (which I use thematically to help me think myself into the story). I need to know the central crime, who did it and why (the motivation), and then I cast the book around that crime. Every significant character in a mystery needs to have a possible connection to the central crime. Once I know all that, and a few other high points along the way (twists, character issues, suspense, structure), I can begin writing. I’ve never outlined. I’ve taught writing for seventeen years and in that time I’ve learned that there are writers who outline and writers who don’t. Those who do outline can’t understand how you could write a book without one. Those who never outline can’t imagine why you’d want to use one. Perhaps I’m a bit of an exception because I have my feet in both worlds, but generally, I let much of the book play out without knowing the outcome. I like that process. I like being surprised.
Have had you ever had to deal with homophobia after your lesbian novels are released, and if so, what forms has it taken?
Sure. Over the years, I’ve spoken at hundreds of small libraries around the Midwest. There are times, when the event is over and we’re selling books, that I feel like people don’t even want to touch my novels–like they’re made of plutonium. I’m sure the lesbian themes, etc., have hurt my sales over the years, but it’s what I want to write and because they’re mainstream enough, there has been crossover. I had a bookstore owner once invite me to his store. He said that he didn’t know where the gay bars were in his city (Canada), but he’d find out. When I told him that I didn’t go to bars much, he asked me how I “hooked up” with my “people.” He meant sexually. I told him I’d been in a committed relationship for twenty years (at that time.) I can still remember the look of surprise in his eyes. Generally, though, people who have problems with my books simply stay away. I’ve rarely been directly challenged.
I know this may sound strange, but I’ve always felt that a writer never entirely masters her/his craft–there’s always more to learn. Every book presents you with new problems, and with each book, a writer should be trying to grow, both as a storyteller and as a wordsmith. If I had to say what one quality all writers possess, it’s curiosity. That quality, which presupposes the desire to understand the world, makes writing a fascinating, though often difficult, life’s work. You’re always learning, and there’s always more TO learn. That inspires me. People like Dennis Lehane, Val McDermid, Margaret Atwood, and Tim O’Brien also inspire me because of what they’ve achieved. Their writing feels like verbal alchemy to me. When I read them, it makes me want to try harder, dig deeper, reach higher.
You have a long-running lesbian mystery series known to fans as the Jane Lawless Mysteries, with a stunning twenty-one books to date. How are you able to keep the series fresh and exciting?
For many years, I wrote two mystery series–alternating them. I think that helped me to keep the stories and characters fresh. Each time I moved back into one of the series, I’d been away for at least six to eight months, and I was eager to check back in and see what was going on. I think the most important factor, however, for my longest running series (Jane Lawless) was that my original press, Seal Press in Seattle, dropped me after six books. They stopped publishing fiction for a time because they didn’t feel they could do it profitably. My agent shopped the series around New York for over a year, with the same result at each press. Editors said that they thought I was a fine writer, but didn’t want to touch a series, where the first six books were owned by another press. They all suggested I start a new series. Finally, St. Martin’s stepped in with a wonderful two book deal and the Lawless books found a new home. It was during that uncertain time–a time of mourning, really–that I began to think more deeply about my main character. Jane had always been a hard nut for me to crack–intellectual, pragmatic, cerebral. The more I thought about her, the more fascinated I became by her, and when the next book came up, my writing/thematic ideas/tone had changed. I started delving more deeply into Jane’s world–and that’s where I’ve found most of my inspiration for continuing the series: delving more deeply into Jane and Cordelia, and their lives. If anything has kept the books fresh, it’s that.
Many of the Jane Lawless mysteries have now been released in unabridged audio book format, with several more releasing this year. Has the growth of audio books with the advent of cheaper technology drawn a new legion of fans, or do you find those who have read the books in the past return to listen to the audio version?
That’s a question I can’t answer. It’s too early to tell. A few of the books were released in 2013, and the rest will become available at Amazon/Audible in April of 2014. I hope it brings me new fans. I love audiobooks myself. I’m always listening to one on my iPad, in my car, in the kitchen while I’m making dinner. Because I spend a great part of each day staring at a page of words, I like being read to in the evenings, especially. While I listen to a ton of non-fiction on audiobooks (memoir, history, politics, science and technology, biography), when it comes to fiction, I need to hold the book in my hands. Just the way it works for me.
Which living actor would you cast to portray your lesbian restaurateur sleuth, Jane Lawless and why?
Probably Laura Linney. She has a kind of midwestern openness in her face, not exactly innocence, but no ironic sarcasm. She’s also one of my favorite actors. It’s difficult to name someone because we all create an image of the character to fit our own impressions. When the BBC cast Roy Marsden to play Adam Dalgliesh in the PD James mysteries, she was initially aghast. He was nothing like she’d imagined him–and yet he became Dalgliesh in every way to those of us who watched and loved the TV series.
Last question; can you share with us a little about your current release and/or WIP?
Just sent off the next Jane Lawless mystery to my editors in New York. Title: THE OLD DEEP AND DARK. The book will be published sometime in the fall of 2014. Usually, when I send off a book, I take several months to just relax and regroup because all my mental circuit breakers are fried and I need a break. This February, however, the next book kind of fell on me. It’s only happened once before–with the THE IRON GIRL. I’m so far into my thinking that I will probably start writing it in early March. The book I’m working on is always the one I’m most passionate about, but I don’t want to say anymore. (UPDATE 1/23/16): THE GRAVE SOUL, book 23 in was released in October 6, 2015 and book 24, FEVER IN THE DARK is set for release on October 11th, 2016.
lso, Bywater Books, will be publishing THE LOST WOMEN OF LOST LAKE in paperback for the first time in April 2014. St. Martin’s publishes my books in hardcover and ebook, which is great, but without a paperback in the pipeline, writing careers can die. Most people can’t afford a hardcover. All of my books have made it into paperback, with the exception of the last four. In the fall of 2013, Bywater published THE MIRROR AND THE MASK and THE CRUEL EVER AFTER as trade paperbacks. Next fall, REST FOR THE WICKED will hit stores. Beyond that, they’re currently in negotiations with St. Martin’s for the rights to my next two mysteries. All very exciting!
On behalf of the Facebook Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Group, thank you for giving us a little of your time today, answering questions fans of the genre want to know.
Find Ellen Hart on the web: www.ellenhart.com