Q: Can you tell me when you first met Jane Lawless? Was she initially based on someone you knew? Of is she purely fiction?
A: In 1987, with my summers free because I was on University of Minnesota time, I began work on my first novel. Before that, I'd been someone who loved to read—and read widely—with a secret desire to someday write something myself. I'd come to the conclusion that if I didn't get down to it, actually try to write a novel, that I'd come to the end of my life with a major regret. Enter Jane Lawless. For developing character, I think a writer either mines her own life, or she creates the character out of whole cloth. Jane was a bit of both.
When the series started, I was thirty-eight. Jane was about the same age. We had many of the same instincts about life, although over the course of eighteen novels, she's moved away from me in many respects. She's richer than I am, better looking, and she's aged far better. I'm sixty-one now and she's forty-six. Ah, fiction. What we have in common besides those fundamental instincts which come, I believe, from midwest roots, is that we're both introverts. Jane was a hard nut to crack for me. She's been one of the toughest characters I've ever written. She's heroic, often courageous and generous, but she has her demons, which sometimes cause her to drink too much. I think Jane doesn't really understand herself all that well. She's buried many of her emotions in order to look and act as if she's strong, which is very important to her, as is the feeling that she's in control, but this lack of perspective leaves her with huge blind spots. She's complex. That's one of her appeals to me as a writer—she's constantly revealing new, sometimes unforeseen, aspects of her personality. Cordelia, the other main character in the series, I nailed immediately. She was always more available to me. She's flat out who she is. You either like her or you hate her. Jane fascinates me far more now than she did when I started writing her twenty years ago.
Q: What is it about the human psyche that draws us to the mysterious?
A: That's a rather large question, one that's been the subject of entire books. As Albert Einstein once said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science."
More specific to the mystery genre, I believe human beings are innately curious. Since the element of mystery is the quality that keeps us reading any book, when you give it center stage in a novel, you get a step up in grabbing a reader's attention. That's one reason why we find so many mysteries and suspense novels on the bestseller lists. They are entertaining, compelling stories, but in a strange way, they're also comforting. When you enter the novel, you come upon a world in chaos. There's often been a murder or a significant crime. People's lives have been turned upside down. The story might not move from sadness to happiness, but you know that there will be a resolution. We all live in a world where resolution is hard to find. Thus, in a sense, mysteries give us something CNN can't.
Q: Once I was at a panel listening to Margaret Maron describe her plotting process, which seemed to be that she went where the narrative took her, though to me Maron is one of the better plotters around. I think you share a similar gift—there are always several threads, a red herring or two, and a shocker at the end of some kind. Are you as casual as Ms. Maron—is it a "gift" as Julia Spencer-Fleming explained it to me—or do you meticulously outline?
A: This is a conversation that I've had with so many writers. I'm not sure if anyone does it exactly the same way, but I'm far more in the Maron camp than I am in the school that outlines. I've never outlined any of my books. I start with the crime, the motives—I cast the book around that. I write to a title, so for me, the title becomes something I riff off of, something that helps me thematically. I usually need to think about a book for a month or two, sometimes longer, before I can begin. I seem to reach a place in my mind, where the book comes together enough for me to begin. I don't know how I do it. I need a clear idea of the hook, the first chapter, and the next few chapters as well. Beyond that, it's all a dark road. I sometimes know the end, but never how I'll get there. In a way, I put the characters on stage and watch them behave. I know generally what needs to happen, but the book unfolds as I write it. If I outlined, I don't think I'd be all that interested in writing the book. I remember reading about Alfred Hitchcock. (I love reading about directors. They seem to do many of the same things writers do to create a story.) He'd get all his shots lined up, do the story board, nail everything down, and then he'd lose interest. Shooting the film was anti-climactic. That's how I'd feel if I outlined. There would be no surprises. The surprises, the twists and turns, make me want to get up every morning and write. If I'm surprised, I hope my readers will be, too. On the other hand, writing process is completely idiosyncratic. Students often come to my classes looking for concrete answers. I can help them with craft, but I can't teach them to write. They have to do that themselves—by writing.
Q: How do you work? Writing a few hours every day? Wait for inspiration? Write until you run dry and then pick up the next day?
A: I guess the answer is, it depends on where I am in a book. If I'm just starting out, just beginning to feel my way into the story, I only write an hour or two a day. As the story starts to pick up steam, as I begin to see where I need to go, I work longer hours. I don't always write every day, especially when I'm out of town doing publicity events, but certainly I try not to let more than a few days go by without writing. If you give yourself lots of time off, you run the risk of loosing the story threads, and that can spell disaster. It's one reason why young writers, who quit working on a book because they don't feel inspired, or they can't find the time, so often drift away from the book and never come back.
I only know two ways to write. You either decide you're going to spend "x" number of hours a day sitting at your computer, or you decide to write until you've done a thousand, two thousand—or whatever—words. If it takes three hours to get that many words written, great. You're done. If it takes you until midnight, well, then you work until midnight. I write relatively short chapters. That's stylistic, simply the way I like to structure scenes. When I'm into the book and everything is cooking, I try to do a chapter a day. That could be anywhere from a thousand to two thousand words. Writing much beyond that usually doesn't get me anywhere I truly want to go. And no, I don't wait for inspiration. As a working writer, you have to sit down and write whether you're feeling inspired or not. You hope, you may even pray, for inspiration. Some days it comes, some days it doesn't. On the days it does come, you better be sitting down at your laptop when it hits. But you have to make progress either way.
Q: How do you stay focused and disciplined?
A: I think if you're passionate about what you're writing, if you love words, working with them, shaping and crafting a story, it's not all that difficult to stay focused. But here's the deal. I'm a normally disciplined person when it comes to most things. I've been teaching a class called "Writing the Modern Mystery" for fourteen years. During that time I've come across many wonderful writers. What I don't know about those people is—do they have the discipline to actually spend the time to finish the book. It may sound simplistic, but it's the people who finish books who ultimately get published, not people who work erratically on a story year after year. You have to be a self-starter. In my opinion, you have to take the decision—to write or not to write—off the table. You make a commitment: Every Monday and Thursday evening I will write for two hours. Or every Saturday afternoon I will spend four hours working on my book. No excuses. Now, of course, life doesn't always work like that, but the more you can do to take the decision away from yourself, the better off you'll be if you have trouble with discipline.
Q: As a most appreciative reader, I feel like your characters are people I know. Sometimes in the middle of the book a scene from the book comes back and its like it really happened to someone I know. You must feel like you live with these people/characters. Does that sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic? Living in your world one day/hour/minute and living in Jane's the next?
A: No, not schizophrenic. When I'm working on a book, I never feel lonely. Those characters are real to me, as real as I hope they feel to my readers. It feels very much like I'm involved in a conversation all day. I go to bed thinking about my characters. I don't want to get all mystical, but characters do take on a certain life of their own. Books aren't written by magic, of course, but magic is certainly part of the equation. While we're on that subject, let me just say that I've always felt that some books do have a piece of magic in them—they're more than the sum of their parts. I don't know how that magic happens. I've written twenty-six novels. Some of the books have that x-quality, some don't. Part of it is the set-up. When you're writing commercial fiction, you don't get years for ideas to percolate, so you grab the set-up that appeals to you the most and go with it. Sometimes you're able to realize the initial idea better than others. Mostly, however, I think it has to do with the emotion of the characters--making your readers feel something fundamental, something real and personal. Mysteries are entertainment, but books feed us in different ways. I guess, with my novels, I hope my reader comes away feeling they've been on a great ride, that they've had a few laughs along the way, but also I'd like to think that, long after they put the book down, that they'll continue to think about a character or a situation—about what it is to be human.
Q: You don't have to answer this one, but do ever feel your books are marginalized a bit because Jane is gay? Or is it an advantage to have that extra "niche"? I feel your books are as strong, if not stronger, than some better known authors who write what I think of as kind of "half" cozies—kind of a cozy setting, but the outlook and character development is complex and layered, more thoughtful by far than a light read.
A: I agree with your description of my books. They're not cozy, but not hard-boiled either. Maybe they're soft-boiled. And yes, the Jane Lawless series has been marginalized because the main character is gay. Many people won't read them because of that. In fact, I do a lot of traveling with two other authors. William Kent Krueger and Carl Brookins. When we give a presentation, it's always interesting to watch the people who come up afterwards. Some of them won't even touch my books. It's like they're made of plutonium. Had I written the same stories with a straight character, I would probably be making a lot more money and be far better known. On the other hand, it's what I wanted to write. The novels themselves don't generally tackle a subject of direct interest to the gay community—and there are no sex scenes. I get slammed for that, too, from the other side. I seem to be either too gay or not gay enough. It's frustrating when all you want to be is a writer—a writer who doesn't want to write her own life out of the story, but who also wants to live in the largest world possible.
Q: Can you share a craft tip that has worked for you? This could be how you develop your characters on the page, or how you plot your book, or a tip for creating dialog, etc.
A: My best advice? Read, read read. And write every day, even if it's only five hundred words. That way you stay connected to the story. I think one of the biggest problems young writers have is their lack of continued connection to their story. Believe me, you can get disconnected very easily—in a matter of a day or two. That makes it harder to get back into it, which makes it easier to put it off. If you write every day, you keep the ideas flowing.
© Ellen Hart.