ROBERTA: Today JRW is delighted to host Sandra Parshall, who has just released her third mystery in the Rachel Goddard series, BROKEN PLACES (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010.) You will know Sandy if you are a member of either Sisters in Crime or SinC’s Guppy chapter for unpublished writers—she seems to be always online with helpful information, funny stories, and pictures of her feline muses. (Gabriel on the right, and Emma below. Are they not gorgeous creatures?) Today she’s agreed to answer questions no one ever asks. Welcome Sandy!
Let’s start with a question about your series. Why are your heroine, veterinarian Rachel Goddard, and your hero, Deputy Tom Bridger, so nice? Why don’t you write about a kick-ass woman with a wisecrack for every situation? And a cop who drinks too much and can’t keep his temper under control?
SANDY: I tire of brittle, angry characters very quickly. I have more options—more directions to take a story—with lead characters who are relatively normal (in spite of some serious problems in their backgrounds), warm and compassionate, with a strong sense of duty. Rachel is still capable of getting into some crazy trouble and doing things she shouldn’t, and Tom occasionally loses it when somebody crosses a line, but I hope readers will like them and be on their side.
ROBERTA: So you write what you know?
SANDY: Why would I want to? How boring! It’s more fun to write about experiences that I’ll never have. Both Rachel and Tom are bolder and braver than I am, so I can live vicariously through them. If I wrote about what I know—well, it would be a short, dull book, heavy on cat care tips.
ROBERTA: Point taken, that sounds a lot like my life too. Three years ago your novel, THE HEAT OF THE MOON, won the Agatha for best first mystery. How much do awards matter? Do you think readers are impressed by your Agatha?
SANDY: I wish they were! I learned pretty quickly that average readers (I’m not talking about DorothyL mystery fanatics) have never heard of the Agatha Awards—or the Anthonys, or the Leftys, for that matter. Most people who live in the DC area have never heard of Malice Domestic and have no idea that a major mystery conference is held here every year. (They won’t learn about it from the Washington press, which steadfastly ignores Malice.) Some mystery readers have a vague impression that the Edgar Award is a big deal. One bookstore customer looked at the “Agatha Award Winner” sticker on The Heat of the Moon and asked me, “Is the Agatha Award for women’s books, like the Edgar Award is for men’s?”
ROBERTA: Is there anything you’d like to see changed in the process of giving awards?
SANDY: I’ve concluded that the fairest awards are those given by judges who read everything published in the different categories. Having been a judge, I know what a deep sense of responsibility comes with the honor of serving on an awards committee. You have to set aside personal connections. As a judge, I have looked for exceptional writing with power and grace, vivid and unforgettable characters, a story that is fresh and will stay in my mind after I finish the book. Believe me, when you read all the eligible novels, one after another, the best books stand out. And they’re not always the most famous books.
By the way, every year I hear complaints that traditional mysteries don’t stand a chance of winning juried awards like the Edgars, but that’s not true. A number of traditional mysteries have been nominated for, and won, Edgar Awards.
For the fan awards given at conferences like the Agatha and the Lefty, I would like to see nominations made only by fans, committees of readers who agree to read everything that’s been published in the categories they’re judging. The resulting nominations could then be voted on by all who attend the conferences, including the writers.
ROBERTA: Let’s hope the conferences take your suggestion—I think it’s a good one! What question do you wish people would stop asking you?
SANDY: That’s easy: “When are you going to move up to a bigger publisher?” I can’t count the number of times people have said that to me. I guess those who ask the question intend it as a compliment, but it’s insulting to both me and to Poisoned Pen Press, one of the most respected publishers in the country. I don’t write cozies and I don’t write blockbuster thrillers, and I’m positive that if I had started with a New York publisher I would have been dropped long ago for failing to “break out” with huge sales. That’s a rat race I could never win.
ROBERTA: If you could be anything you wanted to be, other than a writer, what would you be?
SANDY: I would work in animal studies and conservation of endangered species, someone like Dr. Jane Goodall. She has the life I wish I had. Dr. Jane has made enormous contributions to our understanding of other species, and she continues to fight for protection of wildlife and preservation of irreplaceable natural resources. She does more for the world in one day than most of us will in our entire lives. I hope there’s something of Dr. Jane’s spirit, on a small scale, in my character Rachel.
ROBERTA: Thanks to Sandy for visiting today—she is standing by to take your comments and questions! And visit her website to read more about Broken Places.