On top of that, she’s tall, graceful, funny, and she and her charming husband Michael still hold hands everywhere they go. Really, it’s almost too much to bear.
Julia: You and I are both bringing the traditional village mystery into the 21st century. Do you see yourself as reinventing? Paying homage? Or just updating?
Louise: You know, I don’t actually see myself as doing anything in particular. I really just sort of bumble along. If ignorance is bliss, I live in a perpetual state of it. I know that sounds lame, but I guess I just set out to write a book I’d love to read, it turned into a series and here we are. My books are definitely inspired by the novels I’ve read all my life - the Christie’s, Tey’s, Dorothy L’s etc - but I didn’t realize they were known as ‘traditional’. I knew there was a genre called murder mysteries - but not that there were sub-genres. And it never occurred to me this wasn’t literary fiction. It comes as a surprise when people say I break rules - since I didn’t realize writing had rules. So, I basically just plod along, happily writing books and while I’m very proud and happy to be writing traditional mysteries, I really let others decide what they are. Certainly ‘traditional’ is more polite than what some people have called them!
Julia: Have you found blending the police procedural with the, shall we say, softer sides of the stories difficult? Because I know for the first two books or so, I struggled with getting the balance right.
Louise: God, that’s hilarious - because you sure nailed it! In those books and subsequent ones. I actually don’t really think about that a lot. I must sound like a complete numb-skull, and perhaps I am. I’m not completely oblivious to issues of writing - especially as I go along I’m much more aware of the choices and issues facing me and the books. One thing I have become more aware of is the language I use - I think early on, mostly in the second book, I might have over-used the ‘f’ word. I still use it, but perhaps not quite as much. What I really struggle with is the balance between plot and character development. The personal lives of the characters and their story lines which might mirror the main plot but often doesn’t really have anything to do with it, and the murder mystery itself. I’m never sure I get that right and it’s interesting to read the comments and reviews by some who feel I’m top heavy in one direction or the other. I’ve now reached the stage where I read fewer and fewer reviews and comments and just keep my head down and write what seems appropriate for the stories and character - and hope people agree. I’ve sure made some mistakes, and will again, but at least they’ll be my mistakes. Do you read reviews, Julia? Do you find they affect you?
Julia: Not so much reviews, no. I do find that getting out and listening to what my readers say has influenced some aspects of my story. The status quo of my series changed dramatically by the end of the fifth book (I’m tip-toeing around here so as not to give away any plot points) in part because of what I heard time and again from my readers. It wasn’t really even a conscious decision--more like my readers created the gravity which bent the story arc naturally in a certain direction.
Including more of the police procedural--and letting it exist side-by-side with the personal lives of the characters--had more to do with my own sense of comfort as a writer. Maybe I figured since I was getting away with it a little, I could stretch the boundaries. I notice (this is an observation rather than a question) that within 5-6 books, both of us turned to a much more strictly procedural story (All Mortal Flesh, Bury Your Dead.)
Louise: That’s true. Again, I’m not sure why that is. I suspect it’s just a natural progression and exploration. I’d really hate to be imprisoned in one location or ‘genre’. I think I’d get bored and I think the characters might get boring. Part of what I wanted to explore with Bury Your Dead was to put the lie to this whole sub-genre thing....as you do. There are elements in BYD that are historical fiction, parts police procedural, part traditional, part noir and part cozy. Actually, this makes it sound like a bit of a dog’s breakfast! But I hope it sounds like life. Sometimes my life is hilarious, sometimes tragic. Sometimes I’m furious, sometimes I’m gentle and kind. These aren’t contradictions, these are just living a full emotional life. Or maybe being psychotic. Don’t you find that the more aware of yourself you are, the better the books will be?
Julia: Absolutely. You can’t write real people unless you understand real people, and you can’t do that without understanding yourself.
Louise: I also think that the more screwed up I am, the better the books. I can relate to all the odd and sometimes deeply unpleasant things my characters think and feel. And do.
Julia: How are you dealing with what I call the “Cabot Cove” issue--the very small town with a very high murder rate? Other than relying on the goodwill of readers to suspend their disbelief.
Louise: Again, the numb-skull factor comes into play! When I wrote Still Life and it became a series it never occurred to me the “Cabot Cove” syndrome might be a problem. But, of course, by the time I was halfway through book 3, I realized my fictional village of Three Pines was producing both bodies and murderers at an alarming rate. And it was becoming increasingly difficult to describe Three Pines as idyllic, when clearly it isn’t. So, after the third book I’ve set every second book away from the village. This also keeps me fresh and allows me to see the main characters of Chief Inspector Gamache and his team in different settings. For me, and for you too I believe, the setting is also a character, so in changing the settings to other Quebec communities I get to write about other locations. Then go back to Three Pines, and feel excited to be back in the bistro, and back with those characters.
Julia: Kate Miciak, one of Bantam-Dell’s legendary editors, once told me a good writer must be able to feel her characters intimately and still keep them at enough distance to allow bad things to happen to them. I have to say, I think you’re a genius at this, since the residents of Three Pines can be both appealing and appalling, sometimes within a few pages’ span.
Louise: Yes, isn’t Kate amazing. Quite formidable too. Scares me to death. So there’s no way I’d ever dream of disagreeing with her. And actually, I don’t. I think this goes to something you and I’ve discussed over lunch, and that’s pouring our own experiences into our characters - so that they have a rich and sometimes unpleasant interior life. As I mentioned before, I know that the more screwed up I am, the more in touch with my interior life I am, the more I’m able to admit that I’m sometimes petty and jealous, lonely and hateful - as well as joyous and grateful and loving....well, then I can give those qualities to my characters. This bodes well for the future since I expect to become even more screwed up. Though, as you know, Julia, many readers have been very upset with where I’ve taken some of the characters - one in particular. I was amazed by their anger. And, frankly, their lack of trust.
Julia: We’ll tip-toe around this part too, to avoid spoilers...
Louise: I’d hoped after five books they’d appreciate that no one adores my characters more than I do, and if I do something dreadful to one of them it wasn’t done on a whim. But I guess that shows how much people care for the characters.
Julia: That’s it exactly. I think if you do it right, if you do it well, characters take on a life independent from us, their creators, and independent, in a way, from the books themselves. They come to exist in the minds and imaginations of readers, who want them never to come to grief. But our job is different than a reader’s job. Ours is to watch what the characters do and report it faithfully back.
Louise: Do you worry at all about what the readers will think?
Julia: I don’t consider it when I’m writing. Readers would be more than justified to scream if I broke their genre expectations--if the murders turned out to be committed by a nest of redneck, upstate New York vampires, for instance. But if a young man everyone likes had to die, well, that’s just because he had to die. It makes me sad, too, but that’s no reason to alter his fate.
The big question with any series--and especially a small-town series--is how to keep it fresh. What techniques have you used? What do you have in mind in coming books to change things up?
Louise: Besides the vampire sub-plot?
Actually, I’ve found that moving the location away from Three Pines every second book is not only helpful, but necessary. The next one, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, is set in Three Pines and the one I’m just about to begin writing (which after much thought I’ve decided to call Book 8) is set in a remote monastery. (Had to learn how to spell monastery - kept spelling it monestary). I also set each of the first four books in a different season, so that was fun - to bring the seasons alive.
Julia: I do that, too! I love to circle around the seasons. It adds so much to the sense of place (which we both agree is vital.)
And finally (you can’t imagine how much pleasure I get from asking this question) your novels consistently land on “book of the year” lists, you’ve won almost every mystery award out there, and there are rumors the Agatha is going to be renamed the Penny. How has all this public adulation affected you?
Louise: People might not realize that I simply make-up literary awards, and present them to myself. For instance, I have only just now won the Julia Award! Thank you.
Actually, I should be giving you the Louise Award, for outstanding contribution to not only my career, but the careers of so many mystery writers! My career started taking off after you endorsed the first book, introduced me around, and really opened doors. I owe you a great deal!!! And have had the amazing pleasure of reading your latest - ONE WAS A SOLDIER. OMG!!!! Your fans are going to go crazy!!! They’ve had to wait for it, but I can absolutely guarantee them it will be so worth it.
Buy the book!!Julia: Thank you, dear. Your five spot will be in the mail tomorrow.
Louise: Getting to write is a dream. Getting to write and be published still astonishes me. And then to find that people, some of whom are even sober, like the books just blows me away. Not a day goes by I don’t count my blessings. And am very aware of my good luck. One day all this will go away, and someone else will take my place in the sun - and when that happens I want to step aside with good humor, having been aware of each and every golden moment. I don’t take this, or the readers, for granted. But, having said that, I don’t think there is a writer who is more generous to readers and other writers than you - as this interview shows. How wonderful to have Julia Spencer-Fleming as a friend.
Louise has the rare ability to strike me speechless. I can only reply by meeting her generosity: I have four Advance Reader Copies of One Was A Soldier and two copies of Bury Your Dead to give away. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.