The Best First Agatha nominee agreed to talk with us about librarianship, writing what you know, and feline birthday parties.
JULIA: What was your path to publication? Did you work your way through small presses? Land a deal with a major press? Win a contest? Everyone has a different story to tell.
AMANDA: I sold my first book, Maid of Murder, to Five Star, which is a small press within the larger publisher Gale/Cengage Learning, without a literary agent. Since then, I have signed with an agent and am so grateful to have her on my side. She makes my life so much easier.
As a young writer I sent Maid of Murder out to agents before it was ready and was rejected countless times. I stopped submitting the novel, joined a critique group, and revised it over and over again. When I felt the book was finally ready, I decided to submit it to mystery publishers that didn’t require an agent because I had already been rejected by every agent I knew who represented cozy mysteries. One of those publishers was Five Star.
However, Five Star rejected me, and I took it as a sign to let the book go. I saved the manuscript on my computer and decided to move on to a new book, hoping I could sell my first manuscript after I published something else. Almost exactly one year later, I got an email out of the blue from a new acquisitions editor at Five Star. She said she found my manuscript and wondered if it was still available. I said it was, and a month or so later, she bought it. It’s my literary miracle.
JULIA: "Write what you know" is the oldest piece of advice around. Is your mystery based on your own interests/vocation/experiences?
AMANDA: The following might answer your question…
I am a vegetarian academic librarian at a small college in Northeastern Ohio whose mother is a Presbyterian minister. India is a vegetarian academic librarian at a small college in Northeastern Ohio whose mother is a Presbyterian minister.
But seriously, India and I are not identical twins. I only took some of the pieces of my real life that were quirky, fun, and added to the story. India actually is a much calmer person than I am and takes a lot in stride. I’m not like that, but I wish I were. I think her temperament is a mix of my closest friends’ temperaments. Like India, they could handle a murder investigation. Could I handle one? I don’t think so.
JULIA: Tell us a bit about your background in library sciences. My oldest daughter, in college, maintains she is going to become a librarian. I have learned to take her seriously. Any suggestions?
AMANDA: Some people laugh when I tell them that I wanted to be a librarian at a very young age. I grew up in libraries and have been working in one library or another since I was sixteen years old. After I graduated from college, I went directly to library school and have never regretted my decision. I love being a librarian. I love helping patrons find exactly what they are looking for.
I would tell anyone who wants to be a librarian that it’s much more than books. Many of today’s librarians are extremely tech savvy. They have to be to keep up the increase in the demand for electronic resources. My advice would to take all the tech-related and desktop publishing courses you can in library school. Even if you think you won’t need them, you will. I avoided them like the plague when I was a student because I was convinced I was going to be a reference librarian at a public library. Instead I am college library department head in charge of the library’s network. Trust me; I have had a trial-by-fire education to learn how to manage a library server.
More important than tech savvy, the best attribute any librarian can have is a willingness to help. Librarians are very helpful folks.
JULIA: How much thought and planning did you put into Maid as the first in a series? (I only discovered the term "story arc" after I was told my book would actually be published.)
AMANDA: I always knew that Maid of Murder would be the first in a series because I’m a huge fan of series fiction. I love reading a series from beginning to end, and I’m one those readers who must read books in order. This drives my family crazy because they buy me books and I ask, “Is it the first one?” They usually don’t know because they are a little more relaxed in their reading habits. Thankfully being a librarian, I can find all the books in a series even if they are out of print so that I can read them in order.
One theme that will run throughout my India Hayes Series is India’s relationship with her brother Mark. They have a complicated relationship to be sure. From my observations of siblings and my own experience of being a sister myself, I think most sibling relationships are complicated.
JULIA: What's your writing process? Outline or organic?
AMANDA: It’s a little bit of both. When I start a new book, I usually have a vague idea what is going to happen and will start writing immediately because tone and voice are important to me as an author. I like to hear the main character and find out who she is before I throw her into the middle of a murder investigation. When I feel I know my protagonist well enough, I will write a synopsis for the entire book. I follow the synopsis for the most part, then make any changes to it that may have a occurred during the writing process when the book is complete.
JULIA: Having your debut mystery nominated for an Agatha is an amazing experience. There were only about 15 gazillion mysteries published last year. What did you do when you found out?
AMANDA: I was absolutely shocked when I got the call that I was nominated, especially considering my book was from a small press. When the committee member called, I’m afraid I may have squealed into her ear with delight. I’d like to take a moment to apologize to Marian for any damage I may have caused to her hearing. I do remember saying, “holy cow” a lot.
I’m still in a state of happy shock by the nomination. All most aspiring writers want is to be published. Anything beyond that is a surreal gift; it certainly is for me. Thank you to all the Malice attendees who nominated my book! You are all wonderful!
JULIA: I really enjoyed your characters, especially India's parents, and even minor characters are quite memorable. Do you base your characters on real acquaintances? And do you own a cat in real life?
AMANDA: I do base some of my characters on real people, and many of those people know who they are. However, most of my characters are a mix of people I know, have seen, and made up.
Yes, I do have a cat, two in fact. I’m an animal lover. I tried to write a book once with no animal characters, and it was a disaster. For me the animal characters make the people characters seem more real. One of my cats, Puddleglum, is a Maine Coon and is suspiciously similar to Theodore in the novel. He’s much older than Theo though. He’ll be having his Sweet Sixteen on May 4th and is expecting a tuna cake to celebrate.
JULIA: Being a librarian in real life, a profession near and dear to my heart (like so many writers, I grew up in a library), how do you see the profession evolving over the past ten years, and the next ten?
AMANDA: The main trend is electronic, electronic, electronic. It’s been the trend for the last ten years, and I don’t see it stopping in the foreseeable future. In a college library like mine, students want to have seamless, wireless, and instantaneous information. Not that I blame then, I want all those things too. Just to give you an idea, I work for a very small college (under 2,500 students), and we have 80,000 some print books and 60,000 some ebooks. One of my jobs is the ebook collection. I add on average 900 ebooks a month while typically we only add 2,000 print books per year. You can see where this is going. In the near future we will have more ebooks than print.
Before anyone panics remember that I work at a college library, so we aren’t buying novels a patron will want to curl up on the couch with. Most of our collection is research and academic program related. However, my library does have a copy of my book.
JULIA: What's next? What are you working on?
AMANDA: My second India Hayes Mystery, Murder in a Basket, will be released early 2012. In this second book, India is working at a face painting booth at an arts and crafts festival and stumbles across the dead body of a basket weaver. To her horror, she learns that the basket weaver is her provost’s sister.
In addition to this series, I am working on a few other projects at the advice of my agent. It’s an exciting time in my writing and much of the excitement is due to the Agatha nomination. The nomination has truly changed the course of my career. I could never thank Malice Domestic and the Readers enough for nominating me. Readers make authors dreams come true everyday!
JULIA: Do you blog? Enjoy social media? Where can we visit you?
AMANDA: Readers can visit me online at http://www.amandaflower.com/. They can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, The Little Blog of Murder, and Clash of the Titles.
Thank you, Amanda! JRW readers, you can download and read the first chapter of Maid of Murder at Amanda's website. After you do that, come back here and share your worst wedding experience ever. Hey! Maybe you can recycle that bridesmaid's dress and wear it to the Agatha Awards banquet at Malice!