Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gillian Roberts...she writes and teaches, but does she play the accordian?

Welcome to Gillian Roberta, this week's JRW guest. She's a fabulous writer, teacher, and simply one of the nicest people in the biz.

JRW: When you wrote the first Amanda Pepper novel, and then won the Anthony for best first mystery, did you have any idea how long that series would run and what you were getting yourself into?

GR: Writing the first Amanda Pepper was like being in a Mickey Rooney movie. While reading Winnie the Pooh to my sons, I stumbled across a fact I hadn’t known (Winnie’s actual name.) That could be a clue, I thought (having been reading mysteries for the very first time in my life) so hey—let’s write a mystery.

You don’t see anything about planning here, right? Or about realizing there were such things as series and one should ponder them. Or knowing that back then, in the dark ages (1980) humor in the mystery was verboten.

I finished the book in ’80 or ’81, and nobody bought it. I then wrote (and sold) three non-mysteries at which point (1985, perhaps?) somebody told me the market had changed, and I dragged out the unsold Caught Dead in Philadelphia and the first publisher (Scribner’s) who saw it bought it.

My agent called and said that they were assuming that it was the start of a series. What would you say given that phone call?

Had I but known, I wouldn’t have had the romance with C. K. Mackenzie blossom. Poor guy, I probably would have had to kill him off so she could have a wider sphere of bad situations. And I would have given Amanda some special skills aside from a smart mouth and a good working knowledge of literature and grammar.

But how could I have known? Let’s be honest: the idea of a crime-fighting English teacher is ludicrous. And you’d have to think that a teacher involved in fourteen separate murders was either a serial killer herself—or she’d be in a locked ward somewhere.

JRW: Amanda Pepper is the high school teacher we all wish we (or our children) had had. So where did she come from, and did you ever teach high school?

GR: I did indeed teach English, but of course Amanda is much smarter and quicker and taller and thinner than I. And I confess—I never have stumbled upon or had to deal with a murder, although now and then, teaching teens gave me murderous thoughts… But I am one of the odd people who truly like the strange, vulnerable weirdness of teens, so I have fond memories of teaching.

It should be said, however, that virtual teaching via Amanda is infinitely easier than the real thing. And it can be said that while Amanda is not autobiographical (although we are alike emotionally, and I have used some moments of actual teaching) the horrible administrator and school secretary are non-fiction.

JRW: Your latest series novel is All's Well that Ends Well. Is this THE END of the series?

GR: All’s Well That Ends is probably the end of the series, but everyone involved is alive and well, though no longer living in Philadelphia, so who knows? It just seemed time to give poor Amanda a break from murder before she had full-blown PTSD.

JRW: What are you working on now, and are you having fun with it?

GR: I wanted a writing challenge. Something different. So here I am, surrounded by books on Colonial Mexico, and thousands (literally) of pages of notes, all hard won because there isn’t a whole lot of (interesting) material about the period. I’m aiming for a historical mystery set in 1650 Mexico, the year after the biggest auto da fe the Inquisition had there.

So far, it has not been the most fun ever because…it’s challenging! (I forgot the small print: I wanted an easy challenge!) There’s almost no data on the texture of daily life, on what they wore and ate and slept in etc. etc. (If you compare it to the libraries full of books about England at the time, and if you’re me, you weep.) So I write a bit, trip over something that requires more research before I can make a plot work, (how would they get from one place to another? Were there taverns? Inns?) try to do more research, pick interesting, possibly usable facts out of reams of dry material, fumble some more…

Yesterday’s ridiculous stumbling block was: were the walls of their homes painted? How do you make paint? Where would their paint have come from? What’s the history of paint? What colors did they have? (If anybody knows—help!)

You see how my days are going. And of course, all of this is an effort to ultimately write a book in which you are unaware of any of this research—you just love the characters, feel as if you’re living back then, and find the whole shebang interesting and believable.

JRW: You've taught writing, and I love your book on writing, You Can Write a Mystery, and your "lessons on writing" on your web site are brilliant. What's the one mistake that tips you off that a manuscript is written by an inexperienced writer?

GR: For want of a better word—klutzy opening. There are too many ways to be clumsy and awkward to list (just about all of which I’ve learned about the hard way, by doing them), but the biggie would be starting way before the actual problem presents itself, before the story starts so there is no tension and little reason to keep reading. There’s also opening with a dull character, a place and situation with no ‘attitude,’ clumsy, unbelievable dialogue, bad writing and clich├ęd characters and situations.

And now, the Jungle Red Writers Quiz:

Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple?
Definitely Miss Marple. She had street smarts (or perhaps in a village it’s Lane Smarts?)

Sex or Chocolate?
Sex! (Does anybody you invite back prefer violence???) Chocolate—but day before yesterday I had a pizza topped with figs, prosciutto and rosemary and that’s a close tie with chocolate.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?
Pierce Brosnan.

Katherine or Audrey Hepburn?
Audrey Hepburn. Love Katherine, but Audrey was truly stellar--from another universe altogether.

First person or third?
I actually enjoy both first and (close) third person, which are almost the same thing. The W.I.P. is multiple third, at least for now.

Prologue or no prologue?
I try to avoid prologues, but it isn’t a point of honor for me. I think that when they work, and need to be there, they’re great. Mostly, they don’t need to be there.

Making dinner or making reservations?
I love to cook (and now, so does my retired husband) and love trying out new recipes, and having friends over to share whatever results during a long, leisurely time together.

What were your Harry Potters?
The closest I came to a Harry Potter was the Andrew Lang Fairy Tale Books. I just googled him and looked at the table of contents of The Blue Fairy Tale Book. It includes Aladdin, Puss in Boots, Why the Sea is Salt, Cinderella, A Voyage to Lilliput—and on and on for 37 stories. And there were a dozen of these books—a treasure house of imagination and story-telling. I remember how sad it was to come to end of the series (the Lilac Fairy Tale Book, I think...)

Three true things about you and one lie; we'll guess which:
I’m a pastellist, mostly portraits.
I collect frogs.
I once appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.
Lisa Scottoline’s uncle urged me to become a professional accordionist.


  1. Hi Gillian, we're so glad to have you visiting! I taught at a writing retreat with Hallie and SW Hubbard this past weekend, and we had an argument that I'd like you to resolve:

    Can voice be taught? Or put another way (if you don't like that question,) what part of writing cannot be taught?

    thanks for coming to JRW!

  2. Hi Gillian,
    Welcome to Jungle Red! I feel like I've met a kindred soul -- I have that same strange affinity for teenagers. I was the only mom I knew who preferred the teen years to the toddler years. And I even fantasize about becoming a high school English teacher,so Amanda Pepper sounds like an intriguing character to me.

  3. Gillian,

    I am a huge fan of your books, and not just because I'm an English teacher. This was a great interview--thanks for sharing all the fun details about life, writing and teaching.

    And even though you would have killed off Amanda's romantic lead, I just loved their relationship. :)

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  5. Have loved your Amanda Pepper books. I will be anxiously awaiting the completion of your WIP; it sounds intriguing.

  6. Not sure why, but I believe that you collect frogs. Not live ones, of course.

    AndI HOPE that Lisa Scottoline’s uncle urged you to become a professional accordionist ... because that is just too ridiculous NOT to be true. They play the accordian a lot in Baltimore, behind those funny screens.

    I vote for: I once appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

  7. I remember reading Caught Dead and laughing until I had tears in my eyes and thinking, why can't other mysteries be this funny?

    If you want to talk historical research things like paint, Gillian, drop me an email.

  8. AH, you're my hero. Thank you for paving the way for funny mysteries..It's so interesting to think there was a time when they were taboo. (Now I'm trying to write a "funny thriller." Hmm.)

    How many of us wanted to be an English teacher, I wonder? I certainly did. Early on, I had a fantasy of teaching seniors in high school honors English, a roomful of bright young students, unearthing themes and falling in love with words.

    I'd still love to be an English teacher--but now my fantasy class is younger and not-so-genius. It's the introduction, now, to the world that seems fascinating.

    And although Charlie McNally, my main character, is NOT an english teacher--the current man in her life is!

    I'm off to find your how-to book, Gillian. It sounds wonderful. And thanks for coming to visit!

    Let's're too young to have been on Ed Sullivan--wait. Unless you were a child prodigy, playing the accordion?

  9. Hi Gillian,

    Haven't seen you since PWC a couple of years ago. Love all your books. Wish you the best with you WIP.

    Ah, lets see. I am torn bewteen art and frogs, and I think I go with the art. No reason why. just a hunch. I believe you played the accordian on Ed Sullivan. Hey, I was on Howdy Doody at age 6 and hubby remembers me there so how could I not believe that one.

  10. I don't think you collect frogs.

    Not sure why I went with that one,but... there 'tis.

  11. Great interview, Gillian, and welcome to the world of blogging!

    I can attest to your fine writing, teaching and cooking skills, having been the grateful recipient of all three of them. And I'm guessing (and hoping) that Ed Sullivan was the lie.

  12. Hi Gillian,
    Glad to see you climbing into the world of historical mysteries! As for your untruth, I'm going to be a contrarian and say that you're not a painter.

  13. Thank you all for letting me visit with you--and for your lovely comments! (Is it time for me to tell you which statement is the lie?)
    It's taken me a while to get back to y'all because I didn't have a Google account (or thought I didn't--found out I did, but by then I'd screwed it up) and today I have had a four month old otherwise perfect granddaughter stuck to me since early morning.
    Roberta, I've been thinking about your question since I saw it--and before then, too. The only thing I've come up with so far is that once you write and rewrite and refine and hone down till it sounds precisely as you want it (or as close as we can get)--what's left the page is your voice. I think it's like your handwriting--we can play around with that and perhaps shape it deliberately, but in the end, it is what it is for unknown reasons. So I think you can be taught the ideas that make writing communicate more easily and smoothly (craft)--and then you'll be moving toward your own distinct voice.
    And I'm not sure a thing I just said is even close to right!
    Elena--expect me to come virtually knocking very soon. You really know the history of paint??
    Arggh--the otherwise perfect very small person has rejected the idea of sleeping in the crib, so I'll stop now.
    Thanks again!

  14. Ooh, ooh, ooh: I have "You Can Write a Mystery"! Love it to death. :-D

    Maybe I should now go and run to earth all the rest of your books, Gillian. :-D Just bookmarked your website for reading over morning coffee.

    Absolutely wonderful interview. However it's a toss-up between Ed Sullivan and pastellist...

    I've just come back from a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We visited the Museum of Art there which has a large and colourful historical section in the basement. Lots of dioramas and artifacts from their tumultuous past, including Spanish armor, day to day things, etc. I'm sure if you contacted them, they could direct your research to the answers you need or answer them for you. Good luck,