Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Kate Flora

Today, Jungle Red is delighted to welcome writing veteran, recovering attorney, and New England mystery scene regular, Kate Flora. Welcome Kate!

ROBERTA: Let's start with the newest book, The Angel of Knowlton Park, which garnered a starred review from Library Journal in September. Tell us about Joe Burgess in this latest adventure. How do you get the police procedure right? And what about writing in a male voice?

KATE: I'm going to start with the last part of that first—writing in a male voice. My initial interest in writing police procedurals arose from all the time I was spending with cops asking questions for my Thea Kozak series, trying to get things right. Thea's significant other, Andre, is a cop, and I wanted to make him credible. Along the way, I took a police self-defense course, a citizen's police academy, and did a lot of ride alongs. And decided I wanted to see if I could write a police procedural.

Writing a 30-something strong female character came naturally; writing a 50-something male cop with a dark soul was something else. But I believe in challenges; I believe that it is through writing what is hard or what seems impossible that we become better writers, so I created Joe Burgess. To create good male characters, I have to do a lot of listening. I also have to keep querying what I've written to decide if it is credibly male. And then my readers also get a chance to comment, and I've got a cop among my readers.

Then after I sweated blood and bullets (and shot a few bullets) to get it right, I couldn't sell the book. When Five Star took Playing God, the first Joe Burgess, I was elated that readers would finally get a chance to meet Joe B. And I was rewarded with starred PW and Library Journal reviews. This year, Library Journal said, of The Angel of Knowlton Park, "Flora excels at portraying the police as real people with strengths and weaknesses who unite to bring some measure of justice to the dead and living alike. Flora's thought-provoking second police procedural marks her as one of the best in the genre."

I keep thinking I should print that out and stick it on the wall over my desk. Now I'm in chapter 28 of the next Joe Burgess, Redemption, and boy do I feel the pressure to get it right.

A cop once wrote and told me he was reading The Angel and having a hard time remembering that it wasn't real. That's a compliment.

ROBERTA: You had quite an adventure getting Stalking Death published (the seventh in the Thea Kozak series.) Tell us about what you learned.

KATE: Well, I learned a lot of things, actually. After my New York editor sat on the book for a year before dropping the series, I was so discouraged that I briefly considered giving up this crazy writing business. It was a deeply painful time. Obviously, I learned that you can never rest on your laurels, and even when you think, in the words of Bull Durham, that you've gone to the show, you can be out on your ass tomorrow. I also learned that the determination and resilience I developed during my eight years in the unpublished writer's corner were going to be useful again. I strengthened my conviction that no one but me gets to decide I'm a writer. Indeed, as Thea Kozak likes to say, if suffering strengthens your character, than I'm a moral colossus.

The most important thing I learned is that if you've got nothing to lose you can take chances. That led me to writing Finding Amy, my Edgar-nominated true crime and to Level Best Books, the short story publishing project. And I'm ever so grateful to Jim Huang of The Mystery Company for believing in the book.

Stalking Death, by the way, was my 10th published book, and I celebrated with The Journey of a Thousand Books on my website at, collecting pictures of people all around the country reading my book. It's been great fun and pictures are still arriving. And the good news is that the book is practically sold out!

ROBERTA: And speaking of the short story book, tell us about Level Best, how it came to be and why.

KATE: Wish I could claim the credit, as it's a wonderful project. The impetus came from sister writer Susan Oleksiw, founder of The Larcom Review and the Larcom Press. Susan and I had always wanted to do a crime story collection as a "snapshot" of the New England writer's mind. When she decided to move ahead with the project, she invited me to be an editor. We put out a call for stories, chose the ones we wanted to publish, and then the press that was going to publish the collection folded. Susan and I and Skye Alexander were so committed to the project we went ahead and found a printer and became publishers as well as editors. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but here we are celebrating the publication of our sixth anthology, Deadfall.

It's a tremendous amount of work and we don't make any money, but giving back to the mystery community and creating publication opportunities for short story writers is very rewarding. And last year, when one of our first time writers won the Robert L. Fish Award for best crime story by a new writer, and was nominated for an Edgar, it seemed very worthwhile indeed.

ROBERTA: As some of you know, Kate served as president of Sisters in Crime, both in New England and nationally, well before I took that role. How do you feel about the progress women have made--or not made--in the publishing business?

KATE: At the risk of sounding like a feminist—a term that sometimes seems to be becoming a dirty word—I think we've made a lot of progress but that we can never relax and assume things have changed. When the male voice is the dominant paradigm, and when the default mode will always be to favor men's work over women's, we can't assume the battle is won. When Sisters in Crime was started, women probably published 30% of the mysteries, and publishers didn't even bother to send out review copies of women's mysteries because they thought only women would read them and they'd buy them with their "pin money." Today, some of the biggest names in mystery are women. But Roberta, as you know, there are still disparities in that women's books are more likely to be published in paperback, and it is hardcover books that get reviews and are bought by libraries, and there are still many venues that don't review men's and women's books equally.

So yes, we've made progress. There is still some ground to be covered. On the other hand, being a part of Sisters in Crime has always been a wonderful thing to me. There is always someone available to answer a question. Our experienced writers show our new writers the ropes. In New England, we've got a fabulous speakers bureau with a whole slate of programs. And doing events together with other writers, I always leave inspired by their ideas and their process. And there are always others to celebrate triumphs with or to offer the consolation that's often necessary in this brutal business.

Thank you for coming by today Kate! Doesn't it look like she's having fun? Now the floor is open for comments and questions...And read more about Kate and her adventures at her website.


  1. Welcome to JRW...

    Kate, we were in a class together (or maybe it was in a writing group?) a good many years ago and I remember you bringing a Joe Burgess chapter in for critique. I remember it was riveting. Really good writing. Maybe even a little sex?

    You're an inspiration for following that oft repeated advice: keep writing, don't give up, believe in yourself. And, of course, revise revise revise.

  2. Thanks, Hallie...As I recall, back in those days we were both in Art Edelstein's class. I remember giving you a piece of advice you probably didn't like, but I still think it's true: Even if what you're writing really happened, and you're describing it the way it happened, if it doesn't work for a reader, it still needs to be rewritten.

    When I teach about this point, I always send students to read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, where he talks about the difference between what happened and how you tell the story.

    Hey, I knew you when...and now you're one of my favorite writers and high on the list of people I admire for persistence, for being resolute and believing in yourself, and always putting in the hard work to become a better and better writer.

    I can't wait for your new book!


  3. I want to join the mutual admiration society! Hooray for new books from Kate and Hallie! As a new writer with a first book, I truly thought the hard part was over. Not. If we keep working at it, our work does get better. And we figure out how to ride out the lows and enjoy the highs in this nutty business...

  4. Kate, the day we first met, (if I remember correctly and these days who knows) was at Kate's Mystery Books, and I was all googly and new and overwhelmed to be meeting the famous you.

    I was really happy about something, and couldn't have known it was during the time you were trying to figure out what to do.

    So you said something like--"Well, enjoy it now, because you never know when it's all going to go away."

    Which wise advice I took to heart.

    But I wish I had said to you--well, don't be UNhappy now, because you never know when it's all going to come back.

  5. I've been lucky enough to have appeared with Kate at a couple of library events and book signings. One thing about Kate that stands out is her dedication to her story and to getting the details right. She is one writer who really does her homework and it shows on the page.

  6. Oh Lee, it's so nice to see you here--you must be feeling better!

  7. Can I hijack this blog to plug Kate's extra posts on Writers Plot? On Saturday, she talks about Luci Zahray, otherwise known as the Poison Lady. Next Saturday, Kate interviews Luci. So check out Kate's posts:

    (Oh, and catch Kate's posts every Wednesday. Same blog--same URL.)

  8. Oh, Lorraine! Welcome. And we love Writers Plot.

    Lucy was so amazing at Crime Bake. And it's so much fun now to go around talking about the LD-50 of a poison..the amount that is fatal in fifty per cent of the people.

    One of my favorite Lucy-isms at Crime Bake was when somene asked her what was the best poison to use on a poison dart.

    Lucy paused, thoughtfully, and replied--how long do you want it to take? Three seconds? Three minutes? Three days? Thirty years?

    I mean, who else would know that?

    And where else but Crime Bake could you ask such a question?

  9. I want to know why Kate wasn't asked the usual guest-blogger questions about chocolate and takeout and so on, as well as having to state the four (five?) experiences, one of which didn't happen! ;^)

  10. Hey, Edith's right. Come, Kate, fess up -- or fiction up.

  11. oops sorry, my bad. Kate, chocolate or take-out???

  12. ANd hey, arent getting away that easily--


    Tell us four things aobut yourself.
    Only one can be true!
    We'll guess which one it is.

    (And hey--Did Jeri really bury the Barbies?)