Tuesday, June 9, 2009

cynthia riggs

Cynthia Riggs is a 13th generation Vineyarder -- that's Martha's Vineyard - the setting for her terrific mysteries. Cynthia also runs a charming B&B on the island, in West Tisbury, which I got to visit once when I was lucky enough to be invited to one of her summer writers group sessions. If you've never visited the Island in real life, here's your chance to visit in your imagination. Cynthia's 8th in the series, Death and Honesty, is just out from St. Martin's.

JAN: Victoria Trumbull, your 92-year old protagonist is described as "indomitable."
And I've read that she is modeled after your mother. Tell us the joys and challenges of having a "senior sleuth" dig up the dirt on Martha's Vineyard.

CYNTHIA: One of my aims in writing about a 92-year-old sleuth is to attack rampant ageism. It's as bad as sexism, maybe worse. After a certain age one is considered half-witted and is consistently called "dear." Even Malice Domestic, which should know better, lumps its senior sleuth writers on cutesy panels. Victoria Trumbull, modeled after my mother, who lived to be almost 99 (for credibility, I had to make Victoria much younger), has some physical frailties, but mentally she's all there. She's had years of experience to draw on. She's no longer afraid to say what she thinks.

JAN: How does Victoria get involved in solving so many murders?

CYNTHIA: The police chief has come to depend on her because Victoria is related to most of the people on the Island, knows who's not speaking to whom, knows where they live, which is useful on an Island that prides itself on few or no street signs, and knows where the bodies are buried.

JAN: I love the plot line of your new book, Death and Honesty - a corrupt assessors office skimming off the top of wealthy landowners taxes. (Especially since I used to pay real estate taxes in West Tisbury) Tell us how you came up with the idea and how you developed or researched it.

CYNTHIA: A friend of mine, a wealthy landowner, ran afoul of the town's assessors, who treated him shabbily. I promised him I'd get even. I changed him into a former hooker to hide his identity, and changed the three male assessors into three elderly and venal Harpies -- they're named for the three Harpies of Greek mythology. Whenever the Harpies appeared in mythology, there was a dreadful stench, so one of my assessors wears too much perfume.

JAN: The critics rave about your evocative descriptions of Martha's Vineyard. What are the advantages and limitations (if any) of the island setting.

CYNTHIA: I was born on the Vineyard and have deep roots here. So it was natural to use the Island for my setting. Because I'm writing fiction, I take some liberties with places, but for the most part a reader visiting the Vineyard can follow Victoria's trail. I use real places, like Bert's Barber Shop, where Victoria gets her hair cut. The real Bert's displays the Victoria Trumbull books in a prominant place on top of an ancient console radio. I'm careful to avoid insulting real people and places. Knowing a setting intimately makes it easy to write about it. I'm not apt to get roads and topography mixed up.

By the way, we capitalize the word "Island" when referring to Martha's Vineyard (see both Island newspapers). We do not capitalize the word when referring to Nantucket or Manhattan.

JAN: Living on the Island, are you ever worried about stepping on anyone's toes with your fiction - say the local assessor's office, or is everyone a good sport about it?

CYNTHIA: I've reached the stage where I'm not afraid of stepping on toes. I think the assessors, as a matter of principal, don't read my books. After a book comes out, three or four people will come up to me and ask shyly if it's possible I patterned so-and-so (a sympathetic character) after them. No one claims credit for my villains. However, a lot of readers claim to recognize most of my characters, even ones entirely made up.

JAN: You also run a B&B in your family home, The Cleaveland House. Tell us about your writing schedule and how you can get any writing done in the summer months.

CYNTHIA: My writing and the Cleaveland House B&B work together just beautifully. I cater to poets and writers, who understand when I tell them I'm going upstairs to write. (And they buy my books.) I have only three guest rooms, so it's easy for me to deal with bedmaking and laundry, and I serve a simple continental breakfast. I start writing at 10 am and continue until about 5 pm, taking time out to pick up the mail, make beds, weed the garden, and think of what comes next in the story. Some guests read my manuscripts for me and make suggestions. Some end up in the books. All my guests are interesting.


  1. Welcome, Cynthia. Thanks for visiting Jungle Red. I confess I haven't yet read any of your books but you and Jan have given me a wonderful taste of what they're like and I know some of them will be in my beach bag this summer.
    Two questions..so how have you successfully avoided the dreaded, and oft-mentioned Cabot Cove syndrome? And have you ever made your feelings known to conference organizers re ghetto-izing older sleuths?

  2. Welcome to Jungle Red, Cynthia! Having had the pleasure of being a guest at Cynthia's B&B I can attest...it's unique and delightful!

    I want to know where the plants/flowers came from? (Almost) all of your books have one in the title...starting with Deadly Nightshade and this newest one has a flower again--Death and Honesty.

  3. The flowers question will be answered in tomorrow's blog -- when I also foist the Jungle Red Quiz upon Cynthia!!

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  5. Hi Cynthia, it's so nice to have you here!

    I've visited C's B and B, and confirm that it's a gorgeous and unique spot. I'm very jealous! Do you have any plans for taking the series off the Island?

  6. Hi Rosemary, Hallie, and Roberta: I'm honestly not ignoring your questions. I've answered everything in detail several times over and have been trying all morning to get my answers to go through. If it doesn't work this time, I'm giving up, and will let Jan know.

    Rosemary: If only I had the problem of "Murder She Wrote"! I think viewers willingly suspended disbelief in the case of Cabot Cove and its unusual number of murders. I have a couple of advantages over the TV series. Martha's Vineyard is a lot bigger than Cabot Cove. The Island has has six very different towns in which to set the action, and a lot of places in between. A reader has has six to eight hours to get immersed in the book, while a viewer has only a half hour. I've always been impressed that the writers of "Murder She Wrote" were able to get as much depth and variety in the show as they did. The Victoria Trumbull series has three of four central characters who appear in almost every book. The seven or eight or more additional characters may appear only once.

    Yes, I did make my feelings known to the organizers of the Malice Domestic conference. I told them that my character's strength was not in her age, but in the way she was portrayed as a believable person in an interesting setting with a complex plot and some humor. Rather than appearing on a panel consisting of writers writing about ancient sleuths, I think many of us wanted to be recognized as writers who could make our stories compelling.

    Hallie: Thanks for asking about the flower and plant theme. I've got a long lineup of plant titles to come -- more tomorrow.

    Jan: You are being remarkably patient with my frustration about such questions as, "What the heck is a URL???"

    Roberta: I don't plan to take the Victoria Trumbull series off Island. There's enough material here to keep me going indefinitely. My agent asked where I got the absurd sense of humor, and I told her I go to the weekly selectmen's meetings. I have started a second series set on the Washington, DC, waterfront, wherre I lived for many years on a boat. Interesting neighborhood and one not many people know. However, I haven't had much interest (though I admit I haven't tried pushing the book as hard as I ought to).

    I hope this attempt gets through!

    Thanks to all.


  7. As I get older, I ralize how much that changes my perception of other people who I used to think were "older."

    I realize that how I feel inside has nothing to do with my chronological age. We're not looking at ourselves in the mirror when we're thinking--so inside, I feel the same as I did when I was younger outside. I do feel more calm. And I do feel smarter. (Except for that pesky remembering-names thing. But I could never do that.)

    Anyway. I can't wait to read your books. We plan on being on the Island this summer--so maybe expect a knock at your door!