Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sandra Parshall with Broken Places

ROBERTA: Today JRW is delighted to host Sandra Parshall, who has just released her third mystery in the Rachel Goddard series, BROKEN PLACES (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010.) You will know Sandy if you are a member of either Sisters in Crime or SinC’s Guppy chapter for unpublished writers—she seems to be always online with helpful information, funny stories, and pictures of her feline muses. (Gabriel on the right, and Emma below. Are they not gorgeous creatures?) Today she’s agreed to answer questions no one ever asks. Welcome Sandy!

Let’s start with a question about your series. Why are your heroine, veterinarian Rachel Goddard, and your hero, Deputy Tom Bridger, so nice? Why don’t you write about a kick-ass woman with a wisecrack for every situation? And a cop who drinks too much and can’t keep his temper under control?

SANDY: I tire of brittle, angry characters very quickly. I have more options—more directions to take a story—with lead characters who are relatively normal (in spite of some serious problems in their backgrounds), warm and compassionate, with a strong sense of duty. Rachel is still capable of getting into some crazy trouble and doing things she shouldn’t, and Tom occasionally loses it when somebody crosses a line, but I hope readers will like them and be on their side.

ROBERTA: So you write what you know?

SANDY: Why would I want to? How boring! It’s more fun to write about experiences that I’ll never have. Both Rachel and Tom are bolder and braver than I am, so I can live vicariously through them. If I wrote about what I know—well, it would be a short, dull book, heavy on cat care tips.

ROBERTA: Point taken, that sounds a lot like my life too. Three years ago your novel, THE HEAT OF THE MOON, won the Agatha for best first mystery. How much do awards matter? Do you think readers are impressed by your Agatha?

SANDY: I wish they were! I learned pretty quickly that average readers (I’m not talking about DorothyL mystery fanatics) have never heard of the Agatha Awards—or the Anthonys, or the Leftys, for that matter. Most people who live in the DC area have never heard of Malice Domestic and have no idea that a major mystery conference is held here every year. (They won’t learn about it from the Washington press, which steadfastly ignores Malice.) Some mystery readers have a vague impression that the Edgar Award is a big deal. One bookstore customer looked at the “Agatha Award Winner” sticker on The Heat of the Moon and asked me, “Is the Agatha Award for women’s books, like the Edgar Award is for men’s?”

ROBERTA: Is there anything you’d like to see changed in the process of giving awards?

SANDY: I’ve concluded that the fairest awards are those given by judges who read everything published in the different categories. Having been a judge, I know what a deep sense of responsibility comes with the honor of serving on an awards committee. You have to set aside personal connections. As a judge, I have looked for exceptional writing with power and grace, vivid and unforgettable characters, a story that is fresh and will stay in my mind after I finish the book. Believe me, when you read all the eligible novels, one after another, the best books stand out. And they’re not always the most famous books.

By the way, every year I hear complaints that traditional mysteries don’t stand a chance of winning juried awards like the Edgars, but that’s not true. A number of traditional mysteries have been nominated for, and won, Edgar Awards.

For the fan awards given at conferences like the Agatha and the Lefty, I would like to see nominations made only by fans, committees of readers who agree to read everything that’s been published in the categories they’re judging. The resulting nominations could then be voted on by all who attend the conferences, including the writers.

ROBERTA: Let’s hope the conferences take your suggestion—I think it’s a good one! What question do you wish people would stop asking you?

SANDY: That’s easy: “When are you going to move up to a bigger publisher?” I can’t count the number of times people have said that to me. I guess those who ask the question intend it as a compliment, but it’s insulting to both me and to Poisoned Pen Press, one of the most respected publishers in the country. I don’t write cozies and I don’t write blockbuster thrillers, and I’m positive that if I had started with a New York publisher I would have been dropped long ago for failing to “break out” with huge sales. That’s a rat race I could never win.

ROBERTA: If you could be anything you wanted to be, other than a writer, what would you be?

SANDY: I would work in animal studies and conservation of endangered species, someone like Dr. Jane Goodall. She has the life I wish I had. Dr. Jane has made enormous contributions to our understanding of other species, and she continues to fight for protection of wildlife and preservation of irreplaceable natural resources. She does more for the world in one day than most of us will in our entire lives. I hope there’s something of Dr. Jane’s spirit, on a small scale, in my character Rachel.

ROBERTA: Thanks to Sandy for visiting today—she is standing by to take your comments and questions! And visit her website to read more about Broken Places.


  1. Thanks for inviting me, Roberta. (I wish I could persuade my publisher to use our cats' pictures instead of mine on book jackets! But then readers might expect them to show up at signings and be dreadfully disappointed to get only me.)

  2. I'm looking forward to reading your book, Sandy!

  3. Hey Sandy! Thanks so much for being here! And your cats are gorgeous, indeed. I'm not sure a book on cat care tips would be all that bad...and in that case, the kitties' pictures COULD be on the cover.

    Congratulations on the great review in Mystery Scene! It says the title Broken Places comes from..Hemingway?

  4. Hank, I'm delighted with the Mystery Scene review, but I think it was the Crimespree review that mentioned Hemingway -- yes, he's the source of the title.

    The review of DRIVE TIME in Mystery Scene wasn't too shabby either. I seem to recall that the word "genius" was used at one point...

  5. Hi Sandy,
    welcome to Jungle Red. I like your take on "brittle characters" It sounds like you've created characters a reader really wants to spend time with.

    Best of luck with your new book!

  6. Congratulations on the book, Sandy! Interesting ruminations about awards and publishers. It does seem like the more I know the more clueless I become.

  7. If you're clueless Hallie, we're all in trouble!

    Sandy, tell us a little about the experience of being a Poisoned Pen author?

  8. Yes, Sandra, I'd love to know more about PPP too--I hear so many wonderful things!

    And talk about your covers!

    And one more question..what's something you wish you had known at the beginning?

    (Oh, and thank you, yes, the review of DRIVE TIME in Mystery Scene may be the best review I've EVER seen!)

  9. Roberta, Poisoned Pen Press has been very good to me. Barbara Peters publishes the books she loves, without regard for what NY publishers are doing. I wouldn't have a writing career without her! NY editors have made it pretty clear they don't see much commercial potential in my writing (despite the starred reviews...).

    The story of the Broken Places cover is a good example of how PPP staff work with authors. I didn't like the first cover -- a tree shrouded in spooky fog -- not because it was ugly (it's beautiful) but because I thought it was too similar to the cover of The Heat of the Moon. I didn't like the second proposed cover, and neither did anyone at PPP. They kept going until artist Patrick Cheung delivered the gorgeous and haunting cover that went to press. They took my objections seriously. They didn't shut me out and tell me the cover design was their decision, not mine. They are always responsive to the concerns of their authors.

    That said, the original cover design may haunt me forever -- it's still showing up in various places on the internet! I feel like taking an ax to that bloody tree.

    The drawbacks are the same with any small press -- books won't be stocked by every Borders or B&N, so people will always be asking, "Why couldn't I find your book in my local bookstore?" But independent mystery bookstores all carry PPP titles, they can be ordered online, and even Borders & B&N will get them for you if you ask. (And just by asking, you might prompt them to keep a copy or two in stock.) The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, owned and run by Barbara Peters, has autographed copies of Broken Places.

    By the way, you may think that all smaller presses have tiny press runs compared to all big publishers, but that's not invariably true. St. Martin's routinely does press runs of 5,000 or less for new or lesser-known writers, according to an article in PW. I have friends whose books with St. Martin's had press runs of 4,000 and 4,500. I've had bigger press runs than that with PPP, and I'm sure others have too.

  10. Hank asked: And one more question..what's something you wish you had known at the beginning?

    Ha! You want the short version, or do you have all day?

    I spent so many years trying to get published that when it actually happened, I was stunned. I had focused exclusively on getting there, not on what I would do if I did. I had a lot to learn about the publishing business, about reviews, about promotion. I had no idea promotion would be so exhausting and time-consuming. I made a lot of mistakes. But I made a lot of friends, too, and people like Donna Andrews and Marcia Talley (both in my SinC chapter) were sources of good advice.

    The most valuable thing I've learned: I'm still the same person I was before. Being a published writer hasn't magically transformed me or my life. I'm just as dull as ever! And still more comfortable with animals than with people. :-)

  11. It just occurred to me that I'm competing against myself today, because it's my blog day on Poe's Deadly Daughters. I'm reminiscing about sniglets and Rich Hall, and recalling some of my favorite sniglets. Don't know what a sniglet is? You must be very young! I'll enlighten you.