Friday, April 15, 2011

Tales of the Teapot: Interview with Best First Agatha Nominee Laura Alden

It's our second interview of this year's Best First Agatha nominees, and today we're talking to Laura Alden. With the exception of a year in Connecticut, Laura Alden has been a life-long Michigan girl. She graduated from Eastern Michigan University in the 80’s with a BS in geology which, as happens with so many of us, has been completely useless is in all her post-collegiate jobs. She and her husband share their house with what she describes as “two very strange cats.” When Laura isn’t writing, she’s working at her day job, reading, singing in her church choir, or doing some variety of skiing. Laura’s debut novel, Murder at the PTA was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her second book, Foul Play at the PTA, will be released in July.

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.

Laura: Thanks so much for having me on JRW! If you can believe it, my publication opportunity came at a time when I was ready to give up writing. I’d been writing seriously for 10 years, had 6 unpublished novels sitting in the back of the closet, and was heartily sick of rejection after rejection after rejection. Maybe I really couldn’t write. Maybe I’d been wasting my time all those years. Maybe I should take up something less painful, like learning to swallow fire.

Then came the last straw. In January 2009, in the middle of querying Novel #6, I was laid off from my job. I stopped querying, stopped writing, stopped everything but hunting for work. That’s when Lorraine Bartlett nudged me about talking to her agent.

Well, what the heck, I figured. If someone’s looking for a writer to write a series, why not me?

Six months later, I had a signed contract for three books. Six months after that, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful new job. Six months after that, Murder at the PTA was published, and now I’m an Agatha nominee. And to think I was almost ready to quit writing altogether. It’s a weird, weird world.

Julia: "Write what you know" is the oldest piece of advice around. Is your mystery based on your own interests/vocation/experiences?

LAURA: Well, um…not exactly. I’m writing about a divorced mother of two who runs a children’s bookstore in Wisconsin and is the secretary of the local PTA. Not only have I never lived in Wisconsin, but I don’t have children and have never set foot in a PTA meeting. (Don’t tell, okay?)

But I’ve lived most of my life in the Great Lakes region, research is one of the joys of writing, and the emotions people feel are universal, so with any luck my PTA inexperience isn’t blatantly obvious.

Julia: Tell us a bit about your background. Blueberries? In Michigan? Who knew. High bush or low bush? Maine is the Saudi Arabia of blueberries. But I digress.

LAURA: In the part of Michigan where I grew up, the prime agricultural products were blueberries and Christmas trees. (Something about acidic soil, if I recall correctly.) Back in the day, kids could work in the fields picking berries at age 12, so the summer I turned 12, off I was sent.

The main thing I learned from those summers was that sitting in a classroom isn’t so bad compared to standing under the blazing hot sun for eight hours in a sandy field that reflected that sun back up onto your tender skin.

Mostly high bush, by the way :)

Julia: How much thought and planning did you put into Murder at the P.T.A as the first in a series? (I only discovered the term "story arc" after I was told my book would actually be published.)

LAURA: Really? And your books have such wonderful arcs! I do have a few bits and pieces in my head about how I’d like the major characters to evolve, and where some of the relationships are going. But it’s only in my head, and I tend to forget things that aren’t written down, so who knows what will really happen?

Julia: What's your writing process? Outline or organic?

LAURA: Talk about a moving target! My first manuscript (which fortunately never saw the light of day) was heavily outlined. When I wrote the thing out, it felt redundant. I’d already done this once, hadn’t I?

From there I devolved to no outline whatsoever. I enjoy not having an outline ­ where are we going today, kids?! ­ but that method can make for a lot of rewriting. These days I hand in a synopsis to my editor before I start. I mostly stick to the synopsis as I write, and now that I have deadlines hanging over my head, I’ve grown to depend on knowing what comes next.

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?

LAURA: My husband says I shrieked as soon as I got off the phone and that I was giddy all weekend, but what I mostly remember is that I immediately started worrying about what to wear to the banquet. Just goes to show what a shallow person I truly am, I suppose.

Julia: What decided you on a book set largely in and around an elementary school? I know, as the mother of three, the youngest of whom is a 5th grader, I'd pick it up just to see what YOUR school is like!

LAURA: The bares bones of Murder at the PTA was given to me by my editor, so going in I knew that an elementary school played a large role in the book. In my head it’s an amalgam of my school days (Go, Peach Plains!), all the elementary schools in all the places I’ve ever lived, and all the elementary schools I’ve ever read about, driven past, or seen pictures of. Plus, I made up a bunch of it :)

Julia: So tell me, is Sinii a Russian Blue (could be a long lost sister to my own Anastasia....)? A lovely feline, and a terrific shot on your website. Are you a photographer?

LAURA: Sinii came to us through the local animal shelter and, though she’s Russian Blue-like, I’m told by someone who used to breed Russian Blues that though she’s cute, she’s not anywhere near purebred. Eyes are the wrong color, coat is wrong, etc.

And thanks for the compliment on my photo! I first started a website back in 2004, waaay before I was published, mainly as a way to show off pictures from my new digital camera. Since then the website has moved away from photography, but one of these days I’ll have time to get some pictures up there again.

I’ve dabbled in photography for years, but aside from taking the occasional photo for the local paper, I haven’t tried to sell any. So much for those childhood dreams of traveling the globe, working forNational Geographic :)

Julia: What's next? What are you working on?

LAURA: Book #2, Foul Play at the PTA, will be released on July 5. Book #3, so far cleverly titled Book #3, is in the first draft stages. After that’s published, who knows?

Julia: Do you blog? Enjoy social media? Where can we visit you?

LAURA: I change the text on my website’s home page ( every Wednesday. I started doing this back when I started the website as a way to keep myself writing on a regular basis and to get used to having my words read by strangers. My Wednesday posts range from lists (My Favorite Things, Top Ten Books I Read Last Year) to cat stories to stories about living in northern Michigan to whatever I happen to be thinking about at the time.

Plus, I hang out on Facebook more than I should. Usually when I can’t figure out how to make a scene do what I want it to do. (Bad Laura.) But I get a kick out of seeing what other people post, so I hope to see you there!

Thank you, Laura! JRW readers, just like the Sham-wow operators, Laura is standing by to answer your questions about the perseverance it take to become a published writer, about writing to editorial specifications...or about blueberries.


  1. Laura, so cool--what an inspiring story! I'm beyond excited for you. Win or lose, hope you enjoy every moment of Malice!

    Tell us about some of the great moments you've had since Murder at the PTA was published...

  2. Inspiring indeed! So many of us had moments when we were ready to throw in the towel. So glad you persevered.

    As a former teacher and still a mom, I love the idea of murder at the PTA. Though my local PTA is amazing in the work they do to support our schools.

    Do you have any plans to revisit any of those unpublished manuscripts? I wonder if they're as 'good' or as 'bad' as you remember them. My great unpublished works will molder for eternity.

  3. Laura, congratulations on your nomination, how incredibly exciting to get that kind of acknowledgment for your writing when you considered throwing in the towel not so long ago! I smiled at your description of picking blueberries in the summer, because my husband's family used to own a house on an old non-producing cherry orchard in a Lake Michigan resort town, where the ferries run between Michigan and Wisconsin. Although he left Michigan over a decade ago, he still has a keen taste for sour cherries, which don't have the same prevalence out here in the Pacific Northwest as they do in northern Michigan (I wonder if you've ever visited his hometown, Ludington?).

    I share your problem with excessive outlining--it often becomes hard to write any given scene if I know exactly everything that will happen in it already. Where's the fun in discovering something new about your characters if you've planned every last detail before you write it? I've switched to a less detailed form of note-taking, although I occasionally spend a lot of real estate in my notes page on fleshing out the underlying themes I'm trying to evoke in a particular scene. But that's not the same thing as dictating every movement of the characters in a step-by-step fashion.

    Have a wonderful time at the awards ceremony (best of luck on the Agatha!), and I'll be looking for your book on the shelves the next time I visit my local bookstore!

  4. Welcome...Laura and enjoy the weeks leading up to the Agathas - you've earned it!

  5. Thanks, everyone! Roberta, one of my favorite stories came from the 12 year-old granddaughter of one of my husband's co-workers. Her grandmother had bought one of my books and I signed it to the girl, who said she knew it was a real book because she'd seen it in the library :)

    Hallie, my first two manuscripts were horrible. Stilted dialogue, predictable plots, all the typical mistakes. Book 3? Better, but the plot was still lame. Books 4, 5, and 6 just might be salvagable. One of these days I'll have to go back and look.

    Rebecca, I knew from your description that your husband was from Ludington :) I've been there many times, and the state park is wonderful!

  6. Laura, I do love your story! You're such an inspiration...

    Congratulations...and now you're writing book three. Yup, you're's a weird weird world. But it goes to show you...

    See you soon! And hurray...xoxo

  7. Thanks, Hank :) Malice, coming right up. In less than two weeks. Ahk!!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Thanks Laura. It's so good to hear a story like yours when the rejection slips are getting you down. Never say die.