Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Flying By Five Pairs of Pants

RHYS BOWEN: I have always thought it would be rather fun to be part of a serial novel (how about it, fellow Jungle Reds??) so when my friends Lise McClendon and Taffy Cannon told me about their project to write a mystery with Katy Munger, Gary Phillips and Kate Flora, I was dying to see the finished product and to know how they survived without murdering each other--I mean, Gary Phillips and Taffy Cannon writing the same book? Was that even possible?

But they did it and now BEAT, SLAY, LOVE is out and available (under the pen name of Thalia Gilbert) and an awful lot of fun.  So they stopped by Jungle Red today to tell us about it.


Taffy Cannon: One thing that amazed me about this project is that almost everything was conducted via email. The five of us live all over the country: San Diego, LA, Montana, North Carolina and Maine.

Kate Flora: I didn’t know everyone well, just in passing, and frankly Gary has always terrified me a bit.

Gary Phillips: Me, terrifying? It’s just what I write … those characters scare me, too.

Lise McClendon:  We know you’re just a big teddy bear, Gary.

Katy Munger: Yeah, he’s a teddy bear until you play poker with him … and then he turns into a shark.


Kate: Any smart and seasoned writer knows that taking chances is the best way to grow, and that embracing fun is a great antidote to the swirling pot of anxiety we mostly simmer in. So of course when the suggestion went around that we write a group novel, I said, “YES!”  We’d already done a dress rehearsal in our short story collection, Dead of Winter.

Gary: We’d worked out bare bones aspects of the plot via emails and some in-person discussions so jumping into the story wasn’t that daunting. We knew were going to do a black comedy of sorts, gallows humor -- thrills and chills but with a wink to the reader. 

Taffy: Bare bones is putting it mildly. At the beginning, all we knew was that chefs were being killed by a youngish woman with weight and vengeance issues. No outline, no character sketches, nothing but an intention to let ‘er rip. We were flying by the seats of five different pairs of pants.

Katy: To me the experience was akin to that of being a playwright. I would write the bones of the story, but then the actors would bring so much more insight and value to the body of work that it astonished me. That’s exactly what happened here.

Kate: I’ve been thinking that it was like being in a TV show’s writing room, where everyone is bouncing ideas off each other. Except we did it on paper instead of talking it out.

Lise:  Our characters evolved as we wrote, over many months. At the end I had a moment where I thought I might have been the writer who did this scene or that, who even introduced one of them. But was I? Hmmm. It was all so meshed together I couldn’t actually tell.

Katy: I’m not sure this process would work with any group of writers – had there been a control freak among us, we would have been doomed – but it sure did work with this group. By the end, we had somehow divined what each other were thinking.

Taffy: In some ways, I think Katy had the biggest challenge in pulling everything together at the end. There were – how shall I put this? – a few unresolved questions, characters, issues, and problems. Okay, more than a few.

Katy: As I read and reread what everybody wrote, I realized that there were common threads that ran through all of our contributions. After that, everything fell into place.

Lise: It didn’t matter in the end. Not one bit. Because the whole really is bigger than its parts.

Gary: I think that knowing we wanted to have fun really comes through to the reader.

Taffy: The element of fun was probably the single most important part of this project for me. I had been working on some fairly grim nonfiction, and Beat Slay Love was a lovely change of pace.

Katy: There was a sort of anonymity in the process that I think freed us up to write things we would not write under our own name alone.

Taffy:  I very carefully toned down an early sex scene that I wrote, even though we knew from the outset that this was definitely not a cozy. Others sex scenes followed that left me in their dust. We won’t name names, but at least one remarkably raunchy scene ended up on the cutting room floor.

Lise: That was the point of collaboration. Our writing styles differed, sure. Some smoothing out was necessary at the end. But each of us contributed to building these characters. So much so, that it became impossible to figure out what I wrote, what she wrote, what he wrote.

Gary: I’ve written other stories with female protagonists and I do have to pause now and then when writing from a woman’s perspective, mostly checking myself on dialogue. Snippets of certain female characters in print and on screen flash in my mind or I’ll summon up conversations between my wife and our grown daughter as a kind of reality check.

Kate: That lovely moment when it was each of our turns, and the novel arrived again with new chapters, new adventures, new twists and turns, new food, and a new region of the country. It was like simultaneously reading and writing a good book.

Taffy: We called this a mystery in the beginning, but about two-thirds of the way through I realized that structurally we were actually working within a thriller format. The killer was revealed fairly early on and we knew much of what she planned. There were multiple points of view and far flung locations. And we picked up the pacing as the story progressed, moving to shorter chapters, scenes, and paragraphs.  Without even realizing it, we had invented a new subgenre: the culinary thriller.

Lise: Beat Slay Love is one big whole that I am so proud of. What a kick-ass ride it’s been!

Beat Slay Love is the world’s first culinary thriller, credited to “Thalia Filbert” but written by Lise McClendon, Katy Munger, Gary Phillips, Kate Flora, and Taffy Cannon. All are members of the Thalia Press Author Coop (TPAC). Somebody is killing the celebrity chefs of television all around the country, and a food blogger teams with an FBI agent to solve the crimes.

RHYS: And they'd love to give away a copy to someone who comments today! So don't be shy.


  1. Congratulations on your book!
    Despite the challenges inherent in writing when you are so far apart and relegated to e-mail and such [as opposed regularly sitting down together], was the finished book what you expected it to be? And was the process rewarding enough that you'd consider doing another book together?

  2. This sounds like way too much fun to pass up. I've especially got to see how you this worked out as a mystery.

  3. It's truly fascinating that you pulled this off. My husband and I couldn't even write a joint letter to the kids away at camp for summer. I can see it done with email, though. I know people who wrote their doctoral dissertations on email. Then again they didn't have to cooperate with anyone.

  4. I had the pleasure of meeting several of these folks at Bouchercon (well, of course I've known Kate for a long time) at an event they organized where a bunch of folks read aloud from their work, including from Beat, Slay, Love. What fun! And how great to hear about your process, too.

  5. Fun to read about this! I have it on my ipad when I get some downtime.

    Did you ever get the book back when it was your turn and dislike what had happened? did you all comment on each others sections as you went along?

  6. There is a special delight, for me, in picking up a book and finding laugh-out-loud moments within. This sounds like it could be a choice morsel!

    Congrats on finding your 'voice' as Thalia Gilbert!

  7. The one time I collaborated with someone the rule was, ONLY I GET TO WRITE! This is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. I congratulate you all!

  8. It sounds like the literary equivalent of a pot luck supper, and my mouth is watering!

  9. To answer Lucy's question...once I got another round of the novel and felt like we'd jumped the gun and were too close to the ending, so I did what I'd do with my own writing when that happens, I went back, shifted a few things around, muscled some chapters apart, and stuck in some material that needed to come sooner. And then I think I sent our icy, conservative FBI agent off to a high end store to do a bit of shopping, and she became entranced with black leather. It brought out her racy side, which is just what she needed. Plot twists by way of Saks, I'd say.

    I think we all did bits of editing as we went along, as we read through the pieces we hadn't seen yet, but there was tremendous respect for what everyone was doing, and a strong sense of adventure and challenge in picking up where the story left off and moving forward having to tee off what someone else had imagined for the book.

    I, for one, am curious to see what we do next, and yes, discussions are underway.

  10. I remain fascinated by this concept - that five different people can write a cohesive story. I'm with Lucy/Roberta: did you ever get something that made you think, "Oh, I don't like where this is going, we need to change it"?

  11. This is a blast of a book. Really a fun read, and knowing it is a collaboration of five "cooks" makes it all the more amazing.

  12. Katy was a panelist on the Literary vs. Pulp panel I moderated at Bouchercon. She has such a wide understanding of the industry and she talked briefly of this novel during the panel conversation. I could tell that folks were intrigued by the idea. Really fascinating process.

  13. I have to chuckle at Joan's question whether the finished book was what we thought it would be. The others may differ on this, but I wasn't sure there would even BE a finished book. The whole idea was so far out of my own comfort zone that sometimes I thought it would be a miracle if we finished it at all.

    We didn't comment on each other's sections, Roberta, but each time the manuscript came around, we had a chance to smooth things out or move them a bit. We respected each other's work, but once I realized that somebody had changed something I'd done, I felt I had permission to do the same. Carefully, of course.

    Mary, on the rare occasions when something seemed a little too far out, I mostly ignored it and figured it would all work out. Which mostly it did.

  14. Well, I am so impressed by this! What a wonderful team of authors, you sound so respectful, and like this was a joy, and an adventure, and an experiment.

    Always fun to hear when someone else has a good idea, and I love brainstorming. It would be fun to know that the pressure is shared, right? If you can't figure out what to do, someone else can.
    Talk a bit about the moment when you saw the whole thing for the first time! Do you think it sounds like one person wrote it?
    Congratulations you all! This is quite a feat.

  15. Ciongratulations! Writing seems to be hard enough when you only have to talk to yourself to make changes and make sure everything makes sense, but collaboration via email - wow, Very impressive, plus the sample I've read is marvelous.

  16. Re Joan's question about if we will do another group effort: we're all drowning in projects right now, so far as I can tell, and need the time to work on our individual books so I think most of us are just going to let the idea of another group novel ride and maybe one day? Others may feel differently!

    Yes, there were times when I would get the book back and see the story veer off and think, "Have you lost your mind?!" but 1) I did not know who had written it and it totally thwarts a judgmental attitude NOT to have someone to focus that judgement on so I was pushed in the zen direction of not judging; and 2) I decided to have faith and let it go and see what hapepned. Imagine my surprise when some of the best themes in the books arose out of those unexpected plot directions!

    Without naming names, I just want to add: some of the least expected among us apparently wrote the hottest sex scenes!! :)

  17. As a P.S.: we did have to do a bit of work adjusting the viewpoint, tense used in flashbacks, etc. to be consistent once we saw it all together, and at times adjust the personality characteristics coming through. So there was some heavy lifting involved in making sure the book featured unified voices and an overall viewpoint, but I think we happily had chosen three main characters different enough that we could all identify with at least one of them, and naturally gravitated toward writing about them, and that probably helped create some consistency in voice.

  18. This sounds wonderful! What a great idea and what a great group of authors to bring it to life.

  19. What an amazing feat! (Plus, I love the cover and clever title!) I've spoken with Marcia Talley about her experience with "collective novels," but in her case, the books came together by one author starting, then the next building off her chapter, and so forth. Not a true collaboration, like BEAT, SLAY, LOVE.

    I look at writers' collaborations the same way I look at mountain climbing: I'm fascinated, it tempts me, and I have grave doubts I'd ever be able to pull it off.

  20. Julia, I seem to remember that you and I were once part of some serial novel. It was ridiculous as we each tried to leave the next writer in an I,possible position.

  21. What a hoot! Congrats, all five of you! Love the title, love the format, and am fascinated by the collaboration. I participated in a serial novel years ago (The Sunken Sailor) which was huge fun, but we had a very rough synopsis to begin with, then each writer was a assigned a chapter. And yes, we did all try to leave the next writer in an impossible position...

    But I've never seen anyone do a true collaboration like Beat, Slay, Love (even typing that makes me laugh.) Throw in cooking and I'm hooked!

  22. Rhys raises a good point. I was once part of a serial novel where we were given the two previous pages and told to write the next part. (Again, no outline, instructions, or plan.) The part I got was so preposterous that I resorted to the Hollywood tactic of "covering it with a line." I said something about the possibility of acid having been dropped in the town well. The book was called The Exquisite Cadaver, but it was mostly an exquisite mess.

  23. I think it's fair to say that this sounds "delicious"!

  24. I don't see how two people can write as one and finish a book (the Todds?)that is unputitdownable, but five of you? Was drinking involved? That would be quite an experience, writing your own ideas but going with the flow at the same time. Congratulations on finishing a story you are all enthusiastic about.

  25. I heard Kate Flora speak about this project over the summer, and I am so excited about getting to see the results! WOW. Would you writers do it again??

    Jungle Red Writers, how about you?

    Did it help that the writers were so diverse (as opposed to having a group that was more similar in style and content)?

  26. Several folks have mentioned the title, which I agree is great, but I also love the name of the Sensational Debut Author!

  27. Have we mentioned, as a caution, that this book is far from cozy, as Sheila Connolly noted in her cautious invite to guest on a rather cozy blog? People are really killed in most creative ways, and there is somewhat (?) graphic sex in situations both good and bad (giving rise, in part, to our heroine's thirst for revenge) but the operative words are FOOD and FUN. Think great holiday gift for a reader who also loves cooking shows. No one who has read it will ever look at those programs in quite the same way.

  28. What's not to love? Chefs, murder, a romp in the hay (figuratively speaking). I'm looking forward to reading it.

  29. We did have such a great time doing Beat Slay Love -- and quite a bit of work over three years, don't forget! There were moments at the early stages where we couldn't decide on anything but once we came up with the food angle and the chefs-creatively-cooked angle, it seemed to gel. We definitely thank and apologize to Elizabeth Gilbert for her brilliant concept and title that allowed us to get crazy. Yes, we did get a bit over-the-top at times, in the best sense of the word!

    So, thanks, Jim, for reminding Thalia Filbert to thank Elizabeth Gilbert again. May she not feel litigious. We call it a dark, comic send-up of Eat Pray Love to cover our collective asses.

    Thanks so much for having us here, Rhys and all the Reds!! -- Lise

  30. I was at the panel Kristopher moderated on Literary vs. Pulp, a great panel, and I was able to purchase this book from Katy at a special price. Haven't gotten to it yet, but I will. Can't wait!

  31. I read an excerpt from this and can't wait to read the rest! I'd love to win! Knowing the writers had such fun doing it makes it even better.