Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Interview with Donna Andrews, Part I

By G.M. Malliet

Q: Your writing career took off when /Murder with Peacocks/ won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press Best First Traditional Mystery contest, and went on to win the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, and Romantic Times awards for best first novel. It also won the Lefty award for the funniest mystery of 1999. Subsequent books have also received Agatha and Lefty nominations. Did you have a background in writing—or were you an “overnight success?”

A: I'm the very opposite of an overnight success. I began writing in grade school. In college, I did a double major in English and drama with a concentration in writing. With the exception of a year and a half stint in secretarial jobs, I've always earned my living by writing--though before /Murder with Peacocks/ was published, it was from nonfiction, or corporate fiction, whichever term you prefer. For a long time, I thought I'd lost my way, spending all those years writing stuff that wasn't my own, but in retrospect, I realize it was excellent training. I learned a lot of tricks and techniques for writing even when I didn't feel inspired. And I learned a lot about professionalism, discipline, and work ethics that has stood me in good stead now that I'm writing full time.

I suspect many people groan when I talk about writing in terms of professionalism and discipline--I think they expect to hear novelists talk about inspiration and creativity. Well, yes, those are important--but they're a lot easier to come by. All too often, the difference between an aspiring writer and a successful, published one
isn't a matter of inspiration and creativity--a lot of people are creative and get great ideas for books. I've read a statistic that only ten percent of people who begin a novel actually persevere to complete it, so anyone who has a finished manuscript is already in the minority. And an even smaller number of people, after finishing their draft, do the revising needed to turn it into a really good book, and then do the research required to learn about the publishing industry and persevere through what can be a long and grueling quest to land a good agent and a contract with an established publisher.

So in retrospect, the years I spent quietly working away in the corporate world were exactly the training I needed. I just wish I could have figured out how to transfer the skills and knowledge I was building to fiction a little sooner, but better late than never.

Q: What made you choose to write a mystery novel, as opposed to a mainstream novel?

A: Partly because I think it's important to read the genre you write, and write in a genre you read. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction, but my college roommate introduced me to many of what are now my favorite mystery writers, and I began to find that while I was buying and borrowing both speculative fiction and mysteries, the mysteries were getting read much faster. Looking back, I think that at the time, the mystery genre was going through a wonderful period of expansion and diversification, with the debut of many writers who have become giants of the genre, while the speculative fiction shelves were heavily populated with bad Tolkien clones and worse Star Wars ripoffs.

I'm not saying everything in the science fiction and fantasy field was rotten--at the same time I began to discover writers who are still among my favorites, such as Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Steven Brust, Tanya Huff, and Terry Pratchett, to name a few. But back then I found a lot more to love and admire in the mystery field.

And I also think I write mysteries partly because it's the genre that still respects things like a well-constructed, comprehensible plot and engaging characters. I'm not the only mystery writer who sometimes feels baffled when reading books in the mainstream or literary fiction genres--and they are genres. One writer friend jokingly said that she got halfway through a critically praised mainstream book and felt so frustrated that she wasn't sure she was going to finish it. "It wasn't the fact that I hadn't seen a body yet--I could live with that," she said. "It was the complete absence of any hint of a plot." I understand what she means.

I also find myself mildly annoyed when someone talks about a book "transcending the genre." Sounds a lot like the written equivalent of "overcoming his unfortunate upbringing." If I read a mystery that really blows me away--Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing or To the Power of Three, for example--I don't feel obliged to say that it transcended the genre. Just that it's a really great book. Period.

Q: Do you ever think of writing a mainstream novel, or a novel in any other genre? Or will you be staying with the mystery?

A: I won't be abandoning the mystery, but I've already strayed beyond the boundaries into science fiction and fantasy. (Heck, some people think the Turing series WAS science fiction--I disagree; it's a traditional mystery with a slightly science fiction-tinged protagonist.) One of the first short stories I sold was /to Powers of Detection/, an anthology Dana Stabenow edited for Ace, in which each story has a murder in a fantasy or science fiction setting. It was promoted mainly to the speculative fiction market. There's a sequel volume, /Unusual Suspects/, in the works for 2008, and I've also had a story accepted by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner for a werewolf-themed anthology that will be a followup to their New York Times bestselling /Many Bloody Returns/.

My first two (unpublished) novels were a fantasy and a coming of age story--though I realized later that there was a mystery subplot in both. And while a lot of the ideas I get fit easily into the framework of the humorous mystery, I'm marinating a few that aren't funny or aren't mysteries--or in some cases, aren't either. So time will tell how many of them I manage to write and my agent manages to sell.

Q: Which books or writers do you feel have most influenced your writing?

A: I hate trying to figure out what my influences are--there are probably too many of them. Can I leave it at one book? Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks. One of my favorite books in grade school. Freddy the Pig has read Sherlock Holmes and becomes a sleuth, with the help of his friends, Mrs. Wiggins the cow and Jinx the Cat. I enjoyed it as a child, and when I recently reread it, I found that it was also a great pastiche of the Holmes books and a funny, funny book. So that probably started me off early along the path that eventually led me to writing humorous mysteries of my own.

Q: Humor writing can be the most difficult of all. I realize the process is hard to describe, but do you have any tips for “writing funny?”

A: I think the biggest tip is that if it doesn't come naturally to you, maybe you shouldn't try it. Some of the worst writing I see from good writers happens when they make the mistake of thinking they can just dash off something light and funny--that because it's light, it will also be easy. Ever seen the movie /Punchline/, with Tom Hanks? There are scenes were he's slaving over a routine, working over and over to get the timing just right. You have to be willing to work that hard if necessary, and accept the fact that sometimes even working that hard doesn't produce something that's funny.

I just try to come up with things that amuse me. And then I tweak and polish, agonize over whether other people will find the same things funny, and never know for sure whether any of it works until some of my critiquers weigh in. One of the worst experiences of my life was when one of my usual critiquers read the draft of one of my books--/We'll Always Have Parrots/--while she was not in a good place in her life, and didn't find a single line funny. Fortunately I had a couple of other people reading it--otherwise, who knows? My writing career might have come to a sudden, abrupt, self-inflicted end.

I've learned not to take it too hard when some people don't find my books as funny as others do. Humor is such a personal thing that what has one person laughing out loud will leave others cold. That's another reason why it's so hard to write humor. Not a game for the thin-skinned.

Stay tuned for Part II of the Donna Andrews interview, appearing December 26. In the meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving, all! GMM


Felicia Donovan said...

Thanks, Gin and great interview, Donna. I liked the description of how Donna's background prepared her for fictional writing. I couldn't agree more. When the job needs to get done, it needs to get done.

Felicia Donovan

Keith Raffel said...

I had the pleasure of being on a panel on technology and the mystery moderated by Donna at Left Coast Crime last spring. She, of course, was witty and insightful. And, boy, did she have a long line of fans who wanted her to sign books after she was done!

Nina Wright said...

Fascinating interview, Gin! Thanks for sharing.

Happy Thanksgiving to all Inkers and, of course, their readers!

Nina Wright

Candy Calvert said...

Great interview, Gin--loved Donna's take on "writing funny" and the comparison to Tom Hanks in Punchline. Writing comedy is truly NOT for the faint of heart.

I look forward to Part II of this interview.


jbstanley said...

Thanks Ginny and Donna. Donna, your sense of humor comes through in all of your writing - just as it does in person. You're a great representative of "all us gals" mystery writers

Unknown said...

Loved your comments on genre - especially books that transcend genre. I always feel that people who say that are looking down their noses at whatever genre they are referring to. As in "I don't usually lower myself to read science fiction but this book has some merit even if it has aliens in it." Ick. But I suppose we all have our own reading habits to overcome from time to time.