12 more weeks till. . .
The Art and Craft of WritingSaturday, March 08, 2014 9 am – 6 pm Washington Civic Center, Washington, NC 27889
Let’s begin this week’s interview.
Marni Graff is a mystery writer with an impressive background and an equally impressive current and growing body of work. She leads a writers group that includes home-schooled students and serves as an editor for Bridle Path Press. She was a presenter in the opening panel discussion on publishing for the Pamlico Writers Conference, 3013. This year, we invited her back to present a session on mystery writing for the 2014 conference.
Interviewer: Marni, When did you decide and what lead you to become a writer?
Marni: I’ve always loved reading and that led to writing, starting in high school. In my nursing career I wrote articles for a nursing magazine and edited journals, while studying the fiction I knew I wanted to write when I retired from nursing. In my 40’s I went back to college and got a degree in English Literature while still working as a nurse. When my friends went to warm islands on vacation, I took a screenwriting course at NYU or poetry at Harvard. I wanted to be well-versed in all forms of writing, although I was already leaning toward mysteries. I had a wonderful opportunity near the beginning of that switch-over, and wrote for years for Mystery Review magazine, interviewing the very authors whose work I admired. This added to my publishing history while I was able to pick the brains of their process.
What I learned is that each writer had to find the process that worked for him or her. There were no magic secrets, just lots of hard work, experimentation, and above all, reading other writers to see what worked and, sometimes, what didn’t. I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t like to read.
When I left nursing for good in 2000 I had already been accepted for a writing residency at The Vermont Studio Center, where I started work on my first mystery. I studied, that summer at Oxford University, writers like Daphne Du Maurier and Wilkie Collins, whose work I read and admired, and that led to my eventually setting my own mystery series in England, with the first book, The Blue Virgin, set in Oxford.
Interviewer: Did your writing begin as poetry, short story, non-fiction, etc?
Marni: I started with poetry and essays in school, then non-fiction. I have never enjoyed writing short stories; I have one I keep saying I will get published but . . . I enjoy the longer version of the novel to take my time telling a story, creating and exploring characters and the setting I’ve chosen to place them in.
Interviewer: Which genre would you now consider to be your “passion”?
Marni: My passion is crime, and that grew out of what I enjoyed reading the most: mysteries, thrillers, the Golden Age writers I read as a teen and still enjoy.
Interviewer: Is some, most, or all of your writing conceived through personal experience?
Marni: The aspect of my writing that comes through experience is more related to the way characters act and behave with each other. After all, I write murder mysteries and I’ve never been involved in an actual murder! So my plots are conceived while I hope my characters and their relationships more closely resemble those any one can relate to, despite the oddity of investigating a murder.
Interviewer: Do you consider commercial value when choosing subjects and characters for your stories or poems?
Marni: I try to stay current with things like forensics and do exhaustive research to make sure what I’m writing about is as close to reality as I can make it. But I would say I’m not a trendy writer by any means: the novels are traditional English mysteries that feature an American living there. You won’t find Nora Tierney leaking NSA secrets or becoming involved in politics. When it comes to poetry, I never consider anything other than the impetus that made my want to write down that particular emotion or description on paper.
Interviewer: Do you have an agent, and if so, how did you find him/her?
Marni: I do have an agent, in a very good New York house with a huge literary history who I adore as a person; but he has been spectacularly unsuccessful at selling my books to any of the large conglomerate houses. I found him through someone I met at that first writing residency in Vermont; she read the opening chapters of my first mystery and told me to send them to him and mention her name. He signed me on the strength of those chapters, and when the book was done, spent over a year sending it around. I have the most lovely rejection notices: every one of the editors who read my book spoke of liking my characters, the setting description and feel, the plot, etc, yet their hesitancy always revolved around the same thing: money. They weren’t certain they could sell an unknown American writer’s English mystery and so stayed away. We were very close to signing with one big NY house and had been accepted by its fiction editor but their marketing person demurred.
Interviewer: In what ways should an agent improve your commercial success?
Marni: To the extent of the reach and distribution agreement they may get you, an agent can be helpful. There’s no question a contract with a big house will increase your exposure and your readers. Those publishers have the means to distribute your book in a way a self-or indie-publisher does not. The trade-off is lack of control over your work—in how it’s presented, even down to the title and cover. In the changing climate of publishing these last ten years, and the loss of the stigma of self-publishing, today’s writer can be successful on a more modest level if they understand their audience.
Interviewer: Do you self-publish or work with a publisher?
Marni: I publish my mysteries through an author’s cooperative, Bridle Path Press, which has a reach across the US but is basically a small indie press. Author’s have input into which other works are taken and take turns editing new works. It’s satisfying to me to be a part of a larger framework and to have that supportive network behind me. We have writers from California, Utah, Wisconsin, Maryland, Virginia and of course, North Carolina. We are considering manuscripts from several Canadian authors. Our newest author is from South Carolina; her historical novel will debut in 2014 and is being edited right now.
Interviewer: What is your favorite of all your works? Why?
Marni: The answer to that must be the book one is writing at the current time, no? With each novel I feel I’ve grown as a writer and learned from the previous experience. The Scarlet Wench is the newest Nora Tierney mystery, due in print this spring, and it revolves around a theatre troupe that stays at Ramsey Lodge, where Nora is living, to put on Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. All of my book’s chapters start with epigrams, quotations that have something to do with the action in a part of that chapter. For this novel, I’ve received permission from Cowarad’s estate to use a line from the play for the epigrams. I think this tie-in will make this one very special.
Interviewer: If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?
Marni: I enjoyed my thirty-year nursing career but I probably would have started sending out fiction pieces earlier in my career, although juggling a full time job with a family and also writing on the side is easier said than done.
Interviewer: I suspect every woman who writes can identify with that dilemma. What or who has been the greatest influence in your writing?
Marni: These are such toughies to answer! Of course I admire enduring classics like Shakespeare and Chaucer, great storytellers whose work endures, and in terms of crime, I became attracted to crime by reading Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Du Maurier, Conan Doyle. If I had to choose one writer, though, it would be P. D. James. whose close psychological reading of her characters is coupled with the importance of her settings and complex plots. She uses simple language and realistic dialogue to convey her stories. I was fortunate to meet and interview her thirteen years ago and she has been a kind mentor and supporter to me ever since, maintaining a mail and now email relationship since. This summer we were fortunate to have a physical reunion when I spent time in England and it was a great delight to see her in person again. At 93 she is still writing and a source of constant inspiration.
Interviewer: Is there a particular humorous or touching story in your experience as a writer you can share with our readers?
Marni: Despite writing my fiction, I still write non-fiction at times. Last summer I was asked to participate in a book coming out next fall, The Who the What and the Where, a series of essays about people BEHIND famous people we never hear about. After discussion with the editors, my commission was to ferret out the story of Joyce McLennan. Who is that? you ask, which is the point of the book. Joyce, whom I’d never met at that point, is the woman who for 37 years has typed all of P D James mysteries, since the Baroness writes in longhand and then dictates into a tape that McLennan transcribes. James then revises on these pages and off they go. They’ve worked together. A companionable duo, and now Joyce accompanies James on some of her trips.
But there has never been an interview or an article about Joyce. I had to dig deep to find out any information about her, including going through British archives with interviews with James, searching hints and bits the Queen of Mystery dropped about the woman who started out as her typist and is now her personal assistant. I even spoke via email with a journalist who had met Joyce when she interviewed James, to get a physical description, as there weren’t photos of her at that point. I combed through James autobiography, A Time to Be in Earnest, for any mention or Joyce or anecdotes about her.
At one point I learned that when Joyce first worked for James she was a young mother with two small sons at home. Joyce’s husband, who worked for Faber and Faber, James’ long-time British publisher, would stop and pick up those tapes for Joyce to transcribe. If James was working, she would often leave the tape by her gate in a china pig!
I’m happy to say that when we met at James’ London townhouse in August, Joyce was present, presiding over our tea, and I was able to tell her in person about the project and how SHE would be the subject of an essay in next year’s book. Both women were thrilled and surprised, and thought I had brought off a mystery of my very own.
Interviewer: What a nice way to end your interview, Ms. Mystery Writer. I look forward to your presentation at the Pamlico Writers Conference in March.
For more information on conference presenters, workshops, panels, etc., take a moment and go to our website.