Today I am so excited to have my writing mentor and friend, Marni Graff, visiting at the Creekside Café.
Marni: It’s great to be here.
Sherri: You’re not originally from North Carolina?
Marni: I’m a Yankee from Long Island, but this is my 23rd year in eastern NC. My husband and I live in Hyde County along the Pungo River, with our two Aussie Doodles, Seamus and Fiona. Our rural life took getting used to, but it was a deliberate choice and we’ve never looked back. There’s a friendliness to southern people we quite enjoy, bless their little hearts!
Sherri: You and your husband are very friendly too, y’all fit right in except for the accent. I’m a big fan of your books but I have to admit I love your Trudy Genova series, perhaps because I see you in Trudy.
Marni: The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries grew out of my job as a medical consultant for a New York movie studio, and that’s the job Trudy does. I like to say Trudy’s a prettier, younger version of me, as she’s 27 or so and I did that job in my 40s. In that series, I’m pulling directly from my experience on set.
Sherri: You were a nurse before becoming a writer?
Marni: I was a nurse for 30 years who always wrote on the side as I studied writing, everything from screenplays to poetry. I still write poetry from time to time. I wrote feature articles for a NY nursing journal, and that journalism experience led to a job doing interviews for Mystery Review magazine for 7 years, great background once I’d decided crime was where I’d focus my writing.
It was extremely helpful being able to interview and pick the brains of many writers I admired in the crime realm, including meeting and having a friendship with my heroine, PD James, the Queen of British Mystery, from 2000 until her death. Over our 15-year friendship, I would visit when I went to England doing setting research for my Nora Tierney English Mysteries, and in between, exchange emails and letters. She, and her assistant, Joyce McLennan, became dear friends, and I still see Joyce when I go across the pond about every other year. Both were always supportive of my writing, but it was the Baroness who insisted that I use my nursing background and the unusual job I had before retiring to start a second series.
In the Nora Tierney English Mysteries, Nora is an American writer living in England. Hers was the first mysteries I wrote, The Blue Virgin, and I’d say the organizational skills I learned in nursing have helped me plot and keep track of ideas. I start off knowing the ending and work backwards, with the opening outlined a bit and then go from there. I call the “muddled middle” the part I leave to happenstance, but knowing where I need to end up is extremely helpful to me.
Sherri: You write full-time now, but you have a busy life and you’re always willing to help other writers.
Marni: I have the luxury of writing full time now, and also write a crime review blog, Auntie M Writes, where I review about 150 books a year (www.auntiemwrites.com). I’m also the Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, a curated author’s cooperative out of Baltimore, MD. At any one time, I may be shepherding another author’s book through its final stages of production while I’m proofreading my own next book. It all keeps me busy.
I’ve been presenting with Pamlico Writers since its inception and love watching how it’s grown! From the germ of an idea, the group has moved to the Turnage Theatre and with it, expanded under your careful guidance to encompass so many genres and types of writing that I feel it’s the most inclusive conference in our area.
I enjoy talking to writers at any level, and last year I talked about Beginnings and this year Getting Started, how to get your story idea rattling around in your head to the page. Perhaps the best part for me is the question and answer part, where anything goes! It often forces me to take a look at my own motivations and writing that I hadn’t bothered to have to formulate an answer to before. That helps me continue to grow, too.
Sherri: I think that is one of the things I’ve learned from you. No matter where we are in our own writing, there is still more to learn if we are open to it. I have been blessed to be a part of your Writers’ Read in Belhaven and the Pamlico Writers’ Group. Since becoming the chairperson, I’ve tried to emulate your style, but no one does it like you. I love talking to you about writing, well, truthfully, I love talking to you about anything.
You talked of writing even while working as a nurse. How long have you been writing seriously? Have you always been a writer?
Marni: I was a reader first and believe any writer must be one. I could read when I started kindergarten and books have been my solace and my pleasure. I started writing bad poetry in junior high and wrote for the school paper in high school. There was always something going on that required me to write but I didn’t call myself a writer until I published in the nursing journal.
I wrote my first mystery on LI between 1994-5 when working at the movie studio but lost the entire manuscript when our house burned down. That one had a British male detective temporarily working at the Frick Museum in NY as security for an exhibit of artifacts connected to a famous painting, Ingres’ portrait of Comtesse de Haussonville. It’s a mirror painting, showing the rather plain young woman facing the viewer but leaning against a dresser and the mirror shows the back of her head and elaborate hairstyle. I was in the Frick one day when this painting was on exhibit, along with the many artifacts that are strewn across the dresser’s top. That was my inspiration for the story. There’s a theft, a hint of romance, a bit of action.
Once the manuscript was gone, as were my backups, I let it go and haven’t tried to resurrect it again. When I was given the opportunity a few years later to study in Oxford, I had already started the first Nora Tierney and being there had me start the series in Oxford so I could return Nora there over time. What is now the second book in the series, set in the Lake District, was originally the first until I’d been to Oxford.
Sherri: As a fan, I am familiar with your work but how would you describe the kind of books you write? What genre do they fall into? Do you plan to write any other genre in the future?
Marni: I write traditional mysteries, character-driven where the plot or puzzle is solved in each volume but there are continuing characters. Since most of mine take place in smaller town or environments and focus more on the victim than the gory details of his or her murder, they’re often called cozies. To me, they are a mixture of the cozy amateur sleuth and police procedurals, as there is always the viewpoint of the detective on the case. This holds true for both series.
I didn’t see myself writing anything different until I started the most recent Nora book, The Golden Hour. In that one, I moved from a straight “whodunit” to a “cantheystophim?” The reader knows how the bad guy is up front; it’s more a case if he can be stopped from bringing his psychopathic ideas to fruition. I am trying to let my readers feel they are not going to read the same book over and over. This one surprised me as it was first time I’d developed and written a psychopathic character and I had great fun doing it!
You can relate to that as you have a gift for romantic suspense. So, while that may take different forms, you are drawn to that kind of story when you write that has high human emotional stakes with a bit of mystery and tensions thrown in.
So, while I’m comfortable in my niche, drawn to mystery because that’s what I like to read, I won’t say I won’t every dabble in something else.
Sherri: I’m so excited about your latest book but I won’t spill the beans. Tell our audience about your latest projects?
Marni: I’m just wrapping the second Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death at the Dakota. Trudy is watching over the star, newly pregnant actress Monica Kiley, when she goes missing. At the same time, her boyfriend, NYPD detective Ned O’Malley, has been given a murder case where the victim is unable to be identified, after being thrown in a dumpster and set on fire. Then an actor on Trudy’s set is murdered. So, we have two killers and two cases running alongside each other. Again, an attempt to keep readers’ interest. The Dakota is a famous NY landmark apartment building, home to many famous people over the years, and probably most known to modern readers as the place where John Lennon lived and was killed just outside it. In reality, they don’t allow filming interiors at all, but in Trudy’s world they do! The TV movie is being shot in what used to be the Leonard Bernstein apartment, as I managed to get a floor plan layout and we are thinking of including that in the book. I hope to have it in print between May 1st and June 1st.
Meanwhile, I’ve been gathering my usual research in a folder and am not starting to plot out the opening of the next Nora Tierney Mystery. This one will take place mostly in Oxford with scenes in Cambridge. Its working title is An Amethyst’s Remembrance, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. As that series all have a color in their title and a color wash over the cover images, I bet you can tell what that color will be!
Sherri: It is obvious, you love writing, what do you enjoy most about the process?
Marni: I enjoy the discovery; the plotting and devising the characters, playing with their fictional lives. I love when two characters I’ve come to know well will be having a conversation and it almost writes itself. I love when I start to write something, and it feels terribly wrong and I realize Nora or Trudy or Ned or Declan would never say that! It’s like having these little people running around inside your head all the time, giving you directions!
Sherri: Like anything we love, there is often a flipside, what do you dislike about being a writer?
Marni: Promotion. NOT meeting readers or speaking to them. That part I love, that connection. But spending time on social media promoting myself when I’d rather be writing gets to me at times. It’s why I limit myself to two: FB and Twitter, or I don’t think I’d get any writing done! But that’s a quibble, a necessary evil. Almost all of writing and its process I adore, having waited so long to be able to do it.
Sherri: Interviewing is thirsty work, can I interest you in a drink? I think I’ll have a strawberry lemonade with vodka. You?
Marni: A vodka gimlet always goes down nicely, heavy on the lime juice please!
Sherri: I’ve visited your house a few times and we’ve had several covered dish events, I know you are an excellent cook. Do you have a favorite dish or recipe?
Marni: I’m fond of making cassoulet, a French peasant stew that has great northern beans, other beans you want to add, pork sausage, bacon and whatever other meat you have on hand. The original recipe calls for duck but how many of us have that around? Since it simmers for hours in the oven, it’s a nice thing to start early on a rainy day and forget for a while, and if you have the sausage and who in a southern kitchen doesn’t have bacon, you’re set.
Sherri: I don’t know when you would have time for hobbies or other interests with your busy writing schedule and family, but do have any other interests or pursuits besides writing? Do these show up in your stories?
Marni: I enjoy music, from classical to jazz, especially the American Songbook years and singers: Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Chet Baker, etc. So, you’ll see that music pop up here and there, along with more modern musicians like Diana Krall and Michael Buble` who sing it. I used to like to hike, and years ago did parts of the Appalachian Trail, but those days are behind me with three back surgeries. If I’m not reading, which I do voraciously, about three novels a week, I like a good movie, especially old ones…
Sherri: What do you feel are your writing strengths and weaknesses?
Marni: I think I’m a decent plotter and since I do bibles for my recurring characters, feel I have a handle on them. I’d say my weakness is procrastination. I am easily distracted by anything going on, especially my family. That being said, I have learned to write with the TV on when my husband is watching it!
Sherri: Family can be a big distraction. I have a large one and I love them, but I have found I have to set boundaries and let them know I’m writing. Most of the time they are pretty good. I also try to have the work done before they are expected, it is the unexpected that is more difficult to juggle. My biggest setback now is my obligations with the Pamlico Writers’ Group. I’m sure you know, an active group requires a lot of leadership and it can’t grow if we’re not active. I’m still hoping others will take a more active role in programming. I lean heavily on our core group, many of who have other groups and their own busy writing and family lives. It’s a struggle but, I love it.
Marni: That’s true, and one reason I stopped the Writers Read group after eight years. The Pamlico Writers Group really filled in that space and it wasn’t needed while I need to devote that time to my writing. You need to find a balance. My advice to you: delegate more!
Sherri: Who are your favorite authors or who has most influenced your own writing?
Marni: That’s a loaded question! If we are talking classics, I love Dickens, Austen, the Brontes and Wilkie Collins. Daphne Du Maurier was a big influence on my writing, as were the Golden Agers, esp. Christie, Sayers and Ngaio Marsh and of course, Morse’s Colin Dexter. If you ask about modern reading and authors, non-crime it would be Ian McEwan, William Kuhn, Alan Bennett and Kate Atkinson, but for crime, there are so many I could list, in no particular order:
Dead but more modern authors would be PD James, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill. I defy any writer to read a book by one of these and not enjoy it. Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe embodies humor, highly original characters, elevated writing, all wrapped up in a complex plot. His Dialogues of the Dead is perfect for any wordsmith.
If you like historicals, read Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series.
If you like different cultures and to learn something while in the midst of a good mystery, read Ausma Zehant Khan.
If you like mystery light with humor, you’ll love Judith Flanders
For contemporary authors: Ann Cleeves, Elly Griffiths, Susan Hill, Jane Casey, Val McDermid, Anthony Horowitz, Tana French, Elizabeth George, Sophie Hannah, Frances Fyfield, Stuart MacBride, James Oswald, Peter Robinson, Michael Robotham, Mark Billingham, Nicola Upson, Sarah Ward, Ian Rankin, Tracee deHahn and Louise Penny head the list of those whose books I gobble up when they come out.
So many books, so little time . . .
Sherri: f you could change anything about your writing/publishing past, what would it be?
Marni: Nothing. I’m blessed to be here doing what I love. But I do think if I’d been able to start writing at a younger age, I’d have a wider audience. I have had a lovely NY agent at the oldest literary agency, Curtis Brown, for 19 years and he’s never sold one of my books . . .
Sherri: What words of wisdom would you offer to aspiring writers?
Marni: READ: everything you can get your hands on and more in the genre you feel you want to write in. PERSIST– There are so many avenues to publishing these days.
REVISE: Never put out a first draft of anything. That’s a lump of clay you must hone and polish and make beautiful.
KEEP good reference books on your desk: a good dictionary, a good thesaurus and one good usage book. I am partial to DREYER’s ENGLISH by Benjamin Dreyer, which is as humorous as it is useful. You can Google all you want, but it’s quicker sometimes and gives your typing hands a break to look things up in a real book.
Sherri: You have a way with words. I love the little notes you send me, stationary is always unique and pretty.
Marni: I’ve always loved books and words. Words matter to me. Names, too. I spend time choosing just the right ones for characters, but their sound, meaning, or heritage. I can get lost in a paper store and come out with stationery and pens and things I don’t really need. Ditto bookstores, of course.
Sherri: I love finding unusual items in bookstores and little shops, like the one at Fearington Village.
So much is available online now from research to shopping but it doesn’t quite match the feeling of walking into a store or museum and seeing things for yourself.
Marni: I love doing research, too, and often get sidetracked on an obtuse alleyway from my original purpose. There’s just so much fascinating stuff out there!
It’s why I love museums. All of that good stuff from eons ago just waiting to be discovered.
Sherri: I often wish I could go back in time and experience what it was like in history. I think the turn of the century, early 1900s would be a fascinating time with all the new inventions and discoveries. So much was happening so quickly.
Marni: That’s one of my favorite periods, the Edwardians, except for the corsets of course, and the fact women were considered the property of men. But it heralded that the world was changing, from the Suffragettes movement to the music of Scott Joplin and early Jazz.
Sherri: I could sit and talk to you for hours and hours, but our time is running out. Is there anything you’d like to say before we say good bye?
Marni: I think good manners go a long way in any situation. It costs nothing to be nice to someone. I complimented a woman I don’t know on her purse yesterday because it was loud and colorful, and she had sad face on her when we crossed paths outside Food Lion. Her face lit up. You can’t put a price on making someone’s day a little bit better when it costs you nothing.
I think we need to treat our elders better than we do. They are not outdated or outmoded. In their time, they were the cat’s pajamas and did all sorts of things we can’t even imagine. Well, most of them. They have years of experience in human nature we could learn from it we’d bother to sit and listen.
That’s it~off my soapbox.
Sherri: I agree and feel kindness is something we should all strive for. Treat others the way we wish to be treated. Thank you, Marni for visiting me at Creekside and I hope to see you in person very soon.
The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries:
The Golden Hour http://amzn.to/2vabUMJThe Nora Tierney English Mysteries:The Golden Hour Book 4:Shortlisted: Mystery and Mayhem Award, Chanticleer Book ReviewsThe Blue Virgin: Book 1 WINNER: Classic British Cozy, Chanticleer Book Reviews
The Green Remains: Book 2WINNER: Classic British Cozy, Chanticleer Book ReviewsThe Scarlet Wench: Book 3 Shortlisted: Best Mystery, Chanticleer Book Reviews
A vodka gimlet: 1 part sweetened lime juice, 4 parts vodka, over ice or straight up, garnish with a slice of lime