Sunday, May 6, 2018

Interview With Mystery Author Cathy Ace

1) First, let’s talk about your longer and more established Cait Morgan mysteries. What made you decide to make this series so cosmopolitan? I’ve noticed every entry in this series takes place not just in another city but in a different nation.
It was a decision based upon two thoughts: first, I wanted to avoid what’s become known as “Cabot Cove Syndrome” where a certain locale becomes inundated by an ever-increasing number of corpses; secondly, I have always traveled a great deal – both for business and for pleasure – and wanted to share my experiences of all the countries where I have lived and/or worked over the decades.

 2) Every title in the series references a gem or precious metal. Why is that?

When I put forward the idea for a series to TouchWood Editions – the small, independent Canadian press which brought Cait Morgan to people’s books shelves – I knew I needed a “hook” for the series titles…something that would signal that they were of a certain type, and were, in fact, a series. Many series have an overarching framework for their titles, a case in point would be Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild “The Body in the…xxx” titles. In each Cait Morgan Mystery the titular victim is dead by the second page of the book (sometimes – as in the case of the first book where it’s in the opening paragraph – much sooner) so I thought that having the word “corpse” (as opposed to body, or murder, or killing etc, all of which were already being employed by other authors) in the title would signify the fact that a dead body would figure large in the mystery in question. Adding a “precious body part” came about because the victim in the first book was a silver-tongued devil, able to winkle people’s secrets out of them by dint of his captivating conversational techniques. I realized that, with a little conniving on my part, the rest of the general plot ideas worked well within such a framework too!

 3) The ladies of the WISE Enquiries Agency represent all four nations in the UK (Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, making WISE an acronym). How difficult is it to balance all the different personalities and cultures so they work harmoniously?

Whilst Cait Morgan is an example of a woman who’s led a highly independent life, and therefore is comfortable investigating alone (with the aid of Bud) I wanted to tackle a set-up where women worked as a team, or even like an extended family. As a team, the four women each possess their own capabilities, and we see them each in terms of their strengths and weaknesses as the series develops. Overall, I haven’t found it difficult to portray them as working well as a professional team, but I knew from the outset that there wouldn’t be time for each character’s personality and back-story to be contained within just one book, so each has a turn in the spotlight, book by book. I’m hoping that – by the end of the fourth book in the series – readers feel they have a pretty good understanding about the women not just as proficient professional investigators, but also as people.

As for the cultural differences? Well, in the UK everyone makes assumptions about what a person will be like the second they know where they come from – be that geographically or when considering their social background. The general rule of thumb is that the Welsh, Irish and Scots make fun of the English as thinking the world revolves around them, while the English grumble about how annoying/lazy/good-for-nothing the Welsh, Irish and Scots are. We all understand this without having to acknowledge it, and generally we all play well together (though the tensions mount during the Six Nations’ Rugby Tournament each year!). As for the class differences, these are slightly more nuanced, and I have tried to portray them as such, without beating readers about the head with a class-war stick. There are enough jealousies, misconceptions, snobbery and name-calling to go around in such a set-up, but – and this is at the core of what I wanted to write about – these women realize they have more that marks them as allies than adversaries; they don’t just work well together, they have also formed true bonds of friendship, based on understanding of, and respect for, each other.

 4) On your site, you’d shown that you’ve read voluminously of mystery series from childhood to adulthood, ranging from the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. What are your favorite contemporary mystery series?

I’ll be honest and admit I find it incredibly difficult to read series these days – largely because I find my reading time diminished, and a series so difficult to get through, especially if it’s long; no time to play catch-up. There are many books I have read where I know I’d love to read the entire series (the Dandy Gilver Mysteries by Catriona McPherson, and the Kate Shackleton Mysteries by Frances Brody are two historical series I’d like to compete reading one day) but I know I won’t manage it for years!  There are some where I am almost up-to-date (the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffith, the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Rebus series by Ian Rankin, the Vera Stanhope series and the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves). But standalones appeal to me more these days, because I know I won’t be worrying about what’s happening to characters I’ve grown to love.

 5) As with my last Author of the Month, Valerie Burns, you’re a big Agatha Christie fan. How do you think cozy mysteries have changed since Christie’s time?

I don’t think the idea that Agatha Christie’s mysteries were “cozy” would ever have occurred to anyone as they were being written and read for the first time. They were mysteries, and of a certain type – a type where a puzzling murder/case needed to be solved, and that was done by wit and mental capacity…with a smattering of real clues and red herrings…rather than by having folks running around with guns, or working through a factual or fictional series of police procedures. They were contemporary to begin with, but she wrote over so many decades that she ended up writing “historical” mysteries (except in the case of the Beresford books, where I was delighted to witness her characters age in real time). Other than in the broadest sense, I never thought of her works as formulaic, but I think when folks talk about “cozies” today, many imagine the sort of books with illustrations on the cover, usually featuring a cat or dog, and food, with a pun in the title. I have tried to differentiate between my two series by telling people my Cait Morgan Mysteries are truly traditional, closed-circle mysteries, where the sort of deductive reasoning epitomized by Poirot and his “little gray cells” is witnessed, whereas my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries have much more of the St. Mary Mead about them, even though they are set in Wales.

 6) You had just returned from Malice Domestic a day or two before I made you Author of the Month. What interesting stories did you bring back with you to Canada?

Well, there are some stories I cannot tell – or then I’d have to kill everyone reading this, but there are some highlights. First of all, having met Ann Cleeves on several occasions before – and having benefitted from her insights during some wonderful heart-to-hearts – I was delighted to finally get to chat with her and Brenda Blethyn, who brings Ann’s character Vera Stanhope to life on the screen. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to them at the Agatha Banquet, when Brenda was presented with her Amelia Peabody Award. Sadly, I suffered “fan-girl syndrome” and found I wasn’t able to properly express to Brenda exactly how fabulous it is to see Vera made flesh. Ann and I managed quite well though! I was also thrilled to be interviewed by britbox. It’s a TV streaming service which brings the best of both the BBC and ITV to screens in the USA, and now Canada. They have some excellent British mysteries, and I was fortunate that they wanted to give me that chance to talk about some of my favorites. It was harder than I thought, because there are many TV series I have watched over the years that are dear to me, but I did my best.

 7) Describe your average writing day. Do you use notebooks, a laptop, a combination of both? Do you set daily or weekly word goals?

For the past two years I have been Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, and will admit that has meant a great deal more work than I had expected (and probably two books I haven’t written). As such, that and my own promotional work have become my “full time job”, with writing moving into the night shift. I do think of research, plotting and outlining as part of the writing process, and – as all authors know – you’re ALWAYS doing one of those things. But, when it comes to sitting at my laptop, with my notebook beside me containing my chapter outlines from which I work, that tends to run from around 9.30pm until 1am or 2am, usually for about six weeks at a time. Then it’s back to editing, which I try to fit into my normal work-day.

 8) When you get right down to it, all writing is information management, especially in mystery fiction that inevitably arrives at a denouement. What criteria do you use to decide what to tell the reader or not and when? How do you handle foreshadowing?

I try to follow fair-play rules, giving the reader everything they need to see, hear, smell, touch or taste to allow them to solve the mystery along with my protagonists. Those clues need to arrive in a drip-pattern throughout the book, to the extent that they are what keep the plot moving forward. I’m not averse to foreshadowing, though I’m not keen when it walks through the door and smacks me in the face.

 9) What would you like to see change in mystery and crime fiction?

This is a tough question, because I think it’s changing all the time. Maybe one thing…less use of the word “girl” in book titles, especially when the “girl” in question is older than 19.

 10) What brings a Welsh lady to Canada? Was it love, a vocational opportunity?

I was imported to Canada by the University of British Columbia to teach the marketing elements of their award-winning MBA program. I had sold my company in 1999 (I’m proud that I’d built it from scratch, to become the largest of its type in Europe, training non-marketing managers vocational skills, and preparing corporately-sponsored candidates for post-graduate marketing qualifications) and thought it would be a good time to “give back” by seeing what it was like to move from the business world to academia. A house-move meant my commute became five hours a day, so I was fortunate that Simon Fraser University invited me to teach undergraduate marketing and marketing communications courses, at their campuses which are much closer to my new home. I taught from 2000 until I “retired” from that second career in 2013.

 11) Speaking as a former citizen of the UK, what is it about murder both real and fictional that historically has fascinated the British so much?

I’m not so sure that Brits are more captivated by fictional or factual murder mysteries than any other group, but I believe we see crime fiction, and especially puzzle mysteries, as a valuable part of the heritage we have shared with the rest of the world, based on just how many of the stars of The Golden Age were British. Authors like PD James helped elevate the genre to the level of the socially acceptable, too, and the work the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have done in bringing characters from the page to the screen means we all get to see beautiful British scenery, awash with corpses…always fun!

 12) What is your view on sensitivity readers and should they stay or go?

I think good editors, who work for good publishers, should be (and usually are) pretty well attuned to most issues that sensitivity readers look out for. Editors are the professionals who, on behalf of all the authors they work for, need to ensure they are clued into shifting paradigms of taste and style, and authors should be able to rely upon them. We live in times when sensitivity to any number of issues can change in a day, or a week, whilst others are matters of basic human respect. Many authors need to raise issues that create discomfort for readers, to allow tensions to be heightened, and, as such, might specifically choose to be “insensitive” when portraying certain characters. I think one of the important roles fiction can play in our lives is to cause us to question our assumptions about people, and to understand why people might do what they do…all of which usually means challenging the reader, and sometimes making them uncomfortable.

 13) With rapid fire developments and innovations in digital technology, publishing more than ever is in a constant state of flux. This includes the rise of small independent presses, making publishing much more democratic. Do you think we’ve reached a saturation point or do we need even more publishing entrepreneurs and platforms in the marketplace?

I’m not sure I could answer this usefully, even if I had a crystal ball! I have worked with small and medium-sized publishers, and am now also an indie-publisher, having incorporated last year. It seems to me that the critical factor is distribution, and accessibility to the work. The Internet helps readers around the world get their hands on books, but, for those who enjoy libraries or bookstores, that’s where the big publishers win hands-down…good distribution and huge promotional dollars tend to sell books. If more small organizations come along to offer access to the marketplace to more authors, they’ll still have to fight the big publishers and their imprints on the shelves, but at least they can reach out to the world through the ether.

 14) Plotter or pantser?

Plotter. I cannot start to write a book until I have everything planned out, and worked up into chapter outlines.

 15) The most colorful thing about cozy mysteries is the endlessly eclectic variety of protagonists and themes. What is one type of protagonist or theme that you’d love most to see in a series that hasn’t been thought of yet?

Sorry, I just don’t know, and that’s because I know I haven’t read everything that’s out there. I like strong female characters, but also strong male ones; my favorite type of character is one with both strengths and weaknesses, drawn on the page in such a way that I feel I understand why they possess both, and how those features affect their lives, and make their investigative technique what it is.
Cathy Ace's official website and links to her books' product pages can be found here.


At May 6, 2018 at 2:28 PM, Blogger Cathy Ace said...

Thanks for inviting me along, Robert - Cathy

At May 6, 2018 at 4:49 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

My pleasure, Cathy.


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