Monday, December 21, 2020

Interview with Toni Kief

15) Toni, your main character, indeed, your only series character, is Mildred Petrie, sort of a latter-day Miss Marple in a casino setting. For those who haven’t enjoyed the Mildred series, tell us a little about her backstory.  

Mildred grew up in Memphis, Tennessee when she was young. She left to an awkward breakup and moved away. As providence would have it, she joined a police department in the traffic control division. Married for fifty years to Dick Petrie, a detective, her life was turned on its end when he died unexpectedly. She learned that he had lost all of their money, including their retirement. Desperate, she walked to the nearby Ivory Wind’s Casino and scored a job working undercover security.

14) You used to be an insurance investigator for many years. Had any of those experiences made their way into your fiction?

I was one of the first female casualty, independent insurance investigators in Florida. Once I settled in Washington State, I continued to work a large variety of claims including trucking, transportation, and liability accidents at local casinos from slip and falls to robberies and other shady goings on.  As an independent I handled any investigation that was requested. I often said, I may not be an expert on this situation, but I know where to ask.

13) You’ve described your fiction as “OA- Old Adult.” What are the challenges of evolving a character who’s a mature lady, at an age in which many are set in their ways?

I look at myself, and know that even though I have retired, there is so much more I want to do. I’m not an exception and especially as a woman, I’m bolder and more outspoken. I am not the only one. We have already dealt with expectations, and are ready for a new chapter under our own rules.

12) Describe your typical writing day, if you have one. Do you set word goals for yourself and do you draft in notebooks exclusively or do you only work on a laptop or both?

I try to write every day. I set small goals so they don’t seem to be too much, ½ hour and 200 words. I tried paying myself a dollar a day, but then I knew where the dollars were, and bought ice cream. Next, I rewarded myself with the “good” tea and if I didn’t accomplish a good day, I had to drink the 2 for $5 stuff from the grocery store. With the pandemic, I need to find a new encouragement.

11) You’d had a new book launch last September, Saints, Strangers and Rosehip Tea. Could you tell us a bit about that?

I have always been bonkers for history. That fascination had helped me become the “know it all” I am today. My father’s cousin, on the Ashley side, spent 40 years in a genealogy search, and from his work I learned we were related to many in history. I became intrigued by Susanna Jackson White my nine times great grandmother. She came to the new world on the Mayflower and was one of the survivors of the first year. I knew I had to tell part of her story, as the women’s side has been overlooked. Susanna had a baby onboard the Mayflower as well as a toddler and I could only guess how she kept them alive the first year. (If I would have known this amazing history, I wonder if I would have behaved better).

10) In our private conversations, you’ve expressed countless times your fascination with historical personages, particularly in the early Colonial era. You’re particularly interested in Elizabeth Curwin. What is it about early American Colonial history that draws you so much?

I learned recently that Elizabeth Winslow was Susanna’s daughter from her second marriage to Edward Winslow. In Elizabeth’s second marriage, she joined the Curwin family of Salem, Massachusetts.  They were instrumental in the Salem Witch trials. At the time she would have been a wealthy widow, and the step-mother of the sheriff and a judge. Not sure if I will go further, but she is nagging at me.

9) Plotter, pantser or plantser?

Pantser all the way. I think my characters have written the books and I only transcribe.

8) Do you see yourself as continuing the traditions of cozy mysteries or as a trend-setter?

This is a tough question. I have no idea. I’ll just float with where the muse takes me. I also have considered diving into more women’s historical fiction. I have multiple short bios of women of history and myth from a project when I first started writing that never was published.

7) What do you see as Mildred’s weaknesses and her strengths?

I had noticed that as I aged, I was no longer being noticed. As a woman of a certain age, I started to think of invisibility as a super power. It is as if people would be shocked that we can still walk, talk and dance. In addition, we crones have been there, done that. So, some of her strength is insight, quick thinking, and not trapped in the need to fit in to social mores.

6) What was the best piece of writing advice you’d ever received and what advice would you give to young or novice authors?

Get it down on paper, discipline yourself and don’t worry until the first rewrite, the second, and the third. I would give the same advice, and don’t worry about trends or what you “should” do. Just write and use the rules later.

5) You’ve told me several times about your FBI file. How did you achieve that dubious distinction and was it during the Hoover years?

Hoover my ass! Reagan years. I was the president of the Tampa, Florida National Organization for Women. Our main focus was on civil rights, reproductive rights, equality and environmental issues. This was the time when there were bombings and attacks on the women’s health clinics. As the president, I was the spokesperson for the news outlets. I also came up with some creative protests that brought additional attention to our issues. I believe my file started when we got 200 women to cross the state to mail shoes to the White House for the second inauguration. It was a play on the barefoot and pregnant cliché. As the anti-choice people became more aggressive, I was being followed and threatened. Both ATF and Tampa police called me with warnings and an officer told me of the file. I know it is a paper file in a cabinet lost in a basement, but I’m darn proud of it.

4) While growing up, who were some of your favorite authors and had any of them proved influential in your work?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I read the banned book list. As a result, I was introduced to Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Orwell. I faked my required book reports thanks to Cliff Notes, and then when I was in my early 20s, I read the books I had lied about. I’m the only person who got a C on a book report for the Scarlett Letter and didn’t know the minister was part of the “A”.

Each of those authors encouraged me to be original and outrageous.

3) Despite your best attempts to set down roots, it seems every few years, you’re struck with the wanderlust. Why do you think that is?

I swear there have been different incarnations in this lifetime. Sometimes it is escaping a bad situation, and sometimes it is for the excitement of moving cross country. I’ve lived where I am now for eleven years, and that is a record. I look around now, and don’t want to lift that many boxes to move again. Maybe it was an awkward attempt to move to Washington state the long way around, Illinois, Arizona, Florida and now here. All of my sisters are also here, along with a rich family history I knew little of.  I plan to stay for the mountains, rain, dahlias the size of your face, and a hundred shades of green.

2) Any plans to write a hardboiled mystery or do cozies do it for you?

          I don’t have a plan. I let the inspiration lead me. I am working on a 5th Mildred, but work is slow. I’m open to most any idea that gives me a thrill and takes me round the block and into the chair.

1) What’s next for Toni Kief?

I have been struggling with writing in the pandemic. I am one of the rare creatures like a unicorn, an extroverted writer. I didn’t start writing until I was over 60, and it was a dare then.

From my days in NOW I learned about building organizations, and with Susan Brown we established and built the Writers Cooperative of the Pacific Northwest. I truly depended on the meetings and rich variety of support for encouragement. I like to give as much as I take, and even in these difficult times the Co-op has continued on.

I think Calliope caught Covid-19 and writing has been tough. I’ve taken some Master Classes and David Sedaris told me I should walk. I thought he was goofy until Dan Brown told me to walk. Now my odometer total indicates I’ve walked farther than Marysville, Washington, to the California border and I’ve picked up 486 bags of trash. Surprisingly, I have met some interesting characters in the nearby cemetery. This has given me some inspiration, and hopefully I'll get back on track, maybe later today.

If you’re interested in learning more about Toni Kief and her work, then follow the handy links below:




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