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Friday, July 10, 2009

The Ravens Eye is on: Carolyn Haines

As a Yankee girl, born and raised, I had no idea just how sassy and spirited those southern belles could get. Carolyn Haines is a fabulous writer who can craft a great mystery in the sweetest southern style you've ever seen. Her sweet tea sipping, with a side shot of Jack Daniels, sassy and outrageous heroine, Sarah Booth Delaney, has more than just the ghosts of Dixie to contend with, she has real life criminals as well. The adventures and romances that Sarah, Tinkie and Sweetie Pie(one hound of a dog) get into are some of the best reading you're ever going to come across. So set yourself down a spell and get to know more about this wonderful writer.

When did you begin the process of writing your first book? How long did it take you? What did you find the most challenging?
I started out writing short stories and was lucky enough to get an agent, who encouraged me to write a novel. My first novel was a Southern story about family and an act of euthanasia (never sold). I had always been an avid reader, but I didn't even know the terms point of view or immediate scene. I simply wrote. The book was structurally flawed, and the lack of plot didn't help matters (imagine that!). But I managed to tell a story, sort of, enough at least to sustain encouragement for the agent and some kind words from some magazine editors. So I set about trying to understand the elements of a novel. And I did it the hard way--by being rejected. It took seven years and numerous rejections before I was published.

Is there anyone, author or otherwise, in particular you draw inspiration from? If so, how has that influenced your writing?
Carolyn-So many writers have influenced me at different times in my life. Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Doris Betts, when I fell in love with short fiction. Today, I am awed by the mastery of James Lee Burke. Pete Dexter. Dark writers who use the mystery form, at times, to dig deep. I'm deeply thrilled with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's second translation, The Angel's Game. He's able to write a mystery with elements of the supernatural and a coming of age story plus an examination of what it means to be a writer. Wow! This is a good old-fashioned story that's bubbling with energy. Elizabeth George's early Lynley books are phenomenal--she nails the psychology of a character in one paragraph. She taught me a lot about writing a series character. I also read a lot of debut authors. And I greatly enjoy Carolyn Hart, Charlaine Harris, and Tim Dorsey. They take me to a place, sometimes of insanity, where the living is easy (and with an edge of danger). I love a good ghost story when I can find one, but I put the emphasis on story, not ghastly effects.

What is it about mystery that draws you to write it?
Carolyn-One thing I've learned about writing fiction is that it's my job to make order out of chaos. Books may reflect real life, but they have to organize the events so that they make sense and deliver emotional satisfaction (life does not do this, at least in my universe). Mysteries bring about that order, but they are also about justice. That's satisfying on some primal level. Writing a mystery also requires plotting, which is a big challenge to me. I'm character driven, so I work hard for plot and structure (as do most writers, I think). The only two things I've ever wanted in life have both been very hard for me--writing and riding horses. I really work at my writing, and I've had to work hard to become a fair rider. But the things that come easily to me I don't appreciate.

Who was the first mystery author you can remember reading?
Carolyn-Carolyn Keene, of course. The Nancy Drew mysteries were the goal at the end of the month, when I'd saved up my allowance every week until I had enough to buy one. I loved the Hardy Boys, too (better toys, faster cars, etc.) I also read a lot of Alfred Hitchock magazines.

Did the idea for the paranormal mystery come to you from a real life encounter with the supernatural? Do you believe in ghosts?
Carolyn-I do believe in ghosts. In fact, I had one in my truck for several months. I bought the truck at an auction, and I'd had it several years before I went outside one night hunting for one of my cats and discovered a young man sitting behind the steering wheel. He attempted to talk to me. It scared me badly. I saw him several times, but could find nothing about him or any link to the truck. Finally I learned how to release him and I haven't seen him since. But I've seen other spirits. None have ever been intimidating or seemed angry or dangerous, but they have creeped me out.Jitty came as a character, and as, sort of, Sarah Booth's subconscious. But the fun of writing her is that she can be read either way. I like that. As you can see, I enjoy a challenge in my work.

Do the characters always come to you first or does the story? Who is your favorite character out of all the ones you’ve created?
Carolyn-Stories come to me in different ways. With Sarah Booth and Jitty, I heard their voices. With Johanna and Duncan McVay from TOUCHED, I saw this elegant woman, so strong, pulling a wagon that contained a rocking chair, a badly burned child, and a rooster. I had to figure out who they were and what their story was. With PENUMBRA and FEVER MOON, there were things I wanted to write about--the consequences of loving the wrong person and the power of belief systems to make our lives big and wonderful or tiny and hellish. I think my job as a writer is to honor the story that I'm given and work as hard as I can to tell it properly. It's difficult not to try to force a story into a form that I want to write, or that I'm comfortable with. I write in a lot of genres, from mysteries to general fiction, to romantic mysteries, to short fiction and even nonfiction. I'm working on a Southern gothic horror idea right now. This genre hopping is sometimes exhausting, but it is also what keeps me totally enraptured as a writer. I am learning and growing. And my goal is to honor the gift of the story and do my best, whatever kind of story it is.I can't pick a favorite character. These are my children (as perverse as some of them are).

Is the writer you are now come close to the writer you once pictured yourself being?
Carolyn-It's funny, because I never anticipated actually publishing novels when I was growing up. My parents were journalists, and I grew up in that business. I sold my first story and picture when I was 12-years-old to a newspaper with a circulation of over 100,000. I dreamed of writing--the act of doing it--but I don't think I projected to see myself as published. I have to say, the business is not what I imagined. It is very hard work, and writing is only a part of it. My life as a writer is much more public than I imagined.

How do southern women feel about your revealing the secrets of the Daddy's Girl handbook? Overall, have southern Belles rallied behind Sarah Booth?
Carolyn-Actually, Daddy’s Girls feel that if EVERYONE followed the rules of proper conduct, the world would run smoother. So they really aren't upset that I discuss the Daddy's Girl handbook.

It is becoming more difficult to become published. Tell us about the process it took for you to get your first book on bookstore shelves.
Carolyn-I think a lot of things have changed in publishing that make it harder for a writer to break in. There are more writers and less bookstores. Books have only a short period of time to sell before they're pulled from shelves. Editors are slammed with work which includes editing but so many other things, too.My first published book was A DEADLY BREED (written as Caroline Burnes) with Harlequin Intrigue. I look at some writers who seem to have everything come easily and wonder how they got that sprinkling of stardust. Well, my stardust was Tahti Carter, an editor at Intrigue. She saw something in me--and she took the time to help me. Through the editing process of that book, she literally taught me the basics of writing. It was a hard, fast process, and there was no time for messing around or whining. She gave me a huge opportunity, and I owe her a lot.With several Intrigues under my belt and an understanding of point of view, forward movement of character, the balance of emotion, action, and scene by scene development, I started work on SUMMER OF THE REDEEMERS, a coming of age story set in 1963 Mississippi about a horse crazy young girl and one summer when a horse trainer and a religious cult move onto her red dirt road. Her best friend's infant sister goes missing. That book sold to Dutton in one of those fairy tail moments. The publisher called from the courthouse, while she was on jury duty, and made an offer on the book. While getting a book onto store shelves is a huge challenge, the work doesn’t end there.

How do you go about publicizing your work and developing a fan base?
Carolyn-At first, I didn't get the whole publicity thing. I used to be really shy. Morbidly shy might be more accurate. I like quiet, and I like being alone with my animals in my imaginary world. So when Dutton sent me on tour, I honestly didn't know how to deal with it. I made some mistakes, but I learned. Today, so much work is done on the Internet. This is easier on my physically (I have 21 animals, many of them rescue critters--6 dogs, 8 cats, 7 horses--so it's hard for me to find a "sitter"). But the technology is hard to keep up with. And I enjoy the face-to-face with the people who read my books. Strangely enough, it's like we're all good friends. The common ground is the Zinnia gang--we share that interest. Though I'm the author, I'm as surprised as the readers by some of the things Sarah Booth, Tinkie and Sweetie Pie get into. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't have a firm grip on these characters.A really important way to get the word out involves folks like you who give writers an opportunity to talk about writing, my characters, the things that matter to me.I have a web site, , and I try to connect with folks there and on Facebook. Most of the people who read my books are big animal lovers, and over the years, we've shared animal stories. Folks know all about my 32-year-old Thoroughbred, Miss Scrapiron. We share that love of our four-legged family.I also give talks and attend conferences and teach. But without a doubt, the most important thing for an author is word of mouth. When a reader says, "You have to read this book. You'll love it." There is no money that can buy that kind of endorsement. I do a newsletter on an irregular basis, and my readers often pass it along to their friends. This kind of support and enthusiasm is the best. By the way, folks can sign up for my newsletter at my Web site.

I want to thank Carolyn for spending time with me. Her latest Sarah Booth Delany mystery, Greedy Bones, is out right now, so grab yourself a copy quick.


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