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Wednesday 1 March 2017

Marni Graff - Interview

Carol Westron talks to Marni Graff

Marni Graff is an American author who loves England so much that she set her Nora Tierney Mysteries in England, the first in Oxford and the second two in the Lake District. These are traditional, cosy crime novels featuring a young American journalist. The first and second Nora Tierney mysteries, The Blue Virgin and The Green Remains, received First Prize in the
Mystery and Mayhem Award for
Best British Cozy from Chanticleer .
Marni Graff’s first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery,
Death Unscripted, had a well-loved and most distinguished mentor. This is the book P. D. James insisted Graff write and it is dedicated to her. This book was named a finalist for the IAN Awards and is shortlisted as Best Mystery from
Chanticleer Media. Marni writes a brilliant blog under the name Auntie M. She is also the author of screenplays, stories, essays and poetry and non-fiction. She is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, an author’s cooperative and one of the founders of the ground-breaking Screw Iowa! Writers Group. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and of Mystery People.

Carol: Your first cosy crime series features Nora Tierney, an American girl living in Oxford and, in books 2 and 3 in the Lake District. What factors made you decide to set Nora’s adventures in England rather than America?
I am an unabashed Anglophile, who first visited England in my 20’s with my then-husband’s rugby team. The minute I stepped off the plane, I felt like I was coming home. England felt that familiar to me—maybe I lived there in another life? I’ve always felt an affinity for the UK, perhaps from my early Agatha Christie readings, and when I was twelve I wanted to be Julie Andrews! That feeling of home has only intensified through many subsequent trips there. Despite the distance, I knew if I set Nora down in England, I could live there vicariously through her. It’s proved a great excuse for trips to scout locations for future books, too.

I decided early on to move Nora around a bit so that she wouldn’t suffer from what I call the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome, where Cabot Cove suddenly became a hotbed of murder once Jessica moved in. That allows for more flexibility, too, and lets me investigate new areas. I deliberately made one couples’ home base in Cornwall to justify a trip there.

Carol: The cosy, by its very nature, involves descriptions of everyday life in a small community, such as a village. As an American, what were the biggest challenges you faced when writing books set in England?
Marni: There’s no question there are differences between the two and the distance is a factor, helped by Google these days. I’m very fortunate to have several helpful British friends. I rely on them as beta readers to catch things I’ve gotten wrong, especially what I call “Britspeak,” as some of the slang I originally used tended to be
antiquated, gleaned from reading the Golden Agers. Not living there makes it difficult to keep up with new sayings and phrases. These friends are my lifeline for those issues, and for correcting me when I forget that Americans call things by different names than Brits do. Nora has adopted some Britspeak, but she also still thinks in American at times, so I’m careful to keep those accurate, ie: diapers vs nappies; the trunk of a car vs the boot; a stroller vs a buggy.  The area I grew up in, on Long Island outside New York City was a village with many similar aspects to English village life. Floral Park had a small town feel, its own local police, even a small newspaper, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business and gossip, so those things were easy to call upon. But there’s nothing like being in a place to get a feel for it, so I always visit in person before using a place for a setting.

When I do these scouting trips to seek settings I may use in future books, I take copious photos to refer to back home, , and try to make at least one or two contact while there, people who agree to answer my future email questions. For instance, when I was in Penzance, I attended a concert in a church and the woman I sat next to and I started chatting. She and I mail letters and cards back and forth, and she will be a resource, as well another pair of writers I know who have a holiday home in Cornwall. In Cumbria, I was looking for a police resource and found a policeman close to retiring who was born in the area. He was able to help me on both fronts in several of the books, adding a real feel to such things as where the mortuary is located in Kendal’s hospital.. Most people are very happy to cooperate for the mention of their name in the Acknowledgements page, and it’s a great way to make a new friend.

Carol: I love the warm protective bond you gave Nora with her delightful baby, Sean, but the fact remains that you presented Nora with one of the greatest challenges any female sleuth has to face, being a parent and a single parent at that. Did you always intend that to happen, or was Nora’s pregnancy as big a shock to you as it was to her?
  I often rue the day I had Nora become pregnant! Having a child certainly hampers her ability to move lithely and investigate when heavily pregnant, as in The Green Remains, and now Sean must be accounted for in each subsequent book. When I was writing The Blue Virgin, I was thinking of Nora’s story arc for the series, and knew there had to be something BIG that happened right off the bat to make her different from any other amateur sleuth, something that would also give me plenty of subplots for subsequent stories. Having Nora find out she was pregnant after her partner had died evolved out of the first draft and did surprise me, but once I’d written it in, that seemed the natural way for many things to happen. In The Scarlet Wench, Nora is struggling with initiating a real relationship with someone who is not her child’s father, and the practicalities that ensue in a modern world. In The Golden Hour, the one I’m revising now and hope to have out later this year, Sean unwittingly becomes the focus in the story.

Carol: I’ve referred to the Nora Tierney books as a series but at the moment they are a trilogy, with quite a few issues rounded off in Book 3, The Scarlet Wench. Do you plan to come back to Nora in the future?
Marni: The fourth, The Golden Hour, should be in print later this year. It has scenes in Brighton, Oxford and Cornwall, but the main action takes place in Bath. At this time I plan six in the series for now. After that, I’ll see if there are any more stories for Nora to tell.

Carol: Now onto your new series featuring Trudy Genova. I reviewed the first book in the series, Death Unscripted, and unhesitatingly gave it 5 stars. The background to the story is unique and the details of a nurse acting as an advisor on medical matters in a movie studio all sound totally authentic. I understand that you worked in a similar job. Without giving away any spoilers, could you tell us an anecdote of something you learned while working as a nurse that you used in Death Unscripted?
Marni: I was transitioning from my nursing career to writing, having always written “on the side,” and studying different forms. By that time I knew screenplay format, and when I took the job for a movie studio based in Manhattan, I knew it would give me more time to study writing, as I only had to be on set when there where medical scenes being filmed. At that time, several soap operas and a few shows like Law and Order were filmed in NYC, and I worked them but was most often on the soap “One Life to Live.” Being the medical consultant on any kind of film set is intriguing. You are there as the authority for all things medical, but the thing I had to quickly get used to was that my objection to anything the director wanted that wasn’t authentic or accurate was often met with a response of a blithe “artistic license.”  They wanted to get it right, but only so far as it didn’t interfere with their idea of what they wanted to happen dramatically.

There is a scene is DU where Trudy needs to work with an actor who is supposedly dead, so they can film across the man’s “body” to show his wife crying and remembering happy times together. In most soaps, characters are rarely killed off forever. Many reappear after horrific accidents, the lucky happenstance of  missing the blown-up plane/finding a bit of wing to hang onto/escaping through a secret tunnel, etc., months after their demise when the soaps writers need to add a boost or a surprise. Since the new “old” character  appears different, as an actor has moved on, that is put down in the script to plastic surgery from the injuries received!

In my real instance on One Life to Live, actor, Jessica Tuck was leaving for a movie role in California and moving there permanently. The writers decided to kill her from some dreaded disease in a bid for the star, Erica Slezak, to win an Emmy nomination. She did. But the problem for me, which Trudy also aces, was how to let Jessica know when the camera was shooting across her body so she could hold her breath.  I tied a string to her big toe, threaded it under the sheets and blanket, and sat on the floor holding the other end where I had a view of the Camera 2, which was filming the two women. When I the camera light came on, I tugged the string, and Jessica held her breath until the light went out and I tugged again to let her take a breath. It worked like a charm.

Carol: I really like the character of Trudy, she is determined, courageous and curious but also vulnerable. All of your characters are well-developed and believable, even the outrageously egotistical actors that Trudy has to deal with. How do you create your characters? Do you start with them fully-formed in your mind or do you find them growing and developing in unexpected ways?
Marni: I start with the idea of who they need to be, then give them a brief background so I know their personality type and how they would likely act and react. Their appearance grows out of that, but two things I always write down in my character Bible for each one are: what does he/she fear most? And what do they want most? These might turn out to be the same thing, but they relate to each other and it informs me of their character. Then I once I start writing them in, they often do grow and surprise me with aspects of their personality I hadn’t assigned originally. I think you must be fluid in these things. Most people are rarely all one thing and it makes them come alive to have them shaded and rounded out with quirks and foibles, some unexpected.

Carol: When is the next Trudy Genova book due for publication?
Marni: First out will be the next Nora, The Golden Hour, which will be in print later this year. Then I’ll finish work on Death of an Heiress, the next Trudy Genova mystery, and hope to have that one out in 2018.   In that one, Trudy is working on a television movie being filmed at The Dakota , the famed apartment building, probably known to most people as where John Lennon was living when he was killed outside its entrance. 

She’s assigned to keep watch over a newly pregnant actor when a murder occurs and the woman disappears. In reality, The Dakota doesn’t allow filming of any kind, but in Trudy’s world, that’s not an issue! It helps that I’ve managed to obtain a copy of the floor plan of the apartment that Leonard Bernstein and his family once owned, so that will be the setting and provide the descriptions.

Carol:   I know that Death Unscripted has been shortlisted for the Chanticleer Best Mystery award. Have you heard the results yet?
Marni: No, those won’t be announced until April.  Just being on the shortlist is an honor. The Nora’s have all won awards and I’m very proud of those, too.

Carol: Now for the thing I most envy you – your friendship with P.D. James, who acted as your mentor and to whom Death Unscripted is dedicated. She was a truly remarkable and inspiring lady. Could you share some reminiscences of her please?
Marni: I met the Baroness when I interviewed her for Mystery Review magazine and we remained friends for the next fifteen years until her death. When I appeared at her Holland Square town-house, she answered the door herself, and I noticed immediately she was letting her hair dye grow out. The entire front was white up to her Alice band, while the rest was brown streaked with grey. She confessed that she had told herself that in her 80th year she would stop dyeing it, and she had. After that, every time I saw her, she carried a lovely head of white hair.

That London town-house was filled with antiques and art, the wallpaper a William Morris design, but it was comfortable and cozy, filled with things well-used and loved. As we grew to be friends, in correspondence by post and later in emails, dotted with my visits to England when I would to see her, she was always encouraging about my work, and it was at her insistence that DU was written. She said readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at a nurse thrown into the medium of television. That’s why the book is dedicated to her and our friendship.

I remember being surprised at her wonderful and mischievous sense of humor. She did not suffer fools gladly, but was very tolerant of different viewpoints. She was also a sympathetic person to anyone in emotional pain. She always told me that the literature of a nation was its best achievement and lasting effort, and wished the words of Cranmer and others from the Anglican liturgy would be kept and honored instead of modernized. She served for years on the Liturgical Committee in London for the Church of England, and her assistant, the wonderful Joyce McLennon, kept her meeting notes in a file labeled “GOD.”

I was fortunate to be asked to write an essay about Joyce and Phyllis for a book titled The Who, The What and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (Chronicle Books, 2014).  It contains essays about the people behind famous people, such as Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, and Michael and Joy Brown, Harper Lee’s patrons. Phyllis was genuinely excited that Joyce would be featured for a change, after being her assistant for thirty-five years. Joyce typed every one of Phyllis’
manuscripts as they were written in longhand and then transcribed. She often travelled with Phyllis and kept her on course, and theirs was a strong bond. It was fitting that
Death Comes to Pemberley is dedicated to Joyce.

The art that accompanies my essay is from my photo of Joyce serving Phyllis tea as the author signs a book for me that I took on my last visit to have tea with them both in London. Artist Julia Rothman took my photo and created a wicked tableau that bears a second look. At first glance, one sees the two women, the tall, patrician Joyce, handing a tea cup to Phyllis, glasses on, writing manuscript pages. The wallpaper and tablecloth design are faithfully rendered—until one looks closely and notices the revolver worked into the paper pattern; the bloodied knife set casually across a china plate; the body fallen down the stairs in the hallway amidst more blood spatter. Phyllis loved it. It suited her wicked sense of humor perfectly.

Carol:   To end with can you tell us about yourself? I know you are a very busy lady with lots going on in your writing life and your personal life – like you, I have seven grandchildren and know that is pretty well a full-time job in itself. What other things do you like doing with your time?
Marni:  You are right when you say grandchildren keep you busy, and family is a priority for me. We have three Grand living near us and four others living in Minnesota we see several times a year. And now we have adopted a new puppy, Seamus. I’d forgotten how time-consuming training a puppy is, but he is a good companion for our older dog, Radar and has a sweet personality. My husband and I live in along a river, part of the Intracoastal Waterway in eastern North Carolina, quite a switch for New Yorkers. It’s a very rural area—we have an 18-mile drive round-trip to get our mail, as they don’t deliver down our dirt road. We like to take walks along the road or the river with the dogs. I read about three novels a week, for reviews for my crime fiction blog, Auntie M Writes, which is excerpted in Mystery People.

Each year, I meet with the same group of women for our critique workshop for each other’s novels-in-progress. We’ve been meeting every June for thirteen years now after meeting at a novel writing class at the University of Iowa, and I value their opinions and suggestions. It’s rare to find a group willing to take on the task of reading an entire novel for each other and we do it for whoever has one to read, then each writer gets a day and we go over them page by page. Besides my writing and revising, I’m also the Managing Editor for Bridle Path Press, a small indie press that’s an author’s cooperative out of Baltimore, MD. I also mentor the monthly Writers Read program in Belhaven, NC, and teach workshops at The Pamlico Writers Conference each year. On occasion I’m asked to meet with a book club and talk about the books, and of course, I will tour when I have a new book out. I have a route that takes me from NC to Maine by car, with stops along the way at libraries and bookshops to talk about the new book. I take one route up, stop in Maine for a visit with my best friend since Kindergarten, and take another route home, staying with family and friends along the way. I’ve slept on a lot of couches these past years, but meeting with readers and answering their questions is always a highlight for me.

Carol, thanks so much for this interview and for making me examine my writing. 

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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