By Phil Mann
MYSTERICAL-E: What led you to try your hand at novel writing, and what prompted you to choose the mystery genre?
JERRILYN FARMER: The usual. I asked Mr. Magic 8 Ball. Well, that and the fact that I am a lifelong mystery fan. I began reading Erle Stanley Gardners at an early age. In fact, I thought about writing under the pseudonym Erlene, but I believe someone got to that name first, drat. Anyway, I own every Agatha Christie in paperback editions, and I love Dorothy Sayers and on down the line. After spending a lot of years working on game shows, and really enjoying it, I had become a little bored. In fact, between writing questions which took up hardly any time at all, I was a pretty experienced daydreamer. I was thinking about what it was I would do if I had no need to earn a living. After discarding my dizzying infatuations with spear-fishing in Pago-Pago or training to become a Dental Assistant in Eagle Rock, the thing that popped into my mind was I should continue writing, but this time try to write something longer than your average Jeopardy! question. One thought was to pen the definitive 2,000 page biography of Richard Dawson. The other was to write a comic mystery set in L.A. Imagining the glee of shish-kabobbing a few of the many interesting personalities I've stumbled across in my own Hollywood adventures sort of sealed the decision.
ME: Out of deference to the guilty, I won't ask you to reveal names, but perhaps you could share a story or two?
JF: The funny thing is, I don't really plan any of this. As I write the books, stories and anecdotes from my days working in Hollywood just sort of come to me. I chuckle and include many, often changing a few details to be safe. If I've recently worked with a celebrity or two, I might include them as a guest at one of Madeline's parties. For instance, I interviewed Regis and Joy Philbin around the time I was working on rewrites of SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, so they got to attend the huge Halloween party that opens that book. While my series is more urban and ironic than many traditional cozy mysteries, they are meant to be light and humorous. My books do not feature much gore or profanity, and, alas, that eliminates most of the true stories I've observed working in television.
ME: It's hard to imagine getting bored in a world filled with such gore an profanity.
JF: I should clarify. I was never bored by the daily circus of the behind-the-scenes nonsense of working on game shows. I loved the production staff, the deadlines, the lights, the cameras, the action! I was speaking about my growing desire to write something new to me, a fresh challenge. And as for stories, many of the best ones are included in MUMBO GUMBO, like the young, nutty game show announcer who has grown up with Johnny Olsen as his personal hero, practicing his vowels in his room after lights were out, always nursing the fantasy of one day being called on to intone those legendary words: "Phil, come on down!" I find all these characters very sweet, if somewhat twisted. So you see I fit in just fine with this crowd.
ME: Each new novel, I imagine, presents a set of new challenges, many self-imposed. Do you find yourself concentrating on any particular aspect of your writing with each new novel?
JF: I try to fool myself as I write. I see the set-up and the characters and the murder victim, and then I let them work it all out amongst themselves. Much less work for me, actually, and they seem happy.
ME: Your first two novels in particular garnered a slew of award nominations. How did this great success affect you?
JF: Ha! Poverty keeps me humble.
ME: In IMMACULATE RECEPTION, Madeline confesses she shares your fondness for Agatha Christie novels. When I think of Christie, I think of an author who made sure the clues were fairly before the reader. However, the mystery genre now seems to eschew the "rules" that van Dine and Carr espoused. What is your view of the role of clues in contemporary mysteries, including your own?
JF: I prefer to read a mystery that has it all--great character-driven plots filled with hot clues and a whopping surprise at the end. I think there needs to be a few clues that point directly at the killer--and yet, there also must exist a few red herrings that appear to point to several others. It is in the unraveling at the end that a reader must decide whether the ride was worth it and the answer proved satisfactory. In my own books, I like to think the motivation for the crime is consistent with the characters. I always plant a clue or two that seems deadly obvious to me. But then I also like to keep the reader guessing, so I don't want to make it too easy. Some fans do read rather quickly or dismiss an odd bit of information which they later do not recall. How frustrating to us mystery writers who work hard to put them in, only to be so successful at hiding them they appear invisible. But mostly, readers get a mix of character and plot and the exact mixture may vary according to a particular author's style.
ME: Let's turn to more immediate matters. You've got a new book coming out this year. What can you tell us about it?
JF: The next book is MUMBO GUMBO, the fifth in the Madeline Bean series and the first to come out in hard cover. Yippee! It takes place in the world of game shows (ah, a chance to reveal some insider gossip) and is somewhat inspired by Murder Must Advertise, in which Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover as an ad writer. In MUMBO GUMBO, Maddie works as a TV question writer on a very hot cooking competition series. It's coming out at the end of February, 2003 from William Morrow. There's trouble brewing behind the scenes at "Food Freak", a gonzo TV cookoff game show starring an Elvis-style host, celebrity Chef Howie Finkelberg. Tim Stock, the hit show's head writer, has gone missing. Finding herself in the right place at the wrong time, Madeline Bean leaves her catering firm for a few weeks to fill in as a culinary clue and recipe writer until the missing writer returns. Naturally, Mad discovers more than simply how to survive in the gumbo of egos she must work with in Hollywood. She finds the recipe to TV-land success includes dodging one deadly Studio City blaze, hunting down one black sheep, and romancing one sexy cop.
ME: What about Madeline's love interests? Though she does seem to have done better for herself in DIM SUM DEAD, can we expect anything approaching stability for her?
JF: Stability in her relationships with men? What a concept!
ME: I've heard rumors that Hollywood is interested in Madeline. What's the 411?
JF: The thing is, I began writing the Madeline Bean stories to take me *away* from working in Hollywood. So, even though it is exciting to think about being "discovered," I'm resistant to letting my characters be defined by someone else's casting choices and someone else's script. There have been some pretty high-profile duds produced in the past. Even setting aside that most authors have no say in the way their books are translated to film, there are other traps. Some great mystery authors, like Tony Hillerman and Sara Paretsky, lost control of their best-selling characters by selling the rights for just one movie. It can be a complicated legal issue. You know Sue Grafton and Robert Crais also wrote for television in their pasts, and like them, I have trouble ignoring the facts of the film business. So I am not so keen on the idea of tuning my books into a Hollywood product. Still, every so often I have been approached by interested parties, and it's always fun to talk about it a bit.
ME: How do you write? Do you have a particular time of day when you sit down to write? Do you have the same music playing in the background or have the TV on? Can you describe your typical writing schedule, and has it changed since SYMPATHY?
JF: I must confess to having a very fussy writing regimen. All must be in order before the Muse will cooperate. I spend hours each day in my office in a meditative state, although my family has yet to appreciate the importance my time alone pondering hand after hand of FreeCell. After that, I demand ultimate seclusion and quiet in which to compose each phrase and sentence. After the laughter in the house dies down, my oldest turns up Eminem, and my youngest, always sparring for auditory dominance, turns up Sponge Bob Squarepants, and I face the computer and start writing. One chapter a day until the first draft is done. Rewriting and polishing the work into a final draft takes time and care, and naturally, receive only a few dozen interruptions per hour for homework tips and wrestling arbitration from my saintly boys. Yes, I know it sounds rough. Some kind souls have suggested I use some of the valuable quiet time when the kids are at school to compose my stories. Alas, that would cut into my precious FreeCell meditation time. Still, I'm always open to suggestions.
ME: Do you have plans for any non-Bean novels, a new series, perhaps?
JF: A second series? Are you insane?
ME: The doctors I see prefer not to use that term.
JF: No? Well, perhaps after I get that factory of excellent mystery writers in Manilla up to speed... In truth, I do have a stand-alone suspense/thriller story I'm dying to get to. Maybe after the sixth Bean, upon which I am now hard at work.
ME: The events of September 11 were obviously profoundly moving, and I imagine they caused many writers a great deal of anxiety when contemplating how--or whether--to incorporate them. Did you think about how to deal with these events yourself? And do you have any thoughts about how contemporary literature in general should deal with that day? Do you see any ramifications for mysteries in particular?
JF: I know many writers found it hard to write any sort of fiction after September 11. In the face of such true horror, what place do our made up stories have? And yet, eventually, readers began looking for ways to be entertained again. Perhaps it is only natural that those of us who love to read would again begin turning to a trusted friend, a book, to take our minds off of the troubling news we are now reading constantly in the newspapers in the disaster's aftermath. And if mysteries can soothe those analytical souls who prefer reading a plot that allows good to fight and often win over evil, such a sense of justice seems to me even more in demand at times like these. Each writer must be true to her/his own tone and style. Those writing darker mysteries or those set in New York City may choose to include more of the actual details of 9/11 or even explore the evil of terrorism. That is not what my mystery series is about. I write a lighter, wittier, slyer style mystery, with a darker edge. Despite the fact that my books are meant to be enjoyed, Madeline Bean doesn't live in an antiseptic, happy-face world, and so when I began writing Mumbo Gumbo, I had to reflect upon how my characters' world had changed with recent events. To some extent, the Los Angeles that Madeline lives in has few obvious reminders of September 11, but many undercurrents. Maddie finds the mood is dark. So dark that no one is throwing big beautiful catered parties. In this book, her business is thrown into a sudden downturn. If you remember, the Emmy Awards Show requested their starlets to dress down last year, so Mumbo Gumbo reflects this no one-feels-like-a-party climate. But each mystery author's work has a different tone, and each must feel for those appropriate details to include some reference to the way the world has changed, or not.
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Jerrilyn Farmer in person, attend LEFT COAST CRIME 2003. Sign up for
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