|Carolyn Hart: Justice on Demand|
Broward's Rock, S.C., ranks high on the list of places I'd love to visit. Right up there with Oz and Narnia, and considerably ahead of the homicide-infested Cabot Cove, Maine. Broward's Rock boasts the nation's most well-known mystery specialty bookstore, Death on Demand, the setting of Carolyn Hart's award winning mystery series of the same name.
Yes, I know our local mystery bookstores probably carry the same stock. But while that gifted amateur sleuth, Annie Darling, rang up my order, I might catch a glance of her handsome husband, Max. And who knows, perhaps Hart's other sleuth, the enigmatic journalist Henrie O, just might stop off to pick up a little reading material for her next trip. So while I'm interviewing Carolyn Hart, I'll bring along my map, and maybe after we finish she'll show me the route to Broward's Rock. And do you think she'll think me too forward for asking if the divine Max has any unattached brothers?
Crescent Blues: When I read the advance notices about the first Henrie O book, my immediate reaction was, "Oh, no, does this mean we'll see less of Annie and Max?" But after reading Dead Man's Island, I was mollified. I thought, "Okay, cool; Henrie O is the kind of feisty older woman I'd like to become." Was this part of the reason you began the series -- to show a strong, capable senior sleuth, a modern day Miss Marple?
Carolyn Hart: Definitely. When I was growing up, I thought the phrase "an older woman" denoted an exalted status, indicating sophistication, wisdom, grace, importance. I was excited at the prospect of achieving that status. Instead, I discovered that our society dismisses older women as negligible. In mystery fiction, older women are often depicted as silly and helpless and as figures of fun, albeit good-natured fun. I wanted to create a woman who deserved respect because she has lived a challenging life, known joy and sorrow, achievement and failure. I have enjoyed getting to know Henrie O and I hope we will have many adventures together. For readers who wonder, Henrie O is taller, smarter, thinner, and braver than I am, but her attitudes and interests reflect mine.
Crescent Blues: The Henrie O books have a much darker, more serious tone than the Death on Demand series. Is there a reason for this -- a desire for a different voice, a change in your outlook toward life, a greater confidence in yourself as a writer?
Carolyn Hart: Some days we laugh. Some days we cry. Yes, the Henrie O books deal with life on a serious basis. But the Annie and Max books have the same objective and that is to create a world where justice triumphs. It is simply that the Annie and Max books are also intended to entertain. It is as difficult to write entertainment as to write drama. I have written other novels that deal with drama, Escape from Paris and Brave Hearts, both World War II novels, and A Settling of Accounts.
Crescent Blues: Each of the Henrie O books takes place in a different setting, including some wonderfully exotic ones -- an island off the coast of South Carolina, Nashville, a small Missouri college town, Hawaii, and now San Antonio, Texas. How do you choose the settings and how difficult is it to research them?
Carolyn Hart: The background is determined by the story. I don't intend for all the Henrie O books to be in exotic territory. As for the research, I visit the area and then buy a lot of books. The research is great fun.
Crescent Blues: Do you ever write stories set in your home state of Oklahoma, or do you prefer to keep your books set at a distance -- so your neighbors won't assume you're writing about them?
Carolyn Hart: I have set a short story, "Spooked," in northeastern Oklahoma in 1943. Gretchen, the protagonist, is 12 and works in her grandmother's cafe. That story appears in the Berkley anthology, Murder on Route 66, edited by Carolyn Wheat. I am presently working on another story about Gretchen. I have a novel in mind that I hope to write next year.
Carolyn Hart: The Broward's Rock Women's Club annually puts on a huge white elephant sale. When a volunteer picking up donations disappears, Henny Brawley sets out in pursuit. Henny also plans to go by the Death on Demand Mystery Book Store. When Henny doesn't show up, bookstore owner Annie Laurance Darling and her husband Max search for their friend. Instead, they find a body. The island's new police chief suspects Henny. Annie and Max resolve to clear Henny as well as protect her from a ruthless killer. It takes the concerted efforts of Annie and Max, Max's flaky mother Laurel and Emma Clyde, the island's claim to literary fame, to uncover heartbreak among the island's first families and to corner a cunning killer.
Crescent Blues: How did you decide to set the Death on Demand series in a bookstore? Were you basing it on a particular mystery bookstore within your own experience? And how have mystery bookstore owners and staff received the series?
Carolyn Hart: I first visited a mystery bookstore -- Murder by the Book in Houston -- in the summer of 1985 when I had just started work on the first Annie and Max. I originally intended to use a general bookstore as the background, but my visit to Houston gave me the idea of a mystery bookstore, and so Death on Demand was born. I've been told by several mystery bookstore owners that reading Death on Demand encouraged them to start their own stores.
Crescent Blues: We've recently had news of several independent mystery bookstores closing. What has been your reaction?
Carolyn Hart: It's very sad to see these bookstores close. They gave much to the mystery community and were wonderful to mystery writers.
Crescent Blues: What about the idea of using a journalist as the sleuth in the Henrie O series -- was that based on your own experience or the experience of a particular reporter you know? And have you gotten any reaction from journalists?
Carolyn Hart: I majored in journalism in college and always intended to be a reporter. I was a reporter for a short time then married, and we started our family. That's when I started writing fiction. I've had a positive response from reporters I have known.
Crescent Blues: Over the course of the Henrie O series, you gradually reveal a number of things about Henrie O's life that the reader--and sometimes Henrie O herself -- doesn't know at the beginning of the series. Was this a deliberate plan, or has it evolved as the series continues?
Crescent Blues: How has your experience teaching writing influenced your own work?
Carolyn Hart: I taught writing for three years. I don't know that it has influenced my writing but it gave me a deeper sense of the importance and intellectual worth of the mystery.
Crescent Blues: How does one of your books start -- with the setting, the characters, the murder method, or something else entirely?
Carolyn Hart: The books begin with the selection of the victim. Everything else flows from that choice, the murderer, the suspects.
Crescent Blues: Do you plan and outline extensively before you begin writing, or do you just dive in? Or does your method vary from book to book?
Carolyn Hart: I do not outline. Before I start a book, I know these facts: the sleuth, the victim, the identity of the murderer, the reason for the crime, the locale. I make notes to myself as the book progresses, but I never formally outline.
Crescent Blues: Before you began writing mysteries, didn't you also write several romances?
Carolyn Hart: No, I never wrote romances. I disguised a couple of mysteries or suspense novels as romances (The Devereaux Legacy and Brave Hearts) to sell them, but I have always focused on mystery or suspense. Actually, I don't have the capability to write romances. I am not a romantic person. I believe in love, but I do not believe in romance. (I disguised the books because at that period no one was interested in buying mysteries by American women and the romance field was booming.)
Crescent Blues: What do you read -- and do you read different things when you're writing than when you're between books?
Carolyn Hart: I read newspapers, non-fiction (history) and old mysteries. I don't read much new fiction when writing as I can't let other people's characters roam around in my mind. I have to concentrate on my characters. That's one reason I read long-ago mysteries as they don't absorb my attention.
Crescent Blues: Was the Death on Demand series the first idea you had for a mystery series, or did you have other series ideas that were rejected, either by you or by publishers?
Carolyn Hart: Death on Demand was my first idea for a mystery series. However, I had had two children's mysteries, three young adult suspense novels, and eight adult mysteries published before Death on Demand sold. Four of the mysteries were published only in England. Some of the earlier mysteries and suspense novels are being reprinted by Five Star books: Flee from the Past, Brave Hearts, The Devereaux Legacy, The Rich Die Young, Castle Rock, Skullduggery and Death by Surprise. The only ones not being reprinted are Escape from Paris and A Settling of Accounts. (These two books are ineligible as they had been originally published in hardcover in the United States and Five Star doesn't reprint American hardcovers.)
Crescent Blues: How did you first manage to get published?
Carolyn Hart: I wrote a children's mystery and submitted it to a contest being run by Dodd, Mead [Publishers] and Calling All Girls magazine. That book, The Secret of the Cellars, won the contest and was published in 1964. It was my first book.
Crescent Blues: Do you think achieving publication is harder today, and do you have any sage advice for aspiring writers?
Carolyn Hart: It is both easier and harder to get published today. For women writing mysteries, there is great opportunity, which did not exist when I began writing. However, there are very few publishing houses left and it is difficult to get an agent. My advice is to write a book you care passionately about. If you care, readers will care.
Crescent Blues: Is there anything else you'd like to say in closing?
Carolyn Hart: I would like to thank the readers who have enjoyed my books. I think of them often and I always try to give them the best mystery I can devise. As long as they will read them, I will write them.
Donna Andrews is the author of Murder, with Peacocks, which won the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award in May 1998.
Click on the titles for Crescent Blues reviews of Carolyn Hart's novels.