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Toni Kelner (photo by Casey McCormick, courtesy of Toni Kelner)

"Write what you know." Mystery writer Toni Kelner heard that cliché for years but never felt she knew anything all that remarkable. Then she moved from North Carolina to Massachusetts and found that the locals knew nothing about shotgun houses. They didn't eat at fish camps, and they didn't take pride in their crazy relatives the way Southern families do.

That realization and more than a little nostalgia inspired the first Laura Fleming mystery, Down Home Murder, about a transplanted North Carolina native solving murders with her New England bred professor husband. Nearly ten years, seven books, numerous short stories, limericks and essays later, Kelner reigns as one of the South's strongest regional voices -- and boosters. As a lagniappe, she'll even help disadvantaged Northerners learn to talk "Southren." But if you're looking for more crazy relatives to round out the image, you're on your own.

Crescent Blues: Your latest book, Mad as the Dickens, sends a pregnant Laura back to Byerly during Christmas, where all of the characters really seem to get on each other's nerves. Christmas does that to people, but could it also reflect the fact that Laura and Richard have been together for seven books now?

Book: Toni Kelner, Mad as the dickensToni Kelner: Longer than that -- there's also two Laura Fleming short stories.

Actually, I didn't think the characters were more grumpy than usual. Well, Richard was caught up in being an artiste of the theater for the first time, and it wasn't turning out the way he'd dreamed it would, and Laura was in the middle of the mood swings and hormone attacks that pregnancy brings. Plus Junior and Laura had a tough time working together, and though they are good friends, they do tend to get into battles of dominance. Besides Christmas is a frenzied time for most folks, not to mention the fact that murders really annoy people. And...

Come to think of it, folks were pretty darned grumpy in that book. I guess Scrooge lives!

Crescent Blues: How much of Byerly is based on your own hometown?

Toni Kelner: Not one bit. I claim two home towns -- Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., and neither of them are like Byerly. Byerly is based on Granite Falls, N.C., and some of the other mill towns clustered around Hickory. That's where my mother's father's people were, and we visited Granite Falls fairly often. I didn't want to use any of the actual towns because I wanted to be free to move locations around to suit me, without worrying about offending anybody, especially my relatives.

I fumed for a good while, and decided that I was going to finish something if it killed me.

Crescent Blues: Do the real residents seem to mind?

Toni Kelner: I've never asked. When I go down there next month for a surprise party, I'll check.

Crescent Blues: Laura and Richard resonate as a real married couple. Are they anything like you and your real-life husband?

Toni Kelner: Laura and Richard were certainly based on me and my husband Steve, or at least the two of us as we were when I started the books. Friends who've read my books frequently say they can hear our voices in their heads when they read Richard's and Laura's words. The writing books say to write what you know, and the only marriage I've ever had has been a happy one. (Sorry to be mushy, but we really like being married, and recently celebrated our fourteenth anniversary.)

Crescent Blues: Are any of your other characters based on real people?

Toni Kelner: Lord, yes! Aunt Daphine is my Great-aunt Virginia, Aunt Ruby Lee is my Aunt Susan, Junior Norton is my sister Brenda, Thaddeous is my brother-in-law Karl, and it goes on from there. I based the victim in Country Comes to Town on an ex-boyfriend, and the victim in Death of a Damn Yankee is based on a friend's ex-husband. (Killing him was a Christmas present for her.) I generally don't base murderers on real people, both because it would be rude and because I don't know many murderers.

Book: Toni Kelner, country comes to townCrescent Blues: Your use of "Southernisms" provides a great deal of the humor in your books. Did you have a hard time getting them past your editor? Have the use of these colloquialisms ever bothered any readers born north of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Toni Kelner: My editor, born and bred in New York, has almost never balked at any of the Southernisms. I think he gets a kick out of them, actually. The biggest exception was when we were deciding the title for Country Comes to Town. The expression is "country come to town," meaning somebody who rarely leaves the home place. John pointed out that this wasn't grammatically correct, which of course I knew, but after some back-and-forth, I agreed to the change.

As for Northern readers, nobody has ever complained. I figure folks must figure out pretty quickly that I write with a Southern accent, and if that bothers them, they just put the book down.

Crescent Blues: You've been writing Laura and Richard for almost 10 years. Do you ever feel the well is getting dry in regards to further adventures or do you have a story arc that will take Byerly and its inhabitants further into the future?

Toni Kelner: Over ten years, actually. The first book was sold in 1992. And since you asked this question at an interesting time, you're going to get a convoluted answer.

First off, by no means do I feel that the well is getting dry. I have had no particular story arc in mind, but I do think Laura and Richard have grown and changed. In Mad as the Dickens, they were expecting a child, and in the just-completed Wed and Buried, they have a baby to deal with. More changes are hinted at the end of that book. They're not static, and there's nothing like life changes to keep a series fresh.

Book: Toni Kelner, tight as a tickEven if I were ready to strangle Laura and Richard, I'd be delighted to write books about other Byerly denizens, particularly Chief Junior Norton and Aunt Maggie. Just not right now.

What I plan to do is start a new series, or possibly write a stand-alone. I'm not sure which yet. You see, I finished Wed and Buried less than a month ago, and will probably be busy through Labor Day with family affairs and travel, but once my girls are back in school, I'm going to work on something new.

I'm a bit nervous about saying this in public, because I haven't even mentioned the idea to my editor, but since you asked...

Crescent Blues: How does a full-time mom with two young, active children also manage to be a full-time writer?

Toni Kelner: Very badly. I have a cleaning guy and a yard service, and regular babysitters. Plus my house is a mess, the laundry pile is as tall as I am, and I can't remember the last time I cooked an honest-to-God meal. Despite that, I'm often late on deadlines. In other words, I manage about as well as any working parent.

Crescent Blues: Do either of your daughters show any writing talent? What advice would you give them if they did?

Toni Kelner: You don't really want to hear me brag about my daughters -- I could go on for days! But in brief, they are both extremely creative. Maggie, who is turning seven next week, is already planning for a career as an artist. Valerie, not quite four, produces some of the most amazing art installations I've ever seen. (I guess it's art. Why else would she scotch tape a cowboy to a chair, or use balloons to connect a rubber rat and the dining room table?)

If they decide to go for writing, of course I'll have far too much advice. Don't all mothers give too much advice? The most important piece will be for them to keep experimenting, not only with style and subject matter but with writing habits, too. No two writers write alike, not even a mother and her daughters.

Crescent Blues: Who do you credit with inspiring you to take that first step towards writing a novel?

Toni Kelner: I don't think there was any one person. I started trying to write in ninth grade, when I was reading science fiction and fantasy: Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien. I fell in love with the adventure, and after a while, I wasn't satisfied with living the adventures of their characters vicariously. I wanted adventures of my own. I realized I wasn't going to have many real ones in junior high school, so I decided that making up stories starring idealized versions of myself would be good enough.

Now that's how I got writing. If you want to know what inspired me to get going on my first novel, you'll have to credit a friend of mine that I'll call Mindy. I knew Mindy when I lived in North Carolina and kept in touch with her when I moved to Massachusetts. I was talking with Mindy on the phone one day, and she wanted to know how my writing was going. I mumbled something noncommittal because I hadn't been writing much at all. Mindy proceeded to tell me all about a new friend, who I'll call Ann. Ann had finished her novel, and was shopping it around to publishers. Ann's book was wonderful, and it was a shame I couldn't finish anything.

The fear is knowing how tough the market continues to be, and that my agent might not be able to sell what I write.

Was I steaming when I got off the phone! I fumed for a good while, and decided that I was going to finish something if it killed me. The most promising piece I had was the beginning of a story from a writing exercise I'd done, and I put all my energy into finishing it. After many re-writes, it was published as Down Home Murder, my first book.

By the way, Ann has never sold her book.

Crescent Blues: Mid-list authors of all genres seem to have been taking body blows lately. Do you think the events of September 11, 2001, changed that for the better or worse?

Toni Kelner: The economy as a whole is down due to September 11, so I assume it's the same for booksellers and libraries, and naturally writers. Since sales figures are so slow in coming, I don't really know how it's affected me personally.

Crescent Blues: Have you ever wanted to write in another genre?

Toni Kelner: I started out trying to write science fiction and fantasy, and I haven't given up on the idea, but for now, it's mystery that keeps me interested.

Book: Toni Kelner, death of a damn yankeeCrescent Blues: You're quite a prolific short story author. Do you write them between novels or do the ideas for them pop up in the middle of working on a book?

Toni Kelner: Ideas pop up all the time, usually when it's awkward to work on them. I generally write short stories in the middle of novels, which stops the novels dead in the water, so I wouldn't recommend the technique. Several of my short stories ("Bible Belt," "Old Dog Days," and "An Unmentionable Crime") were actually written for a book project that didn't sell.

Crescent Blues: Which do you prefer -- writing short stories or writing novels?

Toni Kelner: I prefer novels. Partially it's because they're easier for mysteries -- there's that much more space and that many more characters to use to fool the reader. And partially it's because novels are more fun. I can let myself be more creative, not necessarily knowing where I'm going in order to see what comes out. (Needless to say, this means lots of rewriting.)

But there are some ideas that just fit a short story better, and I can experiment with characters and voices that I'm not sure I can sustain for a novel. And fitting a full mystery into a short space, complete with red herrings and fully realized characters, is an irresistible challenge.

So I don't intend to stop writing either.

Book: Toni Kelner, down home murderCrescent Blues: You've written several essays on writing. Have you ever thought of teaching?

Toni Kelner: I have taught some one-night courses at a local continuing education program, and it was fun, but it was enough to show me I'm not a teacher. I don't really think that I know enough about writing. I know a fair amount about how I write, but not about how other people can. Most importantly, I don't have the patience. So I'll only be a visitor to classrooms.

Crescent Blues: What are your current hot buttons, and what do you see in your future?

Toni Kelner: I've got quite a few things in the publication pipeline. The paperback edition of Mad as the Dickens comes out in October, and Wed and Buried comes out in February. I also have two short stories due out in anthologies next year.

But right now, I'm fluctuating between excitement and fear. The excitement comes from the chance to write something brand-new, with fresh characters and a different voice and a funky setting. The fear is knowing how tough the market continues to be, and that my agent might not be able to sell what I write.

Of course, I've felt those same two feelings every time I've started a new novel, and it's worked out all right so far. So I guess I'll be okay this time.

Hot buttons? The most intriguing possibilities for a new book are debunking, old TV shows and skeletons.

Crescent Blues: Anything else you'd like to add? Step up and carry on to your heart's content.

Toni Kelner: This would tempt me more if I weren't at the edge of the deadline, as usual. And of course, I could talk about some of the very real frustrations of being a writer or of writing with kids in the house. But honestly, I'm having the time of my life. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love most that I feel pure out guilty sometimes. I just love being a writer!

Teri Smith

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