Monday, April 09, 2007

Notes on a mystery writers' panel

Back from a conference and still hopelessly behind. . . Consequently, instead of creating an entry reviewing what I’ve been reading, this post contains notes from one of the presentations I attended. The speakers were two writers of detective fiction, Cathy Pickens (whose series character is attorney Avery Andrews, operating in Dacus, South Carolina) and Julia Spencer-Fleming (creator of Clare Ferguson, an Episcopalian priest and amateur sleuth working with police chief Russ Van Alystyne in Miller’s Kill, in upstate New York).

Both authors were terrific speakers; their session was one of the high points of the conference. Cathy Pickens, who'd expected to be half of a panel and engaging in dialogue with Julia Spencer-Fleming, instead found herself alone for the first segment, but handled the situation with grace.

A few memorable quotes and paraphrases from her comments:

On why her series character is an attorney:
"The courthouse and the hospital are the two places where people battle for their lives."
(Also "I started with Nancy Drew but I loved Perry Mason.")

On her critique group:
She mentioned it’s comprised only of people writing detective fiction and is by invitation only. No "yeah buts" are allowed (in response to criticism), because "if it's not working on paper it's not working."

On To Kill a Mockingbird (which I think she called "the most perfect book ever"):
It's "the first book I read where people talked like I did."

She also compared Scout to Nancy Drew: "a really cool girl" who gets to do exciting things (and I think she noted both were raised by widowers, forging a closer connection with their fathers).

Midway through the session, Julia Spencer-Fleming arrived; she'd encountered a series of transportation problems that would have felled a lesser woman. Instead, removing her coat as she crossed the room, she was immediately ready to participate in the panel, witty and vivacious.

Quotes and occasional paraphrases from her comments:

On being a lawyer (who's never practiced law):
"Law school -- it seemed like a good idea at the time. When you've got a history degree what else are you going to do?"

On her books:
"[P]sychologically realistic books" appeal to her. She wanted a "solid reason" for justifying an amateur’s participation in solving crimes and chose a cleric because they're involved in "crisis points" and know things about people that others don't. Balancing the narrative between a policeman and a priest "gives [her] a lot of play to look at what justice means" from two vantage points; moreover, the priest is "bringing broken pieces together and reassembling them into . . . wholeness" -- which, she added, is also what detective fiction does.

Living in Maine, she feels the weather "becomes another antagonist [in the books]. . . It can kill people." She "wanted to have a story where the place became another character" and feels crime fiction currently captures regional voices better than many other types of fiction (an idea also supported by Pickens).

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s website – which reads just the way Spencer-Fleming talks – has more information about her books and an interview with Cathy Pickens. Cathy Pickens’s website offers an introduction to Avery Andrews and her author as well as an annotated bibliography of books about writing.


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