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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Ellen Hart

Sweet Poison by Ellen Hart

Ellen Hart has long been one of my very favorite writers. Her command of all that is necessary for a wonderful read — character, setting and plot — have seemed to deepen and strengthen over time. A new Jane Lawless book is always something I look forward to with great anticipation, and I'm grateful that Ellen was willing to answer a few questions about her work. While these questions focus on the Jane Lawless books, Ellen of course is also the author of the Sophie Greenway series.

Q: When you began the series, did you have any agenda or ideas about an arc of Jane's life that you eventually wanted to cover?
A: No idea at all. When I began the series, I had no idea if I could complete a novel, let alone sell it. I had a story, and I had a lot of passion to write, but I didn't give any thought at all — except within the context of that one book — to my main character's life. I've taught creative writing for the last eleven years, and I tell my students that they should think long and hard about the world they give their characters, because if they sell the book, they're going to have to live with that for a long time. It's a case of do what I say, not what I did. On the other hand, I'm happy with the world I created for Jane. I've mined that world quite frequently — more so in the last few books — and found it quite rich.

Q: I've thought several of your recent books were incredibly effective in using a story from the past that wraps into the present. Is this a preferred method of storytelling for you? It gives lots of depth to the narrative.
A: Yes, it's something I like to read and also something I like to work with as a writer. You can use all kinds of motives to generate a story, but my preference is always something from the past because of resonance. Something always comes before. No story ever starts at the beginning. Usually, it starts in the middle. The past is prologue, and all that. But more than that, the past is rich and mysterious. It's like Stephen King's dinosaur bone. King believes that the story is there, just under the surface. It's the writer's job to dig it out. An apt metaphor, one I've thought of often when constructing my novels.

Q: Do you feel you've developed and matured as a writer as the series has progressed? To me the books seem more and more character driven, though the plot is always strong as well.
A: I hope so. For many years, people would say to me, "Gee, you're really improving." I started to wonder if my first books were really that bad. But yes, I do feel I've grown — both through reading and writing, and often through listening. There are writers whose words and thoughts inspire me, make me want to work harder, dig deeper, take greater risks. Val McDermid, Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane come to mind. I don't put myself in their class, but I do learn from them. I work on language all the time, and I try to sink deeper (more emotionally) into each story, into the character's motivations. I try to love all my characters because I've found, if you don't love them, they never completely let you in. Even the villains — perhaps especially the villains, unless they're psychopaths — are understandable in the light of their own desires and experience. I'm fascinated by certain subjects, but then, most writers are obsessed by something. I write about my interests over and over again in different guises, I suppose in an effort to understand what I don't understand. I guess, in the end, I have to rely on others to tell me if I'm doing my job well or not so well.

Q: Even though I haven't read the other series, obviously cooking is a common theme to both. Is this a passion of yours? What's your background regarding food?
A: I spent most of my early life as a chef. So yes, cooking has always been a passion. (As has eating). Food is part of the landscape of my life, so it's also part of the landscape of my characters's lives. I love it when someone comes up to me at a book signing and says my books made them hungry.

Q: In a few of your recent books — Mortal Groove, Night Vision and to some extent Sweet Poison — you've touched on stalking and / or obsessive behavior. Where does that theme come from? It's certainly both disturbing and compelling.
A: A student in one of my classes was stalked many years ago (while she was taking the class). I didn't learn about it until a few years ago. The woman's life had almost been ruined by the experience. The stalker was a woman. She wanted to take over my student's life — wanted to be married to her husband, be the mother of her kids, all very bizarre. She took photos of the student and me walking out of class together in an effort to prove that my student was gay. (Apparently she thought being gay was viral, that if the woman spent time around me she'd come down with the illness). I was also stalked in a very weird way by one of my male students. I can't really go into it, but needless to say, both incidents made a deep impression on me. The fact that stalking has become a theme in several of my recent books is no accident. I also have a very good friend who has been a corrections officer for most of her life. She recently received her masters in counseling psychology. She's wonderful at illuminating the nuances of stalking behavior. I've had coffee with her on many occasions and taken reams of notes. I've also read a number of books on the subject. When Night Vision came out, I knew all the statistics by heart — how many people are stalked each year (mostly women). Who does the stalking (mostly men). And how many people will be the victims of stalking during their lifetime. It's a truly insidious crime, and one that's difficult to prove and deal with. When women stalk, they do it for different reasons. Men generally fall into specific categories. There's a lot to say, but that's enough for now.

Q: Once I was at a panel listening to Margaret Maron describe her plotting process, which seemed to be that she went where the narrative took her, though to me Maron is one of the better plotters around. I think you share a similar gift — there are always several threads, a red herring or two, and a shocker at the end of some kind. Are you as casual as Ms. Maron — is it a "gift" as Julia Spencer-Fleming explained it to me — or do you meticulously outline?
A: This is a conversation I've had with so many writers. I'm not sure if anyone does it exactly the same way, but I'm far more in the Maron school than I am in the school that outlines. I've never outlined any of my books. I start with the crime, the motives — I cast the book around that. I write to a title, so for me, the title becomes something I riff off of, something that helps me thematically. I usually need to think about a book for a month or two, sometimes longer, before I can begin. I seem to reach a place in my mind, where the book comes together enough for me to begin. I don't know how I do it. I usually have the hook (first chapter) in place, and the next few chapters have taken shape, but beyond that, it's all a dark road. I sometimes know the end, but never how I'll get there. In a way, I put the characters on stage and watch them behave. I know generally what needs to happen, but the book unfolds as I write it. If I outlined, I don't think I'd be all that interested in writing the book. I remember reading about Alfred Hitchcock. (I love reading about directors. They seem to do many of the same things writers do to create a story). He'd get all his shots lined up, do the story board, nail everything down, and then he'd lose interest. Shooting the film was anti-climactic. That's how I'd feel if I outlined. There would be no surprises. The surprises, the twists and turns, make me want to get up every morning and write, just the same way the story makes you want to read. On the other hand, writing process is completely idiosyncratic. Students often come to my classes looking for concrete answers. They have to do that themselves — by writing.

Q: You don't have to answer this one, but do you ever feel your books are marginalized a bit because Jane is gay? Or is it an advantage to have that extra "niche"? I feel your books are as strong, if not stronger, than some better known authors who write what I think of as kind of "half" cozies — kind of a cozy setting, but the outlook and character development is more complex and layered, more thoughtful by far than a light read.
A: I agree with your description of my books. They're not cozy, but not hard-boiled either. Maybe they're soft-boiled. And yes, the Jane Lawless series has been marginalized because the main character is gay. Many people won't read them because of that. In fact, I do a lot of traveling with two other authors. William Kent Krueger and Carl Brookins. When we give a presentation, it's always interesting to watch the people who come up afterwards. Some of them won't even touch the books. It's like they're made of plutonium. Had I written the same stories with a straight character, I would probably be making a lot more money and be far better known. On the other hand, it's what I wanted to write. The novels themselves don't directly tackle a subject of direct interest to the gay community — and there are no sex scenes. I get slammed for that, too, from the other side. I seem to be either too gay or not gay enough. It's frustrating when all you want is to be a writer — a writer who doesn't want to write her own life out of the story, but who also wants to live in the largest world possible.

Q: Where is Jane headed? I felt in this book you captured kind of the current zeitgeist — the world is chaotic, and Jane is confused by it and by her relationships. It may be the upset of an election season (which the book deals with) but it certainly feels timely. Care to comment?
A: I don't know where Jane is headed. In the book I'm working on at the moment, Wheel on a Wire, she finally succumbs to her P.I. friend, A.J. Nolan's, desire to have her come work with him. He wants to teach her everything he knows about criminal investigation. It's an irresistible offer. It's also where I've wanted to take her for many years. But her time is limited by her career as a restauranteur. That probably won't change. Essentially, in the new book, her association with Nolan is the means to get her involved in the mystery. I don't want to give anything away, but this is the book in which the Cordelia / Hattie situation will finally be resolved. I won't say how, but I think it may surprise you. As far as Jane's brother Peter goes, he isn't in the book. Wheel on a Wire takes place in February — three months after the election at the end of Sweet Poison. His problems haven't come to a crisis point yet. And I think his story is significant enough that it needs to be worked in its own book. Not sure how I'll do that, but that's part of the fun. In some measure, I suppose, everything depends on whether or nor St. Martin's offers me another contract. I hate to make the creative process so dependent on business, but that's always the bottom line. Time will tell.

Thank you so much, Ellen! You can visit Ellen at EllenHart.com.

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