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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Elaine Viets

See Aunt Agatha's American Cozy review page for a discussion of Elaine Viets' first book in her dead-end job series, Shop Till You Drop.

Q: I don't read too many cozies but I really liked your book both for it's humor and the fact that it was a teeny bit subversive. I thought the portrayal of being stuck in a job that barely pays your rent was excellent. Was this subversive by intention, or just a factual portrayal?
A: Both. I'm a former reporter, so I try and give an accurate picture of what it's like being trapped in a low-paying job. I'm also semi-subversive. My Dead-End Job series has developed that streak. In each book, I work a different rotten job, just like my character, Helen Hawthorne. I've been a dress shop clerk, a bookseller, and a telemarketer. More awful jobs are planned.

I worked with a woman in her fifties, divorced and saddled with medical bills. She had four jobs. She was an office manager by day and a telephone survey taker at night. She took her vacations before Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, and did phone orders for a florist. "And in my spare time", she said with a straight face, "I clean houses for cash."

p>We're only a layoff, a divorce or a major illness from the same fate.

Q: What are your plans for extricating Helen from her financial bind/ex-husband situation? Or are you going to make her suffer for awhile?
A: I enjoy making her suffer - it's that subversive streak. Like many divorced women, Helen will duel with her ex and date deadbeats. Women love to tell me about their bad dates, and I use their stories in my book. But I show her some mercy. In the third novel, which I'm writing now, Helen meets a dream man. Of course, she has to date a nightmare who uses Grecian Formula first.

Q: I liked that Helen was a very smart character in a believable way. She didn't get herself into any of those uh-oh situations where you know the character's life is going to be threatened (on purpose, anyway). Any thoughts on smart women in mysteries?
A: Smart women write mysteries. Smart women read them. We don't enjoy spending time in the company of fools.

Q: I loved the portrayal of the customers who shopped in Juliana's. (Talk about smart women wasting their talents). Is this from actual work experience on your part?
A: Bimbos flock to Florida, because we have lots of beaches (good for displaying bimbo bodies and catching rich old men) and illicit fortunes. I did extensive - and expensive - research on bimbos in their natural habitats. I was forced to visit high priced dress shops and hair salons. Bimbos gather in these places to talk about their clothes, their cosmetic surgeries and their boyfriends. Bimbos never have lovers. I heard one discussing her boyfriend, and as she kept talking, I realized she was dating a mobster.
"I had to quit seeing him", she said. "Too many of his friends were dying."
"They were sick?" I asked.
"No, silly," she said. "They wound up in barrels in Biscayne Bay."

Q: What comes first for you - character, setting, or plot? I thought all three were very well done.
A: Setting. When you write a South Florida series, setting is most important. My Francesca Vierling series was set in St. Louis. Readers expect Midwesterners to have standards, morals, and taste. Florida has none of those handicaps.

The off beat characters in Shop Till You Drop grow out of the setting. Phil the invisible pothead and Peggy the Parrot Lady are peculiar to Florida - at least, I don't think many Midwest women walk around with parrots on their shoulders.

The plot also develops from the setting. Readers will believe almost anything if is happens in Florida. They've already seen stranger stuff on the six o'clock news.

Q: This is the kind of book that makes mystery writing look easy - but I'm sure that's deceptive. I read so many bad mysteries along with the good ones that I'm sure it can't be easy to write such an easy to digest narrative. Or am I completely off base?
A: It wasn't easy, but it was fun. I worked those dead end jobs and I have the varicose veins to prove it. I also have a closet full of ugly shoes, which is the only way to survive retail, and an extensive vocabulary of swear words. I heard them all when I was a telemarketer - I was cursed from coast to coast.

I have so many strange and wonderful stories from my on the job adventures, it's hard to choose which ones to use. For my second book, which is set at a bookstore, the fun started with the job interview. The manager interviewed me in the café, and I could hear this woman at the counter,
"I want a bagel," she said. "Will you scoop that?"
"No," said the staffer, "but you can."
Then I watched her take a plastic spoon and scrape all the bread out of the center of the bagel, so nothing was left but the shell. It's a diet thing. Why they don't eat half a bagel, I'll never know.

Q: What are your influences, mystery-wise? Any contemporary writers you especially admire?
A:I read the classics as a kid: Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and my mother's old set of Nancy Drew mysteries. I was fascinated that Nancy always powdered her nose before she went detecting, and drove a red roadster. We didn't have roadsters in Florissant, Missouri, but I figured they must be something cool, like a Corvette.

As for contemporary writers I admire, there are way too many to list here. I'm an addict, and read four or five mysteries a week. In the hard-boileds, I like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, Jan Burke, and James Lee Burke. Sue Grafton is the queen of the soft-boiled mystery, and the mother of a long line of smart, snappy detectives with cute cars. (Or is that Nancy Drew? - ed.) In the cozies, I read Jerrilyn Farmer and Charlaine Harris. I like Charles Todd's brooding series. I read Tim Dorsey when I need a dose of Florida crazy. I know I'll kick myself later for the other names I've left off this list. It's a terrific time to be a mystery writer. This is a golden age.

Q: What's next for Helen? Can you talk about your next book a little bit?
A: I have good news. My agent just worked out a deal with my publisher, Signet, and I'll be writing three more Dead-End Job mysteries.

My second book in this series, Murder Between the Covers, is due out December 2. It's set at a bookstore. I worked for a large chain in Hollywood, Florida. In Covers, Helen works for a chain store with an evil boss, Page Turner III. Page is found dead in a woman's bed, and Helen has to solve the murder to save her best friend from Death Row.

My favorite true story, which I put in Covers, happened when I worked the bookstore. Two boys came to my cash register. One was about eight. He was buying The Adventures of Captain Underpants. The older boy was about 12. I said to him,
"Are you a Captain Underpants fan, too?"
"That's kid stuff," he said, scornfully. "Ever hear of Steinbeck?"
"Yes."
"Steinbeck rules."
Steinbeck rules. I think about that on bad days.

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