The Writer's Edge Publishes An Interview With Lois Gordon About Her Writing Life
TITLE: DEATH AT IRON HOUSE
GENRE: Cozy Mystery
COMPS: REAL MURDERS by Charlaine Harris
Lois lives in southern Ontario, Canada, on a hobby farm, which provides great fodder for writing humour essays about a certain City Mouse surviving country living (think Green Acres), and it explains why she uses a "U" in humor. Several of her personal essays have appeared in anthologies, and many have won awards. Her most recent claim to fame is winning first prize in a national competition; the short story was subsequently published in "Never Trust a Smiling Bear - An Anthology of Canadian Humour." But she is also proud of receiving honorable mention in the Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Contest, with a touchingly funny article about the death of my father.
In my 30s I finally picked up a pen and started to write a romance novel, and I haven't put the pen down since. I wrote two romances, two women's serious fiction manuscripts, and a ream of humorous personal essays. Now I'm on my second murder mystery (I'm seeing a pattern emerging). I honestly can't say why I am so comfortable with murder, and it should probably worry me a bit, but I believe I have found my niche.
- Lois Gordon
Algonkian Novel Writing Courses and Program Review
A: Tell us something about yourself as it relates to your writing life. Also, what inspired you to begin the novel?
I still remember my essays, glittering with gold stars, pinned to the bulletin board in the school corridor for parent/teacher night, when the primary student talents were showcased. I had no idea at the time that I would be a writer; I was content to read under the covers with the flashlight on. I was in my teens before I knew that one day I would write a book, and while I waited for that moment to arrive, I read approximately one million novels (I exaggerate only slightly). In my 30s I finally picked up a pen and started to write a romance novel, and I haven't put the pen down since. I wrote two romances, two women's serious fiction manuscripts, and a ream of humorous personal essays. Now I'm on my second murder mystery (I'm seeing a pattern emerging). I honestly can't say why I am so comfortable with murder, and it should probably worry me a bit, but I believe I have found my niche.
A: Who are you reading now? Which authors and novels have been an inspiration to you, and why?
Right now I am reading LAMB by Christopher Moore, and THE DARK TOWER by P.D. James, purportedly the best murder mystery ever; I just finished THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton, and my summer beach reads are MURDER ON THE HALF SHELL (Lorna Barrett) and EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK (Lucy Arlington), two bestselling cozies. Once upon a time, Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, the English moors, etc. kept me spellbound. Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is probably my all-time favourite book - the world seen through Scout's once-innocent eyes, the tragedy, the poignancy--aahhh, I could go on too long. Le Carre, Grisham, Follett, Deighton, Ludlum, Michener (in particular) were favourites, but it was Sue Grafton's fresh voice, early in her series of Kinsey Millhone detective novels, that inspired me to write.
A: Can you tell us about your novel?
DEATH AT IRON HOUSE is about a group of writers at a conference set in Smuggler's Notch, VA, where each takes on a different persona to play a murder mystery game. When a particularly unlikable literary agent turns up dead, the players regroup as three teams to try and solve a real crime. After all, as mystery writers they kill off people before breakfast -- they have a working knowledge of motive, means and opportunity, and they put these skills to work to find the killer before any more witnesses go missing. Since humour is my thing, the narrative tends to be both light-hearted and deadly serious.
A: What gives you a passion for this story and why are you the one who needs to tell it?
I visited Smuggler's Notch a year ago and the idea of setting murder mystery there came to me immediately. I trudged the pathways my protagonist trudges along, watched the mist settle around the Green Mountains like a soggy gray blanket, bought the T-shirt, the Vermont maple candy, and the Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Most of the characters were born right there in my hotel room. They followed me home and I have not been able to shake them.
A: What have you found to be your biggest challenges to writing a successful commercial novel?
The first big challenge is in choosing the right path for my story to take. Being part of a critique group is helpful; the downside is that everybody has different suggestions (most of them good), and the story has the potential to go off in several different directions. It's not merely a fork in the road, it's a traffic circle. While it may sound pretentious to claim that my characters speak to me, there is a voice in my head (or an editor on my shoulder) that eventually nudges me in the right direction. The next challenge is in navigating the road to publication. It's a tough market to break in to, and it's all too easy to become discouraged, especially when you read the latest bestseller and it's widely acknowledged that the book is not very well written. It leaves one wondering what they have to do, exactly, to make it out of the slush pile.
A: Is there any particular facet of the Algonkian novel writing program or courses that have helped you more than any other? If so, why?
Learning and practicing the four levels of third person narrative POV had the biggest impact on my writing. The zoom lens effect of author POV/distant/close/first-close gives the narrative more depth and energy, allowing the reader to not only see what a character sees, but to get right inside their head and hear their inner thoughts--perhaps the ultimate show-don't-tell technique.
A: What bit of advice can you give to other aspiring authors just getting started?
My advice to aspiring authors is to read, then read some more, and when you're done with that, read some more. Recognize the tropes demanded by the genre and how the author makes them fresh and/or unique. And then, don't be in a hurry. Your first draft, even your third or fourth, is likely not the finished product. Look for ways to make your ms stand out from the crowd, because you will not break out by mimicking hundreds of novels that have gone before.