by Lorie Lewis Ham
& Marilyn Meredith
Today at KRL we have the next in our series-On The Road to Left Coast Crime 2012 where we get a chance to talk to authors who will be attending this year’s conference and review their books. This week we are talking to mystery author J. Michael Orenduff, last year’s Lefty Award winner, reviewing his latest book The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, giving away a copy of the book (details on how to enter at the end of this post) & we get an exclusive sneak peek at the next book in the series.
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Michael: All my life. But I didn’t begin to really learn the craft of fiction until I retired and began concentrating on it as a career rather than a hobby.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? A little about it?
Michael:The first in my Pot Thief series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, came out in 2009. It begins with a stranger offers Hubert Schuze $25,000 to steal an ancient Mogollon pot from the Valle del Rio Museum. Hubie digs up and sells old pottery, but he doesn’t break into buildings. He is tempted, but comes to his senses after visiting the museum and seeing its security. But when he returns to his shop, a Federal agent is waiting to accuse him of stealing the pot. When the agent is found murdered, Hubie is the prime suspect. Two stolen pots, two thieves, two murders and two case of mistaken identity complicate Hubie’s attempt to clear himself by solving the murders.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Michael:I wrote my first mystery in 1960, about as close to always as you can get. I also write plays. I wrote a number of scholarly articles when I was a professor, but I’ve managed to overcome that.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? And can you tell me a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Michael:I set my books in New Mexico because I love writing about the Land of Enchantment. My main character owns a pottery shop in Old Town Albuquerque where he sells ancient Native American pottery, some of which he acquires by illegally digging it up.
Lorie: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Michael:I enjoy entertaining my readers, and if that’s what they get from my books, I’m satisfied. But there is an underlying message that runs through the series; namely, that culture is an accident of birth. I try to show that my ensemble New Mexico cast – Hispanics, Native Americans, Basques, Eastern Europeans and all others are part of a human family that transcends the minor differences between cultures.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Michael:Like my protagonist, I’m not good with schedules.
Lorie: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Michael:I outline after the fact. I start with a few key plot points: Who is murdered, how, why, and by whom? How does it relate to my protagonist? How does it relate to the famous person he is studying at the time? Then I figure out a couple of clues and my characters start writing. By that I mean that as I write dialog between them, they suggest what should happen next. Then I start an outline of sorts that is really just a list of what has happened and when so that a dead guy doesn’t show up three chapters after he was murdered. When I’ve finished the first draft, I toss out the first chapter. I have to do that because the tone and pace of the book have developed in such a way that the intro to the story no longer works. You have to write the real first chapter after you know the whole story.
Lorie: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Michael:Five in the morning.
Lorie: Wow I’m not even alive that early lol Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Michael:Compared to some authors’ stories, I was lucky. I got an agent out of the first batch of inquiries I sent out and found a publisher eight months later.
Lorie: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Michael:I arrived for a signing in Gallup, NM about three weeks after Federal authorities had arrested a dozen people in Blanding, Utah on charges related to illegal possession and trafficking in ancient Native American artifacts. Because Blanding is close to Gallup, there was a lot interest in the topic. Since my books deal with that subject fictionally, I drew a large crowd. One customer asked me if the book was about what happened in Blanding. “Yes,” I said. “I wrote it in two weeks and it was printed in one week.” I intended it as a joke, but he believed me.
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Michael:I’ll continue the Pot Thief series so long as it remains fun to write and people continue to read them. I’m also working on a memoir.
Lorie: Writing heroes?
Michael:In alpha order and knowing I’ve omitted many worthies: Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Block, Michael Bond, Robert Boswell, Simon Brett, Dorothy Gilman, John Mortimer, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Lawrence Saunders, and Miguel de Unamuno.
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Michael:As little as possible. Which is why I could never write a historical mystery – too much time researching and not enough time writing.
Lorie: What do you read?
Michael:Any well-written fiction. I do not read books that are gory, sadistic or feature a twisted antagonist. I rarely read science fiction or romance. Nor do I read anything that has werewolves, mummies, zombies, faeries, leprechauns, aliens, etc.
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Michael:My favorite TV is one that is off. Some of my favorite films are One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, K-Pac, The Shawshank Redemption, Amélie, Caio Professore, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cinema Paradiso, Witness for the Prosecution, Shall We Dance, Moonstruck, Stand and Deliver, As Good as It Gets, and – I admit it – Must Love Dogs.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
Michael:Sad. I sell a lot of them, and my royalties are usually larger on an e-book because nothing goes to a printer or to UPS. But the e-book will eventually put most bookstores and even libraries out of business, and that makes me sad.
Lorie: Do you read e-books yourself?
Michael:I have the free Kindle software on my computer. I use it on the rare occasion when something I want to read is not available in paper.
Lorie: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Michael:I have a website I rarely update and a Facebook page I use only to respond to friends and fans. I don’t Twitter, but I do sing.
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Michael: I’m in a good niche – humorous mysteries – and I still do old-fashioned book signings at every opportunity.
Lorie: I understand you won a Lefty last year—how did that feel?
Michael:First, fabulous. I had won a number of awards, but the Lefty is special because it is the only national award specifically for humorous mystery novels.
Second, lucky. There are so many deserving books that could just as easily have won. Also lucky because I have so many fans who liked my work enough to take the time and make the effort to vote for it.
Lorie: What tips do you have for those attending their first LCC this year?
Michael:LCC is not only the best writers conference I’ve ever attended, it’s the best conference I’ve ever attended. I think the founders somehow set the tone. It seems more like a reunion of friends than a conference. Attend as many sessions as possible; they are fun. Meet as many people as possible. And take some time to explore Sacramento. It’s the most fascinating city in America that no one goes to.
The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier by J. Michael Orenduff
Review by Marilyn Meredith
The Pot Thief books are known for making the reader hungry and this one is no exception. Herbert Schuze, better known as Hubie, is hired to design and make the prototype for chargers (better known as plates) for a brand new restaurant soon to open in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The hitch is the Schnitzel restaurant is going to focus on Austrian cuisine.
From the beginning nothing seems quite right, from the owner to all the quirky people hired to cook and serve. Hubie gets to know these people better than he’d like because he must do his pottery work in the restaurant while preparation for the grand opening are underway. The cooks are trying out all the new recipes and everyone must try them out. None sound appetizing, and most of the time Hubie sneaks away to find more appealing meals elsewhere.
For followers of the Pot Thief books, Hubie makes plenty of trips back home and to Dos Hermanos Tortilleria in Albuquerque to discuss the happenings and the employees of Schnitzel with his friend, Susannah, over margaritas and chips. In between, he reads about the life and times of Escoffier.
The opening of the Schnitzel is disastrous. Austrian food is not a hit with the epicureans of Santa Fe. The descriptions of the menu items were explicit enough for me to know I would never try them. Never fear though, Hubie does plenty of cooking and eating of much more tantalizing dishes.
Though I haven’t mentioned it yet, there is a murder and of course Hubie is the prime suspect. Along with the quest to find out the true murderer, Hubie is romanced, threatened, creates new dishes, bar tends, attempts a bit of burglary and safecracking, and is nearly murdered. As with all the Pot Thief books, plenty of subtle humor abounds, and Hubie enjoys his Gruet Blanc de Noir.
There’s much to love in The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier. It has all the elements that endeared readers to Hubie and this series, good food and drink, unusual characters, great settings, a puzzling mystery and plenty more. Though I recommend that all the books be read, each can be read as a stand-alone.
To enter to win a copy of the latest Pot Thief, simply email KRL at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Pot”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 18, 2012. U.S. residents only.
If you love mysteries, why not check out Left Coast Crime: Mystery Conference in Sacramento, March 29-April 1, 2012. Registration is only $225 & day passes can be purchased for $75 for Friday and Saturday panel sessions. Registration information can be found at the conventionwebsite, or by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exclusive excerpt from the next Pot Thief book, The Pot Thief Who Studied D. H. Lawrence:
He handed me a cracked old black and white photograph of a smiling Indian on a horse holding a shiny pot. Actually, the Indian was holding the shiny pot. The horse couldn’t have done so because all four of his feet were on the ground.
“The man on the horse is my great-grandfather. This was taken the day he took that pot to Mr. Lawrence.”
“D. H. Lawrence?”
He shrugged. “The one the ranch is named for.”
“Why did your great-grandfather take a pot to Lawrence?”
“Tony Lujan asked him to. It is my people’s custom to take a bowl of food to a newcomer.”
Tony Lujan was the Taos Indian who married Mable Dodge, the wealthy heiress who persuaded Lawrence to come to Taos.
I glanced down at the photo again. “This is the pot you want me to steal?”
“White man law might call it that. But it belongs to my great-grandfather. He made it. Now he wants it back.”
There were stands of grey in his ponytail and crow’s feet around his eyes. He had to be at least forty. Allowing twenty years for each generation, his great-grandfather would have to be pushing the century mark.
“Your great-grandfather is still alive?”
He shook his head.
“He told you he wanted it back before he died?”
Another shake of the head. Another long silence.
Finally, he said, “His spirit asked me to bring the pot home.”
I looked down again at the photo. “What was his name?”
“His Spanish name was Fidelio Duran.”
“And his Indian name?”
There was a long silence before he answered. “He didn’t sign his pots with his Indian name.”
I assumed that was his way of saying I didn’t need to know his great-grandfather’s Indian name. I didn’t need to know my visitor’s name either, Spanish or Indian. I could find him at the Pueblo just by asking around. But I asked him anyway, and he said his name was Cyril Duran.
“So if I find a pot that looks like this and is signed ‘Fidelio Duran’, that’s the one you want?”
He made one almost imperceptible nod.
“Where would I look for it?”
“I don’t know.”
“And you’ll trade me three Taos pots from the same era, the twenties?”
Another slight nod.
“Made by your great-grandfather?”
“No, his wife.”
It took a couple of seconds for me to make the connection. My pulse spiked.
He nodded and left.
After Cyril Duran left, I locked the store and pawed through the drawer where I toss mail and papers I don’t know what to do with. I found the invitation from my alma mater. They wanted me to come to the Lawrence Ranch to give a presentation on pueblo pottery to a group of university benefactors who would be gathering for a retreat.
I don’t like to travel and I don’t do presentations. I’d thrown the invitation in the drawer rather than the trash because I thought I might need the stipend they were offering. Now my keeping it seemed serendipitous.
But it was no longer the stipend that interested me. It would be chump change compared to what I might get if I could find the Fidelio Duran pot and trade it for three pots by Dulcinea, the most famous pueblo potter of the early 20th Century. Her fame has now been eclipsed by Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, but Dulcinea was the first superstar potter.
Dulcinea Duran was a gifted potter even before she was taken under the wings of the wives of the robber barons who came to Taos to take the mountain air and study the aborigines. They told her they would buy her pots if she would use a wheel in order to make them symmetrical. I imagine they even ordered the wheel from back east and had it shipped. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had electricity run to the pueblo in order for her to plug it in. Except for the fact that even today, there is neither electricity nor running water in the part of the original pueblo building where she lived. Those structures are used today mostly for ceremonial purposes, new residences having been built at various locations on the hundred thousand acres owned by the Taos Pueblo. Technically, the land is held in trust by the U.S. Government, but in reality, it belonged to the Indians for eight hundred years before there even was a U. S. Government, and in my mind it still does.
Dulcinea’s pots became all the rage and were exhibited widely in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The museums didn’t actually purchase the pots, no doubt considering them crafts rather than beaux arts. They probably showed them merely because the women who owned them were wealthy and influential. The fad eventually waned, and the works were returned from the museums to the ‘cottages’ in Newport. Finding a genuine Dulcinea today would be like finding a Van Gogh.
I stared at the invitation and wrestled with my conscience.
An industrious lad with long hair and an easy smile had entered my shop a week earlier with a rack of greeting cards, which he offered to leave on my counter for free. The cards depicted buzzards perched on saguaro cactuses and making witty remarks shown in little bubbles above their heads. I could sell them, he explained earnestly, for any price I chose and pay him after the fact at the bargain price of only fifty cents for each one sold.
He left with the rack still under his arm and, if we are to believe what he said, utter disbelief that I would decline the opportunity to make money with no investment. I like to make money. But I love my pristine shop and simple life even more. I do not sell postcards or candy. I have no vending machines. I’m not in the trinket business.
One result of this Spartan approach is I am not overrun with customers, and I often have cash-flow problems. It is a painful admission because – speaking of painful admissions – I graduated with a degree in accounting. My graduate work was in anthropology until I got booted, but as an undergraduate, I started as a math major. I switched to accounting because everyone told me that’s where the jobs were. It was the only conventional decision I ever made, and I learned my lesson.
When I make a $15,000 sale, I live off it until it is gone. When I make a really big sale, I give some of it away because I don’t like having a lot of money all at once. My father was fond of saying that money is like manure. It’s good to spread it around, but if you leave it in one big pile it stinks.
I know what you’re thinking – how can you get in line for the money I give away? It’s a short line. I partially support my nephew Tristan, I pay the medical bills for my former nanny Consuela, and I donate to a scholarship fund for kids from the pueblo where I was a volunteer back in my undergraduate days.
For the past few months, Tristan had been forced to live off his part-time earnings and the scholarship fund was depleted. But Consuela Sanchez’ kidney problems were worsening and her medical bills soaring. Now a transplant loomed. I had done the paperwork to apply for assistance which Consuela and Emilio qualified for, but even with that, the “patient responsibility” portion came to $46,000, half of which they wanted in advance.
Just one of the Dulcinea pots would cover that. The debate with my conscience was going well until it actually spoke. What it said was that if Consuela’s transplant expense justified stealing the Fidelio Duran pot, then it also justified robbing a bank.
Don’t you just hate it when your conscience is right?
I’m not a thief. I needed to know I would not be stealing the pot. Cyril said the pot belonged to his great-grandfather. Why not just take his word for it? But he also said white man law might call it stealing. Why worry about that? Surely, he knew more about his great-grandfather than he did about the law.
Mr. Conscience vetoed that one as too obviously a rationalization. He’s a smug little devil.
I needed to think harder. I asked myself what was the real issue. Who owns the pot? Who deserves the pot? Who should decide? What time is it?
The last question was the only one I could answer. It was well past five, and I was thirsty.