by Lorie Lewis Ham
& Terell Byrd
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 Juliet Blackwell, reviewing her latest book Dead Bolt, and giving away a copy of the book (details on how to enter at the end of this post).
Dead Bolt by Juliet Blackwell
Review by Terell Byrd
I met Juliet Blackwell a few years ago when she was writing the Art Lovers Mystery series with her sister under the pseudonym Hailey Lind. She was a fascinating speaker and I enjoyed the series very much. I am glad to see her back in form with the Haunted Home Renovation Mystery series featuring general contractor Melanie “Mel” Turner.
Mel has a lot of experience in renovating the wonderful historic buildings in the San Francisco area. Progress on her latest project, a Queen Anne Victorian, is being hampered by the current owners, who have insisted on living in the house while it is being restored. As difficult as it is to work around a young family in residence, Mel is having even more trouble with the former residents. Sheetrock in one place suddenly appears in another, rusted locks with no keys open and close at inopportune times and as we begin the story there are fresh handprints swirling across the ceiling that has yet to be plastered.
As if she didn’t have enough to worry about, a neighbor is filing complaints about noise and every other byproduct of construction he can come up with. When the neighbor is found dead, Mel begins an investigation into the near and distant past of the house, trying to find out who might be trying to sabotage the project. Is it the former owner, known as the Cat Lady, who was forced out and taking her revenge? Is it the current residents trying to escape the costs of the renovation? Or is it the constant fighting of the original occupants being carried on after death? Follow Mel on her search for clues, through the contents of old letters and secret cabinets, of old scores and new crimes, in the rush to find answers before it is too late!
This book is entertaining and educational. I learned some interesting things about San Francisco and the business of restoring old homes. Mel is an engaging and realistic heroine. I look forward to reading more of her adventures.
Juliet Blackwell Interview
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Juliet: I have been writing, one way or another, for much of my life–but more importantly, I’ve always read like crazy. I used be an academic and wrote several professional articles on anthropology, as well as translating a book and writing up my own research and coursework. But creative writing is still relatively new to me. My first actual manuscript took me a year or so to complete–and when I started writing it, I felt so free: “No footnotes? No citations? I can write anything I want?” I was in heaven!
Lorie: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? A little about it?
Juliet: My first novel was Feint of Art, 2006, which was nominated for an Agatha Award. I wrote it with my sister Carolyn under the pseudonym Hailey Lind. It featured Annie Kincaid, an ex-art forger trying to go straight as a decorative painter in San Francisco. The Art Lovers Mystery series, as it was called, has a loyal following and I really loved writing it–it was humorous, dealt with some of the forensics of forgery, and was a caper/adventure-type series. Unfortunately, after three books Signet didn’t renew the contract, so I published the fourth through Perseverance Press. Fortunately, though, I have a great relationship with my editor at Obsidian (Penguin) so she encouraged me to try something new–and that was how my paranormal series began. I now write the nationally bestselling Witchcraft mysteries, and the New York Times bestselling Haunted Home Renovation series.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Juliet: Other than my academic writing, yes, mysteries are the only field I’ve written in. At the moment I’m writing something that would be considered more “commercial fiction” but we’ll see where that goes!
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Juliet: My latest book, Dead Bolt, is second in the Haunted Home Renovation series. The main character, Mel Turner, is rather reluctantly running her father’s high-end construction company in San Francisco, specializing in renovating historic homes. But of course, there are always ghosts behind old walls! I really enjoy Mel–she’s a little older than my previous heroines, and she’s been around. A couple of years before the start of the series she went through a painful divorce, and then her mother passed away suddenly. All Mel wanted to do was to run away to Paris to hide from the world, but she steps in to take over the business when her bereft father is unable to keep things going. She moved back in with her father and his best friend, and her ex-husband’s teenage son Caleb hangs out with her as well. So Mel functions in a man’s world: the construction field, and even at home. She’s a little grumpy about it all, but genuinely tries to do the right thing…and then on top of all that, she develops the ability to see ghosts! I find Mel to be really endearing, strong yet vulnerable. And the theme of the books allows me to bring in some local history and architectural details–such fun!
Lorie:Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Juliet: I write to entertain first and foremost. There’s nothing I like better than losing myself for a few hours in a good book–it’s a mental escape, a pleasurable (or thoughtful) flight for the mind. But I also try to include interesting information for my readers: in my Witchcraft Mystery series, for example, I try to give some background on the true history (and anthropology) of witchcraft not only in Europe but all over the world: how it has been associated with healing and medicine, and how the fear and hatred and persecution of witches has often resulted from thinly disguised misogyny and the fear of women’s power. In my Haunted Home Renovation series I get a chance to research historical architectural styles, as well as fun renovation factoids and techniques, and in the Art Lover’s series I delve into the fascinating world of art forgers and thieves. In all three series, I hope to present strong, independent, smart women who get the job done without trying to act like men.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Juliet: I used to be pretty hardcore–I started writing when my son was still young and I was running my own business, so I used to get up at four in the morning in order to steal a little quiet time. Now that he’s off to college and I’m writing full time, I get more sleep! But now I’m under contract and have to deliver books regularly, so I write every day. And I travel a fair amount for book events and conferences, so I’ve gotten used to writing whenever/wherever I can.
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?
Juliet: I don’t outline. Instead, after brainstorming the plot I write a full first draft, letting myself be carried along by the momentum of the story. Afterward, upon revising, I write an outline from what I’ve already written. When it’s laid out for me like that, I can identify areas to switch around or where to add an extra scene or two, as well as places to insert further clues and foreshadowing. I’m a big re-writer–that’s where I spend the bulk of my time.
Lorie: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Juliet: Early in the morning, while my mind is fresh. Though I no longer get up at four in the morning to write–unless I’m racing for a deadline–I still try to write before doing anything else in the day…except for making coffee! I wake up, make coffee, then get to work for at least a couple of hours before turning to anything else–email, bills, etc. Regular life tends to clutter up my brain.
Lorie: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Juliet: I was exceedingly lucky, in that my first manuscript–Feint of Art–was published by Signet in a three-book contract. It took several months, and many, many rejections to find an agent, but once I did the publisher jumped on the book right away.
Lorie: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Juliet: When I was shopping Feint of Art around, nearly every rejection said “you can’t sell anything about art to an American audience.” Meanwhile, The Da Vinci Code was soaring on the charts. It was very frustrating! But when I finally found an agent who “loved the art forgery aspect,” she offered me representation, and then the manuscript landed with an editor at Signet who told me she’d been looking for an art-related mystery series for years. So you never know! And it’s worth it to point out that though the series was short-lived, I am still selling foreign rights, and the books are still making money through the electronic backlist. It’s nice to know the books are still being read and enjoyed–in Japan, no less!
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Juliet: Both of my paranormal series–the Witchcraft mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation mysteries–are doing very well, so I anticipate continuing those books for some time. And as I mentioned I’m writing a non-mystery novel at the moment, which is a fun challenge for me–writing non-genre is a stretch. I have no idea whether it will ever become a book, but I think as authors we have to keep challenging ourselves and stretching our talent. And it’s so much fun!
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Juliet: I adore research–what other job lets you hang around Haight Street vintage clothes shops or poke around salvage yards and call it “work”? I do loads of research for each story (must be the old academic in me!) but most of it doesn’t make it into the books, since the last thing I want to do in entertaining fiction is to sound pedantic. I read a lot of non-fiction and spend a lot of time with search engines on the internet, but the most interesting research, for me, is in the world of witchcraft. I’ve gone to coven meetings, observed witches brewing, and watched fortune tellers. Once people understand that I’m not out to exploit or make fun of their beliefs, they are surprisingly candid and open.
Lorie: Wow how interesting. I think you’re the first writer we’ve interviewed who’s done that kind of research. What do you read?
Juliet: I read everything! The newspaper (lots of ideas there), history and non-fiction about whatever theme and setting I’m writing in, fiction like Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Russo and Sherman Alexie, and loads of mysteries, urban fantasy, romances, and literary fiction written by friends of mine. This last year I was a judge for the Edgars and got to read just about every debut mystery novel of 2011…time-consuming, but so interesting to get a sense of where the genre is as a whole. And there were some great books!
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Juliet: I have no television set–I’m sure this is the only reason I’m able to write as much as I am! I have zero willpower, so if there were a TV in my house I’m sure I’d watch all the time. I do enjoy renting DVDs occasionally–my favorites are miniseries like The Wire, Carnivale, or Downton Abbey. I especially love costume dramas. As for movies…one of my old favorites is Practical Magic, of course!
Lorie: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Juliet: Just to keep writing. Everyone looks for a magic method that will enable them to write, but when it comes down to it, you just have to sit and write–with confidence–until you find your voice. Hand in hand with this is to reach out and become part of a writing community. Since the writing is so solitary it can be lonely–hanging out with other authors is a huge energy boost. Also, we all need to whine occasionally, and only other authors understand what we go through! Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are both great resources for authors at all stages.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-Books?
Juliet: I believe anything that keeps people reading is a good thing. E-Books have introduced a whole generation of young people to reading, and e-Readers are surprisingly popular with older folks because the size of the print is adjustable, and the device is light enough to be easy to hold. E-Books also allow authors and publishers to keep backlists available, which is a very good thing.
Lorie: Do you read e-Books yourself?
Juliet: No–I’m a luddite of the first order ;-). I’m very old fashioned about some things, and though I use the computer to write books (or perhaps *because* I use the computer) the last thing I want to do is look at anything electronic/mechanical when I relax. I love holding paper in my hands! And I like to read in the bath…electronics and baths don’t mix.
Lorie: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Juliet: I received my first motorcycle at age ten, and my first .22 rifle for my eighth birthday. I was something of a tomboy, and tried to be my father’s son (I was the youngest of three girls). I tend toward the girlie now, so people find it hard to believe ;-).
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Juliet: I firmly hope and believe that good writing stands out. I *hate* pushing my books, and can’t bring myself to go to theatrical extremes to expose my books to new audiences. I know as a reader I rely on word-of-mouth recommendations, so I can only hope my readers will help me spread the word about my novels. The books seem to be gaining a good following, so I’ve got my fingers crossed. I don’t expect everyone to love my novels–taste is highly personal, after all. But I’ll keep on writing and hope my books will find their audience over time.
Lorie: Is this your first Left Coast? If not, what kind of tips would you give to people attending their first one?
Juliet: I’ve been to several Left Coast Crime conferences. As I mentioned above, I think it’s essential to create a writing community, and going to conferences is a great way to do that. Come sit in on panels and hear what authors/editors/agents have to say, chat with folks over coffee in the morning, meet other aspiring authors and hear their frustrations and solutions. And most importantly: hang out at the hotel bar! Seriously, grab a drink–if you don’t drink get a glass of club soda–and just hang around. The bar is where most of the really interesting stuff happens at any mystery convention I’ve ever been to.
Lorie: And what do you like best about Left Coast conferences?
Juliet: LCC tends to be informal and relaxed. There’s a nice balance of industry professionals, published authors (both big-name and newbies), aspiring writers, and mystery fans/readers. The mix creates the magic.
Lorie: What do you enjoy most or are you most looking forward to at Left Coast?
Juliet: The best part for me is seeing my old friends–authors that I only see at conventions like this, once a year–as well as meeting mystery lovers. It’s wonderful to have a chance to connect face-to-face with readers.
Check out our other On The Road to Left Coast 2012 interviews with mystery author Cindy Sample & and L.F. Crawford, interview with Lee Goldberg, an interview with Michael Orenduff, and Carola Dunn, along with an article on Left Coast Crime‘s past and present.
To enter to win a copy of Dead Bolt, simply email KRL at email@example.com with the subject line “Bolt”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 10, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.