by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of the latest mystery by Donna Andrews, along with an interesting interview with Donna. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Gone Gull, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Gone Gull: A Meg Langslow Mystery By Donna Andrews
Review by Cynthia Chow
Readers familiar with this hilarious mystery series will be relieved to know that wherever Meg Langslow and her family travel, chaos follows. Meg has left Caerphilly, North Carolina to teach Blacksmithing at Virginia’s Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, which was purchased and renovated by her grandmother Cordelia. While Meg, her husband, and their twin sons are camping out in a borrowed caravan and tent, other artists are hunkering down in their studios to guard them from recent acts of vandalism. Some of the attacks have been more embarrassing than destructive, but they have been as damaging to finances as to the egos of temperamental artists. Meg barely has time to implement her multitude of familial resources to narrow down suspects before one of the most irritating artists, Edward Prine, is found literally stabbed in the back in his own studio.
With a family that seems to revel in chaos, it’s fortunate that so many have the computer, law enforcement, or military experience to balance them out. Her mystery-loving father is eager to lend his medical assistance with forensics, while Meg’s ubiquitous notebook delegates the rest of her relatives to tasks suited to her needs and their skills. Her arrogant nature-television-show-host grandfather Dr. J. Montgomery Blake gets in the way more than he assists, but his mission to track down the Ord gulls thought to be extinct but photographed by Prine could be a clue to the death. That doesn’t mean that Grandfather also doesn’t assume that the vandalisms were instigated by corporate developers, nor Cordelia from believing it to be a rival art center. It will take more than cousin Rose Noire’s Wiccan smudging to eliminate the mojo caused cheating spouses, another murder, and Grandfather’s relentless trash-throwing Operation Gull Quest.
This continues to be a series that induces snorting laughter, as much from Meg’s complacent acceptance of her relatives as from their eccentric exploits. Meg’s humor and the author’s talent at showcasing it are as sharp and clever in this twenty-first of the series as the debut. The hilarity is matched by truly sentimental moments, with Grandfather revealing his overwhelming love of family and nature just when he seems close to crossing over into total obnoxiousness. Southern eccentricities never seemed so enchanting—or depicted so vividly—as in these novels by Donna Andrews, who continually finds way to surprise even the most jaded of mystery readers.
Interview with Donna Andrews:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Donna: Since first or second grade. But only published since 1999.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Donna: Murder with Peacocks came out in 1999. It’s a humorous traditional mystery in which my heroine, Meg Langslow, has been roped into organizing three family weddings in the same summer, so the last thing she needs is to have one of the out-of-town guests knocked off. I entered the manuscript in the Malice Domestic/St. Martins Press Best First Traditional Mystery contest, and won. The book went on to win the Agatha, Anthony, Barry and Romantic Times awards for best first mystery and the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery. It was also was nominated for the Macavity and Dilys awards. It was a very good year! The good news is that as a result of all that, the book got a lot of publicity, which of course helps you find readers. That bad news is that it was a tough act to follow.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Donna: I also write some fantasy and science fiction. And I particularly love mystery/sf and mystery/fantasy crossovers, so I try my hand at that occasionally.
KRL: I love those too! What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Tell me a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Donna: I deliberately chose to write an amateur sleuth, partly because it’s a mystery sub-genre I enjoy, though not the only sub-genre! But an amateur sleuth needs a strong motivation to involve herself in detecting. I find it annoying when an amateur sleuth just thinks it would all be a lot fun, or assumes the police are idiots. The most plausible reason for an amateur to sleuth, of course, is that she or someone she loves is in danger and is suspected of the crime, for example, or in danger of becoming the next victim. So when I created Meg Langslow, I gave her a very large and eccentric family. They serve a double purpose. They provide a lot of the humor and they are very good at getting themselves into trouble from which Meg needs to rescue them.
The first three books are set in real places ? my hometown of Yorktown, Virginia (Murder with Peacocks, #1 and Revenge of the Wrought Iron Flamingos, #3) and Monhegan Island, Maine (Murder with Puffins, #2). But by the fourth book, I’d realized the benefits of moving the action to a fictitious town, so I created Caerphilly, Virginia, which was definitely inspired in part by Yorktown while I was growing up there and by Charlottesville, Virginia, when I lived there during college. But since it’s my own invention, I can have my way with it. I can write a mystery involving political corruption in Caerphilly without casting aspersions on the people who hold those offices in a real town in the real world. If I need for the town to have a small private zoo, voila! A zoo appears. If I want the town’s entire population to celebrate Christmas by dressing up in Dickensian costumes and decorating every square inch of their houses and yards, it happens.
The most recent book, Gone Gull, takes place in another imaginary town?Riverton, the home of Meg’s long-lost (until recently) grandmother. A series of unpleasant pranks are threatening the residential craft class center Meg’s grandmother runs there, and Meg tries to find out who’s responsible for that?and later, for the murder of the painter who is teaching the art classes?because she’s afraid the problems will torpedo the craft center in which her grandmother has invested so much time, money and passion.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Donna: I think I write primarily to entertain, which can be pretty important in today’s world! I regularly hear from people who say that reading one of my books has helped them through difficult times. While I don’t set out with a political or social agenda for any of my books, I doubt if you can read one without picking up some of my opinions. Someone once told me that if a character was mean to animals in one of my books, she expected either that I’d kill that person or they’d turn out to be the killer. These days I work on not being that obvious! And Meg’s grandfather’s zeal for protecting the environment, her mother’s passion for bringing grace and civility into life, even her father’s enthusiasm for involving himself in criminal investigations, but only to make sure justice is done, all reflect things I care about.
KRL: 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?
Donna: I outline, though not in as much detail as I used to. I can tell someone who’s not a true plotter/planner/outliner because they tend to ask “do you outline before you write?” I noted that you asked it the right way! And my answer to that is no, outlining is for me, an integral part of the writing process. Remember the bit about letting yourself write a crappy first draft? My outlines are my crappy first drafts. They’re not only bad, they’re way too short, and they tell instead of show, but they give me something to revise.
I learned to outline back when I had a day job in addition to my writing career. I found outlines made it much easier to get back into a book after a day spent away from it. Since writing full time doesn’t mean the world leaves you alone, that’s still one of the benefits of an outline. I call it having a door back into my book.
Often, in addition to the outline, I will do a timeline, to make sure I know what all my characters are up to at any given moment. That’s been particularly important in the book I’m working on now, Toucan Keep a Secret, which involves not only a present-day murder but also a thirty-year-old cold case.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Donna: Once I finish my outline, I figure out when I want to finish the book, or more likely when I have to turn it in. Then I do a spreadsheet that tells me how many words I need to write each day to make my deadline. It may sound mechanical, but it’s actually very reassuring. I know if I finish each day’s quota, I’ll end up with a complete book. Possibly a book in need of serious revision, but you can revise a flawed book whereas you can’t revise a blank screen.
Optimally, I work Monday through Fridays, taking the weekend off to fill the well and to spend time with friends and families. But if it’s not going well and I fall behind, I will write over the weekend to catch up.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Donna: My ideal writing day is one when I don’t have anything else to do. I can roll out of bed, warm up a little at the computer by reading emails, start writing at 9 or 10, then write until I finish my quota which could take one hour or fifteen, you never know! Having anything else to do during the day is a distraction that I’d rather not have. Even something enjoyable in the evening somehow seems to hem me in. But life seldom gives you ideal writing days, so I write anyway and enjoy the rare nothing-but-writing days all the more when I get them.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Donna: Not really, because I was lucky enough to find out about the St. Martins contest, but they say you make your own luck. I wouldn’t have found out about the contest if I hadn’t worked to learn about the mystery genre, joined Sisters in Crime, attended Malice and tried my best to absorb everything I could about writing and publishing. And I wouldn’t have won the contest if I hadn’t done several years of hard work to make the manuscript the best it could be.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Donna: Not sure it’s great, just amusing! The day I received the call from Ruth Cavin, the legendary St. Martins editor, to tell me that I’d won the contest, I also got a rejection letter from a magazine on a short story I’d submitted. A friend told me this was the universe’s way of saying “Don’t get cocky, kid.”
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Donna: One of the most interesting signings I did was a joint signing with Marcia Talley. A friend of mine who’d been intending to come to one of my events for a while showed up, in spite of the fact that she was still reeling from getting her breast cancer diagnosis earlier that week. She found Marcia’s story about her own breast cancer journey deeply moving, and she went away not only with my books but with an armload of Marcia’s, along with a ton of good advice and Marcia’s email in case she ever needed a pep talk. A signing with unexpected benefits for at least one attendee.
I also remember an early signing at a local romance writers conference. Most of the writers there had stacks of mass market paperbacks. I only had one book out? the very beautiful but much more expensive hardback of Murder with Peacocks. My dozen or so copies stood untouched until a woman stopped in front of me, peered at my books and in a voice that probably carried to the neighboring counties, exclaimed something like , “Donna Andrews! I’m so glad to see you! I loved Murder with Peacocks! Funniest thing I’ve read in years! When’s your next book coming out?” Suddenly people started picking up my books and buying them, and we sold out. Alas, I was so busy signing that I never did get the name of that wonderful reader, but she was definitely the first example I’d met of the noisy reader ? the reader who, if she likes your books, will tell the world about them. God bless noisy readers!
KRL: Future writing goals?
Donna: At some point I’d like to write more in my series featuring Turing Hopper. Berkley dropped the series after four books, but I got the rights back and one of these days…I also have ideas for books set in worlds I’ve explored in some of my short stories. For example, “Normal,” which appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The Haire of the Dog,” from the short story anthology Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner), and “Cold Spell” and “Spellbound,” which appeared in Powers of Detection and Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow. But at the moment my Meg Langslow series with Minotaur keeps me pretty busy, so my most practical writing goal is to keep that series as fresh and entertaining as possible.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Donna: What comes to mind when you ask about writing heroes is a story that may or may not be true, but moves me anyway, so here it is.
Sometime in late 2001 or early 2002, many of us were talking about what we were doing on September 11, and one person shared a story about what she’d heard the mystery writer Larry Karp had done. Since he lived on the west coast, many of the terrible events of the day had already happened when he woke. Supposedly he watched a little bit of the wall-to-wall news coverage and then went to his desk and wrote?because that was his job. I admired that. I know so many of us wished we could be doing something more meaningful, but we’re not all first responders, so the next best thing was doing our jobs, whatever they might be.
I wish I could brag that I wrote on September 11, when the world seemed to be falling all around us, but I didn’t, though I did manage to do a little on September 12. You don’t write because you’re inspired or because you feel like it or because you’ve finally got the perfect conditions. You write because it’s what you do. I didn’t know Larry that well, and always intended to ask him if the story was true, but since he died last year I missed my chance. But maybe it doesn’t matter if the story is true. I think of it when it looks as if life will derail my writing and try to keep going.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Donna: It varies. I will do internet research or read books, but I find the best research is talking to people who are experts in the subject. They answer the questions you didn’t even know enough to ask.
KRL: What do you read?
Donna: I read a lot of mysteries, including a broader range than I currently write, from relatively light to fairly dark. I was a fantasy reader even before I discovered mysteries and still like to read that, but writing really eats into my reading time because I find reading fiction distracting when I’m writing. As a result, I read much more nonfiction than fiction. History, biography, popular science, you name it.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Donna: I hate having to name a favorite! I have a lot of favorites and the list changes?or more accurately grows daily. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of LivePD and documentaries like The Keepers. I’ve also been re-watching episodes of Poirot and looking forward to the upcoming season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m hoping my DVR has captured all the episodes of the third season of Broadchuch so I can watch that. Ask me next week and I’ll have a whole new set of likes. In addition to these, not instead of.
KRL: Ah you sound like me! Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Donna: Read a lot. Write a lot, and work really hard on learning how to use critique and how to revise. Good books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. If you have two writers with equal raw talent, but one of them has learned to be a thoughtful recipient of critique and a ruthless reviser, guess which writer is more likely to succeed?
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Donna: I blog regularly at the Femmes Fatales, with a lovely bunch of fellow writers. So if you’re not tired of me yet, you can catch me there most Mondays.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Donna: That I’m not anywhere near as organized as my protagonist.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of Gone Gull, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “gull,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 23, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.
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