Katy Munger: By the Book

I am fortunate to have a longtime friend who is also an accomplished mystery writer, Katy Munger, the author of several acclaimed detective series, including The Dead Detective, Casey Jones, and Hubbert & Lil (here’s her Amazon author page link) (here’s her website).  Somehow Katy found time to indulge my request for a NYT-style By the Book interview.  Thanks, Katy!

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What books are on your nightstand?

I currently have books by M.C. Beaton, Anne Cleaves, Caleb Carr, and Louise Penny on my nightstand. Can you tell I am a crime fiction fan? But I also have several books by Stephen Ambrose I am re-reading. He is one of my very favorite authors.  (For the record, I also have about 3,000 more books on my shelves and my phone is full of audiobooks waiting to be heard.)

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Well, my withering attention span has truncated my reading in bed time (previously, my favorite spot) to about ten minutes at a shot before I fall asleep. So, quite honestly, my favorite reading experience now is either sitting in my backyard around a fire listening to an audio book while I enjoy a cocktail or working in my garden while listening to a book. Long trips are also fabulous reading experiences for me now. Let’s hear it for alternate reading formats.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like asking a woman with ten children which one is her favorite. It’s impossible to answer. But I can say that one book that has always resonated with me is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Not perfect, and not even his best book, but the way so many seemingly unrelated plot points came together at the end in a Robert Altman-style climax was life-changing for me as a writer. I have also recently become a big fan of Sue Miller’s work, especially A Life Beneath. Again, because it is a modern novel that subtly depicts some timeless emotional epiphanies we all share.

You’ve written several mystery series.  Which of your detectives is your own personal favorite and why?

I have rotated through my favorites as my era in life changes. For a while in recent years, it was Kevin Fahey of my Dead Detective series. But I am working on a couple new Casey Jones books right now so she is back in my good graces. Weirdly, I recently began to love Auntie Lil again, the protagonist from my very first series, Hubbert & Lil. Probably because they are selling so well on Amazon. It’s like my very own elderly aunt has come back from the dead and is sending me a check for my birthday every month… Thanks, Auntie Lil!

Who is your favorite fictional detective?  And the best villain?

Oh, gosh. Why do you ask these hard questions??!!  Right now, my favorite fictional detective is Hamish MacBeth. It was Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus, so I guess I love my Scotsmen. Brrrrraaaace yourself!

Villains are harder. I like villains who look just like you and me, who are complicated by conscious and circumstances. Cartoon villains like fictional serial killers bore me. My favorite villains actually come from true crime: narcissistic women who have waded through life leaving a trail of victims in their path as they pursue incredibly superficial goals. Bleached blond hair. Huge houses. Multiple husbands. Ignored children. Batshit crazy self-esteem. Have you ever noticed that they never get caught until they start to get old and lose their sex appeal? What does that say about us as a culture?

What makes for a good mystery?

Suspense is great and all, but I think a really good mystery takes an exploration of life and death – and all the big questions in between – and presents them in a way that connects directly to the heart and soul of the reader. You’ve got to make it real. You’ve got to make it personal. People want to feel real emotion and they need to feel real emotion in this plastic, staged world we live in.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I am drawn to original settings, characters, and plots with minimal descriptive prose.  I love flawed protagonists. I steer clear of derivative books (either those that copy other authors or those that are near-replicas of prior books in a series). Serial killer books featuring villains with elaborate scenarios and motives bore the crap out of me, as does gratuitous violence. Contrived serial killer plots are idiotic and boring, not to mention way disconnected from the messy, impulse-driven reality of actual killers.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I love tales of sailing ships in the 1700’s and early 1800’s – Patrick O’Brien is a favorite – as well as history books and anything by Stephen Ambrose, best known for writing non-fiction about World War II.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

I can’t answer that. I’m sorry. My writer friends would kill me if I did. Except for the friend I picked. Let’s just say we’re ALL underappreciated these days.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Way too advanced for my own good. A 9-year old child should not be reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet there I was, perched in a tree, reading about all kinds of paraphilias instead of doing my math homework. The only book my mother ever took away from me was Miss Lonelyhearts by National West when I was ten years old. I still hold it against her. And I think I was still in diapers when I first read Flannery O’Connor, so no one should be surprised that I am fascinated with the darker impulses of human nature.

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Tik-Tok in the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. God knows why. Maybe because he was just so cheery and resilient, a lone robot wandering in a world of humans, munchkins, witches, flying monkeys and other fantastical creatures. The Cowardly Lion from the same series ran a close second. I also loved The Boxcar Children because they got to live by themselves, without parents, in an abandoned train car parked deep in a forest.  That really appealed to my independent streak.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo. Boy, did it explain a lot about my childhood and the subsequent choices I made as an adult. And in this current national climate, I recommend it to everyone.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

An old friend named Hart Getzen (who is now a producer-writer) had a wonderful knack of giving me books exquisitely appropriate to what was happening in my life. He once gave me a collection of short stories by Irish writers when I was about to visit Ireland, and he gave me another short story collection called Leaving New York when I left the city after 16 years living there to move back down south. I think that was the most thoughtful gift I have ever received, and it was a wonderful book. It’s a bit of a landmine to give a writer a book as a gift, you know, but he nailed it. His gifts always showed great respect and a deep understanding of who I was.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Oh, gosh. I don’t want to piss anyone off, especially not anyone who I am going to run into at the bar at a writer’s conference. Let’s just say I recently put down a book by a bestselling female author that bored the crap out of me and I was upset because I really like her. And I put down a lot of books hyped by the publishing industry written by up-and-coming young bucks who are the new writers du jour and usually feeling some sort of alienation from the world, given that being a young white male in this world of ours is so very hard and all. Cry me a river and, while you are at it, please edit your prose so you do not come off as an entitled, self-absorbed jerk who mistakes endless description for depth.

What book would you recommend to the President?

What a coincidence! The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo.

If you were to write something besides crime fiction, what would you write?

Non-fiction, without a doubt. The behavior of actual humans is absolutely fascinating. If true crime is off the table as a choice, I’d go with a book about unsung war heroes. Or maybe one on managing a creative team? I have a lot of interests and would love the time to explore some of them.

Whom would you choose to write your life story?

Harper Lee. She’d get me.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

Jane Austen (I’d get her SO drunk, so she could loosen up and have some fun!); Truman Capote; and Flannery O’Connor.

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

What do you plan to read next?

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr. But only because I have already read The Coal Tower by Tony Gentry.

An Interview with James Cotter – 60-Something Debut Novelist

James Cotter is an associate professor of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a gripping SF thriller about the travails of building a bridge across the Bering Strait. Here’s an excerpt from the novel’s opening passage:

The environmental challenges surpassed any other construction project, and these were dwarfed by the financial and political challenges. But the dream would not die – because humankind still remembers, deep in their souls, their early migrations when they walked out of Africa and spread across the world. And the Bering Strait has always remained a symbol of humanity’s sundered kinship, and so eventually someone would restore those ancient ties with a bridge across the Bering Strait.

The Bridge over the Bering Strait is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions. Brisk, deeply grounded, and thought-provoking, it’s a good beach read, especially on those muggy days when a dead accurate depiction of winter in Alaska may soothe. We talked in downtown Richmond at Sefton Coffee.

When did you find time to write this novel?

I wrote the book over several years of early mornings – getting in an hour or so before work – and taking writing vacations as it came together towards the end. That’s still how I write. In the work we do as professors — which is intellectually strenuous — by the end of the day it’s hard to focus enough to get any real writing done.

Did you workshop the book or have readers look at your drafts?

I had some friends read parts and I was in a writing group at the time and received great feedback there.

Why this theme – building a bridge across the Bering Strait? It seems almost mythical, since as you have written, it serves to heal the broken link that brought the first Americans here. And speaks to the tortured Russian-American relations that have colored all our lives.

An image just came to me one day. A father and son were falling into the Bering Sea from a bridge. Just took off from that image.

You chose to self-publish this book. Had you shopped it around to agents before you went that route?

I did. Went to James River Writers Conference and met agents there, but nobody bit. I sent it off to a few agents and editors, but again no one seemed interested. So I went to Amazon’s Create Space and paid the $3000 to have them copy edit, typeset and publish the manuscript.

It looks good, beautiful cover, trade paperback quality, well done!

My son’s a graphic designer, so he mocked up the PDF for the front and back covers, and we used that. Create Space will do that, but it would have cost more and it probably wouldn’t have been any better.

So the book came out in 2010. How’s it been selling?

I’ve sold under 100 copies, a few more than just family and friends, ha. But I haven’t made my investment back, if that’s what you’re asking. And probably won’t. When you consider the monthly flood of books from traditional publishers in every genre, the thousands of writers going the self-publishing route. I paid some money extra for what Amazon called a marketing package. I think they sent out fliers to booksellers, that sort of thing. Of course it was a joke. They must get millions of these fliers. Next time, I won’t bother to pay for that feature. After all, a friend of mine who writes romances told me she has 30 days on bookshelves before they pull her books. 30 days to get somebody’s attention. And that’s for an accomplished author.

But you’re still at it.

I am. I’m taking a few days off next week to fly out to Portland, Oregon for the annual Historical Novel Society conference. I have an idea about an American soldier who finds himself involved in the sequence of conflicts that spread across the late 19th Century, between the Civil War and World War I. One book for each conflict. Meets Teddy Roosevelt, etc. I was a history major in college and I know how to do the research. I enjoy imagining myself back into those details of life back in the day, in different eras.

Your eyes light up when you talk about this. It’s like here you are in your 60s, near the end of a quite accomplished academic career, and you’re starting fresh with this whole new endeavor with some of the enthusiasm of a young man! Do you think there are a lot of writers out there who are taking up a pen as retirement comes closer?

Probably thousands and thousands. I mean, I wanted to write when I was young. I actually did that thing, went to Paris, lived in a garret, sat at a café table all day. The whole deal. Then eventually came to my senses, came home, and found work that I felt was both meaningful and paid the rent.

Do you regret that decision?

How could I? It’s been so rewarding on so many levels to have this career, to raise a family. And coming back to it now, yeah, who knows what I may have lost? But I’m not a naïve kid anymore either. The lived experience of all these years. I can draw on that now.

Yeah, our stories run parallel in those ways. New Orleans was my Paris. I mean, we all have this romantic notion about the starving artist and all, but most of the writers and artists I know have day jobs or rich spouses or trust funds. You don’t expect to make your way doing it really.

No.

It’s a stretch, but isn’t there something romantic or cool, too, about going back to your art in retirement? There’s less pressure to make the rent, you’re not fretting over getting rich and famous. You’re perfectly free to write what you want.

Except that the stress does drive you. Lacking that, it’s easy to take a day off, lay the story aside, go putter in the garden.

Well that’s true even with the stress, eh?

You know, much of my academic career has been about fighting ageism. So maybe I’m especially sensitive to this. I would think, though, that there may be an understandable but I would say unfair bias among agents and publishers who may shy away from an older writer. They’re investing in a career and all the years it takes to get a series of books written and successful in the marketplace, thinking that the older writer won’t have the stamina to get it done.  But I’d argue that we’re the ones with the energy and the time to really focus.  So I think that may be a mistake on their part.

And as you say, the older writer can bring that lived experience to inform the writing. Meanwhile, self-publishing. So you put the novel on your shelf, and pass it out to friends, and sell some here and there. And get on with the next one.

Yes. That’s right. And I suppose if you’re up for it you can self-promote, build some social media presence, go to book readings, maybe even show up with a box of books at the local bookstores.

And occasionally a self-published book catches on that way and a traditional publisher picks it up.

I’ve heard of that happening. For me, I’m glad that self-publishing is so accessible. Being able to hire an editor and control all the publishing details yourself, that’s not so bad. Better than the old days, I’d say.

Do you have a title for the book you’re working on now?

Not yet. Keane’s Quarry maybe.

We should start a 50 or better writing club. A guild!

We could, for sure. Not a bad idea.