Welcome to the three hundred and ninety-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with mystery author Marni Graff. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Marni. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Marni: Marni Graff here, all the way from North Carolina across the pond. I’m originally from NY but moved here to a rural area on a river, a perfect nature haven for a writer. In my nursing career I always wrote, including feature articles for a nursing journal, while I studied literature and took writing classes on the side. I’ve written essays, poetry and creative nonfiction in addition to my fiction. Writing screenplays led me to my best nursing job as a medical consultant for TV and movies filmed in Manhattan. I spent several years as the nurse on a soap opera, and used that as the basis for one my Trudy Genova mystery series, currently making the rounds at publishers.
Morgen: Wow, what a life. What genre do you generally write now?
Marni: Now that I’m able to write full time, I’ve settled into writing mysteries. That’s what I find myself reading the most, too. I do creative nonfiction from time to time; my latest piece was in Southern Women’s Review, an Atlanta-based journal.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Marni: I write under M. K. Graff and two of my mysteries for the Nora Tierney series, set in the UK, are in print. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford, where American writer Nora is living and working. She tries to clear her best friend of a murder charge, to the chagrin of the DI on the case. In the newest, The Green Remains, Nora has moved to Cumbria. She’s awaiting the publication of her first children’s book AND the birth of her first child, one she’ll raise as a single parent. Big year for Nora.
Morgen: Oxford and Cumbria are beautiful parts of England, the Lake District being based predominantly in the latter. You’ve been writing for a few years, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Marni: I have enough rejections to paper a small bathroom! After the initial disappointment, I quickly learned that publishing these days is focused on marketing and sales. All of my rejections note that my writing or story were wonderful, but were rejected on the basis of concerns of successfully marketing an unknown American who is writing a British mystery.
Morgen: That’s a real shame. Many American authors have written successfully about Britain, and vice versa. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Marni: The Blue Virgin was shortlisted for an IPPY Award (Independent Press).
Morgen: Congratulation. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Marni: I do have an agent I’ve worked with on both series at Curtis Brown, Ltd., a very old and well-known agency that started in England and has a wing in America. Ten years ago I would have said an agent was a necessity. That’s no longer true in today’s evolving publishing climate. I think a writer must evaluate what is their primary purpose in writing. If you need to write and want to get your stories out and have people read them, an agent is probably not needed. You will have to do marketing and publicizing yourself in any case. But if you really want to hold out for a contract to earn the big bucks, you’ll need an agent to get you in that door.
Morgen: Curtis Brown are indeed well-known here and very fussy about who they take on. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Marni: Mine are on Smashwords for ereaders and The Green Remains will probably also be on Kindle. I just downloaded the Kindle app for my laptop and have a Val McDermid novel that will be my first read that way. I can see the sense of this for travel, when my suitcase used to bulge with books I’d packed to read on vacation!
Morgen: Val was due to be my Christmas Day interviewee last year but due to unforeseen circumstances had to pull out… I still live in hope for this year. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Marni: I probably spend more time than I’d like to, but it’s necessary. I do readings / signings and try to weave them into any travel I do. I will do a long car trip up to Maine and back to NC this fall with the new book and am setting that up now. I’m on FB and in a few groups, and my writing group is a big help in promoting our new books that come out of the group’s authors. This November I’m slated to go to the Miami International Book Fair and I’m hoping to be on a panel, besides the booth that Bridle Path Press will have. I also write a weekly book review to introduce readers to writers they might not have heard of, or to find new ones, and that helps to promote my work.
Morgen: Interesting. Maybe I could add you to my blog’s reviews page? Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Marni: My favorite living writer is P D James, who I was fortunate to meet and interview when I was writing for “Mystery Review” magazine. I’m a big fan of UK series and read all the new ones by Susan Hill, John Harvey, Peter James, Peter Robinson, Stephen Booth and Mark Billingham, plus Americans-writing- UK- novels: Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, to name a few. Then there are the Scots: Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and the delightful Scottish series of Alexander McCall Smith. And I eat up the wonderful Canadian Louise Penny, Australian Barry Maitland, and American writers Julia Spencer-Fleming and John Sandford. Newer series I’m reading are by M.R. Hall, Elly Griffiths and Nicola Upson.
I haven’t given a lot of thought into who would play whom if my books were filmed, but now that you’ve got me thinking about it … I’d say Colin Buchanan of Dalziel and Pascoe fame would be an excellent Simon, or Ewan McGregor, and someone like Clive Owen could play Declan, but American Nora is harder to think of. Maybe Amy Adams since Nora is a redhead.
Morgen: I really like Amy Adams. I think I first saw her as Amelia Earheart in Night at the Museum 2 and have loved everything she’s done since (apart from The Muppets ). I’ve interviewed Stephen and Mark, and some of the others are on my wish list. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Marni: I work with a wonderful book designer and have input on the covers, which I think are very important. They’re the first glance your readers have of your book and they have to have an air of mystery about them. I’m thrilled that the cover for The Green Remains features a photograph I took of Lake Windermere on my last trip there, with a few additions to jazz it up. This cover will have a green wash over it, the way The Blue Virgin has a blue wash.
Morgen: It’s simple but effective. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Marni: I’m starting the first draft of the third Nora Tierney mystery, The Scarlet Wench. I’m hoping to get permission to use lines from Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit to use as chapter epigraphs, as the plot revolves around a theatre troupe that takes over Ramsey Lodge to put on that play.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Marni: I wish I could write every day but with life getting in the way, it’s more like any five days, unless I’m near a deadline. I have enough projects in the air now that I haven’t had a block. I keep a notebook of some kind in every bag or purse so if I see something I can use in a future project or just have an idea, I take notes and have that to refer to if I need a prompt. I also keep a pad by my night table to jot down ideas that come to me in dreams, or just before falling asleep.
Morgen: I’m the same with notebooks in dog-walking jackets. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Marni: I usually start with the first death, who did it, and why. Then I fill in an outline of other characters and potential deaths or incidents, and why Nora would be involved. That’s about all I start off with, so there’s plenty of room along the way for design and subplots.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Marni: I keep lists of names I like and sometimes match them up to what I feel are personalities of a character, or it may be the way they sound that makes me use that particular combo. I have a few baby name books, well-thumbed, that are great references and give me meanings of first names. I also think the age of a character plays into a believable name, as some names were trendy at different periods.
Morgen: Baby name books and telephone directories are certainly regularly-references resources. I find having an A-Z strip tacked to the top of my computer screen helps me pick names not too close to each other in the alphabet. I’ve been writing a short story everyday since May 1st so unless I bring a character back, I like to have a variety. Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Marni: I’ve written all of the above, and had poetry and essays published; my last creative nonfiction piece was in Southern Women’s Review. But I’m doing less and less of that since working on the novels is all-consuming.
Morgen: It certainly sounds like it. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Marni: I think a good writer always needs editing. My first drafts are just that; lumps of clay to be shaped and molded, and my writing group reads those and gives me great feedback on everything from plotline to characters and more. After a second or third revision, when I feel I’ve got something reasonable, I send it out to readers I don’t know, who are friends of friends, usually readers of mystery so they understand the conventions of the genre. Then I revise and polish. And finally before publication, I use a very good copyeditor and still go through it again before sending it on to the printer! You can never have enough eyes on a piece. You may know what you meant to say but part of that stays in your head; or you don’t explain something enough for the average reader. The more eyes, the better.
Morgen: I agree. I have two critique groups, four first readers and an editor although I don’t use them all for every project… they do have lives of their own. Do you have to do much research?
Marni: I do a ton of research, most before writing but still during. Some of that is setting, as this series takes place in the UK. I also use a good local contact in whatever town I’m using as a setting so answer questions that come up as I’m writing. Subplots I develop often lead to more research as I’m in the process of writing.
Morgen: I’m almost between the two points (Oxford / Cumbria) so don’t get to them all that often but if there’s something generally British / English you need to run past me, feel free to email me. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Marni: I prefer third, have done some pieces in first but for a mystery it can be limiting. Sue Grafton, who does Kinsey Milhone’s voice in first, branched out in V is for Vengence to adding some third person POV of a few characters and I liked that mix very much. I’ve never done second and probably won’t~
Morgen: That’s a shame, but it’s not to everyone’s taste and certainly is best kept to short stories. As a rule, editors don’t like it so I rarely submit it but keep it to my blog and eBooks, although I do get good feedback from there. I recently sent Sue’s ‘U for Undertow’ book to a friend in Germany who really enjoyed it so I’ll have to track down ‘V’. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Marni: Doesn’t every writer? I have many short stories that I’ve started and not finished or abandoned; that doesn’t seem to work as a genre for me.
Morgen: I’m so used to them that I prefer them to writing novels although having recently gone back through a 105K chick lit I’ve not touched for a year (I wrote it for NaNoWriMo in 2009), I remembered now much fun I’d had writing it, which was just as well as the first draft was 117,540 words… in the month!) What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Marni: My favourite part is playing the “What If?” game. I get to create this world and people and have things happen to them at will. My least favourite part is marketing, not when I’m doing it, as I love to talk about my books, but the time that takes away from the writing process. What has surprised me is how gracious other writers to each other, in terms of promotion and support. I think every writer truly understands how difficult the process is to produce a decent piece of writing and wants to offer help to those in the process.
Morgen: That’s just how I feel. I was really surprised but I equate us to learner drivers; we all know how hard it is to succeed. Marketing is hard (I live and breathe this blog – or it me) but as you said earlier, is a necessary part of being a writer. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Marni: Read, read, read. Read authors whose work you admire and read in the genre you want to write in. Read people who win awards to see why and what is marketable. Read the classics to see why they’ve endured. You must be a reader to be a decent writer. After that, find a writing group for support and keep on writing. If it’s your dream to share your stories, you’ll accomplish that, even if you don’t earn your living at it. Believe the impossible and find your audience. A good writing group can help with that.
Morgen: We do all need second opinions because they will always find things that hadn’t occurred to us. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Marni: I’d cook, because my husband and I both enjoy it and have a kitchen set up for two cooks. We’d probably cook his grilled prime rib with my popovers, a lemon chicken for those who don’t eat read meat, and a lasagna, as I’m half Italian! Only three to invite–how do I choose? I’d say Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll and Daphne Du Maurier, with Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie snuck in the back door and tucked away for dessert!
Morgen: As they’re all authors I’d definitely let them sneak. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Marni: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” by Lewis Carroll. I have that stenciled above some cabinetry in our kitchen.
Morgen: I love it. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Marni: I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and have started the Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers group, which meets every other month. I’m also a founding member of the Screw Iowa! Writing Group, six women writers from across the US. We meet yearly and each of us gets a day to workshop our entire novels; we keep in contact during the year by email. On the local level, I’m a member of the Hyde County Arts Council, and I run the Writers Read program, designed to allow writers of all ages to read excerpts from their work and receive immediate feedback while gaining experience reading their work in front of a group. I also write a weekly book review blog, www.auntiemwrites.wordpress.com.
Morgen: I love that title. If you do accept review enquiries I’d gladly add you. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Marni: Besides that ever-present stack of books waiting to be read? I like to walk / play with our Italian Spinone, Radar, and spend time with my seven grandchildren.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Marni: I’m fond of Elizabeth George’s book on writing Write Away. Writers Digest (www.writersdigest.com) has a great library of craft books and I own several on poisons and scene of crime procedures. One of their books that’s proved invaluable in forming character personalities is Dr. Linda Edelstein’s The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.
Morgen: I have Elizabeth’s book but for my sins, haven’t read it yet (ditto Stephen King’s On Writing). Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Marni: I do a Facebook page for promotion and link my blog to that; and belong to a few groups on that having to do with mystery readers and writers. I also get great information from the Sisters in Crime forum, where the members are so gracious with passing on information to others about anything from crime scene management to ebook publishing.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Marni: There’s no question that anyone can get in print these days, with the death of the big houses and the rise of ebooks. I think the future is very open and exciting for any writer who is smart enough to know that their best, polished effort will stand out. In the era of 99cent ebooks, your story has to be heads and tails above others, and that includes good editing with a great storyline. I am paraphrasing Robert McKee (Story) when he said that every writer’s goal should be “Original stories, beautifully told.”
Morgen: Another book I have but haven’t read yet… wrists duly slapped. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Marni: I ‘d like to thank you for promoting writers and giving us this venue to expand our audience.
Morgen: You’re so welcome, Marni. Thank you for taking part and I hope to have you back in another capacity sometime soon. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Marni: I’d like to know who you like to read—what author’s books have you waiting eagerly for the next installments?
Morgen: My favourite authors are Roald Dahl and Kate Atkinson. I think I’ve read all of Roald’s short stories (which is probably why I like dark twists) and I’ve read the first three of Kate’s books but have the others to read. I’m partway through Jane Wenham-Jones’ latest eBook ‘Prime Time’ and am enjoying that (so will be going back to read her others when time allows). Thank you, Marni.
I then invited Marni to include an extract of her writing and this is from Chapter One of ‘The Green Remains’:
Nora rounded the corner of Bowness Bay; her gaze flitted across the shallow water along the pebbly shore. A few yards ahead, the tip of an overturned green scull caught her attention; it was wobbling up and down at the stony shore, disturbing its neatness.
As she came abreast of the scull, the next slopping wave nudged it higher onto the pebbly shingle. Without pausing, Nora left the path and reached out to pull on the scull’s tip to keep it on shore. Someone would be looking for it later today. She was surprised when it barely budged, and she heaved harder, throwing her small frame into the effort. It must be filled with sand and water, she thought, and tugged harder. There was a sucking sound, and suddenly the scull slid up the bank, knocking Nora off balance and onto her knees on the damp sand. She was abruptly opposite the swollen, glassy-eyed face of a very dead man, partially covered in muck. He lay curled on his side, half-hidden by the scull. There was a greenish cast to his skin, mottled with gouges and missing pieces of flesh. His swollen, purple lips grinned grotesquely at her; one eye socket was empty. The distorted features shifted with the next wave.
Nora’s stomach roiled, and her breakfast threatened to come back up. She sucked in air and gasped. Then she heard her own screams echoing across the water as she realized the dead man was someone she knew.
M. K. Graff lives on a river in coastal NC with her husband and their Italian Spinone, Radar. She is the author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, set in England. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff is a founder of Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers and runs the Writers Read program in her rural area. She serves on the Hyde County Arts Council and writes a weekly mystery review blog at: www.auntiemwrites.wordpress.com. To read more about Graff or purchase an autographed copy of her book, order through www.bridlepathpress.com.
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