Welcome to the one hundred and eighty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with author of historical mysteries Marilyn ‘M.E.’ Kemp. 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, Marilyn. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Marilyn: I have been writing since I was nine years old.
Morgen: Another young author. Wow, I’d sort of be jealous except I have experience of life now but how lovely to start writing so early.
Marilyn: In 7th grade I won first prize in a national Scholastics Magazine contest. (I still correspond with my 7th grade teacher.) I was born and grew up in a small town in New England, the town my ancestors settled in 1713. I live in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack and two kitties, Boris and Natasha, who are my toughest critics. (They have been known to tear my work to shreds.)
Morgen: Ouch. I love their names though. Our Mayor of London is a Boris (Johnson), he has wonderfully pale flyaway hair and no-one can take him seriously – his sister’s the editor of The Lady and boy, has she made some changes (including chopping the fiction… boo). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Marilyn: I write a series of historical mysteries featuring two nosy Puritans as detectives. I think American history is just as bloody and colorful as medieval Europe and I enjoy smashing the stereotypes of our Puritan ancestors – they were a lusty, hard-drinking people. I’ll stick to this genre since I really feel comfortable in it and there are plenty of 17th c. adventures left in New England history for me to write about.
Morgen: I met three agents back in July and two wanted more historical (all three wanted crime). What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Marilyn: I’ve had five (fifth one on its way) mysteries published: MURDER, MATHER AND MAYHEM; DEATH OF A DUTCH UNCLE; DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE; DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER and DEATH OF A CAPE COD CAVALIER. The first time I saw my book on the shelf at our local Borders I moved it up a shelf so it would be seen better by browsers!
Morgen: <laughs> I suppose a ‘K’ surname is sort of middling which is good. Some say that book buyers start at a so a ‘B’ surname is handy although I’m sure it’s cover, titles and a bit of luck… and moving up a shelf. Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Marilyn: I once witnessed a woman go up to the librarian in our local library and ask for my book…
Morgen: Oh wow!
Marilyn: …she asked them to order it for her since it wasn’t in the stacks.
Morgen: Oh. It’s a shame it wasn’t there already but good on her for being happy to wait for it. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Marilyn: I market all the time – I realize it’s a big part of my job as a writer. My husband is better than me at it as a promoter – he carries a stack of cards with him listing my books, with an apple pie recipe on the back, and he hands them out wherever he goes, including Off Track Betting. Bookies are some of my best customers!
Morgen: Well done him. It’s lovely to have a supportive family. I printed some bookmarks with one of my 60-word stories and tucked them in second-hand books I sold at car boot sales. I’m not sure if I got any website hits from it but it’s fun knowing they’re out there.
Marilyn: My own marketing is done through giving talks and going online as a guest blogger. My talk on the Salem Witch Trials is very popular and drew 91 people at one library.
Morgen: And I bet the library loved that. My council doesn’t do much but I’ve seen crime writers Stephen Booth and Peter James at a neighbouring county’s libraries and it’s great they have some wonderful authors. I’ve become friendly with the council’s literature coordinator and requested he have Kate Atkinson next year. I’m not holding my breath! Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Marilyn: I haven’t won one since 7th grade but I think they do help a little.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Marilyn: I write under my maiden name: M. E. Kemp. It’s short and sweet compared to Marilyn Elizabeth Rothstein.
Morgen: Shorter yes, but I do like Rothstein… perhaps you could use that if you write gothic. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Marilyn: I don’t have an agent – I was told I didn’t need one since I have a publisher, but I’m not so sure. I’d like to earn more money than I have so far!
Morgen: I have heard that they can negotiate deals earning more than their percentage but also that they’re more difficult to get than a publisher, although the fact that you already have a publisher will be a selling point. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Marilyn: I published my first book p.o.d. and I tell beginners it’s a good way to start because having that book in my hand led to my first contract. It is still a thrill to bring out a new book. It really is like giving birth, and this is your new baby!
Morgen: But hopefully less painful (or expensive). Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Marilyn: I had lots of rejections for nonfiction articles I proposed before I started writing novels, so I learned to take it in stride. There are many reasons why a publisher can’t fit you in to his house. It doesn’t mean your writing is bad. Act like a professional and you’ll be treated as a professional.
Morgen: Spot on. It’s usually just the right thing for the wrong person. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Marilyn: I don’t necessarily write very day. I may do research or my emails may reveal a new project to tackle or I go out for lunch. Very important, lunch. I haven’t suffered from writers block to date – perhaps it’s because I go out to lunch so much.
Morgen: But I bet you’re still thinking, observing when you’re there so that’s research too. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from? And your characters?
Marilyn: Inspiration? I just open the diaries of Samuel Sewall, the American Pepys, and I find a plot on every page. (The writings of Cotton Mather are always good for a few laughs. He’s the young minister who is unfairly blamed for the Salem Witch Trials. He was in real life quite a neurotic, complicated character so I use him as an excuse to send my two detectives off on an adventure. They are both related to him.) I don’t really outline. I start with a victim and take off from there. It seems to work for me. By nature, the mystery has a structure – victim, killer, red herrings, detective, motives, justice at the end…. Are my characters based upon real people? Sometimes yes, sometimes no and sometimes they are composites. Women fans love my hunky Mohawk, Billy Blue Bear, who is a composite of several Mohawk men I’ve met. My latest book, DEATH OF A CAPE COD CAVALIER, has my hottest sex scene to date and the hottie is based upon an actor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – although my personal favorite from that show was Spike. My two main characters, Hetty Henry and Creasy Cotton, as series characters so they are pretty well defined for me. I like to pick out weird names from my American history books and the characters spring from that. You just know that Constable Phillymort is a prig, Jacob Joyliffe a bumbling prig and poor Gammar Pisspot is bound to be a victim.
Morgen: I love weird names and those certainly are weird, Marilyn. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Marilyn: My first reader is my editor / publisher. Sometimes I have to ask my friend Kay to print pages out for me, but I don’t know if she reads them or not, and it’s not the whole book.
Morgen: If I were Kay I’d read it… or at least take a sneaky peek.
Marilyn: I just don’t like to let anyone read the whole manuscript except for the editor.
Morgen: Ah OK… I’d be on my best behaviour.
Marilyn: I figure he’s the professional here, and I might resent criticism from family or friends, or too much unqualified praise might swell my head. Which is big enough from my own ego. I happen to have a good editor whose judgment I trust.
Morgen: Me too, Rachel’s great. My critique group’s great because they have the right balance between “I liked the bit where” and “I’d change…” – all good or bad with no explanation doesn’t help. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Marilyn: I do a great deal of research. There is always a new topic popping up as I write, such as what did a Hudson River Sloop look like? I do get feedback from fans, and so far it has been positive feedback. I take care to be accurate so that I don’t get nit-picked to death by some 17th c. expert who says boiled eels were cooked in wine with a dash of cloves. I knew that.
Morgen: Which is why I don’t write historical.
Marilyn: Fans tell me I write about food a great deal. I hadn’t noticed, but the colonials ate well and heartily and perhaps I envy them!
Morgen: Ah yes, the one of the fives senses that is ‘taste’. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Marilyn: The only creative process I use is when I’m in bed at night and I think of a plot or a character. Otherwise I just sit down and write or I research and write or I go to lunch and enjoy myself! I do prefer to have classical music playing on NPR while I write but I can write in a coffee shop or at a picnic table in the park as well.
Morgen: I always used to say I’d know I was old when I liked classical music and sadly I became old in my 20s but I’m so glad I like it as I find it doesn’t distract me like lyrical music does. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Marilyn: As for my working methods, I write long hand on a legal pad. I edit on computer. I need that touch of my hand with a pen and a pad. The computer to me is a tool for editing, and there is no excuse for many typos or misspellings when you submit a manuscript.
Morgen: I usually create on a computer and used to think that writing it on paper then typing up was doing the same thing twice but now I think it’s more like a first edit. As you say, there’s no excuse for typos but it’s surprising how Rachel spots things I hadn’t, but then by the fourth edit of my 117K (which I weeded down to 105K) chick lit I was definitely glazing over. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Marilyn: I write from two points of view. Hetty Henry, a pushy broad, speaks in first person. Creasy Cotton, her young minister side-kick, is written in third person when she sends him on an errand and is not in the scene herself.
Morgen: Good plan. I think it’s nice to have a mix (providing they’re broken up into chapters or by section breaks) – variety keeps it fresh. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Marilyn: I may use a prologue to introduce the victim, then I move to the investigation in chapter one.
Morgen: What’s your favourite aspect of your writing life?
Marilyn: I love seeing the book out in print, to be able to hold it and turn the pages and read passages.
Morgen: I don’t have that thrill but never say never. And your least favourite?
Marilyn: To puff off myself. I was raised to be modest, but you can’t be a shrinking violet if you want to sell your books. Good thing I have a husband who loves to puff off my work for me! He’s my biggest booster.
Morgen: Oh I’m rubbish at sales. I have a friend (now living in the US) who’s brilliant but I’m very much like “oh you don’t, OK then, thanks anyway”. I think that approach works online though as the quickest way to get unfollowed on Twitter (and presumably unfriended on Facebook) is with the ‘me, me, me’. I’m ‘my blog, my blog, my blog’ (and retweeting other people’s interesting tweets) which 99% of the time is about other authors but the hope is that my books will be spotted if a visitor stays long enough. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Marilyn: My advice to beginners is to persevere, but also to pass in a clean document with few if any typos or spelling errors. I’m hearing bad things about some ebooks. It may be easy to publish an ebook but there’s no excuse today to have a manuscript full of spelling errors. Be professional!
Morgen: Absolutely. One chap on LinkedIn had convinced himself that he didn’t need an editor that his content was flawless – Rachel is so much more than a proofreader to me and my only expense so why risk it? Besides it’s lovely having the feedback on particular sections that perhaps either the critique group didn’t pick up on or I didn’t have time to read (in the fortnightly 15 minutes). What do you like to read?
Marilyn: I read a great many historical mysteries to keep up with my genre. My favorite is Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.
Morgen: One of my Monday nighter’s (Auriol) loves Ellis Peters and anything historically or contemporarily mysterious.
Marilyn: The writing is crisp and clean and the main character is a wonderfully intelligent and compassionate man. (My own main character, Hetty Henry, is pushy and outspoken. She’s not above using her feminine wiles to get her way, either. Her saving grace is a strong sense of justice.)
Morgen: One of my favourite TV characters is Jeff Lindsay’s Debra Morgan (sister of Dexter – my favourite programme followed by The Mentalist). She’s so feisty and says whatever is on her mind (usually wrapped around expletives). Of course the actress (Jennifer Carpenter) makes the character real and apparently Debra is very different in the books which is a shame (especially as I have three of them and would love to read them). What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Marilyn: When I’m not writing I DANCE. Everything from Martha Graham, ballet and contemporary dance like David Parsons – whoo, what a hunk that David is! I was interviewing him in public once and he ended up sitting so close to me I almost wet my pants. He knew it, too.
Morgen: <laughs> that reminds me of the Pirates of Penzance part of the ‘Pretty Woman’ film (one of my favourites) but the best bit for me was “you work on commission, right? Big mistake… big, huge… I have to go shopping now”. You were saying… David the hunk.
Marilyn: I have a book full of pictures of me with these gorgeous male dancers. Who says that life ends after 50???
Morgen: I sincerely hope not, I’m 44. You said you’re based in Saratoga Springs, NY (which sounds lovely), do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Marilyn: I live in Northeastern USA and I can’t envision living anyplace else in the U.S.A. Lots of cultural events, easy access to NYC and Boston, my really favorite city. Boston has all the 17th c. atmosphere I need for my books. I wonder if it might not have more 17th c. sites than London, what with the Great Fire and the Blitz.
Morgen: Possibly, there’s a lot of new and old in London (some nicer than others)… “carbuncle” Prince Charles was quoted as saying for plans to an extension to the National Gallery (“monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend” actually) which then were scrapped so I guess he did us a favour.
Marilyn: I also love New Orleans, though, and would like to travel more around the country.
Morgen: There are lots of parts of the UK I’ve not been too and apparently more Brits are staying at home, given we have less money to spend these days. We touched on our love of marketing earlier, are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Marilyn: I really enjoy guest blogging and I’m on several writing chat rooms like DorothyL; Murder Must Advertise (one of my favorite books, too!) and Crime Through Time. Also my books are on Amazon.com. These sites are a big help in making known my ‘brand.’
Morgen: Isn’t it great, I love technology. Perhaps you’d consider writing a guest blog for me. You’ve just mentioned Amazon, where’s the best place to find out about you and your work?
Marilyn: Check out my web site at: www.mekempmysteries.com. I have a “webmaster” who helped me design it and who runs it for me. She’s worth every penny.
Morgen: It’s a nice clean-looking site, some can be far too fussy with so much going on that they take an age to load (by which time some visitors will have left) and black and red… great mystery colours. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Marilyn: So far as electronic publishing goes, I don’t know much about that. I organized a conference on October 2nd on that topic and on the future of publishing.
Morgen: Ah yes, I saw the photo on your website (and mentioned specifically on your news page).
Marilyn: I know that there are people who will never give up the printed page for an ipod or kindle. Seems to me it’s hard to cuddle up in bed at night with an electronic device.
Morgen: Some people do but I have so many paper books to read still although I take my eReader travelling (which is rarely, especially as a I have a very light laptop which does so much more). Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Marilyn: Thank you, Morgen for your thought-provoking questions and for allowing me to be interviewed!
Morgen: Oh, you’re so welcome, thank you for taking part and I’m glad I provoked your thought. And thanks also to Megan Mumford for this great shot of Marilyn.
Update July 2012: Last year Hurricane Irene did a job on a favorite place of mine, Schoharie County in upstate NY. You can’t imagine the devastation one small creek could do when it rises to the height of the tallest trees bordering it. The town of Schoharie’s library is still closed; most of the great old Victorian houses are for sale or have FEMA signs on them. The town of Middleburg had 5 feet of water running down its Main Street, but the people there fought back, rebuilt, repainted and reopened their businesses and the library there did the same, wiping up tons of mud as they went. I was so stunned at the sight that I mentioned it to fellow writer in CA, Priscilla Royal, who offered to send me a signed copy of her book to give to the library. Well, that started me off, asking fellow writers to contribute a signed copy and the response was tremendous! My hubby and I have made several trips bearing bags of books – the library set up a special shelf for them! It gives me a great feeling to know how generous are my fellow writers!
Morgen: That’s one thing that’s really surprised me; how supportive writers are of each other. I compare the industry to leaner drivers; we all know how hard it is to ‘pass’. Thank you, Marilyn
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