AND THE WINNER IS…drum roll…TRACEY QUIRK! WOOOOOO! Thanks, all. Stay tuned. . .more interviews comin’ up!
Hey, kids! Welcome to what used to be the Summer Blast Tour and is now the Fall Fiesta Tour! WOOO! And the first author up in what has become the FFT is Mary Vermillion.
Mary joins us from Iowa City, where she lives with her partner and three cats. When she’s not writing mysteries, she’s teaching courses in English and writing at Mount Mercy University. And when she’s not teaching courses like “Law and Literature” or others in social issues and writing, she’s gardening, lifting weights, or watching women’s basketball. Heck, maybe all three at once.
source (re-sized here)
Now, before we chat a bit about Mary’s mysteries, she is doing a GIVEAWAY! Some lucky reader could win a copy of Mary’s latest, Seminal Murder (details below). Here’s how:
If you’d like a copy of Seminal Murder, leave a comment here in which you specifically state that you would like to be entered in the drawing for the book. DON’T put your email address in the body of the comment (the merry elves are trying to save you from spambots), but DO include it in the form you fill out to enter your comment. Nobody sees that but the merry elves in the back, and they’re not telling anyone. 😀
We’ll do the drawing SATURDAY at NOON Eastern Standard Time, U.S. Please check back here to see if you won or not. I notify within about 30 minutes of the drawing, and I post the winner at this link. That way, if you won but you didn’t hear from me, you know to check your spam filter. Good luck!
Now let’s talk about Mary’s books.
Thirty-something Mara Gilgannon returns to her small Iowa hometown after the murder of her aunt’s long-time partner, Glad. While there, she helps her aunt keep the struggling radio station on the air, in the midst of a vicious local battle over whether to bring a Wal-Mart store in to the community or not. Did Glad’s death have something to do with her opposition to the store? Or did someone take exception to her sexual orientation? With the help of an attractive local policewoman and her bigger-than-life best gay friend Vince, Mara tries to figure out what really happened to Glad.
Mara’s back! This time, she’s trying to clear her ex, Anne, from charges that she murdered Dave DeVoster, a star player for the Iowa basketball team. Anne, director of the Iowa City Women’s Center, had led a protest against the university when it allowed DeVoster to continue to play even though he’d been charged with raping a player on the women’s basketball team. Speaking of the team, Mara’s a huge fan of Bridget Stokes, an assistant coach on the women’s team, but as she digs deeper into what may have happened to DeVoster, she finds herself at odds with Stokes, who seems overly interested in protecting the heterosexual image of the team. Not only that, but players and university officials aren’t talking. Will Mara be able to clear Anne? And who really killed Dave DeVoster? You’d better read it and find out!
THIS HERE BOOK IS UP FOR A GIVEAWAY!
When Mara’s friend Dr. Grace Everest is murdered at her own fertility clinic, Mara works to finish the radio series about artificial insemination she and Grace were doing together. But someone is out to stop her. Is it the local reverend who’s been campaigning against both the clinic and the radio station where Mara works? Is it the suspect that Mara’s flamboyant best gay friend invites over to the house they share? Or the unknown thief who trashed her office? Mara doesn’t know, but she does know that somebody clearly wanted Grace out of the way and somebody doesn’t want her nosing around the clinic, which has a number of other mysteries afoot, like a strangely low number of pregnancies for lesbian patients. What exactly is going on? And who killed Grace? Hope you win this one so you can find out!
All rightie! Let’s go chat with Mary!
ANDI: Hi, Mary! Thanks so much for stopping by Women and Words to hang out with us. So let’s start with the question that some of us who write in the genre get. You’ve mentioned before in an interview at NewPages.com that you’d always wanted to be a writer, and that you’d written “a whole range of stuff” before writing a novel, including a play that you not only wrote but directed in college. Can you tell our readers what drew you to writing mysteries?
MARY: I’ve always loved mysteries! The first thing I remember writing — besides really bad poetry — was my own Encyclopedia Brown story, an early bit of fan fiction. And like most female mystery writers, I adored Nancy Drew. Sometimes I’d devour two a day. I loved the idea that Nancy and her gal pals could solve problems that supposedly older and wiser folks couldn’t. Ditto the Scooby Doo gang. Yes, I’m claiming Scooby as an influence.
ANDI: RUH-ROH! I’m out of Scooby snacks! Sorry, Mary. You’ll have to indulge in the fabulous Ritz Crackers and Smoked Gouda. Anyway, I loved Encyclopedia Brown. His creator, Donald Sobel, died this past July, and that got me thinking about EB. I hadn’t in a while. I loved those books. Summer reading, right up there with Nancy and the Hardy Boys. There was something really familiar about reading and re-reading those books. Do you still find that?
MARY: Now, I love the comfort of the genre. Out of chaos and crime you get order and justice. Every single time. What’s not to like? I also love trying to puzzle out whodunit. I love it when I can’t — when an ending is both surprising and inevitable.
I also think that crime fiction is a fun venue for exploring social issues, other cultures and places. I love Sara Paretsky and Ellen Hart. When I encountered Hart’s Jane Lawless and Cordelia Thorn, I thought, I want to create characters like that. Then when I got tenure, I decided it was time for me to write the type of thing I most love to read: mystery novels.
ANDI: I agree that you can explore social and cultural issues through mysteries. I think they’re also a great arena to explore different regions of the world. I’ve been listening to NPR’s series “Crime in the City,” which feature a series of interviews with different mystery writers who set their fiction in different cities around the world. They all talk about the different layers of the place in which their main character lives and works, and the cultural and social underpinnings of that place. ANY place is interesting to me, and that’s the other cool thing about writing mysteries. ANY place can serve as a backdrop, and the issues that define that place can themselves become themes or motives or even characters in a mystery.
Along those lines, your first mystery, Death by Discount (originally published in 2004 but since reprinted by Regal Crest) deals with a murder in a small Iowa town that might be linked to the community battle over whether to bring a Wal-Mart store in. I grew up in rural Colorado, and there was a similar battle over a Wal-Mart there, so I know how heated these issues can get, especially in a small community. One of the things I liked about Death by Discount is that there are no easy answers in a situation like that, something you captured in a particular scene that involved a community meeting about the store. You’ve mentioned that you came up with the idea for this book in a class you were teaching. Could you expound on that?
MARY: Actually, I sometimes use the research I did for that novel in a first-year writing course I teach, Writing and Social Issues, but the impetus for Death by Discount didn’t come from the class. I wanted to set a novel in a place like my hometown — Atlantic, Iowa. At the time when I was brainstorming my first novel, I was afraid Atlantic would vanish like so many small towns do, and I wanted to capture what it was like growing up there. I was also curious about what exactly was causing small towns to die. One answer, of course, is that lots of people are like my main character and me. We leave our hometowns for bigger cities. In our case, Iowa City. But as I was researching, I kept finding information about the ways Wal-Mart hurts small-town America. And workers. And women. And the environment. I got hooked.
ANDI: I’d like to say here that no Wal-Marts were harmed in the development of this interview. [ahem] Anyway, readers, check out Death by Discount to see how the pros and cons play out among locals. Great stuff. Moving along [before the Sam Walton’s pod people come for us both!]. . .your main character in your mysteries is Mara Gilgannon, who you’ve described as “plucky” and “neurotic.” She’s also a radio personality, which I enjoy because I’ve spent some years my own self doing public radio news and music shows. Mara isn’t a police detective or a private investigator, which puts her in a long tradition of amateur women sleuths, going back to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, and the woman credited as the first so-called “girl detective,” Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange. How and where did you first meet Mara Gilgannon? Was her character a slap out of the blue for you or did she kind of drop hints to you over a period of time, trying to get you to write her?
MARY: I worked in radio too, Andi, and I think Mara was born out of some of that work. I kept flashing on an image of a redheaded teenager deejaying at a small-town radio station next to a cornfield, which is what I did in high school—minus the red hair. I was sometimes a little scared working there alone at night. It seemed like an ideal spot for a murder. . .
ANDI: I worked a bit at a station based in rural Colorado. It was right downtown, so no corn for creepy Stephen King children to hide in. But my mom worked for years in radio in the town where I grew up, and that was a few miles from the town proper. It backs up to a drop-off and there was NOBODY out there at night. I was glad she had morning or afternoon shifts. Later, when I was DJ’ing in Albuquerque, I worked a late-night shift by myself and yeah, though we were on campus, it still got kinda eerie. I’d take my dog with me and she’d snooze on the floor underneath the board as I worked. But yeah, you’re right. Radio stations — especially small-town ones — just might be good settings for scariness.
MARY: So Mara grew out of my high school job, and we share a snarky sense of humor and a love of books and theatre. And, yes, I’ll also admit that some of Mara’s neuroses — her capacity for obsession — resemble my own. But beyond that, we’re not alike. She’s quite unlucky in love, and I’m blessedly lucky with my partner.
ANDI: Yeah, I noticed that about Mara. Not too much luck in the dating arena. Dang, Mary. Cut her some slack!
MARY: I’m not quite sure where the parts of Mara that aren’t like me come from. Maybe from her friends: her ultra politically correct boss, her granola ex, and her BGF [Andi note to readers: that’s “Best Gay Friend”] and housemate — he of the feather boa, the irrepressible Vince Loyacano. But where they came from is another sort of mystery.
ANDI: That’s the truth. And that makes writing, period, a lot of fun. Sometimes characters just show up. I want to touch again on where you’ve based your books — I like that you’ve set your three (so far!) mysteries in Iowa. I’ve been in and through Iowa several times, including for a queer theory conference in 1994 at the University of Iowa, so I think Iowa should TOTALLY get some lesbian mystery love! Inquiring minds wanna know: are you an Iowa native? What made you want to use Iowa as a setting?
MARY: I was at that conference too!
ANDI: Shut the front door! Seriously? That’s hilarious! That conference was, if I recall correctly, the “6th North American Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies Conference.” The theme was something oh, so early 90s postmodern: “InQueery, InTheory, InDeed.” I flew in from Albuquerque and the airport in Cedar Rapids was already full of LGBT people flying in from all over the place. I will never forget the sight of one heterosexual couple that looked like they came right from the hayfield watching these crowds of LGBT people coming and going through the terminal. The expressions on their faces were pretty much along the lines of: “we are so not in Kansas anymore.” I smiled and waved at them and they smiled back. Maybe that helped. I think Iowa is a super-pretty state. Iowa City is a river town, which I love, and the campus is beautiful.
MARY: [who I’m sure is making sure she doesn’t remember me from that conference…LOL] I’m a proud Iowa native and graduate from the University of Iowa. I wanted to use my state as a setting because not many novels — especially LGBT ones — are set in Iowa. NYC and LA get all the love, and Iowa gets a bad rap. Some folks think we’re all cornfields and American Gothic, but we’re a lot more than that. The University of Iowa is home to the first gay and lesbian student organization, the first Women’s Studies program, and the first and — some would argue — most prestigious writers workshop. Our caucuses launched Obama’s first presidential bid, and we have gay marriage. Okay, I’ll stop now.
ANDI: Hey, I’m a believer. Iowa is a really interesting mix, I think. And yes, the Iowa Writers Workshop is some kind of awesome. No need to convince me. I just think it needs more LGBT characters in mysteries based there! Speaking of mysteries, your latest, Seminal Murder, involves a dead doctor at her own fertility clinic, one of your intrepid sleuth’s exes, and a strangely low pregnancy rate for lesbians at the clinic. What made you want to write this topic?
MARY: Lots of reasons! First, there was the feeling of being odd girl out during the lesbian baby boom. Like my sleuth, I’ve always been adamant about not wanting to be a mother, but all around me, my friends and acquaintances are fostering, adopting, using assisted reproduction. I wanted to explore the differences between lesbians who want to parent and lesbians who don’t. It seems to me that in both the gay and the straight world, there is a clash between the child-free woman and the soccer mom.
Once I began researching assisted reproduction, it seemed to me that sperm banks were promising their prospective clients a ridiculous amount of control over their offspring. As I depict in Seminal Murder, you can choose your sperm donor according to his hobbies, his GPA, his political affiliation! The implicit promise is that your baby will inherit these traits. This notion that you can determine or control the sort of baby you get made me think of a more destructive attempt to control — the right-wing attempt to control and define what it means to be a family. So my character Reverend Leo Spires was born out of these “family values” types. He and his followers protest gay marriage and the fertility clinic where the murder occurs. My novel addresses our current “culture wars,” the “family values” debate.
ANDI: Well. Glad you picked something so light and fluffy to deal with. LOL Iowa has had its share of nastiness in the so-called “culture wars.” Three judges on the state’s supreme court were not renewed to the bench in the 2010 elections because of a rather nasty campaign launched in the state by anti-equality groups that wanted to “punish” the judges for “forcing” marriage equality on Iowa. I’m sure you’d have much more to say about that, and I’m glad you’re addressing the theme in your work. I think writing fiction allows people a little more leeway then in real life to explore contentious issues. And readers! REMINDER! Mary is giving a copy of Seminal Murder away right here as we speak! HINT HINT HINTY HINT!
ANYWAY! So, Mary, you’re a professor of English and you also teach writing courses through the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I’m an expatriate academic, so I understand the time suck that can be on someone who also writes fiction. That said, how has your academic side helped your fiction writing and vice-versa?
MARY: I’ll start with the vice-versa because the answer is simpler. The fact that I’m a published novelist gives me a lot of credibility with my students. When I tell them about the importance of revision, they know that I’m speaking from firsthand experience. And they know that I love writing so much that I spend a great deal of my spare time doing it. I’m able to share my passion for writing with my students.
ANDI: Super-awesome plus, there. I can see that would definitely give you street cred in the classroom.
MARY: I consider myself more of a teacher than an academic, but both roles fuel my fiction writing. I’ve never quite realized it until now, but my experience as an academic contributed quite a lot to my career as a novelist. When you write literary criticism for publication, you have to adopt a voice that is not quite your own — a helpful skill for a fiction writer. Before writing my dissertation (about last wills in eighteenth-century English novels, in case you’re wondering), I’d written only short stories, but writing a 250-page dissertation gave me the confidence and discipline to tackle my first novel. And surviving a dissertation committee also makes working with a fiction editor seem like a piece of cake.
ANDI: I’m laughing here, because dissertating is a level of hell that Dante overlooked. The only good thing about this particular level of hell are the bars and the comradeship with fellow dissertators. I was SO glad to be done with it! I was already working in publishing when I finished mine. It seems you’re more the teaching type.
MARY: Teaching is fun for me. When I was a child writing Encylopedia Brown stories, I was also playing school. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. It’s so inspiring and energizing (and, yes, sometimes exhausting) to help young adults grow as readers, thinkers, and writers — as people. Lots of the characters in my novels are teenagers or young adults, and I have my students (and nieces and nephew) to thank for that. In Seminal Murder, there is a sixteen-year-old girl seeking her donor-dad. She may have emerged from a wistfulness I’ve observed in many students — a desire to connect more deeply with their parents, to really know them or win their approval.
ANDI: Might that also be a universal, though? Trying to figure out who we are within the context of our families and in relation to other people? To find connection? Or maybe I’m still wandering around in dissertation hell. . .let’s talk about literature and themes. I understand you’re a Shakespeare fan. What are a few of his works that really resonate with you and why?
MARY: My favorite is Midsummer Night’s Dream. Could anything be funnier or more delightful?
ANDI: I agree. That’s a wonderful play. I also have to admit that I enjoy his Comedy of Errors, as well. But then I have a goofy side, too.
MARY: But what I love about Shakespeare, you find in all his plays: a celebration of paradox and uncertainty. You’ve got comedy in the midst of tragedy. Clowns and kings together. And all that cross-dressing and gender-bending — men dressing as women who are dressing as men. (Mara and Vince love Shakespearean disguises. In Seminal Murder, they both masquerade as church ladies in order to spy on a right-wing church.)
Best of all, with Shakespeare, you’ve got mystery. Not the kind I write, but a sense of awe and wonder. You see it clearly when Hamlet tells his friend Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth. . .Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I try to live by those words — to remember that there are always “more things” for me to learn, things I haven’t even imagined. I also love the meaning behind Hamlet’s words to his mother: “I have that within which passeth show.” No one can ever really know what is going on “within” another person. It “passeth” or exceeds show. Shakespeare, with all his wonderfully complex characters, urges us to appreciate the mystery within each person we meet.
ANDI: Thanks for that. My mom is a theatre major, and made sure she imparted some of that to her offspring. I love me a good play, and I do enjoy Shakespeare. So tell us a bit now about your writing process. Do you keep to a strict schedule? Do you listen to particular music? Do you have a particular place set aside for your writing?
MARY: In the summer when I’m not teaching, I’m quite disciplined. Basically, I get up, drink coffee, start writing, and keep going until my brain gives out. Usually after about five hours. During the school year, my writing schedule is more piece-meal, mostly on the weekends or some early morning hours here and there.
I like quiet and sunshine when I write, so no windowless coffee shops for me! I’m lucky enough to have a “room of one’s own,” a home office with a fresh coat of lavender paint and an occasional cat who keeps me company.
ANDI: Oh, I forgot. The other good thing about dissertating hell is that yes, there are lots of coffee houses, but only a very few have windows. 😀
What’s something that not many people know about you? Like, are you a secret water-skiing champion? A world-class pastry chef? Arctic explorer? Maybe you like to smoke a corncob pipe and knit kitty booties on your front porch? More inquiring minds out here wanna know! [and I’m kinda hoping for the latter. . .]
MARY: Hmmm . . .I have a pretty impressive collection of stuffed monkeys.
ANDI: That opens all kinds of possibilities for Halloween pranks.
MARY: Wait, I can do better than that! When I fog (fake-jog — a slow pathetic movement that somewhat resembles exercise), I pretend I’m training for my next Olympic gold medal. This mental habit stems from a childhood ritual. I would ask my mom to purchase me the heaviest snow boots possible. Then I would tromp through the snow in them to strengthen my leg muscles for my Olympic track debut. It is no one’s business that I abandoned track in high school. Dreams die hard. Don’t judge me.
ANDI: Let she who is without an Olympic medal cast the first stone. . .I think, Mary, that this “fogging” is an idea whose time has come! I’m envisioning an entire line of fogging outfits, all of which rival your fave pair of ratty old sweats for comfort. Hopefully, you’ll begin work on that line immediately. In the meantime, what have you got going in the writing pipeline in terms of your mystery series? Any other projects you’d like to share with us?
MARY: Mara and the gang aren’t quite sure what they want to do next. I’m hoping it involves a trip to England.
ANDI: And hopefully, they’ll take YOU!
MARY: Right now my partner Ben and I are working on a joint memoir about how his gender transition impacted our relationship. We were together eight years as a seemingly lesbian couple before Ben started his transition. Then we went through some hard times — actually, we almost split. But I’m super happy to say that as of this past August, we’ve been together 19 years! When Ben was transitioning, I was dying for a book that depicted a couple like us, so that’s partly why we’re writing it — to show that there are couples like us out there, couples who manage to “transition” together. My transition wasn’t physical like Ben’s, but it was a big one. When Ben started transitioning, I assumed our relationship was over. After all, I was a lesbian — I couldn’t be married to a man! But then. . .well, let’s just say that I learned a lot about what it means to really love someone.
ANDI: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I’m so glad that you and Ben were able to work through the initial process together, and that you’ve both come to a place where you can do a memoir together about your experiences on this journey together. What a wonderful note on which to end our fab chat. Thanks again, Mary, for stopping by! Good luck to you with your Mara Gilgannon series and good luck to you and Ben in the completion of your memoir.
Okay, readers! Thanks for hanging out with me and author Mary Vermillion and if you’d like to get in on the drawing for Seminal Murder, now’s your chance!