Former librarian, bookstore manager, and current adventurer, Molly MacRae writes mysteries with a softer touch…and scrumptious food descriptions, books, and quirky characters. Upon meeting this author, one is struck by her warm, inviting personality, which mirrors the characters and the situations in her novels. Except for the murders, of course! 😉 But the designation of COZY reminds the reader that the books will be heavy on the puzzle and light on the gore. A peak into MacRae’s background reveals that she spent twenty years in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Upper East Tennessee, managing The Book Place, an independent bookstore, “may it rest in peace.” Before books captured her attention, she was curator of the history museum in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town. Currently, MacRae lives with her family in Champaign, Illinois, where she recently retired from connecting children with books at the public library.
Join me for a chat with Molly and all things serial.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Molly! You’ve been winning awards for your writing since 2000. Prior to or concurrent with that, you curated a history museum and worked as a librarian. What was the defining incident that turned you toward writing?
Molly MacRae: The validation of selling my first story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1989. It was a total “Yes I can!” moment. What a blast. We were living in the woods near Jonesborough, Tennessee, when I got the letter with the acceptance. I was so surprised and excited that I ran through the woods to our nearest neighbor, leaping like a deer over moss-covered logs in my path. Something like that anyway.
JEI: One description of your work claims you write with “familiarity, wit, and charm.” How do you achieve those in your stories?
MM: Isn’t that a kind remark? Achieving it in my stories, though . . . I wonder if that’s part of “voice,” the element of writing that we’re told is important but that’s so hard to define. It might have something to do with liking all kinds of people but especially the ones who can soften situations with empathy and humor.
JEI: You have several series set in specific locations (Tennessee, Scotland). Why did you select the settings you use? How much does the setting influence characterization?
MM: Scotland and northeast Tennessee are places I lived, loved, moved away from, and always want to go back to. Putting my characters there is my way of getting back more often than I do in real life. My new series, debuting in July 2024, is set on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. My husband and I first camped there in 1979. When we lived in Tennessee, we took our children there for quite a few visits over the years. Now we live in Illinois and Ocracoke has become another place to visit through my character’s eyes and adventure.
JEI: Wit or humor can be so difficult to convey on the page, yet you do it so effortlessly. What feeds that part of your writing persona?
MM: I think it’s just the way I go through life. Life isn’t all fun and games but finding the fun helps.
JEI: How did you acquire your publisher(s)?
MM: I sold my first two novels to Five Star, the fiction imprint of Gale/Cengage Learning, the massive publisher of school and library reference materials. They accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. Five Star no longer publishes mysteries, but those two books helped me land an agent. The agent has done her magic for all the rest of my books.
JEI: How often do you base your work on real-life incidents or experiences?
MM: There are lots of them sprinkled throughout every short story and book. They’re either incidents that I’ve experienced, witnessed, or read about in the paper, or that friends have had and told me about. Our lives are full of fodder; I take notes.
JEI: Which of your characters is the most like Molly MacRae?
MM: I’m not as brave or bright as any of them. They so often think of the right thing to say when it matters rather than five minutes too late or in the middle of the night when it’s useless. But that’s the nice thing about being a writer. I can make up for my own deficiencies by making my characters more insightful, better dressed, more confident. I wouldn’t mind being Margaret in my Margaret and Bitsy short stories, or Kath in the Haunted Yarn Shop or Janet in the Highland Bookshop. I’m probably more like one of the cats in the stories—I like to be warm, comfortable, and well-fed. And I like treats.
JEI: When an author writes a series, there is obviously a long-term commitment to the place and protagonists. How do you keep each book fresh and original with regard to plot?
MM: By worrying that I won’t and constantly looking over my shoulder at the previous books to see where I might be going wrong.
JEI: According to your website, you’ve written dinner plays! How did you come to do that? How much fun is it to see your work onstage or as an interactive event?
MM: So much fun! They’re audience participation plays where the guests try to solve the murder. I wrote the first one, “Dead of Winter,” for the bookstore I managed. Then a friend, who had a business bringing tour groups to our area of east Tennessee, asked if she could offer that play as an add-on to the tours. That worked well so I wrote two more for her, “Daggers and Old Lace” and “Murder in Little Chicago.” It’s pretty crazy seeing your characters alive and kicking.
JEI: What haven’t you written that you would like to try?
MM: I’d like to write mysteries for middle-grade readers—3rd, 4th, 5th grade. I have an idea for a series and wrote several chapters of the first book, then I got tied up writing adult series (what a hardship, right?). Maybe I’ll get back to that someday. Before the grandchildren grow up and have their own children would be nice.
JEI: For a little bit of whimsy unrelated to books…If you could pick one place to visit, where would you go?
MM: Rats. I can’t make up my mind. I’ve never been to Iceland or New Zealand and would like to go to both. And wouldn’t Crete be nice? Or Orkney.
For a bit more about the author: The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” If you ask her, she’ll say no, she didn’t experiment with arsenic while writing Argyles and Arsenic, the latest title in her Highland Bookshop Mystery series. Molly also writes the award-winning, national-bestselling Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries. As Margaret Welch, she writes books for Annie’s Fiction and Guideposts. Molly’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and she’s a winner of the Sherwood Anderson Award for Short Fiction. Look for Molly’s new Haunted Shell Shop Mysteries debuting in July 2024.
Readers can contact this author through her website: www.MollyMacRae.com On the site, there are also links to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, and Writers Who Kill.