Last month was a bit of a surprise — lower than average temperatures and rain, rain, and more rain. Still, the wildflowers have grown tall and the potatoes are doing well. And, as all things do, the days pass swiftly. Now it’s time for fireworks and picnic celebrations, and another amazing authort. Allow me to introduce you to our celebrated and award-winning author for July — Leslie Budewitz.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Leslie. You have become a real force in our writing community. Your novel series — the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries and the Spice Shop Mysteries — are super successful, and your short story, “All God’s Sparrows,” recently won the 2018 Agatha Award for Short stories. What started you on the writing road?
Leslie Budewitz: I started writing at 4, on my father’s desk. Literally – I didn’t yet understand the concept of paper. I’ve been writing ever since in one form or another – poems, journals, letters, legal briefs – but didn’t dive into fiction until my late 30s. I was going through a difficult time personally and I think that’s often when the creative urge forces its way to the surface, as therapy, as comfort, as drive. Learning the craft has been great fun. Getting and staying published has been a challenge, but writing remains my essential way of exploring and understanding the world.
J.I.: How did you select the genre in which you write?
L.B.: I’ve always loved the mystery, from the Happy Hollisters and the Bobbsey Twins as an early reader to Agatha Christie in my teens and Dorothy Sayers in my early 20s. But I think the reason that my fiction came out as mysteries is because that’s what I was reading at the time. I was driving a lot in those days and listening to books on tape. And they were on tape, back then. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Elizabeth Peters, and Ellis Peters. But most importantly, Tony Hillerman. His books taught me that the setting could be a character as much as any person, and that the West was a viable setting for the modern mystery. My practice novels reflected that – my main character was a single woman lawyer living on an Indian reservation in Western Montana, and my life was my research. Thirty-five years of practicing law helps a mystery writer, too! After my first book, the nonfiction guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure, came out in 2011, I realized I wasn’t through with mystery writing, or it with me. I chose the cozy because it’s fun and popular. It’s also a surprisingly flexible form – it can be set in a small town, as my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries are, or in an urban setting, as my Spice Shop mysteries are, in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a community-within-a-community. The heart of any amateur sleuth mystery is community, and the cozy is the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicts, crises, and comforts of community. It’s also possible to dive into social justice issues in a cozy, as my Spice Shop mysteries do.
J.I.: Which of your books or series is your favorite? Do you have a favorite character?
L.B.: Honestly, I love them all for different reasons. Each taught me something new, about writing and about myself. I could say the same things about my protagonists, Pepper Reece in the Spice Shop series, Erin Murphy in the Food Lovers’ Village series, and “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, the real-life historical figure who stars in a series of short stories. (“All God’s Sparrows,” the first, appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and recently won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; the second, “Miss Starr’s Goodbye,” will appear in AHMM in September.) They are gutsy, loyal, intelligent, and determined women, and I love them all.
J.I.: Revision is such an important part of the writing. What is your revision process?
L.B.: Methodical. I start by looking at the plot, then the characters, the dialogue, the setting, sharpening the language and looking for ways to deepen the tension at every stage.
J.I.: Recently, two of your short stories have been prominently featured and won awards. Is this a new venture or a return to something you always loved?
L.B.: When I started writing, I didn’t think I could write short, but my first published fiction ended up being a short story, “Driving to the Warhouse” (Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, 1999). Over the years, I’ve only written about a dozen short stories, but lately, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the form. It’s a great way to explore a new subject or subgenre, as with “All God’s Sparrows,” my first historical fiction and my first use of a real-life figure in a leading role. “Stagecoach Mary” Fields was a former slave who worked at the Ursuline convent at St. Peter’s Mission in Montana Territory in the 1880s. I don’t think I could write a novel about Mary, but the short story is the perfect form for exploring her life in that time and place. They’re also a great way to write about small incidents in the lives of series characters, or other moments – and a short story really is a moment, unlike a novel.
J.I.: You have been instrumental in administrative roles in a number of organizations — Sisters in Crime comes to mind. How important is it for writers to give back to the community we have joined through our writing?
L.B.: As Sisters says, we write alone, but we are not alone. Every opportunity I’ve had as a writer – and I mean this quite literally – has come to me because of a group, or people I’ve met in a group. Personally, I can’t be part of a group without getting deeply involved, so I have to be careful what groups I join! The best part of serving as president of Sisters was hearing from members how important the organization is to them, whether at the national or chapter level. Working with the board and staff to find ways to give members what they need to succeed as writers—whatever that means to them—was a tremendous pleasure, personally and professionally. And I’m enjoying serving on the Mystery Writers of America board now, continuing the work.
J.I.: I love your newsletter. It’s fresh and funny and colorful and reflects you and your work so well. Do you have suggestions for aspiring writers in how to balance the creative side with the marketing side of our craft?
L.B.: Thanks. And gosh, I wish I could speak to balance, but it remains elusive. When a new book comes out, all energy turns to it – and that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the best publicity and marketing advice I can give is find a way to enjoy it. It shouldn’t be a burden – after all, the point is to share the story of the stories, to connect with readers, to talk with people who are interested in you and your work about this thing you love. Get help when you can, from professionals or by working with other writers. Don’t try to do everything. Learn from other writers, through your SinC, MWA, or RWA chapter, or your local writers’ group.
J.I.: When you have time to read, which authors do you tend to pick up?
L.B.: I’m always reading – writers need to read. Though I mainly write cozy mystery, I try to read widely. I’m quick to pick up new books by Barbara Ross, Laura Lippman, and Jaqueline Winspear, but I also adore the work of poets Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver. I recently devoured several of Sarah Addison Allen’s tasty novels. Anne Perry’s Christmas novellas are a pleasure on every level. I loved The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, and am eager to return to 1920s Bombay for the next installment. And I try, now and then, to pick up something I wouldn’t normally read. That’s how I found The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which I loved. Stretching isn’t just for hamstrings.
J.I.: That is certainly true! I know you attend a number of conferences every year, which is another way to “stretch our hamstrings.” Can you speak to the value of such events?
L.B.: My favorite is Malice Domestic, which celebrates the traditional mystery. It’s small enough for great mingling and big enough to meet new-to-me readers and writers every year. Fan conventions like Malice, Left Coast Crime, and Bouchercon are great places to meet readers, other authors, and people in the biz – librarians, reviewers, booksellers, even the occasional editor! (I met my Seventh St. editor, Dan Mayer, at Bouchercon.) it’s important to know what a “con” provides – fan conventions are different from writers’ conferences or workshops – so choose wisely. I try to attend a writers’ conference or workshop every couple of years, so I can keep working on the craft of writing.
J.I.: What’s next for you and your characters?
L.B.: Pepper and the Spice Shop crew just appeared in Chai Another Day, the 4th Spice Shop mystery (Seventh St. Books, June 2019). They’ll be back next year in The Solace of Bay Leaves, and I hope they live long and happy lives. Well, maybe not always happy – these are mysteries, after all! I’ve got a standalone “resting” before a final read-through and submission to my agent, and a couple of other projects in the works. Hoping to share some good news soon!
J.I.: And, of course, no interview would be complete without a little fun. You write about food, and I know you like to cook. What is your favorite comfort food to prepare? to eat?
L.B.: Is there a better comfort food than Mac & Cheese? Mr. Right and I love a version in the Julia Child-inspired book, French Country Cooking, by Laura Washburn. Although our Chocolate Cabernet Sauce (from Butter Off Dead) is a close second!
J.I.: Thank you, Leslie, for joining us this month.
L.B.: Thanks for the conversation!
Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series. CHAI ANOTHER DAY, her fourth Spice Shop Mystery, set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, launched on June 11. DEATH AL DENTE, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. “All God’s Sparrows,” her first historical fiction, won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; she also won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. A past president of Sisters in Crime and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America, she lives and cooks in NW Montana.
Readers may find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor . You can learn more about CHAI ANOTHER DAY, including an excerpt at http://www.lesliebudewitz.com/spice-shop-mystery-series/