Since becoming a mystery writer, I have been interviewed by several book bloggers. Our conversations, which comprise a series of questions and answers exchanged via email, have ranged from the inevitable ‘When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer?’ to the unexpected, ‘What would you like to have engraved on your headstone?‘
Curious to learn what other oddball questions I’ve been asked? Just follow the links to read the full interviews.
Question: Tell us something about The Green Pearl Caper that isn’t mentioned in the synopsis.
Answer: The idea for this book began at Pen to Paper, a drop-in writing workshop that I used to attend in La Jolla. On one occasion, the moderator gave me a tactile prompt — a string of green beads. The prompt led me to write a short piece about a flashy woman (Sylvia Sutherland) dressed in red and sporting a rope of green pearls, who hired a detective to find her missing sister. The detective was Damien Dickens. The pearls gave me the title for the book.
Question: Do you outline? If so, how extensive are your outlines?
Answer: I don’t use formal outlines. I prefer to discover the story alongside my protagonist. At about the mid-way point in The Green Pearl Caper, I found that I needed to stop and think about how the story would attain the endpoint I desired. With the sequel, I knew at the start how and where I wanted the climax of the story to take place – it was a matter of keeping that target in my sights so that I could arrive there in a logical fashion.
Question: What is it about mystery that you enjoy the most?
Answer: I grew up reading mysteries. I love the intricacies of the plotting. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to make all of the plot elements come together in a logical and natural fashion, without too much reliance on coincidence. While I have a decent mental picture of where I want a story to go before I start, I don’t plot out all of the details ahead of time. I solve the mystery alongside my protagonist. In The White Russian Caper, I knew, even before I began writing, where I wanted one of the climactic scenes to take place. I just needed to figure out how to get there logically.
Question: Give us an insight into your main character. What does he do that is so special?
Answer: Damien Dickens is a private investigator. His self-image is hard-boiled, and he channels Humphrey Bogart, but the image is a shell. I like to think that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but then covers it up with his jacket.
Question: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Answer: In my first professional incarnation, I was a food safety microbiologist. After I graduated from a full-time job at the lab bench to a position behind a desk, I spent a fair bit of time reading and writing technical reports, articles for scientific journals, and other work-related material. I realized that most of the reports I had to digest were so heavy on jargon that they were essentially unreadable. When I wrote my first book – a lab manual – I made a conscious effort to avoid jargon, and to write in a style that would be more accessible to my audience. I believe that was the moment when I realized that I was a writer who happened to be a scientist, rather than a scientist whose job included writing.
Question: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Answer: My local library, the Harrison Memorial Library here in Carmel-by-the-Sea, is tremendously supportive of local authors, including Indies such as myself. The library has added all three of my books to its collection (and, to my delight, all three are checked out at the moment), and hosted a panel discussion to mark the first annual Indie Author Day in October. I was invited to be one of the panelists, and we had a lively discussion about what it means to be an Indie author.
Question: If you could be an extra on a TV show or movie, what would it be and what would you be doing?
Answer: Murder, She Wrote. And, what do you mean by an extra? That’s no fun! I want to be Jessica Fletcher. If I can’t be the mystery writer/solver, I’ll settle for the part of Jessica’s beta-reader. Or her editor. Or her proof-reader. Or the snoopy neighbor who drops in and reads the unfinished manuscript. Anything that will allow me to read more than the single page that appears on the opening credits.
Question: What is next on your to-do list?
Answer: My current work-in-progress is the fourth book in the Damien Dickens Mysteries series. I am approaching the 20% mark in the first draft of the manuscript, and am trying to add something every day. My other project is the revival of a mothballed blog on food safety issues, eFoodAlert.
Question: Tell me, please, Phyllis, how you came to be writing about a 1980s private detective located in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Answer: Well, Damien Dickens was born during a drop-in writing workshop at the Riford Branch of the San Diego Public Library, located in La Jolla, California.The weekly workshop had a simple format. The moderator began each session with a writing prompt, typically a sentence, a list of words, or a picture. We all wrote at top speed for twenty minutes. At the end of the timed writing period, each of us read our creations out loud to the other participants in the group.