Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An Interview with Sheila York

Interview With Sheila York
By Pamela James

After a long career in radio and TV, Sheila began writing novels combining her love of history, mysteries and the movies. While other girls were sneaking their mothers’ lipsticks, Sheila was filching Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald mysteries from her father’s bookcase and hiding them among her stash of Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Sayers, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. She read nothing on her high school required-reading lists, preferring to continue gorging on mysteries and thrillers, and watching late-night classic films instead of doing her homework. Set in post-war Hollywood, her series features screenwriter/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and her lover, private detective Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of Film. Lauren’s most recent adventure is No Broken Hearts.

If you love a terrific mystery, York is a must read!
— Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series and the Bess Crawford series.

The Interview

MM2: How many books have you written?

SY: Four published, all in the Lauren Atwill series. Star Struck Dead (which won a Daphne du Maurier award); A Good Knife’s Work; Death in Her Face; and the latest, No Broken Hearts. I’m rather new to writing. It took me a long time to get up the courage to give it a shot. I have one other book, the first one I tried, which is a romance (with a bit of mystery). It’s sitting in a box in a file cabinet in my attic. While it never quite came together, it had a corker of a mystery at the end, which I loved writing. That’s when I realized my strength was in killing people.

MM2: What comes first? Plot, characters or setting?

SY: Plot. An idea anyway, usually inspired by a scandal. Then as the original idea expands into a full-blown story – this is the period during which I wander around the house talking to myself – the characters have emerged. But they change. In all my books, I’ve jettisoned characters and completely revised others. And, of course, I’ve overhauled the plot – sometimes several times. I’m not, as you can see, an outliner.

MM2: Tell us about your writing schedule?

I have another full-time career, so my writing is confined to early on weekday mornings and on weekends. I get up about 6 on weekdays, make coffee, zombie-walk to the computer and go back over what I wrote the day before, to get some momentum going and allow for caffeine-loading. I do a lot of reading and writing in my other career. At the end of the day, I don’t feel much like doing more. So my mystery writing has to be done in the mornings on weekdays.

MM2: Tell us about your latest book?

Lauren’s a screenwriter in Hollywood in the late 1940s, one of the few (and I mean few) women screenwriters. She’s rebuilding her life and career after a disastrous marriage that broke her heart and almost killed her career because of the professional sacrifices she made to try to save the marriage. In No Broken Hearts, she gets a shot at bringing a scandalous novel to the screen, a sensational tale of betrayal, corruption, and a vicious killing. Which is great. Till fiction turns into real life. Lauren finds a beautiful young actress brutally murdered and a famous leading man stained with blood. Then she discovers just how far the studio and even the police will go to cover up the killing and protect a star. If she won’t lie, her career is over. And maybe her life. In Hollywood, telling the truth is the most dangerous thing a woman can do.

MM2: What would your characters have to say about you?
I hope Lauren would say, “We are so much alike.” I think of her as me on my very, very, very best day. But she’d probably think – she’s too much of a lady to say it – that I really ought to de-clutter my office. Peter Winslow, her lover and a tough private eye, would probably lean against the doorframe, look around and say, “You know, you’ve probably lost a lot of good ideas for me in this room.”

MM2: Do you have favorite books that you re-read?

I have indeed. Sometimes I’ll just pull out a favorite, read a chapter, put it back, and go away happier. I have lots of them. Let me name just a few. Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk?, in which I discovered as a teenager the possibility of a female protagonist in a mystery; Sue Grafton’s B Is for Burglary, which was my introduction to Kinsey; Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington, a classic in honest misdirection; Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, a fabulous immersion into a 1930’s ad agency; any of the Raymond Chandler novels (except for Playback); The Smartest Guys in the Room (it’s about the Enron scandal; terrific storytelling from Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind).

MM2: Do you belong to a writer's group or book group?

I’m a member of a writing group, although the “group” has 2 members, me and John Billheimer, who writes the Owen Allison and the Lloyd Keaton series. We figuratively hold the gun to each other’s heads and exchange honest but gentle critique of ongoing projects. He lives in California. I live in New Jersey. So all the critique is done online. It makes critique easier, because he can’t see my face when he tells me (quite properly and correctly) that a bit I love just ain’t working.

MM2: Okay for some fun, please answer these questions. What is your favorite place to have a meal?

My porch. My husband, David, and I love to cook, and we enjoy wine and our garden. So to eat dinner overlooking the garden on a soft spring evening is pretty much unbeatable. And we don’t need a designated driver.

Your favorite place to vacation?

Yosemite. Hands down. The first time we went there, we arrived after dark, and the park doesn’t believe in messing with nature by installing such things as lighting. We pretty much felt our way to our cabin. The next morning, I opened the door and straight ahead, not a hundred yards away, was the sheer, soaring, spectacular face of a mountain. I was speechless, a rare thing to accomplish. 

Your favorite song?

I don’t have one favorite. But if I chose the song that most affected my writing, it would be Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When? The first time Lauren sees Peter, in a nightclub owned by his best friend, who’s a gangster, that song is playing. It’s one of my favorites, and it seemed appropriate because at that point Lauren has reason to believe he’s involved in a crime. (Not much of a spoiler alert: he isn’t.) That song has become my signature for them, and when I need to reboot some dialog between them, I play it.


I love movies. It would be impossible to limit myself to even 10 favorites. But since I write in the 1940s, let me give you a few of my favorites from that decade.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Big Clock (48)
The Lady Eve (41)
The Third Man (49)
Casablanca (42)
Crossfire (47)
He Walked by Night (48)
His Girl Friday (40)
Notorious (46)
Palm Beach Story (42)
They Were Expendable (45)
To Be or Not to Be (42)
To Have and Have Not (44)

MM2: Tell us about why you like living where you live?

I was born in New Jersey, but my father was in the army and we moved soon after I was born (I lived in four states and one foreign country before I was seven). Nevertheless, and oddly, I’ve always considered myself as being from New Jersey. It used to drive my mother crazy. When we’d arrive at a new army base, people would naturally ask my parents, “Where are you from?” Mom would say Kentucky, because that’s where my father was born. I’d pipe up, “New Jersey.” When my husband and I bought a house, I ended up quite by accident not 10 minutes from where I was born. I also by chance ended up in a wonderful neighborhood, with neighbors who socialize with and look out for each other.

What attractions are in your area?

There’s the daily excitement of almost being killed by New Jersey drivers, for whom a yield sign is more of a suggestion. Other than that, while the area is very developed, nature is a short drive away. Hiking trails, lakes, mountains, solitude. And if you want some real bustle, New York City is only a 30-minute train ride.

MM2: Leave us with some writing words of wisdom?

Write what intrigues you. Whether it’s the time, place, or your protagonist, write what you’ve fallen in love with. It will carry you through more frustration and heartache than most new writers can ever believe are coming.

MM2: Be sure to tell us about your blogs, websites and other information you want us to know.

My website is at I blog monthly at Crime Writers’ Chronicle. And you can find me on FB and Twitter. My website has the links.

1 comment:

  1. Sheila,
    I think I am going to have to read your whole series. We are kindred spirits.


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