By Pamela James
MM2: Leslie, give us the backstory on why and how your writing career began?
I started writing at 4, on my father’s desk. Literally -- I did not yet grasp the concept of paper. Fortunately, my parents were understanding and kept me well supplied in paper, pencils, and pens. My mother, who just turned 90, still gives me pens and notebooks for Christmas. The difference is that now I have to drive her to the shop to buy them for me.
I started writing seriously about 20 years ago, and garnered lovely agents and stacks of rave rejections. I wrote 4 unsold novels, and sold half a dozen short stories to Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and other magazines. I also consulted with writers who had questions about the law – lawyer by day, for 30+ years – and eventually wrote BOOKS, CROOKS & COUNSELORS: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom
Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver 2011), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. In the process, I realized that as much as I love helping other writers, I was not through writing mystery. The lighter side beckoned, so I wrote a proposal for the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, which sold to Berkley Prime Crime. DEATH AL DENTE, or murder not quite well done, came out in August 2013 and won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The Spice Shop Mysteries, set in Seattle, debuted this past March.
MM2: Where is your favorite place to write?
Oh, I have a lovely home office, with a guard cat.
MM2: Give us the guided tour on where you and why you love living there?
Mr. Right, Ruff the Cat, and I live on 8 wooded acres in NW Montana, outside the village that is the model for Jewel Bay, the titular Food Lovers’ Village. It’s a true community in a stunning landscape, , with lakes, rivers, mountains, and wilderness. Of course, it has its characters and its conflicts---which makes it the perfect setting for story. It’s probably my favorite of any place I’ve lived, although my college days in Seattle in the late 70s and early 80s are a close second!
MM2: Tell us about your latest book? Let's talk about your series and what comes first the setting, character or the plot?
I also write the Spice Shop Mysteries, set in Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.
For both my series, the setting and the main character came first, pretty much at the same time. The plots then emerge from the characters. Plot develops when a character with a goal confronts an obstacle, multiplied by all the other characters with their goals and obstacles. What will this character do when she doesn’t get what she wants? What response do her actions trigger? And then I follow along behind them and try to write it all down!
It’s also hugely important to me that everything I write be about something, so theme is part of the story as well. Typically, the theme emerges from the protagonist, and the themes of the subplots echo that of the main plot. My first mystery writing class was with Elizabeth George, back when she taught a week-long intensive workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. I still remember the eye-opener of realizing that she did that in every book, and the fire that lit in me.
MM2: What advice do you have for writers want to write a series?
Series are so much fun to write! You can really explore relationships and themes, and develop your characters over time---much the way we get to know people off the page. Since many publishers buy the first two or three books, it’s nice to build in a story arc that will span the first two or three books; if the series continues, that arc is done, but the implications continue. You can also create a two or three book arc later, as Louise Penny has done. Plant interesting characters who can step to the fore in the future books. Create a setting that can evolve over time. And most of all, choose a protagonist who can grow emotionally and whom you like, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with her or him!
MM2: Do you re-read your favorite books?
Rarely do I re-read a complete book, but I often turn to passages for inspiration, especially when I’m stuck. Next to my desk is a shelf crammed with cozies – several dozen, at a guess, with more mysteries of all genres downstairs – and when I’m stuck, I’ll pull one down and read a few paragraphs. Something about that process triggers my brain and sends me skedaddling back to the page, even though what emerges usually has nothing to do with what I just read. It’s as though my characters say “hey, we’re at least as interesting as they are – watch us!”
I also keep a reading journal with summaries of books I’ve read and comments on what I liked and didn’t. These days, I’m focused on emotion: showing the characters’ emotional conflict and growth on the page, and with any luck, evoking similar emotions---or at the least, an understanding of them---in the readers.
MM2: Tell us about awards you have won?
I’m thrilled to be the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction – and to now share that honor with one of my idols, Hank Phillippi Ryan. The nonfiction award was a surprise, but tremendously gratifying, because it told me that I’d hit the mark and given my readers what they needed to know in a way that they could use---and enjoy. And of course, after years of writing fiction, there could be little better than the consensus of readers devoted to the traditional mystery that mine was worth celebrating.
MM2: What would your characters share about you?
She’s a bit bossy, but she lets us eat great food.
MM2: Take us thru a typical writing day?
Oh, my. I wish there were a typical day! I work hard to keep a schedule, but it’s something I still struggle with – oh, look, a piece of chocolate! I wrote my first several manuscripts on Fridays and the occasional Saturday, because I was practicing law full time and that was all the time I had. Now it’s reversed—I practice part-time and write every day, except Sundays – and even then, when I’m on a deadline. It’s a little crazy, and totally wonderful.
MM2: What has writing taught you about life? What has life taught you about writing?
I’m a happier, healthier person because I spend a good chunk of my life with people who only exist because I made them up. Make of that what you will!
MM2: Do you have a character who is difficult?
They wouldn’t dare be difficult. They know I kill people for a living.
MM2: What do you want the reader to walk away with when they finish reading your book/s?
First, they’re mysteries, so I want the reader to say “I never saw the resolution coming, but I should have.” Then I want them to wonder when the next book will be out! Seriously, I hope my readers feel the time spent with me was well worth it---that they were drawn into the story and into the characters’ lives. I hope they feel like they’ve been to Montana or Seattle with me, and that the underlying themes of the story satisfied them – a good story needs to be about something. And it’s nice if they want to try a recipe or two---Mr. Right and I work hard on those!
MM2: As an author...what do you want to be remembered for? As a person what do you want to be remembered for?
Joseph Campbell said “Never underestimate the value to the Universe of the fully realized life.” I hope it can be said of me that I lived a fully realized life, pursuing my passions and fulfilling my potential, while treating people kindly and enjoying the wonder of the world around us.
MM2: Okay for fun questions. What is your favorite meal, dessert, vacation spot, movie/s, song, childhood memory, television series and is there someplace you have always wanted to vacation?
Depends when you ask! I adore breakfast, especially big fluffy omelets filled with veggies and a side of potatoes, and served with too much coffee. And I love dessert! The cinnamon-orange crème brulee in my next Spice Shop Mystery, GUILTY AS CINNAMON,
nearly any kind of cheesecake. Lately, I’ve been gorging on Oregon Hazelnut & Salted Caramel ice cream with the chocolate-Cabernet sauce from BUTTER OFF DEAD.
Mr. Right and I spent a month in France a few years ago, and we’re itching to go back. I’d also like to ride a barge or a small cruise ship up Alaska’s Inside Passage.