Flashback: 20 Questions … with H. Mel Malton

Canadian author H. Mel Malton answers questions about writing, her life and her
Polly Deacon mystery series, published by RendezVous Press.

Sandra Ruttan: What was the first book you read that had a profound influence on you as a person and how did it affect you?

H. Mel Malton: I don’t think I can name one book in particular having influenced me, but a certain kind of book probably did. I was a voracious reader as a child, and was allowed unrestricted access to any book in the house, and there were hundreds. That doesn’t mean I was reading adult stuff from age five. I was addicted to Enid Blyton, actually. I loved the Famous Five books, and those stories about girls in boarding schools, which made me yearn to be just like the characters in them – clever, brave and frightfully good at sports and friendship. I was none of these things, but I discovered that a good story could whisk me away to a place where that didn’t matter. At some point, then, I started writing the kind of stories that afforded me an escape from the everyday. If they had a puzzle or mystery attached, all the better.

SR: What is your favorite book/story/article you’ve written? Why?

H. Mel Malton: Most writers seem to give the same answer to this one – which is that the book I’m currently working on is my favourite. I think that’s because a large part of the writer’s mind and energy is taken up with the present cast of characters and what they’re up to. However, I confess to a soft spot for my third book – Dead Cow in Aisle Three (pub.
2001), mostly because the political and economic issues it deals with are still current, which makes me feel as if the book might be a teeny bit prophetic.

SR: Do you ever dream about any of your characters or the scenes you’ve written?

H. Mel Malton: Not exactly, although sometimes an idea for a scene or plot twist will come to me first in a dream. If I’m having trouble with a tricky bit, I’ll actively encourage this kind of resolution by thinking about it just before bed.

SR: What compelled you to writing crime fiction?

H. Mel Malton: After my Enid Blyton phase, I went on to Trixie Belden, then the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. After that, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, and so on, from the Brits to the Canadians. I read mysteries for recreation. Although I wanted to be a writer of ‘literary fiction’, the truth is that I read more mystery fiction than anything else, so at some point it occurred to me that it might be wise to write the kind of thing I liked to read.

SR: Do real people ever influence your character development and how?

H. Mel Malton: Yes, certainly, though not directly. That is, I don’t create a character “based on my friend Bill”, but if Bill has some quality that interests me, I may borrow it for one of my characters. I’m rather careful not to base characters on real people, actually, because it can get you into trouble. Anyway, if I put you or my next door neighbour into a book, I’d be limiting myself in terms of what the you-character would say and do. I’d constantly be
saying to myself, “Oh, she would never do that…” and the lines between fact and fiction
would become hopelessly blurred.

SR: What is the one talent you wish you had that you envy in others?

H. Mel Malton: The ability to manage money and keep a clean house.

SR: How do you select names for your characters?

H. Mel Malton: I spend a great deal of time trying different names out, and I don’t usually write much about a character until I’ve got a name that feels right. I keep name-files; those newspaper lists of heart-and-stroke lottery winners are useful – hundreds of names printed very small on one sheet of newsprint. Also useful are the programs from theatre productions – they have cast names, crew-names, founders and patrons and the like. I have baby-name books and I also keep a list of the sender-names that spammers put on their unsolicited e-mails.

I’m interested in date-appropriate names, and what’s fashionable in a certain period. For example, a person born in the depression is more likely to be called Daisy or Enid than a child born yesterday (who is more likely to be christened Madison, or Dakota, poor thing.) Socio-economic trends, and geographical/cultural backgrounds are also factored in. A Hakeem is not a Henry. A Trudi-Lynn is going to be very different from a Hester.

For me, if a name doesn’t suit a character, their personality remains elusive.

SR: What generated the idea for Down in the Dumps?

H. Mel Malton: Dumps began as a story for young readers. I was living near a dump at the time, as I did as a child, as well. I like dump-scavenging. I remember finding a suitcase full of costume jewelry at the dump once, an amazing treasure! So, I started with the premise that some kids find something interesting at the dump, but the narrative got very dark and adult quite soon, and I realized that I would have to let the story go wherever it wanted. I stopped trying to write a “certain kind of story”, and simply carried on until it was finished. And it turned out to be the kind of book I like to read, so all was well.

SR: Was there a specific reason you chose to have an amateur sleuth and a female sleuth? Did this just evolve because of your story idea or did the sleuth come first and the crime later?

H. Mel Malton: I wanted to write in the first person, which was at the time the most comfortable form for me. There are bazillions of crime books with male protagonists already, written by people who have first-hand experience living and working in male bodies, so I figured I’d write what I know – which meant writing from a woman’s perspective. Polly Deacon evolved as a character who shares some of my characteristics, which made the getting- started part of the writing process easier. And I made her an amateur because I’m not really all that interested in police work, and I’d be sure to get the details wrong through
sheer inattentiveness.

SR: Did you develop Down in the Dumps with the idea of expanding it into a series?

H. Mel Malton: Not initially, but as I got near the end of the first draft, it seemed a pity to
abandon all my friendly characters without giving them another plot or two to work with, so I began thinking in terms of a series. And offering a series to a publisher is more likely to be successful than offering what they call a “stand alone” – at least, that appears to be the case.

SR: Are you a planner or someone who flies by the seat of their pants when a story is

H. Mel Malton: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool seat-of-the-pantser. I tried planning a book once, but got bored halfway through because I knew how it was supposed to end (no surprise/no fun) and I found I kept on squashing ideas because they didn’t fit in with my Plan.

SR: How do you feel Polly Deacon has developed over the series?

H. Mel Malton: I think she’s discovered that she’s not nearly as open-minded and tolerant of difference as she thought she was. And she’s matured a fair bit – she’s acquired a bit more self-awareness than she began with. Actually, this applies to the writer, too.

SR: There is an underlying theme concerning commitment issues and religion for Polly in
the books. Do you see the books guiding Polly towards some resolutions in these areas?

H. Mel Malton: Yes, I think so. At the end of the last book, Polly was the verge of making rather an unexpected commitment, and we’ll see how that plays out. I’m not sure where the religion-thing is going. I doubt that Polly is the kind of person to experience a sudden conversion to orthodoxy (and that would really piss off some of my readers), but I expect she’ll continue to question the religious status-quo and seek some sort of comfort level she can live with in terms of her own religious belief.

SR: You use humor wonderfully in your stories. How important do you think humor is in mysteries? Were you deliberately attempting to utilize humor, or was this just how your voice emerged as you wrote?

H. Mel Malton: Thanks. Not every reader wants humour in their mysteries. Some might argue that any humour at all has no place in a plot that deals with death and retribution – or at least justice of some kind. I didn’t really set out to write funny books – but Polly seemed to have a sharp and satirical tongue right from the start, and that felt right, but was not deliberate. I don’t much like crime books that are all gloom and blood and forensics and deadly-serious commentary on our weary world. Life is humourless enough without adding to it by writing overly-earnest books.

SR: Does your writing hint at your own wonderful sense of humor, or is the comedic
element something that just comes through because of Polly’s character?

H. Mel Malton: Secretly, I’ve always wanted to do stand-up comedy. This is probably a safer option.

SR: You also write poetry. Is that how you clear your mind when you’re finished a Polly Deacon story?

H. Mel Malton: The great thing about poems is that they don’t take ages to write, and they are usually concerned with abstract concepts. I rarely set out to write a poem, though. They sort of show up, in the form of an idea or image, and it’s in the first few minutes of writing down the thought (I keep an ideas book) that a poem will start developing. When I’m hard at work on a book, poems don’t come that often. I suppose it’s because my brain can’t work in two modes at once.

SR: What’s next for you? Another Polly Deacon mystery?

H. Mel Malton: Napoleon Press is publishing the first in my new series of mysteries for kids in 2006. It’s called The Drowned Violin. I released a poetry book this past fall, called Halfway to Elsewhere, and can be ordered via e-mail, by sending me a note through my website, which is www.hmelmlaton.com I have a second poetry manuscript in the works, and I’m at work on a new novel – not a Polly-book – something a bit more serious. There is another Polly to come, but probably not until next year.

SR: What has been your most awkward ‘celebrity’ moment or strange thing from a fan?

H. Mel Malton: Some time after Dumps came out, I received an e-mail from a fan who told me that I’d killed off a friend of hers – John Travers. Very awkward, as he lives nearby. Luckily, she said he didn’t really mind. It made me realize that no matter how hard you try to make up names that nobody actually has, the task is hopeless.

SR: What is your most prized personal possession?

H. Mel Malton: I’d say my dogs – Karma and Ego, except that they’re not really possessions. I have some books that I would mourn if they were lost – my great big two-volume Oxford
dictionary, for example, and my 1921 set of “Wonder Books for Young Minds.” I guess if
you’d call a library a personal possession, that would be it.

SR: You’re stranded on the proverbial deserted island and find a lamp with a genie. This genie has the peculiar power of only being able to bring one character that you created for a story to life to be your companion. Which character would you choose and why?

H. Mel Malton: Probably Rico Amato, the antique dealer. He’s a loyal friend, very practical, good with his hands, a good cook, and gay. Being on a desert island with Becker would be a nightmare.

This interview first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Spinetingler Magazine.