Sandra: Madeline Mann is your second book. How different is this book from your first, The Dark Backward?
Julia: The two are really very disparate. THE DARK BACKWARD, although it contained humor, had a much darker theme (hence the title), while MADELINE MANN, actually the older of the two books, is on the verge of being a cozy and is meant mainly to amuse–although it does have some serious themes, as well.
Sandra: MADELINE MANN is the older of the two? How did it end up getting published second?
Julia: I wrote Madeline back in the 90’s. I had a little boy, a toddler, and I had lots of free time then, because Ian took long naps. I had always wanted to write a mystery, and I’d even written a couple of dreadful ones that were sort of practice runs. I took a writing correspondence course and my teacher was the mystery writer Carol Cail. She read the first incarnation of Madeline way back then and gave me lovely encouragement. Then I sat on the book for a while, finally starting an agent search in the late 90s. My current agent loved Madman, as she is called, instantly and began sending the manuscript around, but was told that even though it was “delightful” and Madeline was well liked as a character, they wanted something “edgier.” So I sat down and wrote THE DARK BACKWARD in reaction to that. And it sold relatively quickly–but then my wonderful publisher, Midnight Ink, and their acquisitions editor, Barbara Moore, said they would take a look at Madeline. Barbara liked the book a great deal, and at long last Madeline had found a home. You’ll notice I didn’t say I spent my son’s naptime cleaning my house; my mother will attest to that. She despairs that she didn’t teach me better housekeeping habits.
Sandra: For your new book you went back to something you’d written in the 90s. How hard was it for you to get back into Madeline’s head?
Julia: It wasn’t too difficult. I feel like I really know Madeline–maybe she’s been in there all along. But sometimes I’ll have trouble getting to my plot–because I’m just listening to Madeline talk and I have to make her accountable to the story itself. That’s the challenge of not outlining my mystery in advance.
Sandra: Ah, you aren’t a plotter! Me either. Do you ever wish you could outline your books?
Julia: Of course I’ve heard great arguments for both techniques–outlining and not doing so. But I find that outlining just doesn’t work for me, because so many of my best ideas come to me when I’m sort of winging it. I’ll have a character say or do something unexpected, and I’ll say–“That’s it! This can start a whole new thread in the plot that I hadn’t anticipated.” For me, it has the same effect that brainstorming does, except I’m brainstorming with myself. But having said that, I should mention that I usually have a basic blueprint in my mind when I sit down to write a book. However, I don’t always know WHODUNNIT until I’m well into it.
Sandra: What I like about not plotting is the organic aspect. You do have to listen to the characters and really think about their motivations and how they connect to the story. There’s also the thrill of discovery. It sounds like you enjoy that aspect of not plotting, but do you find yourself doing a lot of rewrites or going back and adjusting things as you make discoveries?
Julia: I do adjust, just about every time I go back to the manuscript. Thank goodness for computers and the delete key. It’s far different from the days of the ol’ typewriter. I also work with a writer’s group whose opinions I have really come to trust; if more than one of the members says something has to go, I tend to take it very seriously and shape my rewrites around their advice. They’ve all come to know Madeline’s character and they have a sense of what I’m writing here–not quite a cozy, but certainly lighthearted, and they know that sometimes, despite serious subject matter, the story is more of a farce than anything. I can trust them to understand and to give advice in that context.
Sandra: How did you find your writers group?
Julia: I had taken an evening class in our town, led by a renowned writing teacher at Columbia University in Chicago, Karen Osborne. It was a terrific class; when it ended, some of us went to Karen and asked if she’d still be willing to lead us in monthly sessions out of people’s houses. She agreed, and the group was born. Its size has fluctuated, and right now we only have four people, but some members go on hiatus and then return; they know we’ll welcome them back in after they finish their schooling or traveling or whatever they’re doing.
Sandra: It sounds like you have a very supportive group you work with. How important is that to you as a writer?
Julia: It has really helped with my biggest weakness: revision. That’s very important to me, because in the past if someone told me, this is good, but it needs revision, I’d be stymied. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to revise, but I didn’t know what TO revise. Now when I read my manuscripts I can hear my fellow members’ voices in my head, saying “Do you really need this dialogue?” or “Does this advance the story?” So that’s very important to me. It gives me context, and allows me to be a better writer.
Sandra: I was going to ask what your biggest challenge as a writer was. Is it revisions, or something else?
Julia: Lately it’s getting myself to sit down and commit to writing. I think I’ve become distant from my own imagination because of all the promotion that I have to do. The only fun part of promotion is meeting neat people–readers and writers–but the rest is kind of a pain, and it takes me away from what I used to do in my spare time: write. I’ve always been a daydreamer, and writing is an extension of that, but promotional hours can silence those delicate little daydreams. Now I’m being more strict about putting my butt in the chair and just writing.
Sandra: Promotion is becoming more and more of an issue for writers. Is that part of the reason you started a blog?
Julia: The huge advantage of the blog is that it’s free. I’m a fairly little fish in the pond, and it’s advantageous to me to be able to put my message out there for anyone to read. I think I’ve earned some readership because of it. Not to mention the fact that I have “met” some really great people in cyber world. As you know, Sandra, I’m not big on travel, and this has been a wonderful way to connect with people I might not otherwise have met. Indeed, I think the blog is a good promotional tool, but I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I just waste time playing on it, and then I’m not giving attention to the craft of writing.
Sandra: Why did you decide to start blogging? Also, you do a lot of author interviews on the blog. What made you decide to go that route?
Julia: I’m glad you asked. 🙂 First off, it was my publisher who suggested I start a blog, I assume for promotional reasons. I was reluctant. I thought “blog” was a stupid, trendy word and it bugged me. I started very tentatively, posting things that I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to read.
Then I decided I would interview a couple of people so that at least I’d have something to discuss within the world of mystery. It went well, and I found that the Q and A format was one that I enjoyed, and it earned me some readers. So I continued in that vein, asking writers via DL if they would like to be interviewed, and I got a wonderful response. And that is how it all began. I still think “blog” is a yucky word, reminiscent of the sound my dog makes after he eats grass. I blogged about it once. With a photo of my dog.
Sandra: You’re also part of a group blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters. Why did you decide to do this? How does group blogging differ from solo blogging?
Julia: I was invited to the group blog by Lonnie Cruse, who had been an online pal and who I have since met at a Chicago area conference. I thought it might be a neat way to reach a different blog audience, and I was excited about working with Lonnie and Sandra Parshall, both of whom I’d met at conferences, and also Deb Baker, who was a member at the time. I have yet to meet my fellow “daughters” Liz Zelvin and Sharon Wildwind, but they write some terrific posts. And I was very proud when Sandra won the Best First Mystery Award at Malice Domestic. Now that I think of it, Sandra, I met both you and Sandra Parshall at the Madison Bouchercon.
Sandra: And isn’t it ironic that I’ve known Sharon Wildwind for a few years but you blog with her and haven’t met her!
Julia: Yes–that is ironic about Sharon! I think you need to come on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and guest blog about it!
Sandra: Actually, Sandra Parshall’s interviewing me about Spinetingler. Not about Sharon! Or our adventures sharing a room in Madison. Which is probably for the best.
Julia: It became very clear in Madison that I am the old woman of the two of us. As I’ve said before, you are an effervescent personality, a woman with boundless energy! A woman who rises like a robot at the crack of dawn while I look on in disbelief
Sandra: Oh, not when I’m at home. Only when I have stuff to do. But it’s amazing how the blogs have added a dimension to our community. We feel we connect to people. And yet it’s a bit of an illusion at the same time, because the blog world isn’t the real world. Someone once connected themselves with three degrees of separation to director Peter Jackson, through me. That’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen about myself on a blog, and it’s very surreal. Any bizarre ‘is this for real?’ moments for you?
Julia: Well, I haven’t encountered anything that interesting. I have had several lucky experiences in terms of “meeting” someone via the blog and then meeting them in person and finding that they were JUST as I expected them to be, in both looks and personality, so it really was like meeting an old friend. That’s a terrific by-product of the blog. But you’re right–there’s a danger, especially for a writer with an active imagination, of creating identities for people that go beyond their online dialogues–whether it’s done intentionally or not. But I can see the lure of it. I totally understand why some people get married after e-mail romances. The question is, will the marriages last?
Sandra: I think that danger exists on listservs like DorothyL as well, as we’ve seen from time to time where people presume into posts, but it’s interesting you mention marriages, because I met my husband online.
Julia: See? And yours has stood the test of time.
Sandra: This comes up in the interview this same issue with Steve Mosby, who also met his wife online. I think we’re moving into a different state of connection. The internet has made the world much smaller. However, going back to something you said earlier, it can be a huge distraction. Do you find it necessary to turn it off to focus when you’re writing?
Julia: Yes. I often leave the room entirely and go in a different room to try to write on my laptop. There’s also the problem of competing for said computers with both of my sons, who want them for video games or Strongbad e-mails or whatever. I may end up having to drive somewhere with a notebook and do it the old fashioned way. I have nothing against writing longhand, except that I type twice as fast.
Sandra: And revisions on a computer are easier!
Julia: Absolutely! I could not go back to a world without computers; at least that’s what I tell myself.
Sandra: Now, these days you juggle being a wife, mother to two sons, who no longer need naps, a full-time teaching career and writing. How do you do it?
Julia: Badly. I always feel like I’m neglecting something–if not my children, then myself. I’m really out of shape. My mom will also attest that my house is slovenly, and she was always the most meticulous of housekeepers, so it’s a personal shame to not be able to live up to my mother’s standards as a homemaker. Remember on DorothyL when people were sharing their mother’s criticisms of them? My mom is like that with my writing, too–my toughest critic, but a fair one. When she read my manuscript (before it got published) she said, “You’re getting closer.” Later an editor actually offered me money for it, but I think my mom would have advised them to hold off.
As for my sons, they’re in a stage now when I am mostly playing referee all day long. Even as I type this, I am having to yell, “Cut it out! Go into separate rooms RIGHT NOW!” These are not pleasant times, but then there are times when they are the best of friends, with their little blond heads together over some book or toy, just like angels.
Sandra: Does your mom ever lecture you about admitting you didn’t spend naptime cleaning house?
Julia: I’ll be honest–my parents, who are both European and I think probably scrubbed and polished their own cradles as infants–are really proud of my writing success, but when they come to my house to babysit, I come home to find that they’ve been cleaning it all day–literally scrubbing things on their hands and knees. They look at me with these despairing faces, as if to say “How did we raise such a child?” And the worst part is I never think the house looks that messy.
Here’s a tale from my youth: once I was lying on my bed reading a book, and my mom came in on her chore rounds to put some folded clothes on my dresser. She said, “Julie, your dresser is so dusty I could write ‘pig’ in it.” Not looking up from my book, it was good, I said, “You do that, Mom.”
Later, when I left the room, I saw the word “Pig” written neatly in the dust, in my mother’s beautiful German script.
Sandra: Do you ever worry your sons will find this admission and use it against you when you ask them to clean their rooms?
Julia: Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do have high standards for my sons’ cleanliness, which my eldest, Ian, is telling me all the time. My parents think MY standards are low, but the boys are several rungs below that. If I ask them to put away clothes, they interpret this to mean “lob this across the room.” Then, when they are made to re-fold them, Ian says bitterly that no one could possibly meet my standards, which is of course laughable. Neatness, I have found, is relative.
Sandra: I think that critiquing an author, especially if they haven’t asked for your opinion, is a bit like criticizing someone’s parenting. Would you agree?
Julia: Hmmm. I’ve never thought about it that way before. Do you mean in reviews, or just two authors chewing the fat, and one launching in on what’s not good about the other’s writing?
Sandra: Not in reviews. More in, if another author just emailed you up or sat you down in a bar and told you all the mistakes you made (in their opinion) with your latest book.
Julia: I do not think anyone would take kindly to that. We are a sensitive lot, we writers; it’s what makes us able to wring tears from the eyes of our readers (or so we would hope). Constructive criticism can’t be very constructive if it’s an ambush.
Sandra: I agree. And we all have our moments we face criticism. How do you deal with it?
Julia: Well, in the case of reviews, I don’t deal with it very well, but I do take my lumps in silence. But I have to tell you: reading that first line in which a reviewer might say something unflattering or even downright mean? You know that huge machine at the dead car yard that smooshes the cars right down to little tubes? That’s how it feels to me. I need to develop a tougher skin.
Sandra: Has book 2 been any easier than book 1?
Julia: A little better. The new book is getting more reviews than the first one did, so I almost feel like it’s a debut novel. All but one of the reviews have been good, so in general it’s been easy to deal with. But even if it were book ten, that one negative comment will probably still feel like a smack in the face. Maybe not. Some writers have told me that they’ve just learned to tune them out, or not read them at all.
Sandra: So, tell us about MADELINE MANN. What’s the premise for this book?
Julia: Madeline is a young reporter in fictional Webley, Illinois. She tends to act unpredictably based on the “vibes” that she feels in any given situation. If the vibes are strong, Madeline feels the need to take “vibe restoring action,” and this is often difficult to explain to friends and family, which is why her brothers call her “Madman” for short. Sometimes she wonders if she doesn’t deserve that title.
In any case, Madeline begins her first mystery looking for an old high school chum, and this is how she encounters her first murder.
Sandra: Why have you decided to use fictional settings in your books?
Julia: I initially toyed with putting Madeline in a real setting, but my writer’s group responded better to her in a place of my own creation. I think in an odd way I’m better at fictional details (which I can paint myself) than I am at trying to depict realistic settings and scenery; this can often evoke the “you didn’t capture a sense of this place for me” comments, while if I have a fictional setting readers don’t feel the need to determine whether or not I’ve “captured” the real Webley–only whether or not it seems believable as a town.
In the case of my first book, THE DARK BACKWARD, I wanted it to seem as though the corrupt governor could be ANYONE’S governor. I certainly didn’t want to link him with Illinois, which has been plagued by its own scandals of late. So I put him in a vaguely identified city on purpose.
Sandra: Did you do research for her job as a reporter?
Julia: Not extensively. I’ve written some freelance articles, and I took journalism courses in college which involved some real-life observations. In addition I’ve been inside some newspaper offices and even got to sit in once on an editorial meeting at the Chicago Tribune; I pulled what I learned from these events into painting Madeline’s workplace. Maddy works at a weekly paper, though, with a sort of eccentric history, so I’m able to manipulate things a bit.
Sandra: What’s next for Madeline Mann?
Julia: In LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP, Madeline is approached by her old high school English teacher, a Catholic Sister, who asks her to look into the death of a nun–a woman who died “accidentally” ten years earlier. Sister Moira thinks it’s murder, and Madeline’s vibes tell her Moira is right.
Sandra: Sounds intriguing! What’s next for Julia Buckley?
Julia: Perhaps a Diet Coke. Oh, you mean the career plan? I’m hoping to finish another Madeline book this summer, but I’m also playing around with a mainstream fiction piece, and even a young adult novel that I put on the back burner about a year ago. I’ll continue with the blog, and I hope to be doing some promotion this summer. The MADELINE MANN launch party is at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore on August 4th. Can you come, Sandra?
Sandra: I won’t make any promises, although it would be a lot of fun! Now, the tough questions. How did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Julia: Oh, I knew that when I was very young. I used to write short poems that my mom collected for me in a notebook. Things like “God is in my basket.” That was composed while I was riding my little pink bike to Catholic school. It begins, “I’m riding on my bicycle with nobody else but God–God is in my basket; isn’t that odd?” Hey, I was six.
Sandra: Who are your biggest writing influences and current favourite authors?
Julia: Well, I’ve made no secret of the fact that my all-time favorite writer is Mary Stewart. Love her. I’ve been accused of being a little old-fashioned in my writing, and I think this is partly because part of me froze in time with the Stewart suspense novels and I’m still longing for the sixties when they were popular. (Although I only discovered them–and devoured them- in the seventies).
Other influences are a motley group: Ross MacDonald, Margaret Millar, Sue Grafton, Sparkle Hayter, Jonathan Gash, Joan Hess, Dorothy Cannell, Patricia Wentworth, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Phyllis Whitney, Daphne DuMaurier, Raymond Chandler, Martha Grimes, M. M. Kaye, Dorothy L. Sayers, Patricia Moyes, Velda Johnston, Rex Stout, Joan Aiken. And those are just off the top of my head. I’m sure I forgot someone really important and influential to me!
Sandra: So, now an easier question. Name three books you wish you’d written, and tell me why.
Julia: Oooh. That’s actually harder, at least to narrow it down. Okay, here goes: something by Dorothy Sayers, maybe HAVE HIS CARCASE. She was great at plot and characterization, and she was sophisticated as well. Then there would have to be something by Ross MacDonald. I’m reading THE BLUE HAMMER right now, and it’s just one perfect metaphor after another, not to mention the carefully constructed plot and the growing feeling of unease. Last, because I just read this and thought it was awesome, would be THE COLD DISH by Craig Johnson. What a triumph of characterization in a perfectly-rendered setting. It’s a wonderful read. Oh, and can I add REBECCA, by DuMaurier? I’m a rule breaker! I’m a rebel! So I’m giving you four.
Sandra: That’s okay, I’ll forgive you! Very interesting choices, by the way. Okay, the fun stuff. If you were a method of transportation what would you be and why?
Julia: Easy. I would be a horse and carriage. Very stately, and not fast. I tend to be frightened of everything that achieves high speeds–I’m sure I’m on the verge of major agoraphobia. I will drive my car on the expressway, yes, but I don’t care for it. And I have yet to venture onto a plane, as you know, and I’m 42 years old. People laugh at this, but I’ve actually met many other writers who quietly share my airplane fear. I might also consider being a rickshaw. Again, nothing fast, and it uses honest human fuel, which does not contribute to Global Warming.
For more information about Julia Buckley and her books, The Dark Backward and Madeline Mann, visit her website (http://www.juliabuckley.com/), her blog (http://juliabuckley.blogspot.com/) or Poe’s Deadly Daughters, where she participates in a group blog. (http://www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com/)
This interview first appeared in Spinetingler Magazine.