She's talking about If Walls Could Talk

We're once again welcoming Juliet Blackwell on the launch of yet another series. Is this woman unstoppable or what?

I'm cribbing from Blackwell's bio, and here's what we got. She co-wrote with her sister under another pseudonym, Hailey Lind. They wrote the Agatha-nominated Feint of Art, the first installment in their four-book Art Lover's Mystery series. Since then, Blackwell's penned two more novels in her Witchcraft Mystery series, about a witch with a vintage clothing store, Secondhand Spirits, and the national bestseller sequel, A Cast-off Coven.

This week she released the first in her new Haunted Home Renovation Series, If Walls Could Talk, picked by Suspense Magazine for its Best of 2010.

All told, Blackwell published three books this year!

It seems that Juliet Blackwell is everywhere. And considering the architectural flavor of her new series, it's fitting to find a building named after her.

Contest. Comment at the Biting Edge blog to enter a drawing to win a fabulous Blackwell prize. The contest runs through midnight Saturday, MST, December 18, 2010, and I'll announce the winner next week.

And now for our interview.

Congratulations on the launch of yet another series, The Haunted Home Renovation Mysteries. This is your seventh book, right? (And that’s not counting your book-length translation of Endangered Cultures by Miguel León-Portilla. You are such a brain.)

Ah yes, that’s me, quite the brain ;-) And yes, If Walls Could Talk is lucky number seven.

1. Why write a ghost story? Where does your interest in ghosts come from? This story is unique (to me) in that your ghosts are hardly demonic or malevolent.

I actually live in a house that might just be haunted – lights go on and off, doors open and close, and there are distinct sounds of footsteps overhead many nights. But interestingly, I’ve never felt menaced by the sensations. I did some reading and interviewing folks on the subject, and all seem to agree that many ghosts –perhaps most—are more confused and/or curious than actively malevolent. So in the first book of my new series, If Walls Could Talk, I thought I would start out with that sort of entity – especially since the protagonist, Mel Turner, is new to the paranormal world. In the second book, Dead Bolt, the ghosts are decidedly more sinister.

I haven’t ever “seen” a ghost, but I do work in a lot of old, historic homes that have been witness to a lot of life (and death). I believe that we leave energy traces in the places we occupy, which is why some buildings just “feel” better than others. And I’ve spoken with enough normally rational, macho construction workers that have told me about truly scary ghostly encounters that I keep an open mind, at the very least.

Finally, I’ve loved ghost stories since I was very small, whether around the campfire or in every book I could get my hands on. I remember sneaking in when my big sisters were watching Dark Shadows—my mother forbid me to see it, for fear it would scare me. The vampire was okay, but I found the ghosts and witches truly captivating.

2. Have you accompanied or used the services of a ghost hunter? If so, what happened?

I was once invited over to drive ghosts from a bungalow in Berkeley, which was a very interesting procedure. I do a lot of research for my books, and there are certain processes which are considered fairly standard in the ghost-hunting industry, so we applied those tactics. While I was there, lighting candles and ringing a bell, there were banging sounds from the front room…they went away when we finished sweeping the house. We then burned the broom. Whether or not we were dealing with “real” spirits, the homeowners thought we were; after the “cleansing” they felt more in control of their own situation, and more comfortable in their surroundings.

I’ve also accompanied a couple of Mexican-born limpiadores (literally: “cleaners”) from herbal stores called botanicas, while they’ve performed cleansings – sometimes on houses before people move in, and twice in houses thought to be haunted. Their tradition is based more in folk-Catholicism, mixed in with herbal blends and brews.

Finally, I have a friend who owns those little electronic devices that test for radio waves, like those used by the ghost hunters on TV – they found “greater than normal” activity in many areas of my house, including my bed, of all places. I’m not sure what I think of that ;-)

3. How much do you believe in the paranormal? Have you ever witnessed something that made you go, hmmmm?

As I mentioned before, I live in an interesting home. Plus, my mother’s family is from Louisiana and Texas, and I have a theory that the entire South is haunted. Nothing like sultry nights and Spanish moss, plus a history of violence and strife, to create the right mood for the paranormal.

I have seen odd things in my life, and I do get strange feelings from time to time in old houses. It makes sense to me that there may be more than what we can see – just as the air is full of invisible radio waves and broadcast signals, why couldn’t there be a whole lot else out there? Plus, I’ve heard so many stories from people I trust that it’s hard to discount the idea in its entirety.

But my background is in academia, so while I keep an open mind I approach the subject with skepticism. Still, like a scientist once told me, the natural world is full of truly strange, unexplainable things. In quantum physics, for example, many of the world’s top scientific brains are finding that ions affect one another in ways we can only begin to imagine, almost as though they were acting on purpose rather than according to know scientific criteria. It’s pretty interesting, rather paranormal-sounding stuff. Never thought I’d be interested in physics!

4. In all your stories, you not only weave in a lot of the local culture and history but also make it germane to the plot. Do you work out these details in advance or do they emerge from the writing as you develop the manuscript?

I do a lot of research on the local area while I’m thinking through my plot, in part because I love doing research (sometimes it’s pure procrastination) and in part because the research gives me ideas. I do like to ground my tales in the real-life city – San Francisco is a truly unique town, and serves as an important character in my books. On the other hand, a lot of details emerge as I’m writing, as well, and I try to take advantage of the organic development of the story to meld it with actual historical and cultural details.

Some of the most unusual and gruesome storylines are real: recently I was reading about the supposedly haunted Atherton Mansion, which was built by Dominga Atherton. She lived there with her daughter Gertrude and son-in-law George. According to contemporary accounts, the two women dominated George and publicly ridiculed him as “the weaker sex”. George took off to Chile, but died of kidney failure while on board ship. The sailors put his body into a barrel of rum to preserve it, and shipped it back to S.F. When it was delivered, the butler discovered his former master on the front stoop, preserved in rum. Since then the house changed hands numerous times, but it is said to be haunted by Dominga, Gertrude, George, and one later owner who also hoarded cats.

Now I ask you: Who could make this stuff up?

5. Mel Turner is your oldest protagonist at 38 y.o. Unlike Lily Ivory or Annie Kincaid from your other series, she’s a mature, more self-assured woman and one who has already established herself in the Bay Area. Her wish is to untangle herself from her obligations and run away to Paris. Will she ever? Is this a common mid-life crisis for an older woman? (Actually, it sounds like a pretty good idea regardless of gender or how old you are.)

The desire to disappear and have a “do-over” can be pretty strong for a lot of us, especially as we approach our forties and fifties. But I can only really speak for myself: when I was going through a divorce I had such a strong impulse to run away and start over again, and I used to fantasize about all sorts of destinations (including Paris). In the end, though, I had to stick around and deal with real life…I also had a young child at the time, which made things even harder. I’m glad I chose to structure my life the way I did, because ultimately I founded a successful art business,

and now I’m lucky enough to make a living as a writer. But those ducking-out-on-obligations-and-running-away fantasies are still very real. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer, so I get to pretend I’m a different person every day!

Usually a couple of martinis help if the impulse gets too strong ;-)

6. Mel focuses on Victorian-era architecture. Any chance she’ll be in a caper involving a haunted Mid-Century home?

Mel’s company, Turner Construction, focuses on restoring historic homes, so a lot of the story is about finding architectural details from that era, etc. The first book is set in a Beaux Artes home, and the second in a Queen Anne Victorian – both are common styles in San Francisco. But I do think it would be fun in the third book to have Mel working on a mid-century home, especially since, given her historical preferences, she wouldn’t enjoy it all that much. I enjoy writing her grumpy thoughts – I can just imagine what she’d think of an Eichler home! But she might just develop an appreciation for it, as I always do when I learn more about things.

7. Will you rekindle the romantic interest between Graham and Mel? Considering that both Vincent and Zack lied to Mel, I don’t see her getting involved with them. Am I wrong? Or do they admit their mistakes, man up, and vindicate themselves?

Aaaah, you know I can’t give away romantic details! But yes, Graham is a continuing character and though it may take a while, he’s still around. In Dead Bolt, which I’m writing right now, Mel also meets a very interesting ghost-tour guide. Though my books aren’t romances, I do enjoy bringing in a bit of it for the sake of character development…and to ratchet up the tension. And in Mel’s case, she’s got to get over being burned by her ex-husband, and what better way to do that than to start meeting interesting men?

8. How did you learn to write fiction? What compelled you to write cozy mysteries?

I mostly learned by doing. I know a lot of people get a lot of useful information and skills from taking classes and reading how-to books, but I’m more of a hands-on type. Whether painting or gardening or repairing houses, I have to wade in and try it, and learn from experience. But one thing I know beyond a doubt: Writers should do whatever it is that helps them to write. There’s no one process that works for everyone, so if the camaraderie and interaction of workshops and classes gets you to write, then enroll. If sitting watching the clouds waft by helps, than do that. I know NaNoWriMo works for a lot of people, because it forces them to sit down and come up with words.

I’ve always loved to read, and one day I just sat down and started writing. And then I realized what I wrote was garbage, so I looked more closely at the books I liked, and tried to mimic them. And then I wrote and re-wrote another thousand times or so, and then I wrote another book, and another, and I do think I’m getting better over time ;-)

“Cozy” mysteries, in which there’s no obvious blood and gore or sex on the page, were appealing to me because I wanted to use a lot of humor in my books. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know what a “cozy” was until an agent told me I had written one. And I’m not even sure the title really applies, since I get letters from devoted cozy readers who are upset that I use profanity and that my characters actually think about, and even participate in, SEX. I guess I’m sort of cozy with an edge.

9. What has surprised you most about being a professional writer? What personal attribute best helps you as a writer of fiction?

Biggest surprise: that you have to sell your own books. I thought I would just write it, and people would buy it and read it. I blundered into this industry with no real idea about how the publishing business works. Now, years later, I’m a board member of Mystery Writers of American and Sisters in Crime, and I have many writer friends, so I’ve learned a whole lot. Hard to believe how naïve I was about this business when I first started, but I guess it has to do with my tendencies to rush into things without proper training, as I mentioned above.

Most useful personal attribute: I have it on good authority that I’m pretty stubborn. That can be a bad thing, of course, but the ability to translate frustration and anger into determination is a valuable asset in this business. When you get knocked down (as we all do in publishing) you have to react by become more entrenched, rather than just curling up into a ball in the corner (of course, sometimes you have to huddle in the corner for a day or two before screwing up your courage, but whatever it takes). But in the end, you simply have to persevere, beyond all reason, if you want to land a contract in the first place, and continue to succeed with future books.

10. You’ve worn many hats in your professional career, such as artist and anthropologist. Tell us about your experience as a social worker. How does that reflect in your writing?

If Walls Could Talk was especially fun for me to write because I’ve brought in more of my personal experience into the story: I’ve worked on a lot of construction sites and remodels as a faux finisher/muralist, and I bring in just a little anthropology as well. While I’ve brought some of those interests into previous books, you’re right that Walls is the first time I’ve explicitly brought in social work, by making Mel’s friend, Luz, a social work professor.

As disciplines, social work and anthropology and art (both painting and writing) share a lot in common: Primarily, they all rely upon careful observation of the world and those around us. In addition, they usually require a good deal of compassion, or the ability to understand others. As a social worker, I got to peek inside so many different lives, most of them made difficult due to poverty, lack of education, or outright abuse. It made me try to see the world through my clients’ eyes, and as a writer that’s exactly the sort of thing we do.

11. Who are your writing influences? Do you have a writing philosophy that guides your writing style?

My only guiding philosophy is to try to quiet all the external shouting and just listen to my internal writer’s voice. I try to write my story without thinking about other similar books in the genre, or genre “rules”, or what’s selling, or what’s commercially viable, or what’s most likely to be nominated for an award…I’m not always successful, but I try.

I have too many influences to name…they tend to be whoever I’m reading and enjoying at the moment. But just to name a few: Nick Hornby for character voice; Sherman Alexie and Joyce Carol Oates for playing with language; Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Russo and Amy Tan for communities of characters; Walter Mosley and Tony Hillerman for setting as character; and finally, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels for her adventure-oriented, smart, often academic characters looking into historical mysteries that lead to present-day murder (she was my first real mystery love, way back in high school).

And I can’t forget so many of my contemporary mystery and urban fantasy authors (yourself and Jeanne included), for everything from the use of language to pushing the boundaries of our genres.

12. In between deadlines, what is your favorite way to relax and clear your head? (Besides running away to Paris.)

Given financial restraints, I’ve never actually run away to Paris…but if that huge advance comes through you’ll know where to find me ;-)

In the meantime, I’m bound to more homestyle fun, like painting, gardening, spending time with friends, hiking in the redwood forests, hanging out in bars and restaurants and enjoying everything the Bay Area has to offer, like art exhibits and music and ethnic festivals. Just the other day I sent off a manuscript and walked the three miles to Oakland’s Chinatown, shopped in their fabulous grocery stores, bought some noodles and char sui bau, ate by Lake Merritt, strolled around the lake, bought fresh produce at the farmer’s market, came home and did the New York Times crossword puzzle, then went out for drinks and dinner with friends in San Francisco. It’s a little hard to complain.

Thanks Julie!

A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet Blackwell has lived in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France. She lives in Oakland, California, where she is a muralist and portrait painter. A two-term president of Northern California Sisters in Crime, she is now a board member of SinC/NorCal and MWA .

Coming summer 2011--->

You may find more about her books at:

Happy Fanging!


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