Interview: Ellen Hart

“Write what you know,” writers tell those who ask. With more than 20 books behind her, mystery writer Ellen Hart must know plenty. But how much of her fiction in general, the Jane Lawless mystery series in particular, is based on people, places, and/or events she has known. I had an opportunity to put this and other questions to the author. I found her answers both interesting and surprising.

Ellen, your latest Jane Lawless mystery is, not surprisingly, flawless. Well, I did find one typo, but really! Can you tell me when you first met Jane? Was she initially based on someone you knew? Of is she purely fiction?

In 1987, with my summers free because I was on University of Minnesota time, I began work on my first novel. Prior to that, I’d been someone who loved to read — and read widely — with a secret desire to someday write something myself. I’d come to the conclusion that if I didn’t get down to it, actually try to write a novel, that I’d come to the end of my life with a major regret. Enter Jane Lawless. In terms of developing character, I think a writer either mines her own life, or she creates the character out of whole cloth. Jane was a bit of both.

When the series started, I was 38. Jane was the same age. We had many of the same instincts about life, although over the course of sixteen novels, she’s moved away from me in many respects. She’s richer than I am, better looking, and she’s aged far better. I’m 59 now and she’s only 44. Ah, fiction. What we have in common besides those fundamental instincts —which come, I believe, from Midwest roots — is that we’re both introverts. Jane was a hard nut to crack for me. She’s been one of the toughest characters I’ve ever written because she’s cerebral, emotionally damaged and thus closed off. She’s heroic, often courageous and generous, but she has her demons, which sometimes cause her to drink too much. I think Jane doesn’t really understand herself all that well. She’s stuffed a lot of her emotions in order to look and act as if she’s strong, which is very important to her, as is the feeling that she’s in control, but this lack of perspective leaves her with huge blind spots. She’s complex. That’s one of her appeals to me as a writer — she’s constantly revealing new, sometimes unforeseen, aspects of her personality. Cordelia, the other main character in the series, I nailed immediately. She was always more available to me. She’s flat out who she is. You either like her or you hate her. But Jane actually fascinates me far more now than she did when I started writing her twenty years ago.

When you began the series and with each book, do you know where Jane is going? Do you already know how her character will develop? And do you have the story outlined? Or does it come as you write.

The latter. I’ve never outlined a novel. If I knew everything that was going to happen in a story, the sense of discovery — of surprise — would be almost entirely absent. That sense of discovery is what keeps me interested, keeps me coming back to my computer day after day.

And yes, I have thoughts about where I might take Jane — or where she might take me — but it’s just intuition at this point. I’ve never had a specific story arc. Some authors start out with an arc well in place — they know the series will take six books. That’s never appealed to me. But there are a few elements I must have in place before I can begin a book. I write to a title — use the title thematically, as a way to carry me into the story. I need to know what the central crime is, what the motives are that I’ll be working with — as much as I can understand them at this early stage — and from there, I cast the book. I need to know, generally, who each character is and what their relationship is to the crime and to each other. I need a good idea of what the first chapter will be — the all-important hook, in mystery parlance — and perhaps an idea of the first three or four chapters beyond that. And then I begin. My books have strong, complex plots, but it’s the characters that guide me. Their dramatic needs, their motives, and their emotion. Of course, I always keep in the forefront of my mind certain important aspects of the mystery structure. I don’t believe that mysteries need be formulaic, but there is a paradigm, an architecture. Someone once said that the mystery was to fiction was the sonnet was to poetry. I believe that’s true. The paradigm is really quite simple. You need a crime, you need active detection, and you need a solution. Beyond that, in every chapter, in every scene, the crime writer must release new information. That helps create a sense of pace, so important in crime fiction. Mysteries are often characterized as the slow and steady release of information. A scene begins and ends when the characters either get what they want or don’t get it. Stories are created around conflict — that’s all writing101 stuff. But there are specific structural issues that I think about as I’m writing. But outlining, no.

Obviously, the most memorable character in the Lawless series is Cordelia. Where did you find her? The story-line of her niece is a nice subplot. What inspired that?

Cordelia’s humor is entirely her own. In many respects, however, she resembles my oldest friend, someone I met in seventh grade. Maureen was a theater major at the University of Minnesota. She has the same broad, theatrical, literate, larger-than-life qualities that Cordelia has. In fact, when Maureen comes to one of my book events, people often turn and stare at her. Yes, Cordelia just walked in the door! But, as with all fiction, you may base a character on someone you know, but that character develops independently.

The subplot dealing with Hattie, Cordelia’s little niece, came about for two reasons. First, at the time, my granddaughter was about the same age Hattie was when she first appeared. I found my granddaughter (I have four grandsons, whom I adore) so much fun to be around, so funny and outrageous, so different from my grandsons, that I found myself wanting to write about her. Also, it was a way to deepen Cordelia’s character, to broaden her as a person, and to give her a vehicle to help her grow and change. The Hattie subplot has taken shape over a series of books. Recently, Hattie has been whisked off to England by her mother, Cordelia’s sister, leaving Cordelia — and the readers of my books — hanging in suspense about what will happen next. In Sweet Poison, the newest book, Hattie’s plight has a small part, but in the next in the series, Wheel on a Wire, the story will be resolved. I won’t say how. Stay tuned.

How long does it take you to get from the initial proposal/concept, to the final draft?

Mystery novels are, by popular definition, considered commercial fiction. In NY, commercial fiction means a book a year. That’s my deadline. It usually takes me a month or two to do the research, think through the story-line, the plot and the characterizations. At some point, I sit down and begin. I never know when that will be – it’s some sort of mental threshold I cross. Can’t explain it much beyond that. The first draft takes three to four months. Once it’s done, I do a second draft right away — based on what I know I need to change. (I take notes as I move through the book.) Then it goes to my writing group. I’m blessed to have some pretty amazing writers that are not only friends, but help me with my work. Mary Logue is poet, memoirist, mystery writer, a multi-award winning author. Pete Hautman is a YA author and crime novelist, who won the National Book Award for his YA novel, Godless, a few years back. KJ Erickson is a mystery writer, a brilliant editor, and another award winning author. Once they’ve torn the book apart and given me all their sage advice, I do a third draft. Sometimes a fourth, if I have time. At that point, it goes to my editor and agent, which means another round of editorial revisions. And finally, the manuscript is copyedited. Another round of revisions. The entire process takes the full year. I also teach creative writing, do an enormous amount of publicity, I’ve edited two short story anthologies in the last few years, and I’ve just started a local cable TV show with two other crime writing friends. Doesn’t leave me with a lot of free time.

How do you work? Writing a few hours every day? Wait for inspiration? Write until you run dry and then pick up the next day?

I guess the answer is, it depends on where I am in a book. If I’m just starting out, just beginning to feel my way into the story, I only write an hour or two a day. But as the story starts to pick up steam, as I begin to see where I need to go, I work longer hours. I don’t always write every day, especially when I’m out of town doing publicity events, but certainly I try not to let more than a few days go by without writing. If you give yourself lots of time off, you run the risk of losing the story threads, and that can spell disaster. It’s one reason why young writers, who quit working on a book because they don’t feel inspired, or they can’t find the time, so often drift away from the book and never come back.

I only know two ways to write. You either decide you’re going to spend a number of hours a day sitting at your computer, or you decide to write until you’ve done a thousand, two thousand — or whatever — words. If it takes three hours to get that many words written, great. You’re done. If it takes you until midnight, well, then you work until midnight. I write relatively short chapters. That’s stylistic — just the way I like to structure scenes. When I’m into the book and everything is cooking, I try to do a chapter a day. That could be anywhere from a thousand to two thousand words. Writing much beyond that usually doesn’t get me anywhere I truly want to go. And no, I don’t wait for inspiration. As a working writer, you have to sit down and write whether you’re feeling inspired or not. You hope, you may even pray, for inspiration. Some days it comes, some days it doesn’t. On the days it does come, you better be sitting down at your laptop when it hits. But you have to make progress either way.

When the book is done, what constitutes a celebration?

A special dinner with my partner — and a good bottle of wine.

Is there any such thing as a vacation? Or are you always bouncing ideas around?

My partner and I usually take a few days off in the spring and fall and drive up to the north shore of Lake Superior. We both love it there. I breathe more deeply when I’m standing in front of that magnificent lake, and do a lot of thinking about what I’m working on — and what I might work on next. No, I never leave that behind, and I wouldn’t want to. Ideas, snippets of dialogue, characters present themselves to me all the time. I always tell audiences that if they know a writer and they think that writer is watching them, they’re probably right. Writers, in my opinion, are like cosmic vacuum cleaners. We vacuum up everything that looks promising in the world around us. We store it away in our bag. When we have a need, we examine that bag for ideas.

As a most appreciative reader, I feel like your characters are people I know. Sometimes in the middle of the book a scene from the book comes back and its like it really happened to someone I know. You must feel like you live with these people/characters. Does that sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic? Living in your world one day/hour/minute and living in Jane’s the next?

No, not schizophrenic. When I’m working on a book, I never feel lonely. Those characters are real to me — as real as I hope they feel to my readers. It feels very much like I’m involved in a conversation all day. I go to bed thinking about my characters. I don’t want to get all mystical, but characters do take on a certain life of their own. Books aren’t written by magic, of course, but magic is certainly part of the equation. While we’re on that subject, let me just say that I’ve always felt that some books do have a piece of magic in them — they’re far more than the sum of their parts. I don’t know how that magic happens. I’ve written twenty-five novels. Some of the books have that x-quality, some don’t. Part of it is the set-up. When you’re writing commercial fiction, you don’t get years for ideas to percolate, so you grab the set-up that appeals to you the most and go with it. Sometimes you’re able to realize the initial idea better than others. But mostly, I think, it has to do with the emotion of the characters — making your readers feel something fundamental, something real and personal. Mysteries are entertainment. But books feed us in different ways. I guess, with my novels, I hope my reader comes away feeling they’ve been on a great ride, that they’ve had a few laughs along the way, but also I hope, long after they put the book down, that they’ll continue to think about a character or a situation — about what it is to be human.

Fans are likely already familiar with Sophie Greenway and that mystery series. What are the chances that Jane and Sophie will meet in a substantial way in one of your books. After all, both are prominent figures in the Twin Cities business and social communities. Have you entertained such thoughts? Readers not familiar with the second series really should be.

No, I’ve never mixed the two series. I have thought about it, but the opportunity has never presented itself But I won’t say never.

Did you plan to have a mystery centered around an election coincide with an major national election? Or was that just a coincidence?

Yes, just a coincidence.

You go into some detail about the trials and tribulations of candidates and their campaigns. Were you involved in this years–or more accurately, the last few years–presidential campaign(s)?

Actually, when I knew I would be writing about a political campaign, I volunteered to work for Al Franken campaign here in Minneapolis. He’s running for the U.S. senate from Minnesota. As of this writing, it’s still unclear whether he’s won or lost. We’re on the middle of a heated recount and nobody knows what the outcome will be. I think the two candidates are separated by something like two-hundred votes. I learned a great deal from working for the campaign, had the chance to speak to a number of Al’s top aids, to his wife at some length, and was invited to his house for a campaign rally. (There are some photos on my website.) I also read a lot of political blogs, and even bought a book on how to run a political campaign. Believe me, there are tons of them. As with all research, very little of it ended up in the book, but it helped to provide some concrete detail, and also helped shape the story.

I, for one, hope there is no end in sight for the ongoing life and times of Jane Lawless. What can readers expect in the future? More books already promised? If all goes well and according to plan, what is your plan?

I just finished the next in the series, Wheel on a Wire. I believe St. Martin’s has slotted it for the fall of ’09. It’s the last book in my contract, so I suppose the longevity of the series will be based on whether or not St. Martin’s offers me another contract. I do want to mention that Bella Books has agreed to reprint all the Lawless mysteries that are currently out of print. Some of these books haven’t been available for nearly ten years. I couldn’t be more pleased! I’ve been working with both Linda Hill and Karin Kallmaker to make this happen, and I just got word that the first reprint will be available next fall — A Small Sacrifice.

It’s one of my favorites in the series, and also the first book of mine to win the Lambda Literary Award.