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Mystery with Sass and Style

An Interview with Carolyn Haines

by Pam Kingsbury

 
 

If Carolyn Haines had not wanted to be a writer, she could have had a career in stand-up comedy. Her sense of humor and timing are impeccable. She's written romantic suspense as well as mysteries. Her "Bones" mysteries are anticipated by readers and have delighted reviewers. Eugene Walter, a mentor and dear friend, encouraged Haines' early efforts. We should all have such "literary" guardian angels.

 

You're a newlywed? 

On January 11, 2003, in my front yard, riding my magnificent steed Cogar, I married Steve Greene, a captain in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department (talk about life imitating art!). I met Steve doing research for a book. He went to college on writing scholarships and then went into law enforcement. I needed some help with some forensics for my mystery series. Steve rode his horse, Rio. Instead of a wedding party, we had horse wranglers. And about ten people gave me away. 

You've worked in several genres -- romance, mystery, and journalism. Would you like to compare the experiences? Readership? How each type of book is promoted?

My parents were journalists, and I grew up with "ink in the blood." I truly loved journalism, but the truth is, my mother was the true reporter in the family. My dad was an editor. I was a feature writer who was also a photographer. I did some investigative stuff and some political writing, but I loved bending the language to create rhythms and images. I liked telling the stories of people's lives. Folks call it soft news (in contrast to the more prestigious hard news) but it was the writing I realized I loved, more than the reporting. I always wanted to write fiction, but my dad told me that I needed a career. Journalism was a career. Fiction writing was a gamble. So I begin writing fiction while I had a fulltime job as a journalist. I wrote only for myself, and I wrote short fiction. I was besotted with Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Jane Anne Philips.  

I just didn't realize that publishing a short story is harder than finding hen's teeth on a rooster. So, I began looking at what people read, and romance was the best selling market. I read some, underestimated the skill required, and set to writing. I quickly learned that I didn't have the skill for focusing the story strictly on romance. Thank goodness Harlequin started publishing their Intrigue line, which features romance and mystery. I finally had a format where I could blend what I liked--good characterization with plot. 

As I grow as a writer, I'm more and more fascinated with plot and structure. These are the hardest elements for me, therefore the most challenging. In my own mind, my career is a natural progression. In all of the areas I've written, I've been able to use language to create a unique place and unique people. Today, Sarah Booth and the people of Zinnia are as real to me as my relatives. (And far better behaved, I might point out.) 

What changes have you seen in the attitudes toward women writers, editors, and publishers during your career? 

Working with the publishers I've worked with --Harlequin, Pinnacle, Dutton    and Bantam -- I have to say that I've worked almost exclusively with women ......I have been overwhelmed by the professionalism of the women. I probably shouldn't admit this because it is such a foolish prejudice, but when I went to my first Romance Writers Conference, I went as a journalist. And I realized that this wasn't some fuzzy slippers and bathrobe crowd. These ladies were pros. And they were generous pros, who took time to talk to wannabes. There are jerks everywhere, but for the most part, the women I've met in the business are smart, upfront, and fun gals. So how has that changed since 1988 when I first published? I think that women are taken more seriously now because they are such a big part of the market. And they've made certain that bookstores and booksellers know that. 

In certain circles it is still a tightly held belief that women don't have anything interesting to say, but I don't think that kind of prejudice will ever go away. Ignorance will forever be with us. 

Talk about moving between genres and mention the names under which you write.

At Harlequin Intrigue I write under Caroline Burnes. At Pinnacle (one book, a woman in jeopardy), at Dutton and now at Bantam, I use my legal name, Carolyn Haines. And I did a book about my brother. It's fictional, but wicked. So just for fun I took the name Lizzie Hart. It was all tongue-in-cheek.  I'm finishing a horror screenplay now (my first). Should it turn out to be any good, I'll probably use initials to avoid the impression of a female writer. Why, you ask? Because I think it's an easier sell in horror if the writer is perceived as a guy. I don't have statistics on this, but it's just a gut feeling. 

I grew up reading off a carousel rack in the drugstore where I worked after school. The jobber stocked the racks every month, and I could read anything I wanted as long as I didn't break the spine or damage the book. I read Thomas Williams along with Harold Robbins. There wasn't anyone to tell me that this was great literature and this was trash. I just read everything. I'm still like that today. I read a lot of different genres, and the only thing I demand is that the writing is good. I don't read poorly written stuff no matter what the genre or who the writer is.

Talk about starting your own publishing company.

I had a dream...seriously. I saw so many of my friends in midlist getting squelched and squeezed. They were fine writers, but no one had ever heard of them. So I thought, maybe a little book company could focus on one book and really make it happen. You know, just put everything into one book and push really hard. My idea was that an independent book publisher might be able to hook up with the independent bookstores and make a real difference. To test the water, I did one of my own books (Shop Talk, by Lizzie Hart). No one warned me that satire was hard to market. And, of course, I had no idea how to run a business and I had no desire to learn about licenses and taxes and all of that icky stuff that is part of small businesshood. But I was determined. I wanted to try it, because I thought it was something important to do. And I hooked up with some really smart women in an organization called The Authors Studio who gave me the benefit of their knowledge. I published Shop Talk, and then realized that I had no way to get it into bookstores. The chains would only order through a couple of big distributors, who wanted about a 55 percent discount. I had to pay shipping. They could return books and I had to pay shipping back. The independent bookstores I'd hoped would read my book and hand sell it were fighting for their lives. It was as much trouble to order one title from me as it was to order a hundred from a distributor. I wasn't in a position where I could make myself a big winner, and I realized it after about 10 months. 

I have to say my agent sold the right to Shop Talk to a Japanese publisher (I still grin when I think about them reading about these crazy Mississippians). And I published a second, non-fiction book called "Moments with Eugene...a collection of memories." Rebecca Barrett and I edited some 60 submissions about Mobile writer, Eugene Walter. He was a magnificent writer, a wonderful man, and a dear friend. He was also crazy as a runover dog--in the finest Southern sense, of course. He worked on Fellini films and lived life by his own terms. Yet he was so generous to other writers. So we did that book and then closed the press. I hated the business end of it. I didn't like writing invoices or keeping up with things, but you just have to do it or the tax man will take you to prison. I'm just not a business person. 

I don't regret any of it. I worked very hard, because I had a full time job and I was also writing books for New York publishers. But would I do it again? No. Not knowing how difficult it is. But it did give me a new respect for what publishers have to do to get the smallest attention for a book.  Just doing press releases for Shop Talk taught me a lot. In that regard, I'm a better professional, I think. 

What problems do women face in publishing? Have you dealt with problems you're convinced a man would never have to face? 

My agent, Marian Young, and I talk about this. I sometimes get a little chip     on my shoulder, but she says it's tough for everyone, not just women. I think mostly it has to do with "a prophet in his own town" thing. 

In the last two years, I've met some terrific writers. These are guy writers, and they let me into the club. Last October, Les Standiford invited me to teach at Seaside, a conference that's held every year in Seaside, Florida and sponsored by Florida International University. Dennis Lehane, one of Les's students, was also a presenter. It was the most refreshing thing to find myself, writer-to-writer, talking with these authors whose work I absolutely respected. This was fun. This is how it should be. But I have to say that at the same meeting was Lynne Barrett and Patricia Foster, women writers I greatly admire. We weren't these creatures of gender-- we were writers teaching and talking about writing. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had. Maybe I'm just getting older, or maybe I'm keeping better company, but I like the place I'm moving to. 

Let's talk about your background. Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? Where were you educated? 

I was raised in Lucedale, Mississippi, about 40 miles from where I currently live in Semmes, Alabama. (Just across the Escatawpa River). Lucedale was a town of about 3,000 when I lived there. I think my generation of small town Southerners may have had the last golden childhood. We rode our bikes through town at 2 a.m., without a single fear of a predator or some deviant. I picked peas as a five-year-old with the town police chief (and only officer at the time). And I learned to swim in an amber river with my brothers and my dog. All of this is very much a part of my writing. I wanted a horse so bad I actually prayed my mother would give birth to one(instead it was a brother). I wanted to be a cowgirl, and I was a tomboy. And I still live that life. I have three horses, four dogs, five cats and a small farm. I love to just get out in the woods and think--on horseback or foot. 

I went to high school at George County High (which, much to my chagrin, has just banned Of Mice and Men. I know, it just makes me sick) and I went to the University of Southern Mississippi for a B.S. in journalism. Later I went to the University of South Alabama for an M.A. in English with emphasis in creative writing. 

Humor is one of your trademarks..... 

I guess if you don't learn to laugh at life a little, it's going to be a long hard trek. I like humor, and I enjoy writing it, especially if it's just a little barbed. My family history is filled with these tragic stories that are hilarious. They're so awful, but they are just too funny. So we tell them around family gatherings and groan and laugh and weep because that's just life as we know it.

Did you have mentors when you were getting started in the writing business? Do you think men or women make better mentors?

I had two teachers at USM, Gordon Weaver and Jean Todd Freeman, who encouraged me to write fiction. I was on a journalism track, but I took a few classes in fiction writing as electives. They did tell me I had talent. They urged me to write. Through the years, I've kept in touch with both of them on a sporadic basis. It is true that one good teacher can change the fate of a student. In those early days of rejection, the praise that Dr. Weaver and Ms. Freeman gave me sustained me. And I have to say that Tahti Carter, an editor at Intrigue, saved me from quitting. I owe a lot to Tahti. She is a brilliant editor, and she pulled me out of the slag heap and bought my first book. And, of course, Eugene Walter encouraged me in the early 80s when I met him. We'd drink champagne and toast marshmallows over candles and he'd tell me about working for the Paris Review and living in Rome and how the only important thing was to write. He said that he saw greatness in me. Do you know what kind of impact those words can have on a young writer with no hope? Let's just say that money can't buy such emotional power. 

As to gender, it's hard to say. I don't think it's a gender issue. I do think it's a matter of generosity of spirit. There are generous writers, and there are those who spew only acid and cruelty. Stay away from the latter. 

What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview?

"What were you in a past life?"

I was an American Indian who could ride any horse in the Dakotas bareback. And I understood my relationship with this planet in a way I'm still trying to retrieve in this lifetime.

What's your current project? Next project?

My next book is Crossed Bones due out in April with Delacorte. It's the fourth in the Sarah Booth Delaney Misssissippi Delta Mystery Series (Splintered Bones, Buried Bones, Them Bones.)

And I have a non-fiction book coming out in September (from River City Press), My Mother's Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story. This is a story of tragedy and a spirit that wouldn't be broken. Peggy Morgan was born beside a cotton field in Money, Mississippi in 1947. She suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of her father. As a child, she and her mother were made aware of the Emmett Till murder. Peggy's mother, Inez, was almost beaten to death for trying to tell the truth. In the early 70s, Peggy was taken by her husband and another man on a ride to Parchman State Prison. On the ride, Byron De La Beckwith told Peggy that he'd killed Medgar Evers and that "he wasn't afraid to kill again." For some three decades, Peggy was terrified that she would be killed. Yet she overcame that fear and testified against Beckwith in a 1994 trial that resulted in his conviction. 

I never thought I'd do a non-fiction book, but Peggy's story just had to be told.


Official Web Site of Carolyn Haines

 
 
Crossed Bones
Carolyn Haines
Delacourte Press, 2003
Hardcover, $23.95 (368 pages)
ISBN: 0-385-33659-4

      Southern Scribe Review

 

Splintered Bones,
 
Buried Bones, Bantam Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-5535-81724.Southern Scribe Review
 
Them Bones, Bantam Books, 1999. ISBN:  0553581716. Southern Scribe Review

    

 

2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved