Southern Scribe

 Featured Author        

Mystery Author Mary Saums
By Joyce Dixon
2000, All Rights Reserved

Developing a clear author's voice usually takes new authors several books to attain.  Mary Saums in her debut novel achieves a voice that is uniquely her own.    Midnight Hour is set in the Nashville music scene among a rich cast of characters, enhanced by Mary Saums knowledge of the industry.

After college, she worked in Muscle Shoals, Alabama as a recording engineer on gold and platinum albums by Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, and many other artists.

Mary also writes poetry and short fiction. Her poem "The Blues Reminds Me" was chosen by Nikki Giovanni for a Tennessee Writers Alliance Award. Two other poems about the South, "She Haunts In Roses" and "The Price of Cotton" were published in the anthology Southern Voices In Every Direction. Her short story "Ai-yee, Chihuahua!" will appear in the August/September issue of Futures Magazine where it has been given The Editor's Choice Award.

The Interview.

Scribe: What has the experience of publishing your first novel been like?

Saums:  It's been a like a roller-coaster ride - scary and thrilling, full of wild curves that make you scream.  Then when it's all you over you laugh at how scared you were and say, "Let's do it again!"

Getting a novel ready for publication was a great education for me, particularly in the area of editing.  I had to learn to be ruthless in cutting words, scenes, and characters that didn't enhance the storyline in some way.  Once done, the book was a much better one, I believe, and the "exercise" of deep editing helped improve my writing.  For me, I think that work has been the most satisfying part of getting published, even more than seeing the story in print.

Scribe:  Willi Taft is a character of many layers.  She is a studio session singer, a blues guitarist, a woman in mid-life crisis, and a private investigator in training.  In many ways the reader is joining Willi on a journey of self-discovery.  How much planning went into Willi's character before you started the novel?

Saums:  None.  I didn't know who she was or what her story would be in the beginning.  After writing several chapters, I sketched out a rough outline with the basic plot points necessary for a mystery.  With those in mind, Willi's character became more defined as she moved through the scenes.  The story's backdrop of the music business was one I knew well.  I worked as a recording engineer for several years so I knew the routines and personalities that Willi would encounter.  I knew I wanted her to be Southern but not a Southern Belle, so that determined much of her character - spunky with lots of inner conflict.  Problems with her career and the additional stress of having her life threatened do push her toward a re-discovery of herself.  So although I didn't plan details for her beforehand, knowing the setting, the conflicts she would face, and the workings of the Southern female mind did, to some degree, predestine her character.

Scribe:  What tips would you give for creating richly complex characters?

Saums:  I like characters that surprise me.  Revealing a soft spot in an otherwise uncaring character, or having a slow-witted person do or say something that is brilliant in its simplicity - that's the kind of thing I enjoy reading and try to do in writing.  Consider Boo Radley.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee masterfully uses the narrow-minded townspeople to connect with the reader's own narrow views of the mentally disabled.  Boo is feared and considered dangerous until the end when we see him as he really is -  compassionate and brave.  Without a word of dialog, he remains one of the most unforgettable characters in modern fiction, all because his actions are the opposite of what we expect. 

Other than planning surprises for your reader, another way to build an interesting character is to surprise yourself.  Take chances as you write.  Snatch odd words off the radio or a magazine and mix them, however incongruously, with a dream you had the night before, or the memory of that weird skinny guy you saw at the vet's office who looked just like his dachshund.  When you combine seemingly disparate traits in your characters, you will start thinking, "If he is this, why is he also that?" or "How can I make these work together?"  Allow yourself to stretch and have fun.  When you find a character thought-provoking, your readers probably will too.

Scribe: You have a sassy use of humor in Midnight Hour.  Why do you think humor is important in mysteries?  Who were the Southern humorists that inspired you?

Saums:  With so much real-life horror in our world these days, humor plays a more and more important function in escape fiction.  That's how I see traditional mysteries, as a way to escape everyday problems for a while.  Kathy Hogan Trocheck and Joan Hess are great examples of Southern humorists in the mystery genre.  Jill McCorkle, Florence King, and Lewis Grizzard are a few non-mystery favorites.  

Scribe: Your skill of weaving a complex plotline with many twists and surprises is on the level of seasoned mystery writers.  How long have you been writing mystery stories before this novel?

Saums:  I've been reading mysteries since I was a teenager, but only began writing it seriously about four years ago when I joined a writers group.  During the first two years, I concentrated on short stories, some mysteries and some straight fiction.  Midnight Hour was written in spells over the last two-year period, with poetry and short fiction filling in the gaps.  Sharing works-in-progress with the critique group gives me the kick I need to get projects finished and also gives me an awareness of the story I don't have when working on my own.      

Scribe:  The secondary characters of Macie, Uncle Ralph, Jake, the Wilcox brothers, Doug and Melvin added a lot of color to your story.  Can we expect to see them in future mysteries?

Saums:  Yes.  I'm sure Uncle Ralph and Macie will be recurring characters, and Melvin will be in at least one other book.  The others may make cameo appearances on occasion.

Scribe:  The love story between Sam and Willi is emotionally powerful.  What elements did you use to keep this intensity strong in the novel even after Sam was gone?

Saums:  I think the key element is Willi's anger.  So many bad things happen to her in a short period of time that she can't fully work out any one frustration.  As tensions build, her pent emotions come out in short blasts that usually result in the death of nearby small appliances.  Through it all, she often mentions her attachment to Sam but doesn't dwell on the particular hurt he caused.  She doesn't fully face those emotions until the last page.

Scribe:  From your poetry to your novel, the South plays a role.  What makes the Southern literary voice unique?  What is unique about Southern mysteries?

Saums:  I think it's the land.  Southern literature has been shaped by agrarianism, mainly because Southern characters, the real ones, were shaped by it.  Even with the expansion of metropolitan areas, we are still not far removed from working the land or from the effects of long-term poverty on our families.  In turn, the Southern outlook is necessarily more down-to-earth, creating distinctive fictional people and situations.  Southern mysteries continue that tradition of mixing colorful characters, well-defined setting, and an honest look at human nature, and spinning them into a good yarn.  So that tradition is what makes Southern writers unique, I think, in mystery and straight fiction.

Scribe:  Are you a member of any mystery writers organizations?  How important has networking been to your writing?

Saums:  Yes - Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime.  Since these are national organizations, networking face-to-face is infrequent but the internet keeps members in touch.  I would say the biggest plus of networking is the moral support and advice given by the more experienced writers rather than in actual writing.

Scribe:  Can we look forward to a series of Willi Taft mysteries?  What are you working on now?  

Saums: Yes, Midnight Hour is the first of a series.  Right now, I'm working on the follow-up which finds Willi dividing her time between Nashville and a small college town near the Alabama/Mississippi border.   

Midnight Hour
by Mary Saums
Silver Dagger Mysteries, 2000

Sites of Interest

Mary Saums - Author Site
Silver Dagger Mysteries

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