|Featured Mystery Author|
With the Atlantic Ocean
as a backdrop, I sat with Elaine Viets in her Hollywood Beach office and
learned more about the author and her life. We discussed her last few
years here in Florida and her Missouri heritage that has so influenced her
writing. One understands her
compassion for people, although it is so often camouflaged in her
irresistible desire to size up a situation with the height of humor. This
definitely surpasses her stature of six feet.
I also uncovered that Pat’s Bar is the best place in St. Louis to
grab a 3,000 calorie brain sandwich (an old German favorite). Frankly,
I’d read about her favorite meal in The Pink Flamingo
Murders - a St. Louis specialty of barbecue ribs with a tangy sauce. I
highly recommend the latter after Elaine’s description of the ethnic
delight. Since I am a native of Florida, it did surprise me to learn that
St. Louis does indeed have pink flamingos. I guess some of our Florida
flamingos flew the coop and flocked to Missouri. It is not surprising,
however, that at least one of their feathers tickled a native of Missouri
in a friendly way to draw her to its’ home nesting place.
As a veteran
reporter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 25 years, tell me what
influenced your decision to become a career journalist and then stay loyal
to a single paper?
As a native of St.
Louis, I knew the area very well and started out with fashion articles.
Then I was assigned to do teen features; later a column. I still have many
friends in St. Louis that I visit with when I go back about four times a
year. United Media offered me a syndicated column, three times a week, and
the editors really took an interest in you as a person. I have given up
the column and am a full-time novelist now.
Last December was the first vacation I took, without a deadline, in
How about the Emmys
you had won for KMOV-TV in St. Louis?
KMOV-TV was our local
station and featured my “Viets Beat” show.
It was a prime time program for one half hour and we did various
local stories four to five times a year. I had a good producer and in 1989
and 1990 won the two Emmys you see on my book shelf. They make perfect
bookends. I think I danced the entire night at our party afterwards,
clenching it and didn’t put the Emmy down until I went to sleep.
I understand that
you are now a full-time novelist. Do you miss the action generated from
the newsroom or have the boundaries just been lifted with a new sense of
No, and I don’t miss
the deadlines. I still get a
lot of fan mail, letters and photos from my former readers.
It has given me the freedom to work on a wider scope for my novels.
between the journalist and novelist that help you put that ‘punch’
into your mysteries and tie it all up so neatly?
I saved in my mind -
composites - of the many people I encountered as a reporter.
Every newspaper has its “Charlie”
and “Nails”; it is common
in the industry. The column
has to be short and punchy; be 650 words and entertaining. It is for the
reader to enjoy and not ask ‘why’ on something. My average reader for
my novels is from the mid forties to sixties and female.
They have very busy lives and want to laugh at the end of a day.
At what point in
your career did you see Francesca Vierling becoming
a reality as the quick thinking protagonist giving us your first
mystery - Backstab in 1997? Did you always plan it as a series set in St.
St. Louis is a city
that I knew very well. Then
after moving and working in DC, I found myself between jobs. Characters
are something I would know about, since a good reporter covers a lot of
situations. Opposed to just stumbling over ‘dead’ people; it is
written into the profession to investigate and is logical for a reporter
to be a natural sleuth. Now
it is nice to just write my novels without the column.
You always manage to
keep Francesca ‘respectable’ in every impassable situation.
What’s her best defense with her editor and all the mortals she
encounters on her assignments?
I have a German
background and we have a lot of rules.
Francesca, as a character, knows she does have to follow rules, but
doesn’t always follow them well. The Germans are very clannish, stubborn
and have great strength.
gets your adrenaline going to format the process and time frame you will
follow to put a theme together for
Francesca’s next adventure?
After breakfast, I take
a long walk by the ocean alone. I
then walk here to my office on Hollywood Beach Boardwalk and work until 5
or 6 PM, breaking for lunch. I’ll run an idea by my agent and use two to
four paragraphs for a chapter to expand on - I don’t necessarily follow
an outline. However, I turn into ‘sludge’ if I don’t exercise, so I
work out at the gym three afternoons for one and a half to two hours and
lift free weights from twelve to fifteen pounds.
It’s my ‘writers release’.
that the early comic strip reporter, Brenda Starr, was a childhood heroine
for you. Her wide-brimmed hat
always made her blend into a mysterious scene dominated by the male
influence. How do you look to appeal
to the reader with a contemporary female reporter/sleuth, without
Basil, to save her - opposed to the popular hard boiled detective?
No one looks very much
like Basil. I lived the life
of a reporter for a very long time. It helped make my characters more
written four Francesca Vierling novels.
Backstab was a Washington Post
Readers’ Pick; you were named Florida Author of the Year in 1999
for “The Pink Flamingo Murders”; your first term as president of the
Mystery Writers of America/Florida chapter - you were a judge for the
prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel 2000 (I might add: your share of
reading about 400 competitive works in nine months); now a second term
president for Florida; part-time book reviewer for the Sun Sentinel; and
finished recording all your mysteries on tape for Americana Publishing.
Even a seal has to balance the ball and come up for air. How do you
I dropped the column at
a good time. That was ‘knowing when to quit’.
I had more to say than 650 word bits.
You have to know when to fold.
As a member of a
team of judges for the highly visible and notable Edgars book award - what
was the most rewarding experience in your contribution? What did you look for - to jump out at you from the stories?
I was happy to serve on
the committee; there were five of us.
Margaret Moseley, an Edgar nominee herself for “Bonita Faye”, headed the group. It was better than
taking a college course on the trends and what kind of things work better
than others in the modern mystery novel.
I feel it is a ‘Golden Age’ in mystery writing.
I could appreciate what is being done with issues such as civil
rights, women’s issues, immigration and the truth in the legal system.
The authors were just plain good. Some of them will stand the test
certainly are in good company with Max Allan Collins and
Loren Estleman, among many other best selling authors, having four
audio books out there on the shelves. So often, these are read by actors
and now your own vocal interpretation on the tape captures your reader
quickly with a soft, but magnetic
tone. What was it like to
work with Americana in Albuquerque and listen to your own voice, not only
your ‘writing voice’, but now a playback of yourself in rhythm with
the printed work?
When I write a book, I
can actually hear the story in my head. It took about seven to eight hours
for two days to read a book. It
is edited by computer and the engineer will stop you to make corrections -
very different than writing and takes a lot of concentration.
The physical challenges are either a mouth full of spit or feeling
dry and scratchy. When I
started tripping over my tongue, the engineer would have me take a walk
around the block. Then when I came back, he had me put a pencil in my
mouth and just talk to him. It worked!
Then I could go back and concentrate and read smoothly again.
It is a risk to read your own work, but worth taking for me.
I wanted to tell my own story.
What’s the real
story behind you and your husband, Don Crinklaw, owning matching jaguars?
My husband bought his
Jaguar new in 1986. It is red. Then, in 1988, I found one of the same
year, only in blue. Mine is ‘Ralph’
just as in my stories. Don’s is ‘Joan’ for Joan Collins. He
loved her in the ‘Dynasty’ series and says his car is very much like
her - very beautiful; very expensive and a whole lot of trouble!
Flamingo Murders touches very close to everyday life, as do all your
stories. Where do you set the limits, yet stay at the cutting edge of
humor to tame your true philosophy about human nature’s outcome with
You can know too much
about a character and follow them everywhere.
Fiction stops somewhere.
Happy endings are
not always easy in the mystery genre; and you do leave Francesca enough
slack to surpass the predictable for her reader. So, where does Francesca
take her fans next?
I’m leery of happy endings. There
are ‘Charlies’ always with us; just bad in a different way. I don’t
think total justice is possible. Complete happy endings is not real life -
there are happy times.
What do you like
to leave the reader with as Francesca
transforms an assignment into the unpredictable?
That is up to the
reader. I hope there is
something in the book that they will think about later.
For Doc In The Box, I did want them to think about ways we
can change health care. Doctors
should understand how they are hurting the patient with carelessness. I
just want the reader want to buy the next book.
How about wrapping
up a successful 2000 in your tenure as president of
the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Where is it
leading you as president again for 2001 and getting ready to oversee
SleuthFest in Fort Lauderdale - a preferred conference for mystery
It has been exciting to
be president and be helpful to others.
I enjoy the company of other writers - both personally and
professionally. Id like to write a really good book and I hope that is
what I’m doing now. I’m
superstitious, so I’ll just say I do have a work-in-progress!
As Elaine Viets and I
were concluding our visit, the telephone rang. Ironically, it was a daily
newspaper sales call. We both
SleuthFest is an annual
conference sponsored by the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Unfortunately, we are not able to put on a Feather and Lace Ball
this year for our Saturday evening get together.
I did suggest at a recent planning meeting, for some items to put
on the registration desk fitting our logo:
the pink flamingo. Elaine volunteered some from her collection for
us. It seemed wise to request that any lethal extensions be removed for
the occasion by those who would contribute icons.
After all - murder is our business!
The sky behind us had
changed; the sun diminished to an over glow. There were no longer blue
reflections beaming off the
Gulfstream; there was no definition between the horizon and the roll of
the ocean. Only the birds and a sea plane pointed out which one was its’
own territory. Perfect ending for a mystery.
© 2001 Elaine S. August, All Rights Reserved