Featured Mystery Author  
A Journalist is a
Natural Sleuth
An Interview with Mystery
Author Elaine Viets
By Elaine S. August

 

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 25 years.

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 freedom?

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.   

Any similarities 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. Louis?

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.

Generally, what 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’. 

You’ve mentioned 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 authentic.

You’ve now 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 do it?

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 of time.

Elaine, you 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!

The Pink 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 razor-sharp expression?

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 writers?

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 smiled.

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.


Elaine Viets Official Site

 

Books by Elaine Viets
Doc in the Box, Dell, 2000
The Pink Flamingo Murders, Dell, 1999
Rubout, Dell, 1998
Backstab, Dell, 1997


© 2001 Elaine S. August, All Rights Reserved