Meow! My guest today is author Leslie Budewitz!
Leslie Budewitz is the only author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction—the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, for Death al Dente (Berkley Prime Crime), first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, and the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction, for Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books). She lives in northwest Montana with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their cat Ruff, a cover model and avid bird-watcher.
- Welcome to the blog, Leslie! Tell us a little about your background
Thanks ROCCO! Well, I started writing at age 4, on my father’s desk. Literally---I didn’t yet grasp the concept of paper. Happily, my parents were amused and my mother, who is 89, still gives me notebooks and pens for Christmas.
After college in Seattle and law school at Notre Dame, I practiced in Seattle for several years, then came back to my native Montana. I still practice law part-time for a small firm, primarily in personal injury and business litigation, with some criminal, insurance, and employment work. My husband, a singer-songwriter and a doctor of natural medicine, is also a Montana native, and we live in the woods in the NW corner of the state, on the road to Glacier National Park. Although we had dogs for many years---Border Collies and a Remoyed (a Samoyed and Retriever mix)---we are currently supervised by a ten year old Burmese cat.
- Tell us a bit about your Food Lovers Village series. Where did the idea come from?
After that early experience on my dad’s desk, it took me another three decades to decide I really did want to write seriously, and more than fifteen years before I held my first book in my hands. In the interim, I wrote several unpublished manuscripts, although a few were agented and came close, and published half a dozen short stories. After my nonfiction guide for writers, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, 2011) was published, I decided that as much as I love helping other writers get the facts about the law write—er, right—I wasn’t through telling my own stories. I love the light-hearted subset of traditional mystery sometimes called the cozy, and decided to try that genre. Foodie fiction is popular, and I love to eat and cook, so I created a village obsessed with food—in Montana, of all the unlikely places. Erin Murphy manages Murphy’s Mercantile aka the Merc, a specialty regional foods market in her family’s hundred-year-old building in the village of Jewel Bay. The village is inspired in part by the town I live in, and while there are even more great places to eat on the page than on our streets, it’s actually not too far from the mark! Happily, the locals have embraced the books.
As a college student, I fell in love with Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Later as a young lawyer working downtown, I tried to eat my way through the Market at least once or twice a week. I’d start at the front entrance with a slice of pizza from DeLaurenti’s walk-up window, browsing the covers of the magazines at the First & Pike Newsstand— eyes only until my hands were clean! I’d sip a sample cup of tea at Market Spice while watching the fishmongers throw salmon and amuse the crowd with their comedy routine, pick my produce and cheese for the week, and end with dessert—a hazelnut sablé from Le Panier, the French bakery, or a Nanaimo bar from a now-departed shop in the warren off Post Alley.
So naturally, when I thought about setting a mystery series in Seattle, the Market beckoned. I created my own spice shop, influenced by the ones that exist there and shops I’ve visited in other regions, but with a flavor all its own. Pepper Reece is the poster child for the adage “life begins at 40.” After thirteen years of marriage, she discovered her police officer husband and a meter maid—she still can’t say “parking enforcement officer”—in a back booth in a posh new restaurant practically plugging each other’s meters when he was supposed to be working an extra shift. She moved out and bought an unfinished loft in a century-old downtown warehouse. Then the law firm where she’d worked in HR, managing staff, imploded in scandal and took her job with it. She tossed her office wardrobe, cut her hair, and bought the Spice Shop, a forty-year-old institution that had lost its verve.
In ASSAULT AND PEPPER, first in the series, she finds a homeless man dead at her shop’s front door---and a trusted employee is charged with murder. The investigation forces Pepper to confront the limits of her own judgment and her ability to work with other people. In the process, she learns new skills and draws on internal resources she didn’t know she had. Ultimately, we read to explore human experience, and I hope reading about Pepper as she meets those challenges—something we all face—is satisfying as well as entertaining.
- How do you “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?
- How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
- Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
These questions all blend together for me. The heart of every story is the characters. Even in a mystery or a thriller, where plot is critical, the characters are the key. When someone raves to you about a book, they don’t say “it’s about a bomb ....” They say “it’s about a woman who ....” When readers fall for a series, they remember the characters as much as the individual plots—sometimes even more.
It is the characters’ choices and decisions that create the plot. Plot unfolds when one character acts and another responds. So, for me, it’s crucial to get to know my characters before I start writing their story. I ask my story people to tell me what they most want out of life. To show me their struggles, internal and external. To reveal how they respond when someone stands in their way. I do that by delving into the characters, asking how they would behave in a particular situation. When Pepper does something that threatens to expose the killer---whether she realizes it or not---the killer will respond. Another suspect may also respond, and they’ll all keep on acting and responding, driven by their desires, their fears, their behavior in the face of obstacles.
Generally, I write an outline---a paragraph or two for each chapter, sometimes with snippets of dialogue I think will occur. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve just started the third book in the series, and while I know who the killer is and I think I know the final confrontation, I don’t know much about what happens in the second half of the book. That’s okay---a running outline is good enough to get me going, and I’m making notes for those later chapters as more becomes clear.
In the planning phase, I sometimes struggle until I identify the core conflicts between the victim and the killer—but also between the victim and other characters who fall under suspicion, and between the sleuth and those who would stop her. It’s a messy, ever-moving process. It’s also a lot of fun. I hope that it flows on the printed page, that it keeps you reading and asking questions. I hope my stories introduce you to a cast of folks you want to know, who show you a little something about life—and character.
- What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Motivation is---or was---the biggest challenge for years. Not because writing is hard, though it is, but because I was going through a period in my life where nothing seemed to come to fruition. Ultimately, in my writing life, I broke through that barrier with the short stories and my nonfiction book.
Staying motivated day to day isn’t hard at all. Writing is the thing I most love doing. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem , it’s the one thing I do where, when I’m doing it, I don’t think I should be doing something else. Joseph Campbell said “Never underestimate the value to the Universe of a fully realized life.” This is mine, and that’s motivation aplenty.
I’ll confess though, that right now, I’m starting a new book, waiting for edits on another, and launching a new series, and staying focused is a challenge!
- You are also a lawyer, which career is the bigger challenge?
They’re so different---they both have their own challenges. I do appreciate that in mystery writing, I can kill people without going to prison.
- What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
I’m looking forward to the publication of the third Food Lovers’ Village Mystery, BUTTER OFF DEAD, in July, and the second Spice Shop Mystery, GUILTY AS CINNAMON, in December. And I’ve just started writing the third Spice Shop Mystery, tentatively titled A THYME TO KILL. Pepper’s mother Lena returns from her home in Costa Rica for a visit, and the past comes roaring back. I hope to keep writing both series, as well as another project that at the moment is progressing mainly in my mind.
I’m also serving as vice president of Sisters in Crime, and will become president this fall. Eventually, unless I fall totally flat, I’ll be named a Goddess, and who doesn’t aspire to that?
- What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
Alas, at the moment, there is no such thing as typical---not with three books at different stages and several law firm projects in progress. Generally, though, I write ten pages a day, five or six days a week, and fit in promotion when I can. During the run-up to launching a new series, though, that sort of flips for a few weeks! But I don’t want to let the new story get too far away from me, so I try to get in some writing time every day. Even half an hour will give me a few paragraphs or a page, and keep the story moving in my head.
- If you could take only three books with you for a year-long writing retreat in a gorgeous setting with no library, which three would you take?
I have no idea!
- What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
Read, study, write, repeat. Join a writers’ group and learn from other writers. Focus on the craft first---might not be a bad idea, if you’re working on a novel, to finish your first draft before you start delving into the publishing business. Only then can you understand the options and the many paths to publications, decide on your goals, and begin making choices.
- What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Carrying a 60 pound backpack 60 miles over the Continental Divide, on an eight-day trip with my husband and brother through the fabulous Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana’s Northern Rockies. Also the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken and the greatest physical challenge.
- What’s one thing your readers would be surprised to find out about you?
Probably that I don’t view any of my characters as based on me, even though I try to give them some of my own experiences----what they do with them is up to them!
- Where can we learn more about you and your books?
I’ve got a lovely new website, www.LeslieBudewitz.com, a seasonal email newsletter, and a blog called Law and Fiction that blends fun stuff for readers and info for writers who want to get the law right in their fiction.
Just for Fun:
Night or Day? Day
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully) Yes.
Beach or Pool? Mountain lake or stream
Steak or salad? Medium rare, balsamic vinaigrette
Favorite Drink? A wine to go with the food---or stream
Favorite Book? One look at our bookshelves and you’d know I can’t possibly pick just one!
Favorite TV Series? We just started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix and we’re having a blast.
Favorite Movie? Casablanca. Or Bladerunner. Depends on my mood.
Favorite Actor: Hmmm…
Favorite Actress: Meryl Streep
Dirty Martini or Pina Colada? You drink mine and pour me another glass of wine. But if we’re on a deck by that mountain lake and we’ll be here a while, mix me up a Negroni.
Hawaii or Alaska? Montana J
Finish this sentence: If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be ___________________ I’d say Emily Dickinson but I’’d probably scare her half to death, poor soul.
If I had just one wish, it would be_________________________________________ An end to the divisiveness that is tearing us and our planet apart.
If I could trade places with anyone in the world, it would be _______ I wouldn’t---I love my own life too much!
Thanks for a great interview, Leslie! Folks, here are all the places you can find out more about her:
- My website and blog: www.LeslieBudewitz.com
- Facebook, http://www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor
- Twitter http://www.Twitter.com/LeslieBudewitz
- My characters speak their minds on Killer Characters www.KillerCharacters.com on the 27th of the month.
- I’m also delighted to have joined the crew at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, www.MysteryLoversKitchen.com sharing stories and recipes on the 1st, 3d, and 5th Tuesdays.
Thanks to Berkley Prime Crime, we have a copy of ASSAULT AND PEPPER to give away to one lucky commenter!
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