Annamaria Alfieri is author of three historical mysteries set in South America. Of her Strange Gods, placed in British East Africa, 1911, Richmond Times-Dispatch said “the flair of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, the cunning of Agatha Christie and Elspeth Huxley." The Idol of Mombasa joined the series in 2016. Alfieri, along with Michael Stanley, edited the anthology Sunshine Noir, which Peter James called “a gem—a whole new movement,” in crime fiction. She is a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and serves on the board of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festivlal
R: Welcome AnnaMaria! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in writing.
Thanks ROCCO! Like so many other novelists, I wanted to be a writer when I was very young—age nine for me. But I grew up poor in a working class neighborhood in the moribund manufacturing city of Paterson, New Jersey. Kids of my generation there did not aspire to be starving artists. We got the best education we could and left to get decent jobs. I had a career as a management development consultant for most of my adult life. But I never stopped writing fiction. Eventually, I began in earnest to develop my skills. I wrote five practice novels before I had one I thought was worthy of publication.
R: Tell us about your Vera and Tolliver series. How did that come about?
I began by writing standalone mysteries. After three books set in different times and places in South America, I decided to try a series. Initially the specific inspiration came from a friend who had traveled in Africa with me, who said, “Why don’t you just write about that Africa you are so in love with?” A spark ignited. And it struck me what a delight it would be to send my imagination to Africa for several books.
Like many, my first infatuation with Africa came from a teenage reading of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen.) A bit of preliminary research showed me that British East Africa of Blixen’s time was replete of conflict—clashes of cultures and interests that gave people lots of reasons to want to kill one another. Perfect grist for the mystery novelist’s mill. Bingo! The characters I needed came to me in a flash. I cannot tell you how happy I am to follow them around and let them tell me their stories.
R: Do you have an “how I got my agent” story you’d like to share? How did you feel when you got the call your first novel had sold?
I had my first—City of Silver—ready to go. I had published four nonfiction books by that time. My agent at the time encouraged me to write fiction but then did not like my interest in historicals. I naively thought it would be easy to find another agent. I sent out query letters; no luck for eight years. I was pretty discouraged by the time an MWA friend gave me contact information for an agent he thought was right for me. But I was afraid of being rejected or ignored once again. So I offered that agent a nonfiction project, the sequel to my most successful nonfiction book. She bought the idea and sold the project. A year and a half later, after I delivered that manuscript for Monster Boss, I told her about City of Silver. She reluctantly asked for thirty pages. After reading them, she wanted to see the whole book. She said she could sell it. When she sent it out, it sold in four days. And overnight success after ten years of hoping.
As it happened, that call came just a few days after my family received a bad health report. I felt as if life had saved the good news for the time I needed it most.
R: What’s a must have for you when you are writing? What aids the creative process?
Music. In fact, music is essential to everything I do—cook dinner, fold the laundry, answer these questions. The first thing I do is put on some music. For writing projects, I choose an appropriate playlist. Blood Tango required a whole lot of Carols Gardel and Astor Piazzola. I always favor instrumental music; opera also works very well since they are not singing in English, and film scores, especially those of Ennio Morricone and, of course, John Barry’s brilliant soundtrack to Out of Africa.
R: If you had access to a time machine, which historical moment would you travel to and why?
How could I possibly choose? History is my creative touchstone. Can’t you just park it in my living room and give me the key.
In fact all my research is a kind of time machine for me. I read and read until I can feel as if I am there and then. It’s the only way I can walk with my characters and bring the reader there too.
R: If a movie were to be made of one of your books, which one would you want it to be and who would you pick for the lead roles.
If forced to choose, I would have to say Strange Gods. Casting is difficult because I know exactly what Tolliver, Vera, and Kwai look like and how they move. The easiest way for me to share that vision would be to cast a couple of familiar faces from Downton Abbey: Allen Leech (Tom Branson) who I am sure has the chops to pull off the hyperclassy Justin Tolliver and Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), who would have to turn Scots to play Vera McIntosh. I would cast my blogmate on Murder is Everywhere—a thriller writer but also an actor, Leye Adenle as Kwai Libazo.
R: What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?
That though I am at ease speaking before a group, I am extremely uncomfortable waking alone into a room full of strangers.
R: What is the craziest thing you've ever done?
I quit a secure job and started my own consulting business when I was a thirty-one-year-old single mother of a three year old and totally self-supporting. We didn’t starve. Eventually, it all worked out quite well.
R: What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?
The feeling that they were really there in that time and place.
R: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am a pantser, and what’s more I insist that all writers of fiction are pantsers. Even if they write detailed outlines, unless they are telling the same old story, they have to pantse their way through the plot to create the outline. Pantsing is the only way to make things up, which is what fiction writers do.
R: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
R: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
There is no rule to follow and no one right way to do it. The only essential thing is to put your tush in a chair, put your fingers on the keyboard, and make words come out. You can always make it better later. But you cannot write a book unless you can make a lot of words happen on the page. Get into the habit of doing that.
Oh, and spend time with congenial, supportive other writers—published and aspiring. I found my part of that tribe by joining the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Just for Fun:
Night or Day? Depends on the activity.
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully) Pity me, I am allergic to both.
Beach or Pool? Both. I love the water. I am a Pisces after all.
Steak or salad? Lasagna all Bolognese
Favorite Drink? White burgundy
Favorite Book? Not possible to choose one. All of Jane Austen, but especially Persuasion. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For historical mysteries every word Elizabeth Peters ever wrote.
Favorite TV Series? Foyle’s War
Favorite Movie? Out of Africa
Favorite Actor: Do I really have to choose between Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Kitchen?
Favorite Actress: Maggie Smith
Dirty Martini or Pina Colada? Gin and tonic while I watch the sun set in the African wilderness,
Hawaii or Alaska? Kenya
Finish this sentence: If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be William Shakespeare.
If I had just one wish, it would be for my grandchildren to live long, healthy lives
If I could trade places with anyone in the world, it would be Steven Spielberg
Thank you Anna Maria!
Anna Maria will give signed copies of Idol of Mombasa and Sunshine Noir to one lucky commenter, as well as a walk on role in her next book!
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