Saturday, October 21, 2017

ROCCO welcomes Claire Matturro!

Meow! This week my guest is author Claire Matturro!

Claire Hamner Matturro admits she used to be a dog person. But then she rescued a black kitten and there was no going back. She’s been a journalist in Alabama, a lawyer in Florida, an organic blueberry farmer in Georgia, and taught at Florida State University College of Law and as a visiting professor of legal writing one long, snowy winter at the University of Oregon. She now lives with her husband and two rescued cats in Florida, where it doesn’t snow. Her newest book, Trouble in Tallahassee (KaliOka Press September 2017), is part of a series featuring Trouble, the black cat detective. Her prior books are: Skinny-Dipping (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley and Sweetheart Deal (winner of Romantic Times’ Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups and contributes regularly to Southern Literary Review. 

Welcome Claire! Tell us a little about your background:

Thanks ROCCO! Though born in Alabama, I was raised primarily in Southwest Florida. I’ve been a print journalist in Alabama, a lawyer in Sarasota, Florida, taught at both Florida State University’s law school and the University of Oregon’s law school, wrote a series of humorous legal thrillers published by William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, and I’ve also been an organic blueberry farmer in Georgia. These days, after many years away, I’m back in SW Florida with my husband, Bill, and our two rescued cats. 

Tell us a bit about your Familiar Legacy series. Where did that idea come from?

As much as I’d love to claim the credit for the idea, the creative mind behind the series’ concept is Carolyn Haines, award-winning, best-seller author of too many books to list or count. In the past, Carolyn had written a series of books about Familiar, a black cat detective, and these books were successful in their day. But Carolyn wanted to do a new series, featuring a similar cat detective, and, hence, Trouble was born. Trouble the black cat detective is the son of Familiar, the original black cat detective. Unlike his father, who was more a Humphrey Bogart type, Trouble speaks with a British accent (think Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes).

The genius behind Carolyn’s idea was to bring along other writers to join the series. She recruited a handful of women writers, each with varying styles of publications in their history, and gave us Trouble and let us go. Though the black cat detective is common to each book, the setting, style, mystery, and plots are all the product solely of the individual author.  

Is “Trouble” the black cat detective based on a real life kitty?

This is a great question for Carolyn, so I asked her. Here is what she said: “Familiar was based on my cat E. A. Poe. And Trouble is based on another wonderful black cat, Coal Shaft Haines. I think more detail may have been in that last newsletter I did, but that's basically it. So yes, they are both based on real life cats that I rescued.” Here’s the link to the newsletter she mentions:

Tell us about your newest release, Trouble in Tallahassee.

Not to belabor the obvious, but the story is set in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, a wonderful city where I lived for a number of years. Some of the action takes place at Florida State University College of Law, where I once taught. In the story, Abby, a young woman attorney, invites Layla, a law student, to stay with her for a brief time while Layla’s apartment is repaired from fire damage. You know the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished.” In short order, Layla is mugged, then kidnapped. Danger is heightened because Layla is a type-one diabetic and will die without her insulin.

Abby realizes the police aren’t going to save Layla because they are too busy blaming Layla’s good friend and fellow law student, Victor, for the crime. Victor had been career Navy, but after an abrupt resignation, had turned to law school. Soon Abby, assisted by Trouble, the black cat detective, and Victor set out to find Layla. Unfortunately, the first thing Victor finds is a dead body in a dumpster, which, naturally, makes the police more convinced of his guilt. Abby gets trapped in a burning house with Trouble and the comatose wife of her boss. Trouble finds a missing earring hidden in a padded bra and a wedding ring in a can of cat food—and sniffs out the scent of the villain. But how does he tell Victor and Abby when they can’t speak cat language?

How do you “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

My characters become so real to me that they talk to me—not literally, you understand, but in my imagination. Whenever I get stuck on a plot angle, or write myself into a corner, all I need to do is go for a long, fast walk and let my characters join me (again, in my imagination). Soon enough, they will tell me what to write next.

At the beginning or plotting stage of writing a manuscript, I deliberately give certain traits—intellectual and emotional, as well as physical—to each character and I think about what traits they need for the plot. That is, if a character has to be scaling fences and leaping fires, I need him or her to have the physical traits to support that action. I also try to flip the clichés. For example, the pot-bellied, ignorant Southern sheriff is an unfortunate cliché, so I would make my Southern sheriff lean, flat-bellied, and smart with good grammar to flip the cliché.

How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I’ve done it both ways, and I really can’t say which approach is better. If I outline, I tend to over-do with too many details and end up with 80 page outlines. Then, of course, as I write, I change things. A lot. So the 80-page outline is a waste, unless you count is as a priming-the-pump way of getting ideas flowing.

In contrast, when I just start writing and hope the plot will take care of itself, I find I write myself into corners so often I have to throw out whole chapters. Which is, of course, a waste of time except if you count it as a priming-the-pump way of getting ideas flowing.

Which do you consider more important, plot or character?

Characters. Definitely. I don’t care how convoluted or brilliant a plot is, if neither the writer nor the readers care about the characters, the plot won’t matter. Imagine your favorite novel, but replace the main characters with dull, boring, flat, one-dimensional characters, and what have you got? A boring, dull, flat, one-dimensional book.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

As with my life, I have been so blessed in my writing career that’s it’s almost embarrassing to admit. Of course, the physical act of writing is a challenge in and of itself because it’s hard work intellectually. But it is work I enjoy. Like most writers, I’ve gone through periods of nothing but rejections (from publishers and agents), but that’s part of the territory. And, having been a lawyer for a decade, I was used to hard work, cold shoulders, and road blocks.

My biggest challenge would be getting back in the game. I left publishing in 2007 for family and personal reasons. Years later, by the time I was ready to write another manuscript, my agent had died, my editor had retired, and my publicist had switched career paths. So I had to start all over again. What motivated me to keep going was the simple fact that I like to write and I like telling stories.

Do you have an “How I got my agent” story you want to share?

Yes. When I started my Lilly Belle humorous legal mystery series, I couldn’t for the life of me get an agent. Rejection followed after rejection, and in mostly form letters. But I entered a manuscript in a contest that involved an editor at HarperCollins, and when I won first place, she purchased that manuscript as well as a second one from me. By the time we were on my third manuscript, I decided I needed an agent to negotiate the deal. I called a friend of mine who was a retired publisher, and he recommended an agent named Elaine. I queried her. Nothing. I mailed her a book and a second query, and nothing. I called my friend, who had worked with her when he was a publisher. He said, “Wait a minute, I’ll give her a call.” Half hour later, Elaine phoned me and soon after she became my agent. Proof, I suppose, that who you know is often more helpful than one would want to admit.

Alas, sadly Elaine died, and I found my new agent, Liza Fleissig, the old-fashioned way of sending queries out to agents who were looking for what I was writing.

What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I am co-authoring a manuscript now called Wayward Girls. My partner, Penny Koepsel, and I have been revising the manuscript with the aid of an editor and the enthusiastic encouragement of our agent, Liza Fleissig. During our revisions, both Penny and I were side-lined by hurricanes. She got hit hard by Harvey, and I got a hit from Irma. Nonetheless, we hope to have the story finished and published soon. It's already won a couple of awards in the unpublished manuscript categories, and we have great hopes for its success. Wayward Girls is inspired by a true life story of a brutal student death in a Texas wilderness school, and also reflects some of the experiences Penny and I had as teen-aged students at a scandal-ridden boarding school in Florida. Liza is cheering us on and remains ever faithful.

What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

The only consistency in my work habits is inconsistency, which is not the same as saying I’m undisciplined. Some days, I work hours and hours. Other days, other demands from life require my attention elsewhere and I might hit a lick here and there at most. Like most attorneys, I find I write best when I’m facing a deadline. Then, I can work hours without breaks. Sometimes I will work so steadily without a break that my husband will have to come get me and tell me to stand up, stretch, and go eat something. Or, one or both of our cats will come and demand attention as if they too are telling me to take a break.

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?

The Bible, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I’ve been wanting to reread, and the Chicago Style Manual because I need it a lot when I write. However, if I can access CSM online in this retreat, then I’d take J. M. Roberts’ History of the World as my third book because I’ve always intended to read it, but somehow never find the time.  

What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Take creative writing classes, but also take print journalism classes. Even if you want to write fiction, the skills and discipline you will learn in a basic print journalism class will help you tremendously with structure, grammar, style and the art of using precise words instead of adverbs and adjectives.

Join writers’ critique groups. Read. Read some more. Keep writing. Persevere. Sorry, there is no magic in that formula, but persistence and hard work are required elements of being a writer. In fact, I’d venture to guess that persistence and hard work are more important than raw talent in the writing business.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

Listen, I’m a child of the Sixties and I didn’t skip much, so it’s better that I not answer that question. That said, I can refer you to Wayward Girls once it’s published.

What’s one thing your readers would be surprised to find out about you?

I don’t have a clue, unless it’s the fact I am a devout, albeit liberal/progressive Christian. A few times that’s surprised readers because my books can be saucy and irreverent, and I have not lived a conventional Christian life. I see Jesus as one of the first love and peace hippies, and his message of love and caring and forgiveness transcends some of the messes people have made in his name.

What question do you wish interviewers would ask? (And what’s the answer?)

Why do you write? It’s not for fame or glory or money. It’s a lonely profession, requiring hours of isolation, and one in which the odds are greatly against success, and rejections and critics will hound you. You will get emails from perfect strangers pointing out every mistake, real or imagined, in any published book, and some one will always really, really, really hate your book and post that far and wide.

There’s really nothing that glamorous about the process of writing, yet it seems to attract awe and interest. So why write? Other writers will have vastly different answers, for me it’s because it’s fun to create a world of make-believe people and see what they do when they are tested. Working the pieces of a mystery novel together also takes a great deal of analytical skill, and that challenge is something I enjoy.

Or maybe I just like to wear pajamas while I work!

Where can we learn more about you and your books?

You might be sorry you asked, but here’s a list of links to my social media and at the end to an online encyclopedia article about me that seems to be mostly accurate.

Just for Fun:
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully)  Both. I used to be a dog person, but lately am a cat person, but I’ve got a serious hankering for another Boston terrier.
Favorite Drink?  Beer. Preferably with friends and pizza, or subtitled, why I’m not thin any more.
Favorite Book?  It depends upon the frame of mind when I’m asked, but I love Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, anything by Hemingway, anything by Donna Tartt and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Favorite TV Series?  Father Brown
Favorite Movie?  To Kill a Mockingbird
Favorite Actor: Toss up between John Wayne and Gregory Peck.
Favorite Actress:  Meryl Streep .  
Finish this sentence:  If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be Jesus
If I had just one wish, it would be that we could all love one another and behave with peace and kindness and generosity as God intended for us to do.

You can find Claire at:

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  1. Fabulous blog, Claire. I learned a lot--and I'm so glad we're both writing Trouble!

  2. Terrific interview! Loved learning more about Claire & Trouble :)

  3. I love the name E. A. Poe for a kitty.