Newsletter - Interview with Vicki Delany

Tuesday Apr 01 2014
by Sian

I had the pleasure of interviewing Vicki Delany, author of the ‘Constable Molly Smith’ and ‘Klondike Mystery’ series, in February in Toronto. Her newest Molly Smith, Under Cold Stone, is on sale April 1st

SB: How did you start writing?

VD: I have three children and when my children were young, I had the idea of writing them a story for Christmas. So I wrote them each a story with their names, they were the characters. I printed it out, tied it together with ribbon. And I kind of enjoyed doing that, so I thought I might like to learn about writing for children.  So I enrolled at a creative writing class at Sheridan College and very quickly decided I did not want to write for children. But I was enjoying the class, so I thought, well I like to read mystery novels, so maybe I’ll give it a try at doing one, so I just carried on. I took several courses at Sheridan College.

SB: Were they mystery writing courses particularly?

VD: No, it was general fiction of all sorts.

SB: You have two series, and you’ve written a bunch of standalones, and then the novellas. Do you like writing the series better or the standalones better?

VD: They are different, and there are different challenges. The standalones are, in my opinion, more challenging in a way because you’re creating characters from scratch. And I think that I like writing standalones better, because with standalones you have a character who’s facing some great change in their life, some crisis, some life changing incident and, for good or ill, they will be forever changed by that happens within the course of the book. Whereas in a series novel, they have to come back in the next book, so the challenge is a little bit different as your character has to grow and change and evolve but they can’t be too dramatic in every book. So it’s the minor characters that have challenges, to live or die or not. I like writing the standalones. They each have their own merits for sure, but I enjoy the standalones because they are a bit more challenging.

SB: It is satisfying in a way to finish a book and then it’s done.

VD: It’s different, in a way, because when I look back on my first couple of books which were standalones, and I was so close to those characters for so long and then I thought, gee I haven’t even thought about them in years. It’s kind of odd. It’s like a divorce or a death in the family.

SB: Series authors like Henning Mankell have retired their characters and their series. Do you ever think about that?

VD: Certainly not right now. I’m happy with the way things are going.

SB: They still have things to do…

VD: They still have things to do. Molly Smith, for example, in the ‘Molly Smith’ series was 26 when the series begins and she’s got a lot ahead of her professionally and personally as well.

SB: We have a mystery writing group at the store. They meet every month and talk about their projects. What’s your creative writing process? Do you have to be closed in a room?

VD: It’s a funny question. Just recently I was asked if I had any rituals or routines and my initial was, I’m a professional writer, I don’t need a routine or ritual. And I was just talking to R.J. Harlick about that this morning, but when you start to look at your life you realize you do, insignificant as they are. I’ll fill in first that I’m not one of those people who says they’re driven to write, so the only reason that I would ever do it is because I have to have a time frame. I write every day of the week in the morning, so I get up and I do the email thing, and I read the news online and have coffee. So around 8:30 or 9 I’ll start and the very first thing I do when I’ve decided it’s writing time, is I put an egg on to boil. And I boil my egg. And I don’t eat it yet, because I’m allowed to have my egg…I review the previous days writing, so I will do that, make a few little edits, and when I start the fresh days writing, I’m allowed to have the egg. And I never ever thought of it that way until someone asked me, and that’s a total ritual. The reward of one boiled egg. But I also have a separate computer, that’s only used for writing, because on my main computer I just couldn’t do that. And it’s also not, it’s funny, because I have a lovely office in my house, but I don’t write there. I write standing up at the kitchen counter. And I find the standing up thing, I started that about a year ago, and I find that really helpful. And in a way it’s because when you take that kind of a pause, just a second or two, like when I’m standing up, I just kind of look to the window, look out the window and carry on, whereas when you’re sitting down at your desk in that sort of pause, you’re opening email or checking Facebook.

SB: Do you have a certain number of words you like to get done every day?

VD: I don’t have a count. It’s more time.

SB: What advice would you give to writers just starting out?

VD: I have a creative writing class. I teach, just one eight week course a year, at the library where I live, it’s called writing popular fiction. And my number one piece of advice is that you have to read. I believe that Stephen King, if you want to be a writer you have to write and you have to read. And I think you have to learn to read critically to see what works, look to see what doesn’t work. I think that some people say they don’t read much when they’re writing because they don’t want to be influenced by others, but I want to be influenced by good writing, I want to be inspired. Good writing inspires me.

SB: You took classes, you teach a class, is that a useful exercise?

VD: Absolutely. The simple stuff. Like the number of people who I’ve had come to my classes and they’re so surprised when I teach them that the only speech tag that they should use is “said”. They’re pulling “he ejaculated”, “he expostulated”, “he commented”. That sort of basic stuff, that stuff needs to be taught. You can’t teach talent, but you can teach craft.

SB: What kind of books do you like to read?

VD: I read mystery novels almost exclusively. What am I reading right now? I just finished The Sayers Swindle by Victoria Abbott (Mary Jane Maffini). The one I’m right in right now is Morag Joss, Our Picnics in the Sun. Total total different from The Sayers Swindle. I like to read a really wide variety.

SB: You write some historical stuff. Do you like to read historical fiction?

VD: I don’t actually read all that much historical fiction and I don’t really know why. I don’t know, I mean there’s so much to read, you just go with your taste. I read some historical fiction. I’m trying to think of what I’ve read recently that I really like…I can’t think of anything off hand.

SB: Are there any Canadian authors that you really like?

VD: There’s a lot of good Canadian authors. Barbra Fradkin. Victoria Abbott, who I just mentioned. The better known…Peter Robinson, Linwood Barclay. There’s wonderful, wonderful Canadian writers. There’s a historical I’ve just finished recently! Janet Kellough. She lives near me in Picton and we’re quite good friends and I enjoy her ‘Thaddeus Lewis’ series, set in Ontario in the 1830s. Have you heard of the Bloody Words Conference? This year the theme is historical mysteries, and I’m the guest of honour. My standalone novels all have a backstory of something that happened in the past. So they’re all contemporary, but there’s a thread running through of a historical…in two cases WWII and in one case the Loyalist Settlers in 1784. That’s what I like better as a reader, rather than a genuine historical, but something that interweaves the past and the present.

SB: In terms of the narrative?

VD: The narrative. Somebody is doing something in the past, and people today are…

SB: Since you write historicals, how do you do your research? Is it mostly reading? Do you travel?

VD: The main thing is the Klondike Series, of course, in terms of historical. The Klondike Gold Rush is really easy to research because there is so much material written. And there’s also wonderful photographs. And that’s one of the things that’s not normally available to historical writers, photographs. The camera had just within the last few years become light enough and portable enough that it could be taken out into the gold fields and up into the mountain passes and all that rather than confined to the studios. There is wonderful photographic evidence.

SB: Were you able to find that all online? Do you have to go to the library sometimes?

VD: Now I have a fairly good collection of books, and my Klondike books all have a bibliography in the back of the historical books that I’ve used. There’s information online for sure. Pierre Berton’s book of photographs is the best.

SB: Speaking of your novellas, I saw one was written about the Sudan? That’s a departure. What brought that about?

VD: South Sudan, which is not the same as Sudan. My daughter is a Canadian diplomat and she was stationed in South Sudan for two years, so I’ve been there twice. And while I was there I did run into an RCMP officer who is with the UN so I had a little talk with him. Then I started to think that would be really interesting to write about. The book is about an RCMP officer serving with the UN in South Sudan. It’s darker than any of my other books, it’s kind of going into serial killer territory which I don’t normally do. I felt like I could experiment with that in the novella format because it is so much shorter.

SB: Do you want to talk a little bit about the Orca project that this (‘Juba Good’) is a part of?

VD: My first one with them was called A Winter Kill, and then this new one Juba Good. They call it reluctant readers. So they’re written for adults, although they can be read by high school students. They’re written for adults at a grade 2 to 3 level. So it’s not only for adults with learning disabilities but also people with low literacy skills and ESL students and simple reluctant readers. People that aren’t that keen to read but maybe they are attracted by these books because they aren’t long. My daughter read the ARC for Juba Good and I told her to time it and it took her 45 minutes to read the whole book. What they’re perfect for, in my mind, is I always have one when I’m flying in my bag, because when you have to turn off your e-reader on the plane than you’ve got this little book that’s going to last the flight and it’s great.

SB: That’s a really interesting project.

VD: What they found, and I’m surprised they didn’t do it long ago, is that adults who don’t read well are embarrassed to be seen reading children’s books. So these are adult books with adult covers with adult themes but written at that fairly simple level.

SB: And do you think that because you started writing with an eye to writing kid’s books that that made it easier to do this?

VD: No, I don’t think so. It’s been an interesting exercise. Because essentially it’s a novel stripped right down to its absolute essence. It’s the minimum that you need to be able to tell the story, in terms of the story itself but also sentence by sentence. Is every sentence clear? And that sort of thing.

SB: So that must be a really interesting writing process?

VD: It is. It was very interesting. Certainly in terms of word for word, these books take me a lot longer than the other ones do because you have to think about every word you want to use.

SB: Is it a relief then every time you finish writing one?

VD: So I can warble on at length…

SB: You’ve obviously had a very successful long career. If you could start again, is there anything you’d do differently?

VD: Probably not. I think that I was fairly lucky, that I didn’t start off terribly well because I went with a really small electronic publisher when that was all new, which didn’t work out for me. But no, I’m fairly happy with the way that things turned out for me.

SB: So you’re with Poison Press in the US and with Dundurn…

VD: For the different books. Dundurn publishes the Klondike books. Poison Pen publishes the Molly Smith’s and the standalones. And then Orca publishes the Rapid Reads book. And I have a three book contract with Penguin for a new series. It’s a very light mystery series set in the States. It is a cozy, not everyone knows what a cozy is. It’s with NAL/Penguin. I’m calling myself Eva Gates, that’s my name. The books are the ‘Lighthouse Library’ series. Mine is set in a lighthouse that’s been turned into a library.

SB: Has that been a different experience for you, working with Penguin?

VD: I’ve actually enjoyed that, although working with the publisher, not really, as I just finished the first book and don’t have any edits back or anything like that. But I’ve enjoyed writing those a lot, I really have.

SB: Is it because they’re modern? Or lighter?

VD: Because they’re lighter, there’s no emotional intensity to them, there’s not intended to be, so I’m not plumbing the emotional depths.

SB: What kind of schedule will we see from you with books over the next couple years?

VD: I certainly still want to write the Molly Smith series. And we’ll see what happens with the Klondikes in terms of my schedule. The cozies will be my priority for the next couple of years. One every six months, so that’s kind of tight.   

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