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Exclusive Author Interview

Sheila Connolly

Irish American, Agatha Award-nominated author Sheila Connolly (GSA ’79) gives LitVote an exclusive author interview.

 

LitVote: Sheila, your Irish mystery Buried in a Bog hit number 14 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Sheila: It did, which made me feel really good. Actually you don’t hear until the end of the day, so you just sit there chewing your knuckles. The BookScan numbers are the Bible. My last one in The Orchard Series came close: it was #25th last year.  I knew the trend was there, but the Irish one was out of the blue. It’s a new series. You never know with that. I guess there are a lot of Irish people in this country.

LitVote: How did you get the idea for the story?

Sheila: I wanted to capture the feeling on my most recent Irish trip to a village with a population of 200 that had a lot of Connollys. It took a while to convince my publisher that the world was ready for it. It helped that my editor has an Irish father. But even so, Berkeley wasn’t sure they wanted a foreign set cozy mystery. Now they’re doing quite a few.

LitVote: They’ve jumped on the trend already.

Sheila: Yes, but mine’s first…a contemporary cozy set in a foreign country.

LitVote:What about your characters?

Sheila: It’s always risky when writing to try to keep away from caricatures when people are expecting all these people throwing shamrocks around or talking about leprechauns, which is not true, and I’ve been there enough in that village just talking to normal people that I hoped I had a sense of how they act, how they respond. My main character is an American who is raised in the Boston Irish community and is more or less orphaned. It sounds silly, but it was her grandmother’s dying wish that she should see Ireland once, and her grandmother had left just enough money for a plane ticket and made sure that Laura had Irish citizenship…because her father was Irish. So Laura very grudgingly goes to Ireland completely unprepared for what she finds. She’s always been on her own, she’s not very educated, she has no career path, she’s kind of drifting and then lands in this small town, and suddenly, it’s all handed to her. Plus family she’d never expected—her grandmother didn’t talk about it much. She eventually got fictitious family trees for the book: basically everybody is related somehow, which happens to be reality.

LitVote: Wow.

Sheila: Yeah.

LitVote: So suddenly she’s in the middle of a big family.

Sheila: Yes, and everybody knows your business and knows who you know and knows the entire history, you know, ‘I was at the party when your grandmother left in 195whatever.’ I’ve run into that. I’ve run into total strangers in the cemetery in the hill country somewhere who said, ‘Oh yeah, I know your second cousin.’ It’s a small country and memories are long. It’s not American. We are so much larger and so much more mobile that we don’t think about a place where people have been in the same place for hundreds of years and they know the history and are related to everybody within a five mile radius. Having said that, there are old family feuds between people of the same name who live a few miles apart, and consider themselves very distinct families.

LitVote: In that case, they probably ignore the ties between the two families.

Sheila: Or they don’t talk about them, but they keep an eye on the other side. It’s very different. I find it intriguing. Apparently it struck a chord with other readers, thank goodness.

LitVote: What made you want to become a writer in the first place?

Sheila: Well, I’ve always read. But I went through multiple other interesting careers, some of which involved writing. I was an art historian way back…I was a grant writer for a time, which I always thought was very creative, and a genealogist, which means you follow a story and summarize it for other people…. Writing was always sort of backburner.

LitVote: Was your husband supportive?

Sheila: He reads a lot. He’s a scientist, so he doesn’t write. It was certainly helpful to have his income, because you don’t make a lot of money when you start writing. It took a while, but he says he’s proud of me to other people. He doesn’t always say it to me. I treated it like a business in the sense that, you know, If I’m going to do this, I’m going to give it everything. It’s not just a nice hobby that I dabble at. I’m going to take it seriously, and I’m going to learn the marketing and the promotional side of it and the industry as a whole, which helps. You don’t just sit back and write a book and throw it out there and hope it flies cause it won’t.

LitVote: What has happened to your first books since your recent success?

Sheila: It’s hard to say. They’ve all held sort of steady…. We only get a royalty statement once every six months. They’re half an inch thick and say, ‘OK, you sold three in Canada.’ So it’s very hard to check trends. It’s hard to know when another book comes out whether it impacts the first one…. It can’t hurt, but it depends on whether all those earlier books are still in print. There’s no guaranty that the publisher will keep them in print…. All of mine are still in print, though.

LitVote: Why publish under a different name? Isn’t the whole thing about building band recognition around your name as a writer? Doesn’t that diffuse the energy?

Sheila: Berkeley Prime Crime does a lot of mysteries. They have funds to fill year round. They do a lot of for-hire work, which is a great way for a total unknown writer to break in. They audition you, and even if your name isn’t on it, they know that you’ve produced it. My first one was about glassblowing in Arizona. I knew more about glass blowing than Arizona. But it’s like an apprenticeship program. You prove that you can produce a book in a timely fashion and respond well to criticism and all that. I had the first contract under my own name before the first pseudonym book was even on the shelf. So, I’d paid my dues, and of course, once you’ve got a moderately successful series, they’re more willing to give you another one, and another one.

LitVote: How about your blog?

Sheila: Which one? I write on three blogs at the moment. Poe’s Deadly Daughters is one, which is a fairly serious one…and that was the first one I participated in, and that’s enjoyable because it does take a serious look at the industry and the writing process. The next one I joined was the Mystery Lover’s Kitchen [front page, right column] because Berkeley does a lot of books that include recipes… For the glassblowing book, I created a character who hated to cook, so I actually have a recipe in the first book about how to open a box of macaroni and cheese. On Mystery Lover’s Kitchen, we have a wonderful time. We talk about food. We talk about trends. We have a lot of fun with it…and our characters cook or don’t cook. And then the third blog is called Killer Characters, in which we speak as our characters. There’s a changing roster of characters. Now that one has about 30 people in it, and we try to have somebody for each day of the month… I also write some short stories and some eBooks. I just can’t stop myself. That’s what I discovered when I started writing. Once I opened the tap, it just kept on going.

LitVote: What are the philosophical underpinnings of your novels?

Sheila: I write cozy mysteries by choice. I like them. It’s what I’ve read most of my entire reading history. There’s a wide range within that. Some of them are like candy, you know, they’re light, they’re cheerful, and people eat them up, literally. They wait for the next one. There are some that are a little darker, and you have a little more substance to them, and I try to lean in that direction. I was thrilled when one of the reviewers who reads cozys online recently said I’m writing meaty cozys. I said, ‘Yes!’ I try to make a point in this, not hitting people over the head with it, but there are issues involved, most often connections, how you become part of a community, where you fit. It’s sort of a low-key thread, but it runs through a lot of them, you know, ‘What am I doing here?’ And how you make friends… The Orchard Series, I took the standard leadin: I took somebody who lost her job, her boyfriend, her apartment, and dumped her in a place she didn’t know at all, and of course I gave her a body in the backyard. She’s introducing herself to the community in a very natural way. She meets a couple of people in each book, and you build on those relationships, so it’s a natural progression.

LitVote: What exactly is a cozy?

Sheila: Agatha Christie is the great role model. Most of them are a female amateur sleuth in a small community…limited violence/gore, often pets, but you can’t harm a pet or any children. They’re things your grandmother and teenage daughter can read, and marketed primarily for women.

LitVote: Have you gotten much support from the HAA discussion group Harvard Writers and Publishers?

Sheila: I know a couple of people on there… The image of the writer sitting in a garret in isolation is long gone. We all share information. I don’t think our publishers and editors realize how much information we’re sharing. We all talk to each other. We know what’s working, we know what’s selling. There are no secrets. That’s a very supportive community… It’s a great support group… I do have a notebook. You never know when you’re going to stumble on something. It’s, ‘Oh wow, I can use that.’ And then you do need to get at least some of it down. I take a lot of pictures of things that look interesting, suggest something.

LitVote: Do you write outlines?

Sheila: No. You’ve heard the term, Plotters VS. Panthers. The people who make meticulous outlines know exactly where they’re going, well I’m not one of them. I have a general idea. I often have a couple of pivotal scenes or just vivid scenes, and when I started, I tended to bounce around more. Now I’m more linear. I want to see the story evolve organically. And then you end up changing things all the time anyway. People walk in, people don’t work, ‘Oh, I need somebody else there because only that person has the information.’  It evolves, and it also helps to stay in the head of your character. I just love what I’m doing. I want to write. I do this seven days a week by choice… I want to be doing this.

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Sheila’s novel, Buried In a Bog hit #14 on the New York Times Bestseller List. She introduces a brand-new series set amidst the hidden secrets of a small village in County Cork, Ireland…

Honoring the wish of her late grandmother, Maura Donovan visits the small Irish village where her Gran was born—though she never expected to get bogged down in a murder mystery. Nor had she planned to take a job in one of the local pubs, but she finds herself excited to get to know the people who knew her Gran.

In the pub, she’s swamped with drink orders as everyone in town gathers to talk about the recent discovery of a nearly one-hundred-year-old body in a nearby bog. When Maura realizes she may know something about the dead man—and that the body’s connected to another, more recent, death—she fears she’s about to become mired in a homicide investigation. After she discovers the death is connected to another from almost a century earlier, Maura has a sinking feeling she may really be getting in over her head…

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