Here we go... Today's post is my interview with mystery novelist Margot Kinberg, an academic who has never killed a student, but I bet there were times she wanted to.
Jill: Publish or Perish and the Joel Williams character... come on, admit it, his name was inspired by
Billy Joel, wasn’t it?
Margot: LOL! Of course Joel Williams’ name was inspired by Billy Joel! What’s so funny is that you are only the second person who’s spotted that, and I think most people who are kind enough to read my blog know that I’m a Billy Joel fan.
Jill: Joel Williams is a former cop. What advantages do you have as a writer in having a main character who is NOT in uniform?
Margot: I think it gives me several advantages. One of them is that a lot of people, both in real life and crime fiction, don’t trust the police. Having a character who isn’t a cop can make people more comfortable and trusting. That lets me create more believable conversations where witnesses and suspects say things either to Williams or in his hearing that they wouldn’t say to the cops. Another advantage is that since I’m not an expert on police procedure (although I do try really hard to be authentic), I don’t have to rely as much on my less-than-perfect knowledge of it as I write.
Jill: Nick Merrill is (was) involved with two women. How could you be sure as you were writing this that female readers wouldn’t be turned off? After all, readers need to care about the victim in order to stick around to watch the solution unfold.
Margot: A good point! One can never be 100% sure, of course. But I tried to do a few things to avoid making Nick out to be a complete misogynist or otherwise really off-putting. First, I tried to make it clear that he doesn’t take either relationship lightly, nor is he abusive to either woman. He’s genuinely in a quandary and is trying to think of the least hurtful thing to do. Also, he makes a sincere effort to set things right with Angel Shaftson. He tries hard to respect her point of view. Carrie Woods’, too, for that matter. He’s self-involved when it comes to his relationships but he’s not heartless.
Jill: Your books are set on a university campus. You teach at a university. How much does your own experience inform your setting? (I hope none of your students has ever died as a result of foul play!)
Margot: No, to my knowledge, none of my students has been a casualty, except at grading time ;-). My university experience has actually had a lot to do with the setting I chose, though. I’ve been on and around college campuses for decades. I’m familiar with a lot of the “behind the scenes” things that go on at universities and I know the kinds of people you’ll often find there. So in that very general sense, my experiences have directly informed my writing. I will say, though, that the buildings, descriptions, and characters aren’t drawn directly from real life. It’s probably more accurate to say they’re composites of lots of different people and places I’ve known. And of course, a shot of imagination ;-).
Jill: B Very Flat is a mystery set against the background of music, and I know you’re a musician
yourself. How much of you is in this book?
Margot: The truth is, there’s some of me in everything I write. In B-Very Flat, I definitely tapped into my love for music and my experiences with music and musical artists at different places I’ve taught. Most campuses with a music department, for instance, have rehearsal and practise rooms like the ones in the novel, and I’ve spent my share of time in them. I also tapped into my own undergraduate experience. Again, not with any specific character, but more the general sense of what campus life is like for undergraduates.
Jill: Name three mystery authors who are/were your biggest influences.
Margot: Only three?? Hmm….. Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter and….let’s see…Michael Connelly, I think. And without a doubt Dorothy Sayers - oh wait, that’s four – rats! There are a lot of other authors, too, whose work I very much admire and from whom I would so much like to learn. But those three have each taught me so much about the really well-written mystery. For example, I’ve learned a lot about plotting and the mystery itself (and so much else, too!) from Agatha Christie’s work. From Dexter I’ve learned about making a university/college setting realistic. I’ve also learned a lot from him about solid intellectual puzzles. From Connelly I’m learning so much about character development and tying the various threads of a story together. And Connelly’s setting descriptions are so nicely done, too. As I said, though, there are so many other truly fine authors out there that I really couldn’t say that only those three influence me.
Jill: What do you as an educator (not a novelist) think is the BIGGEST problem these days in the world of post-secondary academe?
Margot: As an educator, I would say that one very big problem is what I see as the commercialisation and the increasing “corporate mentality” of many institutions. Instead of an emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge and the support of those who are acquiring it, the focus (and the structure) in many institutions is becoming far more business- and profit-oriented. Only a fool forgets that higher education is a business, but when that mentality takes precedence over the intellectual life of an institution, then the entire institution suffers. And one thing that suffers the most is students’ ability to critically evaluate, to develop themselves, and to explore their worlds.
This emphasis on the commercial has also led to far too many students who choose a program not because they want to learn but because they want their “ticket punched.”
Higher education is under a tremendous amount of financial pressure given the current economy. So it’s understandable that Boards of Trustees and other leaders send the message that profit is important. But all too often, intellectual rigour, the development of the self, and the opportunity to take the time to explore knowledge are sacrificed.
Jill: Which is more fun for you to write (and why): dialogue or description?
Margot: I like writing dialogue. I think it’s because I have a background in linguistics, and have always been fascinated by language and the way that people use it. One learns so much about a character from the way she or he speaks, too, so dialogue is also an effective way to share characters with readers.
Jill: What is the hardest thing for you about plotting a mystery?
Margot: The hardest thing for me about plotting a mystery is coming up with realistic ways for the mystery to be revealed. I’m not much of a fan of “the long arm of coincidence,” so it’s important to me to be sure that all of information that Joel Williams gets (or the police, etc.) comes naturally and isn’t contrived.
Jill: What can you tell me about your current work in progress?
Margot: Thanks for asking! I’ve just finished the manuscript for the third Joel Williams mystery. This one, unlike the first two novels, takes place mostly in and around Philadelphia. Williams and two research colleagues are doing a study of an alternative school program. In the course of that study, they find out about the two-year-old death of one of the students in that program. At the time, the death was put down to a tragic accident, but the research team suspects that it was murder. As the researchers get closer to finding out what happened to the student, they also discover that the killer will do anything to cover up what happened.
Jill: What is one thing about you that one of your fans/readers would be surprised to know about you as a novelist?
Margot: I’m really a very non-violent person. I’m not squeamish, but I don’t like violence at all, even though I write about it.
Jill: How detailed are your outlines? Or do you make outlines? Tell me a bit about your own process for writing a whodunit.
Margot: I always start with the victim. After all, it’s nearly always something about the victim that caused her or his death. I think about who that person was and where and how that person lived. Then I think about who would have wanted a person like that dead. Once I’ve got that settled, I think about the different people in the victim’s life, and those become the suspects and other characters. But it all starts with the victim.
Once I have my ideas for characters and major events, I do outline. But it’s not a minute-by-minute outline; it’s sketchier than that. That’s because as I go along, I’ll think of other characters or places that fit in, and I write them in, too. To me, it’s a workable balance between planning and allowing good, spontaneous ideas to work their way in, too.
Once I have the outline, I start writing. Sometimes the story morphs as I go along; sometimes not. Then, when it’s done, I revise and edit for obvious problems. Then it’s time for my first readers to take a look. When I get their feedback, I use it to revise and edit again, and then proofread.
Jill: Final thoughts...?
Margot: Thank you so much for hosting me, Jill! I’ve really enjoyed the experience, and I wish you the very best in your own writing.
Margot's blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
Margot Kinberg on AMAZON