Donnelly, Deborah: Author interview
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Deborah Donnelly is a sea captain's daughter who grew up in Panama, Cape Cod, and points in between. She attended Macalester College in St. Paul, and earned a masters in library science at the University of Washington. After that she occupied herself with several occupations, including work as an academic librarian in Walla Walla, an executive speechwriter in Seattle, and a nanny in Singapore. Along the way she wrote science fiction stories that appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, and Universe magazines. Then she and her best friend got married (though not to each other), which led to the creation of Carnegie Kincaid, bridal consultant and amateur sleuth, in the Wedding Planner Mysteries from Bantam Dell. A long-time Seattleite, and a gratefully healthy breast cancer survivor, Deborah now lives in the sunshine and sagebrush of Idaho with her writer husband and their two Welsh corgis.
1. Can you tell readers a little about your Wedding Planner Mysteries?
They're amateur sleuth tales, heavy on the romance and comedy, light on the ballistics and blood spatters. But not light as in pure fluff; I care about all of my characters, and I try to make them three-dimensional, even the murderers. In fact, my plotting process begins with the fact that murder is the ultimate violation of the social contract, so who commits that violation in this story, and why?
My heroine, Carnegie Kincaid, is a thirty-something wedding planner who lives on a houseboat in Seattle. (I got there way before "Sleepless in Seattle", by the way!) She's trying to stay out of the corporate world by running her own business; I've done that myself--a freelance writing business--so I can relate. Carnegie is a lot like me, tough-minded but soft-hearted, only she's younger and braver and far more foolhardy. She has a 'family' of colleagues--Boris the Mad Russian florist, the gorgeous gay caterer Joe Solveto, Juice Newton the gothic punk wedding cake baker--as well as her seventy-something business partner Eddie Breen, and her best friend Lily James, who's a librarian and single mom. And of course there's a new cast of additional characters with every wedding.
2. You have a new book coming out soon, the fourth in the series. What's in store for Carnegie Kincaid in your next installment?
In the fourth book, DEATH TAKES A HONEYMOON, Carnegie travels to Sun Valley to help with the wedding of an old friend. The friend is now a self-centered TV star, and the bridegroom is a studly smokejumper who's an old flame of Carnegie's. Then there's a smokejumping accident that may have been murder, as well as an approaching forest fire, and the complications continue from there. I toured a couple of smokejumper bases while writing this book - it's amazing, what these people do!
That book comes out in April, but I'm already planning the next one, called YOU MAY NOW KILL THE BRIDE. It's set in the San Juan Islands, up in the cold waters between Washington State and British Columbia. The scenery so gorgeous, it's almost a character in itself. The wedding in this story is a modest one, for Carnegie's best friend Lily, and I find I'm enjoying the change.
3. In Best Man to Die Carnegie's explanations about the origin of her first name are repeatedly interrupted by other characters with a dismissive "Whatever." So what's the story behind your selection of her name?
I had a writer friend named Diane Hall, and we used to joke that if she had a nickname a la Indiana Jones, it would have to be Carnegie. Diane helped me cook up the first book in this series, and I named the character after her. Kind of goofy, but hey, it was my book...
4. You have a fascinating resume of seemingly mismatched careers, including stints as an executive speech writer and as an "improbable nanny" in Singapore. I'm guessing there are some interesting stories here. Do tell. And please explain also what you were doing in Panama as a kid.
I started out as a librarian, but I've always loved to write, and when I ran a small research library for a bank I began writing for the CEO. After I left the corporate world to write fiction, I continued freelancing as a speechwriter - which pays a hell of a lot better than being an author!
The nanny role came when a friend of mine, a single mom who worked for the State Department, got her first foreign posting to Singapore. She offered to pay my air fare if I went with her to tend her six-year-old daughter for the first few months, till they got settled. I know very little about children, though I did learn that Katy would cooperate with bedtime and so forth if I talked just like Data in Star Trek: Next Generation. Both Katy and Singapore proved fascinating.
As for Panama, my dad was a Panama Canal pilot at the time. We also lived in Venezuela when I was in grade school, so I acquired a taste for travel early on.
5. You've also published science fiction in the past. Do you have any plans to write non-Wedding Planner books in the near future?
Maybe not near--my contract with Bantam Dell extends to a sixth book--but sometime in the future I'd like to try a mainstream novel. Or maybe more SF, you never know.
6. I'm always hoping that there's some piece of advice out there that will suddenly make the whole business of writing absurdly clear to me and I'll be able to construct a good story. So I ask innocent-seeming questions like, how do you go about plotting your books?
I find writing to be absurdly difficult, actually, but I do have a plotting process I like. After brainstorming a bunch of ideas and settling on one, I lay out the plot on index cards all over my dining room table. One scene to a card, with the cards color-coded: pink for romance, green for comedy, blue for wedding stuff, yellow for new characters, etc. Then I squint at the table and get a sense of the story's flow, whether too many new characters appear at once, or long stretches of comedy are unbroken by action, or whatever. Some writers just wing it, but I need a plan.
7. Or questions like, what is the most important advice you would offer to would-be writers?
Hmm...I'd say don't do it unless you really love it. It's hard and solitary and not all that profitable, but if you love it, it's too good to miss.
8. Carnegie Kincaid suffers from the Jessica Fletcher (of Murder She Wrote) syndrome: people seem to drop dead around her at an alarming rate.
It's true, but how else do you have an amateur sleuth series? Some authors comment on their sleuth's history ("Let's bring in dear old Miss Marple, she's helped the police before") but I've gone with the 'pretend it hasn't happened' approach. No one within my fictional world ever points out that Carnegie sure does stumble across a lot of corpses. Just like characters in thrillers never say, "I can't shoot a gun in here, innocent people with no health insurance might get hurt!" Not to mention the movie characters who never say, "Isn't it odd that all of us have perfect teeth and high cheekbones?" Audiences just go along with the premise and have fun.
9. What was the best book you read in 2004, and what was so good about it?
Geraldine Brooks' "Year of Wonders," about a medieval English village infected with the Black Plague that voluntarily isolates itself to keep the disease from spreading. It's beautifully written, close to poetry, and the story of ordinary people facing up to extraordinary peril is inspiring. Although Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto" is right up there, too. She takes a potentially sensational hostage situation and handles it with such deftness and poignancy. I lived inside that book.
10. What are you reading now, and what's next?
I'm reading Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City." I loved his "Isaac's Storm," and certainly the details about the Chicago World's Fair in this one are fascinating. But I'm having some trouble with the parallel story about the heinous multiple murderer. Ironic, since I write murder mysteries, but this is the stuff of nightmare. I write the stuff of daydream.
I'm diving into my next book now, and when I'm busy writing I find it hard to read other people's fiction. So what's next is probably a stack of magazines like The New Yorker and Cook's Illustrated. A bowl of popcorn and the new Cook's Illustrated, that's my idea of a good brain-soothing time.