ABOUT JULIE HYZY:
Anthony and Barry Award winner Julie Hyzy is the national bestselling author of the White House Chef Mystery series featuring the intrepid Olivia (Ollie) Paras, and the Manor House Mystery series featuring mansion curator Grace Wheaton. Julie’s latest AFFAIRS OF STEAK (the fifth installment of the White House Chef Mystery series) was released January 3, 2012.
The majority of authors I’ve interviewed base the protagonists in their novels (particularly their profession) on themselves. You're an exception to this—you've never been a chef or a curator, in fact you've worked mostly in the areas of business and finance. What drew you to choose culinary and arts themes?
Here's what happened: I didn't choose the culinary theme, it chose me. That sounds like a joke, but it's the truth. A wonderful gentleman, the late Marty Greenberg, asked me if I'd like to write a series about the first female executive chef in the White House. Are you kidding? I said "ABSOLUTELY!" He didn't give me a series bible, or force any specifics. He just encouraged me to run with the concept. I did, and I have to admit I've learned a lot about cooking (and a lot about how much I enjoy it) in the process.
With regard to the Grace series (Manor House mysteries), I adore all things antique. This all started when my husband and I were first married and his mother told us we could have the old dining room table in her basement. She'd painted it white and it was in pretty bad shape. My father-in-law took it upon himself to strip and refinish the old oak table into the stunningly gorgeous piece it is now. I fell in love with that table and decorated my house around it. I just love the idea of old furniture and the stories pieces could tell. I'm also enthralled to tour grand homes like the Biltmore Estate, Hearst Castle, and Ca d'Zan. Setting a mystery in such surroundings brings me absolute joy.
Many authors suggest new writers write what they know, particularly when it comes to profession. Has it been more difficult for you writing about professions other than your own?
I wrote a couple of novels before WHChef and the Manor House mysteries. In them, I wrote more of what I knew. I set them in the Chicago area and used personal experiences—working in an ice cream parlour, working in the business world, painting a mural, watching alleged embezzlement close up—to craft these tales. I think they turned out pretty well. They're out of print now and I brought them back as ebooks recently. But, in writing them, I realized there was so much more out there. I learned that what really drives a novel is the character and his or her relationships. Although mystery is usually at the forefront of my stories, it's truly the characters' lives that make the stories real. Placing a character in a new environment—one that I've never experienced personally—is enthralling. That gives me the opportunity to learn something new, to have a new experience myself. Creating characters gives me the chance to vicariously live many, many lives. Although I'm required to do a *lot* of research to get details just right, it isn't difficult, it's exhilarating.
Has the amount of research diminished as you get further into your series?
Not really. The thing I discovered about research is that the more you do, the more you realize you don't know, which means there's more to be done. And every single time I dive into research for a book, I find some odd, fun tidbit that turns into a story idea. I may not be able to use all these ideas, but they fuel the creative process. So much fun. The only problem with research is that it's hard to pull myself away and return to the keyboard. It's a whole lot easier to read than it is to write.
Despite not sharing their professions, what qualities do you share with your protagonists Grace and Olivia?
They're both extremely polite, which I am... sometimes overly so. All three of us are always willing to help, and we feel better when we're busy. We also all share an optimistic world view. We're different in that they're both younger than I am. Ollie can be a bit of a smart-aleck at times. I'm not at all. It takes me months to respond smartly to a cut down. And, of course, by then it's moot. Fortunately for my characters, they can come up with quick quips (which take me weeks to come up with - then endlessly reword). Grace is less sure of herself than Ollie is. She comes from a different background, without as strong a nuclear family as Ollie's. Grace also has a pretty bad track record when it comes to romantic relationships. Ollie, on the other hand, chooses wisely.
You've always had a passion for fiction, but put it on the back-burner for your career. What made you finally decide to write a novel?
I have always wanted to write. When I was little I wrote my own mysteries and neighborhood newspaper (which my dad copied for me to distribute and sell), then moved into science fiction for a while, then back to mystery. I can't imagine *not* writing. As an adult, I started out with short stories. To my incredible surprise, an editor liked them and several Star Trek shorts were published in Pocket anthologies. A writer friend suggested I try my hand at a novel. I was sure I couldn't stick with it, but... again, unfailingly polite... I agreed to try. I was amazed at how much fun the longer format was to write. So energizing! That first manuscript became my first novel, ARTISTIC LICENSE. It's a standalone because when I finished writing I was so sure that no one would ever want to read it that I tied everything up in a bow. When the characters finish their adventure, they're done. No more. As soon as I'd completed it, I realized I wanted to do it again. That's when I started the Alex St. James series. And after that, White House Chef. I adore writing novels. It's just the most fun.
Did you begin working while still holding a full-time job? If so, what was your writing schedule?
I was a stay-at-home mom for a number of years. When my daughters got to the age where they were relatively self-reliant, it was either "get a job" or "start writing in earnest." I'm lucky my husband supports my writing. For a while there, when he lost his job, I took a position as a financial advisor (series 7 plus a few others, for those who know what that is). The work was interesting, the paycheck a big help, but I longed to get back to writing full time. Fortunately, my husband landed and I'm back home at the keyboard.
Your first series, the multi-award winning White House Chef series, takes place in Washington DC, a city very different from all the others. Have you lived or spent a lot of time there?
I've never lived in D.C. or anywhere except the Chicago area, but I take every opportunity to visit. Malice Domestic, the annual conference celebrating the traditional mystery, is held in the D.C. area every year and I always schedule a few extra days for D.C. exploration and a White House tour (if I can manage one).
Since Olivia works at the White House, do you try to touch on, or try to avoid, dealing with the current political climate?
I completely avoid political topics. In fact, when I talk about warring countries I always make up those countries' names. I never assign a political party to my presidents or their friends or enemies. I just think everything is so divisive these days and I'd prefer to live in a world where people think rationally and are willing to work together. Since that doesn't seem to be possible in the real world these days, I invent such a climate for Ollie and her friends. They have enough trouble dodging assassins, uncovering conspiracies, and thwarting terrorists. They don't need the kinds of political problems we're dealing
Tell us a little about your latest, AFFAIRS OF STEAK, out this month.
In AFFAIRS OF STEAK, Ollie's working with Peter Everett Sargeant, the White House sensitivity director. If you've read any of the earlier novels, you know how horrible a situation this is for both of them. They despise one another. And yet, after witnessing something that puts their lives in jeopardy, they have to learn to work together if they want to survive. I had a *lot* of fun writing this one. Peter's everybody's favorite love-to-hate character. It was so enjoyable to explore his background and find out what makes him tick.
What's next for Grace and the Manor House Mystery series?
GRACE AMONG THIEVES comes out in June. I'm so happy that they kept the title! Items at Marshfield Manor begin to disappear and Bennett, the mansion's owner, suspects his stepdaughter is guilty of the thefts. But then a visitor is murdered, and another shot and injured. Grace finds herself smack dab in the middle of solving the mystery—both to unmask the killer and to recover Bennett's stolen treasures.
What's the best advice you can give a new writer or what do you wish you had known when you started? Do you have any tips or tricks for marketing books? How do you feel about using social media to promote your work?
Write every day. Seriously. I wrote every single day from January 1, 2002 through January 1, 2007. Every day. No misses. I can't even begin to tell you how much that did for me. We talk about exercising our muscles and how they get flabby from lack of use. Brains are the same. The more we use, the more is available to us. I've since decided to take weekends and heavy-promotion weeks off from writing, but I always feel the "soreness" when I go back. Writing every day makes the words flow easier (and better) even if it doesn't feel like it at the time. Write. Every. Day.
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QUICKIES WITH JULIE:
Writing ambience: My desk is a mess, the house is completely quiet. No music. Walls are covered with maps, posters, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, and reminders of things to do. My window shade is down so I can’t see out the window and I’m surrounded on all sides by piles of books, papers, and all the blasted cords necessary to run computers, printers, and other 21st century necessities.
Reading now: THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot.
Book or eReader? Book.
Who should play her protagonists onscreen:
Ollie: America Ferrera. Grace: A.J. Cook (J.J. from Criminal Minds).
Favorite protagonist (other than her own): Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
Favorite big or small screen detective: Does Dexter count? love him. If not, Columbo. Or Castle.
Where she hasn’t been that she’d like to travel: Machu Picchu.
Cats or dogs: Both. My beloved black lab, K’Ehleyr, died about two years ago. We now have a couple of cats that aren’t really ours, they belong to two daughters. One is all black, the other a tuxedo. The cats spend enough time here to count as our own, though.
Favorite online resource: The White House Museum.
Favorite independent bookstore: Too many to mention!
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