MA: MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone! I’m joined today by mystery author Debbi Mack who has one published novel, IDENTITY CRISIS, which she describes as a hard-boiled mystery. She’s also had short stories published in the CHESAPEAKE CRIMES anthology in 2004 and in Vol. II, No. 3 of The Back Alley, an e-zine at http://www.backalleywebzine.com/. Her latest short story will appear in CHESAPEAKE CRIMES 4, to be issued by Wildside Press in March 2010. Debbi also works as a freelance writer and researcher, and was a reporter for one of the Dow Jones news wires. Before that, she practiced law for nine years.
Welcome, Debbi! Did you always want to write, or is this something that you became interested in later in life?
DM: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I tried to write my first novel at age 10. (Wrote one chapter and stopped when I realized writing a novel was hard. :)) I ended up majoring in journalism in college. Instead of pursuing a writing career, I went to law school (seemed like the right thing to do at the time). After practicing law for nine years, I decided to make a career switch to freelance writing. I also started writing fiction, with serious intent to get published. This was in 1995. My first short story was published nine years later, in the CHESAPEAKE CRIMES anthology. This was my proverbial big break. I submitted my novel manuscript to the anthology’s publisher, and got my first book contract. (Ironically, this was both good and bad for me. The publisher released my novel in June 2005, but started having financial problems nine months later and stopped paying its authors royalties. The authors began leaving the fold in droves. I decided I had to cut my ties, too. So, I got my rights back, tried to shop the out-of-print novel around (with no success–publishers generally weren’t doing reprints of new author titles), and finally decided I’d reissue the novel myself through Lulu.com.
MA: Well, you certainly had a roller coaster ride in your writing career! What made you choose to write mystery novels?
DM: I’m not sure if I chose to write them or they chose me. I read lots of novels and the market for novels, while extremely competitive, is greater than for short stories (although, I’ve published a handful of those, too). I’ve considered doing screenwriting and have written one feature film script, the script for a TV pilot and the script for a one-act musical that I keep in the proverbial drawer. But it’s even harder to break into the film business than publishing, and if you want a career as a TV writer, the conventional wisdom is that you must move to LA (which isn’t an option for me).
MA: I imagine as a lawyer you experienced some things that later provided good grist for the writing mill. Did your law career help shape your writing in any way?
DM: My experience as a lawyer has inspired some of my story ideas, though nothing I’ve written has been taken straight from real life. I’d always wanted to write private eye stories. But there were so many hardboiled female PIs by the time I got around to writing fiction, I decided to make my protagonist a bit different by making her a lawyer who investigates mysteries connected with her cases. I’m not the first to do this, actually. I was inspired by the work of Judith Van Giesen (author of the Neil Hamel series) and, later, by Mercedes Lambert (author of the Whitney Logan series), both of whom have written hardboiled mysteries in which attorneys acted as investigators. My characters tend to be amalgams of the traits I’ve seen in others. Some of them have characteristics of various people I know, but I wouldn’t say any of them has actually been based on one particular person.
MA: So tell us about your writing projects so far.
DM: My one (and so far, only) novel is IDENTITY CRISIS. It’s a hardboiled mystery, in which a female lawyer, Stephanie Ann “Sam” McRae investigates murder and identity theft. It starts when a homicide detective and an FBI agent show up at her office and tell her one of her clients is not only missing, but a “person of interest” in her ex-boyfriend’s murder. Then, Sam learns that someone’s tried to steal her identity. As Sam looks for her missing client, she finds out the client may have been the one who attempted identity theft against her (along with many others). She also runs afoul of the Mob, who’s looking for her client, too. The story is mainly a private eye-style who-dunnit, with a bit of action/suspense and lots of plot twists.
MA: That sounds pretty interesting, and perhaps not so far-fetched given the identity theft problem these days! Tell me more about Sam.
DM: Sam developed based in part on my own experiences and in part on the conventions of the private eye genre. Some of her character traits come from myself and other female lawyers I’ve known, but a lot of her is simply a product of my imagination. Sam’s strengths are her loyalty to clients, high ethical standards, wit, sympathy for the underdog, the tendency to question authority and her ability to reason and deal with difficult situations. Her weaknesses include difficulty forming meaningful relationships (especially with men), intimacy and commitment issues, excessive stubbornness and lack of willingness to compromise. Some of her strengths, when taken to extremes, could arguably be seen as weaknesses (for instance, when she questions authority so much, it makes her work more difficult).
MA: Does she encounter a consistent nemesis, you know, one of those perpetual bad guys who always seems to pop up at odd times?
DM: Sam doesn’t really have a recurring nemesis comparable to Sherlock’s Moriarty. However, Sam does face a continuing antagonist in the police. (She’s a former public defender, who tends to distrust authority figures–especially the police.) As I had originally envisioned it, her biggest antagonist was going to be a homicide detective who had a bad history with Sam from her days as a public defender, when she exonerated a man tried for killing the detective’s fiancé. I’ve written two more stories in which Sam and the detective seem to be reaching a kind of uneasy truce on this matter (maybe even coming to like each other better). However, Sam’s married lover in IDENTITY CRISIS (a prosecutor) is turning out to be more of a continuing antagonist than I’d expected when I started writing these stories.
MA: I find your description of the stories’ evolution fascinating…almost as if the characters are willing their own plot! So what’s next? What will your characters allow you to do may be a better way to phrase it!
DM: My hope is that I can find another traditional press to take on (what I hope will be) the Sam McRae mystery series. I’ve also written a standalone humorous crime caper (similar in tone to Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard’s work) and I’m currently working on a thriller (also a standalone). I’d love to find a publishing home for them, too. Otherwise, I’ll continue to work on more short stories and other projects (including Sam McRae novels) and keep pitching them to agents and publishers.
MA: So do Sam and friends get to stick around in your future work?
DM: I certainly hope to build a series around Sam McRae, so naturally various friends, associates, rivals, etc., would appear in future books. I think that’s part of the attraction of a mystery series. Recurring characters provide continuity and let you watch the protagonist grow and change, in relation to others. Plus I think a lawyer protagonist has great potential to get into situations that lend themselves to mystery plots.
MA: I must admit that you are very plucky in the way you’ve handled your initial bad experiences in publishing. I think many people would have thrown in the towel after what you endured. Any advice for aspiring writers?
DM: For one thing, I feel lucky to be able to do this. Writing is my life’s dream and entertaining readers is my goal. Whatever it takes to do that, I’ll do it. My experiences to date have been far from easy, but if you intend to succeed in this business, you just have to keep going no matter what. I try not to look back in anger or bitterness, but look forward with all the hope and energy I can muster.
I hope that despite all the hurdles one must overcome as (essentially) a self-published author, that people will give me the benefit of the doubt. If you read my book’s Amazon reviews, you’ll see the vast majority are highly favorable. I’ve also gotten some excellent reviews in both online and print publications.
MA: Thanks for coming aboard today, Debbi! Please visit Debbi Mack’s website for more information about her and her writing: http://www.debbimack.com and her personal blog: http://midlistlife.wordpress.com