Interview with Marlene Lee, author of The Absent Woman

General :–

   Do you have a favourite working/writing place? You mention one Coffee house in your author bio  – do the background sounds and outdoor life stimulate rather than distract?

I write at the Lakota Coffeehouse here in Columbia, Missouri, almost always at a table in the back section by the coffee roaster.  Lee, the roast master, is a silent companion.  He makes things go better, not to mention his coffee.  Sometimes I’m distracted, but if the work is going well, a little cocoon is created around me from which I emerge just long enough to be reminded of the real world.

   Can you remember your first/earliest written piece (finished!) and what it was inspired by ?

It was a pair of patriotic poems about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  My wonderful sixth-grade teacher, Miss Mary Benninghoff, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, asked the principal to read them over the loudspeaker during the early morning exercises, and I felt very honoured.  About that time I also started a novel called Judy Goes to College.  As far as I know, she never made it to college; I didn’t finish the book.

Do you have a favourite method of working? i.e.: do you jot down in notebooks first, do you type straight to computer, or other ?

I either write longhand or type straight onto the computer keyboard.  If longhand, I enter it into the computer later.  After I run out of steam, I go back and re-read what preceded it, then the new material again, revising a great deal.  I re-read earlier parts of the book or story over and over, reading aloud (very quietly if I’m at the Lakota, louder if I’m home) and trying to decide if there’s a flow between the old and new writing.  If you count the tiniest sentence and word changes, I probably revise 40 or 50 times.

What is your favourite /least favourite part about writing?

I love to revise.  New material is often daunting and I dread it.  The first 15 minutes of putting down a new scene is torture and I’m sure I’ll never be able to imagine people and actions again.  But something always changes while I wait, and I’m eventually reassured and often thrilled that some unexpected idea came to me.

Your experience in reporting; did this fuel your interest in detective fiction, or were you already inspired from other sources?

I’ve reported more civil lawsuits than criminal, so my career never advanced an interest in crime.  I do believe, however, that seeing so many people over the course of 30 years (attorneys and judges as well as witnesses), listening to them talk, watching their mannerisms, hearing so many of them tell the truth, so many of them lie, I developed a keen interest in human character.  Physically writing their language as they spoke gave me a visceral relationship to lots of different people.

The mystery novella I wrote was the first book (booklet) I wrote, and it was really a warm-up exercise for being a writer.  I don’t read many mysteries, and I’m not a reader who cares about “who did it.”  I like to know why they did it.  That’s probably why I love Simenon; he doesn’t spend too much time on his plot.  I just like wandering through Paris with Monsieur Maigret.  I was very surprised that my editor liked the mystery Three Blind Mice.  I thought it was insignificant compared to my profound and earnest novels.

Do you have a favourite fictional detective? And what do you think is their best ‘case’ ?

I just gave it away: Monsieur Maigret is my favourite fictional detective.  I haven’t read all of his—is it hundreds?—short mystery novels, but I really like The Crossroads which I reviewed for the Holland House Books Website.  The writing is masterful, and the characters and setting are reason enough to read the book.  I can hardly remember what the plot is about.  I think Simenon barely remembered, too.  One book I’ve always planned to read is the one you reviewed for the website: The Moonstone.  It’s a classic and I’ve often read about it, but never actually read it.

Specific to book(s) :

In The Absent Woman :  piano and music are mentioned in the excerpt, – how strong an influence does music have on the writing ? Is there one piece of music particularly associated with the novel? (If filmed, what piano pieces should she be playing ?)

Bach’s clavier music should be playing in the film.  Music is a very important part of The Absent Woman.  I wanted to write about a woman who has a passion to create superb art, and since I didn’t want to write about writing, and I don’t know enough to write about art, I gravitated to music. I’ve played the piano since I was 8 and have personal experience of everything I put down in the novel.  However, my real passion is writing.

In Scoville – the main character is described as both implacable and anonymous … can you enlarge on that? Is he based on/inspired by any earlier detective real or fictional? How conventional or unusual is he?

I find people of few words to be fascinating.  I always wonder how their minds work.  They seem profound, although I don’t know if they’re profound or just quiet.  I like Detective Scoville who is successful but who doesn’t care about his success.  He just does his work.  In fact, he can’t be stopped until he’s completed his job.  He’s barely aware of his own qualities.  He’s the opposite of a narcissist.  He knows more about other people than he knows about himself.  He doesn’t realize how much he knows.  And along with that, he’s tall and sinewy and long-legged and leathery.  And kind of asexual.  He sets me dreaming!  What woman wouldn’t want to conquer the disinterest of a man like that?

Who is your favourite character?

Perhaps Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

What did you most enjoy about writing the book?

Describing the glorious Pacific Northwest.  Reliving the past and all the experiences I had, thanks to my ex-husband, of sailing and blacksmithing and craft fairs and boat-building.  And remembering the abandoned old hotel.  There was such a place and I was inside it several times.

What was the origin/inspiration for the theme of the book(s)?

My own restless nature and search for completion.  The wish to gather fragments into a satisfying whole.

 Do you have any favourite quotes from Scoville/The Absent Woman?

I like Scoville’s laconic remarks.  “Nasty weather.”  “Rough night.”  That sort of thing.  I like it when he’s actually upset, which happens once in the book: “’Here’s the question.’  Scoville betrayed feeling.  ’Why aren’t you helping [me] with this [case]?’”

Is there anything you can share about your character(s) that doesn’t appear in the book?

Humboldt and Maggie are real people.  I loved them dearly.  Humboldt died some years ago.  I’ve kind of lost track of Maggie. The plot of Three Blind Mice is roughly based on a situation they personally knew about in a town where they once lived.

The future of publishing :

Digital, print, audio – which do you think is going to be most prominent ?

I have no idea.  I hope print.  But digital and audio are selling books and fiction and the life of the imagination which we need as writers but also as humans.  Technology alone will never by itself satisfy human beings.

What would you like to see happen in publishing, in particular with regard to crime/mystery fiction?

That it make reading fun and lead readers to explore other genres and forms of art while still reading mysteries.  That it appeal to reason and the better part of imagination and not incite unstable readers to do harm.  That it not lean heavily on the fascination with guns.

What for you has been the most invaluable aspect of working with a publishing team?

Let me count the ways.  As a team,they give recognition that my work is worthwhile.  They make my writing better, by enhancing it with cover art; with prompt, supportive letters and mailings in connection with publicity; and mostly by skilful, sensitive editing.  The editor Robert Peett has made all the difference in my writing.  I feel extremely fortunate in this day of self-publishing to have the confidence and expertise of a good publishing house behind me.

Would you recommend traditional publishing over indie/self-publishing or vice-versa?

Honestly, if I hadn’t found a publisher, I would have eventually self-published, but I kept putting it off because I loathed the idea.  I wanted professional confirmation from a publisher of high literary quality.   The cooperation between the editor and myself in improving my book is the most important thing that has happened to me in years.  It is what I’ve longed for, even more than seeing a book in print.  I wanted to have a business and literary relationship with someone I respected, and I’m grateful that the opportunity finally presented itself.  I can never thank Susan Finlay enough for putting me in touch with Holland House Books.

The Absent Woman is available to pre-order from Holland House Books and will be launching in April from all mainstream retailers.

Marlene Lee is Under the Spotlight for the whole of April.


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