SRW: Today on Twisted Tales, I’m throwing the door wide-open for my Texas pal and mystery author, Elizabeth Dearl. I’ve read her first book, Diamondback, and if you like regional mysteries full of humor and colorful characters, this is the book for you.
Hey, there, Elizabeth. Thanks for joining me and I promise to go easy on you (fingers crossed behind back).
ED: Uh, huh. Sure. Why do I have the sinking feeling I'm about to take a college exam I forgot to study for? (Or, if you want me to be proper: for which I forgot to study.)
SRW: Let’s get something clear right now. I understand you used to be a cop. I suffer from capiophobia, the fear of being arrested for no particular reason (and, yes, I had to look up the term thanks to my research assistant, Ms. Google). Whenever I pass a cop on the highway, I sweat bullets. I’m nervous having you on here, for Gawd’s sake! If I get out of line, you won’t, like, perform a citizen’s arrest or anything, right?
ED: I won't arrest you, but only because I don't feel like driving across several states to find you. If you're mean to me, though, you might want to avoid Texas. I'll let you in on a little secret. Even off-duty cops have a moment of panic when we see red, flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. I think it's a perfectly human response. By the way, when you sweat those bullets, would you save them for me? Practice/target ammo is really expensive.
SRW: Now that that’s out of the way, how would you say your experience as a cop has informed the more dastardly elements of your writing?
ED: For one thing, it's probably broadened my sense of the ludicrous, yet real, aspects of life. I mean, I learned that people tend to get just as upset about someone picking up a few stray pecans from under the tree in their front yard as they do about someone trying to pry open a window in their house. As to the dastardly, cops never really get used to the horrible things people do to each other, but we do (we must) learn to take those things in stride and accomplish our work. We often cry or rant later. In private. In case folks think we're unfeeling, they need to know that. But we only give in to that after the current crisis is over, because during the mess we have to maintain a sense of calm, even if it's a false calm. Seriously, cops have to grow an iron spine or we'd never get through some of the things we see. I'm sure all that filters into my writing, even though I made Taylor a private citizen and not a cop. I gave her just a touch of the iron spine when she needed it.
SRW: Okay, so Diamondback… Give readers a brief synopsis. And try doing it free rap style.
ED: Are you freaking kidding me? You, sir, are beyond mean -- bordering on cruel. Okay, here goes (and it's going to stink):
Taylor, now she's all alone. Lost her mom and lost her home. Found a letter, what's this? Whoa! Got an aunt she doesn't know. City's all she's ever had. Small town turns out just as bad. Finds her aunt, but something more. Snakes and snakes and snakes galore! Errrr. Uhhh. Yo!
You're gonna have to live with that.
SRW: Mic drop, yo! Heh…
Back on the topic of phobias (let’s see, lemme consult with Ms. Google here…), would you say you suffer from ophidiophobia (the fear of snakes)?
ED: No. I grew up around rattlesnakes. I wouldn't have made it through childhood if I suffered that particular phobia. Scared? No. Respectful? You bet.
|Elizabeth putting her money where her snake is.|
ED: Oh, yes. I grew up in Sweetwater, home of the biggest annual Rattlesnake Roundup in the state of Texas. We really did have a beauty contest, although the winner was Miss Rattlesnake Roundup (often the most recent Homecoming Queen), not Miss Snakeskin as she in my book. Folks came from all over the United States for this event, although I'm not sure why. And considering that at the time Sweetwater boasted only one, pretty small motel, citizens really did rent out rooms to tourists who did not bring their own RVs or tents. There was always a carnival set up near what we grandly called the Coliseum, and inside (in addition to the vats of snakes) there were gun and knife shows, coin shows, and junk shows as well as rather odd attractions. Such as: for one dollar, get three chances with a sledgehammer to bust up this old car! I participated in a few snake hunts as a teenager -- sort of a rite of passage -- but never enjoyed it. I'm way too soft-hearted when it comes to animals (and that includes reptiles).
SRW: Gotta ask… What does rattlesnake taste like? (Points off if you say “chicken.” You’re a writer, describe it!)
ED: Yep, I'm a writer all right, but you can't describe rattlesnake meat without saying chicken. The consistency is almost the same, although rattlesnake is a bit chewier, and there's an undertone of fish. Look, go to Long John Silver's, order the fish and chicken dinner, then mush the chicken strip and the fish filet together and take a bite.
SRW: It’s gotta be better than Rocky Mountain Oysters. Just sayin’. Okay! So, Taylor Madison is a fun character, a nosy mystery writer. How many books do you feature her in? Any new ones on the horizon?
ED: She's in four, so far. Besides Diamondback, there's Twice Dead, Buyer's Remorse, and TripleThreat. I certainly hope there will be more. Taylor is part of me. To misquote Brokeback Mountain, "I can't quit her." (And you're a brave soul if you've actually eaten Rocky Mountain Oysters. Well, brave or stupid. Don't know you well enough to say for sure.)
SRW: I haven’t actually eaten them, but I’d err on the side of stupid, nonetheless.
I’ve always thought that memorable thrillers/mysteries are sometimes made even better with dark secrets scratching at the underbelly of seemingly Rockwellian small towns. That’s certainly the case with Diamondback. I’m curious…did you start with the Major Revelations and write the book around them? Or did they come to you while throwing down words at a feverish pace?
ED: I'm someone who always looked at Rockwell prints and thought, first, "What an incredible small town scene. He's really captured the flavor." Then I'd look again and think: "I wonder if that ice cream vendor has a dead body stored in his little cart?" It was like that. I would develop what seemed a nice enough (if a bit odd) character, and then think: "How can I give him/her a dark secret, a little twist?" Even the most seemingly likeable people have a tiny spot of blackness in the soul, or at least an eccentricity that leaks out. Truly, have you ever met a completely "normal" person?
SRW: No, indeed I have not! (And, yeah, I think Rockwell was hiding something… Hmm.)
I loved getting to know the various, colorful characters in Diamondback. Without getting a lawsuit tossed your way, are some of these people based on folks you know? (My wife warns everyone we meet to be careful what they say because they’ll probably end up in one of my books).
ED: When I grew up in Sweetwater, its population was under 10,000. Trust me when I say that just about everyone knew everyone else. No one considered it being nosy, they were just looking out for each other. I hated that (of course) as a teenager, but I look back upon it with fondness. I'd like to say, straight out, that I'm not making fun of these amazing, small Texas town people, but the lifestyle was . . . different. I've never used a single person as a character, although I have used compilations of several people to make one character. And I've used a few remembered quotes or sayings. Okay, wait, I have to take some of that back. I did use one woman, whole cloth, when I wrote about Dorothy. She was close friends with my grandmother, and I loved her to bits. She'd drive her ancient car down the middle of the road, straddling the stripe, traveling about 20 MPH, honking the horn every so often to let people know she was coming. She kept a $100 bill in each shoe, and a third down her, um, décolletage for "emergencies." She played the piano "by ear" enthusiastically and loudly and sometimes produced an actual tune. I suspect she enjoyed a nip or two in the evening, although I can't imagine where she obtained it. (Our entire county, then, was "dry.")
SRW: I have to confess that there’ve been a few times while writing mysteries, I’m not completely sold on who my killer will be until about half-way through or so. Being an ex-cop (*Gulp!*), I would imagine you’re a lot more regimented and know everything going in. Am I wrong?
ED: You're wrong, in my case. I was well past halfway through and it hit me -- gadzooks! (yes, in polite company, I actually use the word "gadzooks") I hadn't homed in on whodunnit. I was just having fun. I had to sit down and consider, then go back and do some editing so that it would make sense. I hate having to sit down and consider, don't you?
SRW: Considering is not my forte, no ma’am!
What’s the deal with the ferret? From my experience, they stink and can be kinda mean. (Apologies to L.O.F.A.—“Lovers of Ferrets Association”)
ED: We had a lovely ferret named Abby for almost 10 years. We adored her. The males do have pretty powerful stink glands (though nothing as bad as a skunk). The females do, too, but if you bathe them, the odor is almost imperceptible. They are delightful! Into everything, crawling through the smallest spaces you can imagine. They're like magpies, in that if a bright or interesting object catches their attention, they'll do their best to take off with it. After Abby died (still breaks my heart) we found her little caches all over the house. Lengths of string, rubber bands, pieces of my jewelry, bottle caps, etc. The scene in Diamondback where a woman is up on the couch trying to get away from Hazel (because she "saw" a rat, not a ferret) comes from real life. I won't name him, but a friend of my husband, a fellow deputy, dropped by to visit us one evening when Abby was loose. We had honestly forgotten she was out and about until she came up through the couch cushion behind him. Well . . . he never came back without calling ahead first.
SRW: I have to admit that when I started the book, there were so many characters tossed my way, I felt the need to take notes. But, soon, I fell under the sway of your rhythm, the small-town Texas laid-back attitude and eccentric characters transporting me to a different place. Very fun. Not really a question, just a compliment. So take it and bask in it. Bask like the wind, Elizabeth!
ED: Basking! Nice. Like the first summer tan. I know there were a lot of folks thrown in all at once, but that's the way it is in small towns. If one person has a piece of information (like a strange visitor whom no one knows), twenty minutes later two dozen people know it, and everyone is speculating. What can I say? It's a rural hobby.
SRW: Who would win in a fight, Miss Marple or Veronica Mars?
ED: Marple. Just remember those deadly knitting needles. I'd be willing to bet she sharpened them every night.
SRW: Do you write anything outside of the mystery genre?
ED: Sure. I truly love horror fiction, although I'm not sure I'm as good at it as I'd like to be. And fantasy. Not Conan-type, more off the wall. I'll write anything I find enjoyable.
SRW: What’s up next on your keyboard?
ED: I'm planning to release an anthology of short stories I've written over the years, throwing in a few new ones. Referencing your question above, some are mystery (I love short mysteries with a twist ending), some horror, some fantasy. I'd write short fiction for a living, if I could.
SRW: There you have it, folks. All mystery fans have no reason not to rush out and snag a copy of Diamondback. It’s terrific and the place you want to start on Elizabeth’s entertaining Taylor Madison series. And if you’re not a mystery fan, there’s no better time than now to start. Go! I mean it. I see you there, not moving. Hop to it.
Thanks for being a good sport, Elizabeth. Let everyone know where they can find you. Um, not in an up close and personal stalky kinda way, but via social media.
ED: And thank you! Aside from the rap thing . . . Well, we'll talk about that in person some time. Ahem.