A Conversation With Joyce Christmas

by Claire E. White

Popular mystery novelist Joyce Christmas is the author
Illustration of Joyce Christmas
of sixteen mysteries: ten featuring Lady Margaret Priam, an expatriate Brit in Manhattan, four starring retired office manager Betty Trenka, a senior sleuth who's facing the problems of aging and finding a new life for herself, and two books in which both Margaret and Betty team up to solve a case. She is also an acclaimed short story writer: "Takeout," which appeared in Malice Domestic V, and "The Chosen," which appeared in Unholy Orders (Intrigue Press), were both nominated for Macavity Awards. "Up the Garden Path," was published in Murder They Wrote II and an essay on "The Aristocratic Sleuth," was published in Deadly Women. She has served as a national board member of Mystery Writers of America, and is a member of the Author's Guild, Sisters in Crime, and International Association of Crime Writers. In July, 1997, she was Co-Fiction Guest of Honor (with Jeremiah Healy) at Cluefest, the Dallas mystery convention. She is a also a frequent speaker and panelist at mystery conferences.

Her love of books and writing began at an early age and she has always been a voracious reader. Books have always been a big part of Joyce's life, so it's no surprise that her professional background revolves around reading and writing. After getting a degree in English at Harvard/Radcliffe, she took the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures course and went to work for publishers in Boston. She was the Associate Editor of The Writer magazine and Plays magazine, where she absorbed everything she could about writing, publishing, and the world of business. She went on to ghostwrite books, author three novels of her own, and write anything she was paid to write -- press releases, proposals, ad copy, and so on. Her first mystery, Suddenly in Her Sorbet (Ballantine) was published in 1988.

The book introduced Lady Margaret Priam (who was inspired by a friend) and her Eurotrash friend, Prince Paul Castrocani, plus Margaret's on-going romantic interest, police detective Sam de Vere. The Lady Margaret books, as well as the Betty Trenka mysteries, are true to life in part because of the author's passion for research: for Friend or Faux she trailed through Harrods food halls for days to imprint the place on her memory; toured the English countryside; and visited a friend's stately ancestral home (which has a ghost) and a steam circus. Although she lived in the Caribbean for years, she felt the need to revisit and remember the details in person for A Perfect Day For Dying, and she spent a lot of time at Forest Lawn Cemetery and roaming Beverly Hills for A Stunning Way to Die. The Lady Margaret mysteries are filled with delicious details of high society -- details that Joyce Christmas learned from doing PR for New York society events. Her books are known for their vivid characterization, subtle humor and witty dialogue. Her latest book is Forged in Blood (Ballantine), in which Lady Margaret and Betty Trenka encounter a notorious art forger and a murder while traveling to England and Rome. This is the second book in which her two series leads have met, and it makes for sophisticated, delightful reading.

Joyce confesses that she suffers from "Compulsive Book Disorder and a deranged love of fine, if sometimes bizarre jewelry (including tiaras)," so she works as an executive with an international consulting firm specializing in hotel technology in order to support her book and jewelry habits. She edits the company's newsletter as well as newsletters for two other organizations.

Though she has lived in such far-flung places as Vienna, Rome and the Caribbean, she now resides in New York City. Joyce spoke with us about her latest book, Forged in Blood, the merging of her two popular mystery series, and her brush with one of the most famous art forgers of the last century. She also gives some great advice for aspiring mystery authors.

What books do you remember most fondly from your childhood?

When I was very young, the Wizard of Oz books were favorites. They were originally my mother's, aunts' and uncles' books, probably very early editions stashed at my grandmother's house, and if I had them today, they'd be worth a fortune. Later, I loved books about foreign places -- like Richard Halliburton's travel books. I still have some of my Nancy Drew books, and in my teens, I read historical novels. Since my mother was seriously addicted to mysteries, I read a lot of them, Christie and the Golden Agers, and moved on to Dell Shannon procedurals, John D. MacDonald, Rex Stout.

Was there anyone who encouraged or inspired you to develop your fiction writing talents?

Cover of Forged in Blood by Joyce Christmas
Hamlen Hunt, the mother of a college classmate, was a successful and fairly well-known author of short stories for women's magazines during the 50s and 60s. She was most encouraging about writing, as well as an accomplished hostess. I owe her a lot -- keep writing, serve lots of drinks and good food, and write some more. (I remember another of her daughters remarking that she was always proud that her mother did something besides make tuna fish sandwiches. A woman with a career.) And, of course, Sylvia Burack and the late Abe Burack, editors of The Writer magazine for whom I worked for a number of years, were inspiring examples of dedication to good writing and good editing. When I left the company, Sylvia was and remains a booster of me and all mystery writers. And for her support of mysteries, she received a Raven Award from Mystery Writers of America.

Since our last interview, many things have happened. For one thing, your two series, the Lady Margaret Priam series and the Betty Trenka series have now merged into one. How did that come about?

It seemed like an interesting idea when it occurred to me, so I proposed it to my publisher and I was off.

What was the greatest challenge in integrating these two series?

I had to find a logical reason for the two very different women to meet. I used Betty's handicapped neighbor, Ted, as the means for them to meet -- he wasn't able to travel to New York to meet a client who happened to be an old beau of Margaret's. So he sent Betty to be his eyes and ears, and the sleuths meet through him. It worked, and I don't believe it strained credulity too much. Goodness knows they had no other logical reason to get together.

The first book in the new series was A Better Class of Murder. Tell me how this book came about.

As I said, it seemed like an interesting idea to put the two sleuths in the same book. I couldn't think of any other cases where different series characters ended up in the same book, so I thought I'd try it. It turned out that the contrast between the two characters, especially their very different social backgrounds, made the book fun to write and gave it an unusual slant. Then, I work some with the computer industry, and got interested in some of the big development projects going on. I'm not a techie, but one of my Information Technology colleagues knows Everything, and he explained about ERPs (Enterprise Research Planning), and I built the story around that subject.

Cover of A Better Class of Murder by Joyce Christmas
In A Better Class of Murder, Betty and Margaret search for a murderer in the wilds of Manhattan. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

To tell the truth, the most enjoyable part was writing Betty into the Manhattan social scene where she is definitely a fish out of water and seeing how she would handle herself. A second bit of enjoyment was the setting that opens the book -- a summer beach resort on Long Island Sound, which is the place I lived year round when I was in high school. I used a lot of old memories in this, especially the summer season and the decline into autumn, as I also did, incidentally, in an early novel, now out of print, called Dark Tide. That one even dredged up my father's memories of the 1938 hurricane that devastated the New England coast.

I'd like to talk about the latest book in the series, Forged in Blood. What was your inspiration for this story?

I had established a friendship between Betty and Margaret in A Better Class of Murder, and I wanted to find a way for them to continue it. I'd already mentioned in the first book that Margaret's brother was going to be married in England, and I had long been planning to set a book in Italy, so I decided to send them off together. Prince Aldo's alleged Raphael painting had also been mentioned in previous books, so I thought I'd develop a story around that.

The story revolves around an art forger who is up to no good. Have you ever met an art forger?

Art forgers are never up to any good. And yes, I did briefly
"An ear is something you develop by listening to people, wit and subtle humor is something you have or you don't."
meet Eric Hebborn, one of the most noted forgers of Old Master drawings in the 20th century. Alas, he didn't make it to the 21st century, as he was murdered in Rome a while ago. I didn't really know him, merely met him through a mutual friend in Rome. We didn't discuss his career, just drank an espresso. My forger isn't Eric, but he was always at the back of my mind as I wrote. His autobiography, Drawn to Trouble, reveals what an edge-of-the-seat life a forger leads.

How has Betty Trenka changed since the first novel?

Not much, really, but she has almost come to terms with being retired and she's trying to build an satisfying new life to equal her former life as a business woman. She is sensible, smart and kind throughout. On the other hand, although she claims to be totally undomesticated, we find her planting a garden at one point. At first, she hated the cat Tina which was dumped on her doorstep, but she's gradually come to terms with her, and even misses her a bit when she's away from home.

In the book, we finally meet Paul's father, Prince Aldo. How did you approach creating Aldo?

I tried to imagine an older Prince Paul, handsome, impoverished, aristocratic, always with an eye for the ladies. I spent enough time in Italy to remember the type.

Aldo's mother, the principessa, is a real handful. She provides some comic relief, but she's also a bit scary. What went into your decision to give Aldo a crazy mother? (note: I must admit, having Carolyn Sue as a daughter in law might drive anyone a bit mad)

Cover of Dying Well by Joyce Christmas
Italian mothers love their sons possessively, no matter how grown-up they are, so I wanted her to fear the blond woman (Margaret) who shows up the way Carolyn Sue did, ready (or not) to steal away her precious boy again, lure him into marriage. Her wartime tragedies played a part in unbalancing her too, as well as showing she was brave and a heroine. I had Italian friends whose parents had been partisans during the Nazi regime, and wanted to reflect something of their experiences. I'd also visited Frascati which had served as German headquarters during the war and ended up as rubble (now rebuilt, but the memories are there still). And I think dotty old ladies make good characters, hence the eccentric principessa.

Although Carolyn Sue (Paul's mother and Aldo's ex-wife) doesn't actually appear in the book, her presence is certainly felt. What or who was your inspiration for the irrepressible Carolyn Sue?

I spent some time in Dallas is the answer. I happened to ghostwrite a book years ago with two prosperous Texas ladies who gave me a hint of the type. I wandered around Neiman Marcus in North Dallas with them, as they picked up items from various departments, ignoring the departmental cashiers. I was afraid they would "forget" to pay for the expensive, largely unnecessary trinkets they accumulated, but they always remembered at the last minute. They also had obscenely grand houses. All I had to do was think of them, and make Carolyn Sue as extravagant and blond as I could manage. I also knew some wealthy American girls traveling in Italy, who attracted a lot of attention from the local boys with dollar signs in their eyes. Once I even had to sit one of the girls down and explain firmly why it would NOT be a good idea to marry her Italian swain, at least not before she'd brought him home to meet her Philadelphia Main Line parents. I was successful, and I hope she thanks me now.

Your descriptions of England and Italy are very vivid; have you spent a lot of time in either place? Didn't you used to live in Rome? What do you love most about Italy?

I often visit England, and I did a lot of research about
Cover of Going Out in Style by Joyce Christmas
English country houses, enjoyed High Tea at Brown's Hotel and carefully studied the layout of Harrods (which figures largely in Friend or Faux). Margaret is broadly based on someone just like her -- a titled English lady who happened to live in New York and with whom I worked briefly. I visited her family estate and still check with her on details of upper-class English life, specifically in Forged in Blood, details of English weddings. I feel as though Rome is a home town. I spent six months or so living there, returning often for visits, and I love everything about it, the food, the pace of life, the colors of the palazzi, the museums, and ruins (in the old days, you could wander about the Forum at will with no opening or closing hours or admission tickets). I love the sight of St. Peter's from everywhere, the fountains, the feral cats lounging on the ruins of Largo Argentina. I even love the insane traffic, the strikes, the tourists and the constant noise. But the single thing I love most about Rome is the view of the dome of St. Peter's through the keyhole shaped opening in the wall surrounding the Knights of Malta garden on the Aventine Hill.

Your books are known for their witty dialogue, subtle humor and interesting characters. How did you develop your ear for dialogue?

An ear is something you develop by listening to people, wit and subtle humor is something you have or you don't. When I worked as an editor for The Writer magazine, the company also published a magazine of one-act plays for children. They always needed a lot of editing and re-writing, and I also wrote some plays myself, so I guess that's how I learned to write dialogue.

How important is having a good sense of humor in life?

How else does one get from morning to night? And writers need a double dose to deal with this business.

Let's talk about the creative process of writing. When starting a new book, do you outline the plot first? Do you always know who the murderer is when you start the book?

I don't know exactly what I do.
"It takes discipline to pound out the pages regularly. Try to write everyday, takes notes about ideas and characters. Revise, revise, revise. And believe you will succeed."
I sort of map out a plot line, not really an outline, I sort of know the murderer, but if my Constant Reader figures out whodunnit too soon, the murderer gets changed. I start out writing by putting the characters on paper, and after about 50 pages, when I have an idea of who they are and what they're going to do, I tend to do a rough outline to follow as I finish the book. In a novel, people have to do things to fill up the pages, so you have to think of events and situations that flesh out the book and also move the plot forward.

One of the greatest challenges in writing a series is keeping the stories and characters fresh: something with which you never seem to have a problem. Are there any tips or tricks you can share about keeping it new?

I read a lot of newspapers and magazines to learn what amazing things people do in real life. Gossip columns are a great source of ideas about what so-called society people do. Then, again, I get ideas from my own life. Eventually something hits me and I decide I can create a plot around it. For example, I do some caregiving for a chronically ill person, and I carried over some of Betty's emotions about her bedridden old boss whom she obviously loved through the years she worked for him. Another source for that plot came when a gentleman who worked at our firm died, and I was delegated to clear out his office. He was an engineer who never threw one piece of paper away, and I imagined Betty being asked to return to her old company to clear out the boss's office after he suffered a stroke. I guess you just have to stay open to every idea that flits through your mind.

How have you changed as a writer since your first book was published?

Cover of Death at Face Value by Joyce Christmas
My first novel was published over 20 years ago, and before that I'd ghostwritten a dozen non-fiction books, so I'm 25 years older. Time changes you, the way you think and write. I wish I could say that writing gets easier over the years, but it doesn't. Yes, it does get easier to sit down and put words on paper or computer screen, rather as if you've practiced scales on the piano for years, and now you can play the music, but it's never easy, especially if you keep challenging yourself to do it better.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Do it. Don't talk about wanting to do it. It takes discipline to pound out the pages regularly. Try to write everyday, takes notes about ideas and characters. Revise, revise, revise. And believe you will succeed. A congenial writing group can be helpful, and there are books, magazines, and websites that give tips on technique.

What are your pet peeves in life?

Now it can be revealed: I am a cranky old dame with a lot of peeves. I hate voice mail -- doesn't anybody actually answer the phone any more? I hate walking on a street with someone holding a loud cell phone conversation right behind me. I'm never sure if it's a New York City crazy holding a conversation with someone in his head. And I hate cell phones that ring inappropriately -- in restaurants, at the theater, at meetings, etc. I've actually never turned mine on to receive calls. Don't know my number, so nobody knows how to call me. Computers drive me crazy, especially when they inform me that I have performed an illegal action simply by turning them on, and I am annoyed by machines like ATMs that refer to themselves as "I" (as in "I can't help you now," or "I can't give you a receipt"). It's a machine, after all, not an "I." I could go on -- metal attached to tongues and eyebrows, email spam for porn sites, airport security that asks me to remove open-toed, flat-heeled sandals (I know, I know, they're only doing their job). They're also alarmed by a simple tiara in my carry-on.

What projects are you working on now?

Lots of things. Thinking about a Betty book, writing a short story, developing a new series, toying with a children's book, playing at writing a screenplay. I keep writing even when I don't have a deadline. It's what writers do.

**Illustration of Joyce Christmas Copyright © by Otto Franz Krone.

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