Interview With Joyce Christmas

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, September 1997
Joyce ChristmasJoyce Christmas is the author of 11 mysteries, eight featuring expatriate Brit in Manhattan, Lady Margaret Priam. Her second series stars retired office manager, Betty Trenka. The most recent, Downsized to Death, will be published in November. Joyce's story "Takeout" appeared in Malice Domestic V, and has been nominated for a Macavity Award. Her article on John Buchan, "The Altar of the Northern Wilds," appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal. Her story, "Up the Garden Path," will be published in 1998 in Murder They Wrote.

Joyce is a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America, and is a member of the Author's Guild, Sisters in Crime, and the International Association of Crime Writers. In July, 1997, she was the Fiction Guest of Honor at Cluefest, the Dallas mystery convention. She is an executive with an international consulting firm specializing in hotel technology.

What inspires you when you write?

Finishing. And the money. I don't think a professional writer has to be Inspired. It's a job, and you know what you have to do.

How do you write: computer, dictation, longhand?

Mostly on the computer. But I do drafts on a good old electronic typewriter and lacking that, in longhand.

"The old school cared more about what they were publishing, and didn't have a eye out for the "mega-deal". They cared about helping new authors along, they wouldn't dream of paying a has-been a million bucks because they knew the market, and knew whether they would make the money back."
Do you write everyday?

I try to, but I have a full-time job, so sometimes work obligations get in the way. But I try to write early in the morning and in the evenings, and when I have a deadline, as much as I can get away with at work.

You must have an understanding boss!

He is my best friend and my Constant Reader.

That helps, certainly. Do you ever get writer's block? What is your "cure" for it?

Sometimes. Lying down and watching old sitcoms or going someplace different, like a museum, or buying something. Out of the writing life for a while usually cures it.

How did you make your first sale of a book you wrote?

My very first book was a ghostwriting job, and I was asked to help the author. She didn't quite know what a book was, and even though it was non-fiction, it had to have a beginning, middle and an end. My first novel, now out of print, was Hidden Assets, and a writing partner and I were asked by an editor to write it. (For whatever reason, she wanted a book about a male stripper. Go figure.) Because I had a dozen ghostwritten books behind me, I guess it was assumed that I could write a novel.



Did you use an agent?

Yes. I have a wonderful agent. But it is not easy to get one. Again, because I had a track record of completing books, I didn't have a problem.

What is the hardest part about writing in the mystery genre?

The competition, thinking of plots that are as good as other people's. Mysteries really are highly competitive, and there are a lot of them out there. It's a real challenge.

Lady Margaret has an on again, off-again romance with New York detective Sam De Vere. Is it difficult to integrate romance into a mystery?

Yes. The genre isn't really suited to romance unless it's an integral part of the plot. But I think the protagonist needs an emotional partner to rely on. You know, writing a book means filling up pages with something happening, and it can't always be a murder.

Yes, true. How do you create your characters?

First I think of what kind of character I need. A society lady, a suburban neighbor, and so forth, and then I start thinking of qualities and likes and dislikes, maybe basing them somewhat on people I know -- but I do not base any character completely on a real person. The characters do take on a kind of life of their own, and then you think of something you can add to make them more realistic and often more valuable to the plot.

How much research is involved with writing the Lady Margaret Priam books?

Cover of Friend or Faux
I try not to say anything wrong, so for the books not set in New York, I either "research" by going to the place where they are set -- Caribbean (although I lived there for many years), Harrods, Beverly Hills, and Forest Lawn, etc. I walk about New York to look at the streets and buildings that I'm writing about, I read the gossip columns, and I formerly did public relations work for various charities, so I absorbed a lot of information that I put to use. It's not heavy-duty research, but as I noted, I try not to say anything really wrong. Traffic has to travel in the right direction on one-way streets, stuff like that.

The Lady Margaret Priam series wittily dissects Manhattan society and various characters who are fixtures on the charity circuit. Is anyone nervous to talk to you at parties now? :)

No. Most people don't know what I do, and I don't think they'd care if they did. I'm not sure they can read.

The interior designers in Mourning Gloria are a scream!

Those guys have been able to muster a smile, but I think they're a bit wary. But the decorating business can be just as silly as I made it sound.

In mystery writing, which do you believe is more important, plot or character and why?

Plot and character are equally important to make a good book. Some readers prefer character-driven books, others like plot-driven. And writers are either character or plot people, and their books reflect which they are.

Let's talk about Lady Margaret Priam, your aristocratic sleuth. What is she like? Age. Pet Peeves. Favorite composer. Favorite meal. Secret vices. And where does she buy all those fabulous clothes?

Margaret is in her mid-thirties and slowly getting older. She's a social animal, not trained to do much except exhibit good taste, and because New Yorkers are gaga over titles, they accept her opinions are close to Divine proclamations. Her pet peeves are probably unkindness, bad manners and stupidity. Although it's never been mentioned, I think her favorite composer is Mozart. Her favorite meal is definitely Chinese takeout, which is featured in my short story "Takeout" (Malice Domestic V), which was nominated for a Macavity Award and is about Chinese takeout. She buys her clothes at Bendel's, Berdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's and designer shops on Madison Avenue (Nicole Miller, Armani) and sometimes she goes to Macy's. Margaret might have a bloody mary, or a decent wine, or back home in England, a pint of lager (warmish) at the village pub. She too is comparatively free of vices, although she does like a good manicure.

What is her greatest fear?

She is fearless.

Of course! What is her best quality?

Good manners, and kindness to people of every class, race, creed and religion. She's an English aristocrat. Although they sometimes are ill-mannered and oddly prejudiced.

Your newer sleuth is Betty Trenka, an older, retired office manager -- quite a departure from the aristocratic Lady Margaret. Let's talk about Betty now.

Betty is more fun to write about because she lives in a world that is more real than Margaret's which people tend to be caricatures and the situations are somewhat outlandish.

What does Betty like to do in her spare time? What are her pet peeves? What music does she like? Where does she shop?

This Business is Murder Cover
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Betty was forced to retire in her sixties, and she hates having spare time after years of comfortable routine. She's busy trying to make a life for herself after retirement. Peeves? Being forced to do anything domestic, and of course that damned cat someone left on her doorstep (actually, she and Tina the cat have reached a detente. I think Betty would miss her if she were gone.) I've never mentioned it, but I think Betty likes Frank Sinatra, music from her girlhood during and just after World War Two. She might find something else. Betty buys her clothes at the mall and from L.L. Bean catalogs. Betty likes the wine chosen by her neighbor Ted Kelso, who also cooks her favorite meals. She is without vices (so far).

Does she have a sense of humor? What are her best qualities?

She sees the absurdity of things, and her best quality is common sense and determination. Finishing a job once started.

How did you create Betty?

My editor asked me to start a new series, and I had had a number of older characters in my books, so I thought a senior sleuth would be fun. Then it turned out that senior sleuths were Hot!! I have a lot of friends who are in their 70s and 80s, so they provided role models.

You were Associate Editor at The Writer magazine for a number of years. What did that position entail?

Editing articles for the magazine, and for the company's other publication, Plays, one-act plays for children (I wrote a few). Writing letters to authors, getting market information and writing it up, proofreading, layout of the magazines, and editing books of Plays, seeing them through the press, buying paper, specifying type. Everything. And my bosses, Sylvia Burack, still the Editor, and the late Abe Burack, Editor, were better than a college education in publishing. True publishers of the old school, which are fast disappearing. I learned about writing, and the whole business.

What is the difference between the "old school" of publishing and the new?

I don't think the Buracks or the rest of us, went out to a lengthy business lunch more than once a year.
"...I don't like grisly stories, but yes, I do think publishers are asking for them because there's an audience for them. I can't begin to analyze why. I won't blame it on TV, but America has this romance with violence that doesn't sit well with me."
The old school cared more about what they were publishing, and didn't have a eye out for the "mega-deal". They cared about helping new authors along, they wouldn't dream of paying a has-been a million bucks because they knew the market, and knew whether they would make the money back. They believed in "the profession" and they weren't bottom line oriented in the way today's publishing conglomerates are. They didn't think of books as the equivalent of toothpaste. Books were not just a bunch of units to be sold. Mind you, there are wonderful, caring editors today, like mine. But the book business is Big Business, but alas, not every good book is a blockbuster, ready to sold to the movies. I still avoid business lunches.

What were the biggest mistakes you saw in submissions to The Writer?

Most submissions were by invitation, but I was always surprised that famous fiction writers had trouble writing articles about writing. Not always good a straightforward expository prose. But I confess, it's not easy to write meaningfully about fiction writing. A plug for a friend: mystery novelist Meg Chittenden's book, How to Write Your Novel, is excellent (and was published by The Writer).

Does being an Editor affect the way you write do you think?

Definitely. It helps greatly in doing revisions, you know that the passage you ABSOLUTELY LOVE! should probably be removed. I guess the critical eye for things like sense and grammar and what am I trying to say here comes from my editing days.

It seems that over the years that the mystery genre has gotten a lot more violent and grisly in the storylines (plots about serial killers etc.) Do you see a trend towards gore in this genre?

Again, there are readers who adore serial killer books. I read them only occasionally because I don't like grisly stories, but yes, I do think publishers are asking for them because there's an audience for them. I can't begin to analyze why. I won't blame it on TV, but America has this romance with violence that doesn't sit well with me.

Do you find the Internet useful?

I LOVE the Internet. I love e-mail, I love reading Dorothy L, I love finding sites that talk about things I'm interested in, like the Internet Movie Database, the hundreds of Asia pages, the second-hand and rare book dealers who are delighted to allow me to spend money. I like being able to find news stories from a few days ago that I missed. It's a terrific resource that I use for entertainment, writing and for company business. Long may it wave!

We love the Internet too!

Downsize to Death Cover A new Betty, Downsized to Death, will be published in November, and now that the UPS strike is over, will probably be in bookstores late October. It's a Fawcett original paperback. A Betty short story will be in Murder They Wrote, an anthology to be published by Berkeley (I think) in 1998. I'm under contract for two more Bettys.
Downsized to Death deals with terminal illness (not Betty's), but does make her confront her own mortality and the aging process. A real "Up" book.

What's in the future for Lady Margaret?

I'm finishing a new (untitled) Lady Margaret which will be out next year. I'm also under contract for two more, so I'll be busy until the year 2000.

For the aspiring authors out there...how useful are writers' groups and conventions ?

Conventions are great fun. Writers get a chance to meet fans, and fans get a chance to see us make fools of ourselves on panels. Bouchercon is very large, but there are lots of smaller conventions (Cluefest in Dallas, Malice Domestic in Washington, Mid-Atlantic in Philadelphia, Left Coast Crime in San Diego in 1998, to name a few) that are easier to handle. I belong to a number of writers organizations. Mystery Writers of America helps foster a sense of fellowship with other mystery writers. In the recent past, there have been problems reported with MWA, but every organization has problems, and MWA's were blown out of proportion. It's a good organization. I also belong to International Association of Crime Writers which gives me a chance to meet overseas colleagues, and Sisters in Crime is a terrific group for both writers and fans.

What is your best advice to the aspiring mystery novelist?

Read, read, read in the genre. Write, write, write, everything you can. Writing is like being a professional musician. You have to practice the scales over and over so that when you sit down to perform, you don't have to think about where the notes are. I've never had any experience with writing critique groups, but if you trust your colleagues, it's very helpful to have astute readers who can help if you go astray or get stuck, or don't understand what you're trying to say. Publications, electronic or otherwise, that talk about writing can be helpful by giving you ideas you might not have thought of, and help with technique. I find Dorothy L very helpful in getting a sense of what readers care about, what they hate or find trite. My agent is helpful, too, but I think he's probably too kind.

That is all I have for today. Joyce, thank you so much for coming -- I know how busy you are!

My pleasure.


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