Today we're interviewing long-time writer Leigh Perry (also known in some circles as Toni Kelner). We're in two of the same groups as members- Sisters in Crime, as well as in the New England Horror Writers.
Leigh is the author of the popular Sid the Skeleton mystery series (among other works), where a main character is a walking, talking skeleton. They're great, by the way- a lot of fun, and full of bad bone puns!
The next book in the series, The Skeleton Haunts a House comes out Oct. 6.
So let's meet Leigh and find out more about her work.
Q: So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
A: The Skeleton Haunts a House is the third in a series, so obviously the immediate spark was the previous two books in the series. If you’re asking how I came up with Sid the Skeleton himself, I don’t have a clue. Over a decade ago, I was noodling over ideas for a new series, and I wanted to do a paranormal mystery. So many of the usual suspects—vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts—were being written about already by some excellent authors. I’d even seen more obscure paranormal characters like angels, demons, and banshee. Somehow my mind jumped to having a skeleton, and Sid appeared in the same form he ended up for the first book. (He still looks the same, actually. Skeletons don’t age much.)
As for Georgia Thackery, his BFF and partner-in-crime-solving, she went through a lot more evolution. She started out as a young grad student, then was an older locksmith, and ended up as an adjunct English professor with a teenaged daughter. (I did sneak both a grad student and a locksmith into the books.)
As for the pieces that show up in this book… In the first book in the series, Georgia Thackery moves back to her parents’ house while they’re on sabbatical, but I knew someday I’d have to bring those parents back to town. This turned out to be that day.
I have adored Halloween forever, long before I started writing about a skeleton, and of course, Halloween would be Sid’s special day. It’s the time when he can go out in public posing as a costumed character or a moving decoration. Having him go to a Halloween carnival was something I thought of for the first book in the series, but I modified that for plot reasons. I was really happy to bring it back.
Haunted houses fascinate me. Not so much the real ones, which I’m not sure I believe in anyway, but the haunted house attractions. It’s a whole industry, with scare actors, specialized equipment and software, and some great stories on Reddit. Plus I like the conceit of a real monster like Sid sneaking around the faux monsters.
Q: Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
A: I’m not an outliner. I start with an idea—whether it be a character, a setting, an incident, or the crime itself--and start making notes around that idea. I go with that for a few weeks, maybe a month, then start working on the actual manuscript.
Q: What do you feel is the main theme(s)?
A: First off, themes are usually better identified by the reader than the writer. But that being said, I think the whole series, including this book, is about what it means to be a family, and the importance of friendship.
Q: Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
A: Mostly, all I want is for people to be entertained. I want them to remember the excitement and the laughs, and go away with a warm fuzzy feeling that things ended as they should.
Q: What makes a good book or engaging story?
A: Characters! I don’t have to like them, but if the characters don’t interest me, I don’t care how pretty the writing is or how vivid the setting is or how tricky the plot is.
Q: Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
A: There are quite a few people writing paranormal mysteries. Charlaine Harris, of course, and Dana Cameron’s paranormal thrillers. Sofie Kelly, Juliet Blackwell, Bailey Cates, Paige Shelton—all in that same zone.
As my influences, probably everybody who I’ve ever read! For the idea of having just a touch of the paranormal or fantastic in the real world, I think my direct antecedents are old sitcoms like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Nanny and the Professor, Topper, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Q: Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
A: That seems to imply that serving other functions isn’t entertaining, and I don’t agree with that at all! Learning about unfamiliar parts of the world, hearing about other points of view, getting a fresh take on an old subject, and meeting compelling characters is incredibly entertaining. I try to squeeze as much of that stuff into a book as I can.
My one mission with this series is entirely accidental. When I decided to make Georgia an adjunct English professor, it was so she wouldn’t be tied to one university so I could move her to different settings and avoid what mystery fans call Cabot Cove Syndrome, where so many people in a small town are murdered that one wonders why anybody would ever stay there. Along the way, however, I learned what a tough life being an adjunct is and how they’re treated unfairly by many universities. So I try to cast a little light on that situation.
Q: Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
A: I want it all, Dale! I want a movie or TV show—both would be better. I want to hit the New York Times bestseller list as a novelist. (I’ve been on the list as an editor of anthologies, but it’s not enough.) I’d like to be nominated for an Edgar, and I want to be guest of honor at Malice Domestic and/or Bouchercon some day. I’m greedy!
But I will forgo every bit of that if I can just keep being published. That’s the part I like best, being able to go into a bookstore and see my books on the shelf.
Q: Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
A: I go through three or four drafts, more with a short story. I’m generally very tight on deadlines, so that encourages me to keep moving and not nitpick. I generally know the book is as good as it’s going to get when I go through a passage and change some words—say change “gift” to “present”—then go back later and change “present” back to “gift.” That’s when it’s time to send it away.
Q: Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
A: I have an alpha reader, my husband Steve. He gives critical feedback, but his most important role is to tell me, “Yes, this is a book/story.” Then I have beta readers, Charlaine Harris and Dana Cameron, who go in much more depth. After them, my agent adds advice, and then I get overall editing from my editor at Berkley, and finally copy edits from Berkley. It takes a village!
Q: If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
A: That varies widely depending on the level they’re at, and what they’re trying to do. So my first step is always to ask what they’re working on, whether or not it’s done, and what their goals are.
Then I can share information without scaring them with a pure info dump.
Q: Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
A: The Family Skeleton series has been converted into audio books already, so that part is done. I don’t know about a film because it would be tough to render a skeleton without it looking creepy. I think a comic book would work, or maybe an animated movie.
Q: What's the next step in your writing world?
A: Actually, I’m not sure. I want to write more Family Skeleton books, but sales on The Skeleton Haunts a House will decide that. I do want to start another series, too, but I’m still casting about for ideas. And there are short stories I want to write.
Q: Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
A: I’m a fan of the Wizard of Oz: books, movies, comics. And I have a collection of Oz memorabilia.
Q: Any other information you'd like to impart?
A: If you like the Family Skeleton books, I’ve got eleven novels written as Toni L.P. Kelner available as ebooks and audio books.
You can find far too much information about those books at: www.tonilpkelner.com
My website is www.leighperryauthor.com
Sid the Skeleton is on Twitter @Family_skeleton
Where to buy:
And available where fine books about ambulatory skeletons are sold.