Sunday, October 9, 2016

Interview With Kate Flora

Today we're taking a look at the work of Kate Flora, a long-time, award-winning writer.

More than a quarter of a century into her writing career, Kate Flora has discovered that she’s a literary adventuress. What began as writing a version of “Nancy Drew Comes of Age” in her “strong woman, amateur PI” Thea Kozak mysteries has since sprawled in many directions.

Attorney Kate Clark Flora’s fascination with people’s criminal tendencies began in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ acts of discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. Her true crime, Finding Amy, co-written with Portland, Maine Deputy Chief Joseph Loughlin, was an Edgar finalist. Death Dealer was an Anthony and Agatha finalist and won the Public Safety Writers Association 2015 award for nonfiction. The gritty police procedurals in her star-reviewed Joe Burgess series have twice won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Her books also include seven Thea Kozak mysteries. Flora has also published 20 crime stories and was a Derringer finalist. Her latest nonfiction work, as co-writer, is retired Maine game warden Roger Guay’s memoir of hunters, poachers, search and rescue, and cadaver dogs: A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 years in the Maine Woods. Her latest fiction is Led Astray, the fifth book in her Joe Burgess police procedural series. (I just ordered my copy, so be sure to pick yours up now.)

Let's find out more about Kate and her work.

Q: Do you have a favorite of your books?
(I've been asked this, and respond that it's like asking a parent which child they love best.)

A: I think an author’s favorite book is always the one she is currently working on. That’s the book that dwells in your mind, that you spend all your time with. Those are the people whose voices and lives and fates and challenges are a part of every day. Otherwise, it would be like playing favorites, and I love all fifteen of my children. Right now, that book is a serial killer book that’s temporarily on hold while I meet a nonfiction deadline, called Gutted, which is a non-series book.

Q: You write a lot of dark material. How do you keep the negatives from overwhelming you in the months of writing it?

A: Good question. I do sometimes get overwhelmed by the darkness when I am writing true crime. But since I am writing about the unsung courage and persistence of police officers and other public safety personnel, the dark is offset by the honor of getting to tell their stories. In the fiction, I guess the answer is that I love spending time with my imaginary friends, and they tend to use dark cop humor to leaven the tales… for me and for my readers.

Q: Can you talk about how the writing and publishing has changed from when you started?

A: Well, I’ve been doing this I sold my first back in 1992 or 3, and back then, what we now call Indie publishing was called vanity publishing, and wasn’t something one would consider. I’ve seen the consolidation of large publishers, narrowing the field of opportunity. I’ve seen the collapse of the paperback distribution system. I’ve been published by large publishers and small ones. I’ve have great contracts, mediocre contracts, and lousy ones. I’ve been dropped, had my series revived. Changed series. Segued into nonfiction. I’m now a lot more relaxed about status and success and am content to write without panicking about having a publisher.

As for the writing? I’ve gotten better. It’s a wheel, though. I learn. Forget. Relearn, hopefully at a higher level. I think I’m just learning how to drive and then realize I’m pretty good at turning corners. I’m embracing the value of taking chances, which is what led to Level Best Books, crime story publishing, starting to write police procedurals, and writing short stories. Then on to true crime, memoir, and other collaborative nonfiction projects. I’m at the point where I’m getting comfortable with the idea that the road isn’t straight, it’s a journey, and I’m curious about what will come along next.

Q: For any of your books or series, how did they come to be? 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: In the beginning (setting aside the three practice books in the drawer) I had a story idea for the first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, and needed a protagonist. I had no idea I was starting a series, nor how Thea’s life would unfold as the books progressed. One of the oddest things about writing a series is that I started her back in the 1990’s and I’m still writing her today. She’s aged only slightly; I’m afraid I’ve put on some mileage.

The Joe Burgess books began when my New York publisher dropped the Thea Kozak series. When I looked around to see what to do next, I realized that I’d been spending a lot of time with the cops, and was curious about whether I could write a trio of middle-aged male cops. I love writing about Burgess, and Kyle, and Perry, and watching how they balance the demands of their careers with their personal lives.

What is most fascinating to me, in a way, how my detour (segue?) into the world of true crime benefitted from my skills at writing fiction, and how all the things I’ve learned about the real world of police officers informs the way I write cops in fiction.

Q: Do you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it goes, or do you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A: I’m neither an outliner nor a pantser. I’m a cooker. I start with an event, or a character is a situation, and then begin to puzzle out who they are, why they are there, and from there, on to the crime scene, the suspects, planning the clues that will be disclosed, and knowing the ending. I won’t know everything when I start, but after a few months (or years) of going around bumping into furniture as I plan, I sit down to write the book.

Q: What do you feel are your main theme(s)?

A: I always feel like this is a question we should ask our loyal readers, Dale. But I would say that one of the fundamentals of most crime fiction is the restoration of order to the world and getting justice for victims. I am also interested in the ripple effects of crime and how people around the victim are affected. I’m also writing stories that champion the little people, and my main characters tend to be people (whether this is Thea or Joe Burgess) who are protectors of the helpless. Thea describes herself as a “human tow truck” who has to stop and help people who are broken down along the highway of life. Burgess’s calling is to serve and protect.

Q: Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading your books?

A: Years ago, someone asked me what one of my books was “about.” Until then, on a conscious level, I hadn’t thought about the takeaway. Now that is much more clear. Many readers who have read the third Burgess, Redemption (which won the 2013 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction) say it has made them see the homeless in a different light. It’s about a Vietnam veteran who has never been okay since he returned, though the people around him are always hoping for recovery, who ends up a murder victim, ending forever their hopes that Reggie will be okay.

In the nonfiction, which is often written looking over the cop’s shoulder in an investigation, I am opening a window into the cop’s reality, and what really happens in an investigation. I hope it helps people see the police in a different light.

Q: What makes a good book or engaging story?
A: Strong engaging characters who matter to the reader, and a plot that moves fast, with lots of twists and turns. And good writing, of course.

Q: Do you read about crimes and go "That one- that's my book!" What's your selection process as to what's next?
A: Every book is different. Because I write series books, I’m always attuned to what is going on in the private school world for Thea’s books and in the police world for Joe Burgess. Interestingly enough, the plot of the new Burgess involves a shooter luring police officers into a trap. I wrote it well before the current spate of police shootings, but it is very timely.

I already have the plots for Burgess (sex trafficking) and Thea (a student who delivers a baby and claims never to have been pregnant) and for a handful of stand-alone books. From headlines, I tend to find myself thinking about short stories. This morning, for instance, I read a blog post title about tattoos, and suddenly had a story opening where a man who is a sexual predator wakes from a dose of his own rohypnol to find “Rapist” tattooed on his forehead. No idea where the story will go, but I am very intrigued.

Q: You write lovingly about Maine. What do you love about it?
A: So much! I love people’s basic decency to each other, and their tolerance. I love the landscape. Our farm, growing up, was on top of a hill where we could watch the sun come up over the woods and fields and watch it set behind the hills. At the bottom of our hill, there was a lake, and we could sit outside on summer nights and listen to the loons, lie in the back yard and watch the northern lights, and sled down hill in winter. We were farmers, and so of course, there’s that connection to the land. Summers were about weeding the garden and harvesting food, and summer evenings were spent around the table, processing food for canning and for the freezer.

Q: If you had to live elsewhere and do something other than writing, what would that be?
A: If I had to live somewhere else, I’d love to be in San Francisco, but that city has become impossibly expensive and overrun with young folks who have too much money. So now I’m rethinking this and don’t have an answer yet. Perhaps somewhere where I can swim in the sea more of the year than the Maine ocean allows.

As for doing something other than writing? Honestly, I can’t imagine that. I have at least six years worth of stories stacked up in my brain, and so thinking about alternatives is far in the future. In the short term? Spend more time in the garden. More time reading. More time playing in the kitchen with my much-neglected cookbooks. And of course, there are the “someday I’ll” things on the list—photography, tap dancing, and singing lessons. I dance like a woman with three left feet and sing like a crow, but so what?

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: Oh, now Dale… no one writes quite like I do, though plenty of people write good cops. I love Robert Crais’s Joe Pike. I’d like to be able to plot like Elizabeth George. Write suspense like Jeff Deaver. Sometimes, it would be fun to be as cold as Minette Walters or P.D. James. And I admire Tana French’s psychologizing. Early influences were romantic suspense (does one dare admit this?) in particular Mary Stewart, whose descriptions still stun me, Phyllis Whitney, and Victoria Holt.

Q: Do you have favorite TV shows or movies?
A: I tend to like “B’ movies, and girl movies, like Pretty Woman or Miss Congeniality or Moonstruck. Love Bull Durham and The Princess Bride. I think The Wire is great, loved Deadwood, the first season of True Detective, and drool over Timothy Olyphant in Justified.

Q: Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
A: I don’t write issue books, but obviously my books are “about” something. Damaged veterans, neglected children, Agent Orange, hanging targets on cops, doctors who want to play god, the sometimes disappointed dreams of adoptees who search for their birth parents, crooked bankers, dysfunctional families, corrupt managers. I could go on and on. Sometimes part of the goal is taking people into worlds they don’t ordinarily inhabit, making them see the world of the deaf and their culture, or seeing the homeless differently.

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: I actually “see” my scenes as I am writing them, and when I’m deeply immersed in a book, I even dream the story, so that is a cinematic experience for me. Back when I was a wide-eyed newbie, I was talking with Tony Hillerman about having one’s book made into a movie, and he said you have to accept that it’s going to be someone else’s vision of your story, and just walk away from it.

As we know, cinema is a shorthand version of the story, one that actually works best interpreting a short story or novella (think A River Runs Through It) so obviously, much of the pace and nuance of a long book would be lost/different in a cinematic interpretation. Like everyone else, though, I do have some fun trying to cast my stories.

Q: Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A: Write better. Then write better than that. Tell the stories that have been waiting for me to be “old enough” to tell them. Embrace obsession from time to time. Spend more time playing with multiple points of view. Write a book that isn’t a crime story.

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: Like many another, I love the freshness of new storytelling, and have had to learn to embrace rewrite. I still tend to do 3-6 edits of a story. Usually, when it goes to the publisher, I’m at the point where there are maybe 3 or 4 words I’m not happy with, and I’ve changed them, then changed them back.

Q: Do you have a writing schedule?

A: Sometimes. Usually it is a fixed number of pages or words, and I like to do the original work in the morning. In the good old days, I used to write for nine months and promote for three. That was an excellent schedule. Now promotion never stops, and the balance is much harder. Once I did NaNoWriMo, and that kind of free writing, with high word counts and no time for revision, was fascinating. I found I was writing things I’d never imagined for my characters. It was almost as though the words flowed onto the page without reflection, and the result was sometimes surprisingly good.

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: My daily prayer is for someone to please send me a strong, tough, involved editor. Lately, those prayers haven’t been answered. I do sometimes hire a private editor to give me feedback on a story, because I believe 100% in a gatekeeper function. For my one suspense book, Steal Away, written as Katharine Clark, I had a wonderful editor, Leona Nevler. Alas, she died before I could write a second book for her.

Q: Some writers are intimidated speaking before a crowd. You make it look easy, so how do you do it?

A: You think that looks easy? Boy, do I have you fooled. If it looks easy, that’s because I’ve been doing it for many, many years, and because I’m fascinated by writing (and by my amazing luck in getting to be a writer) so I like to share that with readers. I also love to teach writing, and I think audiences often have a lot of questions about process that help to make speaking into a conversation. All that being said, I always have that moment of terror just before I start, wondering if this will be the time I’m totally brain dead.

Q: What's the best speaking/reading event you've ever done?

A: Well, I did one the other day at the Kennebunkport Library that was great. The most surprising was years ago when I was asked to be part of a writer’s series—at a library in a town whose name I now forget—but Jack Beatty invited me. I thought it would be some small event with a dozen people or so… and I arrived to find the room packed with hundreds of people and a TV crew to film it. So that was pretty amazing.

But the all time best? Hands down it was the night I got to interview Tony Hillerman about his autobiography as part of the Concord Author Festival. I was already a huge Hillerman fan, so this was the treat of a lifetime. Two arm chairs, Hillerman’s charm, a huge audience, TV cameras, and I had so much fun. When we got to the point in the program where the audience passed in questions, one of them was: What is the name of the woman who is interviewing Mr. Hillerman? I was so into showcasing him that I totally forgot to introduce myself.

Q: If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A: Hard question. I no longer read and edit people’s manuscripts for them like I used to. I just don’t have the time. If I’m not overwhelmed, and I know the person and feel they are serious about their writing, I will sometimes offer to read 50 pages. I can tell most of what I need to know in 50 pages. Sometimes I suggest books, classes like the ones I teach at Grub Street, and joining Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, because writing is a lonely business and this is a great way to get support. And I always urge eager and impatient writers not to jump the gun, but take the time to send in the best, most unrejectable book possible. Because it’s still a very harsh and competitive world out there.

Q: What's the next step in your writing world? And do you have more series planned?

A: Right now, I’m finishing up another co-writing project. When that’s done, I’m about eight chapters into a new book, new character. Not something I’m planning to make into a series. And I have three books that need to be revised that I’d like to spend some time with. And then, as I mentioned, there’s another Thea and another Joe Burgess in holding patterns in my brain, waiting for me to find time for them. Then I’d like to put some of my short stories together in an anthology, and I have a novella, Be My Little Sugar, that needs some tweaking and then I hope to put it together with the first novella in that series, Girls’ Night Out, add a third story about this women’s book group taking revenge on men behaving badly, and make that a book.

Whew! Right? And that’s just some of the things that are clamoring for my attention.

Q: What's the oddest thing a fan has ever said to you?

A: There are many, but here are two:

May I ask you a personal question?
Me: You can ask.
Is Thea’s mother based on your mother?
Me: (shocked and considering) No. My mother is my hero. But I think she is based on my two grandmothers.

This isn’t a question, but a comment:

Man in the audience: My wife has given me permission to go out with Thea.

And of course, the two things people say all the time that really push my buttons:

I’ve always wanted to write, but I tried it once and it was hard.

I’ve always wanted to write a book, and someday, when I have a free weekend, I’m going to write one.

I tried that. It took me 4 ½ months, writing ten hours a day and seven days a week. And then I had a 485 page book that I had to cut by a hundred pages.

Q: What's the strangest thing you've seen in the writing world? In the world at large?

A: Well, here’s something I saw once that I now use as a writing prompt for my students.
I’d just dropped my son off at work, and was driving down a road in Waltham that runs along a reservoir and then becomes a one-way street into Lincoln, MA. No sidewalks. No houses, just a couple of uphill roads leading to business complexes. So the car in front of me slows and comes to a stop. Beyond it, I can see a man with a backpack heading toward the car. I can’t go around because there’s traffic coming the other way. So I stop and wait. The car in front of me is an older Cadillac with a woman driving. The guy with the backpack walks up to the car, steps up on the bumper, walks up the hood, up the windshield, across the room, and down the trunk, and continues walking away. Never slowing his pace. The woman opens her door and tries to talk to him, but he ignores her.

And then I tell my students to write what happened before that led up to this event.

Yup. It really happened.

Once I saw a pig running madly down I-93.

Q: Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A: There’s really nothing that much fun about me. I just work all the time. Oh… how about this? I was runner-up for Maine Blueberry Queen. And because of my love of blueberries, for my 55th birthday, my husband bought me an 18-acre blueberry field.

Q: Any other information you'd like to impart?

A: Anyone reading this is sick to death of me by now. But advice to aspiring writers?

Keep your seat in the seat.

You can edit a bad draft, but you can’t edit a blank page.

And only you get to decide that you’re a writer, so own that right, and get to work.

Q: Last word?

A: Buy my books.   :-)

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