Judy Penz Sheluk

Judy Penz Sheluk and I first met at the Ontario Library Association’s annual conference, where were both part of a presentation by author members of Crime Writers of Canada. She introduced herself to me and invited me on her blog, so of course I fell for her immediately. But since I’m not half as organized, it’s taken me this long for me to land her on my own blog. Read all the way through for a surprise at the end!

Q: One of your heroines, Callie Barnstable, spends a lot of time organizing her thoughts and writing down details of her meetings. Her father’s manta is “A dull pencil is sharper than the sharpest mind.” Sherlock Holmes’s instant evaluations seem brilliant, but I suspect true investigations involve a lot of legwork and note taking. What do you think?

A: I’m personally hopeless without writing things down. I have a notebook next to my bedside table, along with an LED pen (so I can write in the dark when flashes of brilliance come to me in the middle of the night), and I have a separate notebook for every current work-in-progress, where I jot down things that occur to me as I’m writing in Word. That might be possible character names or timelines or ages of characters (including year of birth, how old they were at certain years, etc.) I even have a “promo notes” notebook. I’m not Callie, but a lot of her quirks are my quirks. 

Q: Tattoos! The Medical Post ran an article on doctors with tattoos and patients’ reactions. If it’s not too much of a spoiler or too much of a personal question, Callie visits a tattoo parlour in A Fool’s Journey. Do you have any tattoos? 

A: I don’t have any tattoos and no plans to get one, because, like Callie, there is nothing in this world that I can imagine wanting permanently inked on my body. I think back to my late teens, when, after breaking up with my boyfriend, I became obsessed with butterflies — “Butterflies are free.” I had butterfly earrings, necklaces…you get the idea. Well, fast forward a few (and I won’t say how many) decades and I have absolutely no affinity towards butterflies. But had tattoos been in vogue at the time, I’m sure I’d have at least one or more butterflies somewhere on my body. 

Q: I was excited that the book opens with Callie inheriting $365,000 from her grandmother conditional on her investigating the disappearance of 20-year-old Brandon Colbeck. Now I have to go back and start with book #1, Skeletons in the Attic, where Callie inherits a house from her father, conditional on her investigating her mother’s murder 30 years ago. It seems like Callie’s family keeps dying and giving her big-ticket items with strings attached. As an author, what attracts you to the idea of a mysterious inheritance?

A: Ha! Yes, Callie’s been lucky with her inheritances, hasn’t she? In the case of Skeletons, the idea came to me while my husband and I were at my lawyer’s office to redo our wills. Our lawyer was delayed in court and while Mike read back issues of Bicycling magazine, I started jotting down notes (of course I have a notebook in my purse!): “What if I was here to inherit vs. write a will? And what if there were strings attached? And what if…” By the time our lawyer arrived, I’d written chapter one. In fact, a large part of the opening scenes are directly culled from that experience. With A Fool’s Journey, I wanted to show Callie coming full circle: she’s no longer the Toronto city kid/fish out of suburban water that she was in book 1. Another inheritance, and how she handles the case, demonstrates how much she’s grown.

Q: The case in Past and Present, book #2, involves a grandmother who met a “bad end” in 1956. Do you also enjoy researching mysteries set in the past, since all three books’ cases take place 20-60 years ago?

A: I was really struggling for an idea for book 2 in the series. At the time, my mom was very ill (COPD and related health issues). Going through her closet after she passed away, there was a small 1950s train case. Inside were her immigration papers from England to Canada on the TSS Canberra in 1952, her German passport (she moved to England after the war), her mother’s (my grandmother’s) and my father’s death certificates, as well as some photographs and postcards. I’d never seen any of these things and she never spoke of her life “Before Canada” and marrying my father. I started by researching the Canberra through Pier 21, the Canadian Immigration Museum, and also through a friend of mine who collects ocean liner memorabilia. Before long, I was viewing things as if I was Callie, and honestly, that story just seemed to write itself after that. It was as if my mom were with me. The book was published Sept. 21, 2018, exactly two years after her death, and it’s dedicated to her memory.

Q: What made you decide to set your books in the fictional town of Marketville instead of the town of Newmarket?

A: Some of the landmarks are similar to Newmarket, but I’ve taken a lot of liberties with the location. It just seemed better to give it a fictional name. I did the same with my Glass Dolphin series, where Lount’s Landing is loosely based on Holland Landing, where I lived for 25 years.

Q: I liked the hint of romance in A Fool’s Journey. Do you like adding a bit of personal relationships to your fiction?

A: Gosh, no. I’m the least romantic person on the planet (just ask my husband) and I tend to skip over romantic scenes in books I’m reading. As a result, I really struggle with adding romantic elements to my books. But in real life, people have relationships, and so my characters do, too. I will say, however, that I love the relationship between Arabella Carpenter and her ex-husband, Levon Larroquette (Glass Dolphin series) because they’re so clearly meant for each other and refuse to admit it.

Q: Very sorry to hear that your traditional publisher, Barking Rain Press (BRP), closed on July 7th. When you received the news, you were on vacation, and A Fool’s Journey, was slated to release August 21st. I understand that you poured yourself some very expensive Chardonnay. And then what did you do? 

A: To be honest, BRP’s closing wasn’t a huge surprise. The publisher had gone through a plethora of personal problems over the past 18 months and it finally wore her down. I wrote a blog post about it “When Things Go South When You’re North: The End of Barking Rain Press” for anyone interested in learning more, including details of the re-release of my two BRP titles (Skeletons in the Attic and A Hole in One). http://www.judypenzsheluk.com/2019/08/08/when-things-go-south-when-youre-north-the-end-of-barking-rain-press/

Q: What do you foresee for the future of writing and publishing, and your own journey in particular?

A: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do think as more small press publishers open, with little idea of the amount of work or capitol outlay involved, and the razor thin profit margins, there will continue to be more authors “orphaned” as those same presses shutter their doors after a handful of years. I also think more authors will self-publish, but unfortunately, many of those will look at it as a “fast track” to getting published and won’t invest in professional editing, proofreading, and cover art, all of which, to my mind, are essential, at least if you want to cultivate a following. As for medium-to-large presses, there will continue to be mergers and acquisitions. Publishing is a tough business. 

As for my future, I need only look at my past. I spent years working in the corporate world in management positions. I walked away in 2003, took a huge pay cut, and started freelance writing/editing, loved it, and never looked back. In 2018, I walked away from my last freelance gig to concentrate of writing books fulltime. Erica Jong said, “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.” I couldn’t agree more.

And here’s your surprise. Judy and her husband on her wedding day! I re-wore my wedding dress on our anniversary last month, and Judy sent me a picture of her wedding too. They look fab!

Judy Penz Sheluk is the bestselling author of the Glass Dolphin Mystery and Marketville Mystery series, and the editor of The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. Her short stories can be found in several collections. Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Vice Chair on the Board of Directors. Find her at http://www.judypenzsheluk.com and on Amazon.