“So hard to apply for grants. You spend tons of time on them and get rejected,” I told other people in the theatre community.
“Yup,” they all answered, and gave me pep talk that boiled down to “Get used to it.”
Sadly, since our society don’t support the arts as much as, say, big oil, arts grants fill the gap. They make sure the performers, director, playwright, and behind the scenes technicians get paid and can continue to make more art.
The arts are good for you. For example, the 2018 Seattle ArtsFund study concluded, “low-income neighborhoods with cultural resources have 14% fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and 18% less serious crime than low-income neighborhoods without cultural resources.” Who wouldn’t want to lower child abuse and crime? They also found that “71% of at-risk students with high arts involvement attend college whereas 47% of at risk-students with low arts involvement attend college.” Education for the win!
On the economic side, in Ontario alone, arts and culture contribute “$28.7 billion or 3.5% of the province’s GDP and 301,495 jobs” in a 2019 study by Statistics Canada.
Still, the arts land on the chopping block every budget. So grants for a new production, say of my play, Terminally Ill? Hard sell. Lots of no’s.
Fortunately, the City of Ottawa awarded the Hope Rises collective $4000 in 2021.
The Ottawa Community Foundation awarded us $10,000. We’ll spend the first portion on workshops with the indigenous community and the second portion on the production in 2024.
TACTICS selected us for the workshop series in 2021 ($3000) and, on Friday the 13th, awarded us a production grant for spring 2023 ($4000).
undercurrents, run by the Ottawa Fringe, invited us to New Play Tuesday 2022 and undercurrents in 2024.
So now I’m actively searching for indigenous teachers and reaching out to the community to see if we can do a cultural exchange, including a one-day workshop in Akwesasne.
In addition to Shirley Manh as Hope Sze, Melissa Landry as Elvis, Ray Besharah as Archer, and myself as the playwright, we can now add talent like Glenys Marshall as Lucia and dramaturg, and Adam Sakauye as Ryan. And we won’t stop there.
Instead of having everyone play up to 2 or 3 roles, more talent can join and elevate the show. The latest two stars, Adam and Glenys, I found through the Youth Infringement Festival. I love adding more of the 18-25 demographic to our team, although we’ll miss John Koensgen, who was called to Stratford, and Sheldon Parathundyi, now studying law at UBC.
Of course the grants require more work. It’s more like running a small business than writing. But with this investment, we can highlight the aerial (vertical theatre) component and get it right. We can invest in lighting and sound. We can experiment with the immersive element (hey, I wrote a new scene to highlight our newest performers).
Can’t wait. Thank you to the community, for believing in us, to the government for keeping arts funding alive, and to you, for paying your taxes and making art possible.
The International Thriller Writers sent a notice for their BIPOC Middle Grade crime novel contest. The prize? A scholarship to ThrillerFest 2022 with a $1000 stipend.
Had I ever written a middle grade thriller? No, but last year, I won the ITW contest for best first sentence, as selected by NYT and USA Today bestselling author Allison Brennan:
Why not write a middle grade novel to go with that sentence?
Well, COVID, for one. Our hospital exploded with cases, sidelining nurses, housekeeping, pharmacy, secretaries, and finally the doctors. Can you work? Can you work more? became the constant refrain.
For another, I planned to attend the Canadian Women in Medicine conference in Victoria, BC, June 2-4, 2022. Gin*Eco*Logic artisan distiller and gynaecologist Nathalie Gamache had created a gin in honour of my protagonist, Dr. Hope Sze. We planned a gourmet speakeasy June 1st to launch her gin and my latest thriller, both named White Lightning. The Playwrights Guild of Canada sponsored a play reading for me at Carr House June 2nd. Hooray!
Plus I’m already wrestling with my latest Hope Sze novel and the play Terminally Ill. I don’t need another project.
But what the heck. Chances were, I’d lose, and then I’d take a wonderful trip to BC and celebrate with Nathalie plus a hilarious ER physician; some of my wonderful workout partners at Fifty Shades of Slay; a beloved local surgeon and palliative physician; a radiologist who outbid everyone at the silent auction for the Hope Sze novels to raise money for Elena Fric’s children; and more marvellous humans. I’d get to visit Leah, one of my best friends from undergrad. I could almost smell the Pacific Ocean.
Except two days ago, I received an email from Kimberley Howe, the leader of the International Thriller Writers. I won, I won, I won! Eden Sze vs. The Red Rock Serial Killer won me a free ticket to ThrillerFest, CraftFest, and PitchFest.
“R.L. Stine was one of the judges and if you can make it to ThrillerFest, he would love to do a meet and greet with you.”
R.L. Stine? As my friend Michael said, ”That’s so cool, it gives me … Goosebumps!”
On one hand, I’d promised to celebrate with my crew of wonderful women and the Playwrights Guild of Canada and Carr House.
On the other hand, ITW had handed me a golden ticket.
Although I’ve tried to prioritize writing ruthlessly, I can’t always. See pandemic above. My children need me. But NYC beckons. Nathalie, the ginecologist, gave her blessing.
”Melissa!!!!!!! Congrats!!!!!!!!!!!!! You go girl!!!!! This is not an occasion you can miss!!!”
I can’t explain my gratitude for my friends, who tell me to go for it even when it messes up their plans.
Thank you. I‘ll miss you, Victoria. I hope to meet you another time.
In the meantime, New York and ITW and R.L. Stine? See you May 31st.
Mui Mui was born in 1980, which was too late for most things, including lava lamps, pet rocks, and most importantly, the Fairy Godfather.
Her brother, Trenton, was seven years old when he defeated the Fairy Godfather who’d threatened their parents at Guandong Barbecue, their Toronto family restaurant. Mui Mui, who’d been only three months old at the time, didn’t remember one second of the showdown
“It was a long time ago,” Trenton said, stuffing paper napkins into the steel container on the counter next to the cash.
“It was six years ago!” Mui Mui wiped down the display counter that would soon be filled with crispy pork and fresh vegetables. “You have to remember!”
Thanks for reading the opening. This story was eligible for the Aurora Award. It was originally published in FOOD OF MY PEOPLE, edited by edited by Candas Jane Doresey and Ursula Pflug.The Bao Queen will also be available in my forthcoming fantasy and science fiction anthology, tentatively titled CHINESE CINDERELLA, ANOREXIC ZOMBIES, AND GRANDMA OTHELLO IN SPACE.
On June 25, 2019, I submitted my first proposal to to turn one of my novels into a stage play. I deliberately picked the most challenging to stage: TERMINALLY ILL, where Elvis the Escape King is chained and nailed into a coffin and lowered into the St. Lawrence River.
In December, Bronwyn Steinberg, TACTICS Artistic Director and Series Curator, accepted Terminally Ill as a workshop so we could figure out how on earth to stage Elvis.
We were slated to open in June 2020, so I quickly assembled a talented Ottawa team:
John Koensgen, Dramaturg (Actor and award-winning director)
Shirley Manh, Actor (Dr. Hope Sze)
Sheldon Parathundyil, Actor (Dr. John Tucker)
Melissa Landry, Aerialist & Actor (Elvis, Kameron)
Ray Besharah, Actor (Archer)
Melissa “Yi” Yuan-Innes, Lead artist (Playwright, and author of Terminally Ill)
I’m thrilled to note that even though the scenes could have been Hope + 3/4 cis het White male dudes, our collective is 50% female and 50% people of colour. Our roots are as distant as China, Kerala, India, Mauritius, Africa, and Acadian New Brunswick and as close as downtown Ottawa. Our ages range from 20s to 70s and bring together theatre and circus performers in one brilliant show.
We had to work around commitments like John’s Waiting for Godot in Inuktitut, Melissa Landry’s tour in Ireland, and Sheldon’s scheduled research and graduate work. So we were all set for June 2020 when … COVID.
We scrambled to stage in 2021, seeking an outdoor space that would accommodate Melissa L’s 20’x20’x20’ rig. We had the support of TACTICS’ new Co-Artistic Producers, Ludmylla Reis and Rebecca Benson, but the answer is still COVID. So we pivoted online.
Tonight at 7 pm ET, please join us for a glimpse of Terminally Ill. This is a preview of the complete play, which I hope TACTICS will help us stage in 2022.
However, this night is a slice of history, since we may not be able to replicate our team again. Sheldon heads to BC for law school (congrats!), and the rest of our team may be touring or have other commitments.
And we have a very special guest: Dean Gunnarson, the star of Escape or Die and the very escape artist who inspired the Terminally Ill novel, will join us LIVE.
I always envisioned an extinction-level event entailing a lot more drunken revelry or sex with random strangers, and a lot less Soviet-style lineups for toilet paper at Costco or countless hours of sitting in front of a screen like the human blobs in WALL-E.
Scorpion Scheme is here! To celebrate, I’m starting a series on KamikaSze writers and readers–basically, people to whom my heroine, Hope Sze, would give the thumbs up.
First up, please welcome R.H. Nix. I met her in real life because we’re close friends with the same person, but we’re both enthusiastic book nerds who got together to watch Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir on their final skating tour.
You can see we’re kindred spirits because she’s the only other person I know who re-wears her wedding dress. Here’s a pic of her with her littles:
Now let’s have some book lovin’! The Golden One is a fun, light-hearted fantasy, but what struck me most is the love story. How would you describe your novel? I would describe it as a lot like me: short, fun, sweet and bubbly 🙂 Or I would say it was a young adult fantasy with a good romance. I like your description because that is what I was aiming for.
What drew you to writing your first book? I have always been a writer and have been thinking about writing a book for a long time and then this story came to me and I starting writing it down. I had a lot of support from other authors that I have met through this journey and that helped push me to get it over the finish line and out into the world.
What were the hardest and the best parts about writing? The hardest part of writing this book for me was the editing process. It was so hard to keep going through it and improving it – I have a wonderful editor who really supported me though and I am so happy with the final product. The best part of writing is getting the story out of my head and seeing where the characters take me. Every new chapter is a surprise.
Did anything surprise you about your publishing journey? I was pretty surprised that I actually published! The feedback I have received has also been so wonderful and a really lovely surprise.
Have you started on your next work? I have! I was originally going to tackle a different genre, but everyone likes this one so much that I decided to write another young adult. I am not sure if it will be a fantasy or a thriller, but I have the first few lines written and have promised myself to have it done by next Fall. Wish me luck!
What was it like to fall in love in real life? I am living a real life fairy tale – I met my husband on the bus, and it was love at first sight. We just celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary.
How is that different from young love between Zava and Nate? Nothing can compare to that first love when you are a teenager. The first hand touch, the first kiss, the first snuggle. I love everything about falling in love so it is a fun thing to write about and experience again through my characters.
Code Blues, the first Hope Sze novel, is on sale now for 99 cents, and the opening has been sharpened, so if you’ve already bought it, you can update it in the next 72 hours. Just contact your etailer, and they should be able to help you.
If you have a paperback, post a pic, and I can send you a pdf that’s all shiny and new!
This rank rise was brought to you by the magic of Bookbub. If you want to hear more about that, ask below.
Now, sales ranks come and go, so I’m immortalizing this now and keeping my fingers crossed that hundreds of new and hungry readers will now devour my writing.
As Hope herself quotes in the forthcoming Scorpion Scheme:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul –
In 2018, British author and editor Bridget Lawless founded a prize for excellence in thrillers that do not portray violence against women.
In 2020, I have been longlisted for the Staunch Prize for short fiction for my story, “My Two-Legs.”
The heroine of my story is a golden retriever named Star who’s locked in a car when her owner (her “two-legs”) disappears. I enjoyed the challenge of a protagonist who couldn’t talk and who has no opposable thumbs, trying to escape a car, find her “two-legs,” and figure out who tried to kill him.
It’s a huge honour for me to join the long list of authors, chosen from hundreds of submissions around the world.
I believe in a prize that aims for a better world, namely a world that doesn’t rely on female victims for entertainment. You can still write those stories, as I have myself, but I’m fiercely glad there is a prize for those of us who choose to avoid it.
Introducing…S! My latest Hope Sze thriller, Graveyard Shift, was inspired by a local police officer who stopped a massive medication theft. But I needed both his and the police department’s permission to talk about that, and I didn’t know the officer’s last name. Then this happened: “Oh, it’s Dr. Yuan-Innes!” I ran into Constable Michael Ménard, who recognized me and said, “You’re one of our favourite doctors.” Gosh. I shook his hand, thanked him for making my day (turns out that part of their criteria is “doctors who don’t make us wait around in the department forever”), and explained my dilemma about how to find one of his officers post-theft.
Now some quick real talk. I didn’t blog about Graveyard Shift because I always figured I had time. I’d do it later.
Well, now we’re at the beginning of the Canadian COVID-19 pandemic. I have to work in the ER tomorrow. We’re an hour away from Ottawa, where public health has warned of community spread. I work in a tiny hospital with no CT, no portable chest X-ray, and bare minimum labs after hours.
Health care workers have more than 10 times the risk of catching COVID-19. We don’t exactly know why but assume it’s because we get exposed repeatedly over and over while exhausted and under-protected. American M.D.’s have to rewear their N95 masks post-intubation or have none at all, and we’ve learned of Italian doctors who died with no protective equipment, not even gloves.
So I started a petition two days ago that was immediately signed by 62 physicians and had the support of many more. We need to protect our workers NOW. Don’t wait until we run out of masks and gloves. Let’s go! This is the time for war-like measures. Our colleagues are dying around the world, and we have only a tiny window of time before it happens here.
“I hope we get to 1000 signatures in the morning,” said one of my new friends.
“I want thousands,” I replied. Dream big. You may not win, but you might as well try. To my astonishment, http://change.org/COVID19frontline has hit 64,000 signatures as we speak. Dr. Carol Loffelmann and Dr. Michelle Cohen and I have spoken to the media. We’ve been in discussion with entrepreneurs, puzzling out how to get that equipment made.
However, I will relax more when we’ve covered everything in this petition. We want the PPE not only ordered but available to our front line workers, with masks and gloves accessible for the police and other essential services. We want to test patients properly and care for you with enough doctors, nurses, respiratory technicians, and other crucial personnel, using the correct medications and equipment. And we want everyone else to stay home and healthy.
So thank you, each and every one of you, for signing this petition and bringing us one step closer.
As Winston Churchill wrote, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Melissa Yi: Welcome, Joanne. You fell in love with cozy mysteries during chemotherapy. Do you mind telling that story?
Joanne Guidoccio: On the cusp of my fiftieth birthday, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer and forced to take a leave of absence. While undergoing chemotherapy, I searched for light and entertaining novels that would provide a healthy diversion. I was grateful for the bags of books dropped off by friends but couldn’t get into any of the storylines. I found the spiritual books too intense and the comedic books unsatisfying.
Instead, I gravitated toward cozies, those delightful murder mysteries that include a bloodless crime and contain little violence, sex, or coarse language. I was familiar with Agatha Christie’s novels and pleasantly surprised to discover more authors in the genre, among them Susan Wittig Albert, MC Beaton, Mary Jane Maffini, and Denise Swanson. I read voraciously, often finishing a cozy in one or two sittings.
Toward the end of treatments, I decided to experiment with the genre and considered the following scenario: What if a woman wins a major lottery, returns to her hometown, and then finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation involving four blondes? Can she prove her innocence and solve this case before it’s too late?
MY: Great hook! My only problem is that I felt guilty because you’ve read at least two Hope Sze novels, and Graveyard Shift is much darker. Do you have trouble identifying with more gritty thrillers?
JG: While I do read the occasional psychological thriller, I don’t think I could ever write that “dark” …it just isn’t in me. A fan of riveting medical drama, I enjoyed reading several novels in the Hope Sze series. I didn’t pick up on an extreme grittiness factor.
Would you like to comment on the division between cozies and noir? I had no idea this was a “thing” until I attended my first conference, Bloody Words, but it seems like there are two separate camps and for some, “never the twain shall meet.”
To be truthful, I am not too familiar with noir literature. In some of the articles, it has been described as a “disturbing mix of sex and violence.” Not something I would care to read or write.
I prefer more light-hearted mysteries, aptly call cozies. The crime takes place “off-stage,” and very few graphic details are provided. By the end of the story, the criminal is punished, and order is restored to the community.
I agree…” never the twain shall meet.”
One of the things I admire about you is that you’ve created a real community on your website and, I suspect, in your life. One of your heroines, Gilda Greco, is a career counsellor. The tagline for your website s “On the Road to Reinvention,” and you invite authors to blog about their “Second Acts,” where we talk about careers or lives we had before. Why this passion for reinvention? How important is friendship in your writing career and in your life?
Reinvention is a core theme of my own life. A cancer diagnosis at age 49 and a decision to retire at age 53 prompted me to reassess my life goals. An avid reader, I searched for fiction and nonfiction literature that would help me navigate these uncertain waters. And then I decided to write the books I wanted to read.
As for friendships—both IRL and online—I cherish all of them. I am grateful to all the friends who have supported me on my cancer and writing journeys. They have enriched my life beyond measure.
You wanted to be a writer in grade 13, but chose to go into teaching first. Yet A Different Kind of Reunion is dedicated to your former students, and the plot is clearly inspired by your teaching. What are the advantages and disadvantages of pursing a “safe” career before your dream career?
Pursuing a “safe” career made economic sense. I received a regular salary and qualified for health benefits. Throughout those 31 years, I toyed with writing a novel during weekends and vacations but never followed through. I enjoyed teaching but found it to be a very demanding career. I simply didn’t have the time and energy for much else.
That being said, I have no regrets about selecting the “safe” career. In retirement, I now have the time and space to pursue a creative second act.
You called Between Land and Sea “a paranormal romance about a middle-aged ex-mermaid.” I find that your middle-aged heroines, both ex-mermaid and human, help expand diversity and representation. Is that important to you?
In my late forties, I realized that I no longer enjoyed reading novels with 20something and 30something protagonists. It felt like poking into the heads and hearts of young women who could easily be former students. While searching for novels featuring an older crowd, I discovered several late-blooming authors who had launched successful second acts. I was inspired and decided to populate my novels with Boomer women and their older sisters
How do you continue to improve your writing after five novels?
I take online courses and attend writing workshops. I also enjoy reading craft books. Two recent favorites: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier.
I enjoyed A Season for Killing Blondes. Then I picked up A Different Kind of Reunion, which starts off describing three different Barbie-like students, and the constable quizzes her about the email she missed from “Moody Barbie!” Do you have something against blondes? 🙂
For some reason—that’s unexplainable—I visualize certain characters as blondes. At some level, I may be trying to balance the brunette/blonde ratio in my novels. Most of the Italian characters in the Gilda Greco Series have dark hair. So, it makes practical sense to add more diversity with the new characters. Also, I like to have one Ken/Barbie couple in each book.
I do love the Italian characters–and the Italian food, family, and friendships. Thanks for coming on my blog, Joanne, and sharing your stories and your mysteries!
About the Gilda Greco Mystery Series
A cross between Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Cher (Moonstruck), protagonist Gilda Greco brings a unique perspective to the amateur female sleuth.
The teacher-turned-lottery winner returns to her hometown, only to find herself embroiled in a series of murder investigations. Before you start imaging thrillers with high stakes and police chases, pause and take a yoga breath. The three novels in the series—A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room, A Different Kind of Reunion—are cozy mysteries, written in the Agatha Christie tradition. All the crimes take place “off stage” with very few graphic details provided.
While the pace may be more relaxed than that of thrillers and police procedurals, there are no steaming cups of herbal teas, overstuffed chairs, or purring cats in these contemporary cozies. Prepare yourself for interfering relatives who don’t always respect boundaries, adult mean girls, deserving and undeserving men, multiple suspects, and lots of Italian food.
A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne Guidoccio writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romances, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.
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?
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.
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.
Melissa Yi: I have to ask you what inspired you to write such an unusual debut novel. For those of you who haven’t yet devoured PETRA’S GHOST, an Irish expatriate named Daniel gathers his wife’s ashes and intends to spread them as he walks the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage through Spain. He follows in the same footsteps of a woman who disappeared while walking the Camino. The missing woman and his wife’s death weigh on Daniel even as he tries to establish a relationship with another pilgrim, an outspoken California librarian named Ginny.
Ginny says “Everyone has a story.” Is this, somehow, your story? Even if it’s only in a metaphorical sense, as with resurrected chickens in Capilla de la Magdalena? C.S. O’Cinneide: To a large extent, the story in Petra’s Ghost is very much my story of when I walked the Camino Frances in 2015. If you check out the blog entries from my trip (https://www.shekillslit.com/camino/) you will recognize many of the places and experiences contained in the book. What you won’t see in my blog entries is the fact that a woman did indeed go missing off the pilgrimage when I was walking. Her real-life story did not end well. With the exception of one sketchier stretch of the trail, I felt extremely safe walking on my own in Spain, but this poor woman was never far from my mind. So, it was not surprising that when I came home to write that she found her way into my novel. The Camino, much like life in general, has its dark and its light aspects, and I have always enjoyed contrasting those two elements in my writing.
MY: Honestly, as the author of the witty SheKillsLit.com blog, I expected a hilarious, satirical thriller, more like how you describe your next book, The Starr Sting Scale, featuring a six foot three hitwoman. I would call Petra’s Ghost more literary horror. What made you decide to tackle death, guilt, abuse, family, Dante, and the supernatural? CSO: Yes, The Starr Sting Scale is a very different book! More than one editor has been caught laughing out loud at their desks while working on it. Petra’s Ghost does have humour in it (I can’t seem to write without it), but it has been promoted as literary. The horror label came as a surprise to me (and my publisher) and made me question what horror is and how we assign genre. Do people consider Victorian ghost stories like A Christmas Carol horror? Is The Notebook a romance novel? In any case, I am honoured to have been pegged in the same genre as Shirley Jackson, my writing idol. As far as how these more horrific elements made it into Petra’s Ghost, I can only say that I don’t seem to have control over that in my writing. One time I tried to write a short story about a woman baking brown bread during the height of the suffragette movement and by the end of it she had poisoned her own children. My writing always seems to go to dark places. It must be a cathartic of some kind. But it is always used as a literary device to look at larger issues, like the economic vulnerability of women in the early 1900’s in the case of the brown bread short story, or in Petra’s Ghost as a vehicle to examine the hell we can make for ourselves when we pair the sisters of guilt and grief.
I was also surprised that there was very little Canada, except for a French Canadian woman hitting on Daniel. When I’ve read other novels by Canadian authors and publishers, they tend to wave the maple leaf. What made you and Dundurn decide to take it in a more international direction? CSO: Don’t forget the Dutchman’s sister-friend who is Canadian too!
MY: Yes, all hail the flirty Canadian contingent! Kidding.
CSO: The book was completed by the time my publisher got their hands on it, so they had no say on the Canadian content or lack thereof. I love books that feature Canadian places and people. It is so refreshing to read about the things we know and recognize. But I think Canadians are capable of writing books about far more than just Canada. The Camino is a very international experience and it lends itself to an international cast of characters. Most pilgrims are usually from another country other than Spain, but they all become citizens of the Camino when they come to walk it. In that way I suppose it is a Canadian story, since we live in a country peopled for the most part by those who have come from somewhere else.
MY: These are my favourite lines, and they’re a description of Petra’s teaching. She tended to each pupil as she did to her painting, with appreciation for the different textures and hues. He can remember her laugh as she recalled the pranksters and her furrowed brow as she felt for the shy ones. I feel the wealth of empathy and could sense her visual art and her art of teaching, all at once. Any comments? I am the poorest visual artist you will find, having never progressed beyond the passable stick figure. And I am not a teacher. But I think my love and empathy for children comes out in these lines. I have four kids and have unofficially adopted some more into my life over the years. They have all brought me a great deal of joy (and furrowed brows) with their “different textures and hues.”
MY:Four kids plus. Wow!
When I attended Bloody Words and Bouchercon, I noticed a divide between cozy writers and noir writers in that cozies preferred to puzzle out the murder intellectually and avoid any description of blood. Tanis Mallow gave an impassioned defence of gritty crime scenes because that kind of description makes you feel the horror of murder instead of treating it as entertainment. Petra’s Ghost comes down on the descriptive side. Thoughts on this? CSO: Hmm. I think it comes down to what you like to write (and read) rather than a defence of one or the other. I think all good mysteries had better give you an intellectual puzzle so I’m not sure if that is really a distinguishing factor. I believe the real question is, do you want the murder in a mystery to be described with the same detail that might be used to describe a sunset in the same story? Once again, I think that just comes down to personal taste. In Petra’s Ghost, the landscapes and architecture as well as the frightening things Daniel sees are described just as evocatively. That’s the way I write. I don’t think I could do it differently. For those who don’t like that amount of detail when it comes to frightening things, this could be jarring. And they can stick with the cozy mysteries and enjoy the sunset. I won’t be offended. Except honestly, they will miss a really good book. : )
MY:I want to ask you about your pen name. Does it have a special meaning to you? CSO: The initials are my own (my first name is Carole), and O’Cinneide (oh-ki-nay-da) is my last name, Kennedy, in Irish. This is the original version of the surname before it was anglicized by the British. Many people in Ireland still use it. There were so many Carole Kennedy authors out there when I first started publishing, I wanted to differentiate myself. And of course, Ireland holds a very special place in my heart, as you can probably guess from the wonderful Irish ex-pat character of Daniel in Petra’s Ghost.
MY: Yes Congrats on the rave reviews, the critical acclaim and film/TV rights battle for Petra’s Ghost! How are you enjoying this journey so far? It is a little surreal to tell you the truth. It seems to come in spurts that attention. I am still not sure how it will translate in terms of sales. But I must say I was pretty shocked when I found half a dozen emails in my in-basket inquiring after film rights. That was definitely not something I expected. But I suppose in all that, the most meaningful moment in this debut novel journey was the personal note a reader sent me via Goodreads. She told me that Petra’s Ghost had moved her deeply with its message about guilt, grief and ultimately redemption — and that she had cried while describing the story to her husband. I could get dozens of five-star reviews in the major media and they couldn’t possibly mean as much to me as that.
MY: There you have it. Proof that your personal reviews matter. Thank you for giving such an intelligent, gracious interview, C.S. I hope my friends enjoy Petra’s Ghost as much as I do!