M. H. Callaway Talks Snake Oil and Sugar

M. H. Callaway has helped investigate a murder, toured the 3000 foot deep Falconbridge nickel mine and even met the Queen of England (though not all at the same time). She turned to writing, and her many distinctions include a nomination for the CWC Award for Best Novella for “Snake Oil,” which you can now preorder as part of her new collection, Snake Oil and Other Tales!

Fortunately, I got to interview M.H. before she ran off on her next adventure.

Melissa Yi: Do you prefer sugar or vice?

M. H. Callaway: Well, I have to admit that I lean to the dark side, both in my reading and writing. Readers have told me that some of my work, like my novellas, Snake Oil and Glow Grass, are really horror crossovers. That’s hard to wrap my head around, especially since I never read horror and avoid watching scary movies.

I’m not sure why I have such a dark vision and why it creeps into my stories. Perhaps it’s due to my unsettled childhood or fighting to make it in several male-dominated professions like science and management consulting! I’m delighted to see the progress that women have made in the last several decades. 

But I’m not totally into Vice / Noir. Every once in a while I need to cleanse my palette with a cuddly cozy – and when I do, I enjoy every word. I’ve even written lighter work and to my surprise and delight, my two cozies published in 2022 were both short-listed for a CWC award. That said, Erik De Souza didn’t find “Must Love Dogs – or You’re Gone”, that light-hearted – perhaps it works as a black comedy. 

MY: Does real life inspire your tales, whether dark or cozy?

MHC: How did you guess that I used a real small town as my inspiration for Amdur’s Ghost? In fact, Dunlop is a thinly disguised version of Goderich, Ontario where we have our family cottage. I’m afraid that none of the characters were inspired by and friends or family; they are all figments of my twisted imagination.  They all come alive and speak to me as I write. Many times, the characters are what we wish for: they fight for justice.

Dr. Benjamin Amdur is the kind of civil servant we would want. He’s dedicated to looking after the people of Ontario and committed to saving our public health system. He’s a bit of fish out of water in Dunlop, an outsider in Dunlop, because he’s a “city rat” from Toronto and he has much to learn about rural culture in Ontario. He finds that there are many dedicated people just like him though different – in a good way.

So even though I don’t use real people as the basis for my characters, I am shameless in stealing settings! In Glow Grass, I used our family cottage and my husband maintains I used our own house as inspiration for Snake Oil.

MY: I did an ob/gyn elective in Goderich and I live in rural Ontario now. I don’t know if I steal settings so much as details like food. 🙂

MHC: Sugar and Vice is at the top of my cozy reading list. What a great idea to use the seven deadly sins to frame the new Hope Sze mystery series! And what better sin than gluttony? Everyone can relate to the delights of food, especially me!

MY: Sugar and Vice isn’t exactly a cozy. I tried to write a cozy thriller, so I’m afraid it’ll scare the real cozy fans away. You’re right about the food and gluttony, though!

MHC: I especially enjoyed the sensual details in Sugar and Vice. I can taste the yummy Chinese and Korean food while delighting in Hope’s witty assessments of the Dragon Boat competition, life, love, the universe and everything. It’s funny and light-hearted and draws you in: I can’t wait to find out who is fated to die and to have Hope catch the killer.

MY: Well, I can’t wait to read Snake Oil and Other Tales! I’m preordering it as a birthday gift to myself. Thank you, M.H.!

Introducing Melodie Campbell and Sugar and Vice!

Do you know Melodie Campbell? You should! Melodie has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis, and eight more awards for crime fiction. She didn’t even steal them.

Perpetually witty and generous, this famous (infamous?) crime writer agreed to an interview and then turned the spotlight on me. You know how these mystery writers love to pull reversals on you!

Melissa Yi: Sugar or vice? Meaning, do you prefer sweet and cozy or edgy?

Melodie Campbell: You could have knocked me over with a cannoli when I saw people were calling “The Merry Widow Murders” a cozy!  It’s neither sweet nor cozy, with many references to the aftermath of WW1, and the deep grief felt from Lucy, my young widowed protagonist.  It is, however, the type of book I like to read myself.  A traditional mystery where the reader is challenged to race along with the protagonist to discover the murderer.  In my case, I can’t help adding a lot of comic relief, mainly in the form of Lucy’s pickpocket-turned-maid Elf, and the banter that takes place between the two of them.  

So I like a bit of an edge with my crime; a balance, so to speak.  You can’t be laughing all the time, or it becomes banal.

MY: Yes, exactly. You don’t want to turn into a laugh track. Still, as “Canada’s Queen of Comedy,” do you find it effortless to incorporate humour into your writing, or is it like a muscle you have to work?

MC: I am reminded of the old performers’ adage: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”  So I have to smile and say, no, it’s not easy, but writing serious suspense is even harder for me!  It takes me a year to write a novel.  I can’t stay in a dark head-space for that length of time.

Perhaps it’s habit.  I got my start writing comedy in the 90s; I wrote standup for comedians, and had a regular humour column in two papers.  I had 24 short stories published before I even tried to write a novel.  Surprisingly, many of them were dark, with twist endings.  But when I came to write a novel, I fell back on what I do naturally: make it funny.  To be honest, I’ve tried to write straight, but every time I do, a natural quip comes to me that I just can’t resist, and the tension breaks when it shouldn’t!  So I’ve given up, and admitted that I will never be the Margaret Atwood of Mystery.  Instead, one reviewer for Ellery Queen called me “the Carole Burnett of Crime.” 

MY: What a compliment!

MC: Melodie speaking:  Turnabout is fair play!  I have a few questions for Melissa now.

MC: First, a comment:  I absolutely love the first chapter of Sugar and Vice.  That last sentence is a textbook way to end a first chapter; perfect foreshadowing.  It also provides a terrific example of my comment above:  you need a balance between bathos and pathos.  The dialogue between Hope and friends is full of fun, but…here’s the ‘awe’ moment.  We know there is going to be something serious at stake, and Hope will be in the thick of it.  Her own self could be at risk!

MC: Melissa, like you, most of my career has been in health care.  I’ve seen a lot of things I wish I could forget.  Do you find writing humorous fiction a welcome escape from your day job?

MY: Yes! Sometimes I like to write about medicine straight up, like in the essays in The Most
Unfeeling Doctor in the World
collection, which I started after a patient called me the most
unfeeling doctor he’d ever met. I do change patient details, but sometimes I want to write, “This
happened,” with or without humour.
Other times, I escape hard stories outright by writing comedy, fantasy, science fiction, or
romance with a happy ending and/or a new world. It makes life a lot more cheerful and bearable.

MC: Why crime?  I know you also write Sci-fi (as I have) but most of your fiction is steeped with crime.  What drives you to this genre?

MY: Ooh, I’ll have to read your SF too!
Crime means that no matter what happens, you end with a sense of justice. Sometimes other
writers blow my mind with the cleverness of the villain and therefore the sleuth.
Although my residency in Montreal was tough at the time, like my family medicine clinic had no
running water (I literally had to run down the hall to heat up a metal speculum), I can look back
at laugh and write about it now. I love a doctor who saves lives and fight killers.
Readers do ask for more Hope, even if they can’t pronounce her last name. Psst, it’s Sze, which
you can pronounce like the letter C.

And who says you have to choose? In Hope’s Seven Deadly Sins series, paranormal elements
infiltrate Hope’s world, starting with ghosts in The Shapes of Wrath and dragons in Sugar and Vice.

Back the Sugar and Vice Kickstarter before Sept 26th for the exclusive dragon cover!

MC: ‘Sugar and Vice’ is the best title I’ve seen in years, and spot on for our genre. I’m miffed I
didn’t think of it first!  What was your inspiration for this particular story?

MY: Thank you! I knew I’d write about gluttony as Hope’s second deadly sin, but how and why
would people would die over food? I wrestled over that for a long time.
I started researching mukbangs, videos where people livestream their meals, sometimes in
unusual ways, like discussing true crime over cheesy lasagna. Strange but true.
I also took a look at dragon boat racing.
Somehow, my brain invented the Dragon Eats festival, which combines dragon boat racing with
food competitions. I knew Hope would run into murder there!
As for title envy, nothing quite fit, and I wished I’d come up with another great title, Sugar and
Spite. While walking my dog, I realized that Sugar and Vice fit my book even better!

I have to thank cozies for the inspiration, since I named The Shapes of Wrath after reading The
Crêpes of Wrath.
I steal, I mean, get inspired, by everything. 😉

Melodie, thank you for this interview. I’ve long admired your talent and kindness, and I hope more readers get to devour your work, starting with the Merry Widow Murders. Happy reading!

P.S. The Kickstarter for Sugar and Vice has unlocked the exclusive dragon cover. That means if you love dragons like me, back now to grab Sugar and Vice in its first worldwide edition, dripping with dragons. Otherwise, wait for retailers to stock the doughnut cover in February 2024.

Thank you so much!