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Thursday, October 20, 2011

I Started (Writing My) Novel to be Polite: An Interview with Julie Hyzy

I don't remember when I met Julie. She's one of those people who is so nice and so easy to be with that she's like a long-lost pal the moment you are introduced. I interviewed her for the Love Is Murder newsletter. Her answers are pure Julie!


JCS: Julie, you started as a short story writer convinced she couldn’t finish a book. Tell us about your friendship with Michael Black and the good advice he gave you. Didn’t the two of you also collaborate? How did that work?

click to see a larger versionJH: Absolutely true. I'd dreamed of being a writer since I was a kid, but I had no clue how to go about it. Once my daughters were old enough to get breakfast for themselves, I decided to find out how to get myself published. That was just about ten years ago, but with all the changes in the publishing world of late, it feels like it's been much longer. Anyway, I thought I'd do best if I could find a writing group.

After a couple of detours, I happened upon The Southland Scribes. At that point I'd written a few Star Trek short stories, hoping to get into one of their annual anthologies (I did, eventually, three times!). The Southland Scribes, however, was a novel writing group. They were the only game in town, so I told them I wrote novels. Total lie. As it turned out, they welcomed me warmly and I shouldn't have worried. Mike Black was part of that group at the time. He was the most-learned, most-published member and was extremely generous with all his hard-won information. He encouraged me to write more, and I was thrilled to comply. Heck, getting feedback from him (and from the group) was gold. I'd never had anyone critique me before and I learned so much.

After a while, Mike suggested I try my hand at novel writing. I demurred initially because I didn't think I had the stick-to-itive-ness I'd need to stay with a novel for months. But he kept telling me he thought I could do it and that it was my logical next step. Here's the honest truth: I started a novel to be polite. He'd been so helpful and I'd learned so much that I felt I owed him to at least try. I didn't think I'd finish. He also talked me through outlining a novel, which helped a great deal. Nowadays I sort of outline with a much different process, but back then my outline was my lifeline. I started the novel to be polite, and found -- to my everlasting surprised -- how much I loved the freedom of novel writing. It was so great. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start another. So I did.

Mike and I collaborated on DEAD RINGER. Kind of a fluke how that came about. There was a short story contest going on while we were critiquing one another. I had an idea for it and we worked together on bringing it to life. It didn't see publication then (it did later, elsewhere), but we found the exercise to be fun. We joked around about writing a novel together and we tied the endings of our respective novels together in anticipation of someday collaborating. I think working on that short story had given us so much enjoyment that we decided to go for it sooner than I'd expected (I had a book deadline at the same time so I wound up writing two books at once). Total blast. I know I gave Mike fits because he had a plan in mind for the plot and I tended to deviate often (and wildly). But I think I added a few good things to the mix, too.

We took turns telling the story in first person. Could have been confusing, but I think it turned out okay. It gave me a chance to have Alex St. James, my Chicago news researcher, work with a Mike's Ron Shade. One of our biggest hurdles was the fact that we both had secondary characters named George. But we managed to work around that. And even though I know I caused Mike a great deal of angst during the process, I think we're both very happy with how the final story turned out.

JCS: You’ve offered a few stand-alone novels on Kindle. Why? How’s that going for you? With two successful series, why did you care to add more titles?
My Kindle/Nook titles are mostly my out-of-print titles, brought back to life. Alex St. James went out of print a few years ago and publishing them as ebooks gives me a chance to introduce her to new readers. So far, it's going well. I did put up one original novel, PLAYING WITH MATCHES, under my N.C. (not cozy) Hyzy pseudonym. That one hasn't really found an audience yet. It's slightly harder edged, but I like Riley. She's a private investigator in Chicago, making ends meet by doing background checks for an upscale dating service. I had so much fun writing that one! I hope to add to Alex's adventures first and then continue writing for Riley. You asked why I care to add more titles? Simple answer: I love to write and there are far more stories in my head than I can ever put to paper (or pixels).

JCS:  Where did you get the idea for Ollie, the White House Chef? What was the biggest obstacle you faced in getting that series published? Do you have any concerns that the FBI or CIA will come knocking on your door because you plot against the president? (Okay, a “mythical” president, but still.) How do you do your research?

JH: Everybody asks that question! Here's how it went: You know we have our first ever female executive chef in the White House, right? Her name is Cristeta Comerford. (Usually when I get to that point in answering the question, people start tuning me out. But there's more.) Cozy mysteries, or amateur sleuth mysteries are dependent on the protagonist stumbling over dead bodies or conspiracies on a regular basis.

Where better than in the White House? The thing is, I didn't come up with the actual concept. The late Marty Greenberg did, and he asked me to write it. I wasn't given a series bible or any plot lines, I was given the description: "female White House chef" and told to run with it. So, even though Tekno (Marty's company) owns the copyright, I did come up with Ollie and her cohorts on my own.

After five novels written and the sixth one in the works, Ollie's become a very good friend. Although I can usually predict what she plans to do next, she does have a knack for surprising me.

Do I think the FBI and CIA will come to my door? Probably not. I've done so much research so far, acquiring all sorts of White House books and DVDs, talking to current and former staff members and Secret Service agents, and plugging suspicious search terms into my browser, that if they really thought I might pose a threat, I'd have heard from them by now. Unless of course, I'm under surveillance and I don't even know it. Hmm... I do have two FBI agents living next door. You think that may be a coincidence?

JCS:  Tell us about Grace from your Manor House mysteries. How did you plot such a complicated book? You also manage to put a lot of tension into Grace’s relationships. First with her crush, Jack, and then with Frances, her assistant. Did you plan for that or did it evolve naturally from the characters?

JH: Thank you so much! I'm thrilled to know you enjoyed it.

Grace and the Manor House series is a far more personal series for me than WHChef is. I don't have an awful sister, nor do I have a crush on a man hiding his past, but I did find out about a major family secret after my mother died, much the way Grace did. It was a huge story, but the moment I heard it, I knew it was true. It was as though all the pieces in our family history that didn't fit suddenly came together. Quite a revelation, and having gone through such an upheaval, I'm able to understand exactly what Grace is going through. They say to write what you know... and I have, sort of. I've also written to discover more of what I want to know.

I did plan for a book with complicated relationships. I have lots of plans for Grace going forward, and I think readers will enjoy watching her evolve and become stronger as she learns more about herself and as she interacts with the people in her life. I adore writing for Frances. She's just so much fun and although she isn't based on a real person, she does share qualities with several people I've met in my life. She and Bennett (Marshfield's elderly owner) may just be my two favorite characters in that series.

When the first book came out, a great many people wrote very nice reviews about it. One reviewer didn't like the fact that there were so many characters. Isn't it funny how authors give so much weight to the negative comments? Anyway, I digress. That one reviewer dinged me over the huge cast. I was surprised, initially, and a little hurt (who doesn't get hurt by a bad review?) but then realized that I shouldn't let one person's opinion waylay me from my plans. I created a large cast because I have many, many stories to tell.

JCS:  Your bio is incredibly short on your website. You neglected to tell readers about your work with MWA and your awards. You’ve won an Anthony, a Barry, and a Lovey. Tell us about what it feels like to be so honored. (Julie, you have to be one of the most modest authors around!) You’d written other books before. What “came together” for you to make your White House series so yummy?

JH:  Oh... I have to tell you, the night of the Anthony win was the most magical night ever. That came just two days after winning the Barry Award, and I was flying as high as a person could. That's why I dedicated BUFFALO WEST WING to everyone from Bouchercon 2009. For me, that was truly the best Bouchercon ever. And winning the Lovey... wow. There's nothing quite like being home among so many wonderful people -- people I love -- who show me such warm and wonderful support. I am the luckiest person in the world and I can't thank everyone enough for welcoming me and my characters into the mystery community.

Honestly, being nominated is the true honor. I remember telling everyone that I didn't want Bouchercon 2009 to arrive because then I could no longer call myself an Anthony or Barry nominee. Then it would be over. I had no idea I had any chance of winning these awards.

Magical. Really. That's what it was.

What came together to make all this happen? There's only one answer: Amazing, supportive readers. Without them, I would be nowhere.

JCS:  How many daughters do you have? And how many at home? How do you manage to write and keep up with the demands of a busy household?

JH: We have three fabulous daughters. Robyn is a full-time illustrator who has done work for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine among others. Sara is in graduate school to become a special education teacher for the visually impaired, and Biz (Elizabeth) is in college now. She recently declared herself an English major, but hopes to pursue theater as well. All three are happy, compassionate, and bright. We're very proud of them. This fall, for the first time, we're empty nesters and the household is suddenly quiet. Far less busy than it's been in the past. That's not to say the girls don't call on mom fairly often -- they do. But I do find myself with more time to write now than I ever had before.

JCS:  Like so many of us female mystery authors, you were hooked on Nancy Drew at an early age. How has that influenced your career? I wonder what will charm the next generation of mystery authors. What do you think?

JH: How has it influenced my career? Oh my gosh, I wanted to BE Nancy Drew. I still do. Writing mysteries allows me to walk in her shoes. Allows me to have adventures and put broken pieces back together and set the world right. I love it! Yes, Nancy was my role model and to this day, I try to fashion my characters after her. No, they don't all have titian hair, or pop off to Machu Picchu on a whim. Nor do they always get along with the local police, but they do share Nancy's world view. They take the high road (most of the time) and try to see the good in people.

Ollie is far more sure of herself (like Nancy) than Grace is, but Grace comes from a different background and hasn't experienced the family support Ollie has always enjoyed. I see Nancy in them both.

As to your other question I, too, wonder who will charm the next generation. I do love Flavia de Luce, but she's young. Nancy had her own car and was a more modern young woman, even in the 1930s when she first burst upon the scene. As much as I enjoyed THE HUNGER GAMES, I don't see Katniss Everdeen as a role model. But Hermoine Granger certainly is. She would be my choice, even without magical skills. Impossible to predict at this point, but certainly fun to guess!


Julie Hyzy is the author of the bestselling Manor House Mysteries and White House Chef Mysteries. Visit her at


Dru said...

Great post. Julie, no pressure but we need another Riley story.

Shel said...

Mike Black does have that effect on people, doesn't he, Julie?? I mean the "you don't want to let him down" thing you mentioned. He's got me on the hook now! Great interview!

Deborah Sharp said...

Julie is truly one of the nicest women in the mystery biz .... good, informative interview by Joanna, too (who is also among the nicest mystery-writing gals.)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Golly, Deb. You ought to know! You're as sweet as they come!