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Friday, December 14, 2007

Mystery Author Nancy Atherton ~ Interviewed

Nancy Atherton is the author of eleven previous Aunt Dimity mysteries. The first, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “one of the century’s 100 favorite mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

The next book in the series, AUNT DIMITY: VAMPIRE HUNTER, will be published in February 2008. I'm currently at work on AUNT DIMITY SLAYS THE DRAGON, which will be published in 2009. I'm afraid that I'll have to decline your kind invitation to describe it because 1) I don't want to spoil any surprises, and 2) my books tend to change as I write them, so a description given now may very well be irrelevant by the time the book is finished.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

My journey to publication was miraculously short. I worked on my first novel, AUNT DIMITY'S DEATH, for about two years before it was ready for submission, then everything happened in a relative rush. I received my first contract offer within three weeks of my first submission.

Three weeks later, I received a second offer, which I accepted. My agent called to tell me the good news and although I was very pleased to hear that Viking would publish the hardcover edition, I was absolutely thrilled to learn that I'd have a Penguin paperback. The first thought that went through my head was: "Jane Austen and I will have the same publisher! Whee!"

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I've never experienced writer's block or suffered undue writing-related angst. Some days are harder than others, but every day is hard, because writing is hard work. If I expected it to be easy, I might feel like banging my head against a wall from time to time. Since I expect it to be difficult, I'm not terribly surprised or frustrated when it is. I supposed my advice would be to recognize that writing isn't easy, accept it, and get on with it. Or find an easier job.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

See answer to Question 2.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

The best advice I've heard about writing is:
If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn't, do something else.

The worst advice I've heard about writing is: You must follow these rules: (fill in the blank). It seems to me that there as many ways to write as there are writers, so a rule book, if it existed, would have to contain so many disparate and contradictory rules that it would be entirely useless. I may be wrong, but I think we each have to write our own rule book---and ignore those megalomaniacs who try to write it for us.

If I've ever heard any advice on publishing, I've forgotten it. Sorry!

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?


Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

Since I don't disembowel, behead, or otherwise torture my characters, I haven't had the pleasure of shocking a store clerk with requests for alarming research aids. There are awkward moments during conversations with friends, when my eyes glaze over and my mind travels to a universe far, far away, but my friends are very patient with me and wait politely until I'm back on earth to continue the conversation.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

Although I've had many setbacks in my life, I haven't had any particularly nasty ones in my writing career---yet. And I haven't yet reached a point where I'd consider doing anything other than writing. Though there are days when I think it would much easier to do brain surgery or shear sheep for a living.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

I love anything written by Terry Pratchett or Georgette Heyer, and any mystery written by P.D. James. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and, of course, I worship Tolkien. I'm also quite fond of Lyn MacDonald's books about World War I.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

Pretentiousness comes immediately to mind, but if I had to describe a duty as sacred, I suppose it would be my duty to keep faith with my characters. My role is to serve them as best I can.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Any pet peeves I have about the biz must remain between my agent and me.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I'd love to see my books become BBC television serials and eventually be available on DVDs. I wouldn't complain if Hollywood came calling, but I'd prefer the BBC because of its attention to detail, its vast pool of immensely skilled actors, and its willingness to translate quirky stories faithfully to the screen.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite part of being a writer is . . . writing. I enjoy book tours, too, because I love to meet and chat with my readers, who are, without doubt, the most wonderful readers in the world. My least favorite part of being a writer is having to meet deadlines. I wish I could work on each book until I'm ready to hand it in.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

It took me a while to realize that my characters have far more control over my stories than I do. I tried to impose my will upon them a few times, but they refused to follow orders. So now I just shut up and listen. It seems to work.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I make a pot of tea. English Breakfast, preferably, with milk and sugar.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

Unlike many writers, I can't write in airports, trains, tree houses, or submarines. I'm a creature of habit and I like to write in familiar surroundings. My office setup has, therefore, remained essentially unchanged since 1990, when I began to write my first book. The walls are covered with the same pictures, maps, and extremely crowded corkboards, and the desks hold the same assortment of necessary tools and toys. I like clutter, as long as it's familiar, cozy clutter. I'm also incapable of writing while the television is on or music is playing. I hear the sounds of my stories better when the outside world is silent.

Plot, seat of pants, or combination?

Definitely seat-of-the-pants. I rarely know what's going to happen next. It's so exciting!

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

The end of a book is always the hardest part for me, for several reasons. I love my characters so much that I hate to say good-bye to them, even temporarily, so I feel a sense of grief as I approach a book's conclusion.

Also, I'm so mentally drained by the time I reach the end of a story that it becomes difficult to resolve the many plots and subplots I've set in motion, in a satisfying way.
Finally, I'm so physically exhausted by the end of a book that I can scarcely manipulate the keys on my computer keyboard.

AUNT DIMITY: VAMPIRE HUNTER is dedicated to my chiropractor and my massage therapist because, without their expert help, I wouldn't have been physically capable of finishing the book!

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

I could share hundreds of memorable reader responses with you, but since we haven't the space, I'll cite only one. It's representative of many, many others.

A reader wrote to me, telling me that she'd discovered Aunt Dimity's Death while her mother was in the hospital with a terminal illness. She brought the book to the hospital and read it aloud to her mother, almost straight through, then began to read it again, because her mother loved it so much. While she was reading the book aloud for a second time, her mother died.

The daughter wrote to thank me, because it comforted her to know that the last words her mother heard on earth were words that I had written. I find it comforting to know that the last thing her mother heard was the voice of a loving and much-loved daughter.

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor?

My peers have honored me with kind words, but no prizes. Ah, well.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice . . . ?

I have no advice to offer on marketing/publicity. When I make public appearances or respond to fan mail, I feel as if I'm making new friends rather than selling books.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

No interview would be complete without a shout-out to my cats, Chloe and Emma, who keep me firmly grounded in the real world, whether I want to be or not. Thanks, kittens!


  1. Nancy Atherton is a wonderful writer, and the Aunt Dimity series are most excellent!! I am always scouting her website to see when the next book is due out so that I can order one or have our library order one! She is tops in my book!

    Great interview!


  2. Thanks, Nancy and Kim.

    I've only read a "sneak peek" of Nancy's writing, but what I read was very entertaining and good.

  3. I hope the BBC comes knocking soon....


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