Friday, February 28, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Lisa Fernow

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Lisa Fernow
with Lisa Fernow

We are delighted to welcome tango mystery author Lisa Fernow to Omnimystery News today.

Lisa's first in series mystery Dead on Her Feet (Booktrope Editions; January 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) introduces Atlanta tango instructor Antonia "Ant" Blakeley, and we recently had a chance to talk with her about the book and, of course, tango.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to your new series of tango mysteries.

Lisa Fernow
Photo provided courtesy of
Lisa Fernow

Lisa Fernow: Antonia Blakeley, my headstrong tango instructor heroine in Dead on Her Feet, will appear in all the books, of course. Just try leaving her out! Since I write about the tango world, where people regularly travel thousands of miles in search of that one elusive, transcendent dance I have the opportunity to write several recurring characters into my books, so watch for some characters to return. The ones I don't kill off, of course. I expect my characters to develop over time, but don't expect Antonia to have learned any lessons.

Future books will be set in different cities. It would be fun to have Sam Morrow, the detective she is forced to partner with, appear in future books but doing this credibly will take some scheming on my part. Morrow has been known to go AWOL, however, so we'll just have to see.

OMN: Into what mystery genre would you place this series?

LF: I like to think of my books as classic mysteries following in the tradition of Ngaio Marsh or Elizabeth Peters. Both set their books in exotic worlds — Marsh used the theatre for many of her mysteries and Peters set hers in Egypt. But that isn't really a classification the industry uses today, and speaking as a natural rule-breaker I have to say I resist the idea of categorizing my book. That's the beauty of buying books online — your book can live on many virtual bookshelves.

The staff at Seattle Mystery Bookshop advises me that my books should be classified as cozies since they involve an amateur sleuth and a recurring theme — in this case tango. But I have to warn you that if Dead on Her Feet were a movie it would probably get an R rating. If you must press me to define my work, I would like to go on record and say I'm inventing a new sub-genre: sexy cozies!

OMN: Tell us something about the book that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

LF: In Dead on Her Feet Antonia's beloved nephew, Christian, is a troubled young man and I gave him plenty to be troubled about: he's punched out, sexually humiliated, suspected of murder and placed in mortal danger. He lives in Atlanta in an apartment based on a real place, the Fulton Cotton Mill lofts.

I'd scouted the lofts in person, of course. But one day I decided I needed one last detail about Christian's crash pad for the book. So I went online for photos of the building and found this Wikipedia entry:

On Friday, March 14, 2008 around 9:45 pm, a number of buildings on the premises were damaged by an EF2 tornado. The roof was ripped off the "E" building, and debris and suction created by the wind caused the top floor to collapse, pancaking several floors below in a domino effect.

Poor Christian. How likely is it that a freak tornado just happens to touch down on his apartment? Coincidence? Or is some higher power telling me I didn't torture him enough?

OMN: We know you're a tango dancer yourself, but have you included any of your other personal or professional experience into the book?

LF: I dance tango socially, so I tried to bring as authentic an experience as I can to my book. That said, while many of the dramas in Dead on her Feet will resonate with my fellow dancers, I've never seen anyone kill anyone on the dance floor.

My father was a paleontologist and I drew from that world to help create Professor Bobby Glass. Similarly, I fashioned Detective Sam Morrow after some of the Marines in my life. But neither character was based directly on a real person. As I wrote I did discover various character traits from people I love working their way into the book but if I were to reveal anything more my friends would kill me.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

LF: My process would make Microsoft very, very happy and frighten any normal writer. When I started plotting the story, I began with the murder and actually used Excel to map things out. The rows held dates and times. Each character had a column. That way I could keep track of who did/knew what, when.

Then once I had a starting outline I thought about why each character might do the things I was plotting, which led me to think more deeply about who these people were — as I got to know them through their character profiles and back stories that often required me to change the plot. Like pitching a tent — you put a few stakes in the ground then gradually tighten the ropes until your tent is standing.

This sounds very cut and dried, but I also allowed plenty of room for my subconscious to work its magic. I believe very strongly in letting things ferment.

OMN: What kinds of research have you conducted while writing the book? Any particularly challenging topics?

LF: I travelled to Argentina to dance tango and talk to the milongueros with the help of a good friend, Barbara Durr, who teaches tango, speaks fluent Spanish and knows the tango community in Buenos Aires. That was the most immersive research I did, and the most fun. She also worked closely with me to ensure that the tango teaching and dance scenes were accurate, since I'm not a tango instructor.

I interviewed many other experts as well. For example, in developing Sam Morrow's character I went deep on what it means to be a Marine. My brother-in-law was a Gunnery Sergeant and he lent me his old Marine Corps handbook, and I eavesdropped on websites where Marines convened. That helped me understand their values and gave me a better feel for their language. Hoo-ah.

The most challenging topic for me to research was how to write my male characters. I had men read the book. Turns out — duh - men don't care what a woman is wearing.

OMN: Dead on Her Feet is set in Atlanta, a city we lived in for several years. How true are you to the setting?

LF: The Prologue opens with an elegantly suited antiques dealer standing on a slab of bedrock jutting out into the Chattahoochee River, and all that detail is real, even down to the weather. I used my house for Antonia's, and many of the restaurants are real — if they are still in business you should try them! Sanctuary is a real nightclub and it really did at one time look the way it's described in the book. The other locations were made up to protect the guilty.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world to research a setting, all expenses paid, where would it be?

LF: Oh boy. Italy? I'm a foodie! Tango is danced practically everywhere so I'm hoping to be able to set my books all around the world.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your book?

LF: I'm a foodie, and so is Antonia. I love to cook out of Food & Wine magazine, give dinner parties, and go to restaurants and wineries. Seattle, where I live now, is a fantastic place for this. But I'm not a food snob.

Travelling is another interest, but it has not found its way into my books yet. When I worked for Pepsi Cola International I was able to spend time with the various marketing departments all over the world which was a great privilege.

OMN: How involved were you with the design of the book cover?

LF: Loretta Matson from Booktrope is my cover designer and I couldn't be more pleased with her work. We started out with a creative brief, where I defined the target audience for Dead on Her Feet and what type of books it should be compared to — I should mention that my marketing manager, Kate Burkett, was instrumental in helping to develop these parameters. Loretta talked about what she'd gotten from reading the book. I shared some examples of covers, good and bad.

Loretta then came back with several very different options, and Kate and I told her what was working and not working for us, which helped us whittle down the number of cover concepts.

I then created a fake online bookseller page to see which covers worked as thumbnail images, since we were expecting most readers to find the book online. We decided on a short list of concepts to develop further.

Loretta then came back with iterations of each, and we settled on the best one. Then we refined shadows, type face and other small details. We submitted our final recommendation to Katherine Sears, my Booktrope publisher, and she pointed out that my name was too hard to read and insisted we make it bolder. Can't believe I fought her on that one.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

LF: That's a hard question to answer since I got a lot of great advice. I had a test group of readers who gave me feedback on each draft — they were merciless! Sue Grafton was generous enough to give me some key advice at a critical point when I was struggling with how quickly to kill off my victim — I love how that sounds! Agents kept telling me the main victim had to die in the first 30 pages, and that just seemed wrong for Dead on Her Feet. I asked Sue what she thought, and she basically said, write what you can get away with. She gave me permission to do what the story required.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".

LF: A potential criminal? I was suspended from elementary school twice — once for calling my adored teacher "some pig" (she didn't get the reference to Charlotte's Web) and once for fashioning a switchblade out of two popsicle sticks and a rubber band, just to see if I could. Seemed harmless to me at the time. If I hadn't had understanding parents I might be writing this from jail!

OMN: What kind of feedback would you like to receive from readers?

LF: I really want to know who each reader suspects at each part of the book! I'm too close to the book to be able to tell whether I was successful in snookering them. Did I give them a satisfying ride.

I very much want to hear from the tango community whether I have faithfully done justice to this world, because that's important to me.

All constructive comments, positive or negative, are really helpful and I hope people will review Dead on Her Feet online and contact me through my website, LisaFernow.com.

OMN: Suppose your series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key parts?

LF: There are so many great actors, I'd hate to typecast. It would be fun to see Holly Hunter bring Antonia to life — she brings fire and charm to any role. For Sam Morrow, someone like Ed Harris. They would face off well.

What I'd really love is for Robert Duvall to direct. He's a committed tango dancer and he'd do justice to the tango world. Please tell him I said so!

OMN: You mentioned Ngaio Marsh and Elizabeth Peters as authors of classic mysteries set in exotic worlds. Have any other authors influenced how and what you write today?

LF: Nicholas Blake, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in addition to Ngaio Marsh and Elizabeth Peters are the authors who made me want to write mysteries.

Robert Parker managed to write almost entirely in dialogue. I want to write like that. I hate writing description.

OMN: What kinds of books do you read for pleasure?

LF: Mysteries and thrillers. Lately that's included many of the Seattle 7 writers: Mike Dawson, Skye Moody, Bernadette Pajer, Kevin O'Brien. The latest Alan Bradley. I have a big pile of books by my bed and I'm sure I'm missing a whole slew of people.

OMN: Do you have any particular favorite series characters?

LF: Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters), Flavia de Luce (Alan Bradley), Gabriel Allon (Dan Silva), Aurelio Zen (Michael Dibdin) and James Bond (Ian Fleming) are some of my perennial favorites. They are all rule-breakers, I just realized.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any subject.

LF: Top 5 quotes about tango, some from people I know, from the Very Tango store:

1. Bailado por koolricky: "I'm working in a hospital in Buenos Aires. Everytime there is a ward round we go to the intensive care unit to check how our patients are doing. On the way out, in a bay almost hidden by a corridor I always listen to fuzzy sounds of tango. The other day I ventured to see who was there. I saw a man, in his 70s, intubated and sound asleep, a small radio tuned into 92.5FM pouring tango and nothing else. I asked the nurse who this man was. She told me that he had been in coma for some time now and that his family had brought him the little radio so that he would be listening tango while he was sleeping. They said that if he was listening to tango, he would probably be dancing all the time in his dreams."

2. Caroline Polack: "For me, when I think of the best leaders I've danced with, I've noticed a commonality between all of them which is an apparent lack of ego or bravado. Instead of thinking about themselves, they just surrender to the music and to the pleasure of having a woman in their arms, no matter if she's experienced or not. They are the kind who would never let a woman feel incompetent or humiliated but instead as though it's been a sublime privilege to share this wonderful thing called tango with them. The worst leaders are the ones who don't pay attention to a woman's skill level and instead try to guide her into doing moves that are obviously beyond her knowledge of the choreography, thus shaming and humiliating her. They are the worst because they are only focusing on themselves instead of making it a wonderful experience for them both. In other words, they didn't surrender to the experience but to their own egos with complete disregard for the women's."

3. La Nuit Blanche: "When the tango took hold of me, it was as if I had found the ultimate lover. No single experience can be as fascinating as this dance. No single work of art is so replete with all the joy and sorrow and longing and tragi-comedy of the human race, as is a tango danced between a man and a woman. It is labyrinthine, yet so simple. Each lasts just a few moments, yet it is eternal. There is a purity amidst all its complexities. The more one searches for the meaning behind its mystery, the ever more elusive is the tango … And yet, it is what it is, and we can see it, hear it, feel it, breathe it, live it, in the pleasure of its immediacy. Those of us it holds in its power — we want to shape our whole lives around it, its cadences, its sweat, its subtle messages and surging desires. The tango changes us forever. It changed me forever. Never have I been so intensely in love. Never had I felt so intensely alive. It helps me forget. And it helps me remember sweetly."

4. Hyla Dickinson: "For me and the people with whom I adore to dance, the music is absolutely key, essential, absolutely impossible to separate from the dance itself. It's not just some initial inspiration; the intricacies and interplay within the music itself are the whole lifeblood of the dance. You are not just using the music as a background to your movement, or a structure to embellish on. You are responding to the music, becoming involved in the music, making choices every second about which parts of the music you wish to highlight or play down or even contradict. Sometimes it is as if your feet or your heart or the movement of your body becomes another instrument, adding a little more music. Perhaps another rhythm with the feet, perhaps a deepening of the sweetness of the melody with the way you move your leg or torso …

As a dancer, I am answering and expanding the music into the spatial and visual dimensions. I am also expanding the connection that I have with my partner into the music, and expanding the connection with the music to include my partner."

5. Jay Rabe: "Sssh. Don't tell anyone this. This is a secret. Imagine telling a beginner man he has to learn to find the rhythm of the music, watch out for navigational hazards on the dance floor, develop a strategy on the spot for dealing with them choosing from a repertoire of movements he has learned, then lead the woman to move in the intended direction with the intended speed while maintaining the connection, and then … He has to follow the woman's response to his lead to determine the next move (within a millisecond, after all, this is not chess), and take responsibility for whatever goes wrong. And we wonder why there aren't enough men in tango? Yet the surviving men keep trying. It must be that the rewards of tango are greater than its obstacles."

OMN: What's next for you?

LF: I start writing the second book in my tango series April 1. And I hope to dance more. I had a great time at ValenTango in Portland.

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Lisa Fernow grew up on the classic mysteries of Ngaio Marsh and Elizabeth Peters. Lisa has danced Argentine tango since 1996, studying with such legendary masters as Cacho Dante, Susana Miller, and Brigitta Winkler, as well as other inspiring instructors in Atlanta, Seattle, and Portland. Now living in Seattle, she runs a consulting practice focused on innovation, and loves toggling between business and fiction writing, as both require creativity and strong storytelling.

For more information about the author and her work, including behind the scenes extras and to learn more about the tango world, visit her website at LisaFernow.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dead on Her Feet by Lisa Fernow

Dead on Her Feet
Lisa Fernow
An Antonia Blakeley Tango Mystery

For those who dedicate their lives to "chasing the ghost", searching for that elusive moment of perfect connection on the dance floor, tango is a drug. A drug that proves fatal.

When a much-hated member of the Atlanta tango community is stabbed in the middle of a dance, the last thing tango instructor Antonia "Ant" Blakeley wants to do is help the police work out how someone could have struck the fatal blow unseen. Her troubled nephew is first on the list of suspects, and she'll do anything to protect him.

Unfortunately for her, she's up against Detective Sam Morrow, a former marine who will do anything to get to the truth. Only one of them will get what they want.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop
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