Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Bryan E. Robinson

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Bryan E. Robinson
with Bryan E. Robinson

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Bryan E. Robinson to Omnimystery News today.

Bryan introduces psychologist Brad Pope in Limestone Gumption (Five Star; January 2014 hardcover, large print and ebook formats; audiobook available this summer), a fast-paced cozy with twists and turns that teases to the surface one suspicion, one misunderstanding, and one murder at a time. Limestone Gumption was recently honored with the 2014 Beverly Hills International Book Award for Best Mystery.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Bryan to talk about his book.

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Omnimystery News: Five Star calls your mystery a "cozy"; is that how you think of it as well?

Bryan E. Robinson
Photo provided courtesy of
Bryan E. Robinson

Bryan E. Robinson: Technically, my novel would be labeled "cozy" but I don't follow a cozy formula when I write mystery. The protagonist is an amateur sleuth who stumbles into a murder, but along with the whodunit I like to develop the characters and the relationships among the characters. Because I'm a psychotherapist, my writing goes a little deeper into the minds of the characters, their motivations, and their development.

There are advantages and disadvantages to categorizing books as "cozy" because a lot of folks wouldn't pick up a cozy. In some ways the cozy has been given a bum rap. There is a bias among some reviewer circles where the cozy is considered corny or trite, something for "little old ladies." I don't agree. When readers see my use of symbolism and colorful Southern flavor with the literary depth of Zora Neal Hurston, Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, and Flannery O'Conner, they realize the story extends beyond what is generally considered a cozy, although I consider it an honor to wear that label.

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

BER: Limestone Gumption is "my long hello." It tells the story of psychologist Brad Pope, who returns to live in his hometown, a small community along Florida's Suwannee River. People come from all over the world to dive the primeval beautiful underwater caves, carved for thousands of years by the Suwannee River rushing through limestone. Some of the caves are as tall as ten story buildings, and the marine life is breathtaking. When the abusive husband of one of Pope's patients is murdered while diving the underwater caves, the psychologist realizes that not all the demons from his dysfunctional family history are safely buried in the past. His hopes of settling a debt with his estranged father and reconnecting with his cantankerous Grandmother are dashed by the surprised horror surrounding his father's whereabouts and sinister secrets of his Grandmother's Women's Preservation Club. What had she and her club members planted in the welcome garden on the outskirts of town? Camellias or corpses?

I grew up with ink in my blood and have written mysteries since I was 9 years old. I wrote to get away from the dysfunction of an out-of-control alcoholic family. I'd go to my room and make up these mystery stories about Skip and Skat who got in and out of trouble. Now as a psychotherapist, I realize that writing made me feel like I had control over something I really didn't have control over. As an adult, real life took me in a direction where I could publish or perish and that would pay the bills: academia where I wrote 35 nonfiction books that got me promoted to Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But the dream never died, so Limestone Gumption is my long hello.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?

BER: Writing fiction is a combination of three components: personal experience, observation, and imagination. Whether writers realize it or not, the characters they form in their writing come from some aspect of themselves or some deep experience they've had along the way. Every character in my novel is a "part" of me. Even the ones that are based on people I know or knew are based on my perception of those people. So I think it's impossible to write fiction without writing of your experience. Some of my characters are composites of people I've known, heard about, or born in my imagination. But all of them are a mixture of the 3 components and none have all the qualities of any one person that I've ever known. As an example, I used the name Voodoo Sally for one of my characters (my favorite character in the story) who lived in this area back in the 1950s. I was told that she was tall and thin and that children were afraid she would cast spells on them when she spun around and pointed at them. I took the name but developed my own character from my imagination. Plus, some of the situations in which my characters find themselves are based on real events as when my house burned to the ground when I was five years old. I write about that scene as a flashback in the protagonist's memory.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

BER: I use neither an outline, nor character biography, nor detailed synopsis to start. For me these tools are too linear and confining; they tie me down, limiting the possibilities of what can happen. They involve cognitive processes that can actually shut down the creative juices. I just start writing and call upon my non-cognitive tools, the core of where the story comes from — not just my brain but my heart. You might say that I am an observer, an instrument of my writing as it flows through me, instead of the writer. There is a murder at the beginning of Limestone Gumption, and I thought I knew who the murderer was. But as I continued to write and as the characters began to form, the story decided it had to be someone else. I was a bit flabbergasted at first but the story unfolded exactly as it needed to. The characters step in and show me what to write. Once the storyline is well underway, I then go back and develop character profiles and a synopsis to ensure consistency, but I don't find outlines useful.

OMN: How do go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any topics that you found particularly challenging or exciting?

BER: I am a researcher by trade, a university Professor who toiled at a publish-or-perish institution, whose promotions rested on research activity. And I love research because there's always so much to learn. For many years, I had a vacation house on the Suwannee River, where I listened and watched the people and customs with the ardor of an anthropologist. A nature-lover at heart, I went on Manatee safaris, watched the habits of alligators across the river from my dock where I cat-fished and observed otters flipping in the water. I read the history of the area, including a 1948 novel, Seraph on the Suwannee by famed novelist Zora Neal Hurston. I frequently kayaked the Suwannee, tubed down Itchtucknee Springs, and listened to locals' tales about the history of the area.

Both the most challenging and exciting topic to research was what it was like diving the underwater caves. Huddled around crackling campfires at night, river dwellers told stories of lost cavers drowning in the twisted, turning underwater caves, stretching miles beneath the earth — cavers running out of air, stabbing each other with knives to steal a last breath from their partner's tank. Tales of corpses wrapped in tangled guidelines, entombed like mummies, arms tightly pinned against their stiff bodies. Stories of bodies so bloated that rescue teams had to pry them out of narrow passageways. And of goodbye messages hastily carved in limestone walls during a final dying breath. I remember watching the campfire shadows bend and dance like ghosts against the white Florida sand, creating an eerie atmosphere that amplified the mysterious tales. My heart thudding, there was no way I would attempt underwater cave diving myself, so I confined my research to reading books about the dangers of underwater caves, internet research, and interviewing local expert dive outfitters about the technical aspects of their underwater treks.

OMN: Tell us a little more about the setting for Limestone Gumption.

BER: For me, setting is everything because it informs the characters and the plot and visa versa. In Limestone Gumption, the Suwannee River and the underground caves are essential for the inter-workings of the minds of my characters. I use the river and caves as threads throughout the novel to weave parallels to the plot and character development. The real-life settings mirror a character's mood and mindset, and for that reason I stay true to the geography of the environment. Plus, I find it a fun challenge to re-create the feeling of a real place on the printed page. After reading my novel, many readers have told me that they want to visit North Central Florida to see the manatee, the clear-crystal natural springs, and the underwater caves.

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

BER: I have been all over the world to every continent except for the Arctic and Antarctica. My favorite places are the African wilderness and the emerald-green waters of the Caribbean. But I live and am content in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The natural beauty of the blue ridge mountains of Asheville, NC is unparalleled, and that's where the sequel to Limestone Gumption is set. I have found that beauty, happiness, and fun are not in some faraway exotic place, but they are right in front of us, like someone looking everywhere for their glasses and they're on their nose the whole time.

OMN: How did the book come to be titled? And were involved with the cover design?

BER: My original title was Way DEAD Upon the Suwannee River, but my publisher didn't like it and thought Limestone Gumption was more exemplary of what the novel is about. The irony is that "Limestone Gumption" was my original title and the publisher didn't even know it. So it was meant to be.

The cover of the book is a rendering of the drowning of football legend turned cave diver Big Jake Nunn, whose guideline is cut during an underwater dive. The book title originated from the fact that for centuries the Suwannee River has cut through limestone, forming huge underwater caverns. The limestone yields to the force of the river instead of resisting it. Through yielding, the limestone becomes a feature of the river, a beautiful and smooth, well-polished cavern, and the strength of its true character is revealed. Limestone gumption is a metaphor for when the main character, after being accused of Big Jake's murder, must call upon his limestone gumption to deal with overwhelming forces.

OMN: If Limestone Gumption were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the key roles?

BER: Indeed I'll bet most writers dream of their novel being made into a movie, and I'm no exception. The protagonist-psychologist has blonde hair the color of fresh-cut hay and speaks with a soft Southern accent. So film star Ryan Gosling would be perfect to play Brad Pope. I could see one of the antagonists, Myrtle Badger, played by character actress Beth Grant (Sordid Lives, Speed, Little Miss Sunshine), with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (made older with makeup) in the role of Voodoo Sally.

OMN: Have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

BER: Mostly, I have been influenced by Southern fiction writers. I am awestruck by the richness, beauty, and brutality of Southern culture. As a Buddhist, I am fascinated with the Tao (opposites) of beauty and brutality as they coexist in the paradoxes of life. Nowhere are these paradoxes more striking than in the give and take of the natural beauty and brutality in the South: Intrigue with the wildlife along with the necessity of owning a shotgun for protection from wild animals … uncontrollable wildfires that cleanse the forest floors … the endangered prehistoric manatee, scarred from motorboats that have overtaken the Suwannee River … the breath-taking mountaintops of the Blue Ridge, overrun with development … the stunning seashore of South Carolina where the dunes are eroding and marine life is disappearing … and the river dwellers along the Suwannee River, doddering along in their pickups, throwing friendly handwaves, their shoguns perched firmly behind their heads, and church ladies planning the church bulletin while shunning outsiders because they're different. In Limestone Gumption readers will see glimpses of the influences of Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neal Hurston, Pat Conroy, John Hart, Tennessee Williams, and Fannie Flagg — all of whom write about the tragedy and humor of these paradoxes.

OMN: What's next for you?

BER: I am working on a memoir, the working title of which is called Crazy Papers — about growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother and what led her to carry written proof around with her that she wasn't crazy. And how this quirky upbringing influences one as an adult. I am also working on a murder mystery sequel to Limestone Gumption titled She'll Be Killing Around the Mountain When She Comes.

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Bryan Robinson is a novelist, licensed psychotherapist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is author of 35 nonfiction books, including Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. He has won two writing awards, and his books have been translated into thirteen languages. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, World News Tonight, The Early Show, a PBS documentary, and NBC Nightly News. He is currently writing a memoir and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Asheville, North Carolina, where he resides with his partner, five dogs, and occasional bears at night.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at BryanRobinsonNovels.com.

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Limestone Gumption by Bryan E. Robinson

Limestone Gumption
Bryan E. Robinson
A Brad Pope and Sisterfriends Mystery

When Brad Pope returns to his boyhood hometown to settle a debt with his long-lost father, the 35-year-old psychologist becomes a prime suspect in the murder of football legend turned cave diver, Big Jake Nunn.

Perched high on the east bank of the Suwannee River, the sleepy town of Whitecross, Florida is known for its natural crystal-clear springs and underwater caverns. Locals are online and computer savvy, but if asked about blackberries, they think cobbler, not wireless.

As if being accused of murder isn't shock enough, the psychologist's hopes of confronting his father and reconnecting with his cantankerous Grandma Gigi are hindered by the surprised horror surrounding his father's whereabouts and sinister secrets of the Women's Preservation Club (WPC). The six quirky "Sisterfriends" in the club founded by Grandma Gigi start to look more like cold-bloodied killers than church ladies.

As Brad learns of more dead bodies, he wonders what the WPC has planted in their welcome garden on the outskirts of town. Camellias … or corpses?

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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