Friday, October 17, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Sara Sue Hoklotubbe

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Sara Sue Hoklotubbe
with Sara Sue Hoklotubbe

We are delighted to welcome author Sara Sue Hoklotubbe to Omnimystery News today.

Sara's third mystery in her Sadie Walela series is Sinking Suspicions (University of Arizona Press; September 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to catch up with her to talk about both the book and series.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the recurring characters in your series. What is it about them that appeals to you as a writer?

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe
Photo provided courtesy of
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe: Sadie Walela is the main character of the series. She is a down-to-earth, head-strong, single woman in her mid-thirties who lives alone on the Oklahoma ranch that she inherited from her Cherokee father and white mother. Her best friends are a wolf-dog named Sonny and a paint-horse stallion named Joe. Murder investigations fall into her life, and she can't help but get involved.

Lance Smith, also Cherokee, is a lawman who has fallen for Sadie's charm. He ends up drawn into whatever Sadie is doing, including solving bank robberies, murders, and running down thieves.

Charlie McCord is a recurring minor character who is a police officer in a neighboring town. He brought Lance up through the ranks and is a steady force in Lance's life. Charlie conveniently turns up when he's needed.

I like these characters because they reflect the people who live in Cherokee country, contemporaries simply trying to live their daily lives without too much drama. Sadie's instinct and logic, along with Lance's calm, lawman demeanor, and Charlie's old time wit and know-how make ideal allies to solve each crime.

OMN: Sinking Suspicions is the third book in the series. How have these characters changed from the first book?

SSH: Sadie's and Lance's relationship has evolved from mere acquaintances in the first book, Deception on All Accounts, to a close friendship in The American Café, to a budding romance in Sinking Suspicions. However, they both carry so much baggage from the past, they continually hold each other at a distance, afraid of commitment, and will likely stay that way for a while.

OMN: Into which mystery genre would you place your books?

SSH: I would categorize my books as traditional mysteries set in Cherokee country. Carolyn Hart once defined traditional mysteries as being about fractured relationships, with a sleuth, amateur or professional, who has to find out what went wrong with someone's life. I think this describes my mystery series very well.

I've had readers who do not normally read mysteries tell me they love my books. The late Native American scholar Louis Owens once said that my strength as a writer was in telling "a good story." I've always remembered that. While my books are mysteries, I strive to make them into that "good story" he spoke about.

Some readers might refer to my mysteries as Native American mysteries, but I don't think of it that way. I believe my characters' lives are representative of people everywhere. They just happen to be American Indians who have their own culture and history.

OMN: How would you tweet a summary of Sinking Suspicions?

SSH: Sadie saves an elderly Cherokee WWII veteran from certain death and reaches into the past to uncover the truth in Sinking Suspicions.

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

SSH: My first book opens with a bank robbery that was based on a real event. However, I added the murder for the book. I spent twenty-one years in the banking business, so it is not surprising that Sadie spent time working in a bank.

In my second book the restaurant Sadie buys is based on a café owned by my aunt and uncle many years ago. No one was murdered in that real café, either.

Locations on Maui that are described in Sinking Suspicions are based on personal experiences I had when I lived on the island for several years, including the ferry trip to the island of Lana'i.

Sadie and I have some things in common, but Sadie is not me. I like her, though.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

SSH: When I first started writing, I tried to make an outline. But then I discovered as my writing unfolded, I would have to constantly go back and revise it. I finally gave up on outlining. Now when I begin to work on a book, I have a general idea of the larger picture, the beginning and the end, however the characters always take over and fill in the details. I have to be flexible. Sometimes, as in the case of Sinking Suspicions, the characters change the ending, too.

OMN: Where do you find yourself most often writing?

SSH: We converted a guest bedroom into my office and I prefer to do most of my writing there. Quiet, instrumental music flips a switch in my brain that tells me it's time to write. I can see the mountains from my office window, and the landscape seems to provide calm inspiration. I love the sound of nature, I detest loud lawnmowers, and noisy people annoy me. I don't write well in coffee shops or cafes. I'm too easily distracted.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points for your stories?

SSH: I use every means available for research  —  internet, books, personal interviews, newspapers, magazines, and documentaries. For Sinking Suspicions the most challenging and exciting topic I researched was what took place on Maui during World War II. I spent hours in the library in Kahului, Maui, searching microfilm for local newspaper accounts of daily life during the war. And, even though I used only a few details in the book, I came away with an understanding that served me well as I wrote that part of the story. I also interviewed many people who lived on Maui during the war. Their personal stories were priceless.

I like to conduct in-person interviews. A couple of police officers have helped me keep law enforcement procedures correct, and a gun expert taught me how to destroy the barrel of a gun. A psychiatrist explained to me why a homeless man couldn't speak, and a veterans' trauma counselor helped me understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I also talked with a man who had been bitten by a rattlesnake so I could correctly describe a scene that included a snakebite victim.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?

SSH: My books are set within the Cherokee Nation and based on real places, either in the past or the present. You can find Eucha, Sycamore Springs, and Liberty, Oklahoma, on a map, but if you go there you will discover these once vibrant small towns are practically non-existent today. You'll find a church, a few houses, maybe a post office, but they are nothing like the versions of those towns that appear in my books. However, if you visit the island of Lana'i, you will find the luxurious hotels and the small town of Lana'i City to be exactly as I described them in Sinking Suspicions, including the local hangout and café called the Blue Ginger.

The setting plays a big role in the authenticity of my stories, whether it is locations within the Cherokee Nation, or where the Fourth Marines set up camp on Maui during the war, or the exotic landscape of the island of Lana'i.

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

SSH: This list could be endless. In Sinking Suspicions, I drew parallels between the experience of the Native Hawaiians and the American Indians. Both ethnic groups had their lands stolen at the hands of white colonialists, jeopardizing their native lives and cultures. There are many places in the world where the stories of indigenous people mirror Hawaii and the United States, such as Australia's aboriginal people and the Maori people of New Zealand. I would love to go to both of these countries, do research, and write a story for Sadie.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your books?

SSH: I love to travel, and some of my favorite pastimes are watching people, studying their mannerisms, observing their behavior, and eavesdropping on their conversations. Many of those observations have found their way into my books.

I also like to dabble in photography. It helps me describe landscapes in accurate detail and use words to create a visual experience for my readers.

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

SSH: The best advice I've received is to write for myself instead of others, and I would offer that same advice to aspiring writers. It's hard, but I've learned to grow a thick skin. I know that not everyone is going to love my books, and that is okay. I once had a reviewer remark that I'd been reading too many John Grisham novels, and even though she meant it as a criticism, I took it as a compliment. I'd love to have as many readers as John Grisham.

I've also learned that rejection doesn't necessarily mean the manuscript is bad, it simply means that the connection with the right person/editor/publisher has yet to be made. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to find the right pieces to fit together to create a beautiful book.

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

SSH: I am a mystery author and thus I am also someone who likes to solve puzzles. I always want to know how something happened and why people make the decisions they do. Personalities, histories, and relationships can usually be used to answer those questions. It's like peeling an onion. Once you get to the inside layers, answers usually become apparent.

OMN: Tell us more about your book cover designs? And was Sinking Suspicions your first choice for the title of this book?

SSH: I have been blessed with some excellent professionals at the University of Arizona Press who have come up with my book covers and titles. I had no idea what a book cover for Sinking Suspicions should look like, but when book designer Leigh McDonald sent me her idea for the cover, I was ecstatic. I felt like she captured the story perfectly.

I'm not particularly talented when it comes to choosing titles. I have a working title for my manuscript, but my editors always come up with winning titles. They have a way of capturing the essence of the book better than I can, for which I am grateful.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

SSH: I love hearing from my readers. I recently received a message from someone who, along with her dad, has been following the series. She told me her dad had been moved into hospice care and she was slowly reading Sinking Suspicions to him. Her words took my breath away. To think that they were spending some of his last days with the characters in my book, my writing, gave me a special feeling that I will not soon forget.

It is also very special to hear from readers who have found my books through Talking Books for the Blind. I am thrilled that the Library of Congress has made my first two books available through this program.

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

SSH: Sadie and Lance exist in my mind's eye and I know exactly what they look like. I've walked down the sidewalk in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, near the Cherokee National Tribal Headquarters, and seen many women who resemble my mental image of Sadie. I think Cherokee actress DeLanna Studi would make an excellent Sadie.

I remember enjoying dinner in a restaurant, also near Tahlequah, looking up, and gasping. When three young Cherokee men came in and sat down at a nearby table, I couldn't take my eyes off one of them. I looked at my husband and said: "There's Lance. That guy looks exactly like Lance." I wanted to go over to his table and talk to him, but thought better of it. But if I had to choose an actor for Lance, I think Adam Beach would do very well.

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

SSH: The late Tony Hillerman was one of my favorite authors. I loved how he could write a mystery, make an important point about something, and weave Navajo culture and landscape into his stories. I wanted to do the same for my people, the Cherokee. Our writing styles are different. I use a woman as my amateur sleuth and he used BIA and tribal cops. But I've had many Hillerman fans contact me and tell me how much they enjoy my series set in Cherokee country. Library Journal described my second book, The American Café, as "a good pick for Tony Hillerman fans," and I am humbled by that comparison.

OMN: What are your favorite books to read?

SSH: I enjoy reading some non-fiction, but my favorite books to read are fiction. I like traditional mysteries, especially the Wind River Mystery series by Margaret Coel, and the Longmire series by Craig Johnson. I appreciate their writing styles and the excellent way they construct mysteries.

When I finish reading the final page of a book, I want to feel like I've learned something, whether it's about culture, relationships, or perhaps a social comment that the author is making. In turn, I'd like for readers to feel the same way when they finish one of my books.

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

SSH: Top 5 list of Cherokee culture: Family, Religion, Language, Tradition, and Food.

OMN: What's next for you?

SSH: I am currently working on the fourth book in the Sadie Walela mystery series. The working title is The Buffalo Ranch. When a man is found murdered on the edge of Sadie's property, she can't help but think it is connected in some way to a newly created trophy hunting ranch that allows anyone with enough money to slaughter bison for the thrill of it. When the unpopular owner of the ranch turns up dead as well, things get complicated for Sadie.

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Sara Sue Hoklotubbe is a Cherokee tribal citizen. She grew up on the banks of Lake Eucha in northeastern Oklahoma and uses that location as the setting for her mystery novels to transport readers into modern-day Cherokee life. She is the winner of the 2012 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award, the 2012 WILLA Literary Award, and the 2012 Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers' Mystery of the Year Award. She was also a finalist for the 2012 Oklahoma Book Award and the 2011 American Library Association's ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Sara was named 2004 Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. A member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Tulsa Night Writers, she and her husband live in Colorado.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at Hoklotubbe.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook.

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Sinking Suspicions by Sara Sue Hoklotubbe

Sinking Suspicions
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe
A Sadie Walela Mystery

Suspicions run high when murder mixes with identity theft in the latest installment of the popular Sadie Walela mystery series set in Cherokee Country. No sooner does Sadie embark on an unexpected business trip to the beautiful island of Maui, when her long-time neighbor, Buck Skinner, a full-blood Cherokee and World War II veteran, goes missing and becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a petty identity thief.

Iconic lawman Lance Smith joins a community-wide search, but Buck is nowhere to be found. As evidence mounts against her old friend, Sadie rushes to return home to help — only to be delayed by an island-wide earthquake and her own sinking suspicions.

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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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