Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Conversation with Mystery Author Karin McQuillan

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Karin McQuillan

We are delighted to welcome author Karin McQuillan to Omnimystery News today.

Karin is the author of the Jazz Jasper, African Wildlife mystery series, the first three books of which were originally published in the early 1990s and which have recently been reissued in new ebook formats. This past Summer she published the fourth in the series, Fossil (July 2015 ebook format), and we had an opportunity to spend some time with Karin talking about her books.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us how you got started writing this series.

Karin McQuillan
Photo provided courtesy of
Karin McQuillan

Karin McQuillan: I was looking for a new hobby to balance out my work as a psychotherapist,. I was an avid mystery reader, and I had two subjects I very much wanted to write about — Africa and wildlife. I'd been in the Peace Corps, and just come back from a wildlife safari, which was a joyful experience, and thought it would be fun to put all those things together. My only problem was that I had never written anything and didn't have a clue how to write a mystery — so first I had to learn how to write.

OMN: Did you just sit down and start writing?

KM: I stared at the blank page and didn't have a clue how to begin. I realized I needed help.

I signed up for a basic learn how to write class in my local Adult Ed program, which happened to be at Harvard University. By great good luck the professor was one of my favorite college literature profs from Brandeis. He taught a very nuts and bolts course, with the craft of writing broken down into elements with very specific exercises to practice. I still remember the first assignment. It was to describe someone asking for directions to Harvard Square in a two sentence conversation. We had to write it three times, each time changing who was asking and who was asked — it could be a male student asking an old lady, asking a pretty girl, asking another guy, for example. You couldn't describe the characters — you had to communicate who they were entirely by voice, that is, word choice and speech rhythm. It was a fantastic introduction to the art of writing.

Because I had no pride involved, learning was a great experience — I didn't expect myself to know how to create a character, set a scene, develop a plot, create suspense and tension. So I was very happy to drill and practice each skill, like any other craft.

I handed in a chapter each week as my writing assignment, and had a first draft by the end of that year. Then I rewrote Deadly Safari three more times, with the help of a terrific, very demanding writers group.

OMN: In what ways was the writers' group helpful?

KM: I couldn't have written any of the books without it. We were half a dozen women, and we stayed together for twenty years — the small size and the commitment to each other creates a lot of trust, so we could be very tough but supportive. Too many writers' groups I've been in since are kind of babyish, just exchanging of compliments, as if writers are too fragile to take criticism. Or they don't work hard enough on each other's work — just listen to it read and on the spot, say the first thing that comes to your mind. In my beloved first group, we met once a month and each handed out a chapter to be discussed the following meeting. Each of would read and mark in detail everyone else's chapter, and have time to think about it. So the feedback was very useful. Most of us ended up getting published, because we developed a professional attitude of demanding a lot of ourselves.

OMN: How hard was it to get published in the late 1980s?

KM: It took me one try to get an agent and six weeks to have St. Martin's Press say yes to Deadly Safari. The main ingredient was luck. My timing was perfect. Sue Grafton had just led the way with her successful female P.I. and publishers were looking for women authors with strong women sleuths.

OMN: What was publicity like at that time?

KM: Good question. The hard part was what came after being published — getting publicity was entirely up to lowly authors like me. The publicity department at Ballantine, which was my paperback publisher, actually hated my doing anything on my own behalf, which they considered a nuisance. I got a quote from Elmore Leonard saying "I like the sound of your writing. You obviously know what you're doing." They never used it. They chose a quote from Tony Hillerman for the cover, which was great, but to deep six praise like that from the master of voice, Elmore Leonard?

It was hard to cope with them and keep your spirits up. I got the author quotes myself, and also sent out my book to reviewers.

OMN: Deadly Safari received a lot of attention, from positive reviews to award nominations.

KM: Of course, I was thrilled to get so many great reviews, from the Washington Post to Mystery News. Being nominated for an Edgar and talking at Bouchercon in London was a great honor and very thrilling. I was up against Patricia Cornwell, who had just written her first book and carried away the prize.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your series leads, safari guide Jazz Jasper and Inspector Omondi from the Nairobi homicide division.

KM: I tried to create two main characters that I liked, faults and all, and that my readers would like. As a psychotherapist, I enjoyed giving Jazz some love problems she has to solve. She grows and evolves over the course of the four books.

The characters are composites of people I've met and imaginary personality traits and life history that I enjoyed putting together. I discovered that one of the great pleasures in fiction is the creative part of making up a character — giving them a history, a personality, dreams, drives, strengths and weaknesses, and trying to make them come alive on the page. Yes, of course you think of actual people, or more than one person, and you mine some of your own memories. Then you throw in traits you enjoy imagining that you aren't blessed with — great courage, or a sense of humor.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

KM: I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa, and then went to Kenya three times on safari. I read hundreds of books on Africa — culture, history, wildlife, anthropology, fiction. And I subscribed to the Nairobi daily paper, to get detailed local color. As a result, I had Americans who actually do live in Kenya ask me how many years I lived there. I've had an outfitter ask me how long I was an outfitter. The best compliment — a Kikuyu medical student who read my books wrote a complimentary letter asking, "How do you understand us so well?"

The facts about Africa in my book are as accurate as I can make them — I actually had the last three books fact-checked by Lynn Leakey, an American safari guide who married into the famous Leakey family in Kenya, who became a great fan of the series.

OMN: Why did you choose to set your series in Kenya?

KM: Africa occupied a big part of my imagination from the time I was a toddler. My Dad was a combat photographer in WWII, where he was trained as a cinematographer. Back in the States, he couldn't get into the union, and was struggling to make a living. Things were pretty desperate with two little girls at home, so when he got a job offer to spend 6 months in Kenya making a wildlife documentary, he jumped at it. I must have missed him terribly. It was all the more thrilling when he returned to us and entertained by sister and me for the rest of our childhood with his many stories of adventures among the animals in the wilds of Kenya.

Three weeks after graduating from Brandeis I was in Senegal with the Peace Corps, where I ran a community center in a village down near the Guinee border, where we could hear shelling at night from their civil war. My partner freaked out after six weeks and left, and I was on my own, making African friends. I visited villages where I was the first white woman people had seen; witnessed female circumcision; traveled by dugout canoe; danced to drums in the moonlight; saw a baby born while "the devil" danced outside.

OMN: How soon after you left the Peace Corps did you write Deadly Safari?

KM: Eventually I settled on a career as a clinical social worker, which channeled my desire to help people, and had a private practice doing psychotherapy. Writing was the furthest thing from my mind. When I wanted to really relax, I loved to read classic British and American mysteries.

My husband and I came to love the natural world more and more, which we especially enjoyed on a salt marsh in Cape Cod. Our interest in wildlife led to a photo safari to Kenya. Because of my confidence from Peace Corps days, instead of going with a group, we rented a car and drove around the national parks and rural roads ourselves, which led to many adventures and fun encounters with people and wildlife.

The trip was so fantastic I wanted to relive the memories. Then I realized I had the key to communicate my love of Africa: put my intimate African perspectives into a fun, page-turning mystery. I could have a detective duo — a black city slicker cop and an American woman running a safari company. I could weave my deeper understanding of Africans into the story background, mine my adventures for plot ideas, and lend the book some of my childhood love of romantic adventure novels. The result was Deadly Safari and the three books that followed.

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Fossil by Karin McQuillan

Fossil by Karin McQuillan

A Jazz Jasper, African Wildlife Mystery

Publisher: Karin McQuillan

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)

An all-star team of international scientists has uncovered a hominid skull in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania, which will shed light on the big question of human nature: was it killing or cooperation that was the driving force behind human evolution?

Explosive rivalries — personal, professional and racial — are tearing the archeological team apart.

Human predatory behavior intrudes into the natural order. One of the Tanzanian paleontologists is murdered and the fossil stolen. An innocent camp servant is arrested for the crime, plunging Jazz and Omondi into the search for the real killer.

Fossil by Karin McQuillan

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