INTERVIEW WITH JOANNE FLUKE, conducted by Pamela James
Joanne Fluke writes a culinary mystery series to die for, and she even includes yummy recipes. Murder never tasted so good, so if you have a sweet tooth and a taste for murder, Joanne Fluke’s “Hannah Swensen” mystery series will satisfy both of your needs.
As for the red-haired, baking-up-a-storm Hannah Swensen herself, if you’ve never stopped out her way, she’s the owner of The Cookie Jar, the most popular bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota.
This interview took place by email in February, 2005.
MF: Joanne tell us why you began writing culinary mysteries and how you came up with the idea for a culinary mystery series.
I come from a family of bakers. When I was four years old, I stood on a stool and stirred the mixing bowl while my mom and grandmother dumped in the cookie or cake ingredients. No one ever came away from our house hungry (or in need of a chocolate fix!)
I always wanted to write a cookbook and I even had one in mind. I’d already written a dozen or so thrillers and I was looking for something to write that wouldn’t give me nightmares about being chased by psychopathic killers. I decided to do a proposal for a cookbook with bar cookie recipes. I called it “Bar Hopping in Minnesota,” and it featured recipes on one page and anecdotes about small town Minnesota life on the facing page. My editor, John Scognamiglio at Kensington, suggested turning my idea into a culinary cozy mystery series, and Hannah Swensen was born.
(Just in case you’re wondering, I still have nightmares – but now they’re about Hannah running out of chocolate!)
MF: The town that you’ve chosen to set the series in seems so real. How do you keep the town and its citizens so true to life?
It’s a lot like the town where I grew up, and I follow the old adage of writing about what I know. My old hometown was smaller, but the feel is the same. Lake Eden seems real, because it IS real to me. The characters who live in Lake Eden are also real to me. I was in the baking aisle of my local grocery story yesterday, picking up ingredients for a new cookie idea I’d had. I wasn’t sure if I wanted unsweetened, or semi-sweet baking chocolate, and I caught myself turning around to ask Hannah. Please don’t tell anyone – this probably makes me very close to certifiable!
MF: How long does it take you to write your mysteries and what type of writing schedule do you have?
I get up early every morning and put in four or five good hours. It’s difficult to figure out the total time it takes to write a Hannah mystery, because not all the time is spent typing in front of my computer. My husband (a TV story editor) and I spend hours talking about the story and how to make it work. When I have a fairly clear idea of what I’m going to do, I write a detailed outline. That takes about a month. The actual writing takes another three months or so, but I also spend a lot of time rewriting and editing, and developing and testing Hannah’s recipes. When you add in time for book signings and other promotional work, it fills up almost an entire year.
MF: Do you ever come across a recipe for your books that doesn’t work?
I’ve had ideas for recipes that I’ve gone crazy trying to perfect. My watermelon cookies come to mind as my most outstanding failure. (Don’t ask – I’ll NEVER try them again!) For the most part I start out with an old family recipe and tinker with it until I get it just the way I want it. Or, if I have an idea for a brand new recipe, I just start from scratch and go through a series of trials and errors until I get it just right. My husband helps. When I was developing a recipe for blueberry muffins that would be worthy of Hannah, he almost turned purple taste-testing every experimental batch.
MF: Okay, so what do you have planned for us to nibble on in 2005 and what releases are on the schedule?
Peach Cobbler Murder comes out in March and I immodestly think it’s delicious! (Just wait until you taste that Minnesota Peach Cobbler!) In Peach Hannah’s love life will get much more complicated. And in the next book (Cherry Cheesecake Murder, March 2006), Hannah has some really big decisions to make. I can say no more. Wink, wink.
MF: Tell us about Joanne Fluke, the author, the woman and her passions.
I don’t think of myself as an “author.” I grew up believing that authors sat around in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, puffing on expensive pipes, and waiting for the muse. Their feminine counterparts were never seen without designer evening gowns, cigarettes in elegant holders, high heels that emphasized their perfect legs, and blood red lipstick. They all hung out together in expensive restaurants and sat around saying witty and pithy things. Since I don’t have a fancy evening gown or a cigarette holder, can’t walk more than half a block in high heels without whimpering, don’t dare wait for my unreliable muse when I’m on a deadline, and can’t think of witty and pithy things to say until I’m in the car on the way home, I prefer to call myself a “writer,” not an “author.”
Personally, I have a great life. I have a good marriage, good kids, wonderful grandkids, super friends, and a houseful of loving, four-legged “fur people.” I also have two wall ovens, a 6-quart stand mixer, an extra large food processor, and a pantry filled with chocolate. What else could a girl want?
MF: When did you first realize you had a taste for murder?
I’m afraid it was inevitable. Death was not a rarity in my house. My father was the local undertaker and growing up with one or more dead bodies downstairs probably influenced me. (Just kidding – the mortuary was a separate building a block away!) When I was old enough to understand some medical terminology, I used to examine the death certificates to see if maybe, just possibly, there could have been foul play involved. There’s another influence, too. I’ve always read voraciously and murder mysteries are particular favorites of mine.
MF: Joanne what do you think the hardest part of being a mystery author is, and how do you solve the problem?
The hardest part of writing is typing “The End.” I just hate to leave Hannah and her extended family when I’ve finished the current book. The only thing that makes it bearable is that I know I’ll be seeing them all again in the next book.
MF: Was there a mystery author who influenced your writing?
Probably, but I’ve read so many over the years that it’d be tough to try to name one. I did cut my teeth on a Perry Mason novel … literally. Gammie used to take care of me when my mom and dad were at work. She was very fond of Perry Mason, and she was reading her latest hardcover when I woke up from my nap and wanted juice. She took me out of my crib, set me down on the rug, and went to get the juice. By the time she got back, I’d pulled her book off the table and was happily chewing on it. I still have that book and it has little dents on the corner of the cover from my baby teeth.
MF: What mysterious words of wisdom do you have to share on ‘Mystery writing’ and tell us what you do to stay sane in the insane business of being a mystery author.
It’s the other way around. As a mystery writer I get to kill off anyone who really makes me mad (on paper anyway.) Otherwise I might go crazy.
As far as sharing mysterious words of wisdom, I can only repeat what my grandmother used to say, “Everything goes better with a cookie.”
MF: What are your future writing plans and you be doing much traveling this year on behalf of your books?
I hope to go on writing about Hannah as long as my fingers last. Retirement’s not an option for me. For me, writing is almost as necessary as breathing.
This year, I’ll be doing a little more traveling. If you want to know where I’ll be, just log on to my web site www.MurderSheBaked.com and check my schedule on the “Signings & Photos” page. We’re still working out the details, but I’ll be in Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and perhaps Portland. Next year, with Cherry Cheesecake Murder, I may actually get back to the Midwest!
MF: Do you write while you are away from home?
No. When I write, I really get into it. I’m back in Lake Eden with Hannah and the crew and it takes me a while to “come out of it.” Just think how you’d feel if you were in the middle of an incredibly good movie and someone turned off the projector and told you it was time to get up and do something else. If I’m not at home in my office with the door closed, there are bound to be interruptions.
MF: Joanne leave us with a quote that will sum up how you feel about life, writing mysteries and the fictional world you have created.
That’s easy. “Eat dessert first!”
JOANNE FLUKE: A CRIMINOUS BIBLIOGRAPHY, compiled by Steve Lewis
The Stepchild. Dell, pb original, Apr 1980. Possibly marginal crime content.
The Other Child. Dell, pb original, Feb 1983. Possibly marginal crime content.
Winter Chill. Dell, pb original, Dec 1984.
Cold Judgment. Dell, pb original, Feb 1985.
Vengeance Is Mine. Dell, pb original, Jan 1986.
Final Appeal. Pocket Books, Aug 1989.
Video Kill. Pocket Books, 1989.
Dead Giveaway. Pocket Books, Feb 1990.
Fatal Identity. Zebra, pb original, Sept 1993.
Deadly Memories. Zebra, pb original, Feb 1995.
The Hannah Swensen series:
Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. Kensington, hc, April 2000; pb, July 2001.
Strawberry Shortcake Murder. Kensington, hc, Mar 2001; pb, Feb 2002.
Blueberry Muffin Murder. Kensington, hc, Mar 2002; pb, Feb 2003.
Lemon Meringue Pie Murder. Kensington, hc, Mar 2003, pb, Feb 2004.
Fudge Cupcake Murder. Kensington, hc, Feb 2004; pb, Jan 2005.
Sugar Cookie Murder. Kensington, hc, Sept 2004; pb, Oct 2005 [short novel + recipes]
Peach Cobbler Murder. Kensington, hc, Feb 2005; pb, Feb 2006.
Cherry Cheesecake Murder. Kensington, hc, Mar 2006.
Writing as John Fischer (with Ruel E. Fischman):
High Stakes. Pocket Books, pb original, 1986. [Harold Robbins Presents series]
Station Break, Pocket Books, pb original, 1987. [Harold Robbins Presents series]
Writing as Jo Gibson:
Wicked. Zebra, pb original, Aug 1996.
Writing as Chris Hunter:
Eyes. Pinnacle, pb original, July 1996.
Allen K. Hubin, Crime Fiction IV
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.
Copyright © 2006 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors. Return to the Main Page.