Elaine Viets is the author of two national bestselling mystery series. Her Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum wage world. Her character, Helen Hawthorne, works a different low-paying job each book. She’s been everything from a telemarketer to a hotel maid. The South Florida series has been called “Janet Evanovich meets The Fugitive.”
Publishers Weekly called “Murder Unleashed,” Elaine’s hardcover debut, “wry social commentary.” Her series has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and raves in The New York Times. Catnapped! is her thirteenth Dead-End Job mystery.
Her Dead-End Job series is taught in universities in the United States and Japan.
Elaine’s second series, featuring Josie Marcus, is a look at the pink collar world of secret shopping. This critically acclaimed series debuted in October 2005 with Dying in Style and tied with Stephen King on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list. Fixing to Die is her ninth adventure.
Elaine’s short stories have appeared in two New York Times bestselling anthologies. “Vampire Hours” was in Many Bloody Returns, edit ed by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner and reprinted in Vampires in Love, published by Barnes & Noble. Her short story, “The Bedroom Door,” was in Mystery Writers of America’s Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris.
She has had short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and anthologies such as Drop-Dead Blonde, High Stakes, the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes I, Mystery Writers of America’s Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Mystery Writers of America’s Show Business Is Murder, edited by Stuart Kaminsky; and The World’s Greatest Mystery and Crime Stories, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg.
Her short stories have been published worldwide, including Britain, Australia, Turkey and France.
Elaine has served on the national boards of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards.
Now comes the interview…
GWN: I don’t know how authors do it these days, but they are involved in a number of series. I see you have both the “Dead-End Job” and the “Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper” mysteries. How have you set up your writing schedule?
Elaine: I am very lucky that I enjoy writing and don’t have to go into an office. My husband Don and I live in a condo on the water in Florida with our two cats. I write seven days a week.
I usually have breakfast about eight or nine and play with the cats. Writers love pets because they’re fun distractions. My writing day starts about nine-thirty or ten and I write until about eleven-thirty when I break for Dragonwell green tea. I love the name.
I go back to work until about three. Then I stop for lunch, and work again until seven, when Don and I have dinner. After dinner, I’ll walk along the water or work out in the gym.
We have so many interesting people in our condo – artists, judges, lawyers, librarians, department store buyers – as well as many Florida friends, so I have an active social life after work.
I can’t write both series at the same time. I’ll research and write a Josie book, turn it in, and then take a break. During the break, I’ll promote the book from the other series. My Josie Marcus mysteries are published in November and my Dead-End Job mysteries are out in May. Right now, I’m promoting “A Dog Gone Murder” while finishing the rewrite of my May 2015 Dead-End Job mystery, “Checked Out.” It’s set at a library.
That may sound like a lot of writing, but I’m amazed at the writers who can turn out three and four books a year.
GWN: Can you tell us about Helen Hawthorne and why she came to South Florida and Josie Marcus, who always seems to find “more than she bargained for” in St. Louis.
Elaine: Helen Hawthorne was a St. Louis woman who made six figures working at a dull corporate job. She had all the trappings of success: a big house in the burbs, designer furniture, and power suits. She also thought she was happily married until she came home from work early. She found her husband, Rob, who was supposed to be working on the back deck, was nailing their neighbor, Sandy. Helen picked up a crowbar and bashed in his beloved SUV, then filed for divorce. The judge awarded Rob half of the house (which she paid for) as well as half of Helen’s future income. Helen swore Rob would never see a nickel of her income. She jumped in her car and drove aimlessly around the US until she wound up in South Florida, where she moved into the Coronado Tropic Apartments and began working jobs for cash under the table to stay away from Rob. “Shop Till You Drop” was the first book in the series.
Helen started the series as a bitter woman, but she’s changed. Margery, the purple-wearing, Marlboro-smoking landlady of Coronado, becomes her surrogate mother. In “Dying to Call You,” she met Phil, a private eye living at the Coronado, and began dating him. By “Half-Price Homicide,” Helen not only married Phil, she became a private detective, too, and they opened their own firm, Coronado Investigations. Ever since “Pumped for Murder” she still works those dead-end jobs, but now she works undercover, as a PI.
Josie Marcus is a very different character. She’s a mystery shopper in Maplewood, a lively redbrick suburb of St. Louis. This Midwest city is the opposite of wacky, rootless South Florida. It’s centered on families and neighborhoods. People know one another, and if they don’t, they can find out about newcomers with a phone call or two.
Josie is a single mom with a nine-year-old daughter in “Dying in Style,” the first mystery in the series, and she is mystery-shopping purses when a store owner is murdered. Josie uses her mystery-shopping skills – including her powers of observation, her ability to talk to people, and to get around unnoticed – to solve the murder.
Thirty-one-year-old Josie belongs to the sandwich generation. She has a loving but difficult mother, Jane, who wants her to marry a good man, and Amelia, a smart, funny but sometimes difficult daughter. As the series advances, Josie, her mother, and her daughter, grow and change. Josie finally meets veterinarian Ted Scottsmeyer, quite by accident, and they get married in “Murder Is a Piece of Cake.” I planned their wedding at a favorite place in St. Louis, the Jewel Box.
Josie mystery-shops something different in each book, including shoes in “High Heels Are Murder,” lingerie in “An Uplifting Murder,” and home remodeling in “Fixing to Die,” which has been nominated for a Barry Award.
GWN: Your latest Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mystery is called “A Dog Gone Murder.” She’s been given the undercover assignment of investigating Uncle Bob’s Doggy Day Camp. What does she learn about the real Bob? Why would anyone want him dead?
Elaine: Josie is mystery-shopping dog daycare, and you won’t believe how pet lovers indulge their dogs. Blueberry facials are all the rage. Yes, they use real blueberries, but they don’t stain the fur blue. The facials are supposed to be especially good for dogs with facial folds, like sharpeis and bulldogs, and they’re said to remove tear stains. There’s DogTV, a channel designed for dogs, and mail carrier videos are popular shows. Dog disco parties, treadmill training, agility training, massage and aromatherapy are a few of the perks for pups.
Uncle Bob has a dog daycare empire in St. Louis, and he’s the star of his own commercials, which are so awful people can’t stop watching them. Bob is a local celebrity. Josie takes her mother’s dog to Uncle Bob’s for special treats and treatments. Her mother’s tenant, Frank, works there part-time. Frank learns that Uncle Bob not only doesn’t like dogs, he has a mean streak. He’s also a real hound. After Bob kicks a sweet old Pomeranian and breaks her leg, he’s found dead. By this time, Josie knows so much about Bob’s secret life, she’s surprised he wasn’t killed sooner. Animal lovers will be happy to know that Bob dies slowly and painfully.
GWN: Why is Josie’s mother’s tenant considered a suspect in Bob’s murder?
Elaine: He tells Bob what he thinks of him, then quits. He slams Bob’s office door shut and walks out. Josie goes into Bob’s office hours later, and finds Bob. He’s deathly ill. All the evidence points to Frank as the killer, and he’s arrested.
GWN: How does Josie get involved in the investigation?
Elaine: Josie has a knack for solving crimes. She knows Frank, and believes he’s innocent. She also knows that her mother, Jane, is in love with Frank and won’t admit it, even to herself. When Jane begs Josie to save Frank, she feels she has no choice but to help him.
GWN: What inspired you to write both series?
Elaine: Like Helen, I used to have a high-paying corporate job, and then wound up working at a bookstore. I liked the store, but found out that people treat you differently when you’re an underpaid clerk. They practice clerk abuse – they’re mad at their spouse or their boss at work, and they take it out on the salesperson. Unfortunately, the customer is always right. I was ringing up books at the store when a guy walked up with two paperbacks and said, “I’m exchanging this paperback for this one. They’re both $8.”
He started to walk away and I said, “Wait a minute! The manager has to approve the exchange.” I called “Manager to the front” on the intercom.
He said, “You’re an idiot.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Manager to the front.” The poor manager was running around the store doing six different things.
“This is the stupid system I ever heard of,” he said.
“Yes, sir. We have computer inventory. Manager to the front.”
“You’re a fool,” he said.
“Yes, sir. Manager to the front.”
That’s when the woman behind him said, “I hate it when people don’t take their medication.” And the woman behind her said, “Rude people stink.” Soon all the women in line were dissing this guy. Finally, the busy manager showed up, and gave her approval. He slunk away.
I put Mr. Rude and the nice women in line in my Dead-End Job mystery, “Murder Between the Covers.”
As for Josie, the publisher suggested the idea of writing about a mystery-shopper. My mother was a mystery shopper in the mid-1960s and the profession has changed very little since then. I felt like I was meant to write this series. Originally, this was supposed to be a two- or three-book series, but “A Dog Gone Murder” is book number ten.
GWN: Where do you get your ideas for storylines?
Elaine: For the Dead-End Job series, which is set in South Florida, I’ll see something that seems so perfectly Florida I have to write about it. Fort Lauderdale is the yacht capital of Florida, and I know Victoria Allman, a yacht chef, and her husband, Captain Patrick Allman, a yacht captain. They gave me the background for “Final Sail,” which set aboard 123-foot yacht. “Board Stiff” is about paddleboarding and the cutthroat fight for beach concessions and tourist dollars. I took paddleboarding lessons for that book. “Catnapped!” my latest hardcover, is set in the world of cat shows and show cats.
I work closely with my editor, Sandra Harding, and she often gives me suggestions for stories. She knows I love animals and came up with the suggestions for “Catnapped!,” “A Dog Gone Murder,” and more.
GWN: Do you belong to any author organizations?
Elaine: Yes, organizations are so important. I’m a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and the Cat Writers’ Association.
GWN: Where can we purchase your books?
Elaine: At independent bookstores, including IndieBound (www.indiebound.org), Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com. My mysteries are available as e-books, paperbacks and hardcovers. For sample chapters and direct buy links, click on Novels on www.elaineviets.com
GWN: How do you promote them? There seem so many options these days for the established author.
Elaine: There are too many options. The ones that work best for me are my Website (www.elaineviets.com), Facebook (ElaineVietsMysteryWriter) and Twitter (@evmysterywriter). I blog with the Femmes Fatales, which include authors Charlaine Harris, Dana Cameron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Dean James, Toni Kelner, Marcia Talley, Donna Andrews, Catriona McPherson, Kris Neri and Mary Saums (http://www.femmesfatales.typepad.com/) and also at The Kill Zone, http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/
I enjoy Skype interviews with libraries and book groups. I hired a national publicist and a local publicist in addition to the publisher’s publicist. Check out my book trailers on my Website. Bookmarks with my backlist help sell both series.
I’m really grateful for interviews like this one.
Many writers use Pinterest, Good Reads and LinkedIn, but I haven’t had much luck mastering those.
Writers have to find which methods work best for them, and it’s often by trial and error.
GWN: What book are you working on now?
Elaine: I’m finishing “Checked Out,” my May 2015 Dead–End Job hardcover. Private eye Helen Hawthorne is hired to track down a missing million-dollar watercolor left in a library book. The library is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Flora Portland, who originally owned the building, but the library director believes the so-called ghost is actually a person. A library patron was seriously injured when someone at the library thought they saw Flora haunting the library halls. Flora appears at a seance in the library. It’s Helen’s job to find the ghost, dead or alive. I’ve talked with librarians from coast to coast for background, and learned many library secrets. I also volunteered to shelve books at the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Room, where I am highly prized. I’m tall enough to reach the top shelves.