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Friday, November 16, 2012

Interview with Author Sheila York by Jacqueline Seewald


After a long career in TV and radio, Sheila York began writing mysteries combining her love of history, mysteries and the movies. Set in post-war Hollywood, her series features screenwriter/reluctant heiress/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and lover, P.I. Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of Film. Lauren’s third adventure, Death in Her Face, was published in October. www.SheilaYork.com.

 Sheila, congrats on the great reviews this novel garnered from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! I also love the cover art and believe it will draw readers.

Question: How would you describe your series, if you had to pick a genre?

Answer: If I had to pick a genre, I’d have to pick two. Or maybe three. I’d call my series a historical mystery with some noir sensibilities—as one might expect since it’s set in the 1940s.  But it’s not hard-boiled. I couldn’t do hard-boiled. I’m too optimistic. My series also has a strong romantic element in the relationship between my protagonist, Lauren Atwill, and the private detective she’s fallen in love with after the wreck of her disastrous marriage to a movie star. Peter Winslow, the PI, is the Mr. Right who looks about as wrong for her as a guy can be. She comes from money; he went to work for a gangster when he was just a kid. He’s tough; he’s used to giving orders. She’s used to doing things her own way. Hey, she’s a script doctor after all. An artist has to follow her instincts. It’s her job to fix other people’s messes. Even if it turns out that fixing them means finding the person who left a dead body lying around.

Question: Why the 1940s?

Answer: I love movies, from all eras, but I have a strong attachment to many of the movies of the great golden age of film, which runs roughly from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s (you can get arguments started about the exact range). I’m also a great fan of Raymond Chandler, and most women who adore Chandler’s books fall a little in love with Philip Marlowe. But I wasn’t going to write a story about a private detective in 1940s LA. At least not with him as the chief protagonist. I wanted a woman. I wanted an amateur sleuth. So I wrote a variation on the theme of the woman coming to a private detective because she’s in real trouble. I told it from the woman’s point of view. That’s how Lauren Atwill was born.

Question: Death in Her Face is your latest. How did you pick that title? 


Answer: A beautiful starlet has vanished and her gangster boyfriend lies dead in the burned out hulk of their secret love nest. The title seemed a natural fit, especially when Lauren finds another body, someone connected to the starlet’s movie. The starlet might be a killer in more than looks.

I vaguely recalled a line from a romantic poem about a doomed lady, wasting from unrequited love, and a balladeer who sees “death in her face.” Alas, I can’t find the poem. It might have been a French poem I read in college, and I’m recalling what would have been the English translation. Ah well, the title works.

Question:  What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: The inspiration was the killing of a small-time hoodlum named Johnny Stompanato in the home of the movie icon Lana Turner back in the 1950s. I read about that case when I was a child, and until that moment, I believed movie stars lived the lives of their publicity. I thought their world was perfect. How could a woman get herself entangled with a volatile, dangerous man? Why would she stay with him? Why would she refuse the studio’s demand to cut off the affair? Was it fear? Was it love? Or was it something else? The Stompanato case made a profound impression on me. And when I started to write my series, it was the fictional possibility of that ‘something else’ that intrigued me, and unfettered by reality, I found a much more complicated reason for my starlet’s affair with the gangster. My book’s plot bears no resemblance to the Stompanato case at all. But its revelation of what lies beneath the beautiful mask of Hollywood certainly inspired me. 

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and hero?

Answer:  My heroine, Lauren Atwill, is a Hollywood screenwriter. She compromised a promising career trying to save a marriage, and by the time it finally crashed, it had very nearly taken her career with it. She’s mostly relegated to being a script doctor these days. She has a strong instinct to fix things. She’s brave, smart, witty, fiercely loyal, and when she gets her teeth into something, she doesn’t let go. She’s stubborn (just ask Peter about that). If she has an idea, she runs with it. A blessing in her writing career, a bit dangerous in her personal life. Peter Winslow, with whom she investigates in frequently stormy tandem, is a private detective who’s been around the block a few times. He started out working for a gangster in the Depression as a teenager, to feed his family. And he did what he had to do to keep the job. He’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of. He knows he and Lauren are a long shot. But he can’t resist her. She’s not like any other woman he ever met. 

Question:  Tell us about the other books in your series.

Answer:  Death in Her Face is the third in the Lauren Atwill, screenwriter, series. The first novel, Star Struck Dead, won a Daphne du Maurier award and was nominated as Best First Mystery by the Romantic Times. It’s the story of a tangled web of blackmail and murder, and it’s the story of how Lauren met Peter. Lauren’s second adventure, A Good Knife’s Work, takes her to New York City and into the world of a 1940s radio mystery program, where reality is created by sound alone. It’s all about deception, even after the microphones are turned off, and Lauren must peel away layer after layer of lies to solve the killing of a friend. 

Question:  What are you working on now?

Answer:  My fourth Lauren mystery. I haven’t settled on a title yet. It’s due to the publisher at the end of the year, so I’ve had my head down and am writing like a maniac. Lauren is loaned out by Marathon Studios, where she’s spent most of her career, and she’s loaned out to what she considers a second-rate studio! She’s not one bit happy. She’s thinks the head of Marathon has done it because he’s superstitious, to test whether it’s true that, when Lauren signs on to a movie, somebody gets killed. Then somebody gets killed. Then…the body disappears.

Question:  What made you start writing?

Answer: I can hardly recall a time when I didn’t want to write, so it’s impossible to say what made me start. I think writers just can’t help themselves. But at some point when I was young, I decided that, although I dreamed of writing professionally, I wasn’t good enough to even think about a career at it. Partly this was because I was terribly, terribly shy and insecure. But I also think a contributing factor was the reaction my writing got in school. When we were given creative writing assignments, I’d write a romantic mystery, but the teachers were looking for “literary” writing. I mean, mysteries? They weren’t “serious” fiction. And I’m afraid the system didn’t give encouragement to writing that wasn’t “serious.” When I think of the overwrought prose I had to listen to in class being read aloud as examples of what we should all aspire to…  I wish I’d known then it ain’t necessarily so.

So perhaps the question is why did I start writing again?

Two things happened, several years ago: 1) My husband, David F. Nighbert, began working on his first novel, and I saw how it was done, and I began to think maybe I should give it a try; 2) I had dinner with a friend from college days, and we had a bit too much wine and started talking about the romance novel we ought to write. It was just in fun. But later, I thought, why not? I decided I would not end up at 80 full of regret that I never gave writing a chance. So I wrote the book. It took six years. And it’s sitting in a file cabinet in my attic. It’s too long and has some other challenges—all the mistakes of a first book. But I started toying with another idea, about a screenwriter in Hollywood in the golden age of film, who gets herself into some very big trouble and can’t go to the police. That book was Star Struck Dead.

Question:  What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

Answer: Finish the book. I meet an amazing number of new writers who are worried about marketing their books and they only have 100 pages finished. Finish it, leave it in a drawer for three months (no peeking) and then take it out, re-read it and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it.

Carve out time to write. Set yourself a schedule of some sort. Don’t wait for inspiration. I think sometimes we do a disservice to new writers by talking about how our “characters just took over” while we were writing. Without that comment being explained in much more detail, it sounds as if there’s some magic out there and one morning you’ll wake up with an idea, and the book will just write itself. It won’t.

Question:  Where can readers buy your new book?

Answer: Death in Her Face was released in October, and you can buy it now, online or in stores. A terrific holiday present (it takes place around Christmas in 1946!). If you order a copy of the book to be shipped to you from Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, I’ll sign it for you! My office is not that far from the store.

Sheila, thanks for being our guest author today. Anyone who would like to comment is
welcome in this forum. Sheila will be coming by to read and respond.

20 comments:

Winnie said...

We have enjoyed the other books in your series, and am looking forward to reading the latest. Your characters are very engaging and interesting! Looking forward to your signing at the Mysterious Book Shop! Highly recommend these books to everyone.

Sheila York said...

Thanks! Yes, the book launch party got delayed by Hurricane Sandy. We'll be down at Mysterious on Wednesday, December 12, 6-8p. For those in the New York area, please join us.

Mark said...

I never thought about Lauren's compulsion to "fix things" -- well, perhaps "compulsion" is not the right word -- she's turned out to be good at fixing things, she sees something that needs fixing, she SHOULD try to fix it. Anyway, I like this script doctor/mystery solver parallel. Looking forward to the book signing!

Linda said...

I love the idea of the superstitious studio head trying to get rid of Lauren and her bad juju!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Sheila,

I see you already have a following for your novels which is great! We'll hope for many more readers to discover your fine work.

Sheila York said...

To Mark: There are so many challenges to creating an amateur sleuth. One of the biggest is figuring out how to put Lauren in the position of solving the crime. Most of us, when confronted with a dead body would run like heck, call the police, and that would be it for our involvement. I broke up an armed robbery once, and that's about as close to actual crime solving as I want to get. Lauren always has a personal interest in the solution of the crime -- and because she has a gift for fixing things, she can't stop thinking about a solution.

Sheila York said...

To Linda: I decided for the next book after DEATH IN HER FACE -- the one you're referring to -- that I'd take on the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. Every time you invited that woman anywhere, somebody dropped dead. After a while, you'd have thought people would stop asking her to their parties. Lauren lets the police take the credit for her solutions, but there are just enough people around who've begun to notice the coincidence of her signing onto a film and a killing. And Hollywood does love to gossip.

D'Ann said...

Om gosh! This sounds wonderful! must get a copy! Payday, come on!

Sheila York said...

D'Ann, that so nice. Thanks! I've been reading about you online. romance novelist and Colorado girl! The next Left Coast Crime convention is out in Colorado Springs in March 2013. I can't wait to see the mountains. (The organizers are gradually moving the 'coast' further inland)

Pauline B Jones said...

You are a new to me author, so very much enjoyed the interview. Love that time and the movies from then, too.

Sheila York said...

Hey, Pauline. I'm very new to this, only my third book (well, fourth if you count the one in the file cabinet). What are some of your favorite 40s movies? I have quite a few, but among the top: The Third Man; Notorious; The Best Years of Our Lives; Laura; His Girl Friday; The Lady Eve.

Gail Farrelly said...

Sheila,

Your books sound wonderful. Just downloaded one of your earlier ones to my Kindle. Lots of luck with your work.

Sheila York said...

Hooray!! Thanks, Gail. Are you starting with Star Struck Dead? That's the first. How they met.

Gail Farrelly said...

I decided to go with the one that has the word "Knife" in the title. But I have a feeling that I'll eventually be reading all of them!

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

The era of Death In her Face is an interesting one, particularly to historical fiction writers. I look forward to the success of your series, Sheila, but I am curious about your WIP which is fourth in the series. Are they all with the same publisher?

Sheila York said...

Mary: The first was with Pocket Books. They had a program several years ago, under which they were publishing a couple of paperback mysteries every month, most with romantic elements. Alas, not long after Star Struck Dead was published, they cancelled the program, and I had to find a new home for my series. It is with Gale/Five Star now, who is publishing the WIP as well. I have also finished a mystery set in the modern day, basically in a fictional version of my hometown in Tennessee. I hope to find a home for that series, too.

dkchristi said...

I have always been attracted to stories from the 40's - movies and novels. Perhaps it's because that's when my parents were in their prime and a lot of exciting things were happening in a dramatic way. Great interview; interesting author.

Sheila York said...

Thanks, DK. I think some of the romance I feel for the forties is also the result of my parents having spent their young married years in them. They had gorgeous pictures from Europe -- my father was stationed in Austria after the war. And, well, I kind of have this thing for Philip Marlowe.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Death in your Face sounds highly appealing. I love that golden age of "Hollywood" and romantic actresses like your protagonist. And the cover art is gorgeous. Nice interview, both Sheila and Jacquie!

Sheila York said...

Thanks, Nancy. I should point out as full disclosure that my protag, Lauren, is a screenwriter, not an actress. The plot revolves around a beautiful starlet who vanishes after her gangster boyfriend is found murdered in their secret love nest. Lauren's hired by the studio to rewrite the script should the starlet turn out to be a killer. Lauren's lover, PI Peter Winslow is hired to try to find the missing woman. Of course, Lauren is neck deep practically before Peter can strap on his gun.