Carolyn Hart is one of America's best-selling and best-loved writers, as evidenced by her 2.7 million books in print. She has won multiple awards including the Agatha, the Macavity, and the Anthony. In May 2007, Malice Domestic honored her career with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Her novel Letter from Home, set in her native Oklahoma, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Hart worked as a journalist for a few years before leaving to focus on raising her family. She has taught creative writing within the journalism school at OU, but most of her career has been devoted to writing fiction.
She is an excellent mystery writer and has been anointed the "American Agatha Christie." Readers are assured they're in for a first-rate read full of suspense and humor when they spy Hart's name on a book. Her Annie and Max Darling series and Henrie O series are especially popular and have earned loyal fans. Her latest book is Set Sail for Murder, starring the intrepid Henrie O.
I recently met with Ms. Hart in Oklahoma City, her hometown and current residence. We discussed her background, career, and mysteries.
By Emrys Moreau
EM: You are an Oklahoma City native. After marriage, you moved to Washington D.C. and Leavenworth, Kansas before returning to Oklahoma. What caused you to move back here?
CH: My husband is a lawyer and he decided he wanted to practice law in Oklahoma City. He interviewed and received an offer, so we came back in January of 1965 after he had finished his military service and we have been here ever since. I would never leave Oklahoma. For one thing, our grandchildren live in Tulsa so we are definitely attached to Oklahoma.
EM: Do you think Oklahoma is a good location for a writer?
CH: I would say that Oklahoma is a very nurturing and friendly environment for a writer. I don't feel that I have faced a disadvantage being in Oklahoma.
If it doesn't make any difference to you where you live, there are advantages to being in New York or on the West Coast simply because you can make so many more personal contacts in the publishing and entertainment world there.
EM: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
CH: I was always determined to be a writer, but I thought I would be a newspaper reporter. I decided when I was eleven that I wanted to work on a newspaper and every bit of my energy was spent on that. I worked on school newspapers and I majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. I was just certain that I would be the next Maggie Higgins, who was a very famous foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.
It was falling in love that changed the course of my life. After we married and had a family I didn't want to go back to working at a newspaper because the hours are very long and the pay is very low. It's exciting and it's important, but it's also very stressful. That was when I first started thinking about writing fiction. So, I had never envisioned myself writing fiction until my late twenties. But I always knew that I would be a writer.
EM: What topics did you cover while working as a journalist?
CH: I was a general reporter at one point. I just did it for about a year, and then I wrote a lot of feature stories.
I enjoyed it, but I discovered that I'm not suited to be a reporter. I'm not aggressive enough and I don't like to ask people questions. The writing was congenial to me, but not the actual work. I really didn't like going after people with possibly very disturbing questions.
I have to say that as time has gone on, I have become disappointed with journalism. I know we've always had the yellow press, but it does seem to me that now there is so much more focus on sensation and so little regard for how the words will impact people's lives. I think everything is focused on making a profit and doing whatever it takes to make that profit. As much as I loved working on a newspaper, I'm just so glad that I didn't end up continuing in that direction.
EM: Did you take any fiction writing classes or workshops while studying for your journalism degree?
CH: No, I was completely focused on news. In fact, I've never taken a course on writing fiction.
I have attended writers' workshops and lectures and that sort of thing. At one point I taught creative writing within the journalism school at OU. But I never studied it from that direction.
You know, the most important thing is to read. That's what makes writers. I think that if you grow up reading and reading and reading, you have a template in your mind that gives you the basic sense of what works and what doesn't work in fiction.
EM: When you taught writing, your guideline for students was "You will never succeed unless you are willing to fail." To an outsider, your career seems to not have any failures!
CH: Oh, I had years of failure, many years of failure! I wrote seven books in seven years and didn't sell any of them. Death on Demand [her first bestseller] was my fifteenth book.
EM: How were you able to overcome frustration and disappointment for a span of fourteen books?
CH: The truth of the matter is that writers must write, and they write whether they succeed or fail.
I have to admit I had decided that Death on Demand was the last one I was going to try. "This is silly. You aren't succeeding. How many years are you going to do this?" At that point in my life, I loved to play tennis so I thought, "Well, I'll just play tennis."
I was so certain it wouldn't sell that I just wrote exactly what I wanted to write. I didn't worry about the market because I didn't think there would be a market. But that happened to be the particular time when publishing was being transformed in New York and there were suddenly openings for books by American women. I just very happily and coincidentally wrote what I thought was going to be my last book at that time... And it did sell!
EM: Were the previous books written with concern about the market and what would sell?
CH: Well, I don't really think so. I always intended to write a good mystery and a good book. I did think "Well, I'll try romantic suspense and see if that works... I'll try a crime novel and see if that works..." And nothing seemed to work.
I don't think my writing has changed other than the fact that all of us have been transformed by computers, because now we can go back and change things at will. Frankly, I'm the same writer I was for all those books that disappeared.
EM: When did you write your first mystery?
CH: My first mystery was written when Phil was in the military and it was a juvenile mystery that was sold while we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth. When we came back to Oklahoma, I wrote some more juvenile fiction and young adult fiction. Then I started writing adult mysteries and/or suspense.
At that time I didn't have any connections with the writing world, so I didn't know that mysteries written by American women were not of interest to New York publishers. That accounted for the fact that I wrote a good many books over a span of years and wasn't able to sell any of them. And it was only after I had very fortunately sold Death on Demand, the first in my Annie and Max series, that I became really acquainted with the national group of women mystery writers. From that point forward I have felt very connected with the mystery world.
Prior the late 1980s, New York publishers thought there were only two kinds of mysteries: the hard-boiled private eye books written by men with male protagonists and the traditional mysteries written by dead English ladies. So, they were not buying anything by American women. What changed that was the advent of Marcia Muller, Sarah Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. They wrote what New York publishers saw as the "American mystery" because they were hard-boiled and they had a private detective as the protagonist, even though they were written by women. So the publishers took a chance on them and the response was absolutely huge. Readers obviously were very eager for books written by American women. That's what opened the window of opportunity for writers such as me, American women who write traditional mysteries.
EM: Do you outline your books before you write them?
CH: I believe very strongly that writers must find their own way. For example, sometimes there are those who will say that you must outline, and I am living proof that you do not have to outline! [Laughing] As a matter of fact, I would say that about sixty-percent of all the writers I know do not outline. That doesn't mean we don't know anything when we start a book, because we know a great deal. But we don't work with formal outlines.
Now, there are wonderful writers who do outline. I don't know her personally, but I have heard a great deal about Elizabeth George, who is a very successful crime novelist. She outlines in enormous detail and she does twenty-page character sketches. This may take her a year or two, and then she writes the book in three or four months. So, you see, it just depends on how your mind works.
I would outline if I could, because I think it would make it so much easier, but I cannot work like that. So those who were told that they must outline and were therefore discouraged because they can't outline, should take heart because it is not essential.
EM: I was a bit worried about my own lack of outlining until I was told that many writers don't and it's not a requirement. Flannery O'Connor didn't outline and she was just as surprised by the outcomes of her stories as her readers! I think that's an exciting way to look at writing.
CH: Well, that's the way it comes alive for that stripe of writer.
I remember when I was writing Death of the Party, and my characters Annie and Max are on a remote sea island with a group of people. At one point, Max decides to take a walk to explore the island. I had no idea when he started out on that walk that he was going to meet a character who would be instrumental in the entire story. It just happened.
EM: Have you ever had trouble coming up with a plot?
CH: Oh, I'm in that position right this minute! [Laughing]
It's always a struggle. I think I have an idea for a new Annie and Max book. I know who the victim is, but I have not decided who the murderer is and I really need to know that before I start.
EM: Are there any techniques you use to spur your creativity?
CH: It always helps to take a long walk. Also, deadlines are very helpful to prompt work!
EM: Your latest book, Set Sail for Murder, takes place on a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea. How did you decide on that setting?
CH: The answer to that is really very simple. My husband and I were going to take a Baltic cruise. You sign up for that sort of think about a year in advance. Phil [her husband] said, "You know what? That would make a great background for Henrie O! What do you think?" I said, "Well, it really would, wouldn't it? She's usually in some exotic place..." So he said, "Well, I'll take your portion off on your taxes." So then in the back of my mind, I knew I had to use this for a book.
I kept thinking all the way up until August 2004, when we took the trip, and I could not think of a story. We went on the trip and I did a lot of research on the ship and I interviewed the security officer. I kept desperately trying to think of a story... I came home and the days were ticking away, and I knew I had to write it or the IRS would come and put me away! [Laughing]
I don't write the kind of book that has international intrigue in it, so I couldn't do something with that. What I really needed was a family group, a dysfunctional family. Well, there it finally was! I had to figure out some way to get this dysfunctional family on the Baltic cruise and have Henrie O be involved.
It was really, really a hard book to write because with security as it is today with international travel, there's no way someone could possibly smuggle a gun or a knife on board a ship. So what are you left with? You're left with poison, which I don't like to do because it's just so awful to envision, or you're left with pushing someone overboard.
The other difficulty is that these people who are traveling in a group are always with other people, except when they're in their staterooms. When they get off the ship, they're on a bus going to look at things. It was so hard to come up with any action! In the book that I just turned in, I have shots in the night, someone breaking in to a house, theftI have all this action. And here I was with all these characters stuck on a ship... It was a real challenge! I was so relieved to finish it and I ended up being satisfied with it. I think it worked, but it was a real struggle. I'll never do another ship; let me assure you of that!
EM: Do you have a set writing schedule?
CH: I have deadlines, so I don't just do it when I would like to. Basically, when I am working on a book and I am really engaged in it, I try to write five pages a day. That's about 1250 words and that's my goal. Sometimes I don't make that, but at least I try.
I'm a morning person, so I start work at about eight o'clock in the morning. If I'm having a wonderful day and really getting those five pages, I may not quit until four or five. If I'm stuck, I'll go to the park and walk and try to figure out what to do next.
EM: Do you revise while writing?
CH: When I'm working on a chapter, I will go back when I start that day and redo the first five or six pages. I revise as I go. Sometimes my picture of a character will change and I will need to go back and change something in order to be consistent. Then, of course, I do revisions when I get to the end of a book. So I'm all over the map in revising.
EM: You have said that it's helpful to keep notes about characters and events while you are writing.
CH: Yes! And I didn't discover that until I had written about twenty-five books!
I write just a brief summary of everything that goes in a chapter. Then in the margin I will put the day and time of day that events occur. This is extremely helpful, especially when doing revisions because I know, "Well, it was Tuesday night that 'this' occurred and it was Wednesday morning that 'this' occurred." I have found it very helpful.
EM: How long does it take you to write and revise a book?
CH: It usually takes about six months to write a book and revise it and send it to the editor. Sometimes the holidays can interfere, but if I add up the amount of time spent it usually comes to about six months.
EM: How much time do you spend publicizing a new book?
CH: I have done less and less in recent years. I usually spend about a month on it. I send out e-mails announcing the book is out to people who have e-mailed my Website and I send postcards to the non-author members of Sisters in Crime because I feel that's a basic readership.
I used to do a lot of touring but I don't do that anymore. I'm leaving next week for a book trip. That may well be one of my last book trips because I really intend to focus more just on writing and not travel so much.
EM: As a writer, do you find the Internet to be helpful?
CH: Yes! I think the Internet has a huge outreach. I've had a Website since 2000 [www.carolynhart.com] and the impact has just been wonderful. I've had about 80,000 visitors to the Website since 2000. To me that's pretty impressive because those are readers who have taken the time and trouble to come and look. I hear from about twenty-five to thirty every month and I always respond personally.
EM: What types of e-mails do you receive through your Website?
CH: They're generally nice comments.
I had the question "When will there be a new Henry O?" for several years because for a while I had an editor who didn't want any books but the Annie and Max books. Then I got a new editor about three years ago and she said, "What would you like to write next?" I said, "Well, I think I'd like to do a Henry O," and she said, "Great!"
EM: What are you currently working on?
CH: I am getting ready to start a new Annie and Max. It's still taking shape. I have travel coming up so I probably won't get to work until June.
EM: When can we look forward to reading it?
CH: It would be 2009. My book for spring of 2008 is already turned in and it's an Annie and Max book called Death Walked In. Then Ghost at Work will be out in the fall of 2008.
EM: Dead Man's Island was turned into a CBS movie starring Barbara Eden as Henrie O. Were you happy with the movie?
CH: Barbara Eden is very charming and she's had a distinguished career, but she is not the person I would have pictured as Henrie O. If I was a casting director and I could have anybody in the world, I would have picked Lauren Bacall because that would be much more appropriate for Henrie O.
I thought the movie was well-done in many respects, except they filmed it on the west coast. There are no hurricanes on the west coast, so they made the hurricane a big storm. Well, you know, a big storm is not quite a hurricane! [Laughing] So that didn't ring very true... Otherwise, it was a fun experience. It was better than not having a movie made.
EM: Will we ever see Annie and Max in a movie?
CH: I rather doubt it. I have been told by many readers who have e-mailed me at my Website that there is a program called Mystery Woman, and I have been told it is a dead-on take-off on Annie and Max. It's set in a little mystery bookstore run by a woman who inherited it from her uncle. I mean, go read Death on Demand...That came out in 1987! I get e-mails from readers wondering why my name isn't on the show and I have to say, "I don't know." My agent says there's really nothing we can do about it.
There is a Hollywood producer who is currently looking at Dead Days of Summer, the Annie and Max book that came out last spring. I think it's the very best in the series. It has the most suspense and visually I think it would make a good TV movie or film.
She [the producer] is also interested in the first book in a new series that comes out next fall, Ghost at Work.
Think good Hollywood karma for us!
EM: Have you considered who should play your characters?
CH: If I could have my pick, Reese Witherspoon would make a fabulous Annie.
EM: Agatha Christie is a great influence on your work. What other writers do you enjoy?
CH: Long ago, among my favorites would have been (and still are today) Patricia Wentworth and Mary Roberts Rinehart. She [Rinehart] was a wonderful American mystery writer and at one time she was the highest paid writer in the United States.
I also enjoy Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I love John Marquand's "Mr. Moto" books. I like Eric Ambler. There are so many wonderful authors of long ago.
Today there are not just a few. There are hundreds of excellent mystery authors. I could not possibly start to list them because if I did, I would forget someone I really revere... I could easily rattle off twenty names and there are many more than that...
EM: What are you currently reading?
CH: I have a reader in Washington State who e-mailed me the other day. She had been to an antique store where she found some early, early works by Mary Roberts Rinehart and she asked me if I would like to have them. So I have been reading a collection of short stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The first story in the collection was published in 1909.
What I have enjoyed the most is that it gives you such a beautiful picture of how different life was thenand also how different the status of women was. It also reminds me how clever people have always been.
She has the most beautiful twists at the end of that first short story. I was thinking of sending it to Nancy Pickard, a very good friend of mine and a fabulous mystery writer and a celebrated short story writer. Nancy was kind enough to read a short story I was working on and very gently suggested, "Well, you've got to add another twist at the end." And I thought to myself, "Mary Roberts Rinehart was there in 1909!" So, I think I'll send that to Nancy.
EM: You have been nominated for a Pulitzer. You have won both the Agatha Award from Malice Domestic and the Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International. You have 2.7 million books in print. What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?
CH: I suppose the award that made the biggest difference for me would have been when I received the Agatha Award for best mystery novel for Something Wicked. Until that point I was truly an anonymous mystery writer, and that was the start of attention for my books. I'm enormously appreciative of the difference Malice Domestic has made for me as a writer.
The book that means a great deal to me (I won't say the "most" because I have enjoyed writing all of them) is Letter from Home. It means a great deal because it is my book about home and it was the first thing I've ever set in Oklahoma. That was very special. It differs from my usual mysteries because there is a crime in Letter from Home, but it is the backdrop for the story. It's really a novel about redemption.
I've been asked to do a sequel, but I don't know that I have a sequel to write for it. I don't know that I'll ever do anything like that again. That was a particular book that I wrote to recall the World War II years. I wanted to try to give a picture of what it was really like to be on the home front. So much of what people see in films today is simply ridiculous and does not match the mores of the time.
EM: Talking about misconceptions of World War II brings the film Pearl Harbor to my mind.
CH: That was the worst movie. That's what prompted me to write Letter from Home! That movie was so wrong in so many ways. Where it really missed was in taking attitudes and responses that are appropriate in the twenty-first century and jamming them into the 1940s. It was absurd! That's what gave me the inspiration to write a book that was accurate about those days.
EM: Did your children or grandchildren inherit your writing talent?
CH: My daughter was a freelance writer prior to marrying and having children, and now she's a full-time Mom. I think that someday she will go back to writing. But she's always been fascinated by nonfiction and I don't think she will turn to fiction.
However, my eight-year-old granddaughter has been working on a mystery! Adrienne has been dictating the book to my daughter, and my daughter has said, "Mother, it's pretty good!" So we'll see what happens... I can't take full credit for Adrienne's writing abilities because her grandfather, O.W. Winchester, is an absolutely wonderful writer. He was chair of the English department at the University of Tulsa for many years before he retired.
Trent, my eleven-year-old grandson, is more interested in visual arts and computers. He's interested in stories, but his are much more computer-oriented.
EM: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
CH: Don't ever let anyone discourage you. My feeling is that writers are extremely vulnerable. You need encouragement and you need good criticism. But you don't need unkind criticism. If you run into that, don't even think about it.
EM: Some writers may not know they should expect positive criticism in a class or workshop.
CH: Sure, that's what editors do. A good editor doesn't ever make changes in a writer's manuscript. They have the capability to see what the writer is trying to accomplish. They say things like, "Well, you know it might be a good idea if you introduced all those characters before they get to the party." Then the author thinks, "Oh, sure. That's a good idea." And then the author figures out a good way to do that.
That's the same thing you should find in a teaching situationwhere someone looks at what you're doing and sees what you are trying to accomplish, not what that person would accomplish if they were writing it. That's what you have to guard against. There are people who think there's only one way to do things: their way. And that may not be your way!
EM: Do you have any advice specifically for beginning writers of mysteries?
CH: I would highly recommend How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat. It's one of the very best books on writing fiction that I have ever read. That book is simply superb.
I would also recommend joining Sisters in Crime. It's open to men and to women, and readers and writers. It has a quarterly newsletter that gives you a flavor of what's going on in publishing. It's a wonderful way to make connections.
Sara Paretsky went to a major mystery meetingI think this was in 1986and she discovered that all of the books being discussed were written by men and all of the authors on the panels were men. As you might imagine, if you know anything about Sara Paretsky, this did not sit well with her!
So, Sara held a meeting in Sandra Scoppettone's loft in New York in the spring of 1987. I was one of about twenty-three women mystery writers who were in attendance. That's when Sisters in Crime was founded.
Now it has about 3,500 members in the United States and at least seven or eight foreign countries. You can go to the Website and get more information about it at www.sistersincrime.org.
EM: Genre fiction, including mystery, doesn't always get critical respect. That can be disheartening to a beginning writer who wants to write a mystery.
CH: When you talk about genre fiction, you are talking about fiction that speaks to the reality of people's lives. You are not talking about fiction that is reflecting a nihilistic view of society or fiction that is aimed at a particular political persuasion. You are talking about stories that are about the human condition. There is never any reason to apologize for writing fiction that reaches out to the realities of the human personality.
When you talk about mysteries, you are talking about books that have to do with goodness. People say, "Why do you want to write about murder?" The truth of the matter is, the detective sets out to find out who killed John Smith and what the detective really discovers is what went wrong in the lives of those around John Smith.
This is a very moral kind of fiction. This is the kind of fiction people seek because they want to live in a just world. They know they don't live in a just world, but when they go and pick up a mystery they know they're going to find a celebration of decency and ultimate justice.
I've had a wonderful time writing mysteries. I believe in mysteries. I think they serve a very important function in society. Our world would be a better place if all children grew up reading mysteries!
E-mail Emrys Moreau at email@example.com.