I had been wanting to interview Joan for a while now, but her schedule wouldn’t allow it. Things have settled down for her, so I was able to learn more about her and her writing.
I am an unabashed fan! I’ve read and reviewed most, if not all, of her books, and I find her stories engaging and interesting, and she most always fools me with the outcome. Her characters are quirky and loveable, especially the mother and daughter team of investigators. They live and breathe, and I can hear the accents of the region in their speech. The settings, small hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, are unique. Never having been there, I have no trouble picturing them.
Seriously, if you’ve not picked up one of her books, you are missing out on great writing. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed it.
What was it that made you decide you had a story to tell and to become an author?
I had two fabulous teachers in elementary school, plus professors in college, who recognized my writing ability and encourage me to pursue that form of creativity. I started with poetry. And then I had a 25-year writer’s block while I raised six children. That’s where most of my creative energy went. I put that time to good use reading what others wrote and eventually working as a reporter, which got me writing reality-based prose. By the time I became an editor, I was ready to go full-tilt on writing fiction.
As an author or writer, what sets you apart from others?
My philosophy is that I take what I know and have my way with it. And frankly, nobody else has had my experience in life.
How did your experience in journalism prepare you for writing novels?
I was in the business for 35 years, as a reporter and then editor, including editor-in-chief of newspapers in New Mexico and Western Massachusetts. First, journalism taught me to write for others and not just myself — finding readers news and features stories I thought they would find interesting. My beat was the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. My writing was unadorned and to the point. (There are no adverbs in journalism.) The biggest challenge to fiction was learning to write long.
What genre do you write, and why?
I juggle between mystery and literary fiction.
If you were to name one or two books that you deem unforgettable and that had a major impact on you, what would they be, and why?
As a young person, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” had a tremendous impact emotionally — a young girl chronicling her experience while in hiding and her ultimate tragedy. There are many books in my collection that have made lasting impressions because of the stories they tell, but like many other people, “To Kill a Mockingbird” tops the list.
What authors do you read regularly? Why?
I often will find an author and read everything they wrote — and collect their books. I am always searching for new ones and taking recommendations from friends. I also like to read and support those authors I know.
If you were to have dinner with 5 individuals living or dead, who would they be and why?
Well, I’d love to have a dinner party with The Beatles — John, Paul, George and Ringo. Their music helped to transform my life in a positive way, plus there would be instruments so they could play. The Fifth Beatle? I haven’t decided.
What is your writing routine? When you write, are you a planner/outliner or are you a “pantser”?
I consider myself to be a telepathic writer. I am just the conduit for stories and their pieces. Typically, I am up early. When I had a full-time job, I was up at 5 a.m. to write before I left for work. Now that I don’t, I get up at the more reasonable 6 a.m. When writing a book, I will aim for 500 words a day, although sometimes I get carried away. A thousand would be golden.
When writing, how much do you read? Do you read in or out of your genre?
I honestly didn’t have the time to read when I had a full-time job, except for the news and feature stories I needed to edit. Now, I have more time to explore new authors and read books that the authors in my collection have recently released.
Is there something you set out to do, but somehow, it didn’t work out for you? (In terms of writing, or something else you felt was important to you at the time?)
One thing I learned quickly is that there is writing, and then there is the business of writing. I began writing fiction just before the turn of the millennial. But it took 17 years to find a publisher — crooked cat/darkstroke books — who wanted them. I even had two agents. But in that time, I saw drastic changes in the publishing industry.
What tips would you give to new or even experienced writers?
I will share the advice a former professor gave me: Write like it’s never been written before. From me: Write because you love doing it.
How do you handle a negative critique?
Well, being a journalist helped me to develop a thick skin when it comes to criticism. As an editor, I often took calls from people unhappy with coverage. I listened to them although the conversation ended if they started swearing at me. If they had a valid point, such as an error in reporting, I conceded, but often it came down to “we will have to agree to disagree.” Here is a story about that. When I was the editor-in-chief at The Taos News, I met with the then-sheriff and under-sheriff, cousins, by the way, who didn’t like an editorial I wrote. At the end, the under-sheriff told me, “I can forgive, but I can never forget.” When it comes to the books I write, I realize not everybody is going to love them. People are entitled to their opinion. But I am grateful to the many people who give my books high ratings and reviews.
Is there a type of writing/genre that you find difficult to write? Why?
I have written both fiction and non-fiction (as a journalist). I prefer reality-based writing although I do have a middle-grade series about a family of Jinn. I would say I have zero interest in these genres: sci-fi, adult fantasy, religious, romance, and historical.
How important are the elements of character, setting, and atmosphere to a story, and why?
These elements are crucial in writing mysteries. Mine are set in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, so I try to create an authentic setting. Since I lived there and immersed myself in its news, that hasn’t been difficult. The series’ atmosphere has drama because of the genre but also humor because the narrator is a bit of a wiseass. I would say my books are character-driven. Creating each character — good or bad — is so fulfilling. I liken it to having a daydream and making it better.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you create? How/Why?
There is a lot of me in Isabel Long, protagonist in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. We share a lot of life experiences — although I am not a widow and my mother doesn’t live with me — and observations about life. We’re both former journalists, although unlike Isabel I didn’t lose my job when the paper went corporate. I let Isabel tell her own story.
Is there an unforgettable or memorable character that will not leave your head, either of your own creation or from a book you’ve read?
Frankly, I fall in love with all of my characters, even the bad ones, and the ones that I continue through this series unarguably haven’t left my head.
Tell us about your most recent book.
Following the Lead, no. 6 in the Isabel Long Mystery Series, will be released Nov. 3 by my publisher, Darkstroke Books, for Kindle readers. (Paperback readers will have to wait a little while.) It is available for pre-order until then.
Here is a brief synopsis:
Isabel Long moves quickly onto the next case when a former boss entrusts her with a mystery that has haunted him since his childhood. Lin Pierce, then only eleven, was supposed to be minding his little sister while their mother gave a piano lesson inside their home. But the sleeping baby was stolen from her carriage after he’d been lured away in a well-executed kidnapping that devastated the family.
Forty-nine years later, Lin is convinced he met his long-lost sister by chance. After all, the woman not only resembled his mother, but she had a distinctive family trait — different colored eyes.
As Isabel works her sixth case, she believes the student who took the piano lesson that day, later a well-known musician, is key to solving it. But meeting him in person proves to be nearly impossible.
As she did when she was a journalist, Isabel uses her resources — including her mother, Maria — to follow that lead until the end.
How did you come up with the concept?
The ending in No. 5 Working the Beat hints at the next in the series when Lin Pierce gives her an envelope he says contains her next case. So then I had to “dream up” what that could be.
How did you come up with the title?
Except for the second book, Redneck’s Revenge, the titles of the book are a reference to a journalism term. A lead — or lede — is the open paragraph. And then the news follows. In Isabel’s case, she gets a lead or clue and follows it to the end.
From your book, who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? Why?
Well, that would be liking which of my six kids is my favorite. But I will admit that I dislike with good reason Jim Hawthorne, a former police chief with no morals. I let Isabel get into hot water through him.
Author/media contact information
Link to book on Amazon