A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry

a-skeleton-in-the-family-cover-186x300By Azam Gill

A SKELETON IN THE FAMILY by Leigh Perry, an effortlessly narrated, meticulously crafted cozy mystery, offers the distinctiveness of a talking house skeleton set to become iconic. Sid, the house skeleton, teams up with Georgia, a single parent, to detect a murder!

When single mother Georgia Thackery moves back into her parents’ house with her teenaged daughter, she has to face the family skeleton. Who is a skeleton. A skeleton named Sid. He walks, talks, makes bad jokes, and really dislikes dogs. Nobody knows exactly where he came from, but now he wants Georgia to find out, and track down his murderer. But their investigation may uncover a killer who’s still alive and well and bad to the bone…

NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Charlaine Harris writes: “Dr. Georgia Thackery is smart, resourceful, and determined to be a great single mom to her teenager. Georgia is normal in every respect—except that her best friend happens to be a skeleton named Sid.You’ll love the adventures of this unexpected mystery-solving duo.”

After eleven successful novels and five co-authored fantasy-mystery anthologies under her real name (Toni L.P. Kelner), Leigh Perry has kick-started a “brand new” cozy mysteries series under this pen-name, certain to keep her readers engrossed.

Drawing on the disciplined clarity of her expertise in technical writing, Leigh Perry infuses her stories with unique expressions and narrative depth. Backed by a supportive family and a well-managed lifestyle, she is not a moody writer hostage to her immediate surroundings. Neither does she write her character driven stories to an outline, allowing her personae free rein to prescribe their development. Brought up in North Carolina and Florida, she now lives north of Boston with her husband, two daughters and the guinea pigs,who all cohabit comfortably with a writer.

Under her real name, Leigh Perry has won an RT BOOKCLUB Career Achievement Award. Her novels have been nominated for several RT BOOK club awards. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Agatha, the Anthony, and the Macavity awards, and her short story “Sleeping With the Plush” won the Agatha for Best Short Story of 2006.

Leigh Perry granted the following interview to THE BIG THRILL, graciously sharing her creative work and her life with readers.

Let’s start with an introduction.

I’m a brand-new writer with my first book coming out. Sort of. I’m also the author of eleven previous mysteries and many short stories, and the co-editor of five anthologies with Charlaine Harris. But all that stuff was under my real name: Toni L.P. Kelner. As Leigh Perry, I’m a babe in the woods.

I grew up in Florida and North Carolina, and moved to Massachusetts over twenty years ago. I have a degree in English that somewhat helped in my decade in technical writing. I’ve been married for twenty-five years–to the same guy–and we have two teenaged daughters and two guinea pigs.

My first book–as Toni–came out in 1993, back when manuscripts were printed and ebooks weren’t even a fad. Nobody needed web pages, Facebook was still a literal book for Harvard students, and twitter was what the birds did. So the writing life has changed. Leigh, of course, is conversant with all the new tools.

In A SKELETON IN THE FAMILY, the first in the Family Skeleton series, Georgia Thackery moves back home with her teenaged daughter and has to deal with the family skeleton in the closet named Sid. A walking, talking, wise-cracking skeleton, who refuses to return to his own closet until Georgia helps him solve his own murder. Berkley Prime Crime is releasing it in September, with the next book–so far untitled–coming out in September 2014.

Where do technical writing and literary expression converge?

Right up front, you have to know your audience. A manual for experienced statisticians is going to be designed differently than a manual for average retailers who might want to analyze sales data. And a book written for adults is going to be written differently from a book for grade schoolers.

Word choice is always important, but I’d say that tech writing is more Hemmingway than Faulkner.The writing should be as clear as possible, with as few words as possible.

I found that being a technical writer was great training for writing mysteries. When I was assigned a new product to document, it was a complete mystery. I’d track down subject matter experts–my suspects and witnesses–and ask questions. But people lied, or forgot important points, so I had to keep at them, and check out their stories. Then, when I’d put it all together, the manual was frequently fiction.

Where do technical writing and literary expression diverge?

Tech writing is very task-oriented. Users want to know how to install that software, or what command to use, or which button to push. Fiction readers are there to be entertained, though it’s okay to teach them a few things along the way or perhaps share your worldview.

It’s the difference between striding to work and talking a stroll around a park.

Is there an area of conflict for these two styles?

Variety of expression. In a novel, you never want to say the same thing the same way twice. In fact, if you’ve used an unusual word or phrase, you won’t even want to repeat that. But in tech writing, don’t say “Press a button” once and “Push your button” the next time and then “Hit that button.” Users will think those are three different actions. Repetition is a good thing–only we call it consistency.

How would you advise writers to manage the conflict of interests between a job, writing and family?

I would advise them to have a better model than me! For one, I have no day job anymore–I quit when I was pregnant because I knew I couldn’t go in three directions at once. For another, I outsource a lot of family stuff–I have a cleaning guy and a yard service, and we eat out most of the time.

The only advice I have that might help is this; have a supportive partner. If your husband, wife, live-in, whatever doesn’t support your work, get a new one.

Was your decision to write cozy mysteries influenced by the literary movement during the late 20th century that attempted to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction?

Nope. I didn’t know there was such a movement, or which writers it includes.

I fell into cozies. I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy, but couldn’t seem to finish anything worth finishing.Then I got outside motivation when a friend was bragging on a pal of hers who’d already finished a novel and was submitting it to publishers. I decided I had to finish something. I went through my projects in progress, and the most promising piece–with the strongest voice, the best energy–was a snippet about a young woman getting called home when her grandfather is injured. There were no science fiction or fantasy elements, so I killed that grandfather and made it a murder mystery.

I’d read a lot of mysteries over the years, and most of them were on the cozier side: Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers. So I started reading modern stuff to see where the field was. My voice and story seemed cozy, so I went that direction.

I’ve written all kinds of stuff since then–urban fantasy, noir, historical, darker, funnier–but I’m happy in the cozy world.

How do you craft your characters?

I could write a whole book on that. (Maybe not a good book…) Like most writers, I create my characters out of a slice of myself. Laura Fleming in my first eight novels was a lot like me: Southerner living in Massachusetts, academic husband, working in computer industry, no kids, happy marriage, large family living in NC mill towns. Tilda Harper of the “Where are they now?” books had my snarkier side and my love of pop culture and entertainment trivia. Georgia, though she has a skeleton named Sid for a best friend while I do not, does have my love of literature and a teenaged daughter who is an amalgam of my two girls.

For my other characters, particularly short story protagonists, I cast around until I get a voice which fits the story. For my story “In Brightest Day” from HOME IMPROVEMENT: UNDEAD EDITION, I had the idea of a houngan (zombie raiser) having to solve the repeated murders of a zombie, but rewrote the story three or four times to get the main character right. She was sweet, then she was old and crotchety, then she was young and determined. Finally I ended up with a smart-aleck. That worked.

Do the story and characters develop autonomously to dictate the plot or do you write to an outline?

I hate using outlines, so I won’t even go there.

I start with characters, usually, or with the world in which the book will be set: Southern mill town, academia, etc. Then I just stitch on pieces until I’m not sure where one begins and the other ends. It’s fairly chaotic, or if you want something more positive, organic.

Are your creativity and surroundings inter-dependent?

For the writing, I’m generally at home in my office, but I’ve written elsewhere (I’m writing this in a Disneyland hotel).  But for the creative part, that can come anywhere and it’s often best when I get away from the computer. Showering is always a good place for ideas, driving, waiting for my girls to come out of school or drama club. I tend to get great ideas while sitting in con panels, though they usually have nothing to do with what is being discussed on the panel.

How did the idea of a ‘living’ skeleton come to you?

I have no idea. I’ve found the early notes I made but they just say, “I had this idea for an ambulatory skeleton.” As a best guess, I think I was considering the idea that there have been some great vampire mysteries, wizard mysteries, werewolf mysteries, faerie mysteries… What was left in the paranormal world? Surprisingly, the field for skeleton mysteries was wide open.

Is your skeleton in any way symbolic?

Not intentionally.

Are your stories intentionally allegorical, or do they just become so?

Neither. They are for entertainment. I do include character growth and a definite point of view, but that’s because I find character growth and strong points of view more entertaining.

How do you spend your free time?

I write for a living and I have two daughters. What do you mean by “free time”?

Seriously, I like movies and TV, and I do a fair amount of gaming, both on the computer and the Wii. And of course I read like a maniac: mysteries and thrillers, urban fantasy, non-fiction, comics, and magazines.

*****

Photo by Susan Wilson
Photo by Susan Wilson

Leigh Perry is a pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner, who is an award-winning mystery author, and the co-editor, with Charlaine Harris, of a series of NEW YORK TIMES bestselling fantasy-mystery anthologies, including MANY BLOODY RETURNS; WOLFSBANE & MISTLETOE; DEATH’S EXCELLENT VACATION; AN APPLE FOR THE CREATURE, and HOME IMPROVEMENT: UNDEAD EDITION. She lives north of Boston with her husband, two daughters, and two guinea pigs.

To learn more about Leigh, please visit her website.

Azam Gill

Azam Gill is the author of five books including two thrillers: Jail Reforms, Army Reforms, Winds of Change, Blood Money and Flight to Pakistan. He served in the French Foreign Legion, did his Ph.D on William Faulkner, and lectures in English at one of Toulouse University’s rural colleges.

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