By Basil Sands
Let me introduce you to a writer with a great read for your Mid-Winter’s reading list. Phyllis Smallman is the award winning author of the popular Sherri Travis mystery series. Dividing her year between the picture-perfect northern rainforest of Salt Spring Island BC in Canada and the sunny beaches of Florida, Phyllis writes some pretty darned good mysteries. Must be the combination of both coast’s worth of fresh sea air.
Phyllis, tell us about your newest mystery title, LONG GONE MAN.
LONG GAME MAN is the first book in a new series about a woman named Singer Brown, at least that’s name she gives the police. Singer left home at sixteen to join a rock band and almost made it to the top – except she had the bad luck of meeting Johnny. Now she lives in a beat-up old van, sings on the street for coins, and nurses an old hate.
One night she arrives on the last ferry to a small island in the Salish Sea, planning to kill the man who destroyed her life. At his mountain retreat a woman with a gun in her hand opens the door and says, “Come in.” On the floor behind her is a body. Someone else has already taken revenge on Johnny and now the murderer is coming after Singer.
How did you first get into writing, and what were the initial days of the journey toward publication like?
I wrote for nearly twenty years before I had a book published. Those first three manuscripts are still in a box somewhere. After being shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the UK and the Malice Domestic in the US, I was published because I won an award, the Unhanged Arthur from the Crime Writers of Canada. That book, Margarita Nights, was nominated for best first novel the next year. The one thing I know is that I’d still be writing even if I’d never been published. I write because I have to, the same reason people play the piano or paint pictures. The process gives me pleasure.
Singer is a very interesting character, how did she originally come to you?
I moved from a large industrial city to a small island, one of over 450 islands in the Salish Sea off British Columbia, and met a woman living in a van at the side of the road. It set me wondering how you end up living like that and what had brought her to our island. LONG GONE MAN is the story I gave her.
That story wouldn’t occur to me now but then I was an outsider, looking at the world with city eyes. I thought she was homeless but she was probably just a traveler, like all the others just passing through, in a place where we pretty much all look rumpled and unkept. The islands are a place for sailing and dreaming, not dressing. It took me seven years to see this reality. But still, it’s always the outsiders who see things most clearly and maybe that’s a little personality kink that makes us writers.
What kind of research do you do for your writing?
The Sherri Travis series, set in Florida, is about a bartender. While I’ve never been a bartender, I’ve admired the work of many. I call it research.
The next Sherri Travis is set in the Everglades…at night. My husband and I hired a guide to take us into the glades. The first two hours of our kayaking trip were in the daytime and the last two were after dark. The eyes of alligators really do glow red when you shine a light on them at night but you only use that light before you enter one of the tunnels into the mangroves. You want to know if there is a gator there. You see, alligators can’t back up so when one of them is coming towards you in these six foot wide channels they will either push by you, or go under your kayak if there is enough water or…. I didn’t ask if the guide had ever lost a member of his party but I did notice he was always the last of the three of us to enter the tunnel. His only piece of advice was, “No matter what happens, don’t panic.” What a joker.
What authors have inspired you?
I started reading my dad’s crime novels back in grade school. You know the ones. They had lurid covers with a beautiful woman showing very long legs and deep cleavage. John D. McDonald taught me to love Florida and worry about its ecology and his Travis McGee became Sherri Travis. From Shell Scott to Hammett, I read them all but I still think Agatha Christie was the best at plotting. Add a good mystery plot to being scared out of your mind and you’ve got my perfect book.
And now for the deep philosophical part of the interview … If you were a beverage how would you describe yourself?
Now isn’t that the perfect question? The next Sherri Travis novel, MARTINI REGRETS, will be out in the fall of 2014. Let’s make me a dirty martini. You coat the inside of a frozen martini glass with a little vermouth, and then shake up the vodka with the brine from a jar of olives. Pour into the chilled glass, pop in a few olives, olives that are stuffed with jalapenos, and sail straight to heaven. Oh yes, a dirty martini.
Phyllis Smallman’s first novel, MARGARITA NIGHTS, won the inaugural Unhanged Arthur award from the Crime Writers of Canada after being shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the U.K. and the Malice Domestic in the U.S.. Her writing has appeared in both Spinetingler Magazine and Omni Mystery Magazine. The Florida Writer’s Association awarded Champagne for Buzzards a silver medal for the best mystery and her fifth book, Highball Exit, won an IPPY award in 2013. The Sherri Travis mystery series was one of six chosen by Good Morning America for a summer read in 2010. Before turning to a life of crime, Smallman was a potter. She divides her time between a beach in Florida and an island in the Salish Sea.
To learn more about Phyllis, please visit her website.
He lives in Anchorage Alaska with his wife and teen sons.