I took Jeanne Matthews’ new novel, released January 2015, to read with me on an idyllic family holiday. You know the kind: everything is perfect but by the end you all want to throttle each other. Escaping into someone else’s dysfunctional family was sheer delight.
This is the author’s fifth novel in the Dinah Pelerin series, featuring the globetrotting cultural anthropologist. The title refers not to physical bones but the lies that Dinah and her family and her heroic new boyfriend, Thor, flounder through, embellish and accommodate. These are not just any old lies. They range from the domestic to those laden with potentially fatal freight.
I hadn’t read any of Jeanne’s prior books and I found myself chuckling away as aspects of her characters’ lives are dropped in with deadpan aplomb: “Margaret Dobbs had aged considerably since her murder trial…” and “…maybe she was reluctant to speak ill of the man she’d killed.” I love the acerbically twisted Margaret: “She exuded a bitterness that lowered the ambient temperature like a block of dry ice…” And of Dinah: “Some people aspire to crime, some have crime thrust upon them.” The heroine has a liberating streak of larceny through her soul.
All the central characters are extremely well drawn, from the charming, kitten-heeled and elusive mother, Swan, to the bitter Margaret, to the playgirl-centerfold-handsome Thor. We’ve all had a scary but handy caretaker-figure in our lives like Matthews’ nocturnal Geert, whose helpfulness extends to offering to rip people’s eyes out.
Matthews’ rendering of place is rich and evocative. I found myself effortlessly transported to the rain and history-drenched streets of Berlin, a wonderful backdrop for a murder mystery. My stomach rumbled sympathetically to the wonderfully Germanic concept of grief bacon: “When you have troubles in your gut making you feel hungry.” The tension gathers, the plot thickens nicely. I’ll be buying the backlist.
Jeanne graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her work.
You were born and raised in Georgia but your books are set in wonderfully exotic locations: Australia, Hawaii, the Greek island of Samos, Longyearbyen in Norway (six hundred miles from the North Pole). Where did this fascination with exotic locations come from?
As a kid, I was always daydreaming about faraway places. I watched the old movie serials that inspired the Indiana Jones films. I read adventure books about ancient temples, romantic ruins, and amazing treasures buried in remote jungles. I caught the travel bug early on and made up my mind to see as much of the world as I could. When I began writing, I naturally wanted my main character to be a traveller, too. I gave her an old-fashioned Southern name, Dinah, to show where she started from, and the last name “Pelerin,” which means pilgrim in French. I think of her as a pilgrim roaming from place to place in search of knowledge. When she chances upon a murder, of course, the search turns into a quest to discover whodunit.
Your locations are so important to your books they are like characters in themselves. What comes first, the location or the plot or do they coalesce into one big idea?
I love to see the tourist sights, of course—the iconic geographical and cultural highlights. But I also enjoy researching the local politics and history and mythology. I try to find out what it is that matters to the people who live in that particular place, and the plot and characters generally flow from that. In Australia, I was intrigued by the Aborigines’ lingering bitterness at the government’s policy of forced assimilation. In Hawaii I saw hand-painted banners expressing Native Hawaiians’ resentment over the theft of their land and the trivialization of their customs and religion. In WHERE THE BONES ARE BURIED, I explore Germany’s fascination with Native Americans. Some dress up as Indians, adopt Indian names, and hold powwows. How can that not turn into a book, especially since Dinah Pelerin is part Native American?
I read with relish your wonderful description of the cafés in Berlin and the amazing foods on offer. Do you visit all of your locations?
I do. And sampling the local cuisine is not only one of the chief pleasures of travel, but also a window into the psyche of the people. At first, Berliners struck me as a bit self-indulgent with their twelve hundred varieties of sausage and ham, four hundred kinds of bread, and the incredible array of lavish desserts. On reflection, I think the disregard for dietary restraint is a sort of fatalism born of the city’s horrific history. Today, Berlin is reunified, rebuilt, and rich. But given the millions dead in the wake of two World Wars, the near annihilation of the city after five years of Allied bombing, the Soviet’s erection of the Berlin Wall, and a quarter century of oppression by the Stasi and the KGB—who’s afraid of a little pastry?
Many writers struggle to give up the day job. You worked as a copywriter, a high school English and drama teacher, and a paralegal. Tell us how you made the leap to full-time writer.
When people ask what led a nice gal like me to start writing about murder, I tell them I worked for lawyers for twenty years. Seldom a day went by that I didn’t fantasize about killing one of them. Eventually, my mood got so gnarly that my husband begged me to quit. I did and I worked out my residual anger by writing a book that featured a dead lawyer on practically every page. It was unpublishable, but wonderfully therapeutic. Time and distance can heal even a homicidal paralegal. After a while, I calmed down and created the character of Dinah Pelerin, a cultural anthropologist with itchy feet, an untrustworthy family, an insatiable curiosity, and a wicked wit. I haven’t looked back.
Writers often appear to have a guiding philosophy that inspires their novels. In my own case I have a belief that we often unwittingly, unknowingly walk a tightrope in our lives, with safety and normality on one side and howling chaos on the other. Do you have a guiding philosophy that motivates or lurks behind your writing?
I’ve never articulated a guiding philosophy of my writing. If my portrayal of Dinah is any indication of my philosophy, the tightrope stretches not between normality and chaos, but between lies that can be accommodated and lived with, and lies that threaten to undermine the assumptions upon which her entire life has been built. In WHERE THE BONES ARE BURIED, one particular whopper threatens to get her killed, or else land her and the people she cares about in prison. Betrayal is an ever-present risk and believing the wrong person could change the course of her life, or end it.
What’s your writing routine? Do you have any odd habits associated with it?
Writers never think their own personal rituals are odd, do they? It’s the other guy’s habits that are strange. I don’t hang upside down like a bat, the way Dan Brown does, or act out my characters’ dialogue in front of a mirror as Aaron Sorkin does. I mostly just bash my brains and moan softly ’til the right word comes. Some days I’m locked in mortal combat with a single sentence for hours. Other days, it’s as though I’m taking dictation from a fast-talking muse with a long and riveting spiel. But whether it comes hard or easy, I write something every day.
Many writers find it difficult to combine the creative side of writing with the business side of promotion, especially in a world where we all need to take on more of our own promotional activities. You have a very well-organised website. Any tips on how you combine these two aspects of your writing career.
At no time in my life have I dreamed of going into sales. My mannerly Southern mother drilled into me at an early age, “Never put yourself forward, dear. It’s unseemly.” And so I cringe at the necessity to promote myself and am constantly asking other writers how they manage to do it so well. A wonderful, tech-savvy friend designed my website for me and has spent many futile hours trying to teach me how to maintain it. I am gradually learning the basics and have become so brazen about “putting myself forward” that I see this moment as a perfect opportunity to provide a link to my website and recommend it to the world. Come one, come all! (Sorry, Mom).
Where do your ideas come from? I know this can be an almost impossible question to answer. They just come, as if from nowhere! First of all there’s the big idea for the book itself and secondly there are the smaller ideas, the character reflections, the plot twists and turns. I go for walks in the forest with my dogs and I dictate into my phone. I find walking somehow puts me into a meditative state where I am susceptible to inspiration. Do you do anything specific or does it all just come as you are sitting at your desk?
The latest health advice is that sitting for too long causes blood clots, so I tend to pace about, occasionally smacking my forehead to try and knock loose a cogent thought or two. I travel a lot, which provides many notebooks worth of ideas, and I also read a lot. The idea for my third book, Bonereapers, came about when I read an article in the New York Times about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Arctic. Everyone refers to it as the “Doomsday Vault” because its architects and proponents claim that it will protect the earth’s agricultural heritage from rising seas, hurtling asteroids, and even nuclear holocaust for ten thousand years. Ha! What mystery writer worth her salt could ignore a challenge like that? Thinking up ways things can go haywire is a requirement of the profession. The book practically wrote itself.
Series books are in some ways easier and in different ways more difficult to write than one-offs. They are easier because you’ve already established your chief character and some of the secondary characters too. They’re more difficult in that you need to keep finding a new momentum to drive that character forward and also you have to deprive them of happy ever after because where do you go with that? As Tolstoy says, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What are your own particular challenges with writing a series character? How do you keep it fresh?
Mainly through humor. Dinah hails from an eccentric, cunning clan of deceivers. Not all are blood relatives, but they are primordial and inescapable influences in her life. They lie. They cheat. One of them may have committed murder. My challenge has been to give Dinah a perspective that is both irreverent and sympathetic, and to keep her resilient and attuned to the funny side of betrayal. As for the continuation of the series, I don’t have Sue Grafton’s stamina, and I’m not averse to giving Dinah a bit of happiness somewhere down the road. After all the grief and aggro I’ve put her through these last five books, she deserves it.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? I know some writers love that terrifyingly blank screen that sits in front of them when they begin a new book. Others love holding the physical book in their hand. That’s my joint favorite combined with starting on draft two when all the hard work of wrestling the plot into shape is largely done. What’s yours?
I love beginnings. I love the feeling of launching into a brand new story, set in a brand new place and time, and then reading what shows up on the page. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I don’t know what I think ’til I see what I say.” That’s how I feel. I don’t outline. My stories develop organically, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Eventually I start to know how things are likely to turn out, but sometimes a character fools me. Sometimes a situation doesn’t end as predicted. It’s that sense of surprise that keeps me writing.
It’s always fun to indulge in a bit of wish fulfilment with our characters. My latest in ARK STORM is a big-wave-surfing Doctor of Meteorology. Where do you and your heroine Dinah Pelerin overlap?
Dinah is younger, smarter, slimmer, and infinitely braver than I am. My life is pretty tame. I usually experience danger only vicariously through her adventures. But recently I flew off a cliff in Grindelwald, Switzerland, and went paragliding above the Eiger. How’s that for wish fulfillment? I may have invented Dinah Pelerin, but she has re-invented me. At least, I think she’s made me a little braver.
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mystery series including BONES OF CONTENTION, BET YOUR BONES, BONEREAPERS, and HER BOYFRIEND’S BONES. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, the author currently lives in Renton, Washington.
To learn more about Jeanne, please visit her website.