Interview with Barbara Fister
Author Website
Author of In The Wind
St. Martin's Minotaur
ISBN-13: 978-0312374914)
On-sale date: April 2008

By Lori L. Lake for Once Upon a Crime

Lori L. Lake: Hi, Barbara. It's good of you to sit down and answer questions for us. Please tell us about your life, your upbringing, your background, your family - whatever general details and facts that you want to share.

Barbara Fister: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin (growing up with the protests of the Sixties - no doubt a formative influence for In the Wind!), then moved to Kentucky for high school and college years. Since then I've lived in Texas, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Maine, and now Minnesota, coming almost full circle. I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College now.

LLL: What are some of the most exciting events that have occurred in your writing life?

Barbara: Well, having a launch for both my first book and for In the Wind at Once Upon a Crime are right up there! Though honestly, what turns my crank is having a scene turn out well, seeing a story take an unexpected direction, or figuring out just how to tie some plot threads together.

LLL: In The Wind is your second novel, right?

Barbara: Yes. I published On Edge in 2002. It was meant to be the first in a series, but my editor left and the publisher decided not to continue it, so it's a series on my hard drive rather than in bookstores. In the Wind is (touch wood!) the first in a new series.

LLL: What got you started writing in this genre?

Barbara: I loved reading mysteries, first reading them as a kid (my mother was a mystery addict), then rediscovering them a few years ago. At one point in my life I found I was getting entirely too wrapped up in some workplace issues and thought it would be a relief to kill someone - but in a healthy way. So I started writing crime fiction.

LLL: What is the best advice about writing that you have ever gotten (and from whom, if you recall)?

Barbara: I've heard it from a lot of people, so I don't know to whom it should be attributed, but it's simply - read. Read voraciously. If you read a lot, you'll develop an ear for language and you'll have a better appreciation for what makes a book work. I'd also add - join a book discussion group. If you get the right one, you can learn a lot from hearing how others read.

LLL: What kind of crime fiction do you like to read best, and who are your favorite authors?

Barbara: I tend to read on the darker end of the spectrum. I am enjoying a lot of Scandinavian authors - Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo, Asa Larsson etc. I also love James Sallis, Denise Mina, John Harvey, Sam Reaves, David Corbett … I could go on and on!

LLL: How have you gone about working on your craft and technique? And do you have other writers or readers edit or comment on your work?

Barbara: Ooh, I'm shy about that. I am not a member of a critique group, and the only person who sees what I'm up to before my agent gets it is my husband, who has an eagle eye for continuity errors and missing motivation.

LLL: How do you go about planning a series?

Barbara: You know, if I were more organized about that, I'd probably do better. I have no idea! But then, I generally start writing a book with only a vague idea of what it's about and what will happen - I figure out how we'll get there as I go along. It's not efficient, but I have never been able to plan a plot in advance.

LLL: What do you think about first - plot or character? And why?

Barbara: I usually start with a general idea or issue - this book will be about X - and the characters come next. The plot is something I try to untangle as I go along.

LLL: Do you outline? Or do you let the book flow however it comes to you?

Barbara: I wish I could outline, but the ideas can't come for me unless I'm already writing. I was the same way with college papers - I could only outline them after I finished a draft. About halfway through I usually start to make lists of things that have to happen, and at some point I create a deck of scenes on cards that I can spread out on the floor and rearrange. This is a signal for the cat to come and sit on them.

LLL: I know JUST what you mean! That's the basic method that works for me as well. So, once the book is ready for launching, do you also spend significant time promoting?

Barbara: No. I do spend a lot of time talking to friends about books, but I don't consider that promotion. I also have a blog, but it's more about things that grab my attention than about me and my books. (How boring would that be?) I did two signings for my first book. I'll do a few more with this one, because I want to make sure my publisher gets their money's worth, but I don't think it serves anyone to promote too much. That's partly because I'm highly allergic to marketing myself and would probably sneeze all the way through a pitch if I tried to make one.

LLL: What book is on your nightstand now?

Barbara: I have some books to review for Mystery Scene as well as a stack of books I'm considering for a course I'll teach next fall on international crime fiction. I realize I cannot assign five bazillion books to first year college students, so it's difficult to narrow it down to a half dozen or so.

LLL: That's great that you get to teach on the specific topic of crime fiction. Too bad Gustavus is so far from my house. What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Barbara: Probably ismo by John Verney. It's not well known, but it's brilliant. Verney wrote several books in the late 50s, early 60s, about a family who got into many scrapes, starting with Friday's Tunnel. This one is the third in the series and is about how some of them joined an anarchistic youth movement that promotes peace by doing things like stealing DeGaulle's trousers to thwart an assassination plot. They're terrifically twisty mysteries with great characters and a heart of pure gold.

LLL: Who are your top five favorite authors of all time?

Barbara: Pass! I used to be able to answer this, but it's just too hard now. Too many fine writers out there! Which is a good thing.

LLL: Is there any How-To book that's helped you especially?

Barbara: Whoops, I've never actually read one. I daresay it shows.

LLL: Is there a particular mystery writer or crime fiction book you are an evangelist for?

Barbara: I tend to bore people silly with my evangelism for Sam Reaves. I think Dooley's Back and Homicide 69 are books everyone should read, twice. I recently told everyone they absolutely must read Alex Carr's Prince of Bagram Prison (they're getting very tired of it by now), and I've been grabbing arms and saying excitedly, "Have you read Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis? Why ever not?" It's a non-fiction book about the Cook County Public Defenders office, and it's absolutely riveting. But this all explains why sometimes people avoid me.

LLL: Have you ever read a book that changed your life?

Barbara: Probably Crime and Punishment, which I started to read much too young. It made me aware of two things: that life is far more complicated than I had realized and that books have enormous power.

LLL: Do you have a favorite line from a book or a special quotation that inspires you?

Barbara: Errr…. "Confusion is not an ignoble condition." From a hedge scholar in Brian Friel's play Translations.

LLL: Book you most want to read again for the first time?

Barbara: Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane. I had never read anything so dark and violent and utterly wonderful. Rereading it isn't the same.

LLL: Book you've given as a gift the most times?

Barbara: Funny, I think all of my gift books have been one-offs.

LLL: What are you planning to publish next?

Barbara: I hope the sequel to In the Wind, which is under contract with St. Martin's Minotaur. In fact it should be finished by now but it . . . isn't. It's not that I've been too busy, but that it takes a while for my ideas to incubate. I envy writers who are so possessed by their stories they pound them out in six weeks. It takes me a good deal longer.

LLL: Me, too! I can hardly write a book in six months. Good luck with the next book, Barbara, and I hope you enjoy the rollout of In The Wind. I know Gary and Pat at Once Upon A Crime are wishing you all the best as well.

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