Interview with Barbara Fister
Author of In The Wind
St. Martin's Minotaur
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,
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
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
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
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
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?
. "Confusion is not
an ignoble condition." From a hedge scholar in Brian Friel's
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
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.