Julia interviews David Skibbins

You were the first male winner of the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Contest. How did it feel to break the gender barrier after some 14 years of female domination?

“I have testosterone hear me roar!” I guess I should stick to mysteries and give up song writing. Luckily when I entered it, I didn’t even know how improbable it was that I should win this contest. I was an innocent. It’s a good lesson thought. The word on the streets was “Men can’t win this contest.” Whatever you decide about this industry stands a good chance of being wrong. Rule number one: Ignore rule number one.

I was the first of three male winners. My next goal? The Agatha!

So tell me how it was for you winning almost every prize except the Nobel Peace Prize for In The Bleak Midwinter?

At the time—2003—it was thrilling in a kind of “ooo, I finally get to be homecoming queen,” way. It’s only been in the years afterwards that I’ve been able to see what an enormous help the magic words, “Anthony and Agatha award-winner” have been to my career. Picking up five writing awards for my first book catapaulted me ahead by several years, and was, in part, responsible for me being able to write full time. Most people have to juggle “the day job” with writing for quite some time. I know you, for instance, are a life coach. I live in Maine, so you’ll have to excuse me being 20 years behind California in all things cultural, but what exactly is a life coach anyway? Do you carry a whistle?

You know how therapists treat and help mentally ill people? Well, life coaches empower mentally healthy people. Stop laughing! I know you are wondering how I can make a living since there are only five mentally healthy people in the world. We coaches see a world filled with healthy people who want to move ahead with their plans. Kind of like a carpenter sees nothing but nails to be hammered.

Hey, you sent me a question to ask Joe Konrath on Murder Thursday (my phone in interview show). You wanted to know how the heck can he write, market and raise a family? I have the same question for you. My daughter is all grown up and now teaches forth graders, but you have little ones still running around. How to you do the spinning plates in the air thing, and still turn out such excellent prose?

The truth? I’m always falling down at something. If I’m fully in the writing groove, I pawn my kids off on my husband. If I’m picking up the kids from chess club and cross country, heaps of dirty clothes mound up in the laundry room. If the house is clean, I’m blowing off friends’ emails and relatives phone calls. If I’m up on my correpondence, I’m not writing the book. And so it goes. My secret, such as it is, is to try not to suck at more than one thing at a time.

Now that I’ve disillusioned everyone who still believes in the Superwoman myth, I’m going to nimbly change the subject. Who are some of your writing influences?

You know the only two I can think of are Hemingway and China Mieville. Hemingway when he writes to the bone, like in Green Hills of Africa. And Mieville just because that imagination is so alien and rich, it is scary to read him. He does Sci-Fi fantasy, but his collection of short stories, "Looking for Jake" is one of the most significant books of this decade. IMHO

I agree with you about China Mieville. I’m pleased to say I got my friend, author Denise Hamilton, reading him. People tend to assume that if you write mysteries, your influences and idols must be crime fiction writers as well, don’t they?

Yeah. So tell me someone completely out of the mystery box who you hold in reverence as a writer.

Lots of SF writers. Robert Heinlein. Lois McMaster Bujold. Cordwainer Smith. J. Michael Straczynski. In some ways, it’s freeing to read widely in fields other than your own. There’s less of a temptation to steal by admiration. And you don’t feel the urge to stab yourself in the eyeball when you read something impossibly good. I have noticed, however, that authors as a whole never stop quizzing each other on technique and method. First person or third? Morning or evening? Outline or freestyle? That last question is interesting, because according to my extremely informal and anecdotal polling, the answer is beginning to break out by gender.

Hey, I don't agree. Unless you have been pulling my leg about your gender. You and Jim Fusilli outline like crazy-- years into the future. Whereas S. J. Rozan and Joe Konrath hate the damn things. I'm in the middle of that range. I do about a 3 page outline of each book, more of an annotated time line. But I have no idea what the next book holds in store for poor Warren Ritter and company.

Your mass market debut, the extraordinary EIGHT OF SWORDS, hit #1 on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list. What do indies know that the chains don’t, and how have they influenced your career?

Indies excel at hand selling my book. A case in point: I live in an isolated California coastal town, two hours from the nearest McDonalds. We have a great little independent bookstore here called The Four Eyed Frog. They have hand sold over 400 copies of my books. That will never happen at Walmart.

I go to booksellers to find out what is new, and what is hot. They know my taste and save me a heck of a lot more time and money by giving me what I will love, than I ever will save buying from Amazon.

How about you, are you a Barnes and Nobel.com kind of girl, or do you wander through the twisted cluttered isles of local booksellers, petting the cat who is sitting on the book you were looking for?

I’m an independent-minded gal. (Although I love that more indys are, like the chains, attaching coffee shops to their stores. What’s more pleasurable than sitting in a comfy chair with a stack of books and a cuppa?) And I must add that, in the course of my travels, I’ve meet chain bookstore managers who are passionate about what they’re doing and who treat their stores—as much as they are able—as independents.

It strikes me that you and I both like the old-fashioned way—handselling—of getting our books into readers hands, but that we’re also happy to jump into the latest technologies to connect with readers. I’ve done web conferencing for libraries, and bulletin board chats, and of course, your project, Murder Thursday, which is combines hearing conversations over the phone, but asking questions via the ‘net. I had never heard of that before you asked me to join in.

I teach workshops in big coaching tele-classes, giant bridge lines where a group of 25-50 folks are all on the same line. I thought, hey, why not bring that to the mystery community. So I rent an hour on one of those telephone bridges every month on the first Thursday, and ask a writer to chat with me. Folks are on mute, so they can eat their dinner, or walk the dog, or stalk innocent victims while they listen in. I've had Michael Connelly, Jan Burke, oh a ton of great writers on it. Even once got a chance to talk with the Diva of the mystery world: Julia Spencer-Fleming!

Oh, that’s me. If by “Diva”, you mean “woman in LL Bean boots and earflaps.” I know all I had to do was call you, but how techno-savvy do listeners have to be to participate?

If you can dial a telephone, you can play. Also I have the WAV files of some of the interviews on my website at www.davidskibbins.com so you can download and listen to our gay repartee at your leisure.

I came up with this idea after talking with my marketing guru. Maybe you have heard of him? Do you know a guy named Ross Hugo-Vidal?

Yeah. But I bet you don’t have to wash his shorts in order to get his advice. Okay, as long as we’re talking about brilliant but eccentric guys (which perfectly describes my husband) let’s talk about your sleuth, Warren Ritter. He’s unique. An historical and cultural icon. I’m curious as to how your readers take to his pronounced political opinions. Do you get hate mail, or offers of joints?

The only joint offers I get are from herbal companies pushing Arnica cream. And no one has sent me one piece of hate mail yet. My favorite story about that is, one night I was at a big fancy convention cocktail thingie, and my favorite fan comes up an pulls me aside and whispers in my ear, "I haven't wanted to tell you this, but I am a Republican." Says a lot for her that she loves my little leftist so much!

You are crunching some shibboleths under your feet with your lusty priest and her attraction to a married man. Any burning hymnals thrown on your front lawn?

I’ve gotten some comments now and then, but they were more about Clare’s liberal social and ecclesiastical leanings rather than her semi-illicit relationship. Readers who do this usually assume she’s parrotting my point of view, which is amusing, because I’ve been very careful to give Clare at least some opinions that are 180 degrees from my own.

I tend to wade into social justice themes. For your part, you tackle several heavy-duty psycho-social issues in each book. I have to tell you, a close friend of mine, whose beloved father was bisexual, says that he has never seen the issue so sensitively, accurately, and tastefully addressed as in one of your books. Do you ever hesitate before taking on potentially controversial topics? What motivates you to do so?

Right! This question coming from the Hugh Hefner of the Episcopal Church? Neither one of us lack courage.

I am so glad that I spent 25 years as a psychotherapist. I came to know the humanity behind the most severe of mental disorders, and the wisdom that motivates a wide range of human behaviors that are outside the range of normal. I love controversy, it breeds drama.

Hey, all of us are just storytellers, sitting in animal skins around a blazing fire, coming up with a good tale to take the tribes mind off of the lions wandering around outside the staked fence.

I know you are thinking about a new series, one to augment the Claire Fergusson series. You have been thinking more historical. I am wondering about what flavor of controversies you are imagining weaving into the tapestry of that series. Also wondering about how the heck you can amp up the Claire series any more without setting fire to the pages of the book. I was so tense reading All Mortal Flesh I thought I'd pee my pants. I guess its statements like that last one which are the reason you never asked me to blurb one of your books.

It’s almost as good as when Connie Meyer, the library director of the Dwight Foster Puiblic Library, said, “It made me so nervous, I wanted to throw up!” Maybe I should collect these gems.

I like your description of sitting around the fire, telling stories. When I was thinking about your series, it struck me that the way a Tarot reading plays out is another type of storytelling. What made you decide to feature the Tarot in your books?

Somebody had already picked the alphabet, numbers, and the Periodic Table of Elements. Tarot was choice number four. Hey, with 78 cards it looks to be a long series. However none of us can hold a candle to your gig. How many hymns have been written? I am looking forward to Bound Upon the Accursed Tree.

Ooo, that’s a good one. I haven’t heard of it before. Must be Baptist. But don’t think you can divert me with tempting titles. I want a crash course in how one reads the cards. Bear in mind, my own knowledge stems entirely from a youthful Jane Seymour playing Domino in the Bond flick, Live or Let Die.

Tarot card reading is easy:
1- Buy a deck
2- Jumble them all up face down then pick some out.
3- Turn them over one by one.
4- Make up stuff about what you see.

Telling lies to reveal the truth. See, that’s the recipe for good fiction.

When I read your books, I feel as though I can actually see the world, for a brief moment at least, through the eyes of a bipolar individual. Is this something you deliberately seek to accomplish? How has your professional background as a psychotherapist influenced your writing?

I'll tell you a secret. Of course if I tell you it won't be a secret anymore. Oh well. With each book I am looking into one particular psychopathology. Of course with every book I am looking a psychopaths. Most of the time nice people don't kill. (My next book, The Star might have an exception to that rule in it.)

In my first book, Eight of Swords I wanted to take the reader into mania. That was fun: welcome to Warren's world.

In book two, High Priestess, I wanted to paint the depressed side of Warren. That was hard to do and not to write a book so gloomy no one could finish it. I also went far into the world of a female serial killer, a rare but not imaginary species. Sixteen percent of serial killers are female and that number is rising.

In book three, The Star (coming out in early Feb. 2007) I show you the behavior of a Borderline Personality Disorder and it's chaotic consequences. I never diagnose Warren's daughter in the book, but she falls in this category, among others. She's a real interesting person, not one you would want to marry into your family.

Having read an advance copy of THE STAR, I’d have to agree. (Although there are some members of my family…) Okay, you have a terrific story, engaging character developments, and a fabulous cover image of the Star card that I deeply envy (another plus of the Tarot theme.) But as we all know, “writer pens third book” doesn’t make journalists’ hearts beat faster. What are you going to be doing to promote THE STAR?

Here is my plan, kidnap the favorite children of every major bookstore chain's CEOs and hold them all for ransom, to be exchanged for really great placement in all their stores nationwide for five months. What do you think? Want to drive the get-away car?

I’m still trying to figure out how you’re going to determine which is the favorite child.

Assuming I can't find anyone to drive, I am aiming at selling to Northern California. I want to hit every bookstore, kind of like a mini- "Will Joe Konrath Survive 500 Bookstores Tour?"

So, here is a serious question. You are several steps, several books, and untold awards ahead of me in this selling cycle. How does your marketing approach change based on where you are in sales and in the life of your series?

Well, my original marketing plan was crafted on the back of a paper plate. I kid you not. One of those honkin’ big rugged cardboard numbers… It has a place of honor in my house. I therefore tend to equate marketing/publicity with a beloved family recipe, where I’m constantly changing the mix, throwing new ingredients against the wall, and seeing what sticks.

The marketing process has changed greatly in just the few years I’ve been writing, but I do believe that becoming a commercial success these days is a dicier and dicier proposition, and that no one has a greater interest in that goal than the writer. So writers serve themselves well by being involved in the process. If you—emphasis on you—build it, they WILL come. By that I mean serious publisher support. I’m convinced it was my own team’s efforts, and the support of fellow writers, booksellers and librarians, that kept my books around long enough for my publisher to notice the sales and start to devote meaningful resources to them.

What’s next for David Skibbins? Are you going the stand-alone route, or continuing your exceptional series?

The next psychopathology for Warren to face? Well, it's really not a mental disorder, just a delightfully different taste in clothes: the sado-masochistic sexual community. Welcome to San Francisco Values!

You know, I never get to do stuff like that in my books. Anything away from the series?

I am also shopping a thriller tentatively titled Hardened. . I have some nibbles from publishers, but not clear strike yet. It is about how a fanatical group of right wing bigots plan to destroy democracy and take over the election process. I just can't figure out where I got that idea from.

Gee, David, I can’t imagine. Don’t tell me—the hero’s name is Obak Barama.

Okay, thinking of today’s politics; it often feels as if the economy’s shaky for those of us in publishing. Stores are closing, the chains’ profits are down, people who have to spend more money on gas and heating oil spend less on books…what advice would you give to a debut crime fiction writer in today’s business environment?

Go into plastics.

Seriously, don't write. It's like doing community theater, hundreds of hours of work and a few folks say, "Hey that was real nice." No money. Almost impossible to break in. And tons of marketing: used car selling only with a much lower margin.

Some of you will have the good sense to follow this advice. And some fools will ignore it completely. Here is my favorite quote, by Loren Eisley, from The Night Country:

If you cannot bear the silence, do not go there; if you dislike black night and yawning chasms, never make them your profession. If you fear the sound of water hurrying through crevices towards an unknown and mysterious destination, do not consider it. Seek out the sunshine. It is a simple prescription. Avoid the darkness.

It is a simple prescription, but you will not follow it. You will turn immediately to the darkness. You will be drawn to it by cords of fear and longing. You will imagine that you are tired of the sunlight; the waters that unnerve you will tug at the ancient recesses of your mind; the midnight will seem restful--you will end by going down.

Julia, here's what I believe: the only ones who remain in this profession are the ones who have no choice. They will learn what they have to learn, and do everything they have to do to succeed. And a few of them actually will succeed.

I certainly have a number of friends who have made it to the point where they can make a living writing. I know it’s quite possible. Yet, at the same time, it seems as if the cut is made earlier and earlier in each author’s career. Either you ring the bell, and make it, or you’re washed out, with no second chance except to reinvent yourself with a new genre or a new name. What do you think? Is the midlist author an endangered species?

We are all endangered. We all die. The sun will explode. There is no stress free paradise short of a lobotomy. Any one who thinks his or her job is safe is deluded.

Is the midlist author endangered? No more than the American steelworker or automobile manufacturer, or magazine editor. Everything is whirling so fast that predictions are a joke.

Just go back to the campfire. Tell stories, and learn your craft well enough that you are damn entertaining. That's all any mystery writer can do, short of slaughtering an occasional goat on a stone alter in front of a graven image.

Actually…you want to know how I really won all those awards? First, it has to be a ram, not a goat--

No, no, I’m just messing with you. Anything you’d like to add, David?

Here is a question I will ask you and then answer for myself. What impact, beyond entertainment, do you want your books to leave in the minds and hearts of the reader?

Here is what inspires this question: I am possibly going to be an assistant director of a community theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank next year. We are using a script recently adapted by Wendy Kesselman. It is a great script, but it ends in complete despair. Goodness and innocence is crushed by violent darkness.

Ironic, since it was Anne Frank that wrote, "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."

So I write because the first girl I ever had a crush on was Anne Frank. It's true, I had her diary next to my bed as a teenager. And I still agree with her. I want my work to remind people of the basic goodness of humanity.

You know…anything I’d add to that sweet thought would be anticlimactic. Thank you, David.


David Skibbins

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“The only joint offers I get are from herbal companies pushing Arnica cream. And no one has sent me one piece of hate mail yet. My favorite story about that is, one night I was at a big fancy convention cocktail thingie, and my favorite fan comes up an pulls me aside and whispers in my ear, “I haven’t wanted to tell you this, but I am a Republican.” Says a lot for her that she loves my little leftist so much!”