Julia interviews Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets writes the hilarious Dead-End Job Mysteries. Her 2007 bestseller, Murder With Reservations, was just out at the time of our conversation.

My husband, no blog fan, spends a lot of time visiting your blog. He says it has something to do with the marital advice he reads there? Tell me a little bit about THE LIPSTICK CHRONICLES.

I’m glad he likes it. I chronicle one day a week with Nancy Martin, Michele Martinez, Harley Jane Kozak, Sarah Strohmeyer and Rebecca the Bookseller. A lot of writers’ blogs give professional advice, but we figure most writers know as much as we do. We decided to make our blog a little more personal, and write about our lives. And since we’re all married, it turns into marital advice sometimes.

What sage words of advice would you offer to newbie writers starting out? Craftwise or commercially speaking?

You need both craft and commercial savvy. I spent a year working at a Barnes & Noble as a bookseller, and it was a short course in the book business. But you can’t get too far away from your craft, or your readers won’t have anything good to read.

Let’s talk short stories for a moment. I have yet to finish one, because they keep evolving into novellas. Yours on the other hand, regularly take home Agathas and Anthonys, for stories like The Wedding Knife. What’s your secret to crafting a short story?

Short stories are a chance to try a new voice with low risk. My books are soft-boiled, but my short stories are very dark and the protagonist is usually guilty of a heinous crime. I like that. So the books give voice to the “good” Elaine and short stories are an outlet to the evil Elaine. I wrote a vampire story for a collection edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner called MANY BLOODY RETURNS that was fun to do and a departure from my usual work.

Many crime fiction authors do research, which is often cited as an evening spent cruising in a squad car. You have taken it to the next level, actually assuming the role of, among others, telemarketer, bookseller and a bustier salesperson, in order to inform your writing. Can you share an anecdote that remains with you?

I am horrified by how badly so-called “nice” people treat clerks and other invisible workers. I started as a newspaper reporter, and I think that urge to report on what goes on behind the scenes remains. When I worked as a telemarketer, I heard one of the supervisors tell a Hispanic woman that she wouldn’t get holiday pay for Thanksgiving because it wasn’t a “real” holiday. The Hispanic woman was working to help her daughter pay catastrophic medical bills. The supervisor, I’m sorry to say, was a young woman in a beige business suit. I couldn’t believe she would do something so evil.

Have you read any of Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing (NICKEL AND DIMED or others)? Your thoughts?

Her books are right on the money, pardon the pun. She reported that the people who clean for home maid services are not allowed to sit down and she’s right. I had one service with a maid so sick with a cold she could hardly stand up. I told her she could lie down in the guest room, but she said she’d be fired if she sat down. She also couldn’t afford to go to a doctor, so I wound up giving her all the over-the-counter medications in my cabinet.

Something you told me awhile back has stayed with me. You spoke movingly of the difference leaving 2$ per night for the chambermaid could make. What other thoughts have crossed your mind as the result of your various employments that you would like to pass on?

I do not know how people in dead-end jobs stay as good humored as they do. Many are heavily burdened by medical debts and other expenses that should make their situation hopeless, yet they come to work cheerfully and make a real effort to pay off their bills a few dollars at a time. I am self-indulgent and like my luxuries. They have my undying respect.

What’s your writing process? Outline or organic?

Outline. I’m too much of a kraut to just dive in and write free form. I like to have a roadmap and know where I’m going.

Has your shift from St. Louis to South Florida affected your writing? Your routine? Your process? Your attitude? Your cats? This from a long-time Maine resident who has just about had her fill of winter storms, and is doing her research....

My cats miss sleeping on warm radiators in the winter. Mystery, our gray Chartreaux, sleeps on top the dishwasher, but she considers it a poor substitute. I didn’t realize how much of my life I spent inside shivering until I came down here to the sun. I hate the cold and do everything to avoid it. When the temp here dropped to 60 (springtime for Maine folks) I put on a leather jacket, gloves and a sweater, and was still cold. I finally realized I was wearing sandals.

What’s next for Elaine Viets ( www.elaineviets.com) ? What projects will be occupying you in the near future?

I’m writing the fourth Josie Marcus, Mystery shopper book and researching the next Dead-End job book. I also want to write a short story where I kill a physical therapist. This has nothing to do with the PT I’m currently taking. In other words, it’s time for me to go back to work.

Elaine Viets

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“Short stories are a chance to try a new voice with low risk. My books are soft-boiled, but my short stories are very dark and the protagonist is usually guilty of a heinous crime. I like that. So the books give voice to the “good” Elaine and short stories are an outlet to the evil Elaine.”