Julia interviews Kathryn Wall

Kathryn Wall is Author of the Bay Tanner series of mystery novels about a widowed South Carolina accountant turned detective. Visit the author's web site.

For those new to your terrific traditional mysteries, what are the Bay Tanner mysteries all about?

Bay Tanner is a widowed former financial consultant and daughter of the old southern aristocracy who witnessed her husband’s murder prior to the opening of the first book in the series, IN FOR A PENNY. She has struggled to come to terms with her loss while investigating crimes ranging from real estate fraud and embezzlement to serial murder. Her small inquiry agency has now begun to gain a reputation, and by the 8th book, THE MERCY OAK, she’s acknowledged that she has a taste—and a talent—for criminal investigation. The action primarily takes place on Hilton Head Island and the surrounding South Carolina Lowcountry. A lot of the focus is on Bay’s family and relationships, and the same core cast of characters, including her irascible father retired Judge Talbot Simpson appears in all the novels. The sex and violence are mostly offstage, so it won’t embarrass your mother if you share the books with her.

What is THE MERCY OAK all about?

Roberto Santiago, the son of Bay’s part-time housekeeper, fears his girlfriend, a vocal activist for immigrant rights, may have been silenced by a hit-and-run driver. But before Bay can meet with him, Roberto disappears, and she soon realizes he may be a target as well. Then a series of armed robberies terrorizes the Lowcountry, and Bay is swept up in the investigation through a witness, a wizened old black man whose vague references to an ancient slave legend about a tree called the Mercy Oak could be connected to the holdups. And soon the strange phone calls begin, warning Bay off the case. But which one? Bay’s lover, a sergeant with the local sheriff’s department—and her dead husband’s brother—scoffs at her theory that the two scenarios may be connected. On her own now, Bay struggles against her neighbors’ not-so-subtle prejudice and innate fear of outsiders to save the people she’s come to regard as family. There are sample chapters up on my Web site at www.kathrynwall.com if you’d like to get a flavor of what THE MERCY OAK and the earlier books are all about.

Do you consider yourself a Southern writer or a mystery writer?

I’m a Yankee by birth, like most residents of Hilton Head, so I wouldn’t presume to label myself a Southern author. I write mysteries that take place in the South. What I will say is that I should have been born here. Something in me is very certain about that. I’m an unrepentant eavesdropper, and I use that dubious skill to research the unique cadence and manner of speech of real Southerners. I talk to people who’ve lived here for generations about the peculiarities of this area of the country. In short, I do my best to get it right, although I know there are nuances that slip by me.

Do you consider yourself a “cozy” writer? And what are your thoughts on the term “cozy”?

I don’t particularly like it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the term itself, but in many circles it’s come to be viewed as a pejorative. “Cozy” conjures up Miss Marple puttering in her garden or sipping tea with the ladies of the church. And that makes it easy for mysteries tagged as “cozy” to be marginalized, disregarded as fluff. Doesn’t noir sound more mysterious and interesting? Or hardboiled? So if we’re going to be stuck with labels, I guess I’d prefer traditional, although that doesn’t really tell the whole story, either. Bay Tanner has reluctantly quit smoking and knows a few words her aristocratic late mother never taught her. She has no patience with fools and will resort to violence to protect those she loves. She has a gun and knows how to use it. Not exactly Miss Marple. But not Jack Reacher, either. So, if there’s a range from softboiled to hardboiled, I guess my Bay Tanner novels would be four-minute mysteries. Maybe four-and-a-half.

What’s your writing process? Outline or organic?

I’m definitely of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants school of writing. And I love the term organic. I’m going to steal that. I begin with an overall theme or premise and go from there. I’ve tried outlining, but it stifles me. It’s almost as if, once I’ve written the bones of it down, I’ve lost the impetus to tell that particular story. I prefer to drop my core cast of characters down into a familiar setting, present them with a crime and some obstacles and see how they react. I call myself a “binge” writer as well, because I can go for hours at a time and crank out two or three thousand words and then walk away from it for a few days. Not recommended for everyone, but it works for me.

What projects are occupying Kathryn Wall at the moment?

I’m closing in on halfway finished with the 9th Bay Tanner mystery, one I’ve titled COVENANT HALL. It has to do with family secrets—including a bombshell in Bay’s case—and how, even generations later, those lies and cover-ups can cost more than anyone could have imagined. I’m also trying my hand at resurrecting an historical novel I began . . . well, let’s just say more years ago than I’m prepared to admit. I recently wrote a romantic suspense with my two critique partners that’s being shopped around as we speak. It would be fun to see that take off so we could try another. Going from first to third person was refreshing and sort of liberating, and I’d like to have another go at it. But I’m committed to more Bay Tanners if that’s what the public—and the publisher—still want me to write.

What pithy words of advice would you offer for newbie crime fiction writers just starting out?

I try never to be pithy. It’s so unattractive at my age. Seriously, my best advice to any beginning writer, in whatever genre, is to READ!!! I’m astounded at the number of people who come up to me at conferences and signings and begin rhapsodizing about the novel they’re going to write, and who then proceed to tell me they don’t have time to read. My mother brought me up well, so I don’t scream, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” in their faces, but it’s what I’m thinking. Read the great crime writers who’ve gone before us and paved the way. Then find the award-winning, well-reviewed current masters and read them. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the most popular or ballyhooed. (Don’t you love that word?) Study how these books are crafted, how character is developed, setting subtly revealed. Define the story arc and note how it ebbs and flows while still constantly rising toward that inevitable climax when all is revealed. You can read how-to books, and I’m not saying that’s bad. Maybe it’s a good place to start. But for my money there’s nothing like taking a well-written crime novel and discovering how the author did it. And then WRITE. As with any other worthwhile endeavor, like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice, practice, practice.

Who were your literary influences growing up?

After Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, the gothic ladies captured my imagination. I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Phyllis Whitney. She and Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Dorothy Eden were my early idols. Then came Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell (the early years), and many other—primarily female—mystery and suspense authors. By the time I came to writing my own stuff, I had read so widely in the genre that it was a no-brainer as to what type of books I wanted to write.

You give so much back to the mystery world. Please talk a bit about your involvement in Sisters in Crime and some other interests of yours.

I joined both SinC and MWA soon after I published my first mystery. I’d been an accountant in my previous life, and I knew the importance of networking, especially with the leading groups in one’s profession. I made the mistake of revealing my past once too often in the wrong circles and suddenly found myself treasurer of both the SinC national organization and the Southeast chapter of MWA. I’m especially proud of my association with Sisters in Crime, which has worked for over twenty years to level the publishing playing field for women mystery writers. I was also a founding member of the Island Writers’ Network here on Hilton Head, which has been going strong with close to fifty members for nearly eight years. I’ve mentored in the local schools and participated in a lot of in-school writing seminars. And I’ve just recently been appointed to the Board of Directors of Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, a multi-county organization that supplies tutors for those seeking basic literacy as well as ESL. Corny as it sounds, I’m a firm believer in paying it forward.

Bay Tanner is such a compelling character. How did you first conceive of her?

Bay Tanner is absolutely my alter-ego. I mean, check out some of my photos on my Web site (www.kathrynwall.com). You can plainly see that we’re both around forty, 5’10” tall, long brown hair, arresting green eyes . . . Okay, okay, never mind. I’m fond of saying that Bay is younger, taller, skinnier, richer, braver, and smarter than I am. Otherwise, we’d be identical. I set out to create someone who’d lived a little, had some experience of the world, but who was still young enough to have a love life and be physically capable of doing the things I’d ask of her. I picked 38 as her age at the opening of the first book because, at the time, I could vaguely remember what that felt like. I widowed her (much to my dear husband’s chagrin) but gave her a wonderful marriage to remember. I wanted a primarily amateur sleuth, so I had her born into a wealthy, aristocratic Southern family so she didn’t have to work for a living. A lot of it, as you see, was intentional. The rest just sort of evolved. As I followed Bay in and out of the troubles I created for her, I found her surprising me at times with a resilience and tenacity I hadn’t necessarily planned on. My goal has been for her to grow over the course of the novels, to grow up in some sense, to move on from her devastating loss and find that she could function and actually enjoy life on her own—to take chances and discover the core of inner strength she herself didn’t know she had. It’s fascinating to me as a writer, and I have to admit that creating characters is probably the most enjoyable part of the process for me.

I became a writer after 15 years of marriage. Surprise! When and how did you discover your inner muse?

I was pushing 50 when my husband and I sold our business and moved to Hilton Head. I’d been trying to write seriously my whole life, but the pressures of earning a living—and just plain living—hadn’t allowed me time. I took a couple of writing course at the local technical college here and began IN FOR A PENNY as part of that process. I stumbled around a lot at first, trying to find a rhythm and a voice. But I believe it was always in there, buried under school and financial statements and community service and family and all the other things that constituted my pre-retirement life. I feel as if it’s what I should have been doing all along but was too afraid to go for. I regret that. I love the process of writing novels (though some other aspects of being published, not so much), and I think now I’ll stick with it even if (when) the time comes that no one else wants to read what I write. It’s an integral part of who I am now, and there’s no going back.

Kathryn Wall


“I write mysteries that take place in the South. What I will say is that I should have been born here. Something in me is very certain about that. I’m an unrepentant eavesdropper, and I use that dubious skill to research the unique cadence and manner of speech of real Southerners. I talk to people who’ve lived here for generations about the peculiarities of this area of the country”