From the Archives
Note: This author interview was originally published in 2013 on another site that is no longer live.
When you read a book by Joanna Campbell Slan, this award-winning, best-selling author sure makes it all look easy. The author of the Kiki Lowenstein mystery series and the Jane Eyre Chronicles, though, sure didn’t have it easy as a child, teenager or young adult.
“I grew up,” Joanna explains, “in a chaotic home with alcoholic parents. For a while, we were on welfare.” And, when her father drank, he didn’t become gregarious and friendly. Instead, according to Joanna, he turned mean and would wake her up at night just to tell her that she’d never amount to anything.
Escaping to the Library
Fortunately, there was a library within reasonable walking distance of her home, and so books, very early on, became Joanna’s form of escape. She’d check out six books (the maximum allowed!) and read them all on the 16-block walk home – and then have nothing to read.
One day, Joanna scrounged around their home, looking for something else to read – and what she found was a tattered copy of Jane Eyre, a novel written by Charlotte Brontë. “The character in the book,” Joanna reminds us, “was poor, friendless, ugly and unwanted – and so she resonated with me. Through this book, I also learned that education could be the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Challenging College Experience
Joanna attended a year of college, starting out as an English major and switching to journalism. Near the end of her freshman year, though, another blow came. Her father had left the family to pursue a relationship with another woman and was no longer willing to contribute financially to Joanna or her sisters or mother. Fortunately, a college professor directed Joanna to the scholarship and loan department. “I ate surplus food from food banks,” Joanna said of her college years. “No one could have guessed that I would grow up to travel the world, live in a wonderful house on the beach, and write books. It still surprises folks who knew me back then.”
What isn’t surprising is that Joanna started writing when she was quite young. “As soon as I could read,” she says. “I used to staple together sheets of paper and tell people I was writing a book. I started winning awards for my work when I was still in grade school.”
In 2008, she published the first of her Kiki Lowenstein scrapbook mysteries – Paper, Scissors, Death – calling Kiki her “alter ego,” adding that the fictional character is “a bit wackier. She will have more children than I. And I didn’t marry a cop. But there’s a lot that’s alike about us. I’ve had more therapy. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Other Books in This Series
Whenever Joanna plots a mystery novel, she starts with an intriguing idea. “Then,” she adds, “I imagine a scene that incorporates that idea. I do a lot of ‘daydreaming,’ often using what I think of as the twilight time, those moments between wakefulness and sleep. I’ll start writing until I have about three chapters. I polish those three chapters and start working out the possible suspects, the clues, the timing of the murder. Then I do a lot of work on paper. Jotting down names. Making mind maps. Next I start working with Scrivener and write up virtual index cards. I move these around until I like the sequence. I print that out and change as I go along. See? Simple as can be.”
Another life-changing event took place when Joanna was participating on a panel at Malice Domestic, a mystery fan convention. It started when someone asked HER to name her favorite mystery. When she replied, “Jane Eyre,” someone else claimed this book wasn’t a mystery at all. Joanna responded by saying that, “There’s someone bumping around in the attic and screaming. There’s a wealthy man who has hired an attendant who drinks too much and pays her very, very well. He’s miserable, but won’t say why. There’s someone setting fires, but no one admits there’s a problem. Sounds like a mystery to me!”
Inspired by Jane Eyre
That experience led to Joanna writing Death of a Schoolgirl, a mystery novel featuring – who else, but Jane Eyre. When asked if it was challenging to incorporate a famous fictional character into a modern-day novel, she says that it was, in fact, three separate challenges:
- “First of all, Charlotte Brontë was a genius, so approaching her work was daunting.”
- “Second, the time period and setting challenged me. I did an incredible amount of research, reading everything I could, consulting with experts, visiting museums, searching the Internet, and drawing on my experiences of living in England a year.”
- “Third, I had to find a way to simulate Brontë’s voice without writing a parody or making the book too difficult for a modern audience. But despite the challenges, I was delighted with the opportunity. I felt this gave me a wonderful chance to bring Jane Eyre to a new generation of readers.”
Since that time, she has published the second book in the Jane Eyre series, titled Death of a Dowager.
Award Nominations and Wins
The Kiki Lowenstein series has received an Agatha Award nomination; the Jane Eyre Chronicles, a Daphne du Maurier nomination – and both have lifted Joanna’s spirits. “That said,” she says, “my most meaningful validation comes from my readers. I get the most fabulous fan mail. People are incredibly passionate about my characters. I have a wonderful group of readers who follow me on Facebook. I call them ‘my peeps.’ They cheer me on, they share ideas for books, they act as my beta readers and my best cheerleaders. I just couldn’t do what I do without them. Honestly, some days, I write just for them.”
Joanna also shares a couple of rituals that she has when writing her fiction:
- “I have to be alone in the house. I can’t stand outside noises. When the lawn guys come, I practically foam at the mouth. I guess I need the solitude because I sit here at my desk and act out what my characters do and say. If I’m interrupted, it’s like I’m dragged through a wormhole. I’m that disoriented. I used to be a lot more flexible. When I worked in a newspaper, we worked in a bullpen, and there was constant noise and commotion. But now? I guess I’m getting old and cranky. Yup. That’s probably it.”
- “I always have a small bouquet of flowers on my writing desk. Right now, it’s a couple of caladium leaves, a piece of petunia, a pink vinca, and a couple of penta stuck in an old salt cellar. It’s never a big bouquet. It’s usually cuttings that I’ve trimmed from my window box. Somehow it makes the whole desk seem incredibly cheerful. The bouquet sits on top of a coaster I bought in England. The image on the coaster is a cartoon of the queen, waving, with a corgi at her feet.”
She also generously shares writing tips for aspiring mystery novelists. “There are many aspiring authors,” she says, “who do their level best to avoid writing. A lot of them get stuck in the research/planning stage. They amass reams of papers. They buy reference materials. They attend countless workshops/conferences. They plot one book after another. They fill notebooks with ideas. That’s all good stuff, but it’s not writing. Don’t fool yourself. There’s no way to be successful without putting your backside in a chair, pounding on the keys, getting down that first draft, and rewriting your work countless times. That’s the way you make real progress – by doing the work. ‘Thinking about what you want to write’ won’t get it down on paper. Yes, there’s thinking involved, but again, don’t deceive yourself. You’re either writing or you’re not. And believe me, I have to tell myself this a thousand times a day as I answer emails or check my Facebook page.”
Series in the Works
Joanna is currently finalizing the first book in yet another series, the Cara Mia Delgatto mystery series, set on the Treasure Coast of Florida. The protagonist is an entrepreneurial woman who “snaps up a distressed piece of property, only to find it’s already inhabited by a fresh corpse. That seriously impedes her plans to start a retail store specializing in recycling, upcycling, and repurposing items with a beachy theme. I’ve had tons of fun writing the book, researching the DIY portions, and working on the characters. While we’re tying up loose ends on that, I’m finishing Group, Photo, Grave, which is the seventh book in the Kiki Lowenstein mystery series. I’m also expanding a short story called The Glassblower’s Wife and turning it into a full length book. That’s a historical mystery about the assassinations of the glassblowers who were brought to France to create the mirrors for the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.”