Deep in the Archives
This is an author interview I wrote in the 1990s.
Ruffled Feathers by (Barbara) Taylor McCafferty
Barbara Taylor McCafferty was born on September 15, the same day as Agatha Christie. She loves figuring out a good puzzle, like those found in novels by Christie. So, what does McCafferty do for a living?
Writes mystery novels — just like Agatha Christie!
Well, not exactly like Christie. McCafferty has her own unique style, sticking her unsuspecting characters in bizarre situations and watching them wiggle their way out of them.
“I always start a story with a question that begins with ‘wouldn’t it be funny if?'” she said. “Like in my book, Ruffled Feathers, a guy gets a ransom note and the person allegedly kidnapped is standing right next to him. So, you wonder, ‘Is this an error in timing? A gag?'”
The puzzle itself is what interests her the most when writing mysteries. “My humor,” she said, “comes more from the situation than from the characters themselves.”
Puzzling Out Her Pen Name
In case you’re wondering why you haven’t seen books on the mystery shelf by Barbara Taylor McCafferty, here’s why. Up to this point, she has used pseudonyms.
Writing under the name of Taylor McCafferty, for example, she created a humorous private eye, featured in Ruffled Feathers and four other books. His name is Haskell Blevins and Publishers Weekly described him as a “private eye who is far from hard-boiled. He probably wouldn’t even qualify as soft-boiled. He’s more poached.”
Blevins, the only private detective in the fictional town of Pigeon Fork, Kentucky, supplements his iffy income by working at his brother Elmo’s drugstore. For entertainment, he complains about his ex-wife, Claudia, referred to as Claudzilla. His dog, Rip, is afraid of steps.
“A lot of the details in my books I’ve gotten from just riding around and noticing,” she said. “Most everything in my books I’ve actually seen. I’ve just changed the names to protect the less than innocent.”
Another Pen Name! Seriously
McCafferty has also written two Schuyler Ridgway mysteries under another pseudonym, Tierney McClellan. Ridgway is a sassily successful realtor who finds herself in her own share of weird circumstances.
In the first Ridgway mystery, Heir Condition, the realtor finds herself the benefactor of $100,000. The recently murdered man, Ephraim Cross, left it to her for giving him passion, joy, and a reason for a living.
The problem? Ridgway had never even met the man.
Then, in Closing Statement, she heads off to show a house to a prospective buyer, and is sidetracked by finding a dead body in the living room of the house.
Not just any dead body, of course. Oh, no. That would be way too simple. Instead, it’s the body of a sleazy lawyer who is suing Ridgway; the police who are investigating the murder are the same officers who had suspected Ridgway of murdering Ephraim Cross. They had already cleared her of that murder, but they weren’t too pleased when she showed up at another homicide scene.
And, finally, McCafferty is working on a third mystery series, one where she’ll finally use her real name. “I wanted a book with so many names that it would take up most of the cover.”
With this series, McCafferty is working with a collaborator — her twin sister, Beverly Taylor Herald. The first book in their series, Double Murder, will come out in their lucky month of September in 1996.
This new series features a set of identical twin amateur sleuths. “The book starts out with a situation that’s familiar to twins, that of being approached by a total stranger who acts as if he knows you well,” she said. “As a twin, you just assume the guy knows your sister.”
This particular mysterious stranger, though, has less than friendly intentions — and that’s where the trouble begins.
Tag Team Writing Style
When writing, the two sisters play off one another’s strengths. “I know not all twins feel this way, but Bev and I aren’t competitive with one another,” McCafferty said. “For me, it’s like being born with your best friend. It’s one of the luckiest things to ever happen.”
In a newspaper interview, McCafferty said that her sister is great with plotting; her sister returned the compliment, saying McCafferty was great with characterization.
The two sisters are currently working on a second book of their three-book series, titled Double Exposure. McCafferty is also working on her sixth Haskell Blevins book, Funny Money, and her third Schuyler Ridgway one, Two Story Frame.
“After that,” she said, “I’ll just put my feet up.”
Passion for Writing
Obviously, McCafferty has gotten to where she is through hard work. She’d wanted to be a writer since third grade, and she only got sidetracked by about thirty-three years!
After graduating magna cum laude with a degree in fine arts from the University of Louisville, she raised three children. She also worked as an art director/copywriter, promising herself that she would pursue a full-time writing career after she’d reached a key benchmark: after selling a short story to Redbook.
Meanwhile, she “collected enough rejection slips to wallpaper my bathroom.”
She did sell short stories to various magazines, though, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And, finally, she achieved her goal, selling “Mama Was Right” to Redbook.
“I’d kept a short story in the mail to Redbook all the time,” she said. “I eventually started getting little notes on my rejection slips, so then I was never going to give up. Then, they bought ‘Mama Was Right.’ They probably felt sorry for me or maybe they were just trying to make me leave them alone.”
McCafferty never took a writing course, although she read every writing how-to in the Louisville library. “My advice for beginning writers,” she said, “is to READ. I also advise writing a book, rather than short stories. The market is larger for books and the competition isn’t as fierce.”
During book signings, McCafferty often meets aspiring writers. “Sometimes,” she said, “I tell them that writing is a major scam.”
“The glamour of writing is being able to do something you love and actually get paid for it,” she said. “And that’s why I call it a scam.”