Author Interviews: Joan Hess, 09/04/96

Author Interview: Joan Hess
Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Joan Hess started writing as a lark. “In the early 1980s, a friend convinced me to try to write romance novels,” she said, “and I discovered I loved writing fiction.”

Unfortunately, she also discovered that she was a dismal romance writer. “Too much plot,” she said, “not enough romance.”

The experiment wasn’t a complete failure, but the going was rough. She made an early sale to Harlequin, but then she ran into trouble. “Ten manuscripts and three agents later,” Hess said, “I became a tad discouraged. I was planning to go back to graduate school when my agent suggested I write a mystery.”

The rest, of course, belongs in the annals of mystery writing history. “It seems,” Hess said, “that I’m better at killing than kissing.”

And so, from those humble beginnings, we now have the highly popular, always amusing mysteries written by Joan Hess. The author of both the Maggody series starring Chief of Police Arly Hanks, and the Claire Malloy series, featuring the widowed bookseller and her teenaged daughter Caron, Hess now has a loyal following of devoted mystery fans.

In her newest Claire Malloy book, Closely Akin to Murder, Claire heads to Acapulco, to help trace back murderous happenings from thirty years ago. She travels there after receiving a call from beyond the dead, a communication from a cousin she thought had been killed in a car accident. This cousin, Veronica Landonwood, desperately needs Claire to quiet a blackmailer before her entire mixed up past explodes in the news.

And, since Veronica is now a respected scientist, a woman with a shot at winning the Nobel Prize, the stakes are suddenly much, much higher. Claire reluctantly agrees to the trip, taking along her daughter, Caron, the dramatic teenager who tends to SPEAK IN ALL CAPITALS.

“There was a legitimate reason for using Acapulco in Closely Akin,” Hess said. “I needed a place where the ‘beautiful’ people would have gone thirty years ago, and I also wanted to complicate the action with a foreign language.”

Hess spent four days in Acapulco in 1995, forcing herself to drink margaritas and gaze at the beach. She also spent one day there with a car and driver, going to the prison, courthouse, and police station. “The driver,” she said, “seemed nervous for some reason…”

Closely Akin, however, took on a darker tone than previous Claire Malloy books. “I was dealing not only with a vicious crime, but also with calculated indifference to suffering and loss of personal identity,” Hess said, “Not exactly topics for levity.”

“I tried to lighten up whenever I could, but had to be careful that I did so only when I was distanced from heavier material,” Hess added.

The New York Times has this to say about the Claire Malloy series. “Ms. Hess goes about things in a lively style. Her heroine, Claire Malloy, has a sharp eye and an irreverent way of describing what she sees.”

And, here is a word from Kirkus Reviews. “Hessof a more worldly Erma Bombeckrarely flags. Amiable entertainment with an edge.”

And, now, on to the world of Arly Hanks, centered in a miniscule town, population around 755. Life is not always easy for the Maggody-to-Manhattan-and-back-to-Maggody-again Chief of Police, as she battles liquor stills in the mountains, shoots a stern eye towards the mixed up Buchanan family, and last but not least, negotiates with her mother, Ruby Bee.

“My editor suggested I set a new series in Arkansas,” Hess said, “and once I’d stumbled into Maggody, the characters were already there. I try to manage the humor by staying very focused on the characters and allowing them to react in a way true to their distinct personalities.”

While Ruby is an excellent cook, for example, her quite distinct personality has caused Arly more than one late night headache. Ruby and her best friend, the beehive-topped beautician named Esther, tend to meddle in Arly’s business a bit more than necessary, to put it mildly.

And, even when Ruby and Esther are laying low, usually after getting caught in one of their terrible misdeeds, Arly’s troubles certainly aren’t over. Who knows, for instance, what misguided antics 300-pound Dahlia and her besotted, bewildered husband Kevin might be involved in. “Dahlia and Kevin were created to be minor characters,” Hess said, “but they caught my fancy to the point now where they are entitled to their very own subplot. I’m fickle however. My favorite is still Arly, since I have to remain in her camp most of the time.”

And Arly needs all the help she can get when she crosses the staunch church-goer, the upright citizen, the one and only stiff-necked Barbara Buchanon.

Sister Barbara rules two of Maggody’s most influential residents with a steel fist: that of her cousin AKA her husband AKA Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon, and also that of pornography reading Brother Verber. Now, of course, Brother Verber only reviews the material in order to know what demons his parishioners may be suffering from. Of course. Ahhh, the work of Brother Verber is never done…

And, while Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon has a slightly roving eye, it’s not hard to sympathize with him instead of his pompous wife. Hess agrees. “Self-righteous hypocrites are among my least favorite people,” she said, “so I do go after Mrs. Jim Bob on occasion.”

Hess added that she creates characters by mixing together aspects of several people. “I fill in the odd detail until I have a strong sense of their being,” she said. “I try to keep them as credible as possible.”

Then, once she has those characters, what does she do with them? Create intricate outlines, imagining the next time Ruby Bee refuses to serve Arly dinner until her daughter reveals confidential police information to her? Does she trace every sinister shenanigan of Sister Barbara and plot every single solitary Buchanon move?

Let’s ask Hess. “Plot?” she answered. “Moi? I’ll have a situation that intrigues me, some sense of victim, perp, and motive. Often I’ll change my mind as the story progresses. In two earlier books, I was writing the denouement when I realized someone else had done it. It was unsettling, to put it mildly, but it made for a better plot. 

And, for those Hess fans who have already devoured every Claire and every Arly on the shelves, they can search for two other books written by Hess under the pen name of Joan Hadley.

These Theo Boomer books include The Night-Blooming Cereus and The Deadly Ackee. “Theo, a retiree, is coerced into travelling to Israel to find out why his preppy niece has announced she’s going to live on a kibbutz,” Hess said. 

She offers the following advice to aspiring writers. “Concentrate on writing the best book you can. Writers conferences, support groups, organizations such as Sisters in Crime, and marketat the local librarycan be useful, but the writing is the first and most important step.”

“Perseverance counts,” she added. “Somewhere in boxes in my basement are ten unpublished manuscripts. I learned something from each of them in terms of style, structure, and pacing. Avoid the rut of rewriting one book over and over. Finish it, do what you can do to peddle, and start the next one. The book is the thing.”


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