Q: Your biography describes a somewhat bookish individual with a fairly ordinary upbringing. What made you turn to a life of fictional crime?
A: To begin with, the novels that I enjoy the most have always dealt with crime in one way
or another. As a child, I read and reread the girls' mysteries--Judy Bolton, Nancy Drew--and I must admit I see influences from them in my work. When I turned to adult mysteries, Iwas greatly influenced by the work of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. But the real reason for my fascination with crime stems from a number of peripheral brushes with violent events in my formative years: my orthodontist shot and killed his wife and child; a friend's mother was fatally stabbed by her husband; a plane carrying another friend's father was blown up by a bomb; my next-door neighbor in my college dormitory killed herself; and, like many of my contemporaries, I lost friends and acquaintances to Vietnam. I'm still trying to make sense of those events in my work.
Q: Most writers have a prevailing theme that runs through their work. What's yours?
A: How our past mistakes--many of which we won't admit to others, or even to ourselves--
cna come back to haunt us. A guilty secret or a past crime that an individual feels he or she has put to rest is in danger of being exposed, thus threatening the character's very existence. How one deals with that threat and the choices one makes is central to my fiction.
Q: While Sharon McCone is your best known character, you've authored three other brief series. Who and what were they about?
A: I wrote three books, one co-authored with Bill Pronzini, about Elena Oliverez, a curator
at the fictional Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara. Joanna Stark, a partner in a firm specializing in security for museums and art galleries, was also featured in three novels. In addition, Bill and I co-authored THE LIGHTHOUSE, which was called by its publisher "a novel of terror." Currently I'm alternating the McCone's with novels set in fictional Soledad County, California.
Q: Why only three books in those early series?
A: The Oliverez series ended with the novel Bill and I co-authored, BEYOND THE GRAVE. It was definitely the best in the series, a complex tale spanning a hundred years, featuring Elena as the present day detective and Bill's John Quincannon, a nineteenth century sleuth. Although another Elena was under contract, I simply couldn't come up with anything that could top or even equal Beyond the Grave, and I eventually persuaded the publisher to release me from the obligation. The Stark novels were intended to be a trilogy; a personal story runs through the series that is finally resolved in the last book. After that, Joanna's story was over.
Q: You've also written western short stories, which were published in a collection, TIME OF THE WOLVES. Why the switch to another genre?
A: As with any of my departures from the McCone series, I wanted to experiment with something new and stretch my abilities as a writer. Westerns have a great appeal for me because of my fascination with history. One of the best stories I've ever written, "The Time of the Wolves", title story of collection, was nominated for the Western Writers of America's Spur Award--an honor that I'm extremely proud of because western writers are very tough critics.
Q: Speaking of critics, what's your reaction to reviews, good or bad?
A: Having been a reviewer, I know how subjective the process is--from selection of which books to give space to onward. Therefore I don't take negative or positive criticism too much to heart, knowing it's filtered through the individual's personal
experience, taste, and what side of the bed he or she got up on that morning. I heartily dislike reviewers who try to make themselves seem clever or important at the expense of rendering a fair and balanced judgment of the work.
Q: One criticism of you is that you're too prolific. Do you have a response?
A: I certainly do. Unlike many authors who have jobs or rely on grants, my writing is my sole source of income. I have contractual obligations with my publisher than provide for one book a year, and I like to experiment with short fiction when I find a market. So what's wrong with a writer being productive and self supporting? People sometimes ask me if I'm "still cranking out those novels," as if my work is a little hobby. The last one who posed the question was a surgeon, and I answered, "Damn right. Are you still cranking out those operations?" He got the point.
Q: What's best moment in your workday?
A: When I'm at the keyboard, living inside a scene, and the characters have taken over and are writing themselves.
Q: And the worst moment?
A: When I'm at the keyboard, staring at a blank screen, and the characters not only are uncooperative but absent.
Q: What was the best moment of your entire career?
A: Holding the first copy of my first novel in my hand. I was so excited I took it out to lunch and let it sit on the chair next to me.
Q: And the worst moment?
A: My first review. It said that with EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES, I had singlehandedly set back women's rights by a hundred years.
Q: When did you begin collaborating with your husband?
A: In the summer of 1985, Bill and I took a driving trip through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. One of the tourist attractions we visited was an ice cave north of Boise. It so fascinated us that, when we learned Boys' Life magazine was looking for short stories, we decided to use it as a setting. "Cave of Ice" was our first collaborative effort, and we enjoyed the process enough to decide to risk the relationship by collaborating on a joint novel featuring the "Nameless Detective" and Sharon McCone. We'd like to work together more, but since we now have different publishers, it's impossible to arrange.
Q: Besides Bill who was the person who had the most influence on your work and career?
A: I've already mentioned Chandler and Macdonald, and of course many other writers' work has influenced me. In the publishing business, that person would be my late editor of twenty-one years, Sara Ann Freed. Before I started to work with her at The Mysterious Press, I hadn't had any substantial editing, except for Bill's. Sara Ann's approach was initially hands-off. She'd never even ask the title of the novel I was working on till she needed a synopsis for the art department. When I delivered the manuscript, she'd point up things that didn't work for her, and inevitably her doing that suggested how to
fix it. She used to joke that we could read one another's minds, and there's some truth to
the claim. Molly Friedrich, my agent, has had a profound influence in the direction of my career. And Susan Richman, my publicist at Mysterious, has arranged great tours and gotten through perfectly dreadful experiences without either of us going insane.
Q: Over the years we've seen increasing divisiveness within the genre: haves versus have-nots; female versus male. Will you coment on that?
A: The problem of the haves versus the have-nots is the result of a fundamental change in publishing. As individual publishing houses have been gobbled up by conglomerates, the emphasis has shifted to best sellers and the bottom line. You have publishers throwing mega-bucks at a handful of writers, at the expense of midlist and category fiction, leaving a vast empty middle ground in terms of money and promotional efforts. It's unfortunate, because this makes it difficult for most writers to earn a decent living and for new writers to advance. I think, however, we're seeing less divisiveness among the genders than we did in the late eighties and nineties. The root cause of divisiveness is writers who attempt to set up their type of work as the only acceptable approach to the genre. I'm really sick of hearing people say, "Well my work is the only valid type, and everything else is crap." Come on, people, there's something in this genre and in literature as a whole for everyone! When are you going to realize that your fellow writers aren't your enemies?
Q: Who is the enemy?
A: Bottom-liners heading huge corporations who don't at all care about books.
Q: You've had a number of film options on the McCone series over the years, but nothing's yet made it to either the big or little screen. What happened?
A: A film option is no guarantee that anything's ever going to get made. It is a nice way to make money without having to do anything but sign a contract. Last year the McCone series came heartbreakingly close to becoming a production as a TV movie, with series potential. An excellent company, Spring Creek Productions, had optioned it and had gotten commitments from CBS and Lorimar; they had a great script based on The Shape of Dread, But the actress that the CBS people wanted, Geena Davis, wasn't interested and as a result, as is so often the case in Hollywood, they completely lost interest in the project. But there's still that great script if anyone suddenly gets a yen to do a female private eye movie.
Q: You've been nominated for and received many awards for your work. How do you feel about them?
A: Fortunate. Grateful. Especially for the fan awards, such as the Anthony. It means a lot to receive recognition from the people who put me where I am today, and I'm thankful for each and every one of them.
Sharon McCone Interviews Her Creator
My creator's office is a redwood-paneled loft with a beamed ceiling and big windows at either end. She didn't notice me when I came up the spiral staircase because she was at her desk, a hand of solitaire laid out, staring down a the town of Petaluma--trying, she later told me, to figure out which runway she'd be using at the airport that afternoon. While she waited for a plane to take off or land, I looked over the loft. It contains the usual stuff: bookcases full of her true-crime collection, research materials, and all her published works; framed advertisements for our adventures; a computer workstation. But there's a lot of bizarre junk as well: a stuffed gorilla suspended from one of the beams; a champagne bottle holding a bunch of dead roses; a set of lock picks; sectional aviation charts spread out all over the floor, with an enormous orange tabby cat--the prototype for my Ralph--lying on one; even a comic strip poking fun at our publisher's parent company. After a few minutes, a plane landed at the airport; Muller said "Two-niner"--meaning the runway number--and turned around. She knew who I was right off. I told her I'd been sent by Mysterious Press to interview her, then perched on a corner of the desk and got down to business.
MM: God, it's my worst nightmare come true!
SM: What did you say?
MM:Muller: I've always been afraid you'd turn up here and get even for all
the awful things I've done to you. Publishers have asked weird things of me in the past, but...I can't believe I'm having this conversation.
SM: Well, you are, so let's get started.
MM: Promise me you won't ask about the mom-of-the-female-
SM: Oh, that's old stuff. Besides, I've got questions of personal interest to me. Such as why you let me get shot in the ass that time. And why you keep dictating which men I can sleep with. And, where do you get off imitating me by taking flying lessons. I did it first, you know!
MM: Calm down and let me answer those one at a time.
SM: What, you think I don't know how to conduct an interview?
I suppose your MA in journalism entitles you to direct me.
MM: Hardly. I was a terrible journalist. Whenever I interviewed
somebody boring, I'd fictionalize the situation, put words in the
person's mouth, make things more interesting. Editors don't like that. I was also a mostly unemployed journalist.
SM: Lucky for you that you invented me. You really should treat
me better. Now, what about that shot in the ass?
MM: As you may recall, that happened in Double, the case you shared
with the "Nameless Detective" and I shared with Bill Pronzini. It was my husband's idea to have you shot in that part of your anatomy.
SM: Nice guy you're married to.
MM: Fiendish. And speaking of men, you have absolutely atrocious
taste in them. They either get competitive or turn into house-
plant types as soon as you get your hands on them. I've got to exercise some control there. You should be glad I gave you Hy
SM: I'm not complaining. Now what about the flying?
MM: Haven't you noticed that we're getting more and more alike?
SM: What? I'm taller and thinner and braver. I work the mean streets
looking for the bad guys; you research them from inside a locked
car. And I'm younger, too. When we started out, we were both
around thirty; now I'm forty, and you're...well, older.
MM: So count yourself lucky that I gave you good qualities. Writers
of series fiction tend to idealize themselves in their characters.
SM: Than why are you always telling people I can be pompous and
MM: Because I can be pompous and stuffy.
SM: Tell me about it! But you didn't answer my question about the
MM: Well, in A Wild and Lonely Place you got into some pretty fancy
stuff--too advanced for my knowledge. Then a pilot friend told me I owed it to my readers to get up there and find out what it's all about. When I balked, he flew up here, found me an instructor, and had all but signed me up for the flying club before
I could drive over to the airport--which is only ten minutes from here.
SM: I know you love your readers, but you must've had more
reason than that.
MM: All right, you want to know the truth? I was afraid to do it.
SM: So you did it anyway? That doesn't make sense.
MM: It should to you, of all people. You've got that love-hate thing
with danger. My whole life's more or less been about doing
things I didn't think were possible. I figured if I got up there and
faced my fear I wouldn't be afraid any more.
SM: Did it work?
MM: Yes. Well, most of the time it does, anyway. I'll never be a
flashy pilot like you, but I bet I'll be damned competent. You
should've seen the terrific crosswind landing I made yesterday.
SM: Just so long as you don't try to outdo me.
MM: Oh, hell, I might as well confess--I'm a terrible pilot. I'll never get the license.
SM: Or learn to shoot properly.
MM: You've got me there. Anything else you'd like to ask me?
SM: Plenty, but I bet you wouldn't tell. Wait--what about my future?
I hope you've got some great things planned for me.
MM: I do, and I'd get them down on paper if I wasn't constantly being
SM: I can take a hint. I'll get out of here and let you write about me...
us, I mean.
MM: And don't come back--till this next one's finished.