My Interview with Jenny Milchman

From the August issue of The Big Thrill Magazine:

Let me say this straight out. I am not a cozy reader. Hey, this is THE BIG THRILL, and we’re all fans of International Thriller Writers, right? But I met John Clement at ThrillerFest 2013 and I knew that whatever this guy wrote would be something I’d want to read. Not only did John give the funniest sixty second intro ever heard at a Debut Breakfast, but the story behind how John came to be writing turned out to be as meaningful as the books themselves.

The Dixie Hemingway series pushes the envelope in a lot of ways for murder mysteries, and that’s probably because the author tends to push the envelope in his own life as well, seeking to challenge himself, and never backing down even when the prospect might be daunting. I hope you’ll be as impressed as I am by the open, honest answers that follow, and join me in celebrating the release of THE CAT SITTER’S NINE LIVES.

There is a very poignant background to the way you came to write your first Dixie Hemingway mystery, THE CAT SITTER’S CRADLE. Can you tell us something about how it all happened?

It’s funny. Now, looking back on how it unfolded, I can see what a bizarre story it is, but at the time it all seemed perfectly normal… probably because I was still in a bit of shock. My mother, Blaize Clement, published her first mystery, CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT SITTER, back in 2005 with St. Martin’s Press. She then went on to write six more books in the series, which follow the adventures of Dixie Hemingway as she struggles to piece her life back together after the loss of her family. It sounds dark, and at times it is, but it’s also hilarious and witty and has lots of cats so it fully qualifies as a cozy mystery, even if it slightly pushes the boundaries. In 2011, after about a year of battling with cancer, my mother’s doctors told us there was little hope of survival. She elected to discontinue treatments. We moved into a hospice home in Sarasota, Florida, and it was there that she put the finishing touches to her last book, THE CAT SITTER’S PAJAMAS.

It was truly a time in my life that I cherish. She had made a decision to—as she put it—“die well,” and in the almost sixty days we spent in hospice, that’s exactly what she did. We laughed, we talked our heads off, we read to each other, we did crossword puzzles. She put all her energy into willing the anger and grief to melt away, and I did my best to follow her lead. We lived in the moment… and then her long-time friend and editor at St. Martin’s Press, Marcia Markland, called with a proposition: Would she consider letting me continue the Dixie Hemingway series?

I was horrified. I’d been writing most of my life—screenplays, short stories, non-fiction features—but never, ever had I even considered writing a full-fledged novel, especially a mystery. My first reaction was, “No. I can’t do it.” My mother’s first reaction was, “Yes. Yes you can.”

I’m a good boy. I pretty much always have been. And it wasn’t exactly the right time to stop minding my mother, so I finally relented, and then we spent our remaining time together talking about Dixie and what the future held for her. When my mother passed away, she left me with a few chapters for the next book, and a lifetime’s worth of notes, memories, scenes and story ideas.

This is an article in THE BIG THRILL, which raises some interesting questions about the expanding parameters of the thriller genre. Do you believe there’s a distinction between the categories of mystery, suspense, and thriller, or do there tend to be elements of all three in most books? How about in the Dixie Hemingway series in particular?

I’m probably less qualified to answer this question than most (or all) of THE BIG THRILL’s followers, since to be honest I don’t read a lot of thrillers and mysteries. I know—that’s pure blasphemy here—but I have to be very careful. My brain is messy and jumbled, like a file cabinet turned on its side: Everything’s completely accessible, but I have no idea where it belongs or how it got there. For example, in THE CAT SITTER’S NINE LIVES, I had a very clever little idea for a plot twist that I was particularly proud of until I realized I had unknowingly lifted it right out of Laurie King’s THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE. I had to delete an entire chapter and start all over.

That being said, I think essentially the answer is yes, there are very strong differences between mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels (although of course the best books will have elements of all three). For mysteries, and especially “cozy” mysteries, the lines seem even more clearly drawn. There’s an implicit understanding between the author and reader that nothing will get too dark, too depressing or too grisly. In the world of Dixie Hemingway, my mother often took it right to the edge of that line, and I’ve tried to do the same. It creates a nice tension that I think the readers appreciate.

Tell us about your latest release, THE CAT SITTER’S NINE LIVES, a story about a Samaritan whose good deed has unexpected consequences. Is this release something of a departure for the series or very much in keeping with it?

I think a little of both. I work really hard to remain true to my mom’s vision—for me it’s a way of remembering and honoring her—but her fans and readers have been overwhelmingly supportive. I get emails every day thanking me for continuing the series, and yet encouraging me to keep going and make it my own. With NINE LIVES, I wanted the voice and the structure to feel like a seamless progression from the previous books, so it starts out with a bang that Dixie’s fans will recognize, but I also wanted to delve a little more into Dixie’s past… we’re learning a little more about what makes her tick with every book.

Let’s talk about the road less traveled. Is this what you expected to be doing right about now, and if it isn’t, what impact have the surprises and detours had on your life?

No! This isn’t what I expected at all. I’ve written my whole life, but never once did I think I’d have the privilege of writing a mystery series, and frankly I’m having a blast. As for what I expected, I kind of thought I’d be a musician—I studied classical viola and piano for about a decade. And then I kind of thought I’d be an actor—I was part of a professional acting company in New York and then in Philadelphia for another decade. Now, I kind of think I’ll be a writer. If I can do that for another decade I’ll be very happy, and if that doesn’t pan out, I’m thinking I might like to be a supermodel, or maybe a professional hockey player.

What’s next, for Dixie and for you?

THE CAT SITTERS NINE LIVES is in stores this month, and I’ve just sent in the second draft for the tenth Dixie Hemingway mystery, THE CAT SITTER’S WHISKERS, which is slated for publication by St. Martin’s/Minotaur in March of next year.  I’m also in the middle of writing the eleventh book, the title of which is still a closely-held secret. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll see that one on shelves in 2016.

As for Dixie’s future? Well, you’ll just have to read the books to find out…

 

Jenny Milchman is the author of the Mary Higgins Clark award-winning novel, COVER OF SNOW, as well as numerous short stories published in such magazines as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and Vice President of Author Programs for International Thriller Writers. For two years now, Jenny has gone on what Shelf Awareness calls the world’s longest book tour. Her second novel, RUIN FALLS, came out in April to starred reviews.

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