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Ellen Hart, 2003

Ellen Hart Sheds Light on Her Mystery Writing

By Owen Keehnen

Minnesota native Ellen Hart is the author of two highly successful mystery series. The first features Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless and her wisecracking theatrical pal Cordelia Thorn. Among the twelve books in this series, nearly all have been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, and five have won that coveted prize: A Small Sacrifice (1994), Robber's Wine (1996), Hunting the Witch (1999), The Merchant of Venus (2001), and Immaculate Midnight (2002). The second series is a culinary series featuring a husband and wife sleuthing team Bram Baldric and Sophie Greenway.

A recovering Christian fundamentalist, Hart lives in Minneapolis with her life partner Kathy.

Keehnen: Were people who knew you surprised when you suddenly started writing mysteries?

Hart: Yes, absolutely. I'd always wanted to write a novel, but in looking at the process, it seemed impenetrable to me. I was a lot like the character Garp in John Irving's The World According to Garp. I wanted to write, but I didn't know if I had an interesting enough voice--if I'd lived long enough to bring anything of myself to my writing. I think that lots of people who love to read secretly harbor the desire to write, and I was certainly one of them. So when I actually produced a book, people were surprised.

Keehnen: What do you think in your mental make-up makes you an especially talented mystery writer?

Hart: I think being gay gives you a step up when it comes to writing mysteries. You know that truth operates on lots of levels, and you become adept at either outright lying, or shaping what you say to fit your audience. That's a survival mechanism, but it's also something you need to understand in order to write a mystery. As far as myself, personally, I think people who get published all have something in common, and that's self-discipline, a real passion in their gut. There are lots of writers out there--perhaps better writers than those of us who get published--who simply don't have the mental and emotional discipline to finish the book. More could be said about that, of course, but that's the bottom line. Lastly, I suppose I'm fascinated by ideas and by what motivates human beings to do what they do. I'm especially interested in families--how they work, or more often, don't work. When a person's pragmatism has to fight it out with his ethics, that's an innately dramatic moment, one I often write about. And I'm also interested in that one decision, that one instant in a person's life when something they say or do, some action they take, changes their life forever. We all have those moments in our lives. I'm simply fascinated by people--by what makes them human, and sometimes, what makes them inhuman.

Keehnen: How much of yourself do you put in your heroines Sophie Greenway and Jane Lawless?

Hart: That's a hard question to answer. Both Jane and Sophie are somewhat like me. I've given Sophie Greenway (in my culinary mystery series) the same religious background as I have. We are both recovering fundamentalist Christians. Jane is sort of a loner, more of an introvert, more cerebral than intuitive. She processes her life a bit more slowly than some. I think I'm a little like that myself. Neither of us have any huge angst about being lesbian. It's just one part of who we are, but because of the world we live in, it colors everything. On the other hand, Jane and Sophie do things I would never do, and have opinions I don't share. So it's kind of a mixture.

Keehnen: When you sit down to write a new book, what is the first element you have in place--the murder, the victim, the means, the motive, etc.?

Hart: I have several things in place before I can start a book. First, the title. I write to the title. Unlike other writers, I've never had an editor or publisher ask me to change one. Next, I need to nail down the motivation. Find me a good motive and I can write you a mystery. That's central. I need to have all the characters in place, and I have to know their relationship to the crime. And the hook has to be firmly in mind--the first chapter, or prologue, the dramatic moment or situation that hopefully propels the reader into the book. And finally, I need to know what's at the heart of the book--what is the vital premise. That's not the plot, but the engine that keeps the book running.

For me, plot comes from character, not the other way around, so character is vital. I don't outline, but I need to write toward something, so I always know where the next five or six chapters are headed. It's like a car driving at night. You may not be able to see the road ahead all that far, but you have enough light from the headlights (the next chapters) to help find your destination.

Keehnen: Who are your mystery writer icons?

Hart: Favorite mystery writers. Well, P. D. James probably influenced me the most early in my career. I love John Morgan Wilson, R. D. Zimmerman, Katherine Forrest, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters. My current favorite is Dennis Lehane. I use his books in my writing classes, teach from them. What he does well he does amazingly well. I also love Tony Hillerman, William Kent Krueger, Abigail Padgett, Laurie King. In terms of style I've also learned a lot from Margaret Atwood. And my favorite mystery of all time is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Keehnen: You've written a whopping total of 16 mysteries. Does it get easier to do as you write more, or tougher to keep the books fresh and not repeat yourself?

Hart: Actually I'm working right now on my 20th mystery. And yes, it never gets easier. If anything, it gets tougher. The ante goes up with each new book. It's like you are high up walking along this tightrope. Sometimes you feel like people are cheering you on, and sometimes you feel as if people are hoping you fall. Self doubt is one of the hardest things a writer has to wrestle with--that never goes away. But I've been lucky. I write two different series, so it feels very much like moving back and forth between two groups of old friends. Every book is different and offers new challenges. I think, if I ever felt that I wasn't continuing to learn, I'd want to go and do something else. I love the mental activity of always learning something new. Actually, I get to explore--every day--what it is to be human, what it's like to love, hate, make mistakes, or find redemption. Mysteries are a lot like grown-up more sophisticated fairy tales. You know from the very beginning you will come upon a world of chaos, but by the end, you'll find resolution. You may not move from sadness to happiness, but there will be a solution. In a way, the modern mystery gives us what CNN can't. We rarely find resolution in our daily lives, so that's why the mystery novel remains so popular--and why I love writing them.

Keehnen: Does being a five-time Lambda Book Award winner raise the bar for your writing?

Hart: I'm somewhat stunned by the fact. And yes, it makes me want to push my writing constantly, to work on what I don't do well and make it better.

Keehnen: With so much success and so many accolades in the GLBT community, are you being nudged or do you have a desire for wider crossover appeal?

Hart: The answer to the question is, yes and yes. I don't know any writer who doesn't want the largest audience possible. My Jane Lawless mysteries already do crossover some, but of course, I'd like everyone who loves the kind of mystery I write (and who isn't homophobic) to try them. I know that, even with the awards I've received, I still haven't reached all the mystery readers out there in the GLBT community who might enjoy my books. And, of course, I don't just want to preach to the choir. Sometimes my books have a central theme that's a specific gay issue. Sometimes the book is simply about what it's like to be a human being in our very confusing modern world. But always, I believe the books are entertaining. Promotion is difficult for many reasons, but the main one, I suppose is that it's terribly hard to quantify the results of your efforts. I do promotional events all over the U.S. I speak at conventions, conferences, libraries, book stores, and on and on. Publishers used to do a lot more of the promotion for the author, but today, you have to do a great deal of it yourself.

That's why I have a web site and why I often travel with three other mystery authors (the Minnesota Crime Wave) doing promotional events.

Keehnen: What are you working on now?

Hart: In June I turned in the next Jane Lawless mystery to St. Martin's--An Intimate Ghost. It will be published this coming March. And currently, I'm at work on the next Sophie Greenway mystery, No Reservations Required. I've also just finished writing a short memoir about my mother, a coming-out story really, for an anthology Lori L. Lake is putting together on lesbians writing about their mothers. It was a change of pace for me. My mother died in 2000, and I've been wanting to write about her for a long time. This gave me just the push I needed.

Keehnen: Thanks, Ellen, and much continued success to you in your career.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Mystery Fiction: Lesbian

Mystery Fiction: Gay Male

Forrest, Katherine V.



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