Widely hailed as America's heir to Agatha Christie, mystery novelist Carolyn Hart is the winner of two Agatha Awards, two Anthony Awards, and two Macavity Awards. She is a cofounder and a past president of Sisters in Crime and is best known for her Annie Laurance and Max Darling novels and her mystery series featuring Henrie O, a retired foreign corespondent and a sleuth with "a taste for adventure, a gift for laughter, and a zest for life."
Speaking by phone from her Oklahoma City home, Ms. Hart talked about her most recent novel, DEATH ON THE RIVER WALK, A HENRIE O MYSTERY. She also spoke about her struggle to make it as an American female mystery writer, age discrimination, and the hard choices women have to make balancing career and family.
MADKANE: You started out as a reporter, hoping to become a foreign correspondent, and gave up that career to raise your family. Do you have any regrets?
HART: I don't know that I had the basic aggression you need to be a top-flight reporter. But what I ended up doing in my later years was creating Henrie O, who had the career I didn't have and has all the requisite personality and skills to have been a successful Reporter.
MADKANE: Do you live vicariously through her?
HART: Oh, I think so. That's one of the great things about writing fiction. You get to have all these great lives, like Walter Mitty.
MADKANE: You portray Henrie O as a vital, active, intelligent woman, only slightly slowed down by age. Is that how you see yourself?
HART: Well, I always say that Henrie O is taller, thinner, smarter, and braver than I am, but basically our attitudes are very much the same.
MADKANE: Were you motivated by your feelings about age discrimination when you developed her as a character?
HART: Yes, I was. My sense was (and still is) that American culture has a tendency to dismiss as unimportant anyone over the age of 35.
MADKANE: Were you attempting to break a stereotype with Henrie O?
HART: Yes, I certainly was. In mystery fiction, older women are often treated lightly. I don't think there's any intent to denigrate women, but older women characters often appear as a little helpless and needing someone to rescue them. It was my intent with Henrie O to create a confident, capable woman character, who expects to be treated with respect.
MADKANE: Do you think creating a character like that has any societal impact?
HART: I don't know, but I get letters from young readers saying they want to be like Henrie O when they grow up, which is encouraging. I think that everything is cumulative, and that fiction does impact on society, and that the present day mystery fiction by women is both a reflection of women's determination to achieve independence, and it also serves as a beacon. Women who are struggling for autonomy can read these books and see characters who are independent.
I don't think women in our society have the same freedom as men do, but by golly they're a lot closer to it than they were 30, 40 years ago.
MADKANE: Could you talk about the difficulties you confronted as an American female mystery writer trying to break in?
HART: Oh my, do you have day or so? [Laughs.] I started off writing juvenile mysteries, then wrote three young adult suspense novels, and my first adult suspense novel was published in 1975. I was just a writer living in Oklahoma and I'd sell a book to a small publishing house and that would be the end of it. It would come out and nobody paid any attention. Then I'd sell another book, usually for another publishing house. [Laughs]
Prior to 1978, the New York publishing houses were not very interested in books by American women. The entire mystery publishing scene for American women was transformed by three writers -- Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Marcia Muller's first Sharon McCone mystery was published in 1978, and it was the very first hard-boiled private eye book with a woman hard-boiled private eye written by an American woman.
Marcia was followed very soon thereafter by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, and those books succeeded, and New York pays attention to money.
And what New York publishers realized is that American readers were interested in books that were written by women and featured women. This caused a great flurry in the mystery publishing industry. And that opened the window of opportunity for writers such as myself.
And I was at the point in my career where I'd had 13 or 14 books published by small publishers and nothing had happened very exciting and I was really very discouraged. I was just about ready to give up, but then I decided to write one more book. That was DEATH ON DEMAND, a lighthearted, fun book. The publishing house that bought Bantam had just opened up their paperback book original mystery line and they published my book, and so I caught that wave. I was very, very fortunate.
MADKANE: You've been compared to Agatha Christie. How did her work influence your writing?
HART: In my view she was, is, and always will be the greatest mystery writer. What she could accomplish in only a few words is just astonishing.
She wrote and I write plot driven books. But I certainly don't claim to be able to evoke a character as easily as she did. I don't think our styles are similar, but I do think our basic approach to writing is.
MADKANE: What do you think accounts for the popularity of mysteries?
HART: People read mysteries because they want to feel they're in a just world. They know when they read a mystery, that goodness and justice are going to be celebrated.
MADKANE: In addition to your Henrie O books, you write another mystery series. How are they different?
HART: Henrie O is a celebration of age and experience and the Annie and Max books are celebrating youth and enthusiasm. So there's a very different feel to the books.
MADKANE: As you know, this interview will be appearing on an Internet site. Do you use the Internet much?
HART: Actually it's kind of fun. I'm not an Internet surfer. Not that I don't think it's interesting -- I think it's fantastic. But I spend my working day at a computer, so when I finish working I like to schlep into the house and watch a baseball game. [Laughs]
But I was really flattered -- I was asked to provide the beginning to a short story on a feature called "You're the Author" at USAToday.com. In early March, I think, they posted my beginning. Then readers sent in suggested continuations. It was so much fun, and I was so impressed with what a good job the readers did. And what a challenge it was for me to write the conclusion!
MADKANE: Any advice for would-be mystery writers?
HART: The most important thing for any writer is to care passionately about what they're writing about. I don't think you can say, "Oh, I'm going to write a legal mystery and be rich like John Grisham." [Laughs]
MADKANE: It is a great fantasy, though.
HART: It is. But you really have to care about the story. And if you care, the reader will care. If you're interested in scuba diving or collecting Easter eggs, or whatever it is, they can share that enthusiasm.
MADKANE: What about advice for women in general?
HART: I think that women have a lot of hard choices to make. It's difficult to balance career and family, and the lucky thing about a writer is that you get to work at home. So I was able to have the best of both worlds. I could work when the kids were at school. and when they came home, I was there for them. That's a luxury that very few women have today.
So I'm very impressed with young women today. I don't know how they accomplish everything they have to accomplish. But I think it's important for them to remember that it isn't money in the bank or books on the shelf that matter ultimately, it's the life you lead and the people you love.
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