• March 2013

Murder, She Wrote

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine

Marcia Talley loves to talk about murder. The 60something award-wining author is not a serial killer, of course. So why does this mystery writer have such great insight into the insanity of assassins?

In fact, Talley spent much of her adult life working as a librarian for the federal government, raising two daughters, and caring for Barry Talley, her husband of more than 45 years, who recently retired from the U.S. Naval Academy where he was director of Musical Activities.

Her life changed in 1993 when she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix. She had previously overcome a bout with breast cancer in 1983. This second illness made her realize it was time to make a change. A big one.

“I was under tremendous stress at work, and the commute was terrible,” she explains. “Barry and I had always talked about the fact that stress can contribute to illness, and I was walking proof. I figured I could die at any minute, so why go on living a life that wasn’t making me totally happy?”

What would make her happy, she knew, was writing. At first, she thought she’d create literary pieces, stories that were elegant, traditional, and a tad highbrow. She tried it for a while but found these stories didn’t sell easily. Friends at her writers group in Annapolis convinced her to write in a style she loved.

For Talley, that was the mystery novel.

Talley’s fantasy came true when she landed a book contract with Dell Publishing, a division of Random House. The New York publisher commissioned her to write a three-book series about the capers of Hannah Ives, a smart, sassy, breast cancer-surviving sleuth.

The first installment, “Sing it to Her Bones,” hit the bookstores in 1999 and won Talley awards and accolades. The second, “Unbreathed Memories,” came out in 2000, winning more awards and more accolades. Part three, “Occasion of Revenge,” was published in August 2001.

Also published then was “Naked Came the Phoenix,” a collaborative serial novel edited by Talley who, with 13 other mystery divas, including Faye Kellerman, Anne Perry, and Mary Jane Clark, took turns writing one chapter each. “Each author picked up where the previous author left off,” Talley explains. “it was a challenge because we had to maintain the voice of the story’s main character.”

In the years since, Talley has penned a book or more a year, including her latest, “The Last Refuge,” the 11th in the Hannah Ives Mystery series.

In this tome, Talley asks: Has Hannah Ives made the right decision joining the cast of “Patriot House, 1774,” a reality show recreating 18th century colonial life? There’s no electricity, no running water, and the cast are at the mercy of the show’s Founding Father. Even more worrying, Amy Cornell, Hannah’s lady’s maid on the set, receives a text message from Drew, her Navy SEAL husband, who was presumed dead after a botched mission 10 months ago.

Is the text a hoax, as Amy thinks? Or is something more sinister afoot?

So, how does it all play out?

“Read the book and find out,” says Talley, who hopes readers will be thrilled by the ending—just as she is thrilled to be leading the life of a successful mystery maven. “I am having the time of my life.”

And we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview the sleuth, who at the moment is enjoying a warm night in the Caribbean aboard “Troubadour,” the antique sailboat she and Barry tool around in every chance they get.

Photo credits: Authors, left to right, Kate Charles, Marcia Talley, Deborah Crombie. Taken at the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Weekend, Oxford, England. Photo of Marcia Talley for “READ,” by Brian Braye.

Scroll down for our interview with Marcia Talley.

Be Inkandescent: We are thrilled to report that this is the first installment of our newest show on the Inkandescent Radio Network, “Authors Between the Covers: What Makes Successful Authors Tick?” First, tell us about where you are tonight. Sailing with your husband of 45 years sounds pretty romantic.

Marcia Talley: I’m on Dickie’s Cay, a tiny island in the Abaco Islands, Bahamas, just across from Man-O-War Cay. There are no roads on the island, so we go everywhere by boat. Our “family car” is a rubber dinghy powered by an outboard motor.

All of our water comes from the rain, so we have to be careful how we use it—no more letting the tap run while you brush your teeth, for example—and the Internet signal tends to come and go, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. No TV. Power outages are frequent, and this tends to happen just after you’ve made a boat trip to the grocery and stocked up the freezer.

But it’s warm, breezy, we have water on all sides, a sailboat tied up at the dock, and a cottage that is cantilevered out over the Sea of Abaco. We fish, snorkel, swim, sail, kayak—what’s not to love?

Be Inkandescent: I loved reading your newest book, “The Last Refuge.” It’s great how you have taken the hot fad of reality TV and incorporated it into Hannah Ives life. Tell us about that book.

Marcia Talley: Hannah has joined the cast of “Patriot House: 1774,” as a last-minute replacement for the lady of the house, who had to withdraw because of illness. Hannah is one of a dozen cast members living in Annapolis’ historic William Paca House as if it’s 1774, so there’s no electricity, no running water, and the “necessaries” are way out back.

No cell phones, of course, or Internet, either. So when a body turns up in the spring house in the garden, Hannah has to resort to 18th century techniques to solve the case. It’s like the traditional English country house mystery—a closed circle of suspects—yet because it’s a television show, there are cameras around practically 24/7. I love that twist.

Be Inkandescent: It was back in 1999 when you published the first book in the series. How did you conceive of Hannah Ives? Is she a reflection of you?

Marcia Talley: I like to say that Hannah is the woman I would like to be—younger, thinner, prettier, funnier, and certainly braver than I would ever be. In the novels, Hannah gets to do the things that I only fantasize about doing—breaking into a doctor’s office to paw through his files, for example.

Although I do know how to pick locks. Learned that in college when my ditzy roommate kept locking me out. That skill has turned out to be a lot more useful than being able to recite all of Baudelaire’s poem, Las de L’Amer Repos in French, I have to say.

Be Inkandescent: Has it been tough to sustain Hannah’s character for 11 books?

Marcia Talley: Twelve, and soon to be 13, actually! Just before leaving the U.S. in December, I turned in the 12th Hannah Ives novel, “Dark Passage,” which is set on a luxury cruise ship. It was inspired by a cruise I took with my sisters last year. Honestly, research can be hell! I’ve just heard back from my editor, so I’m doing the final edits, tweaking, revising. The book will be published this coming summer.

Although there is an overarching story line, each novel has to stand on its own, so although Hannah is the central character in all of them, the settings and the cast of supporting characters tend to vary. Hannah sleuths with her daughter in “Occasion of Revenge,” for example, but her sidekick in “In Death’s Shadow,” is Naddie Bromley, an 80-something retired mystery writer. The challenge is avoiding what I call The Cabot Cove Syndrome.

Remember “Murder She Wrote,” the long-running television series starring Angela Lansbury? Well, after more than a dozen seasons on TV, there can’t be anyone left alive in Cabot Cove, can there? And how do you explain how an ordinary person, like you or me, manages to keep stumbling over bodies? Having stumbled over said body, not simply screaming “Eek! Somebody call 911” as you or I would do, but actually being connected in some way with the victim so the reader will accept it when Hannah takes up the investigation and solves the case. That’s the challenge of keeping the series fresh.

Be Inkandescent: I also am fascinated by the collaborative book you wrote with a handful of other mystery writing divas, “Naked Came the Phoenix.” Tell us about that experience. Was it fun, hard, and something you’d do again?

Marcia Talley: Not only would I do it again, I did do it again, with 2004’s “I’d Kill for That.”

“Naked Came the Phoenix” was set in a luxury health spa and “I’d Kill for That” in an exclusive gated community. In each case, I worked with 12 bestselling authors, each of us penning a chapter then passing the novel on to the next author who picked up where the previous one had left off.

It was a little bit like herding cats, but a lot of fun. Each author had a month to write her chapter, and as editor, I found myself practically haunting my mailbox, so eager was I to see where the story was going. Each chapter was a surprise. At the end of one chapter of “Naked Came the Phoenix,” for example, a particularly obnoxious self-help author ends up floating face down in the lake.

I thought, “Well, that’s it for her, then!” but someone in the next chapter knew CPR and revived the victim long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before slipping back into a coma.

Be Inkandescent: Does it get scary writing about killers and victims?

Marcia Talley: Not really, as I’m writing from the comfort of my home office, without makeup, sometimes still wearing pajamas … but since I tend to put myself into my character’s shoes, and see things through her eyes, after writing a particularly exciting or dangerous scene—like the time in “In Death’s Shadow” when Hannah is kidnapped and held captive in a wine cellar. I have to stop, take a deep breath and step away from the computer for a day or two.

Violence, especially violence against women and children, upsets me too much to be able to write about it. I don’t enjoy reading books like that, so I don’t write them, either.

Be Inkandescent: What is the most exciting, and most frustrating, thing about being a mystery writer?

Marcia Talley: For me, the most exciting thing is going to conferences and book signings and meeting Hannah’s many fans, hearing their stories. The most frustrating? Well, it takes me about a year to write a book, and it takes a fan only a day or two to read it. “Write faster,” they tell me. If only!

Be Inkandescent: What is the one tip you’d give to aspiring mystery writers?

Marcia Talley: Just one?

Write. Write every day. But I’d also suggest networking. There are dozens of mystery-related conferences you can attend where you will meet published writers, editors, agents, and mystery fans—connections that might prove valuable to you later—and where you will educate yourself about your craft, and the publishing industry.

I am constantly astounded by aspiring writers—who would never go to a doctor without checking out his credentials or hire a plumber without first consulting Angie’s List, and yet they dive into today’s volatile publishing environment without knowing the first thing about it.

That’s a great way to get taken to the cleaners. Just like any other business, you have to educate yourself about it. Oh, and I know I’m exceeding my one tip here, but read, read, read, especially in the genre that you plan to write.

Be Inkandescent: What’s the next big challenge you plan to tackle?

Marcia Talley: This month, I began writing the 13th book in the series, set in an upscale retirement community on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. The roots of this story go back to World War II Italy, so I’m doing a lot of interesting research.

I also have a short story percolating on the back burner of my brain. That should keep me busy and out of trouble, don’t you think?

For more information, visit www.marciatalley.com.

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