FROM THE ARCHIVES: This interview with mystery author Martha Grimes first appeared in The Armchair Detective Vol. 21 Issue 2, Spring 1988.
Martha Grimes was born in Pittsburgh, where her father was a city solicitor. Raised in Garrett County in Western Maryland, she received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Maryland. She worked on a Ph.D. in the University of Iowa’s highly regarded Creative Writing Program. Her celebrated mystery series featuring Richard Jury and Melrose Plant includes The Man with a Load of Mischief, The Old Fox Deceiv’d, The Anodyne Necklace, and I Am the Only Running Footman, among many others.
TAD: Critics and reviewers have consistently compared your mystery novels to those of past Golden Age detective fiction writers such as Sayers and Allingham, Marsh–I must admit that I’ve done so in my own reviews of your books–and even with Christie, which I do not find to be an apt comparison.
GRIMES: Whenever a woman writes British mysteries, she is automatically going to be compared to Christie, Sayers, Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh–first of all by her publisher, in order to get people to buy the book. The comparison, of course, is going to be picked up by reviewers, because reviewers don’t usually know what they’re talking about anyway. I’m not talking about all reviewers. Most reviewers, I have found, will take the comparisons found in the blurbs and the information given on the dust jacket and will sort of run all of this together, thereby probably saving them the trouble of really reading the book. And I think the basis of comparisons [to Christie, Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh] is simply automatic.
TAD: I taught a course recently at Rice University, called “Deadlier Than the Male,” and we read female mystery writers and writers who featured women sleuths. I put your works at the end of the course, in part because I think you are making a transition between some of the traditional stuff that came out of the Golden Age and what I would call more of a “straight” novel. I don’t feel that Christie really wrote “straight” novels at all. Sayers, by her own admission, tried.
GRIMES: I certainly agree as far as Christie is concerned. She didn’t write novels. I think that she was limited by the idea of the mystery at the particular time; it was really supposed to be much more of a ratiocinate kind of thing–a puzzle. And I do not know if Agatha Christie was capable of creating truly three-dimensional characters. I think that she probably might have been, but I’d imagine that she simply avoided doing so because it would have detracted from the plots themselves. Dorothy L. Sayers, I would certainly agree, appeared to be stylistically–and in terms of characterization–a far superior writer to Agatha Christie. I think Christie’s chief and absolutely unbeatable characteristic was her plotting.
TAD: Yes–that’s her strong point. As a reader and a teacher of literature, I look at your work and I find telltale signs that you know of not just female mystery writers of the British Golden Age but also that you’re very familiar with what we would call the canon, which includes male and female writers of mystery fiction. I mean when I encountered the Warboys family in I Am the Only Running Footman, that was so Dickensian. Who did you read when growing up?
GRIMES: I probably read everything Christie ever wrote.
TAD: Who else did you read beside her?
GRIMES: Dorothy L. Sayers. Are you talking about mystery writers?
TAD: Yes, but then also more generally.
GRIMES: Mystery writers … years and years ago, I read John Dickson Carr and Andrew Garve.
TAD: Everything Garve does is so different. Every single book, I never know what to look for.
GRIMES: I sort of like Peter Dickinson in that respect. I have never liked female sleuths. Consequently, there are probably certain writers whom I just don’t read. I mean, I cannot stand P.D. James and her Cordelia Grey.
TAD: Why don’t you like female sleuths?
GRIMES: Let me qualify. I have always liked Miss Marple. Indeed, I liked those Christie books better than any of the others. The female sleuth is often relatively young, usually attractive or cute, and the writer tends to deal with this person in a cutesy way. When you have a female sleuth, there always has to be some sort of a problem dealing with her female sexuality. Of the ones I read, I feel the writer feels somewhat uneasy.
TAD: Do female writers write more easily about female sleuths than males do?
GRIMES: I’m trying to think of a male–I’m sure that there are some out there–who uses a female sleuth, but I can’t think of one.
TAD: The males I think about who write well about women tend not to be mystery writers. They are people such as Larry McMurtry and Garrison Keillor.
GRIMES: It seems to be females who are using female sleuths. That makes me uneasy. There is something sexist there. The reason I separate Miss Marple from all this is that she is an older woman. She doesn’t have to prove that she’s sexy; she doesn’t have to prove a damn thing–or at least Agatha Christie didn’t apparently feel she had to prove anything. I’d rather write about a man. I’d rather see things through the character, personality, and eyes of a man.
TAD: I would like to know how you came to writing and something about your background–when you started writing, why how.
GRIMES: Well, I really started writing at the University of Iowa.
TAD: They have a strong creating writing program there.
GRIMES: That’s not the reason I went there. I was teaching there, and I got into the poetry workshop simply as a lark, because all my friends were poets, and I started writing poetry. I suppose I wrote poetry for eight to ten years. And I started writing mysteries because the poetry I was writing tended to have the tone and content of a mystery–well, let’s say, of fiction. The poetry was really full of tart houses, of bodies, of rolling down stairs, of blood on the ceiling, all that kind of business. In October of this year, a book of my poetry is going to be published. The reason I mention this is because it’s a mystery. And it’s a mystery in a poetry form. The reason that this book came out was because of the first poem that appears in it. I had written this poem maybe ten years ago, and I guess that it was right after I had finished writing this poem that I began to think, given the subject matter of the poem and the tone of it–it deals with the police and so forth–I thought maybe what I really was tending toward as writing mysteries. The reason I chose British mysteries was simply because those were the mysteries that I had always liked to read.
TAD: Were you in academia long?
GRIMES: I taught at the University of Iowa. I was working on a doctorate when I was there, but I never finished it. I got my B.A. and M.A. from the university of Maryland. Then I taught at Frostberg State Teachers College for a couple of years. And I taught at Montgomery College for a dozen years, fifteen years. I don’t even like to think about it.
TAD: Did you teach Brit-Lit and …?
GRIMES: At Montgomery College, oh, God, I did the same thing everyone else did–composition.
TAD: Yeah – Comp 100.
GRIMES: And there were some literature courses. And then a couple of times I taught Creative Writing–I mean, you know, when they didn’t cancel the class. Montgomery College … it’s a two-year school, and their teaching load was 15 hours. I now teach a seminar in detective fiction at Johns Hopkins. I guess this coming semester will be the third time I have taught that. And I don’t teach it all the time. It’s part of their writing seminars program. I’m one of their visiting professors, visiting lecturers, visiting something or other.
TAD: When you started writing about Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, did you plan a series? Or did you just see it as one book?
GRIMES: I did plan a series. I don’t know at what point I thought of it as a series, but it was certainly by the end of the first book. It was by the end of The Man with a Load of Mischief that I certainly planned to write another one, which is the reason why it end the way it ends.
TAD: In other words, you wanted to know more about them? Had you thought more about them? I ask this because Sjöwall and Wahlöö, for instance, planned their 10-book series from the start, and one can look at the completed series and see how it is structured, where it is heading. Did it happen like that with you, or did it just kind of grow like Topsy?
GRIMES: It wasn’t that calculated. If it had been, I would have made a few changes–but only minor, minor things … different things.
TAD: Such as what?
GRIMES: In the first book, I had Melrose Plant holding the Chair of French Romantic Poetry in some university. What I know about that, I don’t know! If I had thought about it, I probably would have made him an expert in Shakespeare, about which I know considerably more, but God knows why I picked that one out of the air. I also wouldn’t have had Aunt Agatha coming from Milwaukee.
So in the course of writing the first book, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of a series. As I said, I got to the end of it, and I certainly intended to write another one. I don’t remember precisely when I started the second one. It wasn’t as calculated as the Sjöwall–Wahlöö series. Certainly, before The Man with a Load of Mischief was bought by Little, Brown, I had already started the second book. You asked, “Did you want to know more?” And fundamentally, the answer is yes. I don’t think of myself, I suppose, as wanting to know more about them consciously. I guess I must want to unconsciously. I’m a fairly unconscious writer. I don’t work from notes, and I don’t work from outlines. I just start writing. I can remember the original situation that I was attempting to develop, which, of course, I’ve totally thrown out, totally changed after I’ve been working on it for several months. I don’t do the whole outline-summary business that I know an awful lot of writers do.
I remember when I was writing The Anodyne Necklace, I guess it was. Mostly, I never get stuck, but I remember particularly I was absolutely stuck, because I couldn’t figure out why the things that had happened had happened, and I didn’t know why this young girl had been struck down in a subway station. You see, the way that I write, I just sort of envision certain things happening. I just like the idea: what if these buskers down in the subway station … You see so many of them in London, and it had so often occurred to me that you could put one of them in conservable danger. All right, well, that’s just sort of the way I start, then. By the time I got to maybe halfway through this book, I didn’t know who the murderer was, I didn’t know why the person had been murdered, I didn’t know why Emily Park was running around. I didn’t know, but Emily knew something. She was just a little girl, as you remember.
TAD: In that book, though, you virtually give a road map to it. I mean, the book is all about mapping.
GRIMES: Emily knew something, and Melrose and Jury wanted to know what she knew. And they were having a hard time getting it out of her because I didn’t know what she knew either. Only Emily knew.
TAD: And your subconscious.
GRIMES: Yes, and, anyway, I decided that it was ridiculous that I should sit down and write an outline. I mean, the idea of trying to write a mystery this way was absolutely absurd. I wrote an outline, which was very detailed. It was like eight or nine or ten pages long, and I got to the point at which I was stuck, and of course I couldn’t go beyond it in the outline. I have since realized that I cannot–literally–I cannot work from an outline. This is a little piece of information I never let my student in English 101 know.
TAD: No, you shouldn’t. It would be dangerous.
GRIMES: Yes–disastrous. And the reason that I can’t outline is that the mystery itself is not uppermost in my mind. I’m much more concerned about the characters and the interplay among them and the way to feel out things.
TAD: Character and setting are your strong points, and it shows. You’ve mastered internal psychic landscape very well. And you have the exterior landscape well in hand. What I’ve found fascinating is …
GRIMES: Oh, the interplay.
TAD: Yes, the interplay among them. Oftentimes, when I read one of your mysteries, I can see what’s going on internally just by what elements are warring on the outside.
GRIMES: Oh, yes. Well, that’s really good. I mean, I think I do a lot of that consciously.
TAD: Well, I’m wondering about some other conscious techniques that you employ, too. Names, for starters. The obvious ones, of course, are Jury and Plant, but I was looking through some of the novels. In I Am the Only Running Footman, you’ve got a person there called Broome, and of course “broome” is another plant name. How do you pick your names? Do you pick them consciously? Do they just occur to you?
GRIMES: They occur to me. I have never consciously picked any names. Usually, they occur to me, and I choose them on the basis of … one thing is the sound. Some of these names are alliterative and, I think, sort of euphonious. I just sort of like “Vivian Rivington.” I like the sound.
TAD: Or Polly Praed.
GRIMES: With the women characters, I particularly like them to have names that have sort of–assonance, a sort of … I don’t want to say poetry, nothing like that. I also make a big attempt to stay away from any name that I consider to be so common–oh, God, you know, names you read in historical romances, like Nancy and names like that, which I think are absolutely drippy.
TAD: Oh, no, you’ve picked some really great ones for some of the minor characters–like Agatha, for example.
GRIMES: I’m quite sure of that. That was a conscious choice.
TAD: What about the monosyllabic male names. Did you read Innes at all?
GRIMES: I certainly have read Michael Innes.
TAD: Some of your names sound like Innes’s–very evocative, sort of British academic monosyllabic mystery names.
GRIMES: I like short names. Obviously, there are some names that are chosen because they fit the people, like the Warboys.
GRIMES: Well, actually, that was totally unconscious.
TAD: And Plant it seemed a conscious choice to me. I realized, reading my own reviews of your books, that I’ve always seen Plant as “planted” in places, you know. When he needs to be there, he kind of grows roots and it sends up his tendrils.
GRIMES: Where I came up with the name Melrose Plant, I have no idea. I absolutely have no idea. The name just popped into my mind, God knows where that came from. Jury–originally I was going to call him to Drury, and I thought that possibly it had been used before … Also little too obviously Little Drury …
TAD: Little Drury Lane.
GRIMES: So I changed it to Jerry. And there was no conscious intention at all.
TAD: No judge and jury?
TAD: Or jurisprudence?
GRIMES: Nothing at all. And, of course, anyone would think that. But, when it comes to names, I would say that I have very little difficulty with them. I seldom have to search for a name; I also find it impossible to write about anyone until I have a name.
TAD: Now, that is interesting.
GRIMES: I remember a British editor who wanted me to change the name of Carol-anne Palutski. Her reasons–I mean, I couldn’t imagine someone really doing this–were that she said she’d gone through the London telephone book and she couldn’t find one single Palutski in it.
TAD: But also, the thing about her is the double name in the front. I mean it had to be Carol-anne.
GRIMES: No, I mean the idea that I would change a name–that’s another thing that I absolutely cannot do. I cannot alter character after he has been named. I have written about the character for just one name, and maybe I think that the name doesn’t sound exactly right, I might change it. But, once a name is established, it is impossible for me to go back and change it. I figure, that’s the person, and that’s the person’s name, you can’t change it.
TAD: Do you pick names of the books in the same way? They start before and they immutable? And how do you pick them?
GRIMES: Of course, they’re all the names of pubs.
TAD: Oh, they’re authentic names?
GRIMES: Yes. The name of the book is going to be the name of the pub, and I’ve written, I’d say at least four books, really, on the basis of the name and plot, such as I Am the Only Running Footman.
TAD: Yes, I love that one.
GRIMES: I was walking along the street, I saw that sign and thought, “There it is.” It was the name itself which started me off on the idea.
TAD: But then you build things and they’re both feet, too. I was watching that aspect all the way as I read it. I would like to know how you work and how you do your research over there, and how you spend your time as a writer … How you do it.
GRIMES: The nature of the research I do is simple. I visit certain places, and even this is much more haphazard than it sounds. For example, on a last trip I took, there are two places in particular that has certain pubs which I had seen or heard of, and I did purposely go to these two places to check them out. Often, I don’t even do anything as purposeful as that. I would say that the nature of the research is really more a sitting around like a sponge. It is not conscious. I don’t want to say that I never take notes. I think occasionally I write down what someone says. But it’s really much more traveling around. I never know until I get back here …
TAD: I like your sponge analogy, because this sounds very much as if you’re–I don’t want to say an automatic writer per se, but—
GRIMES: Well, yes, it’s as close to automatic, I suppose, as you can get. But it certainly isn’t automatic in the course of the writing … I really don’t want to compare myself to Michelangelo, but that analogy might fit. The idea is that the statue is in there, and all he has to do is keep chipping away until he finds it. In terms of whatever creative process it is that I seem to be using or going through, it does seem to be that sort of thing. My process is more like watching what happens, watching people evolve and change and seeing what they’re going to do. Getting back to the business of research … the only one of these books which I wrote a fairly big chunk of while I was in England is Help the Poor Struggler.
TAD: And that’s one of the saddest ones for me.
GRIMES: Well, it’s supposed to be. Yes, it was a sad one for me, too. I think the endings of a number of these books have been sad, particularly The Deer Leap. I think people believe I spend half of my life in England, which is not true. When I was writing that book I was there, let me see, January, February, March. I guess it was about three and a half months, and that’s really the longest period of time I have ever spent in England aside from a dozen years ago, when I was there for about eight months. But usually I go a couple of times a year. I spent perhaps two weeks in 1983, but I do not really divide my time between here and England.
TAD: Yes, and, you know, people would really like to make you out that way, too–you know, sort of the Anglophile.
GRIMES: Oh, I’m certainly an Anglophile, but I can’t write there. I find I’d rather come back here and sort of remember. I’d rather write from a vantage point of memory, and I don’t know whether I’m really making some of this stuff up or whether it’s really true, but, if I lived over there, if I tried to write books over there, I have an idea that somehow or other the reality would probably overwhelm my imagination. Now, whether that’s really true I don’t know, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?
TAD: Well, it sounds good, but it also, I think, has something to do with the fact that your books bridge cultures. They tend to attune to boundaries and borders and how people go over them or don’t see them at times. I mean, they’re British and they’re American. But let me shift gears a little. I wanted to ask something about Jury. This comes partly from a report given by some of my students. They were quite interested in heroes–and heroes who have relationships with females. They thought, “Here’s this guy, Jury, who solves all these wonderful crimes. He’s got this good sidekick relationship with Melrose Plant, but he just doesn’t seem to have good relationships with women. The one woman he thinks he’s going to love, Helen Minton, is killed; essentially, their next meeting is in the graveyard.
GRIMES: Yes, but, of course, it’s not Jury’s fault she got killed.
TAD: Well, no, but, in I Am the Only Running Footman you’ve got this woman in bed with Jury, Susan Bredon-Hunt, who is twining her arms about the man just like the scarf that snaps the neck of the victim. What’s the problem with Jury? Why doesn’t he have good relationships with women?
GRIMES: Apparently, these students did have a feeling that there was a problem. Why did they think there was one? Because he … ? Oh, no, I’ll just let you answer.
TAD: Well, I think I know what they were looking for, because I fed them on a steady diet of antecedents. I figured that, if one is going to read detective fiction seriously, then one must read a lot of the stuff. So they’d read a certain amount of Michael Innes, they had read Ngaio Marsh. They’d had their fill, essentially, of tall, handsome detectives that people swoon over. And they just keep wondering, is this guy going to get a love interest Will it be like Wimsey meeting Harriet Vane? Will it be like Roderick Alleyn meeting his artist, Agatha Troy? What is it to be? Is it that he’s just not ready? They were interested just to see why this guy can’t connect, and, for the same reason, why Plant can’t connect. Why do they have all these interesting women, such as Vivian Rivington, hanging around, or Polly Praed, or the ones who get killed–why don’t they ever … Is this something that’s held out because he’s a serious detective? Or is it something in him?
GRIMES: I’ve certainly heard this question before. It’s a legitimate question, a sometimes I answer it by saying, “Which of the women that Jury has come in contact with would you have him marry?”
TAD: Yes, precisely. My answer: none.
GRIMES: I think that people don’t realize that there is a real traumatic problem when you begin a love interest. Let’s just use Ngaio Marsh and Roderick Alleyn as an example. Roderick Alleyn finally marries Agatha Troy, and then I find that the books become insufferable. I mean, then they have kids, who run around screaming, “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!”
TAD: Well, I think it’s just one kid, but he is pretty bad. And his destiny is that he has to grow up to be a detective himself.
GRIMES: Oh, yes. And then you watch the kid growing up. Troy herself I think is a big annoyance.
TAD: And look what happened to Sayers, too, you know. The short stories afterwards–Talboys and kids stealing fruit. It doesn’t become very interesting.
GRIMES: What would you have if Jury got married? People are always saying, “When is Jury going to get married?” I suppose it would be easier to marry of Melrose than it would Jury, but, then, of course, there’s still the problem of their working together. But you’re going to have a woman, and what is this woman supposed to be? I mean, is she going to just sort of stay in the background and do the cooking and so forth? It’s a little hard to imagine that. On the other hand, if she’s going to be in the forefront, she’s got to be a very interesting person somehow. And then, of course, you must remember there are a lot of people out there who do not want Jury to get married.
TAD: That’s true.
GRIMES: This also is a sort of a response. I remember giving one of those talks at the Smithsonian, and there were a couple hundred people there, and, when Jury’s name was mentioned, there was this audible sigh that sort of went around the room. A couple of them were saying, “What kind of a person is Richard Jury going to marry?” and I said, “Well, he’s going to marry somebody just like us, isn’t he?” and they loved that idea. I mean, I didn’t want Jury to be a detective who had these little attacks, mannerisms…
GRIMES: That sort of thing. I wanted him to be a … Yes, I’ve never really described him physically. You know he’s tall and he has gray eyes and he has brown hair, and that’s about all you know.
TAD: Well, that’s about the same with Roderick Alleyn, too. You don’t know much more beyond that.
GRIMES: I sort of leave it to people to fill in. One characteristic I wanted him to have. I wanted him to be a man who really liked women–I mean, liked them as people. He was to be the very opposite of a chauvinist, and I think that’s one of the reasons that people respond to him. Maybe women respond to him because he really does like women. It seems to me that he’s obviously always perfectly open to falling in love with someone and getting married. But then there is the whole technical problem of what happens then. It surprises me that this bothers people so much, but apparently it does.
TAD: Well, I think it’s because of expectations with formula fiction, you know, and particularly with series detectives. In addition to liking women, one reason people respond to Jury so well, I think, is because he also likes children. I want to ask you about kids and animals, but, before I get into that, I want to ask something about Melrose. It seems to me that to give Jury a wife would be tantamount to giving Melrose a real job. You know he’s a professor. He’s a professor of Romantic Poetry, isn’t he?
TAD: But you never see the guy teaching. And he doesn’t seem to spend time grading papers or dealing with students. He seems to be an academician without any real academic schedule. He isn’t as fully formed as Jury is. But, on the other hand, he’s more accessible, because I think you write more openly about him. You give us more to hang on to with him. Part of it there, too, is, I think, that he has relatives. There’s Aunt Agatha, whom I learned to love to hate in a couple of books.
GRIMES: Some people hate to hate her. They want her dead. They’d like to get her out.
TAD: Well, no, you’ve got to keep her in there. I mean, she’s in there for purposes. And I’m not just speaking of mechanical purposes such as getting people into situations. Plant is at least given relations, and Jury, you know, with his background of not really having parents, doesn’t seem to have that cushion and burden. I find that quite interesting. Plant somehow feels more accessible, but, on the other hand, you don’t know about his working life, per se. I mean, what does he really do?
GRIMES: To tell the truth, I couldn’t care less. You know, I never really developed that. I don’t care.
TAD: Well, why did you fasten on him, though–to even bring him in?
GRIMES: You mean, why did I have another person? Originally, he was going to be the main character. He was going to be the detective. It was going to be the other way around. Jury wasn’t even in it. I cannot remember exactly when, in the evolution of the first book, Jury came into it, but the original intention was that Melrose Plant would be the chief detective, and that he would have this sidekick at Scotland Yard. It sounds awfully like Lord Peter Wimsey—
TAD: —and Parker.
GRIMES: But that wasn’t the reason I changed it. I wasn’t even thinking in terms of that. I changed it because, I suppose, in the course of writing, Jury just sort of took over, given the type of person he was. Plant and Jury are really a lot alike–it’s just that they’re presented differently. I mean, Plant goes through all this business, you know, of seeming sometimes to be rather effete. But he puts that on. That’s just an act, but the reason I brought him in is simply because I liked him, that’s all. It was pretty uncalculated, as I’ve said. One of the reasons that I had him teaching, had him working at all, was because he is a very egalitarian person, and I think that probably I might have changed his particular area of expertise had I known at the beginning I was going to write a series.
TAD: I’m a cat owner, and in your book you focus again and again on victimization of children and animals, who are killed or physically maimed. Bad things seem to happen to them.
GRIMES: Bad things do happen. Well, for example, I just got this letter from a fan, who was talking about a little boy named Birdies Makepiece in The Old Fox Deceiv’d, and she said she really loved Birdie, that he was one of the most piteous little children that had ever turned up in literature. And she went on to talk about this poor child, and I said to myself, “I’m going to have to answer the letter, but I’m going to say to her, “You really should go back and maybe read it again. There is nothing pitiable really about that little boy.” One is supposed to feel a great deal of sympathy for him because of his circumstances …
TAD: … and his spunk.
GRIMES: Well, some readers have written to me about this, and one reviewer–and this was very interesting to me–made a comment in reviewing The Deer Leap. He said that this novel was predictable. He said that all children in Miss Grimes’s novels, of children, are doomed. I felt like saying, “Buddy, go back and read it again, because, as far as I’m concerned, what you’re getting in these books is really a reversal of roles. It’s the children–the children are the ones that have remarkable resources for getting themselves out of trouble. It is the adults who have to appeal to Jury and Plant, as it were. It’s the adults who seem to be at a loss.”
TAD: The children come across as almost preternaturally intelligent at times, and they really do seem to know what’s going on. They make their own hidey-holes and get out of things, and animals seem to be used in the same sort of way. Landscape seems to do it too. There’s a kind of wisdom in them.
GRIMES: I would go along with that.
TAD: They give clues…
GRIMES: The children and animals business is absolutely conscious, and I know exactly what I want these kids to be like, and I know what I want these animals to be like, far more than I know what I want the adults to be like. One of the reasons that the kids are either orphaned or abandoned or might be living with relatives is that I don’t what parents hanging around, messing things up. Parents in these instances would just clutter the damn thing up. I want these kids to be shown on their own. I want them to relate to Melrose and Jury.
TAD: Did you grow up reading girl-sleuth books at all?
GRIMES: I imagine I read Nancy Drew.
TAD: Because I was just thinking: talk about parents not cluttering things up! You know, basically, give the kid a roadster and let it go, and she’ll find out things. I think that concept is in the common background of a lot of us who read mysteries or write them or have aspirations to writing them. One last question, and this one is mostly for me. Writing style. How do you write? I mean, how much time do you spend on it a day? Do you write every day? How do you do it?
GRIMES: If I don’t do it every day, I feel guilty.
TAD: Do you set yourself goals as to how much to do per day? I know some writers who set page goals. I know others who set larger goals, who want to get over a certain hump.
GRIMES: I set page goals. The goal is somewhere around 80,000 words. I try to write in the morning. Every writer believes in some kind of discipline, but in different ways. I suppose I try to meet a particular page goal. Sometimes I don’t. I’m really not a person who is very given to saying, “I think I’m going to give up, because I can’t write.” Because I realize where that can lead. I start out writing by hand, and then, after I’ve done that for a while, I turn to a word processor.
TAD: Do you revise much?
GRIMES: You know, that’s a hard question to answer because of the way I work. I don’t do four drafts. I tend to revise chunks. I might go back and change the whole first part when I’m two-thirds of the way through or something. I don’t do like Jacqueline Susann always said she did: the first draft on yellow paper, the second draft on green paper, the third draft on pink paper, the fourth draft on white, which, I thought, oh sure, Jackie, tell me.
TAD: And the fifth on violet, no doubt.
GRIMES: Do I revise much? Well, probably.
TAD: I would like to know a bit about the editorial process, too. Do your editors make substantive suggestions to you? I would suspect not, simply because your books seem to come out all of one piece, but then also because you’re selling really well. Do you find your editors helpful?
GRIMES: My editor and the copy editor are. The copy editor probably does more work than my editor. In other words, my editor considers it his role to make substantive suggestions. We had an argument about the end of The Anodyne Necklace, which he argued and argued and argued about, and I changed it. I still think I was right and he was wrong. For example, in The Deer Leap, he thought the lab should be mentioned a couple more times. Beyond that, he doesn’t usually make suggestions. The copy editor is absolutely brilliant when it comes to errors. The copy editor goes through manuscripts very, very closely, and he points out if there’s some sort of time slippage. He’ll point out that, if this novel is taking place in May, I can’t have a certain kind of flower growing in the garden.
TAD: Thank you for your time and insights. I have really enjoyed talking with you and look forward to your next Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novel!
Photos courtesy of Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post; Matthew Worden / Washingtonian; Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post; Publisher; Simon & Schuster; ZDF; Michael Ventura / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette