MLC: Do you remember the first mystery you ever read? If so, what was it, and what pulled you into it?
AUTHOR: I think it was The Canary Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine. I must have been 9 or 10, and I saw the book on a table in our living room on a dreary, rainy winter afternoon. For lack of anything else to do, I picked it up and started reading. Philo Vance's powers of deduction impressed me no end, and his affected snarkiness made me laugh. And I think I've always been a sucker for New York City in the 1920s.
MLC: When did you first decide you wanted to write a mystery, and what led you to that decision?
AUTHOR: It wasn't a conscious decision. When I left medical work to write full-time, I set out to do a mainstream novel, set in New York among the people who collect antique music boxes. Unfortunately, my protagonist got shot to death on page one. I must have spent three months trying to write around this, but no matter what I did, I wound up with a dead protagonist and a stolen music box. Finally, a writer-friend told me it sounded to her as if I was trying to write a murder mystery, so why didn't I just go ahead and do it. That worked - the story became The Music Box Murders - with a new protagonist, Thomas Purdue.
MLC: Do you write in any other genres? If so, which ones?
AUTHOR: I've written three nonfiction books and many general-interest articles, but my fictional works have been and probably will remain all mysteries.
MLC: Which comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
AUTHOR: Characters. I start with a person or persons in a situation, and some idea what they are going to do in the short term. As I write, the people say things and take actions I could never have imagined in advance. I've tried plotting and writing character outlines in advance, but once they're underway, my people pay no heed to my preconceived notions.
MLC: When you are all wrapped up in the story, do you feel like you could solve the crime, or maybe even solve all the world’s mysteries?
AUTHOR: I can't even begin to appreciate all the world's mysteries, never mind solve them. As to my stories, sometimes I don't know who the murderer is until my detective points the finger. I've been told I write cinematically: as my fingers automatically hit keys and words go up on the screen, I see the characters and their surroundings. I've been known to groan, "Watch out!" when a favorite character is about to get shot, stabbed, or conked.
MLC: Do you write every day, or what kind of a schedule do you have? Do you write fulltime, or do you have a “day job”?
AUTHOR: My day job is in the past, hallelujah, and I write full-time, five or six days a week, from about 10am to 2pm. I go straight to writing after breakfast, because it feels as if I have been working while I sleep, and the ideas are right there, waiting to be applied. If I do some other activity first, and get distracted, I tend to struggle with the writing. After lunch, I take a half-hour rapid walk, then work on publicity/promotions. If I write for longer than about four hours, or if I try to push through a weekend, I find that I go stale.
MLC: Other than your writing, what do you enjoy doing? What is the most important thing to you in your day-to-day life?
AUTHOR: Of course, I'd put my wife and four kids (two in-blood, two in-law) right up there. Aside from spending time with them, I like to collect and restore antique music boxes and phonographs; this happens mostly on weekends. I enjoy theater. And yes, I read a fair amount, mostly novels, and listen to music.
MLC: Who are your favorite mystery authors? Do you try to emulate them in your own writing?
AUTHOR: My favorites change with time. After S. S. Van Dine, I read a lot of Conan Doyle. I greatly admire the tightness, pacing, and characters in Donald Westlake's and Ed McBain's work. I don't know that I've enjoyed any series more than Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse books, but Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge books come close. P. D. James's psychological studies grab me, and don't let go. Among my fellow Poisoned Pen authors, I love the tongue-in-cheek work of Mike Hayes and John Daniel, and Donis Casey writes characters I keep thinking are real people.
As to trying to emulate any other writers, I'll quote the real-life Ragtime Kid, Brun Campbell, from a letter he wrote to a young ragtime pianist: "Don't try to imitate anyone's style, stay with what you feel in your playing."
MLC: In your present book, is this part of a series, or is it a standalone book?
AUTHOR: The King of Ragtime is the second book in a ragtime historical-mystery trilogy. Its predecessor, The Ragtime Kid, was set in Sedalia, MO in 1899, at the birth of ragtime, and The King takes place in New York in 1916, as ragtime is dying. The third book in the trilogy will be set in 1951, during the ragtime revival.
MLC: If you are doing a series, do you see an end to it sometime, or do you plan to go on for several years with it?
AUTHOR: After I've finished the ragtime trilogy, I think I'm going to write some standalones.
MLC: Do your characters ever drive you a bit crazy by going off in their own direction? If so, how do you rein them in, or do you just let them run off on their own?
AUTHOR: Basically, they lead and I follow through the first draft; then I get more assertive in the rewrites, trying to give the story what it wants and needs, and remove what's unnecessary and/or merely decorative. But I avoid censoring any words or actions of my people. They need to be who they are.
I've had only one experience where I had to rein in a character - but it was only temporary. As I wrote Scamming the Birdman, one of the characters went off on a tangent, and after a short while, I realized she was acting in another story. So I made her a deal: we'd go back and finish Scamming, then we'd tell the other story. That became The Midnight Special.
MLC: Do you pattern your sleuths after yourself or someone you know? If so, do you let that person know they were your “pattern”?
AUTHOR: Except where I use people who once really did live, I try, at least consciously, to make up my characters out of whole cloth. If I pattern a fictional character after a real person, I'd feel as if I were restricting that character's possibilities, because I'd find myself saying, "My friend Joe would never say that," or "Crikey! Mary would never do that." Again, I do everything I can to encourage my characters to be their own selves.
MLC: How long did it take you to get published? How many rejections did you have to suffer through first? Were you ever tempted to give up? What do you think made the difference when it was accepted?
AUTHOR: I sent The Music Box Murders to about twelve publishers, and probably an equal number of agents, who all rejected it. I was not tempted to give up; what would I have done with myself? I just kept writing and sending. By the time MBM was accepted, I had Scamming the Birdman nearly finished, and as I said a couple of questions ago, I had a running start on The Midnight Special. What may have made the difference was that after all those rejections, a writer-friend offered to look over my manuscript, and then showed me my writing style would have been more appropriate for nonfiction than fiction. He told me to read the lines aloud and then speak them as if I were telling someone a story. One more rewrite, and the first publisher I queried accepted the book. I never did succeed in convincing an agent of the merit of my work, but I've been more than satisfied, dealing directly with my two publishers.
MLC: Do you ever attend any conferences? If so, which ones?
AUTHOR: I've been to Bouchercons, Malice Domestics, Left Coast Crimes, and Mayhems in the Midlands. Time and money are not limitless, and I have to make choices, but when I can go, I enjoy the opportunity to talk and learn from other authors and readers.
MLC: Do you have to promote your own work, or does your publisher do that for you?
AUTHOR: I do my own promotional work, but my publisher is extremely supportive, providing advice, posters, and making damn sure the books are in the bookshops before I arrive.
MLC: If you have to do marketing, what methods have worked the best for you?
AUTHOR: That's an interesting question. How does one translate any promotional method into numbers of sales, except perhaps in a very general way? It seems to me that visiting independent mystery bookshops around the country has go
tten me a good readership. Making face-to-face contact with booksellers and readers at the least makes them aware my book is out there. I try to attend conventions, especially when I have a new book out. I send out postcards to bookshops, librarians, and readers, and I'm just now beginning to blog (Larry's Mystery Exchange, http://www.larrykarp.blogspot.com). But in the end, I'm left with the feeling that nothing I do works as well as getting a starred review in PW, LJ, Kirkus, or Booklist (which I had with my standalone, First, Do No Harm, my highest seller to date).
MLC: Do you have any idea how your book is selling?
AUTHOR: I really don't. For one thing, it's only out a week now. But I never check amazon sales figures, and I feel as if my publisher has better things to do than tell me how well or poorly my book is selling. The numbers will be on my annual royalties reports. It was nice, though, I'll admit, to see The Ragtime Kid on the Los Angeles Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.
MLC: What has been the best review you have gotten, and why?
AUTHOR: Whew, tough question. Out of all those...all right. I guess because starred reviews in major review publications don't grow on trees, I have to go with First, Do No Harm's star from Booklist. Doesn't hurt, either, that it begins, "A well-told story is nearly irresistible, and Karp has two phenomenal stories to recount here." And that it ends, "A triumph of storytelling - the juggling of the two narratives is flawless - that will hold readers as spellbound as a terrifying tale told around the campfire."
MLC: Have you won any awards, either as an author or for your books? Please tell us about them.
AUTHOR: In 1997. I was given the Bowers Literary Award for "outstanding contributions to the field of automatic music," by the Musical Box Society International. My mystery novels have been finalists for the RWA's Daphne Award for Excellence in Mainstream Mystery and Suspense, The Friends of Mystery's Spotted Owl Award, and Spinetingler Magazine's Award for Best Mystery Novel of the Year.
MLC: Is there any one certain thing that a reader has written to you that made you just want to jump up and shout “Yes!!!!”?
AUTHOR: It's always nice when a reader tells me s/he enjoyed one of my mysteries, but some compliments do stand out.
A woman home-schooling her thirteen-year-old son told him to read the first part of The Ragtime Kid (which dovetailed nicely with the post-Civil War history he was studying), then report to her on the use of language in the material. When the boy finished that portion of the book, though, he didn't want to go on to his next assignment because where he'd stopped, a group of bigots seemed to be getting the upper hand, and he couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen. His mother agreed. A while later, her son ran up to her, waving the book, and shouted, "Please excuse me, Mom, but those sons of bitches got exactly what they deserved."
MLC: What is your next project, and when will it be out?
AUTHOR: The third book in the Ragtime Trilogy, tentatively titled, The Ragtime Fool, is scheduled for Spring 2010.
MLC: If you could write anything at all, ignoring what editors and publishers say they want, what would it be?
AUTHOR: I'm already writing what I want to write. As long as a mystery writer keeps the crime thread central to the narrative, s/he can write about whatever s/he wants. I've dealt with marital and race relations, moral and ethical medical ambiguities, the inevitable difficulties of growing old, and I don't seem to be running dry on ideas.
MLC: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring mystery authors?
AUTHOR: Patience, persistence. If your goal is to get published, maybe get some nice reviews, and have people read your work and say they like it, keep writing, keep reading, keep submitting. If you throw in the towel, you'll hate yourself when you're lying on your deathbed.
Write regularly, on whichever schedule works for you. Be circumspect about showing your work to someone else before you've finished the first draft: it's your story. Once you're into rewriting, consultation with an established writer may be helpful.
If your goal is to get million-dollar advances, sell millions of books, and appear on Oprah, you might consider another career, something less painful - like being a demonstration model at a school of sado-masochism.
MLC: Do you have any teasers for your readers and fans about the next book?
AUTHOR: It's tough to be sixty-seven, living on borrowed time, and feel you've squandered your life and not been true to yourself. The old Ragtime Kid gets one last chance, and goes back to Sedalia to settle some unfinished business.
MLC: If a genie suddenly appeared and said they would grant you just one wish for your books, what would you wish for?
AUTHOR: That in each book there would be at least one character and one idea that readers will be unable to get out of their minds.
MMLC: Please give us your website url and your email address where people can contact you.
MLC: Thank you so much for giving us a little glimpse into your books and your life. We look forward to a lot more books from you.
AUTHOR: You and me both. Thanks.