Episode 18: Denise Swanson

CrankyI am thrilled to be talking to New York Times Best-Selling Author Denise Swanson. She has two cozy mystery series — the Scumble River Mysteries and the Devereaux’s Dime Store series — as well as the Change of Heart Romance Series. She also has some incredible stories to tell: her writing career came out of what she has called a face-to-face encounter with evil.

You can find all her mysteries in order on her website, and if you’re looking for the romances, here’s that link. The 19th (!) Scumble River Mystery has the irresistible title of Murder of a Cranky Catnapper


As always, if you’d rather read than listen, here’s the transcript. Enjoy!

Transcript of Interview with Denise Swanson

Laura Brennan: My guest today is New York Times best-selling author Denise Swanson. Her mystery series include both the Scumbel River Mysteries and the Devereaux’s Dime Store Mysteries. And if that weren’t enough, she also writes the Change of Heart Romance series. Denise has multiple awards and nominations including the Agatha award, the Mary Higgins Clark award, the Reviewer’s Choice award, and was also nominated for RT Magazine’s career achievement award, alongside Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich.

Denise, thank you so much for joining me.

Denise Swanson: Thank you for inviting me.

LB: Okay, so I was counting up all your published books — plus, I know you must have more in the works. And you’re creeping up on 30 books in the last 16 years, is that right?

DS: I think that close. Yes, I have — the 19th Scumble River will come out in September, which is Murder of a Cranky Catnapper. And the 6th Devereaux’s Dime Store book will come out next July. And I have four romances published so, getting right up there.

LB: You had a career as a school psychologist, correct?

DS: Yes. I worked for 22 years as a school psychologist. I worked every age level from preschoolers all the way through high school, but my favorite was the junior high, that’s where I spent most of my time.

LB: How did you then make the shift from helping junior high school students survive —

DS: And their parents!

LB: — and their parents, bless your heart — to writing mysteries?

DS: Well, I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve always written. I actually wrote my very first book in kindergarten. I am an only child and I grew up on a farm and my mom had a lot of time, she was a stay-at-home mom. So I was reading by the time I went to kindergarten. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher didn’t really know what to do with me and she she sat me into the corner and said pretty much, amuse yourself. Because she had to teach everybody else. So I used my big chief tablet to write an alphabet book. And I have to say that when I brought it up to show it to my teacher, it wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting. I brought it up and I said oh, look what I’ve done! And she paged through the tablet and said to me, you’ve used your whole tablet. What will you use for the rest of the year? So that was my first bad review. The message came across pretty clearly that this was not an activity that she encouraged.

So I started writing again when I was in junior high. I had been reading Harlequin Romances, and you know back then, in the dark ages, they were pretty tame. If the hero and heroine held hands by the end of the book and had little kids was a pretty hot book. So, this was the seventies and my 13- and 14-year-old friends were doing much more than that. So I wanted to write a more realistic book. Unfortunately, my English teacher caught me at it and made me read the section I was working on in front of the class. The interesting thing was, I had been working on a French kiss, and the moment the word ‘tongue’ came out of my mouth, she whipped me out from the front of the class and sent me down to the principal. So I had my second bad review.

LB: I have to ask, given this, what in the world prompted you to go into a career in which you would have to go back to school?

DS: You know, even with all of that, I loved school. Part of it was, because I was an only child living on a farm, it was the only time I got to be with other kids. And part of it was, I just loved learning. I always, I love to read, that’s where the books were, there were libraries in the school. And I just always sort of had an affinity to understanding people and understanding social situations and being able to relate to kids and people in general. So it seemed like a pretty natural career to choose.

LB: The way you handle people in your novels is so delicate. There is a deep understanding, even of the bad guys. You always give a sense of where people are coming from.

DS: Everybody, including the villains, have a reason for what they do. In 22 years, I truly only met two children who were psychopaths. All the other kids, you could definitely see why they did what they did, how they got on perhaps the wrong path, what you needed to do to get them on the right path. I’m always fascinated with the Why, the motive of what people do.

LB: Murder of a Small-Town Honey — is that your first published book?

DS: That is. The first published book, that was in 2000.

LB: Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

DS: Well, I had had a pretty bad experience as a school psychologist. I was working in a rural area, and I pretty much just stumbled across a satanic cult. The cult members, I was trying to get the kids away from that and figure out who was the head, who was in charge of the cult and what was going on, because kids were definitely being abused. And I must of gotten a little too close, because then I became a target, and I ended up quitting my job in the middle of the school year. So that is not a good time to find another position as a school psychologist. Nobody’s hiring in March. So I had a lot of time at home that I had never had before, I don’t have children so it was just me and the cat and there’s only so many times you can go out to lunch with your mother. So I suddenly had all this time on my hands, and I realized I’d never really stopped writing fiction. I had just stopped thinking about it as such. I’d always kept notes and did little character sketches of people. So I dug all that out and started to write about Skye.

LB: Okay, I need to ask this. The satanic cult? Did they ever catch the people?

DS: Well, I ended up quitting since I had become their target, one of their targets. And many, many, many years later, I ran into people from the small town and I asked about. Because I had reported it to the Department of Children and Family Services, had reported it to the local police, I had even written a letter to the FBI, which got no response. Everybody told me I was exaggerating the problem, that it was just a fad, nothing was really going on and it was just people getting together to party, it wasn’t really anything horrible. So, many years later I ran into some of the people from that town, actually at a library event, and I just asked if anything ever came out about it. And it turned out, it did. They did finally break it up. The reason I didn’t get very far is that the Youth Officer of the police department was the head of the cult.

LB: Oh, no!

DS: And that’s who I was reporting everything to! Which is of course how I got myself targeted.

LB: Oh, my gosh! That is crazy and creepy.

DS: I guess that’s maybe why the first book was a mystery.

LB: Let me go back a little bit to the Scumble River series. It’s a big series. There are 19 books in that series and, I’m hoping, counting.

DS: Yeah! I’m hoping, too.

LB: What struck me was that in both of your mystery series, one of the themes is starting over.

DS: That’s true in my romances too. I like the fresh start.

LB: And it’s also about starting over back where you came from.

DS: For Skye, that is true. She had left Scumble River and been gone on a long time and really never wanted to come back. And part of her journey is learning that when she gets back to Scumble River, she’s where she belongs. Because through a lot of the series, she has to figure out that you don’t have to go away to find happiness, that happiness is in your backyard. You have to grow up and change and be a better person in order to appreciate that happiness. Devereaux actually never went away. She has always lived in Shadow Bend. She worked in the city and she commuted so she didn’t spend a lot of time in the town, but she never left the town. But she has been, although living in the town, she hasn’t been a part of things because of what happened with her father. So she’s always, even though she’s there, she’s been an outsider.

LB: One of the things that really makes the series is how much time you spend on developing the other characters. Your supporting characters create a very rich world for your heroine to navigate. Did you always plan for these to be long series? Did you develop this with that in mind?

DS: I wish I could say I had, but in truth the first book, Murder of a Small-Town Honey, I didn’t even realize there would be a second one at that point. I was just writing that story, that mystery. I then tried to get it published. I approached agents because I had been told that, at that point in publishing, most of the major publishers weren’t taking unsolicited material so the best thing was to find an agent first. It took me about 270 rejections to find an agent and that agent said to me, while I sell this first book, start the second one in a series. And I said, this is a series? She said, oh yeah. She said, I’m not representing you unless this is a series. So I actually had the second book written and the third book outlined by the time she sold the series. And that’s how she sold it, as three books.

Another interesting fact is, the editor who acquired the first three books loved them and she certainly was a huge influence on honing my writing skills, but she didn’t think the series would go very far. She said it was too regional and people didn’t really want to read about the Midwest. So the first book had a very small print run. I was told not to expect much. So I was really thinking it was probably the three books and done. And then Murder of a Small-Town Honey came out and just surprised everybody. People loved it, the reviewers liked it, the readers liked it. The storeowners, the independent mystery storeowners really embraced it, and that’s how it became so popular. And suddenly Penguin was offering me another contract.

The whole ride of the 19 books has been a surprise. The series was doing very well, but was never into that next level of best-sellerdom until, I think it was book 12. Suddenly I made the New York Times, which is unheard of in a long series, for it not to happen in the first few — if it doesn’t happen within the first few books, it never happens. So suddenly on the 12th book, again, my publisher was surprised, my agent was surprised, I was surprised. I didn’t even believe it until I saw it in the paper, I thought they were kidding me.

LB: Why did you decide to start a second series then?

DS: Well, once I made the New York Times, my publisher and my editor said to me, one book a year really isn’t cutting it, you need to have two books a year. It was about that time where I was considering writing full-time, quitting my job was as a school psychologist. My father had passed away and my mom was by herself and needed more attention and writing full-time would give me that flexibility, whereas working in the schools and writing a book a year was not. So, at first, I actually wrote two Scumble Rivers in a year, and that just did not work for me creatively. I had to say I couldn’t do that. So my agent suggested trying a second series. I said, I just don’t really have a good idea, I want something unique, I’m not gonna just put something out that somebody else is already doing, that everybody else is already doing. So we sort of left it at that and a few days later, Devereaux popped into my mind with her story and I got a hold of my agent and said, what you think of this for a series? And she loved it, and actually a lot of people loved it. It went to a bidding war. I had three or four publishers want that book, want that series.

LB: Dev herself is quite special. She certainly has a pointed worldview, shall we say?

DS: Yes. She is a lot more cynical than Skye.

LB: Yes! It’s a very different feel to the books. And they’re written in first person, which gives it insight and intimacy with her.

DS: She has always come to me in first person, where Skye came to me, I guess, in third person. Part of it is, Skye is probably more my own personality when I was younger. When I was Skye’s age, when I was in my late twenties early thirties and first working as a school psychologist. Devereaux, although young in the books, she’s probably more my personality now that I’ve been out in the world, and 20+ years of public education makes you bit cynical.

LB: I want to talk about relationships, because you do them so well. Everybody in your book seems to have messy relationships.

DS: [Laughter.]

LB: Well, they’re complicated, with their parents, with their exes, even with their spouses and their friends. Things are never, things are always complicated.

DS: I think that’s pretty true to life. I mean, most relations are complicated. A lot of people love their parents, love their mother, love their relatives, but that doesn’t mean they’re always comfortable with them or happy with them, or even like them at certain times. And friendships are hard too, friendships can be messy. At least deep friendships, strong friendships, not just acquaintances casual friends. You usually go through a lot with your friends. And nothing is more complicated than love!

LB: The most recent one, the most recent mystery that is out as of today, because the way you write, I know a new one’s coming out practically tomorrow, but this is one of the Dime Store Mysteries, Between a Book and a Hard Place. In it, Devereaux’s mother returns after 13 years. This is a very big deal for Devereaux.

DS: Yeah.

LB: Did you always plan to tell the story?

DS: I always planned for her mom to return. I wasn’t sure what her mother’s story would be. But I knew she would blow into town and cause havoc, because that’s just the personality she has. She is a very self-centered woman, and has always been a very self-centered woman. She’s one of those people who got along in life mostly because she was beautiful and charming, and knew the right things to say and wear and do. And when that world collapsed because of her husband’s imprisonment, she had to take care of herself and she was not prepared for that. And she still isn’t prepared to do that. She keeps trying to find someone to take care of her, and so far has not been successful. This is not the last we’ll see of her.

LB: You mentioned that she’s someone who has gotten along on her looks. One thing that both Skye and Devereaux kind of share, though, is that they have disappointed their mothers in terms of how they look. They’re a little too curvy, they’re a little too — they don’t pay quite enough attention to makeup and hair as they should. I think it’s something that a lot of women relate to, personally.

DS: I think very few women end up being what their mothers perhaps envisioned them to be when they were born. And it’s hard to separate that out when you get into the adult mother-daughter relationship. So I did want to explore that. You know, Skye’s mother, May, I think has come around a little bit. She still would probably like her daughter to lose some weight, but now that things are better in Skye’s life, in her relationship, May has backed down. Plus May is afraid of Skye’s husband. Her husband has made it very clear that he won’t tolerate May disrespecting Skye. And that’s made a difference in that relationship. I doubt I could write enough books to recover Devereaux and her mother’s relationship. That would be too long a series!

LB: Let me ask you now about your romance series. Because you decided that you weren’t busy enough with two, and you added a new series in a different genre.

DS: I always wanted to write romance. In fact, before I started writing the mysteries, I had dabbled writing some romance. But I, I think I was maybe too young, didn’t have enough experience myself to write romance because you need — you know, for the mysteries, you can weave these wonderful relationships, but the focus of the book is still the mystery. She got clues, and you got investigations, and you have all that to center the book around. In a romance, the whole book is about these two people, their relationship, their emotional journey to find each other and to finding their happily ever after. And I think you need, an author needs a certain emotional maturity of their own in order to write that.

You know, this is one of those, what do they call those? Not backward complement… humble brag! But, you know, I was so fortunate in my life. I met my husband when we were in second grade. We dated a little bit in high school and then got engaged in college. We’ve been together forever and I haven’t had those, the tough emotional journeys that a heroine needs to have. So I just needed a little bit more maturity, I think, in order to be able to write those. Writing the contemporary romance, I’m opening up a different part of my creativity in order to write those, and I’m enjoying that. As you’ve noticed with the mystery, I love writing about relationships. So writing the romance gives me a chance to concentrate on that relationship and to make it the most important thing in the book. That’s why I enjoy writing the romances as well.

LB: Your next Scumble River Mystery comes out in September. Murder of a Cranky Catnapper. And it is already available for preorder on Amazon. So what can you tell me about the story?

DS: It’s based on one of my experiences as a school psychologist. I was trying some innovative therapy and one of the board members in the school that I was working at happen to come in during a not so successful session and had a heart attack, well, had a fit, I guess would be a better word. Tried very hard to stop me from using those techniques, brought it to the school board and luckily the rest of the school board was more open-minded and some of the parents of the kids who the techniques were helping came in and supported me. And I remember, even though this was years and years ago, one of my colleagues, I think it might’ve been the school social worker, looked at me and said, you’d better hope that this guy never ends up dead, because you are going to be the first suspect.

decided I would have Skye have a confrontation with a school board member, and that’s what happens in this, although she is using a very different technique than I was. She is using pet therapy. Which I think would be very interesting to use, but I never had a chance to do.

LB: Do you come up with the idea of what you want to happen in your characters’ lives first, or do you come up with a brilliant way of killing somebody off?

DS: You know, my process is so scattered, I hardly ever do anything the same way twice. Which would make it too easy. But a lot of times, I’ll see a snippet about something either in a newspaper — my mom saves my hometown newspaper for me, and there’s a column called Shout Out where people complain about things. I get a lot of ideas from that. And I see something on TV or something. I saw little newspaper article about pet therapy, and how the veterinarian that was using it was hoping to get it introduced into the school system but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I first thought was, call your school psychologist. And then I thought, or, I could use this for Skye. And then once I had that I needed conflict, so I thought well, a lot of people would be unhappy with sort of an innovative therapy and having animals in the school. So that’s sort of how that developed.

A lot of times it’s just little bits and pieces. I have folders and folders stuffed with little Post-it notes and articles that I’ve clipped and this and that. And when I’m starting a new book, I take that folder down and I start, oooh, I can use this in this book, and I can use this… And then I just sort of patch them together like I’m making a quilt.

LB: Well, I hope that that is fodder for a lot more books.

DS: Well, I’m actually, probably tomorrow, going to be starting to write the next Scumble River book. My hometown was hit by a tornado last June. A lot of the town was destroyed, including a lot of my mom’s property. So as we were working our way this last year trying to get everything restored in the town and for my mother, I promised myself this was all going to be research. So Scumble River is going to be hit by a tornado.

LB: I can’t wait! Very exciting.

DS: I’m actually anxious to write this one myself. Well, I’m always anxious.

LB: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

DS: Thank you again for inviting me. This was a lot of fun.