The man laughed, rich and throaty. “Go ahead. Throw it.”
Gethsemane hurled the weight. It sailed through the man’s chest, disappearing into him like a sugar cube into hot coffee…
— Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major
I am always thrilled to find a new series I like, and Alexia’s Gordon’s Gethsemane Brown Mysteries did not disappoint. Cozy with a paranormal twist (and set in Ireland, swoon!), Murder in G Major launches a wonderful new voice.
Alexia is a fan of music, whiskey and classic puzzle mysteries, and all three of those play a part in her series. Like Dr. Kwei Quartey, whom I interview here, Alexia is a medical doctor as well as a mystery writer. We also talk about fellow Henery Press writer Gigi Pandian, whose interview can be found here. Alexia credits Southern Methodist University’s The Writer’s Path with helping her wrangle her first novel. I also loved her sweet dedication to her parents, who, among other things, let her “have an unrestricted library card.” My kinda folks!
I realize these aren’t books, but Alexia gave a shout-out to two of my favorite series: Northern Exposure and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. While I loved the movie — Rex Harrison, c’mon! — it was the TV series that made me want to live in a cottage by the sea, ideally with a ghost in the attic. It just seemed so fun to have one around. And, if you haven’t read it, both are based on a charming book by R.A. Dick, the pseudonym for Scottish writer, Josephine Leslie. Two writers she talks about are Walter Mosley and Eleanor Taylor Bland. Alexia also loves Irish music, and if you want to check out the band she mentions, they are the Dropkick Murphys.
Transcript of Interview with Alexia Gordon
Laura Brennan: My guest today is Alexia Gordon, novelist and Renaissance woman. Among her many accomplishments, she’s a writer, a medical doctor, and a lover of music. It’s this last one that defines her series protagonist, Gethsemane Brown, an African American classical musician who finds herself stranded in Ireland — and befriended by a ghost who just wants one little favor… For Gethsemane to solve his murder.
Alexia, thank you for joining me.
Alexia Gordon: Hi.
LB: Before we dig into your wonderful new series, let’s talk a little bit about you. You started out writing at an early age.
AG: Yes, ever since, elementary school, ever since I was old enough to write. I think it was in the 6th grade, we had a poetry unit and one of our assignments was to write a poem for our classroom poetry contest. And I wrote something that looking back on it, it was completely ridiculous, it went on for, I think, a few pages, about a superhero named XY. But my classmates voted that their favorite poem, so I won a Shel Silverstein book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I still have it somewhere at my parents’ house.
LB: It’s amazing, isn’t it, how just a little encouragement can push you along on the path?
AG: Yes. I credit my parents for encouraging me. I wouldn’t have done it if they had said, no, go do something more practical. So I do give them credit for that.
LB: Although you did have a competing passion. Because you became a medical doctor.
AG: Yes. Well, my parents did also say that I needed to be able to pay my bills someday. So they said, writing is fine, it’s wonderful, keep doing it, take all the writing classes you want, go to the library, buy books… But you also have to go to school and get a degree that will allow you to get a job and move out of our house and pay your bills. They love me but they wanted me to be financially independent.
LB: It’s interesting, though, because you are not the first medical doctor that I’ve interviewed. I also interviewed Dr. Kwei Quartey, and what he said was being a doctor was an awful lot like being a detective because you’re always looking for clues and discarding the red herrings.
AG: Yes, that’s true. That’s actually the part of medicine that I find the most fascinating, is someone comes in with some vague symptom or some unusual something — “My left toe hurts.” And you have to work from ‘my left toe hurts’ to making a diagnosis with a long Latin or Greek name.
LB: And you became a doctor, and then the first thing that happens is that you went to Alaska?
AG: No, actually, that was probably about the fourth or fifth thing that happened. I started out in South Carolina, worked there for probably 12 or 13 years, then went to Virginia for a few years. Then decided that I wanted some adventure while I was still young enough and my parents were still healthy, and I’d seen one too many episodes of Northern Exposure. So Alaska sounded like a good idea.
LB: Okay, I love Northern Exposure, but I imagine that Alaska’s a lot colder than it looks.
AG: Yes, it’s quite cold. Anchorage, where I was, is one of the, is far enough south in Alaska to be warmer, and it would drop down to -17. It’s nothing like the TV show.
LB: During all of this, during your adventure, when did you start writing seriously?
AG: I probably started writing seriously, with the thought of legitimately being able to complete a manuscript when I moved down to Dallas. I’d survived three winters in Alaska, I couldn’t take the cold and dark anymore, but I did do some writing up there. They actually have a strong arts community in Alaska, and I had participated in some writing workshops and things there. But when I moved to Dallas, I discovered Southern Methodist University has a program called The Writer’s Path, which is aimed at working adults and it’s a step-wise approach to writing a novel. And if you actually take all of the courses in the sequence offered, and do the work, by the end of it you will actually have a finished manuscript. Now, they don’t guarantee you’ll be published or anything, but they do say that if you take our program, start at point A, by the time you get to the end of it, you’ll have a completed manuscript.
LB: Did you start with Murder in G Major? Did you start with a mystery, or was there a book that needed to come out of you first before you got to the mystery?
AG: No, mysteries are the only things I’ve ever tried to write. Anytime I think of an idea, within five minutes, there’s a dead body that shows up somewhere. I started with the program with this novel, Murder in G Major, it was, I want to say, the second class? When the instructor went around the room and said, okay, tell me your story idea. It wasn’t titled that at the time, but the idea that became Murder in G Major was what came out of my mouth. He told us we had five minutes to think of a story and that’s what I thought of, and I stuck with it through the program and it eventually turned into Murder in G Major.
LB: So why mysteries, then? Why do dead bodies keep showing up for you?
AG: There’s probably some deep-seated, Freudian answer to that, but I love puzzles. Puzzle-solving is the aspect of medicine that I like, I love crossword puzzles, I grew up reading mostly mysteries, some sci-fi, but my mother loves mysteries… I just love to ask, why did this happen? Why did that person do this, what’s going on here? The puzzle-solving aspect of mysteries is what I love, and anything I seem to think of, it always turns into, hey, this person is doing this, and what if this happened? What if this person riding on this bus was suddenly found lying dead at the bus stop, and going from there. So it’s the puzzle-solving aspect.
LB: So, a classical musician is an unusual choice for an amateur sleuth. How did you develop Gethsemane’s character?
AG: I actually have to give Alaska part of the credit for that one. When I discovered I didn’t like winter, that left winter sports out. During the winter time, for people like me who don’t want to go out and ski or snowshoe, Anchorage actually has a concert season. So they’ve got the symphony, they’ve got plays. And I started going to the symphony. And it turned out, I love classical music. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra was fortunate to have a maestro who was very innovative and wanted to broaden the appeal of classical music and not make it seem as if it’s this stuffy thing that if you don’t know the rules, we don’t want you here kind of experience. And then when I moved down to Dallas, I found an apartment that happened to be within walking distance of the symphony hall, the Meyerson Symphony. And so I kept going to symphony concerts, and I wanted to bring my love of classical music into the book that I was writing, partly as an excuse to go to more concerts.
LB: I’m astonished, because it seems as if you must play, the way you understand — and allow me to understand — the music. You don’t play an instrument yourself?
AG: No. I did the standard piano lessons as a child because mom didn’t have the chance to take them when she was growing up, so I can read music still, but I can’t actually play to the point — other than, I played in Sunday school. But I don’t have that innate talent that would allow me to go out and perform music and have people want to come hear me. So part of my character is wish-fulfillment. She can play because I can’t.
LB: You do a terrific job of transporting us into that world. Now, you combined — this isn’t just a cozy mystery, you combined it with a paranormal element.
LB: With a very charming ghost. So where did the inspiration for Eamon come from?
AG: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I had the worst crush on Captain Gregg, both in the TV series and the movie with Rex Harrison. I also grew up on eighties’ slasher films and ghost stories — that makes me sound like… dead bodies and ghosts and paranormals, I sound like a really awful person!
LB: No, no, it’s perfect.
AG: It’s kind of what I grew up on and it stuck with me.
LB: I love how the stuff that we love as a kid comes out in these fun, interesting ways. Let me just mention that you use the paranormal element, I think in a really interesting way. Because Gethsemane, at the beginning of the book, is just at her lowest possible ebb. Her professional foundations are shaken — and this is how the book starts, I don’t want to spoil — but then you also shake her belief system. You throw in that ghost, and it’s not like in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where she’s like, oh, hello. It really shakes her beliefs, I thought that was a really interesting way of using it.
AG: One of the things that they helped with in the Writer’s Path program was getting us to write — not just throw things in for effect. How does this function in your story? How does this advance the plot? What role is it playing? If it’s just there for window dressing, you probably don’t need it. If it’s in there, it needs to be something that really needs to be in there. So that was also the same with the music. The instructors would say, hey, you can’t just have a song on the radio in the background, the music needs to do something. It’s expressing emotion or driving the plot forward. Part of that was, that I learned in the program was, have it there for a reason and not just because you think that’ll be popular or might sell an extra book or two.
LB: No, it’s terrific. It really throws her off-kilter. So we see her regain her footing really as she’s uncovering the mystery. I think it’s used to great effect. So is that why Ireland? Why Ireland?
AG: That one’s harder to answer. I’ve just got this fascination with Ireland, that I truly don’t know where it came from. My mother has a similar fascination with England, and I don’t know where that came from either. But it’s, all things Irish, I have an affinity for. One of my favorite hangouts in Dallas was an Irish pub, I love Irish music. I remember when I was a resident, I was listening to — I don’t even know which band it was, it might have been the Dropkick Murphys. Someone said, what are you listening to? I said, I’m listening to Irish pub music — this is in South Carolina, so they were like, what’s wrong with you. I don’t know, I just love it. I said kind of jokingly that I’d recently taken one of those ancestry DNA tests, and found out I was 14% Irish, so I was joking that maybe that’s why I’m fascinated with Ireland. But I just made that part up — I’ve always been fascinated with Ireland for as long as I can remember.
LB: I think Ireland’s great, and I think it does serve the story because, again, she’s far away from anyone she knows who could possibly come to her aid. She has to rely only on herself and the allies she forms while she’s there. It’s fun — it’s an adventure. It makes it an adventure. So, there aren’t very many African American heroines in the cozy mystery world. I was delighted to see her jump in there. Why do you think that might be?
AG: I don’t think there are many of us writing cozies, which should change. People tend to write about people similar to them, to at least some extent. And there aren’t that many African American mystery writers. There are some: there’s Walter Mosley and Eleanor Taylor Bland. But I think they tend to write more urban stories, and the cozy mystery is more of what I like. I didn’t grow up in an inner city, so that’s not really something I relate to at all. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and watching British mysteries on PBS, so that’s what I relate to. So that’s what I wrote about. Hopefully, there’ll be more African Americans and Latinas and people of all different cultures entering the cozy mystery field one of these days.
LB: One thing I think cozy mystery does better than a lot of other mystery genres, is the puzzle aspect. Whereas a lot of the other mystery formats, mystery subgenres, tend to focus on things other than the puzzle. It may be a whodunit, but it’s not necessarily a puzzle to solve. It’s, don’t get killed.
AG: I agree. The mystery itself seems to be central. Less of the social issues surrounding things and less of the detective’s personality. It’s more hey, here’s this strange thing that happened in this small town and somebody’s got to figure it out. It’s off kilter and somebody has to put it back to rights.
LB: Yeah. So, who do you read now? Who do you like now?
AG: I still go mostly with the classics. I’ve been rereading Agatha Christie now that Masterpiece and Acorn have done modern adaptations of a lot of them, I’ve been rereading a lot of the originals. My TBR pile is huge, it’s literally taking over my house, there’s so many different people.
LB: Well, what are you working on now?
AG: I am working on book two. My manuscript is actually due Monday morning.
LB: Oh, my gosh! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I can’t believe you’re doing that. Do you have any idea when it’s going to be published? When is it going to drop?
AG: It should be July of 2017. Which will give me time to get my editor’s editing remarks back. That’s another thing that helped a lot with the first one, I have very good editors at Henery Press who were able to read it. You know, you write something and you get so close to it, sometimes it’s hard to judge your own work because it’s so right there in your face. Someone else reading it who’s good and knows what they’re doing and says, hey, that’s good, but did you think about this? Or, maybe you could do that this way? And, I didn’t really get that part. So, that’s part of that long gap in there is for them to tell me where I messed up and can do it better.
LB: Henery Press, I’ll tell you, they are killing it when it comes to cozies. Especially cozies that have an extra element to, like yours has the paranormal element to it. And Gigi Pandian’s as well.
AG: Yeah, they just decided that that was their niche and they were really going to go for the mystery market, especially the cozies.
LB: How did you come across them — because they’re perfect for you. How did you come across them as your publisher?
AG: I attended a conference called DFW Con in Dallas. Part of it must’ve been divine intervention, because literally the only reason I went was because it was in walking distance, so I didn’t have to arrange for hotel or transportation, I just walked about five or six blocks. And the registration included two pitch sessions; you could buy extra sessions on a space-available basis at the conference. So I went down to the sign-up area, really was just planning to do pitch sessions just to practice doing a pitch, that wasn’t my strong point, and I figured as much practice as possible would be good. I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. And Kendel Lynn had lots and lots of openings. Someone had mentioned Henery Press to me once; other than that one mention, I didn’t know anything about it. So I went and pitched to Kendel. And she happened to say, hey, you know, we’re looking for a paranormal cozy. And I said, well, I happen to have a paranormal cozy. And it just went on from there.
LB: Oh, that’s fantastic. So that’s what’s next on your horizon. Do you have any other big-picture ideas for your series or for something else that you’re working on?
AG: Well, there’ll be a third book in the series, they actually offered me a three-book deal. So once I finish Book Two, which is, unless they change the title, Death in D Minor. Book Three will be called A Killing in C Sharp. After that, I’ll have to see if there are any more Gethsemane Brown novels or if I want to try a stand alone or start a different series. So I’m not quite sure after Book Three, but there’ll be something after Book Three.
LB: Along with Ireland, whiskey plays a role in the novel. Are you a connoisseur?
AG: Yes, I am now. I didn’t use to — probably because, like a lot of people, the first whiskey I ever tried was the horrible, cheap stuff on the bottom shelf. And it was also a while ago, before the sort of craft beer/single malt whiskey kind of boom kind of picked up. So it was terrible of course. But then I, thanks to the Irish pub in Dallas, which has a whiskey list that goes on for six or eight pages, with the explanations and with wait staff knowledgeable enough to explain to you what you’re doing, I tried something that was actually worth the money I paid for it, and I thought, wow, this is really, really good. So from there, I started trying different varieties and actually paying attention to what I was drinking. I also learned the difference between whiskeys that were made for blending into cocktails, which is what I had started out with. And they tend not to taste very good outside of a cocktail. Versus whiskeys that were meant to be enjoyed just as a whiskey. So the more I learned about it, the more I understood why my first experience hadn’t been a good one and the more I started to explore different locally-made ones, versus Scottish, versus Irish, and we even have some Japanese whiskey. So now I appreciate them. I won’t go so far as to say a connoisseur, I’ll call it, I’m a whiskey appreciator.
LB: I introduced you as a Renaissance woman and really, you are.
AG: Thank you.
LB: Well, it’s lovely because you have so many interests and they all seem to have dovetailed into this series.
AG: I tried to pull the things I enjoyed into the series. I figured it would be a lot easier to write about things that I enjoyed than trying to pick something at random because I thought it would sell, but that I really didn’t have any interest in.
LB: Well, I’m delighted that you did. I love the series and I can’t wait for the next book. Thank you so much for joining me today.
AG: Thank you for having me.