Episode 38: Nancy G. West

Not every city has a river running through it. And not many women plan a rendezvous at a San Antonio River Walk hotel during Fiesta Week after years of self-imposed celibacy. I was about to make history.

— Nancy G. West, River City Dead


Nancy G. West’s heroine, Aggie Mundeen, burst onto the scene as a secondary character in Nancy’s first novel, Nine Days to Evil, and demanded that Nancy write Aggie her own story.

Lucky for us, Nancy obliged with not one, but four Aggie Mundeen mysteries, and counting. Check out her website, NancyGWest.com

Her latest mystery, River City Dead, takes place during Fiesta Week in San Antonio, which Nancy calls a “fabulous, distinctive place and time.” What more could one ask for? Well, perhaps a dead body in the penthouse suite…

We also talked about Dorothy Sayers (I gave a shout-out to her translation of Dante’s Inferno, which is a personal favorite) and Nancy’s essay, which taught me things I never even suspected about the wonderful Ms. Sayers — including the inspiration for Strong Poison. I would be remiss not to link to the Dorothy L. Sayers Facebook Page, and you can read Nancy’s essay here

Here are the Aggie Mundeen books in order:

  1. Fit to be Dead
  2. Dang Near Dead
  3. Smart, But Dead
  4. River City Dead

And Nancy’s first novel, Nine Days to Evil.

Below is the transcript, if you’d rather read than listen. Enjoy!

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Nancy G. West

Laura Brennan: My guest today is Nancy G. West, author of Nine Days To Evil and the Aggie Mundeen mystery series. Her first Aggie Mundeen mystery received a Lefty Award nomination for best humorous mystery, and she has won numerous awards, including the Chanticleer competition in the Mystery and Mayhem category — an appropriate win for her heroine, Aggie, whose itchy feet presage dead bodies and danger.

Nancy, thank you for joining me.

Nancy G. West: Oh, I’m delighted to be here, Laura. Thank you.

LB: Now, before you started writing professionally, you had a career in business.

NGW: I did. Well, I majored in general business administration, and I took a lot of marketing courses and management and accounting courses. And I found out that that wasn’t really to my liking. So, after we married and I had two daughters, I decided that what I really wanted to do was write fiction. So I went back to school, to graduate school, to study English Lit. And I loved it, but they didn’t teach me how to write fiction either. So I read a bazillion books on the craft of writing fiction. And that’s really what got me started.

LB: Did you look at your life and go, there’s got to be a mystery in here somewhere?

NGW: Not so much a mystery in there somewhere but that writing was my passion and I really wanted to write fiction. I had written nonfiction articles, it was fun and satisfying; I’d even written a biography of a Texas artist who is actually a Spaniard who had immigrated here through Venezuela, up to Texas. But I really wanted to tell stories. And so I knew that, as a business major, I hadn’t had the opportunity to take very many courses in writing or creative writing or literature, so I thought it was time for me to learn something about it.

LB: So, why mysteries then? Why did you gravitate towards mysteries?

NGW: Well, I knew the hardest thing I thought, for me, would be to plot. And when you write mysteries, you have to have a good plot. I loved writing characters, I loved writing scenes, I love writing the dialogue where Aggie and Sam or the other characters talk to one another. So I didn’t think that would be a problem. But the plotting, I thought would be the most difficult – and it is. And so I thought, okay, if you’re going to write mysteries, you must learn how to plot. So that was where I did a lot of studying.

LB: So you really just threw yourself into the hardest thing you could think of.

NGW: Basically! I have a tendency to do that. Take on things that I probably shouldn’t take on. But that’s what makes it fun.

LB: That’s actually something, that’s a good transition to Nine Days to Evil. Because Meredith takes on something much bigger than she imagines.

NGW: Right.

LB: For someone who hasn’t read the book yet, it opens with Meredith getting a call from her husband, and then hearing a crash, and then nothing. It’s as if her husband has vanished into thin air. Her entire life is turned upside down, she digs for the truth, and she finds that much more than she bargained for.

NGW: Exactly.

LB: Where did you get the idea for that novel?

NGW: I guess I thought about a young woman who had a good life and has been well treated who marries a man who is very handsome and accomplished and expects her perfect fairytale life to go on. And then I thought, what type of thing would be the most upsetting to her? What would be the circumstances where she just couldn’t deal with something? What would be the most difficult thing for her to face? So I thought, well, she’s so trusting — in fact, the original title for the book was A Matter of Trust. And I thought, she’s so trusting, what if she found out that one of the people she loved dearly wasn’t somebody she couldn’t  trust? And it sort of took off from there.

LB: And it has a Shakespearian connection to it.

NGW: Yes. She’s in graduate school studying Abnormal Psychology, which is always helpful for a mystery, and Shakespeare’s Othello. There’s an evil man in Othello named Iago. He has a lot of the qualities that she begins to recognize are in this person that she realizes she can’t trust. Once she makes the connection, she starts on the path to figure out what is ticking with this person,  what the person is actually doing, and what’s going to happen to her. That gets her involved in the mystery and in a situation she’s never faced before.

LB: In Nine Days to Evil, you actually introduce your series character, you introduce Aggie.

NGW: Right.

LB: At what point did you know that Aggie was going to need her own story?

NGW: Well, Aggie kind of demanded it. She was in a class that Meredith took. She was older, pushing forty. Meredith is twenty-two when the book begins. Aggie was funnier and wiser and a little bit cynical, and she’d lived a little bit longer, so she didn’t take herself or events quite as seriously as Meredith did. And Aggie had a rather dark past, so she always had that in her mind. And she was single.  She had been in Chicago and was starting over in Texas. I thought she had more facets to her than Meredith did. Meredith just hadn’t lived as long or seen as much, and she wasn’t as funny as Aggie. I thought Aggie could sustain a series.   

That turned out to be true, and I’ve loved writing about Aggie. She surprised me when she showed up in Meredith’s class and virtually demanded that I write a book about her. Once she was in my consciousness, she just wouldn’t get out. So I really knew Aggie had me. She was stuck in my brain and I was going to have to write about her. And I still do. I don’t know that I’ll ever give Aggie up. She’s quite a character.

LB: She’s a terrific character. Let’s talk about her for a little bit. She’s actually an advice columnist.

NGW: Yes, she’s working in a Chicago bank, and on the side she has a column called “Stay Young With Aggie” in the Chicago paper. She is obsessed with the idea that she’s about to turn forty. And it won’t be long. She’s single, working in a bank where she doesn’t like what she’s doing, and she’s going to have to start over. She’s obsessed with staying young long enough so that she can start over. She wants to get in shape, meet people and get out of that bank. She really is starting over when the series begins.

LB: I love the idea that you have an advice columnist who does not in fact have her own life together.

NGW: That’s true, she doesn’t.

LB: You play with that a little bit, you play with the idea that we’re supposed to have it all together. And Aggie struggles against that.

NGW: She does, and I think it’s because she has been single for so long and had a difficult time when she was young, and she’s decided she needs to study about relationships, how to get in shape and how to look good. She needs to make changes in her own life. So she might as well share them with readers. She’s kind of giving her own thoughts, her own experiences in her column.

LB: She has an awful lot to say about women — or, you have an awful lot to say about women over forty and the kinds of things that take on your life at that point.

NGW: Well, I didn’t realize that. I guess that’s true. She’s always giving advice. Whether she uses it herself is problematic. But she’s always giving advice about how to look your best, be your best, and keep learning.

Of course, she keeps getting in trouble. She has tremendous curiosity and I think that gets her into a lot of situations where other people probably might not go.

LB: One of the things you have her telling others that I thought really resonated in your books is the idea of women helping other women. “Treasure your girlfriends.” Be there for each other. I thought that was something that really defined why Aggie jumps into so many things.

NGW: I think it does. I think in her experience, she’s found she’s better able to trust the women who have been in her life than the men. She has a problem with that. She’s able to trust her girlfriends, they’re valuable to her, and she’s eager to make friends and help them out and have them help her. But she has to learn how to deal with the men, and she does throughout the course of the books. One in particular.

LB: So, the Aggie Mundeen books are fun and they’re humorous, but they’re kind of cozy with an edge to them. You don’t pussyfoot around death. When death happens, it’s big and it’s sad.

NGW: Well, to me, that’s realistic. I think it’s a balance to write a mystery that’s both engaging and fun, because very often mysteries talk about somebody dying or being murdered. And that’s never fun. People are fun. We’re fun because of the things that we do, and the actions we take are usually humorous. So I try to keep the humor in people’s reactions before and after the tragic event. But the tragic event itself is never funny.

It’s kind of a balance to get all of those things in there. You know, we can’t laugh at murder. But we can laugh at people’s reactions before and after to the person, perhaps, who is murdered or even the murderer. You’ll always find some humor. There are a lot of books with scenes at funerals,  and you’ll see people doing and saying all sorts of ridiculous things even though the situation they’re in is not a bit funny. But people’s reactions are funny. And so that’s what I try to convey with Aggie and her friends.

LB: You also, sort of technically, you switch points of view and you switch voice from first person to third person sometimes. Which is, I would imagine, technically very difficult.

NGW: It’s interesting. You are only the second person who has reviewed Aggie’s books who has even noticed that. I’m glad that you did. I wondered how it would be, if it would take the spotlight off of Aggie. I worried about that. It wasn’t difficult in the sense that it gave me a chance to show that Sam, her love interest, is a true San Antonio detective. It gave me a chance to show how he viewed her. Up to then, it was only how she viewed him. It also gave me a chance to show how the police really work on a case and what it’s like when they go back to the office. And how difficult it is to get time off to be with the person they’re in love with. Or even that they like. It’s a difficult life with things they must do in order to do their business. Amateurs like Aggie don’t always appreciate what’s going on with these people that really are in the line of fire.

LB: I appreciate the look inside that it gives us; it gives us a much more intimate view of Sam as well.

NGW: Good. I’m glad. I wondered about that.

LB: Tell me about your most recent book, River City Dead.

NGW: Aggie and Sam have developed a close relationship, although it’s always contentious because he knows the professional way to investigate crimes and she doesn’t. She’s so eager and enthusiastic and determined to help him in his work because she likes him, and she  thinks that’s the way she should be, involved in his business. So she jumps in with both feet. It’s always been difficult for him because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings; he likes Aggie. But he can’t stand some of the things she does, and he knows she’s putting herself in danger, which worries him even more.

In spite of all that contention, I wanted them to go and try to be together for a long weekend where they might catch a little peace away from crime and away from the difficulties that plagued them. I thought of taking them on a cruise, and I thought of having them go here and there, and I thought, wait a minute! Why not San Antonio? I live here, and people come to the San Antonio River Walk by the thousands, and they love it. I’ve been here and seen Fiesta Week for many, many years. It’s a fabulous, distinctive place and time. Why not have them come here?

LB: I’m so glad you did, because I had never heard of the River City Fiesta. I wanted to make sure that it was a real thing.

NGW: Oh, it is! It is. It’s every year, it’s been going on—well, it started over a hundred years ago. There was a president who came to San Antonio, and a group of women got in a carriage and decided they were going to have a parade for the president. They threw real flowers, real flower petals at him, in front of the Alamo, which is the symbol of Texas independence. That was the first event of Fiesta Week. And it’s grown from there. I think last year it was ten days and maybe this year it’s twelve days of nothing but partying. Different people, different organizations, put on events and all sorts of things.

It’s just one big party all over the city,  a wonderful way for all the people in the city to enjoy the same thing. You know, we get in our little groups and do our little things, and this is a big annual conglomerate and everybody loves it and looks forward to it.

LB: That’s fantastic. And I love how you were able to put the historical facts into the mystery and just seamlessly weave them in.

NGW: Good. I appreciate that. It’s hard to do sometimes. You get so interested in them yourself, you have a tendency to ramble off on them. But I think people want to know how all this came about. I’m glad it worked.

LB: You also, speaking of history, you also are a bit of an historian yourself. You have written fairly significantly on Dorothy Sayers.

NGW: I have. I don’t remember why I got so interested in Dorothy Sayers, I guess because she was a very prominent mystery writer in what they call the Golden Age, when the mystery, the cozy mystery particularly, came of age in England. But at the same time, she was an academic. She was a medieval scholar and a Biblical scholar and she went to Oxford. She was really quite well-educated. Her mysteries, she said, were not academic things. They were for fun. I liked that about her, so I wanted to read all her work and see what made her tick.

LB: It was very interesting. I learned some things about her. I’m going to link to that essay in the show notes so the people can take a look.

NGW: You know there’s a Dorothy Sayers chat room people go to all the time and talk about her books. In fact, there are a lot of sites on Facebook where they talk about one book or other, one mystery they thought was the best. She was quite a lady.

LB: I liked her translation of Dante—The Inferno, actually.

NGW: Oh, wow. I haven’t read that. I’d love to read that.

LB: Oh, yeah. It’s a nice translation.

NGW: Awesome.

LB: So tell me, what is next for you?

NGW: Well, Aggie is not going away. She won’t let me alone. And neither will Sam. So they’re probably going to be together, whether in an extension of the series or another series. I don’t know. But they’ll be there. I’m just not through with them yet—it’s probably better to say, they’re not through with me yet.

LB: And how would people be able to find you?

NGW: I have a website, www.NancyGWest.com. I use the ‘G’ because there are about a thousand Nancy Wests, even in my area. And I have a Facebook page, it’s also NancyGWest. And I tweet @NancyGWest. I love to talk to readers, find out what they think and what things about the books impress them or what questions they may have,  just as you have.

LB: That’s terrific. Nancy, thank you so much for joining me today.

NGW: Thank you. This is a real treat. Destination Mystery is a great thing. Thank you, Laura.