Episode 47: Leslie Karst

“Papà.” I looked into my father’s eyes, deep blue and set off by leathery skin and rows of wrinkles—the result of age, but also a lifetime of long hours in fishing boats out in the sun. “Oh, Papà,” I said again and then started to cry.

I hadn’t meant to; I’d convinced myself I could do this, that I could hold it together and be strong for my dad. But now, standing there in front of him, it hit me: I was about to tell him that his sister had been viciously murdered.

— Leslie Karst, Dying for a Taste

Cozy mystery lovers are in for a treat! Leslie Karst’s Sally Solari series is set in not one, but two restaurants on the California coast. Sun, sand, recipes, and murder. What more could one ask for?

Leslie and I chat about her multiple careers — waitress, passionate chef, attorney, writer — and how they all come together in her wonderful cozy mysteries. You can check out her website here and her Facebook Author page over here. The first book in the series is Dying for a Taste, and gives an insider’s view of running a restaurant. The second, A Measure of Murder, blends music with the mystery, as Sally joins a local chorus to be able to sing Mozart’s Requiem. An appropriate piece of music, as it turns out…

Meanwhile, we also bond over a shared love of Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, Sarah Caudwell, and Ellen Byron. Ellen and I had a chat a few months ago, and you can check her out, along with her hilarious Louisiana cozies, right here. And if you are a Dorothy Sayers fan (and who isn’t?), I recently found a terrific group on Facebook, The Lord Peter Wimsey Appreciation Society, should you be looking for like-minded people with whom to chat about all things DLS. 

Finally, Leslie gives a big shout-out to her fellow Guppies at Sisters in Crime. Woot!

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

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Leslie Karst

Laura Brennan: Author Leslie Karst combines her background as an attorney with her English Lit degree and culinary passion to create a cozy series as delightful and unique as she is. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls her a “dab hand with the red herrings” while her fans call the Sally Solari Mysteries “smart, thoughtfully plotted, and laugh-out-loud.”

Leslie, thank you for joining me.

Leslie Karst: Thank you so much, Laura, for inviting me. This is very exciting.

LB: So you came to writing after a career in the law.

LK: Yes, I did.

LB: But you started out as a Lit major. Was writing always in the back of your mind?

LK: Well, when you’re a literature major, all you do — you do a lot of reading, but you mostly do a lot of writing. So that’s probably when I would date my earliest decent writing, anyway, back to that time in college, yes.

LB: But then, when you left college, you bounced around for a bit, let’s say.

LK: I absolutely did. I was one of those people, you know, with an English lit major, there’s not a whole lot of jobs you can get. You can be an English literature teacher, but those are pretty much impossible to get. And by the time I had finished my four years doing that, I realized that literary criticism was not my passion. Even though I love to read. So I spent about seven years having all sorts of strange jobs. I washed baby diapers for a while, which is sort of embarrassing to admit. [Laughter.] I wanted to stay in Santa Cruz and so I did all different jobs.

One of the jobs I did was waitressing, which I liked a lot. But I eventually decided I needed to grow up and get a real job. My father was a law professor, and I’d always been told that I was argumentative. “You’d be such a great lawyer!” So I ended up going to law school. Which my writing really helped with that, too, because most lawyers cannot write to save their lives. They’re very good at maybe standing on their feet and arguing in court or whatever, but I actually ended up being pretty good about putting together a legal argument and so I think that’s where I really kind of gelled as a writer, was during that period.

LB: I just had a conversation with a thriller writer, DV Berkom, and she was saying how she bounced around and did an awful lot of jobs. And she found that really useful then, in her writing, to be able to have had that vast experience of different people and also different occupations.

LK: That’s really true. The more people you meet and the stranger they are, the more interesting your writing will be.

LB: Then you left the law.

LK: So, yes, I worked as a legal research and appellate attorney for 20 years, but I never loved it. I was good at it, but the legal part of it wasn’t ever my passion. Although it was very interesting being a research attorney; you work for all the other partners in the law firm doing their research and their writing. So I got to work on all different kinds of cases, from just basic civil litigation to business law and probate and wills, which, by the way, does come in handy in writing mystery novels.

But after 20 years, I saved enough money that I could retire. So I stopped. But then I realized, I’m the sort of person that I need to have something to focus on. I need to always be moving forward, kind of like a shark, I guess. And I loved writing, and I thought, wow, writing fiction, now that would be fun. Way more fun than writing legal briefs. So that’s when I decided to write my first mystery novel.

LB: So your heroine, Sally, is, like you, a former attorney.

LK: Yes, she is. Write what you know, right? [Laughter]

LB: Well, it works, because you bring so much veracity to it.

LK: Well, thank you. Yes, she, like me — she hadn’t worked as long as I had as an attorney. And she wasn’t crazy about it either.

Sally is part of the Italian-American fishing community here in Santa Cruz. Her mother died of cancer before the first book opens, and she has been sort of sucked back into the family business. Her father owns an Italian seafood restaurant out on the Santa Cruz wharf called Solari’s. When her mother dies — she’s been running the front of the house — Mario, her father, is at kind of a loss. He doesn’t know what to do without her and is very unhappy. Sally has come back, partly because it’s an excuse to stop working as a lawyer, but also out of — she wants to help her dad. And she’s kind of grown up around the business.

So when the first book opens, Dying for a Taste, she has been back at Solari’s for a while, running the front of the house, the waitresses and the front of the house staff.

LB: One of the things I really enjoyed about it was how you give a glimpse into how restaurants are really run. This isn’t a spoiler, this is how it opens: there’s a murder and it turns out the knives are locked up. I had no idea knives were locked up in the kitchen!

LK: I don’t think they always are, but a good knife can run several hundred dollars. And so they’re locked up not so much for safety reasons but to keep them from being either, A) stolen, but also just used. I have a really nice chef’s knife that’s worth a couple of hundred dollars, and I don’t let — very few people use it. Because you need to immediately wash them, dry them, and put them back in the rack. You don’t want them sitting around, they can get chipped and dented. So that actually is true.

Yes, it is great. I worked, as I said before, I worked as a waitress for several years. While I was an attorney, I actually went back to school and took night classes and got my associates degree in culinary arts. That’s when my passion for cooking really took flight. And during that time, some of the required courses require you to work in restaurant kitchens. And so that’s when I got the experience working the back of the house and learning how to work the hot line. So, it’s nice, because not an awful lot of people have experience both in the front of the house and in the back of the house. So I was able to both of those into the books.

LB: Did you develop it as a cozy because you wanted to be able to use your expertise and that’s where that would fit in, or do you just love cozy mysteries?

LK: You know, it’s probably more of the former. I do love cozy mysteries, I’ve been reading mysteries since I was a teenager. But I think it’s more, when I decided to write the mystery, I knew immediately that I wanted to be about cooking because I’m so passionate about cooking. It’s one of the things I care most about. Not just cooking, but the whole food world. So I knew that right away, but then the question was, well, there are a lot of cozy culinaries out there. What’s going to make mine different?

So what happened was, it’s funny, this sounds really clichéd, but I was actually out jogging and it just came to me, this idea. Because the thing about Santa Cruz, I moved to Santa Cruz to go to college in the mid-70s, then never left. When I first arrived in Santa Cruz, the University there had only been open a few years. So at the time it was still kind of, it had the same feel that it had had for many, many years. It was a retirement town, a lot of Italian fishermen that had arrived back in the late 1800s, ranchers… It wasn’t at all like it is now.

But now, of course, you have a big University move in, and by the turn of the last century, 2000, the town had completely changed and it was teeming with hippies and hipsters and urban professionals. And the food movement had just completely descended upon the town. And so it just came to me, wow, what a great backdrop for mystery, to have this conflict between these two cultures. And so I thought, what if I had my sleuth be a part of the old-fashioned, traditional Italian families, yet she somehow ends up being involved in this whole new food revolution, food movement, sustainable farming and all that stuff. So that was how the idea first came to me.

LB: So then how do you develop the murders? How do you kill people off?

LK: That’s the fun part! Well, I needed to have her have a connection to the new, and she’s around 40, so she would of course, just by her age, be more involved in the current culture than her parents’ generation would be. So I decided to have her aunt — it’s always fun to have somebody who is sort of the black sheep of the family. And so her aunt Letta, who’s her father’s sister, also grew up in the same family but kind of shunned the business. So there’s already this clash with the family because she’s left. She went up to Berkeley to work at Chez Panisse, she travels the world and Polynesia, and then she comes back to Santa Cruz and she opens her own restaurant, which is more of a high-end, snooty kind of place.

So to begin with, immediately there is this tension between her and her brother Mario, Sally’s father. He’s like, what, you don’t think we’re good enough? And that kind of thing. And so I thought, well, I need to get Sally involved in this. So I decided to kill her off.

Sally ends up inheriting this restaurant, so now there’s this conflict between her and her father. But it’s also Sally, as she investigate her aunt’s murder — she’s been stabbed to death, so it’s obviously a murder from the outset — she starts learning more about this aunt that she knew fairly well and had been starting to get close to, but didn’t really know her history. And so part of it is a search for who her aunt was, is also a major theme in that first book.

LB: I love that there’s, it’s not just kill off somebody that everybody hates and dance around.

LK: Right. Once I decided to kill her off and I decided it would be important to have part of the journey be Sally learning about her, at one point I regretted it. I said, why did I kill this person off? I love her! She might be one of my favorite characters. So it was actually very sad. But that was good, because it allowed me to, I think, I hope, inject some of the sadness into the book. I mean, they are cozies, they’re not serious and I definitely try to inject humor, but at the same time, somebody did die. You have to address that.

LB: It’s cozy without being overly sweet.

LK: I like to refer to them as snarky cozies.

LB: There you go. Perfect. Snarky cozies, I’m going to make you your own genre. But actually want to keep rolling on this idea, too, because the relationships between the characters are also somewhat unexpected. You have layers to the relationships, no easy definitions for some of them.

LK: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Because I don’t think, in real life, people do have easy relationships ever. So I was trying to do that, that was definitely on purpose. I’m glad it worked.

LB: Your second book brings in an additional element that you are also good at, which is singing.

LK: One of my ideas for the series is not just — they’re all going to be about food, very heavily, because that is my number one passion in life. But I also had this idea that each book would have a sub theme of one of the five senses. So the first one is obviously taste. And the second one is the sense of hearing, and it’s called A Measure of Murder. In it, Sally joins a local chorus that her ex-boyfriend, now best pal — his name is Eric — he sings in this chorus. And he tells her they are going to be singing the Mozart Requiem, which is something Sally has wanted to sing ever since high school. She was obsessed with the movie Amadeus, as I kind of was at one point. So even though she’s crazy busy running these two restaurants, she agrees and joins this chorus.

So what happened was, music has long been one of my passions also. I studied clarinet when I was a kid and then between college and law school, I fronted and wrote songs for and sang in two different bands. And then for the past 17 years I’ve been singing alto in my local community chorus. So when it came time to plot a story about the sense of hearing, there was no question, it has to focus on music. And since the Mozart Requiem is one of my favorite pieces of music, I thought, well, that would be great. Because here’s the thing, it’s perfect for a mystery novel. The Mozart Requiem itself is surrounded by secrets and mystery because it wasn’t finished. It was the last thing Mozart was working on before he died, and a lot of it was not finished when he died. And so there are all these secrets, there’s the mystery surrounding who commissioned it, who finished it after he died, which parts were composed by whom… And I thought, that’s perfect for a mystery novel. It’s not hugely important in the story, but it’s there, as a theme. It adds a whole level of mystery.

LB: Can I just say how incredibly clever that is?

LK: Thank you!

LB: That is so fun. Now I can’t wait, which sense is Book Three?

LK: So, Book Three, I just got back my edits from my editor at Crooked Lane. And it is the sense of vision. See now, these senses are just subtle and if you didn’t hear me say this, you might not even know it. But for me, it’s really fun to do this.

Anyway, it’s the sense of vision because the restaurant that Sally inherits in the first novel is called Gauguin. And is named after the French Impressionist, or Post Impressionist, Paul Gauguin. And it’s a French Polynesian restaurant, and of course Gauguin lived many years in Polynesia. So Sally, at the opening of the book, has decided she needs to learn a little bit more about Gauguin. She doesn’t know much about him, so she’s been reading his biography and she’s inspired by his amazing, eye-popping canvases. So she convinces Eric to enroll with her in a plein air painting class, painting outdoors. And wouldn’t you know it, they are out at the beach painting the beautiful Monterey coastline, when Sally’s dog Buster sniffs out a body entangled in a pile of kelp on the beach. So that’s how it opens.

This book will focus especially on the Italian fishing community out on the wharf in Santa Cruz, including the food and the cooking that were favored by what they call the original 60 families that moved here to Santa Cruz in the 1880s from Liguria in Italy. And it’s due to be released in spring of 2018.

LB: Oh, I can’t wait. That’s so exciting. So your heroine has a very unusual name. Is there a story behind that?

LK: There is, as a matter fact. To both first and last name. I knew immediately, before I even started writing the book, that I wanted my protagonist to be called Sally. It’s not a name that is that popular these days, but I told you earlier that I had been in a couple of bands in the 1980s and 90s. The very first rock band I was in, right out of college, with my brother, was a new wave rock band called Enigma. I had written a song that has a character named Sally in it. And I named her after Long Tall Sally because I had been a fan of the Beatles’ version of that song from when I was a little kid and I just thought it would be fun to put her in the song, that name in the song.

And then when it came time to write this book, I thought, I’m going to have my character named Sally because first of all, she’s Italian. She’s named after her grandfather, who is Salvatore. So I thought that was fun, especially to have a girl named after boy because my name, Leslie, is my father’s middle name. So I’m named after my dad and people always think that’s interesting. So I thought well, I’ll do that for my protagonist as well.

And then I wanted, I liked the idea of the alliteration so when it came time to come up, when I started thinking about a surname for her, I did some research about family names both from Liguria, where the Italians came from in this area, but also ones in Santa Cruz. And when I saw the name Solari, I thought, that is perfect because it gives the sense of solo, being alone. She’s this person against the world. There’s a reason that he was named Napoleon Solo and Han Solo. And so we’ve got now Sally Solari, which is sort of like that.

LB: That is so fun! What a great story. And I hadn’t thought about the Han Solo thing or the Napoleon Solo thing. That’s so neat.

LK: Yup.

LB: It seems to me from your books and how you’ve created this world that pulls together everything you are passionate about —

LK: Mmm-hmm.

LB: Most of my listeners are readers but some of them are also writers, and for either one, how do you do that? How do you manage to pull together all of your passions? Do you have any advice for them?

LK: Oh, boy. You know, I can’t help but do it. I’ve always been interested in so many different things and it’s one of the things I like most about writing this series is that I do get to inject so many things into it. And when you live in a community as diverse as Santa Cruz, chances are if you’re interested in something, there’s going to be somebody else in town who also does that as well. And so you can bring them in as characters and it’s realistic. Obviously you can’t get too far afield from your storyline; I guess if anything, my biggest problem is reining myself in. I definitely had to take out some of the music from A Measure of Murder. My instinct was to put in all of these details about musicology and music theory and all this stuff to satisfy the people that were very much into music. But then my editor very wisely said, you know, a lot of these people aren’t going to be very interested in it and are not going to understand it. So I think we came to a good balance of enough to satisfy the people who are experts, without boring the people who are laypeople and don’t know much about it.

LB: You said that you loved cozies. Are there any cozy authors that you particularly enjoy?

LK: You know, I first started reading the Golden Age mysteries because my mom started giving them to me when I was a teenager. So I cut my teeth on Dorothy L Sayers, and truly I’ve never found anybody that I love as much as her. There something that’s so special about her books. I think she was my biggest inspiration because what I loved about her series is that each one focused on something different. One book you’re learning about bell ringing and the next one you’re learning about the advertising industry in London in the 1930s. And then the next one, you’re at Oxford learning about the Oxford dons and the system. And I guess what I love most about mystery novels is learning about different subcultures.

For more modern people, I also was very inspired by Sue Grafton because I like hers, they’re sort of snarky like mine are. And Sarah Caudwell. Current authors, well we can go into Ellen Byron here. I love Ellen Byron. She’s a fellow Crooked Lane author with me.

I actually met Ellen because on the Guppies Listserve — and I’ll do a big shout-out to Sisters in Crime and the Guppies because I would not be here if it were not for them — I saw that she had mentioned Crooked Lane. My first book wasn’t out yet, I was doing the last edits, and I contacted her just to find out, you know, have a big sister that could help me through the first time around the publishing cycle. And she was amazing — was and is amazing. So generous with her time. And her books, Plantation Shudders and Body on the Bayou, are so fun. They are set in New Orleans and they include so many of the attributes that I love in a mystery. They’re funny, they have characters that spring to life on the page, they’re good reads, they’re page turners, and you learn about a new culture. I learned so much about Cajun culture and New Orleans and the Bayou. So they’re terrific.

LB: Well, thank you. I love Dorothy Sayers too, and in fact, I’ve just discovered — and I’ll link to it in the show notes — that there’s a Facebook group for Dorothy Sayers fans.

LK: Oh!

LB: I know, right? So it’ll be in the show notes.

LK: I’ll have to check that out.

LB: And in the show notes, of course, I’ll link to your website, but for those people who do not go to the show notes, can you tell us where we can find you online?

LK: I have a website. It’s LeslieKarstAuthor.com. And I also have a Facebook page, an author Facebook page. So those are the two best places to find me.

LB: Great! And I will link to both of those in the show notes.

LK: Fabulous.

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

LK: Thank you so much for inviting me, Laura. This has been very special.


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