Episode 54: Kirsten Weiss

All I could see was the dress. The ghost of weddings past, it swept above the checkered linoleum floor and rooted me in place. My heart twisted, leaving me breathless.

I jolted into motion. The quiche, forgotten, slipped sideways on my oven mitts. I steadied it and gaped through the kitchen window to the pie shop’s dining area. No. No, no, no.

— Kirsten Weiss, The Quiche and the Dead

Kirsten Weiss came to writing via Africa, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and a certain metaphysical detective, whom she invented one windy, rainy afternoon. The Riga Hayworth novels were only the beginning; Kirsten has multiple series in a variety of genres, but her books are all mysteries at heart.

Her latest book doesn’t just fit squarely into the cozy genre, it nails it. The Quiche and the Dead hits all the high notes. We talk about the new series, the joys of paranormal mysteries, and how transformative micro-loans can be. 

I can’t possibly list all of Kirsten’s series in order, so I will instead link you directly to her website, where you can find all seven (7!) of her series under the Books tab. Each page gives you the series order. In addition, she has the most fun extras on her site: fortune telling here, kitchen witchery there. And for those who just can’t get enough, she and Elizabeth Barton teach an online course on Everyday Magic

You can also find her on Pinterest, and I highly recommend that you do.

Kirsten gives a nod to some first-rate authors, among them P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, and — not his usual company! — Stephen King. When we chatted Steampunk, I had to give a fan-girl shout-out to Gail Carriger, whose books I adore. 

For those who would rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura


Transcript of interview with Kirsten Weiss

Laura Brennan: My guest today makes writing seem effortless. Her multiple series include the Paranormal Museum cozies, the Doyle cozy mysteries, the Doyle Witch cozies, the Pie Town Mysteries, the Sensibility Grey Steampunk Suspense novels, plus other series and stories included in various anthologies…

Kirsten, thank you for joining me.

Kirsten Weiss: Thank you for having me.

LB: One of the themes in cozies, and it’s in the Quiche and the Dead, your latest novel and the first in your Pie Town mysteries, is a woman starting over. But that’s your story too, right? That’s how you first got yourself into writing?

KW: Yes. I had worked overseas in something called microcredit for years and years and years. And I’d been in all these crazy places, I’d been to Eastern Europe, I’d worked in Afghanistan, I worked in Africa, and there was a point where I just had to come home for various reasons. And I thought all the stuff I’d done overseas, I figured I cab make this transition really easily. It actually turned out to be a really difficult transition. I struggled, I ended up unemployed for a long time, ended up with a job that I just wasn’t suited for and I eventually quit that because I was quite certain I was going to be fired, although that turned out not to be true. But I quit, and it was a rainy, stormy day and I was driving down the street, the wind was lashing my windshield and the trees were tossing, and I was kind of brainstorming by myself what kind of potential jobs I could do.

When you brainstorm, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. As I came up with “private detective.” And then the phrase, “metaphysical detective” popped into my head. Then I thought, what the heck is a metaphysical detective? And I started piecing together this character named Riga Hayworth who was a metaphysical detective in San Francisco. So I wrote this book, and that led to the second book, and then I just kept on writing and writing and writing. Now it’s what I do.

LB: That’s so neat. Now, I actually do want to talk a little bit about microcredit. I’m a big supporter of Kiva; is that the same kind of thing you were doing?

KW: Exactly. Kiva actually funnels money to the institutions that are making the loans in various countries. So, yes, microcredit is, they make very small loans. The average tends to be around 100 bucks, so I’ve seen it lower and I’ve seen it a lot higher. The focus is on women entrepreneurs, usually women who might have a very small business, maybe a kiosk in a market, or they might have a sewing machine and they are sewing things in their living room. It’s really transformative, in my experience, when it focuses on small businesses. When it starts to get outside the box and focus on youth or disaster areas, I don’t feel that it works quite so well. Not everybody is cut out to be a business owner, or to run their own business. Let’s face it, some people just don’t want to do that. But when people are entrepreneurial, it works really well. I’ve seen amazing transformations.

LB: I love that it focuses on women, and on women entrepreneurs, which is an area that women are often shut out of.

KW: I met this one woman when I was in Ethiopia, and at that time I was working on a project, what they called The Missing Middle. Because micro-enterprise and microfinance is growing gangbusters. So there’s a lot of microfinance in the world and there’s a lot of banks in the world, but if you need like a $5000 or a $10,000 loan, it’s too small for the bank and too big for microfinance.

So I met this Ethiopian woman who had started out as a microfinance client with a $25 loan and she’d built it and built it and built it. And I was walking down the street with my Ethiopian colleague, and he pointed out this building and says, “Oh, that building is hers.” And I said, “Which one?” He said, “No, no, no. The whole block.” So she had saved and invested, saved and invested over a period of 12 years and then she started buying up buildings on her street until she and her husband owned an entire block of buildings which they were in turn leasing out to other people. And I just thought, oh, my god! And when I met her, she was illiterate, she was numerate, her husband was numerate and I don’t know if he was literate either. But it was just this — they understood. We save our money and we invest our money, we save our money and we invest our money. We build, build, build. And to go from a $25 micro loan for this little business selling seeds, which is where they had started, to owning a block of buildings just blew my mind.

I met her son, he was a teenager and he was going to go to college. The first person in his family for god knows, possibly forever, to go to college. And he was so proud of especially his mother for what she had done, and what she had done for him. It was just, it was amazing.

LB: That is fantastic. You’ve lived adventures.

KW: Yes. I mean, it didn’t really feel like adventure at the time. Although they make some good bar stories. But I tell you, when I met people like that, it really made me feel very lazy and very small. Because for somebody who is illiterate to do what she had done, and there are so many people out there who do that, when my life is so privileged here in the United States. It’s amazing what people can accomplish.

LB: Be that as it may, I do think that it is wrong to consider yourself lazy given that you have — how many books you have? You must have almost 20 books at this point.

KW: Yeah, it’s a little confusing for me because I’ve got books that the publisher has in hand but hasn’t published yet.

LB: Right.

KW: And books that I have in hand that are due to the publisher that I haven’t given away yet. So, yes, I think it’s, between the novellas and the — yes, I think it’s 20 now.

LB: Let me start with that very first book, it was urban fantasy.

KW: Right.

LB: So what made you move into cozies?

KW: I grew up on cozies. I grew up on Agatha Christie and I really loved it and I really enjoyed especially the funny cozies. Like Charlotte MacLeod. So I always loved mysteries; even my urban fantasies are really mystery novels kind of wrapped in an urban fantasy package. So it seemed really natural to turn to cozies.

My first, I guess, true cozies were probably the Paranormal Museum series. And then The Quiche and the Dead, which is part of the Pie Town series, is I think my funniest cozy so far. Although other people may disagree. Everybody’s sense of humor is different, so what I think is funny may not be. But I’m really happy with them. I enjoy them.

LB: It’s funny, I can tell that it’s not your first rodeo because it just is one of those perfect cozies. It hits all the high notes.

KW: Oh, thank you!

LB: You’re welcome. Well, you have the heroine in a new town, you have a hint of romance, you have a lot of humor, it’s very funny. And you have a fantastic supporting cast of friends.

KW: Charlene is one of my favorite characters. When I originally conceived of The Quiche and the Dead and the series, I wanted it set in this pie shop — because I like pie — but I wasn’t really thinking of it as a baking mystery or a culinary mystery. I was thinking of it more as a buddy story. And I love the way the relationship develops between Charlene who’s this very eccentric elderly woman and young Val, who’s much more straightlaced.

LB: I love that. And I love Charlene for another reason, which is that she brings to life the idea of not being bound by other people’s expectations.

KW: Exactly! She is very much a free spirit, she does what she wants to do. She’s in her 80s so at this point she’s like, the heck with it. I don’t care what you think about me. And she just loves life, she really embraces it. She embraces the wackiness of it and when it’s not wacky, she makes it wacky.

LB: I read pretty widely, and I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a deaf, narcoleptic cat.

KW: (Laughter.) Well, a lot of white cats apparently are deaf. For people who are listening, Charlene has this cat named Frederick who is deaf and narcoleptic, so she carries it with her everywhere. Val is doubtful about the deafness and the narcolepsy. She thinks he’s just lazy and doesn’t like to respond to people. But he does end up playing a role in the story.

LB: For someone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading it, what do they need to know to be able to follow this conversation? How does it start?

KW: So it starts with, Val has opened up a pie shop. She moved to this little town, San Nicholas, with her fiancé at the time. And then the engagement busted up. So now she’s in this town, she’s lost her reason for being there, in that specific place, and she’s trying to get it together. And of course somebody ends up dying. When that person dies, blame is cast on the pie shop unfairly and she ends up losing a lot of business. So now, not only has she lost her future husband and lost her reason for being in San Nicholas, but now her pie shop, which she put everything into, her whole heart and soul, is in jeopardy as well. And she has to put on her big girl pants at the urging of Charlene, her crusty piecrust maker, and solve the crime and get herself out of this hole that she’s into.

So it starts out for poor Val, things are not good. But they get a lot better.

LB: One of the questions for her — posed by more than one person, including myself, but actual characters, too — one of the questions for her is, why did she stay? After everything goes kerflooey with the relationship?

KW: Well, at this point, basically, she’s started up a business. And it’s not easy to shift once you’ve invested everything into a business, to shift it to another location. So that business is kind of anchoring her there. At the same time, the business means a lot to her. She and her mother, who passed away, she actually uses her mother’s insurance money to help start up this pie shop, they’ve been dreaming about opening up a pie shop. So she has a lot of emotional investment in the pie shop as well. So she’s not ready to just quit, the pie shop at this point is all she has. In her mind at least. Although she learns that she actually has a lot more in San Nicholas that she thought she did.

LB: I also really like it because she’s not running away from a situation. I think a lot of times these books start with someone who’s running from a bad situation and ends up in a small town. And with Val it’s different, she actually stays in the small town where she doesn’t have a support system that she was born into, but she stays there and she doesn’t run away from her troubles. I really love that aspect of it.

KW: Oh, thank you.

LB: So this is not giving anything away because he dies in the first chapter: I loved Joe! I was so sorry that he was a goner. Do you ever kill anyone off and regret it?

KW: There are some people who I didn’t expect to kill off in books, and then I end up doing it anyway. I have a hard time killing off my characters, I have to admit. It seems a little bit silly, maybe it’s slightly deranged, but these characters end up in my head. I know they’re not real people, obviously, but I find myself having little imaginary conversations with them. And so I think my subconscious thinks they’re real people. So sometimes it is painful for me to kill people. I tried to kill people in my books that I don’t like to make it easier for the reader and for the writer. I’m very pleasantly surprised and pleased that you got an attachment to Joe in just one chapter, that makes me feel good.

LB: And I have to ask, Joe’s best friend was Frank.

KW: Yes.

LB: Is that a nod to the Hardy Boys?

KW: I think that was my subconscious at work. Those two names popped into my head. I’m sure some subconscious was like, when I said Joe, Frank kind of came along with it. Because a couple of people have pointed that out to me and I did not intentionally do that. But I’m sure my subconscious did.

LB: So you have other series, and one of them is — well, you have two paranormal cozy series.

KW: Yes, The Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum, and the third book in that is coming out in March. And then I have The Witches of Doyle cozy mystery series, which is much more paranormal, there’s lots of magic happening. With the Paranormal Museum series, the heroine is never entirely sure there’s something supernatural happening in her life or not. And I thought, the ambiguity, I thought, was a lot of fun to play with in the Paranormal Museum series. But, yes, I went all out with The Witches of Doyle. They’re witches.

LB: Well, you did. You even have an email class on kitchen witchery.

KW: (Laughter.) Well, you know, I do so much research for these books and I have so much fun with it, I just thought, let’s blow this up. Let’s make more.

LB: I think it’s really fun. I love the genre, actually, but it’s a fairly small sub genre. I can think of, Amanda Flower has the Magical Bookshop mysteries and Gigi Pandian has the Accidental Alchemist series. So what about paranormal cozies really appealed to you?

KW: Paranormal just has that added woo-woo, spooky factor. And I think the paranormal is still very popular in American fiction and movies and TV. I keep hearing that it’s going away, but when I walk into book shops, at least 10% of the mysteries on the shelf have some sort of paranormal thing going. And on television, there’s all the Charlaine Harris stuff going on with Midnight Texas, that new TV show, and all the little ghost shows that are going on. So people really like it and I really like it and it’s just an extra frisson of mystery that I enjoy adding.

Although the ghost never does it. It’s always a human, there’s always a human bad guy.

LB: Right. Just like Scooby Doo.

KW: Yes. The human isn’t necessarily causing the paranormal phenomenon, the paranormal phenomenon may well be real or some sort of subplot going on in my books, but when it comes to the actual crime, it’s a real crime with a real human being who ends up facing real consequences at the end.

LB: But you spun off your witches series into another series that is a non-paranormal spinoff, your Doyle cozy novels. How did that come about?

KW: I really liked the whole Doyle setting, and I put so much time into creating that little world that when I thought of doing another mystery that wasn’t quite so paranormal, I thought, well why not just recycle? Put it there. Doyle is actually based on a town in California called Murphy’s, which is in the California foothills and it’s just super charming, it’s so darn cute that it was just very easy for me to write about it under the guise of Doyle.

LB: It’s one of those things that brings extra pleasure to someone who’s read the one series, to feel that they’re still in the town. It’s a really neat idea.

KW: Oh, thank you. Yes, it was fun to bring in some of characters from the Doyle Witches and have them pop in as supporting cast. It was nice. It was nice for me to revisit them.

LB: And then, because mystery and urban fantasy and paranormal cozies — that’s not enough. You decide to expand your genres and go into Steampunk.

KW: Yeah! I had written, a long time ago I had written a mystery set in the California Gold Rush period. And it wasn’t very good, it was one of my earlier attempts. And then a couple of years ago I stumbled upon this whole Steampunk concept and I realized I could take that book and I could take those characters and that setting and I could rewrite it and make it Steampunk. And I really enjoyed it, and I especially, I just love the people at the Steampunk conventions, Steampunk readers are so much fun and the other Steampunk writers are so much fun, it’s a lovely community, that I just kept doing it. I love the characters and it ended up being a lot of fun.

My Steampunk novels tend to focus more on the magic than the technology because I’m not very much of a tech person. And I call my novels Proto-Steampunk because they happen in the 1840s and 1850s, before the true, before the Victorian era really got going. And usually Steampunk novels are set in London and they are very focused on the steam technology and all the sci-fi elements. And so by moving it a little bit earlier, I got to kind of fudge around Steampunk world a little bit.

LB: I think Steampunk is candy. Gail Carriger is one of my very favorite writers.

KW: She’s great.

LB: You were mentioning the humor, which I think comes through all of your mysteries. You have a great sense of fun. On your website you said that P.G. Wodehouse is one of your favorite writers.

KW: Yes. Jeeves and Wooster.

LB: Yes. Jeeves and Wooster. I could *squee* for the entire interview just over his use of language. Who else you like?

KW: P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie. I like Yeats for his magic and his poetry. Oscar Wilde had a fantastic sense of humor in his writings. The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde — the title might be a little different than that — it’s hysterical. I reread it just about a year ago and I was laughing my butt off, it’s so funny. They are just so many wonderful writers. Like Stephen King. Whenever Stephen King comes out with something, I gobble it up because he’s amazing. His use of — the way he does horror and the way he just kind of expands the moment in his sentences is just remarkable.

LB: So Valentine is the heroine of The Quiche and the Dead and her adventures will continue in Bleeding Tarts. What can you tell us about that?

KW: Bleeding Tarts is coming out in May and it’s set — there is actually, near me is a fake ghost town on the California coast which is rented out for events. For weddings and corporate events and such. When I heard about that, I thought, okay. This is a setting for a mystery novel. So it starts out with, she’s trying to start wholesaling her pies to this event space, this fake ghost town. Of course things immediately go wrong and somebody dies and she’s a witness, or sort of a witness, and she and Charlene get dragged into this fake ghost town.

And then there’s the third book, and I’m not sure what the title is. I suggested Pie Hard, and I think they’re going with that but we’ll see what the publisher decides on the title at the end.

LB: Coming up with the puns must be the hardest part of this.

KW: Oh, it is! I’m so glad, somebody at Kensington actually wrote the back cover copy for The Quiche and the Dead, and it’s just like pun after pun after pun after pun. It’s hysterical. I don’t think I could have done it. So my hat’s off to them. To whoever wrote that back cover copy for The Quiche and the Dead, they did a fantastic job. It’s hysterical.

LB: So what’s next for you?

KW: I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the fire. I have the fourth book in the Paranormal Museum series is due to my publisher at the end of the year, I’m working on a spinoff Steampunk series right now, and I just figured out the concept for some follow-on books in the Witches of Doyle series. So I’m going to have to get writing on those.

LB: That’s amazing. Kirsten, thank you so much for joining me today.

KW: Thank you, Laura. I had a lot of fun.

LB: You can find Kirsten online at KirstenWeiss.com.