Episode 8: Connie Archer/Connie di Marco

MadnessUnder the name Connie Archer, my guest today writes the Soup Lover’s Mysteries. Under Connie di Marco, she is launching a new series on June 8th, the Zodiac Series. Whatever name she uses, Connie is a terrific storyteller with a lot of heart, and I am thrilled to be talking to her today.

We cover a lot of ground, from the allure of cozies to creating memorable characters, to the true-life crazy things that can happen in a small town. And we talk about her blog tour, which you definitely want in on, since every stop generally involves a Madness of Mercury book giveaway. I link HERE to Connie di Marco’s home page for more info on the Zodiac series, and HERE to the page that has links to all her blog tour stops.

Connie Archer’s website can be found here for you soup lovers (you can find one of her recipes at Cinnamon Sugar and a Little Bit of Murder). Here, in order, are the five books in the Soup Lover’s Mysteries series:Stew

1 – A Spoonful of Murder

2 – A Broth of Betrayal

3 – A Roux of Revenge

4 – Ladle to the Grave

5 – A Clue in the Stew

For her latest book, The Madness of Mercury, book one of the Zodiac Series, Connie was inspired by someone who lived in San Francisco at the same time she did: Jim Jones, of the Jonestown Massacre. Very creepy. On a slightly less deadly note, we also talk about the Rashneeshees and their poisoning of a town in an attempt to win elections (luckily, no lives were lost, but it was a close call).

Connie also gives a shout out to Sue Grafton and to cozy writer Nancy Parra, who writes (among other things) a gluten-free cozy series.

If you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

Transcript for Connie di Marco/Connie Archer interview:

Welcome to Destination Mystery, a podcast for readers who love a good mystery. I’m Laura Brennan.

Laura Brennan: My guest today is a bestselling mystery author with a double identity. As Connie Archer, she writes the Soup Lover’s Mysteries, set in the village of Snowflake, Vermont. As Connie di Marco, she has a new series, the Zodiac Mysteries, which debut with The Madness of Mercury on June 8th. Connie, thank you for joining me.

Connie di Marco: Thank you, Laura.

Laura: So you are not just one author, you are two authors.

Connie: Well, one author with two identities.

Laura: So tell me a little bit about how that happened. Let’s start with soup. The Soup Lover’s Mysteries, how did you start writing those cozies?

Connie: Well, I had been very lucky to find an agent pretty quickly, which I later realized was extremely difficult. And my agent loved the concept of my first book, and the book did not sell. They liked it, but it was also partly economic reasons, too, because it was 2007-2008 and a lot of the major publishers were laying people off and the economy was really going south. So, I wasn’t actually surprised at that, there was no negativity in the rejections, it was just like, well, we don’t think this is quite what will sell.

Undaunted, I continue to write. And my agent called me and she said, would you be interested in doing this series for Penguin? And I said sure, because mostly because I really wanted my agent to keep working for me. And that’s how the soup lover’s mysteries came about. I was born in Boston, I grew up there and I certainly know New England and I also love to make soup, so it seemed like a really good match. And it was released in August 2012, A Spoonful of Murder. And it was an amazing success. People seemed to really like it and seemed to really connect with the characters.

Laura: One of the things, for me, that I really love about it is the recurring characters. You give the whole town such enormous personality. One of the great pleasures is coming back to every novel. Did you base any of those people on people you knew?

Connie: No, I guess — I did grow up in New England, I’ve certainly seen a lot of smaller towns and villages, and they’re essentially pretty classic characters. And some of the weirder ones are my favorites. I think of all of them, Jack, Lucky’s grandfather, is sort of my favorite because he’s an amalgam between my dad is just a very, very dear man, and my father-in-law who was definitely a character, let’s put it that way. And he was in the Navy and he did tell time by the bells, and he did call the floor ‘the deck,’ and he did call the walls ‘the bulkhead.’ So combining those two people, real people in my life, I created Jack, who has taken on a life of his own. So many people have written and said, “I just love Jack, Jack is my favorite.”

But some of my favorites are the really odd characters like — have you been introduced to Flo Sullivan of the psychedelic hair?

Laura: Oh, absolutely.

Connie: Arnie, who only appears in one book, I think. Arnie appears in Broth of Betrayal. He’s sort of the “town drunk” who doesn’t tie one on except if it’s his birthday and then he usually ends up in jail because he’s rolling through the village singing at the top of his lungs and the chief of police has to go and find him and lock him up for his own safety that night. So sometimes the minor characters are a lot more fun to write.

Laura: Well there’s a lot of warmth in how you approach them.

Connie: I love them all and I write them as if I love them, and I hope people respond to them in that same way. I think we just ultimate draw upon ourselves, so if you love your characters even if you love the bad guys, you want to draw them as deeply and as fully as possible.

Laura: What’s the appeal of cozies? Other than the soup, which — the soup is awesome, let me tell you.

Connie: Here’s the kind of my issue with it, ‘cozy’ to me has always meant a traditional mystery. Really, like Miss Marple, the English country house mystery, where you have a select group of characters who are essentially removed from the larger population. They’re not in an urban setting, there’s no other potential criminals out there. In other words, one of these people is killed and one of these people is the murderer. And all of the ends are neatly tied up and generally the murder victim is not someone who is particularly well-liked, if not hated. And when the murderer is unmasked, the audience isn’t crying, let’s put it that way. The murder makes perfect psychological sense. So to me that has always meant cozy, the definition of cozy.

But I think in recent years, cozy has first of all been associated with a hook, for example, a soup restaurant or a baker, or a friend of mine, Nancy Parra, has written a gluten-free series. So cozies have really come to be associated with that sort of a hook, but they also, for a lot of readers I think, tend to mean lighthearted or humorous. And I’m not, I don’t think, a funny writer. There may be some funny scenes in some of my books, but it’s just not my natural tendency to write that way. And so I try to create characters who are very real. People you could know. People maybe that you grew up with. People that you could really connect with and empathize with, their good points and their flaws as well.

So the appeal cozies, I think is number one, you’re connecting in a series with that same group. One of the things I love about a good series, for example the Sue Grafton series, is every time I’ve picked up a book, I feel like I’m going off on an adventure with an old friend. And with cozies, a cozy series, I think that’s the same thing. Plus, a lot of people don’t like to read hard-core or violent stuff or anything that smacks of really grizzly crime, so cozies are safer in that regard. You can read a good murder mystery but you don’t have to be totally grossed out.

Laura: Right. Now, A Clue in the Stew was just released this April. And that’s the fifth book and it wraps up the Soup Lover’s Mysteries, is that correct?

Connie: Most likely. I haven’t received an official, official termination. But I do know that the publisher, since the merger, has felt that all the cozy series have been oversold. In fact, there’s even — a Facebook page was created by a cozy reader, called Save Our Cozies. But a lot of the cozies have moved over to other publishers that do want to pick them up.

Laura: Was it hard kind of knowing that this might be the last one?

Connie: It is a little sad, if there’s no more books in the series. It is sort of sad to say goodbye to these people. But you know, frankly, I think they’ll all sort of live in my head for a long time to come.

Laura: On to your next adventure, which is: you have a new series which is coming out in June, June 8th right?

Connie: Right.

Laura: And you’re writing this as Connie di Marco. So, it’s set in San Francisco. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Connie: Sure. I lived in San Francisco for many years, and I still miss it. And I still make sure I go back up North at least once a year. There’s something about that city that keeps pulling me back, and I always felt it that was a city in which a mystery should be set. Now bear in mind, actually that’s kind of a thought of a blog I have that I want to work on, is how many San Francisco detectives have there been? And of course you can’t avoid Dashiell Hammett and the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade. But I think a lot of other people have thought that San Francisco is a great place to set a mystery.

And I always felt that way about it. It’s a city that has many different faces and many different moods. One second can be sunny and brilliant and windy, and the next second the fog rolls in in the afternoon and it’s mysterious and hidden and dank and scary. It has beautiful scenery and it has an amazing history and it has lots of secret stairways and hidden alleyways because it’s an older city. Something that we don’t really get to appreciate too much in Los Angeles. So I thought that was the perfect place to set it.

And in this first book, The Madness of Mercury, my protagonist, Julia, is an astrologer. She didn’t start life as an astrologer, she had planned on a teaching career. And when her fiancé is killed in a hit and run accident, she is no longer able to continue. And she discovers an occult bookstore, and she stumbles in one day and picks up an astrology book. And she’s off and running. She turns to astrology to hopefully find answers to her life problems and also to find solace. And she begins her studies and ultimately ends up as a professional. So, as a professional astrologer, she comes into contact with all sorts of people with all sorts of problems from all different kinds of walks of life. And that puts her, even though she’s an amateur sleuth, it puts her in a unique position in becoming involved in crimes.

This particular book, The Madness of Mercury, is set against the backdrop of a religious cult, cult preacher who has recently come to the city and who has gained enormous political and social power in a very very short time. I was living in San Francisco during the years of Jim Jones’ popularity, before he went to the jungles of Guyana and before the murders took place. But he had come to San Francisco from the South and he left the South when allegations of abuse started to arise. He came to San Francisco and after several years there, the same thing started to happen, people started to speaking out against him. But yet he had the support of politicians and society people and certain important elements of the police force. People loved him there. He wasn’t considered mad or evil or anything of that sort. He opened soup kitchens, he opened retirement villages, daycare, camps for kids. He did all sorts of good things. So I decided that this first book, The Madness of Mercury, might be interesting if it was set against that backdrop, loosely, loosely based on the Jim Jones years. Because frankly I found that whole thing very frightening.

But Julia has a newspaper advice column called, AskZodia. And when a woman writes to her because she’s concerned about her mother who’s joined a church. And the church requires her mother to sign over her property and her life savings, this woman is extremely worried. And she writes to Julia’s newspaper column, AskZodia, and Julia speaks out very vehemently about this church. And she advises the woman to seek legal help and to hire an investigator to investigate the so-called church. The Reverend Roy of the Prophet’s Tabernacle in my book actually of course has a hidden agenda to bilk the wealthy and the elderly out of their fortunes. As soon as this newspaper column is published, Julia immediately becomes the target of his followers who call themselves the Army of the Prophet. And she’s harassed, she receives death threats in various forms. She’s finally driven out of her apartment and she’s forced to take shelter with a client and friend, and in so doing she finds that she’s essentially landed in the lap of one of the prophet’s plots. And the story goes on from there.

Laura: That is such a fascinating way to look upon evil. I actually didn’t know about the good that Jones had done, I didn’t know that that was his M.O. But what a fascinating way to kind of look at the facets of evil.

Connie: Yes. I was there and I think a lot of people had the impression that his flock was mostly poor and mostly African-American. But that’s rather a fallacy, that wasn’t quite true; he drew people from all walks of life. And it wasn’t until — he had the support of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, who of course as we all know were later shooting victims themselves. That was another shocking event in the city during that decade. It wasn’t until he decamped to the jungles of Guyana with probably, I’m guessing here, about 900 to 1000 people, that the relatives of these people who had joined his church became concerned enough that they formed a group called The Concerned Relatives. And The Concerned Relatives were able to put pressure on Congressman Leo Ryan to fly down to Guyana with a fact-finding group and try to discover what exactly was going on in the jungle. And of course, we know the rest. Congressman Ryan was killed and a cameraman from NBC, and unfortunately I’m not remembering his name off the top of my head, but there’s a whole page on my website that’s devoted to that and my website is simply ConniediMarco.com.

Laura: I’ll link to it.

Connie: Okay. It was quite shocking to the entire world when it happened.

Laura: Wow. That’s incredible. And so, you’re going into fresh waters with this new series. This is not something that would have been tackled in Snowflake, Vermont.

Connie: No! That’s pretty funny. Although there was an idea for a plot I had considered, just in case, and that was, there was an episode, years ago… Maybe in the eighties in New Hampshire, where a cult moved into a very tiny village and tried to take over the town by running for political offices. I think they were called the Rajneeshees, because I was thinking, I wonder if this would work in a village mystery? And when they weren’t very successful in this town, the leader of this group decided to poison a salad bar with salmonella.

Laura: Oh my gosh!

Connie: Believe it or not, yeah. And mostly the entire town became extremely ill, as you can imagine, were rushed to hospitals. And this was all done in an effort to run for political office, so it was time at, before the day of voting, I think. The plot was discovered and the food in the open salad bar was tested and sure enough the police found the culprits and they were arrested. But I think it’s Rajneeshees. Interesting, isn’t it, what can happen in a small town in New England?

Laura: Oh, my gosh, yes! Well, I was just going to ask how an astrologer can get into so much trouble. Because this is gonna be a series, it’s not just the one book, right?

Connie: Right. Well in The Madness of Mercury — and of course that’s always a problem for writers of series with amateur sleuths, is how do you involve them enough in a situation to solve the crime when they’re not police, they’re not an FBI agent, they’re not hired to be a private investigator. So that’s always a technical issue for writers who have amateur sleuths. And sometimes it’s a problem. Mostly you just do your best to make it work. In The Madness of Mercury, Julia has no place left to go. She’s driven out of her apartment, she’s staying in this house that belongs to her friend’s elderly aunts. Her friend is taking care of her elderly aunts for the time being, and it’s a massive mansion at the top of Telegraph Hill, so that is great for atmosphere. And Julia discovers, they all discover that one of her friend’s aunts has been seduced by the Reverend Roy and has run away from home at 85 years of age to join the prophet’s compound called Prophet’s Paradise. And Julia realizes from looking at her chart that she’s in extreme danger, and there’s nothing — she can’t go home, her business is upside down, and she knows this woman is in danger, so she determines to find her and rescue her if she wants to come home.

Laura: For you, what’s most exciting thing about writing this new series?

Connie: I always like to have scary and death-defying episodes, particularly when the mystery gets wound up. And I know a lot of cozy writers don’t like to do that. I don’t view either of these series is strictly cozy, because in the Soup Lover’s, my publisher, Berkeley Prime Crime, was absolutely wonderful. They just let me write whatever I wanted to write and they never pulled me back. The only thing they ever kind of redlined was one episode where Lucky and Elias are lovers and she reminisces on their relationship, let’s put it that way. And my editor just said, no, we want to take out this phrase. We can’t have that in a cozy.

But otherwise, one story involves a cold case of a child’s murder. Another book involves murders on stage that actually happen. In that same book, one man is murdered, there are several murders and one man is murdered by being trapped in a place where he’s burned alive. The Ladle to the Grave, which was really, boy, that was kind of a brain burner to write, but I think it’s still an amazing book, if I say so myself — there were two murder investigations going on and one of the secondary characters discovers that there was a murder within her own family. Another book involves a story, again, a cold case of a child that was abducted. So they’ve really been absolutely wonderful and just let me have my own way and just write the stories I wanted to write, within the context of traditional mystery. So all those rules about cozies, where murders happen off stage or this could never happen or that could never happen, I pushed the envelope I think a little. One writer friend of mine calls the Soup Lover’s series dark cozies which I thought was pretty funny. Cozy noir.

But the exciting thing about the Zodiac series is it’s in an urban setting. There’s still a core group of characters that I, that I really hope readers will connect with. There’s Julia, her two best friends Gale and Cheryl, Julia’s grandmother, Gloria, and Kuan Lee, who is a practitioner of Chinese medicine. And he’s sort of Julia surrogate grandfather. He lives in the first floor apartment of Julia’s grandmother’s house. And he’s an old friend of Julia’s grandmother and her now-deceased grandfather, so there’s a long family connection there. And he sort of serves as Julia’s sounding board. He’s — I think really, when I look at it, he’s kind of become a Yoda figure for Julia. He gives her different perspective when she decides to seek his advice. So again, there’s a core group of characters, but the urban setting opens up a whole slew of different types of areas and crimes that you could never really touch on really in a cozy series.

Laura: That’s fantastic. So you are about to do a blog tour, I understand?

Connie: Yeah, I think, in fact it’s starting today I think. I have a few going. One is the Lori Caswell’s Great Escapes, and that starts pretty soon. Most of these will run from today through to release day, which is June 8th. I’m also doing a Goddess Fish, they called it a “blurb blitz” tour, and what they do is they publish a blurb about the book and an excerpt. And there’s a giveaway of course attached to all of these. And I also thought I wanted to give Madness of Mercury a good send off, so I’m also doing a Partners in Crime tour, where there’s an excerpt and a giveaway.

Laura: I will link to everything in the show notes. Spell out your Connie di Marco website so that people can go there to find your blog tour, right?

Connie: Yeah, if they go under news and events, and if I have a post or anything significant, I’ll also put on my blog page. But my website is www.ConniediMarco.com

Laura: Fantastic. I’m so excited for you. Do you know what’s next after you’ve survived the blog tour and the launch, what’s next on your agenda?

Connie: Yeah, survival of the blog tour is true, it’s a lot of work! So I just came back from Malice Domestic in Bethesda, and I just turned in the second book in the Zodiac series which is called — hopefully my publisher will like this title — I’ve named it Dark Sun and I hope to name future books after planets. And Dark Sun is, doesn’t have anything quite as dramatic as Reverend Roy and the Prophet’s Paradise, but it’s a good murder mystery, I think. It’s a pretty straight-ahead murder mystery that involves Julia and an old friend of hers from college.

Laura: Well, that’s terrific. I do love your distinction between traditionals and what we’ve come to think of as cozies today, and I love that you’re pushing the envelope and giving us more good stuff. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Connie: Oh, thank you, Laura. Thanks so much.

Laura: Show notes, transcripts and giveaways can be found at destinationmystery.com