I first became aware of Judy Penz Sheluk, mystery writer, because we shared an editor for our first mysteries. While I haven’t met her in person, I think next year I might have that opportunity at a book coference since we both have books coming out. Judy hails from Canada, and I love reading her blog because she often includes photographs of places I’ve never seen north of the U.S. She has taught me so much about PR and technology, and it’s always reassuring to know I’ll be able to find her via email, and she’ll know the answer to my question. Today, I’m interviewing her about her new book, Skeletons in the Attic, coming out on August 21. I’ve already read it and reviewed it on GoodReads. It’s available for preorder at the amazing price of 99 cents. How can you miss?
Tell us a bit about Calamity (Callie) Barnstable, your main character. Is she like you?
Like all of my characters, they aren’t patterned after me, but there are things in their lives that are culled from my personal experience. As an example, Callie recalls the time her fiancée dumped her on Valentines Day. She had no idea it was coming, had in fact spent the better part of an afternoon searching for the perfect card. The one she picked had two porcupines on the front and the inside said, “I love you so much it hurts,” which turned out to be quite ironic given the circumstances. I was also dumped on Valentines Day, although I wasn’t engaged (I was only fifteen), but that card is real. Throughout all my stories, there are those sorts of real life nuggets.
I loved the first scene when Callie goes to see the lawyer, Leith Hampton, and hears the terms of Callie’s father’s will. How does that launch the whole story?
That scene is also culled from a real life experience, although I was waiting in my lawyer’s office with my husband and we were there to update our wills. Our lawyer was delayed in court, and while we waited I started to think. What if I was here for the reading of a will? What if it was my father and he left me a house I didn’t know about? What if it contained a clause that made me look into an old murder? What if the victim was my mother? I started jotting down notes. By the time my lawyer arrived, I had the first chapter pretty much written. I had no idea where the story was going to go from there, but I knew I had a good opening.
The middle of a mystery often bogs down a bit, but yours does not. What interesting characters enter the mix?
Thank you for saying that. I’m such a pantser, so when I’m writing it’s always at the midway point, around 35,000 words, that I realize I have to figure out exactly where the story is going, because as you say, that’s often where a book will bog down. In the case of Skeletons, I had two versions written by the midpoint. Both featured Shirley, the head archives librarian at the reference library who assists Callie with her research into the past. The versions were very different and I liked them both, but in one the story started taking on the feel of a police procedural. Since I don’t know anything about how police operate (beyond what I read in books and newspapers), I ditched that version and went with the other storyline.
Are there truly skeletons in the attic?
The title actually refers to the many skeletons Callie uncovers as she digs into the past. The attic has a trunk filled with photographs and things that belonged to her mother: a sweatshirt from John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow tour—her father’s favorite musician. Mother-and-daughter matching outfits—leotards and legwarmers—prompting Callie to remember laughing with her mother as they tried to follow along with Jane Fonda’s aerobics. These things are also culled from my past: I was/am a huge Mellencamp fan, and have seen him live a few times, but I especially loved Mellencamp’s Scarecrow tour and owned a sweatshirt like that. And I remember wearing leotards and legwarmers and trying to follow along with Jane Fonda, although not with my mother.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received and given?
I always quote Agatha Christie when I’m asked this: “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”
You have some great blurbs from inspirational mystery writers to help promote your book. How did you make that happen?
I first met Ellen Byron, Annette Dashofy, Catriona McPherson and Diane Vallere at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, NC at the Sisters in Crime breakfast, and again at Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD in April 2016. Writing conferences are incredibly expensive to attend when they involve travel and hotel stays, and you can never justify the expense if you are trying to tie it into book sales. But the networking opportunities and knowledge you gain are priceless. In the case of the talented women listed here, I was also a fan, and was quite star-struck to meet them. When it came time to ask for blurbs, they were top of my list, but I was worried about asking them to read the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of my book—what if they didn’t like it? Somehow I summoned up my courage and they each said yes. Catriona, in particular, was incredibly helpful. She loved the book but encouraged me to strengthen the ending before sending it to print. I took her advice and I’m very glad I did.
Jeff Buick, the author of Bloodline, had recently blurbed Avalanche by Kristina Stanley. I really enjoy Kristina’s Stone Mountain Mysteries, and so I took a flier and emailed Jeff, who I had never met. Not only did he provide a blurb, he phoned me and went through a few things he felt weakened the story. His advice was so incredibly insightful, and once again, I took it. The end result was a much better book. So not only did I get some great blurbs, I also got some great advice. I’m very lucky, and I hope to be in the position to pay their kindness forward in the future.
What is up next for your writing agenda once the dust settles from the launch of A Skeleton in the Attic?
I’m currently finishing the sequel to The Hanged Man’s Noose. It’s tentatively scheduled for late 2017 publication by Barking Rain Press (publisher of Noose). Imajin Books, publisher of Skeletons, has asked for a sequel for 2017 publication, as well as a novella in a new series. So I’m going to be very, very busy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To quote Erica Jong, “When I sit at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.”
Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, will be released on August 2016. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life. Skeletons in the Attic is currently available for pre-order at the special introductory price of .99 (reg. $4.99) on Amazon Kindle. Find it here: http://getbook.at/SkeletonsintheAttic
What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there… Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know existed. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: she must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.
Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?