by Kim Smith copyright 2008
Interview with Peggy Ehrhart
Tell us a little about your latest novel and when and where we can get it.
SWEET MAN IS GONE is a cozy with a twist. The book is about a dead guitar player and a Manhattan bar band, so the setting isn’t the typical cozy setting. But SWEET MAN IS GONE features an amateur sleuth, sexy blonde blues-singer Maxx Maxwell, and, as is frequently the case in cozies, the main emphasis is on the suspects and their motives. I tried to make things as puzzling as possible, with a real surprise when the killer is revealed at the end. There’s no explicit violence--or sex, for that matter, even though my sleuth can’t help her hopeless attraction to guitar players. That’s why she gets involved in solving the crime. Not only was the murdered guitar player essential to her band’s success, but she had a hopeless crush on him.
SWEET MAN IS GONE came out in late summer 2008. It’s available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and in libraries--also selected bookstores. My press, Five Star, markets primarily to libraries, and the books are very attractive and sturdy. I got a very good review from Kirkus, and that’s really helping the library sales.
How do you balance the creative process of writing with the demands of public appearances, maintenance of your website, and your family?
I need to really concentrate when I’m writing, and book promotion definitely works against that. Now that my book is out and I’m learning how demanding promotion can be, I’m settling into a pattern where I focus on writing some days and promotion other days. My son is grown up, so I don’t have the family demands that I had earlier, but there are certain things that I refuse to sacrifice. I’m quite domestic and I love cooking dinner for my husband and me every night. It takes a lot of time, but it’s a ritual that we look forward to. We drink wine and talk about our day. And most writers will tell you that, in a sense, they are writing all the time. As I’m cooking, I’m likely to be puzzling out a scene in my mind, so when I sit down at the computer the next day, I’m transcribing something that has already taken shape.
Give us an example of a day in the writing life of Peggy Ehrhart. Do you stick to a schedule of X amount of hours writing, editing, answering email, etc.?
An ideal day would be 1) email, 2) errands and exercise, 3) guitar practice, 4) write. My best time of day for thinking is late afternoon, and I can concentrate better when I’ve gotten my other activities out of the way. When I’m really embroiled in a project, the exercise and guitar playing are very fertile creative times, especially if I can fit in a long walk.
About the great ‘rule’ debate: we are told you can’t do this and you can’t write that. But it is stepping outside the lines that gets many authors noticed and eventually published. What are your opinions on the rules?
I don’t like rules and I tend to lose respect for people who use them as a tool for critiquing. The supposed rules weren’t handed down from on high--they developed from a study of good literature. When Aristotle wrote the POETICS, he studied plays that he thought were good and tried to determine what they all had in common. If a book holds the reader’s attention and leaves the reader satisfied, then it has succeeded. If it seems to violate rules, then the rules should be rewritten, not the book.
I am, however, a complete stickler for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I have a Ph.D. in English Literature, and I taught writing at the college level for 30 years. I think writers should have a mastery of their craft--and that includes mechanics. Of course, if I’m writing dialogue, or creating a voice for a character who wouldn’t use formal English--as is the case with the narrative voice in SWEET MAN IS GONE--then I don’t use formal English.
What music do you listen to when you write?
I don’t listen to music. I need to hear the rhythm of my own sentences in my mind and when there’s music I can’t do that.
Has a song inspired you to write?
The inspiration for SWEET MAN IS GONE came from my own guitar playing. I started taking guitar lessons in midlife because my son was playing and it looked like fun. I’ve always loved the blues, so that was the style I studied. Eventually I formed a band that actually played gigs. I had already written my first mystery (unpublished) at that time, but when the guitar playing started getting more and more exciting for me, I decided to combine the two things and write a mystery about a blues band. But I made my sleuth a singer instead of a guitar player. SWEET MAN IS GONE is named for a wonderful blues tune by Muddy Waters, “Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone?,” and it worked out really well for the book. My sleuth’s guitar player sings it in Chapter 1 and by Chapter 2 he’s dead. Now I’m working on the sequel, and I’m casting around for the song that will inform the whole story. I think it’s going to be Robert Johnson’s “When You’ve Got a Good Friend” because the plot has to do with the complicated ways that friendship puts demands on people.
Do you have a favorite show on TV that helps in moving your muse?
Actually I’ve never owned a TV.
If you could collaborate with any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Raymond Chandler, because I’d love to have him explain what really happens in THE BIG SLEEP.
What is your thought on promotion for books?
I think the Internet is going to become the main tool. Sadly, brick and mortar bookstores are closing all around us. People shop for books online now, and so what could be more natural than creating an online presence? I’ve had my website for less than a year, but I’m really enjoying the way it lets me create an experience for the visitor that supplements my books. One thing I’ve done is to create the Pie of the Month feature. I linked it with blues through the soul-food angle. My sleuth doesn’t cook because she’s so busy with her band, but I love to cook. Every month I post a new pie on my site--recipe plus photo. I invent the recipes--each is a twist on some old favorite, and they all have links with the blues, starting with “Blues Berry Pie” last July. I get all kinds of emails from people about them. My mother isn’t really up on the Internet, so I print each one out and mail it to her. I spoke with her the other day and she said she had just made the peach one. That was August--“Eat-a-Peach Pie,” named after the Allman Brothers album.
I also want to showcase new blues CDs on my site. I’ve been so busy with other promotion that I haven’t worked on it yet, but it will come. And several years ago I spent some time in Ghana studying West African percussion. I kept a journal that I plan to post on my website in blog form. I went to Africa because that’s where the blues started, so it all ties in together.
What advice do you have for authors who haven’t quite gotten their manuscript to the next level, which for most is publishing?
Never quit. And don’t feel that it will get better the more friends you show it to because it won’t. Each person will tell you something different and if you make all those changes it will become like something written by a committee. The most helpful thing I did was to take mysteries that I thought were effective--not because I especially liked the characters or setting, but because they kept me in suspense the whole time and the ultimate climax was a huge surprise--and I outlined them, tons of them. That’s the most useful thing a would-be writer can do. That way you are making your own personal “rules”--rules that will let you create the kind of book you want to read.