An Interview with Carole Nelson Douglas

Carole Nelson DouglasFor a quarter of a century, Carole Nelson Douglas’s Midnight Louie mystery series has explored social issues and pop culture through a cast of four human crime solvers: two women, two men; two pros; two amateurs. Midnight Louie’s intermittent voice and investigations, described as “an irresistible combination of Nathan Detroit and Sam Spade”, both celebrate and satirize Noir detective fiction.

Driven to write popular fiction during college by helpless female protagonists, Carole had an award-winning newspaper journalism career before she finished and sold that college novel. She’s written sixty New York-published novels, including the New York Times Notable Book of the year, Good Night, Mr. Holmes. Carole was the first woman to write a Sherlock Holmes spin-off series and the first to use a female protagonist from the Canon, Irene Adler. She’s also written nationally bestselling high and urban fantasy series. Off the keyboard, she rescues cats, collects vintage anything, and designs book covers for her new indie pub career.

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Ms. Douglas is here today to
answer a few “probing” questions:

cncbooks: When and why did you become interested in writing mysteries, not to mention some fantasy early on?

Ms. Douglas: As a reporter, I relaxed reading through mystery and science fiction novels. The SF classics, Ursula LeGuin and Roger Zelazny and Andre Norton (the rare woman back then), the mystery greats Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers etc. My first novel, the updated Gothic, Amberleigh, was a mystery, and even had an 1893 Irish terrorism subplot, like the contemporary Louie books have a contemporary one today. Only the Irish achieved a Peace. It seemed Tolkienesque fantasy would be my bestselling genre, but when that was mispublished, I wrote two slightly SF thrillers. Then I saw a notice that a new Sherlock Holmes spin-off novel series was forthcoming, written as always by a man about a secondary male character in the series. I thought, “Why don’t women do this; we all read Doyle”? So I wrote Good Night, Mr. Holmes, which became a NYT Notable Book of the Year. I didn’t even realize it would be shelved as mystery until it was almost released. (I considered it a small subgenre of the science fiction/fantasy world, as SH has always been.)

Midnight Louie had been written as a framing narrator in a romance quartet. The editor bought the concept, but booted most of Louie and the mystery elements out, so I flipped the concept and Louie into full-fledged mystery, with relationships. His mysteries debuted two years later after the first Adler. And he’s been going since then.

cncbooks: How difficult is it to keep up with the rigors of multiple series?

Ms. Douglas: We see many writers were active in theater at one time, so are used to switching from Shakespeare to Noel Coward to Neil Simon. Writing about varying settings and characters is invigorating and keeps things fresh. I just had an idea today of how I can resurrect one of my earlier and dated novel series. Living that long is the challenge.

cncbooks: If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently in your writing career?

Ms. Douglas: This may be too much “raw realism” for the audience.

Big freshman mistake. I’d had two wildly unexpected successful national bestsellers heading me for the NYT list in a genre not mystery, and a new publisher had paid a lot for new books. I was to have dinner with the publisher in NYC and he’d said the founder of fan magazine would join us. I’d met the man and he creeped me out the way he took my picture. I saw women authors tarting themselves up to get pictured in the magazine. I’d been covering women’s issues in my former newspaper job and was not about to play. I had no idea he had such power, and that dinner would have put the publisher’s seal of approval on me. My first books made the magazine’s bestseller lists, but he made me invisible in his publication. It hurt my career and livelihood, along with other factors, and I was driven to move on to mystery. Sound crazy? That is the way it was, and I was there, to paraphrase that old TV show with John Cameron Swayze, “You Are There”.

cncbooks: Do you think social networking, blogging, tweeting, etc., are worthwhile promotional tools for authors or do they steal too much time away from career writing?

Ms. Douglas: Obviously, I don’t think they’re valuable enough because I am so not able to keep up with all of that.

cncbooks: Is there one author (mystery or otherwise) who has really influenced your writing career?

Ms. Douglas: Many authors, good and bad (even more), influenced my writing. I started a novel in college to reinvent the witless, spineless heroines of sixties’ Gothics. The most important author in my having a career doing that was the late Garson Kanin, 1940’s-70s Hollywood and Broadway director and novelist and memoirist, who 12 years later took that finally finished first college novel to his publishing house on the basis of an interview and newspaper story I’d done on him five years earlier. And it sold, even though it was by then “off-market”. Thanks, Garson!

cncbooks: What part of your crime research has been the most interesting?

Ms. Douglas: For a while, the trend was for authors to visit medical examiner’s offices, more than one, and until you’ve seen a brain being sliced like salami, you haven’t lived.

cncbooks: What has been the toughest criticism you’ve been given as an author? What has been the best compliment?

Ms. Douglas: An author really can’t afford to listen to anything but the muse. The worst: any one-star review on Amazon, though the early zeal to obliterate has moderated with time. The best: the man who emailed me that he’d been reading one of my Irene Adler books aloud to his wife in the hospital. That was so nice to hear. She was blind. That was so touching. He went on to say “She died at the end of Chapter 18”. That destroyed me. I went racing to look up the chapter. Was it worthy to be the last thing a person heard? Oddly, there was a gentle reference to mortality in that section. Many readers say they find solace in our books, and that’s the best critique.

cncbooks: What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like the least?

Ms. Douglas: The writing, when my husband leaves the house and magically appears again five minutes later. Uh, in real time two hours later. I hate being unable to answer every reader who’s ever sent me a card or a letter, or an email. I keep them all, and my annual four-page newsletter is an apology.

cncbooks: Are you a plotter or a pantser, i.e., do you outline your books ahead of time or are you an “organic” writer?

Ms. Douglas: My conscious mind is a “pantser” and only outlines in emergencies. My subconsious is a plotter that is up to things behind the scenes. When they finally meet on the page, I slap my forehead and say “Of course, I knew that’s where I was going!” That’s a lie.

cncbooks: If you had one take away piece of advice for authors, what would it be?

Ms. Douglas: I always paraphrase Jimminy Cricket, that profound mentor. “Let your subconscious be your guide.” Don’t outthink yourself. Let your imagination fly. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t edit yourself until you have a page or a chapter to look over the next day. Writing a novel is like whitewater rafting: you know you’re going to get somewhere, and it may be a bumpy ride, but you need that momentum to stay afloat.

cncbooks: What do you read for pleasure when you’re writing?

Ms. Douglas: Biography and social history, art books, really! Sometimes the current “hot book” like Gone Girl.

cncbooks: Who did you pretend to be when you were a kid?

Ms. Douglas: Every female movie musical star on the planet, especially my fave, Judy Garland. I’m tone deaf and have no singing range, but am a champion lip syncher. I actually can perform “Your servant, indeed I’m not you’re servant” from independent teacher Anna in “The King and I” (I was a very early feminist), and can do a credible Richard Burton from “Camelot” because those were “talked.”

cncbooks: Did you read mysteries when you were a child or teenager?

Ms. Douglas: Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew. My mother was a widowed elementary school teacher, and she had to take me on her annual July visits to St. Paul Book and Stationery Company downtown for school supplies. Every time, please, please, please, can I have a Nancy Drew for 99 cents? What a bargain that was! When I was a teen, I put them in a car trunk and took them to a friend in a tiny North Dakota town where my grandparents lived. I was literally giving away the “things of a child”. Also a future fortune in collectibles, but what I got was the idea that “girls can do unexpected things”.

I devoured every “genre” on the family bookshelves as a young reader, which included Balzac and Kipling etc. My favorite books at eight were Little Women, The Three Musketeers, the plays of Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve probably been writing variations and riffs on all four ever since. I loved an Africa-set obscure, but awarded Polish novel, Through the Desert, about a 19th-century Mideast uprising following two lost children surviving in a war zone. I typed out a letter to Hollywood to make a movie and put me in the role of the eight-year-old heroine before I was too old for the part. I don’t recall any family member sending that for me, but I discovered a Polish film was made decades later, without me. 🙂

cncbooks: Name one place you’d like to visit, anywhere in the world, and tell us why.

Ms. Douglas: Machu Pichu. The mists, the mystique, the mythology, the ruins have always called to me. However, I got altitude sickness on Pike’s Peak.

cncbooks: If you could spend a weekend with one fictional character not your own, who would it be and why?

Ms. Douglas: Once it would have been Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve done that through my Irene Adler novels. So . . . Scarlett O’Hara, so strong and so bipolar before her time. What would she think of women in our time? What did tomorrow bring?

cncbooks: When you began the series, did you expect Louie to end up with his own sort of Rat Pack?

Ms. Douglas: Not at all. The series explores human (and cat) family relations, good and bad, and the cat universe expanded book by book to Louie meeting his feisty unacknowledged daughter, Midnight Louise, and father and mother. His mother named herself “Ma Barker”. She’s the battle-tested head of Vegas’s toughest feral cat clowder, or pack . Truth to tell, hard-boiled Louie would deny it, but he’s a bit hen-pecked by his female relatives, and that is true to animal behavior.

cncbooks: What made you decide a cat would be a terrific character?

Ms. Douglas: “Meeting” the “real and original” Midnight Louie, a twenty-pound black cat, who managed to finagle a woman into flying him home 1800 miles to save him from being sent to the pound to be killed. What a survivor! What a Ladies’ man! (with all species, I add). When I was a recovering high fantasy and romance writer, I realized he was Sam Spade in a cat suit and made him the authentic “noir” narrator of his own mystery series.

cncbooks: Do you carry on conversations with Temple while you’re working on the story?

Ms. Douglas: No, my characters have conversations with each other, and I just write it down. I pick a setting and two characters with “issues” or in a crisis and off they go. At book four, I introduced a new male protagonist and told him mentally , “Okay. You really need to be strong to top the other characters”. And he delivered a line of dialogue that had me saying, “I didn’t know you had that in you.” Now it’s all a subconscious flow. In the Midnight Louie series I have four main human point-of-view characters I pop in and out of like a body-shifter. As a a theater and English major I got used to “picking the meat out of a walnut” when it comes to interpreting and creating dialogue and narrative.

cncbooks: What is the best weapon a lady can take with her on a first date?

Ms. Douglas: A lady would never date a man who required a concealed weapon to behave (I was taught by nuns for 16 years), but a long, strong nail file is a good start.

cncbooks: How much of you is in your character, Temple?

Ms. Douglas: Less than some might think. I’m short and always loved high heels because of that–seeing more than shoulderblades in a crowd is divine–but I was inspired by a tiny high school theater director on spikes and endless energy, who maneuvered hulking high school boys into being actors, and self-confident. Temple’s observations on human nature are shared, though. She is the nucleus character around which everyone revolves.

cncbooks: What would Temple, Delilah and Irene think of each other?

Ms. Douglas: Oh, my. Delilah is an action heroine from a post-monster apocalypse Las Vegas, and my Irene Adler once had a sword duel with a nobleman while she was disguised as Sarah Bernhardt’s teenage son. So Delilah and Irene would buckle swash together and Temple would write a screenplay about them and sell it to Reese Witherspoon’s production company. Chicks rule.

Cat in an Alphabet Endgamecncbooks: Can you tell us a little bit about Cat in an Alphabet Endgame?

Ms. Douglas: I started the Midnight Louie, feline Pi series because I saw his part-time Sam Spade-Nathan Detroit narrative voice had a lot to say about our human world. I created four human crime-solvers–two amateur, two pro; two men, two women–who would go from allies to antagonists as their characters and the story grows and also record the social issues from 1991 with the AIDS panic to today’s terrorism. With each book a chapter in one mega-novel, it was important to make the order evident, so I used the interior alphabet in the titles.

Cat in an Alphabet Endgame ties up the continuing character and crime arcs of the 28 books, answering who (and how) and why some cold case murders fit into the puzzles in all the previous books.This where all the main characters find closure on their flawed family pasts and hard-won futures. And, yes, Midnight Louie’s “roommate”, energetic, tenacious petite PR woman, Temple Barr, will marry someone. Team Max is rooting for the enigmatic, terrorism-marked magician and counterterrorism agent. Team Matt is rooting for the ex-priest who started by hunting his abusive stepfather and found a career helping others as a radio counselor.

cncbooks: What is your favorite scene in Cat in an Alphabet Endgame and why?

Ms. Douglas: It’s when Matt, the ex-priest, finally meets the lowlife “real” son of his abusive stepfather, who had missed and loved his absent dad, mean or not. They are antagonists with opposing goals, but they don’t interact the way anyone would think. I love characters who surprise me and themselves.

cncbooks: What’s next for Temple, Louie and you?

Ms. Douglas: We’re cooking up a continuing scenario with an interesting twist on what someone called Louie’s “slightly surreal” Las Vegas.

Thank you so much for visiting today. I can hardly
wait to start Cat in an Alphabet Endgame and I’m
*so* glad to hear that Temple and Louie are not going
to be gone for long even if this series is finis 🙂