1. Tell us about your latest book and your current WIP.
My latest book, The Wrong Side of Memphis, was the culmination of ten years of hopes, dreams, rewrites, workshops, writers’ conferences, agent pitches, query letters, rejections, and finally, that one big acceptance letter. In the end, that’s all it takes—one “yes.” Yet, it’s so elusive, and when it comes, it takes a few days to believe in the reality. It’s a dream come true.
My current WIP is actually three projects. As you know, I like to set my mysteries in St. Louis, my hometown. I am working on a mystery that is based on a diary found in the old St. Louis City Hospital, in which a terminally ill woman discovers her husband is having an affair. I don’t want to say anymore than that about the plot, but it is told from the viewpoint of her doctor, who is a medical student at the time. I am also working on a WW II historical fiction novel based on documents we found after my father-in-law’s death last year. As an American, he worked for French Underground under an assumed identity, and we received letters from people who had known him during that time period. I felt that this was a piece of history that shouldn’t be lost or forgotten. And of course, there is my Publicity work for the St. Louis Writers Guild, the St. Louis Sisters in Crime, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, and I am the Conference Chair for the 2010 Missouri Writers Guild Annual Conference, to be held in April, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. I am also a contributing writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Book Blog.
2. The Wrong Side of Memphis, the first in the Nam Noir Series, deals with Vietnam War veterans. What motivated you to develop these characters and this series?
One evening in the fall of 1996, I listened to a WWII vet recount his war stories. There was another vet in the room who had received several military decorations for outstanding service in Vietnam. Yet, throughout the evening, he remained silent. Later, he told me how he could not talk about his tour in ‘Nam—not at all. He felt, he admitted, a deep sense of shame and remorse. Yet, he was convinced that, like the WWII veteran, he too had served his country and its citizens. At that moment, I realized I was unwittingly holding a key to a Pandora’s Box. The proverbial elephant lounged in the corner, waiting to be fed. He was not going to go away until somebody noticed him.
The characters in The Wrong Side of Memphis voice the challenges faced by Vietnam Vets, everywhere, even now. How they cope, how they relate, and how they build a new life together despite a devastating past–this is the meat of the plot. The Wrong Side of Memphis concerns the Journey after the Destination.
3. As a writer, you wear many hats: freelance journalist, speechwriter, novelist, and writing competition judge. Which is your favorite and why?
Each role taps into a different aspect of a writer’s palette, so to speak. As a journalist and speechwriter, you grip reality and stare it in the face; a novelist does too, but through the eyes of the imagination. I would have to say that I prefer the role of the novelist, because I can create characters that deliver messages for me through their words and actions. The trick is to create a seamless world that doesn’t crack under scrutiny; or to quote an instructor I once had–”Do not interrupt the reader.”
As a judge, you get to see what others are creating, and that is very rewarding, and keeps you on your toes.
4. What do you perceive as your greatest strength as a writer as opposed to your weakest area?
My greatest strength, I’m told, is my quirky characters and ability to mimic dialogue. I believe this comes from extensive travel and the gift of having known a lot of different people in my life, so far. My weakness, most probably, is creating too many of these characters. I love them, and if I’m not careful, I have a crowd on my hands.
5. What inspires you as a writer?
Someone who has a message that I think I could portray through a few well-drawn characters. Or an interesting “Dear Abby” letter, or an unfinished letter or some type of unfinished business, like a random diary entry or a single white glove tossed under a bed. Something that makes me ask, what if?
6. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Years ago, I wandered into a bookstore in Bermuda and picked up A Dark Adapted Eye by British crime and mystery author Barbara Vine aka Ruth Rendell. I was hooked. I began checking books by Ed McBain from the library five at a time because I loved the way his characters spoke. Nobody does dialect and dialogue like he did—his timing was impeccable.
7. Do you have a specific writing ritual?
I have a writing quota—five pages a day. When I do them varies. Sometimes it’s very early, sometimes very late, but my head doesn’t hit the pillow without five pages on the stack.
8. Are you a “pantser” or “outliner”?
I always start out with a map and a destination, but sometimes the trip takes a detour. The end is usually the same, however. So, I guess I’m a hybrid.
9. What do you find works best for you in promoting?
Signings are always popular, but I like to bring my dog, Jack, who is a character in the book. I usually serve food—beer, wine, soda, water, lemonade, tea, whatever seems appropriate and offer a promotional item, such as a dog treat or wine glass with my logo and/or book title embossed on it. Neighborhood book clubs, professional organizations’ luncheons, and stores that carry items that my characters might like, (like pet stores), are good places to promote my book as well.
10. We love animals and I was pleased to note you feature an Aierdale Terrier in The Wrong Side of Memphis and, in fact, own two. Tell us about this breed and what you like best about Airedales.
My first Airedale Terrier was a rescue dog named Gracie. At 13 months old, she weighed 59 pounds, had hypothyroidism, and was somewhat combative. Hey, it’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. When she died of cancer, I went to a nationally known breeder to get an Airedale from a cancer-free line. I purchased a puppy, and named her Savannah, Love Me Tender. Like Gracie, Savannah also died young. In my imagination and my writing, however, they both live on, and they always will.
Vanna, the Airedale featured in this book, is a composite of Airedales I have known and loved, especially Gracie and Savannah. Historically, terriers are tenacious dogs that are not supposed to surrender to pain or threat of attack. Faithful and courageous, protective, fun-loving and high-spirited, Airedales can occasionally become rowdy and stubborn. Any disobedience is usually intended and willful. Still, Gracie and Savannah wanted nothing more than to be a great companion—on their own terms.
The characters in this book react predictably to Vanna’s behavior. Like my hero, Elvin, I sometimes feel that Vanna and I have a whole lot in common, particularly when we chase what seems to be impossibly out of reach. You know, like a dream I once had about publishing a book.
11. We are interested in learning about other areas of the country. Tell us about St. Louis, Missouri, where you reside.
St. Louis is a city where one can experience the change of all four seasons, sometimes on a daily basis. I’m kidding, but we have “weather”- sometimes snow in April and humidity in October! There’s definitely a Southern influence, and yet, a Northern flair that spices up the mix. Just about any race, religion or culture can be found; the same goes for food. We have great restaurants, especially Italian places on The Hill. The cost of living is lower than most places, too. With major universities and corporations, it’s a great place to raise a family.
12. What’s your favorite Southern expression?
“Dry as a bone.”
Book Jacket Paragraph—The Wrong Side of Memphis by Claire Applewhite
Elvin Suggs knows how to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Time spent in the Green Berets during The Siege of Khe Sanh taught him about the wrong side of 1968. It was a good thing. On his return to Memphis, Elvin’s plans explode when his wife demands a divorce. His life in shambles, Elvin turns to Dimond Redding, his best friend’s widow and ‘Nam vet, now a tenant at the Jewel Arms in St. Louis, Missouri. A random murder outside her door has her ready to move before Elvin arrives. With a ruthless killer on the loose, she says, who will be next? A fresh corpse soon answers her question, but Elvin is on his way. Brokenhearted and broke, Suggs is determined to salvage his pride and his dreams, with more questions than answers.
Elvin knows all about the wrong places and times. Only this time, he’s got nothing to lose. This time, he’s on the wrong side of Memphis.
For more information about Claire Applewhite: http://claireapplewhite.com/