:: An interview with Brenda Buchanan

cover70371-mediumHi Brenda. Thanks for accepting my interview and welcome to my blog. Tell us something about you. Former newspaper reporter, attorney, novelist. Who is Brenda Buchanan? Strengths and weaknesses.

I grew up in a paper mill town in Massachusetts in the 1960s. I studied journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and law at the University of Maine School of Law. I now practice law as my primary career and write mysteries as a second career. I would say my primary strength is that I have a lot of self-discipline about writing every day. It is like exercise. If you have daily workout routine and you skip it for a couple of days, you feel terrible. I am the same way about writing every day. My biggest weakness is that sometimes I am an overly sentimental person, and I have to be careful not to let that creep into my books except where it is appropriate for my characters to be sentimental.

What jobs have you held in the past before becoming a writer? What can you tell us about these experiences?

I was a newspaper reporter for six years after graduating from college. I worked at a weekly newspaper in Southern Maine called “The York County Coast Star”, covering town government and the courts. When I was in journalism school at Northeastern, the program involved on-the-job training every other semester. I was fortunate to work as a student intern at “The Boston Globe”, which is a major daily newspaper. Working at both the “Star” and the “Globe” offered many lessons in human nature. I learned a great deal about the variety of people and viewpoints out there in the world. I also learned how to write on deadline, and to embrace the blank page as an opportunity, rather than treating it as a fearful thing.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

I imagined myself a writer for as long as I can remember. I learned to read quite young, and decided in grammar school that it would be fun to write stories of my own. I attended a Catholic school and the nuns were very fine teachers. They drilled us in grammar, usage and vocabulary and also taught us to embrace literature. Consequently, by the time I entered high school I was a confident writer, which was a wonderful gift.

Your debut novel, Quick Pivot, featuring a contemporary Maine newspaper reporter, is the first novel of a series. Could you talk about it?

Quick Pivot takes place in the imaginary town of Riverside, Maine, which was devastated in the 1970s when its mills left Maine and took many jobs with them.
It is the tale of two reporters covering the same story 46 years apart. Joe Gale is a contemporary reporter who is touring the long-closed Saccarappa Mill when a long-dead body is unearthed. The remains turn out to be those of a man named Desmond, who worked in the mill’s finance department until he disappeared in 1968. Shortly after Desmond went missing, a large sum of money was found to have been embezzled from the mill’s accounts. It was assumed Desmond stole the money and moved away to live his life with a new identity. When his body is found, it is obvious he was in fact murdered, and someone else stole the money.
In 1968, Desmond’s disappearance was covered by Joe’s recently-deceased mentor, Paulie Finnegan. In 2014, to solve the mystery of who killed the man and hid his body in the mill, Joe builds on the work Paulie did 46 years earlier, as well as his many lessons in how to be a newspaper reporter. The book moves back and forth between 1968 and 2014, so the reader has a chance to meet Paulie Finnegan and many other characters who were young at the time the crime occurred, and are in late middle age by the time the body is found.

Cover Story is the second book in the Joe Gale mystery series. What was the starting point in the writing process?

Cover Story was actually the first book I wrote. I spent several years writing it, learning as I went along the many things a new writer needs to learn about the craft. When I thought it was the best it could be, I pitched it to a number of agents. Their consistent feedback was that it was pretty good, but not good enough.
I was too close to the book to know how to fix it, so I put it on the shelf and wrote Quick Pivot. That is the book that attracted my agent (Marlene Stringer of The Stringer Literary Agency). When she sold it to Carina Press, it was part of a three-book deal. Marlene knew I’d already written one other Joe Gale story, so I pulled Cover Story off the shelf and re-worked it from beginning to end. I amped up the tension, tightened the prose and wrote a number of new scenes, which transformed it into a book that was a worthy follow-up to Quick Pivot.

Cover Story is about the murder trial of a fisherman accused of the murder of a social worker. Could you tell us something about the plot of this book?

In Cover Story, Joe Gale heads to a rural county on the northeasterly coast (the region we call Downeast Maine) to cover the trial of Danny Boothby, a hard-luck fisherman accused of killing the brother of Maine’s most powerful politician. The dead man—named Frank O’Rourke—was a social worker who was threatening to take custody of Boothby’s 12-year-old daughter on the grounds she’d been neglected. The prosecution claims the murder was motivated by Boothby’s resentment of O’Rourke’s rigorous intervention into his family’s life. It doesn’t take long for Joe to realize the truth is far more complex.
When the courtroom testimony doesn’t gibe the pre-trial expectations, Joe’s sources in the barbershop and the gritty townie bar help him translate the real-world implications. A blizzard roars up the coast just as the state’s case begins to crumble, putting the trial on hold. Immersed in the drama, Joe ignores a warning that someone doesn’t appreciate his diligent reporting. That’s when the intimidation begins. As relentless as the rising tide, it starts slow and keeps on coming.

Could you tell us a little about your main protagonists?

Joe Gale is a contemporary newspaper reporter who loves his job despite the fact newspapers are going the way of the manual typewriter. He sees journalism as a noble profession, and sometimes throws himself into his work too deeply. He has a complicated romantic history. In Quick Pivot, his girlfriend has recently moved to Africa to work in health care. He is comforted by his friends, Rufe Smathers, who is a local plumber, and Christie Pappas, who runs the diner in his town.
In Quick Pivot, readers also meet Helena Desmond, sister of the long-dead finance officer, Tom MacMahon, a now-retired investigator who worked on the case in 1968, and Jay Preble, Ken Coatesworth, Leo Harding and Joan Slater, all of whom worked at the mill when it was the town’s economic engine.
In Cover Story, Joe remains the protagonist, and Rufe and Christie play roles, but another main character is Eddie O’Rourke, who is the brother of the dead man and the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Also featured are Claude and Dolores LeClair, the inlaws of the man accused of the murder, Emma Abbott, a psychologist who is attending the trial to support Boothby’s young daughter and the lawyers who try the case.

What did you most enjoy about writing the book?

I love it when the characters take on a life of their own. Sometimes when I finish writing for the night and go back to re-read the passages I’ve just written, I find myself surprised by what they have said and done. That means I have been in “the zone,” and it is a wonderful feeling.

Location is important in your writing. Why do you feel the coast of Maine is good settings for mystery novels? Would the Joe Gale novels have the same informal mood if they were set in another place?

The coast of Maine is both beautiful and mysterious (especially on foggy days). It is home to people who have lived in the same homes for generations as well as newcomers. Some of its residents live on very little money, others are quite well-to-do. These disparities can set up conflicts, and mysteries are all about conflict. It also is endlessly interesting to describe Maine’s natural beauty. It is a place people don’t forget if they ever have visited. A good number of my readers are people who don’t live here but enjoy my books because it feels like they are taking a little trip to Maine.

What kind of research did you bring into creation of your characters? What kind of research went into creating this world?

I have worked as a newspaper reporter, but not for many years. I had great advice from some current-day newspaper reporters about how newsrooms have changed, particularly how they have adapted technologically (for example, reporters now Tweet updates during trials.)
With Cover Story, I had help from trial lawyer friends and one retired judge to get the courtroom scenes right. As for the landscape, I live in a mill town much like the imaginary Riverside where Quick Pivot is set, so that was easy. As for Cover Story, which takes place Downeast in the middle of winter, I used to live in that area of the state, and went back in the middle of the winter when I was writing that book to make sure I had the details right. It was exactly as cold as I remembered!

 Any movie projects from your book?

Not yet. That would be lovely, of course.

Projects for translations?

My agent is always on the lookout for that kind of opportunity, but nothing has come together yet.

Do you read other contemporary writers? Who are some of your favourite writers? What are you reading at the moment?

I love many contemporary crime writers, some from Maine, some from other parts of the U.S., some from abroad.
I love Donna Leon’s mysteries, which are set in Venice, for example. I also love Louise Penny’s stories set outside Montreal, and have been on a big Irish/Scottish mystery kick this summer, delving into the work of Peter May, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid. At the moment I am reading a book that is not a mystery but is beautifully written, The Green Road by Anne Enright, which is set in the west of Ireland.

What is your relationship like with your readers? How can readers get in touch with you?

I am active on Facebook and Twitter, and love interacting with readers in both of those forums. It is wonderful to meet with those who are reading my work, either in person or virtually. I also speak at many libraries in Maine, and participate in panel discussions at crime writing conferences such as Malice Domestic, the New England Crime Bake and the Maine Crime Wave. I believe I also will be on a panel this year at Bouchercon, which is the largest conference for readers of mysteries/thrillers/suspense/crime fiction in the US. I am really looking forward to that.
Readers can always contact me through my website, http://www.brendabuchananwrites.com/ or email me at Brenda@brendabuchananwrites.com
My author page on Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/BrendaBuchananAuthor and my Twitter handle is @buchananbrenda

What are you working on at the moment?

I am in the midst of edits for the third book in the Joe Gale series, which is called Truth Beat. It takes place in Riverside, where Joe is covering two complex stories at the same time—a series of crude bombs set off near the high school and the suspicious death of a well-known and much-loved Catholic priest.

Thank you Giulia, for your interest in my work and for featuring me on your wonderful blog and book review site. This has been so much fun!

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