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An Interview with Taffy Cannon

TaffyQ: It's been a long time since we last saw Roxanne Prescott, who made that great debut in Guns and Roses.  Where's she been?

A: Southern California, mostly.

It was actually my original intention for Guns and Roses to begin a series, with Roxanne and her aunt, Maureen O'Malley, leading tour groups to interesting locations where bad things would then happen.  But rather than continue the series I thought I was starting, Berkley Prime Crime asked for a new travel mystery series altogether, for reasons that greatly annoyed me at the time but no longer seem so irritating.

So the Booked for Travel mystery quartet, featuring Southern California travel agent/tour guide Lynne Montgomery, was born. And because these books were a bit softer and cozier than what I normally write, I decided to do them under the pseudonym Emily Toll.

While I was writing those books, Roxanne continued to work for her Aunt Maureen down the coast in Del Mar, then gradually came to the realization that she both wanted and needed to return to police work.

Q: Roxanne had previously been a patrol officer in Austin, Texas, right?

A: She had indeed.  Roxanne comes from a long line of Texas law enforcement officers.  She's a fourth-generation officer of the law, with a grandfather and great-grandfather who were both Texas Rangers.  Her dad's the chief of police in the Hill Country town where she grew up, and two of her three brothers are also cops. After she graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in criminology, Roxanne went on the Austin force as a patrol officer.

Q: Then something very bad happened.

A: Very bad indeed.  Her partner was killed and she took a leave of absence.  That was when she decided on the career change and solicited her aunt, a renegade who had long run the Irish Eyes Travel Agency in the Southern California town of Del Mar, for a job.

[photo]Q: It didn't take, civilian life?

A: No, it didn't.  But as has happened to so many of us, Roxanne became very much at home in Southern California, and when she decided to go back on the job, she chose to stay in Southern California rather than return to Texas.  She went on the San Diego Sheriff's Department over the San Diego Police Department, because the Sheriff's cover so much more territory, some 4200 square miles.  That's almost on a Texan scale, and it includes mountains and deserts and a long stretch of Mexican border, just like her native Lone Star state. She's worked her way up onto the Homicide Detail, where she's a very junior detective working with veteran Detective Jed Wilkinson.

As Wilkinson's partner, she's assigned to a very high profile murder in Rancho Santa Fe, at the home of Sam Brennan, a self-made man who's built himself an empire with a strong focus on the world of adoption.

Q: Why adoption?

A: One of the great perks of being a writer is that when a subject interests you, you can wallow in it for a while.  Adoption is something I was totally unaware of as a child.  I'm sure I had classmates who were adopted, but I never knew it and in many cases, they probably didn't, either. 

Adoption was a pretty hush-hush thing back in the fifties.  There weren't fertility drugs, so if you couldn't get pregnant and you wanted children, you had to adopt.  At the same time, teenagers weren't supposed to have sex and contraception and abortion weren't easy to come by.  So there was a steady supply of white middle-class babies, born to young women who would disappear for a while, go off somewhere for what was usually described as staying with an aunt.  Obstetricians sometimes arranged special private adoptions for personal friends.  I know personally of a couple of situations where doctors and their wives were able to adopt children who actually came from the fabled unions between university professors and beautiful coeds, in private adoptions right out of Perry Mason.

Most other adoptions back then were very straightforward and the records were sealed forever, which seemed a good idea at the time, I guess.  This created some major problems when the prevailing philosophy changed to reflect that the need to know one's medical background—at the very least—was justification for opening some of those records. This works best, of course, if both parties are agreeable, and there are all kinds of accounts of people who have been reunited and had wonderful experiences.

There are also plenty of situations where once the medical information is exchanged, the adoptee is quite content to let matters rest and go back to a previously-scheduled life.  And there are some situations which turn out very badly. When somebody seeks a birth mother, she isn't looking to uncover rape or incest, for instance.  But it happens.

Q:  Did you know girls who went off and had babies as teenagers?

A: I did indeed.  I grew up in Chicago.  One summer I met a girl from a small town in Indiana when our families both stayed at the same vacation hotel in northern Michigan.  We became pen pals after that (remember pen pals?) and I went to visit her in the fall.  She had a boyfriend who went off to college that year. We corresponded pretty regularly and then her letters just stopped.  Nothing.  I wrote several times and didn't hear back, and finally I called her long distance.  Calling somebody long distance was a big deal back then. They told me she wasn't home, and seemed kind of flustered.  A day or two later, I got a call from my friend.

Turns out she was in Chicago just like I was, only she was at a home for unwed mothers on the north side.  So she got permission to meet me in the Loop (they were fussy about field trips at the home, because girls would sneak out to see their boyfriends, which was not permitted) and we met at Marshall Field's. She was very, very pregnant.

It was the first time I ever knew somebody personally in that situation, and it was clearly not a fun position for her to be in.  She gave up the baby and we never really connected again after that.  I thought of her a lot while I was working on this book.

Another significant experience was getting to know a fellow Midwesterner after we had both relocated to Los Angeles.  She had given up a baby born when she was a teenager, in the classic "going off and staying with somebody" situation.  Her boyfriend was in Vietnam while she was pregnant, and he came back, but died not long after he returned stateside, in a freak accident.

She yearned to know her daughter.

And eventually, after she returned to the Midwest and married, she did find her daughter and establish a relationship with her.  She hired a guy who had a name and address for her within a couple of hours.

The kind of work that Sam Brennan started out doing, in Blood Matters.

Q: Adoption is very different today, isn't it?

A: Absolutely. For one thing, there isn't the stigma that there once was about being unmarried and having or keeping a child.  Many women of all ages choose to bear and raise children when they become pregnant accidentally.  At the same time, legal abortion has allowed women more control over when they will have children.

One thing this means is that there isn't the steady supply of white, middle-class infants that once came out of back-seat couplings at drive-in movies.  In fact, those kinds of babies are mighty rare, and people pay coeds a lot of money to have them on purpose today.  Meanwhile, people who want to adopt may have to be more creative and look to different cultures, countries and situations to build their families.

It's easier to adopt kids with special needs, because unfortunately there are always more of them than there are people with the special gifts and capabilities to raise those children.

Q: What about open adoption?

A: There are various levels of open adoption now, where adoptive parents may be involved throughout a pregnancy and birth parents sometimes stay deeply involved in the lives of the children they share.  Some of these open adoptions are too open and fall apart when the birth mother decides at the last minute to back out of a deal.

The adoption experience can be a real emotional roller coaster for all concerned.

Q: Movie stars seem to adopt a lot of kids these days, both at home and abroad.

A: Yes, they do, but that's always been the case.  Ronald Reagan's first family was adopted, back in the 40s. And let's not forget Christina Crawford, who was adopted to enhance her mother's image and suffered mightily, though she could safely be said to have gotten even with Joan Crawford in the long run.

Today we see women like Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopting babies internationally.

Q: Actually, don't we see a lot of international adoptions these days?

A: We certainly do, and various countries and regions move in and out of vogue as availability and other factors change.  There were lots of Romanian babies adopted out of orphanages a while back. I know people who've adopted children from Ukraine, India, China, and different parts of Africa.  The rules keep changing and sometimes people will have to visit a country several times before they are actually able to bring a child back to the United States. 

Sometimes after all that, they still aren't able to adopt a child.  International adoption is a complicated and often very expensive process.

Q: In Blood Matters,  Sam Brennan is bludgeoned to death with his own statuette of Michael Jackson.  How does he happen to have such a possession?

A: As it happens, Sam Brennan has a great many possessions.  He is a capital-C Collector of many different things—salt & pepper shakers, vintage cars, old board games, neon signs and all manner of other stuff—and the murder weapon is part of one of those collections, one that is less politically correct than some of the others.

Q: You've got a longstanding relationship with Perseverance Press.  What has that experience been like?

A: My first novel was published in 1985, and over the last 22 years, I've had publishers who could accurately be described as small, medium, and large.  There are distinct advantages to each, of course, but overall, my relationship with Perseverance has been the most gratifying of all. They've published five of my books: Guns and Roses, Open Season on Lawyers, Paradise Lost, Blood Matters, and The Tumbleweed Murders, which I completed for my friend and colleague Rebecca Rothenberg, who died in 1998.

The people at Perseverance put out a quality product, know how to listen, understand promotion, edit and copyedit meticulously and are a joy to work with in every regard. 

Q: I understand that "foul language" was one of the reasons that Guns and Roses didn't become a series.

A: Well, hell. Yes, I confess.  Foul language has always been a personal weakness and pleasure.

Having said that, I must confess I was surprised that it pissed me off when "foul language" was cited as a reason why the book was insufficiently cozy to continue as a Berkley Prime Crime series. However, in the computer era, this is easy to check up on.

So I did a global search of the manuscript, starting with the F word, which appeared exactly once, as a young woman said, "Fuck maturity" to her mother, which didn't seem so outrageous.  "Shit" appeared much more frequently, but pretty much always as part of the word "dogshit"—and dogshit was a plot point.  "Hell" was all over the place, mostly embedded in the word "oystershell."  Oystershell is what a lot of the paths are made of in Colonial Williamsburg, where the book was set.

As for "damn," well: guilty as charged.

Q: What was the evolution of Lynne Montgomery, who did go to Berkley in the Booked for Travel series?

A:  I wanted to keep the series set in Southern California where I live, and I had already created a very nice town called Floritas in Northern San Diego County, for Tangled Roots, the second of the earlier Nan Robinson mysteries. So I gave Lynne a travel agency in Floritas, one purchased with the proceeds from an exceptionally large insurance policy, carried by her insurance agent husband who died suddenly one morning while surfing.

This series gave me a chance to call on some of the experiences I've had in my own Southern California beach town.  For instance, a lot of guys surf here, from ages six to what I call the Surf Geezers, fellows upwards of 70.  Some of them have been surfing nearly their entire lives.  It's a whole fascinating subculture, with all kinds of rites of passage, including Surf PE, which is offered at many of the high schools around here.  People surf year round, adding longer wetsuits as the weather gets colder (and the Pacific Ocean is cold even in the summer). Some of the surf geezers wear neoprene booties and head coverings in the winter, but they're mostly over 80, so I guess we can cut them a little slack.  And yes, there are female surfers, though not a lot of them.

Q: What else came from your experiences in the area?

A: One thing that grew out of having a child educated in California was the story line for the second Booked for Travel mystery, Murder Pans Out.  It takes place on a special tour of California Gold Rush Country that Lynne puts together for a group of school teachers from the Floritas schools. Every fourth grader in California studies the Gold Rush and I thought it would be fun to look at that region through the eyes of dedicated and enthusiastic teachers.

There also were the flowers.  Lynne loves to garden and so do I, and the two of us are enormously blessed in that this little corner of the country never freezes.  There are all kinds of things you can grow here that aren't possible anywhere else in the country, even in Southern Florida.

Q: Which Lynne Montgomery also visited, in Keys to Death.

A: Yes, she did.  I mentioned wallowing in a subject you like earlier, as a perk of writing, and the travel mysteries were an opportunity for me to do that on a wider and more romanticized scale. Keys to Death is set in the Florida Keys. The last (and only other) time I went to the Keys, I found out I had sold my first novel, Convictions, so it's an area that holds a special meaning for me.

I took some great trips researching these books.  I also went to Sonoma Wine Country in Murder Will Travel, though as a beer drinker, I probably didn't appreciate all the vineyards and wineries as much as I could or should have. Still, that trip also offered the Luther Burbank Garden in Santa Rosa and Jack London's Ranch, where I picked up a sign he kept on his office door that now graces my own: Please do not enter without knocking. Please do not knock.

I also got to have an experience for Fall Into Death that I'd always wanted: New England in the autumn.  It turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I had hoped, though for a while after we arrived, everything remained disturbingly green. Finally near the end of the trip, however, when we were in northern Vermont, the foliage turned everywhere and remained magnificent till we headed back home. 

The one regret I have about that trip is that I wasn't able to get to the newly opened Edward Gorey home on Cape Cod. Guess I'll have to go back sometime.

Q: Why on earth would you give up a series that required all that wonderful travel?

A: Well, a strange thing started to happen.  Anywhere that I wanted to set a book, I had to work up a preliminary plot before actually setting foot on location.  Then while I was on the actual trip, I'd have to visit and research at least twice as many places as I'd be able to ultimately use, since often I'd find something that would work even better than what I'd originally planned.  Of course there was no way of knowing in advance which places would work and which would be duds. Travel is expensive and time is limited.

Suddenly, the travel wasn't really fun any more.  I can't begin to tell you how nice it was to take a trip again that didn't involve endless notes and lugging around my laptop.

Q: Where's Emily Toll these days?  Lynne Montgomery?

A: Emily is retired, and Lynne has actually been talking to Roxanne Prescott's Aunt Maureen about a possible merger of their two travel businesses.

The travel industry has changed a lot in recent years, and people are making more of their own arrangements via the Internet.  I won't be surprised if these two very cool women find a way to make their mutual interests coincide so that each can be at least semi-retired, and both can continue the travel they love.

Roxanne is living in her aunt's carriage house right now, so she's got a close view of what may transpire here.  Stay tuned.

Q: How has the mystery world changed since your first mystery, A Pocketful of Karma, was published in 1993?

A: As I look back on the past fourteen years, it's like visiting another planet, or maybe even another universe.

Women were exploding into the mystery world when I began writing my first mysteries in the late 1980s. Suddenly there were all kinds of amazing new talents emerging on the scene to join the first wave, folks like Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.

I wasn't around for the very beginning of Sisters in Crime, but I showed up not too long after that.  I remember one incredible program at Small World Books in Venice, CA, when it felt as if my bookshelf had just come to life.  Here were Nancy Pickard, Marilyn Wallace, Susan Dunlap, Faye Kellerman, Shelley Singer, Julie Smith, Lia Matera and more, all in one relatively tiny place at one time.  It was incredible.

By the time my first mystery was published a couple years later, a lot of women were being published and competition was fierce. The class of 1993 may have been the most incredible collection of first mystery fiction ever, with debut books from Abigail Padgett, Deborah Crombie, Sharan Newman, Nevada Barr, Jan Burke, Lisa Scottoline, and Laurie R. King. 

And me, of course.  I keep amazing company sometimes.

The publishing world was much simpler then, and most mystery publishing was based in New York at a wide range of houses. Publishers would bring along a new mystery writer through several books to build a following.  A hardcover deal didn't always mean a paperback but you might, as I did, have a couple of previous hardcovers picked up at the same time for softcover, in conjunction with a third paperback original.  After A Pocketful of Karma and Tangled Roots, Class Reunions are Murder became my first paperback original.

There were a lot of private investigators back then, many of them female, and many of those named Cat.  There were plenty of cozy books, without as many gimmicks as we see today.  It was possible to be an interesting amateur sleuth in a small town without having to have an exotic occupation or a hobby of creating military tents out of macramé.  Nobody was killing any cats, but there weren't a zillion animal books, either.

There was less of everything, actually.

And then the publishing industry began to cannibalize itself.  Publishers began gobbling each other up.  Mystery lines were closed down, editors were laid off, authors were dropped.  It became easier to publish a new writer with no track record at the big chain bookstores than to carry somebody with a loyal and steadily growing following. 

I also began to notice something that I think of as the Six-Pack Theory of Amateur Sleuths. By the time an amateur sleuth has had half a dozen or so murder experiences, she has lost a lot of people who were near and dear to her (else she wouldn't have been involved) and by all rights should be checking into an institution with extreme depression.  Instead, she's likely to find herself out on the streets and her creator busy creating a new series.  A few people have managed to escape this syndrome, but they are the exceptions.

A few years later, when Guns and Roses was published by Perseverance Press in 2000, I was lucky enough to be riding the first wave of the small press movement. The trade paperbacks from Perseverance were, as my editor put it, the quality of a hardcover at half the price. They still are.

Alas, a lot of people began creating their own "small presses" and self-publishing their writing. This has made it much more difficult for legitimate small presses to survive in a vicious marketplace.

Q: Wasn't the Internet playing an important role by then as well?

A: Absolutely!  The Internet has become a major player in the mystery world.  Every writer seemed to have a website by the time I finally went online in the late 90s, and listservs like DorothyL bring thousands of mystery lovers together on a daily basis. Where a letter might once have taken days to cross the country, if you could even find somebody's address, an email can reach that person almost instantly.

I have never been in such close contact with so many people, and the number seems to grow every year.  The global community of the Internet is simultaneously very large and very intimate.  I love it.

Q: Do you like writing police procedurals?

A: When I wrote my first mysteries,  I couldn't imagine feeling comfortable enough within the world of law enforcement to write an accurate police procedural.  But as time passed and I wrote more books with amateur sleuths, I came to understand that there's a real advantage when it's your character's job to solve murders.  You don't have to drag somebody into the story, because that's what she goes to work for.

I wrote female cops that I liked a lot in Open Season on Lawyers and Paradise Lost and I realized one day that I was ready to take on a straightforward police procedural.

Fortunately, so was Roxanne.

Q: What's up next for Roxanne?

A: Detective Prescott has requested that I not share the particulars of her current case until she has completed her investigation.  Since she is far more fit than I have ever been, with a lot of specialized cop training, I automatically defer to her wishes.


All content © 2005-11 by Taffy Cannon.