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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Interview with Author J. Michael Orenduff

I am so pleased to have author J. Michael Orenduff today. His Pot Thief mystery series is a joy to read--fun facts, characters, and cooking combined with a historical Southwestern atmosphere. You can't help but feel your time has been well-spent after reading a J. Michael Orenduff. But enough gushing.

First off, congratulations are in order. The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein won the “Lefty” award at the Left Coast Crime Convention, and both The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras and The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy consecutively won the “Eppie” for eBook Mystery of the Year. How has this changed things for you?

I’ve received many congratulatory messages (thanks for adding yours), my sales have increased, and I’ve received several invitations to speak at conferences. Unfortunately, none of them has offered me a large honorarium.

But despite the notoriety that comes from winning these awards, publishing with an indie publisher remains a challenge. My publisher, Oak Tree Press, is great to work with. They pay advances and good royalties. They produce a handsome product. They try to promote my book within the limits of their promotion budget. From what some writers with bigger presses tell me, even they don’t get much promotional help these days. Authors have to market their books. But many bookstores simply don’t have the staff or time to sort through all the books offered by all the publishers, so they play it safe and just order from the big NY publishers.

In The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, you take protagonist Hubie Schuze out of his comfort zone in Old Town Albuquerque and drop him in Santa Fe. Instead of copying pots, he’s crafting an original design, and rather than read about scientists, he’s reading up on a chef. Did this take you out of your comfort zone as the author of the series as well?

Actually, it returned me to my comfort zone. I’ve always been a big fan of Agatha Christie and her cast of characters on a boat, an island, a train etc. Escoffier sets the cast in a restaurant, but it is, in some ways, an homage to Christie with the differing personalities of the restaurant workers coming to light and their interactions being clues. There are also several characters whose identity – or at least full identity – is obscured until the end. It was great fun to write.

Each book so far has revolved around a scientists and his specific theory. Escoffier is a chef, not a scientist. Will you be expanding your titles to include other experts outside of the field of science?

I will. The next one is D. H. Lawrence who loved New Mexico and lived outside of Taos for a couple of years. Much of the action in that one takes place of the Lawrence Ranch, now owned by my alma mater, the University of New Mexico. The one after that features Lew Wallace who was the Territorial Governor of New Mexico when he wrote Ben Hur and when he double-crossed Billie the Kid. So the first six will have included a mathematician, astronomer, physicists, chef, writer, and Civil War general. I’m open to suggestions about number seven if anyone out there wants to send me a name.

Hubie has been considering the pros and cons of marriage. And Susannah showed a new side in this book as well--the efficient and professional waitress. Does this mean they are each entering a new life phase? No more evenings at Dos Hermanas Tortillaria?

I don’t think either my readers of Hubie and Susannah would allow me to end the evenings at Dos Hermanas Tortillaria. But characters do evolve, and Hubie continues to struggle with love and marriage in book number five. I don’t have a long-term plan for him. Of course, he doesn’t have one for himself. You are correct that Susannah is a consummate professional as a waitress, but she doesn’t want to consider it a career. At least not yet. That’s why she is still taking classes part time, but that doesn’t seem to be leading to a career either, so she’s also a bit in limbo. Maybe that’s why they are such great friends. Despite being of different genders and generations, they have more in common than either one of them realizes.

I also noticed the steps as Hubie cooked were more explicit, and you even included one warning. Have people been contacting you for recipes? Will there ever be a Hubie Schuze cookbook?

A resounding ‘Yes’ to both questions.

(A big Yahoo! from me.)

Hubie always has an “Aha!” moment when the crime’s solution hits him, usually while he’s doing something unrelated to the murder. Did you set out to make this his sleuthing trademark?

I did. And I planned for the “Aha!” moment to arise from the ideas of the person he was reading about. It hasn’t worked out as neatly as I had hoped. But that’s the difference between planning a book and writing one. Once I get into the story, it takes on a life of its own, and multiple ideas from Hubie’s reading help to tie the plot together. And while one or two of those may help him solve the murder, the breakthrough idea does not necessarily come from the person in the title.

You and your wife, noted art historian Lai Chew Orenduff, gave a presentation about book covers at last year’s Public Safety Writers Association Conference. Your series books have a definite look to them that makes them easily identifiable, and they are attractive as well. Do you have any advice for authors about to release a series on how to come up with an effective book cover? (As much as it is within the author’s control.)

Yes – hire my wife to design the cover. Short of that, try to get your publisher to allow you to have some input. Now I didn’t do either of those on my first book. The publisher’s designer did the work, and I never saw it until it was complete. Luckily, I loved it, and so do readers. I get hundreds of compliments on the covers. When I got the contract for the second book, I asked for and received input, but my main input has been to insist that the general theme of the covers remains the same so that the fact that it is a series is reinforced. It may be true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but people are a lot more likely to pick one up and start reading if the cover attracts them.

I’ve asked this question of Mark Schweizer of the Liturgical Mystery series and L.C. Tyler of the Elsie and Ethelred series (just so you don’t think I’m picking on you!)

Hubie has a wry sense of humor that pokes fun of many things, but you never get the impression that he’s mean. As an author, how do you avoid crossing this line?

Great question. I wish I had an equally great answer. I spent a lot of time creating my characters. I actually wrote a biography of Hubie, starting with his parents and their backgrounds. I traced him through school, university, etc. I noted his attitudes, likes and dislikes, weaknesses and strengths, etc. I keep that biography at hand and refer to it as I write in the hope of avoiding inconsistencies. I did have one change in his physical description in the last book, but so far no one has asked about it. It wasn’t something that couldn’t happen – he didn’t get taller or change eye color – but he did change. But he could never be mean.

What’s up next for you?

In addition to the next two books in the series mentioned above, I’m still looking to have one of my plays produced. Getting a play staged these days is even harder than finding an agent or a publisher. I guess I should count myself fortunate that I have two out of three.

Thanks for a great interview. It is refreshing to have an interviewer who does her homework and doesn’t just use stock questions.

And now, for the question of the month: Do you have any tips or tricks that might help writers with the rewrite process?

It helps me to put the work aside for a couple of weeks and work on the next book. Immersing myself in a different story gives me the distance to deal with the older story when I get back to it. That's why I always have two book in process.
 
Thank you, Mike! Find out more about The Pot Thief on J. Michael Orenduff's website. You can pick up his books online or at independent bookstores.

3 comments:

  1. Oh, Mike and Jackie, what a wonderful interview! Because Mike and I share a publisher and I've had the privilege of meeting Mike at the PSWA conference and Epicon, I have to tell you that he has the same wry sense of humor as Hubie.

    Waving at Mike.

    Marilyn

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  2. Thanks, Marilyn. I have to miss PSWA this year. It is a great conference; you learn a lot and have fun. Wish I could be there.

    Mike

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  3. Always love hearing from and about Mike! And Jackie, you're a great interviewer, asking questions that give insight into the author's thinking! Great interview, congrats to both. And Mike, just keep 'em coming--love Hubie.

    Madeline

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