QBR’s Interview with Cheryl Hagedorn

Author Interview Questions

Where are you from?

Greetings from Des Plaines, Illinois, thirty minutes northwest of Chicago, a half-mile from O’Hare Airport.


Tell us your latest news?

I just hosted the first ever BookLocker virtual book tour with mystery authors M.D. Abrams, Peter McGinn and Susan Waller Miccio. Now I’ve embarked on my own virtual tour, meeting online with librarians, fellow mystery writers, senior center directors, even an Irish blogger called Grandad. I’m especially glad that you agreed to be one of the stops on the tour!

EARLY
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve been journaling and writing poetry forever, to express feelings that I had trouble putting into out-loud words.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

By “be” a writer, I assume you mean, at what point was I willing to make room in my life for writing with an eye to publication.

A few years back I was maintaining a website for the Northwest Suburban Women’s Resource Center. It seemed impossible not to turn simple links into articles, or at least mini press releases. I decided at that point to test the water by taking writing classes at the community college. I exceeded my own expectations which prompted me to enter graduate school to get my master’s in writing.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I’ve always considered myself a writer. Ironically, I think most authors, as distinct from writers, don’t consider themselves an author, until they have a book in print.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

A medical technician, researcher, that sort of thing. A book I read about it in junior high really made me consider it.

First book

What inspired you to write your first book?

PARK RIDGE: A Senior Center Murder grew out of a short story assignment that I gave my writing class. In 969 words, I had four killers murder five people. I wanted to see where it would go if I let it. Not exactly inspiration, more like curiosity.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

I wrote PARK RIDGE the summer of 2006 not long after my 59th birthday.

How much of the book is realistic?

Nearly all of it. Park Ridge, Illinois is a real place – it’s the childhood home of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The senior center is exactly as described except for one room. Locals to the area will recognize references to the Pickwick Theatre, St. Juliana’s in Edison Park and other landmarks.

The Senior Center Director resembles the current director, Teresa Grodsky, but I changed her last name, made her single, taller, younger. She’s the only character who is remotely based on a real person. I talked it over with her before the book came out and, thank God, she was okay with that.

The rest of the characters are wholly-fictional, particularly the suburban cowboy detective. Somehow I don’t think that the Park Ridge Police would tolerate Stan’s preferred choice of clothing.

How did you come up with the title?

When I realized that I wanted to do a series about senior center murders, it seemed logical to name them after the towns in which they’re located. The first is PARK RIDGE, where I teach, the third DES PLAINES, where I live. I know, I know I skipped one. PARK RIDGE takes place in spring. The brainstorm I had for the third put it into fall. So I needed a book that would take place in summer. So I took a pass on a specific senior center and went with the Six County Senior Olympics (an actual event). It’s called Senior Games.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

Firsthand experience and my own imagination.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

No.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Contrary to the advice I’ve seen almost everywhere, yes, my mystery novel has a message. Essentially, it’s this: don’t make the mistake of assuming you know what’s best for someone else.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Good question and the answer is yes. I don’t think I would let my readers off as easy as I did. Let me explain. The motivation for the murders comes from a seething resentment, not like road rage which blows up over the slightest offence. I thought that readers who couldn’t pick up on the depth of this resentment might need help in justifying the murders. So I supplied plausible but fairly trivial slights that supposedly had festered.

I was correct that some people would miss the point and need to glom on to the trivial excuses for the murders. Unfortunately this happened with some reviewers as well. If I could, I’d go back and take out the cookie crumb trail, forcing readers to look up into the forest and try to see behind the trees.

Influence/Style

Who or what has influenced your writing?

Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is the standard by which I measure what I’ve done. Jamaica Kincaid’s writing reminds me that there really are no rules. Josephine Tay taught me a love of language.


How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Teaching writing to seniors for the Chicago Dept. on Aging and the Park Ridge Senior Center brought me into close contact with people of passion and full of stories. They became models for the characters in my books.


What books have most influenced your life most?

There’s a book now out of print called The Midnight Patrol written by an officer of The Salvation Army. Another would be Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I’d love to be able to write “funny,” humorously, the way Maddy Hunter or Janet Evanovich (her numbered series) do. But that’s just not me. Not that some people didn’t find my book amusing! One reviewer said the book was “uproarious.” The whole idea of seniors forming a mini-gang and getting revenge struck her as delightful.

I like layers to plots and I’m partial to parallels — bells ringing and ideas resonating — and mirrors.


What genre are you most comfortable writing?

Whew! PARK RIDGE is a mystery, so are my second and third books. But, I don’t think that you should jump to the conclusion that I’m the most comfortable writing in that genre, though. I’ve got a sci-fi book in the works, but that’s also not my genre of choice. I’m dithering about this, so I guess I’ll just come out and say it, “I prefer writing non-fiction.” There. I’ve said it and I feel better.

What does your family think of your writing?

My partner, Luanne, has been incredibly understanding and encouraging. She deserves a medal for helping me practice how the murder by banana might go.

I asked my father (in his mid-80s, so closely identifying with the folks in the book) if he felt the murder by banana was the scariest. But no, he said the most troubling part of the book was the last murder. They didn’t find the body for days and that really upset him.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

The Chicago Writers Association has been a god-send. I wish I’d found them before the book was published.


Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Rendell is able to plume the psyche of such a vast array of characters! I’m thinking particularly of The Chimney Sweep’s Boy where the main character is a gay man.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Ruth Rendell in her earlier books.


What book are you reading now?

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine (Rendell’s alter-ego).


Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I mentioned Maddy Hunter and her Passport to Peril series before. Really funny stuff and I recognize every last senior citizen from Iowa that she describes. Peter Abresch puts a spin on seniors in his Elderhostel series that I also appreciate.


Can you share a little of your current work with us? What are your current projects?

I’m hard at work on GS, Obs., the science fiction book, but I bounce from it to the third in the senior center murder series. Then there’s 150 pages of an allegory that I started several years ago that I would like to revisit. Lastly, there’s an unfinished biography of Theodora Van Wagenen Ward that I put 2½ years of research into.


Do you see writing as a career?

Yes. I tried my hand at teaching at Truman College, one of Chicago’s seven City Colleges, but it left me really dissatisfied. Senior citizens are hungry to learn how to put thoughts into words; recent high school seniors, not so much.

Writing

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Spending time on descriptions of rooms and characters. I do only what I absolutely have to. I have to tell you that even if readers hate reading those things (and I’ve heard from several that do), that’s what they’re still teaching in school. I liked it better, too, when the reader used their imagination.


Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

I haven’t.


Who designed the covers?

Julie Sartain did the cover for PARK RIDGE.


What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The way PARK RIDGE is written you get to eavesdrop on the conversations between the card-playing killers. I’ve also got special sections which are first person, present tense labeled Murder. They put you inside the head of the killer during the actual crime. The hardest part was finding a way to work the backstories of the killers and victims into the narrative. I did this through another device called Videotape. I present transcripts of videos made by students from Northwestern University.


Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

I came away with a greater respect for senior citizens as people, oddly enough. I thought that was why I wrote the book in the first place! But watching my characters interact with each other, I felt that I really knew them as people. Even the initial cover up that they agree to – some thought that highly unlikely. I’m not so sure. Older folks can have a real sense of loyalty to each other, especially when they have no one else. Making a pact in which each would deliberately kill someone is the same activity one sees in a juvenile gang – and for the same reasons.


Do you have any advice for other writers?

Go with your own judgment. There’s a reason you’re writing it the way you are. Do not second-guess yourself until you’re done. There’s plenty of time to re-think, ask questions, and revise. But in the first draft, make sure it’s your voice that’s speaking. Don’t listen to the guy whispering behind you as you type.


Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Stan and Teresa do not marry in the second book.

How long does it take you to write a book?

The first one went very quickly, the second twice as long. The allegory went very quickly. Guess the answer is that I have no idea.


What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I try to start at 8 a.m. and write until 2 p.m. At that point my head is spinning with possibilities and I’ve just got to let it go.


What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I don’t know if I have one.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Eat.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

That the twists that suggest themselves late at night as you are falling asleep are often exactly what the book needs. That’s where I got the idea to have the detective’s mother be a member of the senior center and date one of the killers.

Writing

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?

Read until you find an author that does things the way you would like to be able to do them. Then take apart what they did, find out how they did it, try to replicate technique or style in your own writing.

On the best exercises we ever did in graduate school was to take one paragraph of an author’s work and replicate it. Word counts had to be identical, verb for verb, adjective for adjective, gerund for gerund. Incredibly hard work but wonderfully informative on how someone else puts together words, thoughts and sentences.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

Most have writtten to find out what happens to Stan and Teresa next – maybe I should have tried writing romance!

Do you like to create books for adults?

How odd. I guess I just assumed that my books would always be for adults. So, yes.

What do you think makes a good story?
Reader involvement. I don’t think an author has succeeded unless the reader is engaged.

Self-Publishing Questions:

How do you feel overall about self-publishing?

I think that important books are being self-published. M.D. Abrams has written two books which qualify.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of promotion for self-published authors?

Some reviewers, such as those at the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, refuse to even look at your book. Most chain bookstores will not stock your book.

Once you have decent reviews in hand from reputable reviewers, though, everything else evens out. Self-published authors have to put in the same long hours promoting their work as everybody else.

What do you feel is one major benefit to self-publishing your book?

Time saved. It can take months for a publisher to look at your book, just to have them say, sorry, not our kind of thing. Then you start all over with another publisher.

Would you encourage or mentor someone to become self-publish?

Only if they’re willing to put the time in to market it. Otherwise it becomes your gift to family and friends.

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