In 2011, we're planning a weekly interview with a Killer Nashville author or expert. At the end of each interview, the interviewee will give us a discussion topic to talk about throughout the week. We hope you'll join in the discussion and help us make this blog into a lively, active community.
This week's Killer Conversation interview is with Margaret Fenton. Margaret is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) who spent ten years as a child and family therapist before taking a break to focus on her writing. Hence, her mysteries tend to reflect her interest in social causes and mental health, especially where kids are concerned. Her first book is Little Lamb Lost, published in June 2009 by Oceanview Publishing. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, a software developer. She is the planning coordinator of Murder in the Magic City, a one-day, one-track annual mystery fan conference in Homewood, Alabama. She is President of the Birmingham Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America. Her website is www.margaretfenton.com.
KN: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you come to be a writer?
MF: I started out as a social worker, and I’m still an LCSW, although I’m not working in the field right now. I did in-home family therapy for the child welfare department in Birmingham for a number of years. I was housed in the child welfare building, so that provided a lot of inspiration for Claire, and for the mystery series. As for how I started writing, well, I started very late. I was a mystery fan first. An enthusiastic one at that. Someone at a local bookstore told me about the local Sisters in Crime chapter and I joined. That’s how I met Anne George, and we got to be friends. One day, we were on our way to a meeting and I was babbling on about what mystery I’d been reading, and Anne said she didn’t understand why I didn’t try to write one, if I loved them so much? I didn’t have a good answer, so I decided to try. It took a long time, but Little Lamb Lost is finally here.
KN: Your first published book, Little Lamb Lost came out in 2009. How does it feel to be a published author?
MF: Amazing. Great. Terrifying. Weird. All at the same time. I’m very proud of Little Lamb Lost, and every time I see it on a shelf, I’m like, really? I wrote a book? It seems a little surreal. But wonderful. A dream come true, literally. I love to write and have found my true passion, but the business end of this career is a little scary. Like every author, I’m worried about sales and promotion.
KN: What can you tell us about the book? Is it a standalone or the first of a series?
MF: The Claire Conover books are a series, with the same characters. We’ll see how they grow, and how relationships develop. That, to me, is the best thing about a mystery series. In Little Lamb Lost we meet Claire, a child welfare social worker, and her worst nightmare happens when one of her small clients dies of a drug overdose. Claire was the person responsible for placing the child back in the home with his mother, who is accused of the murder. So everything for Claire, career-wise, is at risk.
KN: What characteristics do you and your protagonist share? In what ways are you very different?
MF: Claire and I both share a love for social work. Our value systems are very similar. We want people to be successful and happy. And children to be safe. But Claire works harder than I ever did, for sure! She has a little more passion for justice, too.
KN: What led you to the mystery genre? Why do you find it satisfying?
MF: When I was in early elementary school, my mother was a travel agent in the local mall. Her agency was directly across the corridor from a bookstore, and every week she would buy me a new mystery. Like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden (my favorite). I just loved them. Then as I got older, I would pick up my dad’s old Agatha Christie paperbacks off the shelf and read those. Then Dick Francis and Rex Stout, then Sue Grafton and on and on and on…I can’t remember not loving them. I love strong characters, and they feel like friends. I love the idea of solving a puzzle, and the sense of justice at the end of a good book, too.
KN: Was it a long road to publication? How did you get your first contract?
MF: Seven years, so yeah, a long road. Lots of rejections along the way. I got my contract at a wonderful conference for writers and fans called Killer Nashville. My friend Don Bruns introduced me to his editor, and I pitched the book to her. Two months later I had a contract. It was great.
KN: What is the most challenging part of being a new kid on the block in the current economy?
MF: Sometimes it seems like everybody and their mother has published a book! There’s a lot of competition out there. It’s hard to get noticed. I just promote the book every chance I get. At conferences, especially.
KN: Of all your marketing efforts, which have been the most successful?
MF: I think, today, you have to have a strong online presence. I have a website, and I guest blog whenever I can. So many people now get so much information from the web. I participate in a fabulous listserv, DorothyL, for mystery fans and writers. I go to every conference I can. Good reviews help, too. I have the most marvelous publicist in the world, and she’s been amazing at getting the book out there. That’s really a big key.
KN: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
MF: I want them to love Claire and care about what happens to her. I want them to come away with a better understanding of child welfare social work, and what challenges are facing our social workers and our nation’s children.
KN: What is the best thing about your publisher?
MF: I can’t gush enough about how wonderful Oceanview has been. They are the best. They bend over backwards and sideways and every other direction to make you feel welcome and to help you be successful. They are so supportive.
KN: You organize the Murder in the Magic City conference. Does your experience in organizing a conference affect your perceptions when you attend a conference, and if so, how?
MF: Murder in the Magic City is a fan-based conference. We’ve done it for nine years now. Our next one is February 5, 2011. It’s a lot of fun. Meeting mystery authors really helped me to learn a lot when I was trying to get published, just about the business in general. Mystery writers are the most amazing group. We really support each other. I’ve found very little competition or pettiness out there. Everybody is helpful and wants you to succeed. It’s a great reason to go to any mystery conference.
KN: Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
MF: Hang in there. I know it’s hard. Join a critique group, a good one that will give you honest and real feedback. Make sure you have done all you can to write the best book you can, then hang in there. Don’t give up.
KN: How about for fans of the genre in general (and your book in particular)?
MF: I hope to meet a lot of people along this journey. I’m anxious to introduce them to Claire and hear their thoughts on her adventures. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
KN: If you could have one wish related to your writing career, what would it be?
MF: I hope people will love Claire and all the characters in her life. I think that’s the secret to a long, successful career.
KN: Anything else you’d like to add or address that we haven’t covered?
MF: I think that’s it.
KN: Thanks for joining us, Margaret. One last thing. What’s our discussion topic for the week?
MF: I just finished a book, and I don't want to mention any dragon tattoos or anything, but it had a TON of my pet peeves in it. Gratuitous violence is a big one. And characters who avoid the authorities to the point where it's just ridiculous and unrealistic. So here's the discussion question: What are your worst pet peeves in a book? Things that authors have done really wrong, in your opinion?
KN: Great question, Margaret. Okay, everyone. Time to discuss!