Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview with Michael Orenduff

Mike Orenduff grew up in El Paso Texas, in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. Before he turned to writing humorous murder mysteries, Mike taught at universities in seven states and three countries. He was also a college administrator, serving as President of The University of Maine at Farmington, The American University in Bulgaria, New Mexico State University, and Bermuda College. He served as Chancellor of the University of Maine System and a visiting faculty member at West Point. His first murder mystery, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, won the New Mexico Book of the Year Award, and the Kindle version won the 2010 EPIC Award in the Mystery/Suspense Category. The second book in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy, was chosen as Best Fiction Book by the Public Safety Writers Association and is a finalist for this year’s EPIC Award. The third in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, is a finalist for the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery of the year. Mike and his wife, the noted art historian Lai Orenduff, have two grown children. Jay is a dean at Columbia University in New York, and Claire teaches art history at Georgia College and – more importantly – is the mother of their grandson, Bram

KN: What’s your publishing story? How did the Pot Thief books come to be?

MO: I entered the Dark Oak Mystery Contest sponsored by Oak Tree Press and won. The prize was a contract to publish the book. This was perfect for me as I hate writing query letters. As I often say, a query letter is a good thing to read if you want to hire someone to write query letters. But author aren’t chosen to write queries; they are chosen to write stories. The publishing business would be a little less insane if agents and editors read a chapter instead of a query.

KN: Hubert Schuze is one of the most original characters I’ve read in a mystery. Can you tell us a little bit about him? How did you come up with him?

MO: I wanted to set the books in New Mexico because I love it, I know it, and it has a certain mystique about it that I thought would help attract readers. Then I wanted my protagonist to have some moral ambiguity. What better flaw for a character in New Mexico than to be a pot thief. It also allows me to work in the Native American angle so important to the locale.

KN: How is he similar to you, and how is he different?

MO: He is physically my opposite. He is short and has a full head of hair. I am tall and bald. One personality trait he shares with me is a tendency to overanalyze everything. His musings are a feature of the books and readers tell me they like that.

KN: Hubert has a distinctive voice and an exceptional and charming gift for rationalization. How hard was it to find his unique voice?

MO: It wasn’t difficult in the sense of requiring great skill or insight on my part. But it was time consuming. I simply started writing and kept at it. After I finished the first draft of the first book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, I put it aside for a month or so. Then I read it and saw that Hubie was not a consistent and coherent character. So I marked all the passages that didn’t seem to fit. I changed them and let the book age for another few weeks. Then I repeated the process. If I found Hubie saying or thinking something that didn’t seem right for him, I either changed it or, if I couldn’t make it work, threw it out. After several iterations of this process, I found myself very comfortable saying, “Hubie would never say that.” And once I reached that point, I knew I was on the right track. But I’m still working on it. I think his voice has improved with each book.

KN: There have been three Pot Thief novels so far. Do you have a specific number planned for the series?

MO: No. The 4th one, The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, will be out next month. I have a first draft of the 5th one and am working on the sixth. I’ll keep going as until I get tired of it or run out of ideas and/or readers.

KN: Do you have any plans to give Hubert a romantic entanglement? Any chance of love blooming between Hubert and his friend Susannah?

MO: Hubert will lurch in his unsystematic way from one romance to another. The relationship between Hubert and Susannah is deliberately ambiguous, and I have to keep it that way for the books to work.

KN: How are your novels born? Do you begin a novel with a full-blown plot or the seed of an idea?

MO: The seed of an idea. Then a very short and rough outline, more a list of key plot points. I don’t have the patience to do a complete plot before starting to write.

KN: You seem to know a lot about ancient Native American pottery. Do you have a background in archaeology?

MO: I majored in anthropology/archaeology for a while before switching to philosophy.

KN: Do you research your books before you begin writing? If so, how extensively? If not, how do you work around any gaps in your knowledge (if any)?

MO: I do extensive research and still get things wrong.

KN: Pantser or plotter?

MO: Pantser. I have been known to decide halfway into a book to make someone a victim when the original plan was to make him the murderer.

KN: What is your writing schedule/writing process like?

MO: I need large blocks of time because once I start, I don’t like to stop. I do almost no editing while I write because I’m immersed in the story. So a writing session is strictly writing, and an editing session is strictly editing and re-writing. I typically edit and re-write a book somewhere between twelve and twenty times. I have no idea if that is typical.

KN: Your writing is very crisp and tight. How much editing do you do to get it that way? Do you have a special editing process or system?

MO: My first drafts are about 100,000 words. They eventually get edited down to 60,000 or so. I think that help keep them tight.

KN: What are your goals and hopes as a writer?

MO: I didn’t become a writer to make money. Good thing, right? I’m retired on an adequate income. I didn’t become a writer just to have something to do. There are other hobbies I enjoy. I became a writer because I wanted an audience. I like the idea that people read what I write. Perhaps after all those years as a professor, I still have the need to have an audience.

KN: What’s been the most surprising thing about being a professional writer?

MO: Discovering how bizarre the world of publishing is. I had no idea how publishing worked, how bookstores worked, etc. It feels like I ran away and joined the circus.

KN: Your Pot Thief books have received critical acclaim and have even won several awards. Does the recognition affect your writing (e.g., inspire you, give you more confidence to try new things, make you less likely to stray too far afield from what’s been successful for you)?

MO: I’ve never been asked this before, so I had to think about it. I’m pleased by the recognition because it means I do have that audience and it may get larger, but I don’t think it has affected my writing in any way.

KN: Humor plays a large role in your books. In fact, in last week’s discussion, you said something to the effect that the mysteries in your book are the platform for the humor. Has humor always come naturally to you?

MO: It has. I don’t have many other talents. I can’t play a musical instrument, juggle, or tap dance, but I can make people laugh.

KN: How about marketing? What do you do to promote your books?

MO: I know this sounds unimaginative in the Internet age, but I rely primarily on book signings at brick and mortar bookstores, and on reviews in newspapers and magazines.

KN: What can we look forward to from you next?

MO: I am writing a serious novel. Whether it will be completed and whether it will be worth completing remain to be seen. It is much harder work for me than writing humor, but I decided it would be an interesting challenge.

KN: Last question: What’s our discussion question for the week?

MO: Would it be a good thing if celebrities stopped “writing” books? After all, authors don’t run for the Senate, star in movies, or throw touchdown passes, so why should politicians, movie stars, and quarterbacks pretend to be writers?


  1. I think that Michael needs to become a tap dancer - and then he could incorporate that into his books...maybe a juggling tap dancer, sort of widen horizons. I love the idea of humor in a mystery. And I thank Michael for using it so well. It is a talent not everyone exhibits.

  2. I agree! Leave the writing to the professionals!
    Great interview Mike!
    Glenda (from cozy armchair group)

  3. Right on about the @@#&!! query letters, Mike

    (Kurt Kamm)

  4. Wonderful interview, Mike. I agree with you and firefighter08 about the query letters.

    I'm reading THE POT THIEF WHO STUDIED PTOLEMY now, and I love the gentle humor of the series.

  5. I can't fault your logic on anything here. LOL.I agree about celebrities writing, stick to your chosen profession and leave the writing to those who know how to do it in an entertaining manner.

  6. A juggling Tap dancer. Sounds like a good character for The Pot Thief Who Studied P. T. Barnum. Thanks for the suggestion, Annette.

  7. Hey Kurt,

    Thanks for reminding me that @@#&!! precedes "query letters".

  8. I'm another who dreads query letters. I'm not familiar with your books but I've just joined PSWA after heaing about it from Marilyn Meredith. I'll be at the conferance this year, perhaps I can pick up the first book in Las Vegas.

  9. It just occurred to me that I hadn't responded to Michael's question.

    For the most part, it depends on whether they can write well OR whether they have such a compelling story to tell that it doesn't matter. Steve Martin, for example, is a celebrity, but I read one of his books, and he's also a pretty terrific writer. Tim Allen's book of essays was very well done--and, of course, there are those people who do remarkable things like climbing mountains even though they are blind. The book Patrick Swayze and his wife wrote wasn't Hemingway, but it was remarkable in its own way--touching and inspiring. I would have liked to read an autobiography by Chrisopher Reeve, too. These are people I think have something real to say, even if they aren't "writers."

    But as far as those people who are just famous for being famous or for being related to somebody famous, I wish they would just stop.

  10. Thanks, Mare. As Jaden notes, some celebrities can write. I think Steve Martin is a better writer than actor. But for the most part, celebrity books rely on the fame of the author. I mean, an autobiography by LaBron James? Sheesh, the guy is twenty something and plays basketball. How does that merit an autobiography? If he cures cancer when he grows up, I'll read his book.

  11. Hi Barbara,

    I look forward to meeting you in Las Vegas for the PSWA meeting. As Marilyn has no doubt told you, it is a fun conference.

  12. And here I was getting ready to change my name to Snookie to sell more books! My favorite thing about Hubie is that while he has a moral compass, he doesn't always use it. I am a big fan of both the Pot Thief series and Mike--another writing machine like Marilyn Meredith--and can't wait to see what Mike has planned for the Hubie next.

    Holli Castillo
    Gumbo Justice
    Jambalaya Justice coming 2011

  13. Holli,

    You are cute enough to be a 'Snookie', but you already sell lots of books. Even more when Jambalaya Justice comes out. Can't wait to see what messes your girl gets into next.


  14. Love the interview I recieved a lot of info. into publishers. thank you Mike
    Pot Thief on my no.1 list to buy

  15. Thanks, Muriel. Let me know how you like it.

  16. Alas, as I told Mike last night, I just finished THE POT THIEF WHO STUDIED EINSTEIN. Now there are no more Pot Thief books for me to read until book 4 comes out. It seems like a long time to wait, especially in light of the tantalizing sample in the back of EINSTEIN.


  17. Good news. The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier is now avaliable on Amazon. Oddly, it has not yet gone up on Ingram, so it is unavailable to bookstores. And to me unless I want to buy one from Amazon! I won't get my free author copies until Ingram and the other wholesalers get the book listed in their systems. I told you publishing is weird. Hopefully the book will be widely available in just a few days.


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