Amber Foxx (a fellow member of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in crime) is a college professor, yoga teacher, and author of the award-winning Mae Martin Psychic Mystery series. She spends the academic year in Virginia and summers in New Mexico.
What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?
Noise? What noise? The silence is there because that’s where the deepest feelings and ideas live, a place that’s hard to reach with a lot of external stimuli in the way. I can’t write with music playing. Music makes me listen to it—or get up and dance. I occasionally brainstorm to music, but that’s not the same process. I’m not writing while I do it.
What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why?
Stung, by Pari Noskin. I’m not quite finished yet, but I have to choose it as my recent excellent read. The narrator, Darnda Jones is a New Mexico bug psychic. What a perfect and original idea. You drive into Albuquerque and you are greeted by a billboard advertising a psychic. Santa Fe has a professional ghost buster who cleans negative energies out of homes that aren’t selling. The state is home to a lot of people who practice psychic skills, genuine and otherwise, and it’s also home to some whopping big insects. So what could be more eccentrically New Mexican than a bug whisperer?
Another reason this book charmed me immediately is that I love insects. I think they’re beautiful (most of them) and have no fear of bees or wasps. Darnda’s love of the natural world exceeds even mine, but I relate to her. That someone so gentle she literally won’t hurt a fly (she can psychically tune into bugs and inspire them to go away) could get involved in a murder investigation seems unlikely, so the juxtaposition is inventive. In Stung, Darnda is engaged to de-bug an outdoor wedding in Houston, and the only witnesses to a murder during the wedding may be … insects. The humor in the book comes authentically from relationships, events, and Darnda’s offbeat outlook on the world. Her insight into the ways plants, birds and insects communicate with each other and sense the world are fascinating and thoroughly researched, yet they never slow down the story-telling.
Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?
In between, and it varies from book to book. The Calling, my first book was so complicated that I used a kind of plotting grid as I went along, making sure each theme and subplot stayed on track, and yet it had a few undecided turns that evolved as I worked. Shaman’s Blues flowed more spontaneously, as did Snake Face. The plots for these middle two books in the series came naturally from one strong conflict.
Soul Loss, like The Calling, has multiple oppositional characters and a web of subplots, and I had to do the half-plotting half-pantsing grid to weave the threads into a coherent whole. The latest book, Ghost Sickness, was plotted in my head more than on paper. I kept a list of open threads to resolve or pull out, and my “letter from the antagonist” that reminded me what clues I would need to plant and what was going on offstage, since I don’t write the antagonist’s viewpoint. Although I’ve tried a few times, I’ve never outlined a book the way a true plotter might.
When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?
After committing to review a book a couple of summers ago and dragging myself through to the end despite hating it, I decided never to suffer that way again. I gave myself permission to quit. If, after forty pages, I am annoyed by the main character to the point of wanting to smack her, or by features of the author's style such as an awkward use of present tense or a tendency to restate the same thing three times, I close the book and feel no guilt. Whether it’s a best-seller or an unheard-of new indie book, I’m not obligated to read it past forty pages. However, I think a book deserves that much of a chance to win me over.
Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?
I read them. I used to be an actor, and I could hear the laughter during a comedy, and I could hear the thunderous applause—or lack of it—at the end of an act. I’m writing for an audience, and I want to know if they're engaged with my stories and in what way. I learn from reviews, noticing what themes are coming across in my work. Some followers of the series get so involved with protagonist’s personal life that their reviews include what they think of her relationships, as if she’s real and they need to talk to her about her choices.
I was intrigued to see that the cat Gasser (yes, that’s his name) got favorable mention in two reviews of Soul Loss. I’ve kept him as an ongoing character of sorts. Reviews have helped me with marketing as well as knowing how my books are received. One early review of The Calling, though favorable, pointed out just how unconventional a murderless mystery was and this inspired my series tagline: No murder, just mystery. I don’t want readers expecting a dead body. There won’t be one.
What do you do that you suspect causes your copyeditor to pull her/his hair out?
It used to be the extra spaces between words. She says my work is the cleanest she’s ever seen otherwise, and that I don’t make her work very hard. Those extra spaces are an artifact of my own obsessive editing. She taught me to put a double space into the “find” bar and choose to replace it with a single space so she wouldn’t have to do it. My tendency to leave small words out drives me crazy, but most people can’t see that they’re missing, not even my editor. I finally found a proofreader who can notice a missing “a” or “the”. I still don’t know why I do that. It makes me pull my hair out, and the fact that my beta readers and editor go right past them, mentally filling in the missing word, makes me even crazier, though I know that’s the way the human mind works. My amazing proofreader found twenty missing words in each of my last two books. I hope none are missing in this post!
What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?
This one: “I laid on the bed. While I was laying there, I was grammatically incorrect.” I know that some people talk like this, and my protagonist is from a region where the dialect includes this idiom, but I can’t bring myself to make her say it. I allow her a few grammatical lapses, but not this one. Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” is a beautiful song, and maybe it would sound odd to us if he’d sung “Lie, Lady, Lie,” but actually that’s what he’s inviting her to do on his big brass bed. The following vignette will either make the rules clearer or more confusing.
“Lie on the couch,” Mary said, giving Jack a cold look. “Lay your things by the door.”
After laying his muddy boots on the mat, he laid his rain-soaked coat on the radiator. “I had hoped, madam, to lie in your bed.”
“Madam.” She snorted. “Don’t pull that Regency romance crap with me. You’re drunk.”
He lay on the couch. She folded her umbrella and glared at him. “You’ve lied to me.”
He tried to look innocent. “About what?”
Lying on the love seat across the room, she crossed her ankles and folded her arms. “About all the other women you’ve lain with.”
“Lain with. Now who sounds like a Regency romance? Laid, you mean.”
“So you admit it, then.”
“Bloody hell,” he grumbled. “All right. I lay with them, have lain with them, I lied—I got laid—whatever. I did it all.”
How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?
The ideas for Ghost Sickness came from multiple sources. One of my ongoing characters in the series, Mae Martin’s friend Bernadette Pena, is a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, and Mae was due for a visit to Bernadette’s home reservation. I’d wanted a set a book in Mescalero for a long time but all the plots I tried didn’t work. I also had a plot on the back burner that originated with an article I read in a free newspaper that I found lying on the café counter in a Whole Foods.
I was reading it to amuse myself while I grabbed a quick meal after shopping, and there was a story about an event that gave me the perfect seed for a plot in which psychic could be the detective solving a crime other than murder. I can’t say more because the article related to the solution to the mystery. I had to work backwards and create everything that led up to it. I tried writing that story, set in Truth or Consequences, but it lacked scope and complexity. Then I brought my Mescalero characters into it and the marriage of the two earlier attempts was successful.
What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?
Fellow paranormal mystery writer Terri Herman-Ponce and I were in a critique group together a few years back, and I was struggling with a decision about whose point of view to use in a scene. Terri gave me this advice: The scene is in the point of view of the character with the most at stake. (I asked her if she originated this, and she said she didn’t, but that she couldn’t remember where she learned it.) I write in close third person, using two or at most three characters’ viewpoints. Analyzing who has the most at stake not only puts my scenes in the right POV, but keeps me focused on the action and conflict that move the plot.
The fifth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery
A visit to the Mescalero Apache reservation turns from vacation to turmoil for Mae Martin.
Reno Geronimo has more money than a starving artist should. He’s avoiding his fiancée and his family. His former mentor, nearing the end of her life, refuses to speak to him and no one knows what caused the rift. Distressed and frustrated, Reno’s fiancée asks Mae to use her psychic gift to find out what he’s hiding. Love and friendship are rocked by conflict as she gets closer and closer to the truth.
The Mae Martin Series
No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.
To find more information about Amber Foxx and her writing go to http://amberfoxmysteries.com