Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Carolyn Wilkins - Guest Author

Please join me in welcoming Carolyn Marie Wilkins as today’s guest author. In addition to being a member with me in the Guppy Chapter of the Sisters in Crime, she describes herself as unpretentious, openhearted, insightful, multi-talented and warm. Her writing is fun, addicting, entertaining, eye-opening and engaging. Here are her eight choice optional questions:

You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

Maya Angelou, Barbara Neely, Agatha Christie and I are sitting in Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles.  Quite naturally, we are having soul food.  It’s Agatha’s first time for this cuisine, and she is pleasantly surprised to discover she’s partial to waffles topped with fried chicken gizzards and smothered in red-eye gravy. The four of us are having a deep conversation about the importance of storytellers in modern society.  In the presence of these storytelling giants, I am too awestruck to say very much.  

Each of these women has had a profound influence on me, not only as a writer, but as a human being: 

Maya Angelou was a true Renaissance woman whose career has been a major inspiration for me.  At different times during her life she earned her living as a vocalist, a dancer, a poet, a memoirist, an educator and a children’s author.  In addition she was a lifelong activist who made a profound impact on the civil rights movement. Pretty amazing! When I was in college back in the 1970s, I was told I needed to pick one area and specialize in it exclusively.  But thanks to Maya’s example, I ignored the accepted wisdom of the time and pursued multiple careers as an educator, a vocalist, a pianist, a memoirist and a mystery writer. 

Barbara Neely’s book Blanche On The Lam was groundbreaking for me!  Until I read Neely’s novels, I had never encountered a cozy mystery that had an African American protagonist.  All the Blanche books are warm, witty and socially aware.  After reading them, I felt for the first time that perhaps I could write similar books.

And of course, Agatha Christie had to be at the table!  I grew up reading the English cozies – Roger Ackroyd; The Mysterious Affair at Styles; And Then There Were None.  I love the quirky characters and revel in trying to stay one step ahead of the plot.  It was a game in my family to see how early into a book we could guess the murderer.  In many ways, Christie’s Miss Marple was the model for my amateur sleuth Bertie Bigelow.  Just picture Miss Marple as a newly widowed, 40-something black woman living on the South Side of Chicago!

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

When my daughter moved out and got her own apartment, I took over her bedroom.  It’s small but it is quiet. Most importantly, it has a door.  Once my door is closed, I know I will not be disturbed.  Just to make sure, I keep my cell phone downstairs on the kitchen table while I’m writing.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

I am a morning person.  In an ideal world, I would get up at five in the morning and write until I got tired.  Given that I also have a pretty intense day job teaching at Berklee College of Music, I am not always able to spend my mornings writing.  But when I am seriously at work on a writing project, I put in a couple of hours in the early morning before work at least four days a week.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

For those that do not know the work of Barbara Neely, I recommend her books highly.  They are cozy mysteries, but written from an African American perspective.  Her protagonist, Blanche White, works as a maid.  But don’t let her low social status fool you.  When murder is involved, she can be depended upon to bring the killer to justice, outfox both the police and her social “betters.”

Valerie Wilson Wesley has also written some excellent YA novels.  But I love her mysteries. They feature Tamara Hayle, a black former cop who struggles to support herself and her two kids by working as a private investigator in Newark, New Jersey. The characters in Wesley’s books run the gamut from drug dealers to society matrons, and her plots are full of satisfying twists and turns.

The third author I would recommend is Eleanor Taylor Bland.  Her novels are set in a fictional town just north of Chicago that sounds a lot like Waukegan, IL to me. These are not definitely not cozy stories!  In addition to the bad guys, Detective Marti McAllister must battle departmental politics, race and gender bias, and sometimes even her own relatives.  While Bland is not afraid to take on complex social issues, her work is always suspenseful and super fun to read.  Wonderful stuff!

What motivates you to write?

I started writing because no one else was writing the kind of story I wanted to tell. There are lots of cozy mysteries set in small towns, and even a few in the city.  But hardly any of these stories feature African American characters.   And, although my characters are black, the story I had to tell was not the stereotypical “urban novel.”  The story I wanted to tell would be light on gore and long on humor, filled with the kind of colorful characters I met growing up in a middle class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The only way I was going to be able to read this story was to write it myself.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

The idea for my Bertie Bigelow series came from my mother.  Mom worked as a choir director at a Chicago community college for many years.  She is a longtime South Side resident with a colorful social network that includes gamblers, musicians and other shady characters as well as preachers, teachers, doctors and lawyers.  When I decided I wanted to write a murder mystery, I did not have to look far from home to find great material!

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

I am a musician so I have a pretty good ear for dialog.  I am always tuning to what people say and their unique way of saying it.  But sometimes it’s hard for me to describe settings and people without resorting to clich├ęs.   To improve in this area, I study the work of writers who know how to evoke a clear image with just the perfect phrase.  At the moment, I am reading The Light of the World, a beautiful memoir by Elizabeth Alexander.  Alexander is best known as a poet. My hope is that by paying close attention to the spare yet lyrical language she uses to capture the essence of things, I will be able to improve my own writing.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

I believe it was Mark Twain who, when being complemented on a letter he had written, said: “If I’d had more time, I’d have made it shorter.”  To be able to express oneself clearly and concisely without repetition is a real skill.  As Shakespeare said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

As a mystery author, I am looking to draw people in and carry them with me on a nonstop ride to the end of the book.  The goal is no wasted words – nothing that will impede the flow of my story!

For more information about Carolyn and her books, email her at cwilkins@berklee.edu, check out her website at www.carolynwilkins.com, visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolynauthor or Tweet her @carolynauthor.  She loves to hear from her readers!

Here’s the blurb for Melody for Murder: A Bertie Bigelow Mystery

When recently widowed college choir director Bertie Bigelow accepts a date with Judge Theophilous Green, she never imagines the civil rights pioneer and inveterate snob will be found shot to death the next morning. She’s even more surprised when her favorite student is arrested for the crime.

Bertie suspects that someone else in her tight-knit social circle is really the killer.

Is it hot-tempered Patrice Soule, voluptuous diva and recent winner of the Illinois Idol contest?

Is it Charley Howard, the Hot Sauce King, a self-made millionaire with Mafia connections?

Is it the mysterious Dr. Momolu Taylor? Newly arrived from Africa, he's invented a new sex drug that’s got some powerful politicians feeling frisky.

Could it be Alderman “Steady Freddy” Clark, corrupt South Side ward boss and would-be patron of the arts?

Bertie Bigelow will certainly need to keep her wits about her to avoid becoming the killer's next victim.


  1. Great interview and a I LOVE the cover. Would also like a seat at your table though I'm not sure about the chicken gizzards with red-eye gravy!

  2. Congrats on a warm and wonderful interview. Going to check out Barbara Neely and maybe re read AC. You are very inspiring.

  3. Good choice for an interview subject! I enjoyed not only Carolyn's mystery, but her memoir. She's written two, and getting the other one is on my to-do list. I see Carolyn got the numbers right, too, for the table. (Some of us don't.) Thanks so much, Jim and Carolyn!

  4. Excellent interview! I'd also like to have Maya Angelou and Agatha Christie at my table. Love the blurb!

  5. Wonderful interview! Your mystery is fun, colorful, suspenseful, and warmly human. Bertie rocks :-) What a gift you have... What am I saying, you have many many gifts! Thanks for sharing with us.--kate collier

  6. Fantastic interview! Great questions and such thought-provoking responses. Thanks, Jim and Carolyn.

  7. Nupur, your comments reflect my own. What inspiration from the creative interview and the interviewee, James Montgomery Jackson and Carolyn Wilkins! I would love to have dinner with you two and to add Marcia Talley to the mix. She would find a great restaurant in Annapolis.
    Beth Schmelzer, new Guppy