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Talking with Mystery Writer Sharon Fiffer

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Originally Published on OpEdNews

My interviews have often taken me far afield. So, it's a special treat to interview some local talent, especially in the mystery genre. For many years, literate mysteries, favoring the puzzle of human behavior over gore and mayhem, were my chosen literary escape. Mystery writer Sharon Fiffer and I live within several miles of one another in suburban Chicago. And, a lifetime ago, her husband, Steve, and I attended junior high and New Trier [high school] together. Welcome to OpEdNews, Sharon.
Scary Stuff is your sixth Jane Wheeler mystery. When you wrote the first one, Killer Stuff , did you ever imagine you'd have such an extended relationship with the heroine?

I could imagine an extended relationship - I just wasn't quite clear on everything that would happen during our time together. I knew that Jane Wheel had family issues to resolve; I knew that she had to rebuild her own professional confidence after leaving the advertising business, where she was successful if not always content; and I knew that she had to work on her own tics - her impatience, her restlessness, her passion for the worn out stuff of others.
The most interesting aspect of character I wanted to explore was her complicated relationship with her mother and how her perception of that relationship impacted her roles as wife, mother and daughter. I just wanted to write it all with humor and compassion. I like working with small tools - I prefer a watchmaker's bench to a fully outfitted machine shop.
I'm working on book #7 right now - and I could see a few more down the road before I can safely leave Jane to her own devices.

How has Jane evolved over the last six books?

Jane has become slightly more sure of herself as a detective, as a problem solver; even more sure of herself as a picker; but is still completely at sea when she tries to figure out her mother Nellie. She thinks that maybe, just maybe, her childhood memories are all wrong - either that, or Nellie is changing history just to mess with her.
Jane has also grown more interested in "detecting" since Detective Oh has made the world so interesting for her. His methods are not those of a TV detective - he is a thoughtful observer of people and a curious man - a good listener - someone who believes that anything is possible. Jane is fascinated by him and loves being his student.
Jane is also a better friend to Tim - she doesn't let him push her around quite as much - and that is good for both of them. After The Wrong Stuff, where she worried so much about her failures as a mother, she has learned to relax and enjoy her son Nick
And lastly, she is aware, as Charley's wife, that she isn't all that good at being Charley's wife. But she has gotten much better at being Jane Wheel.

She's so human. I love that! Where did her character come from? I know you collect. Is she you, someone you know, an aggregate, or totally made up?

I know that there is no way I should link myself to Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk but in yesterday's New York Times magazine, he implied that he was frustrated by people asking him if he was his fictional hero, Kemel. He answers that he's not but because he's a novelist, he can't convince anyone or explain why he is not. My take on the same question is, although I lag woefully behind in earning nobel prizes, quite similar.

On one hand I am not Jane Wheel - although we share so much - our tavern-owning parents, Kankakee childhood, doubts, love of stuff - but she is my fictional creation - both an exaggeration of parts of myself and a tamping down of some parts - and on the other hand, because I am a novelist, I try to inhabit her and find her within myself so I can make her true and real - so how can I convince anyone that she is not me? I have also written fiction from a male point of view, a child's point of view - many other characters - I just try to be them, assume their voice while I write the book. I think in some ways, I am less shaky about my relationships than is Jane - she is always questioning all of her ties to people. I am content in my relationships - at least I think I am.

Okay. I can see how that could be annoying. I promise not to ask you anymore about it. I'm fascinated by the mania for antique picking, if that's the right term. Your books are full of picking lore. When you write about Jane's joy of searching and finding, do you vicariously experience the same high you get from actually going out and doing it? Or do you still need your collecting fix as well?

Interesting - I think I love the actual hunt in a different way. When I write about Jane's finds, it's fun, but it's fun because I'm creating the fantasy sale - Jane can find the Bakelite bracelet in the bottom of a box full of junk for a dollar - fantasy. When I'm on the hunt, it's a different sensation. It's so interesting to attend an estate sale and "read" the objects left behind by someone. It's the story of someone's life - so rich and complicated. So I guess I'm "reading" while at a sale, and writing when Jane is at one.

S ort of like two sides of the same coin. You've been writing for a long time. Do you have special rituals or routines that enable you to write?

I think for a long time before I sit down to write a scene or chapter. Mornings are best but I've been known to pull late-nighters, too. I wish I could think of something that always works or show off some great discipline, but usually, I think through the part of the book I'm working on and then just start writing. If I feel stuck in any way, I imagine dialogue. Sometimes I do a give and take between Jane and Tim or Jane and Nellie - just to get warmed up - then the dialogue might stay or go. Hearing the characters' voices usually moves the writing along.
If I'm at the very beginning of a book, gathering ideas? I clean out a drawer or a closet where I've stashed some stuff I've collected. The right object can set off a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a novel.

Do you use friends or family as guinea pigs? Practice dialogue on them or with them? Do your near and dear dread talking with you because they might end up in an unflattering way in one of your books?

No, I can't say as I've ever tested out actual dialogue, but I do sometimes read pages aloud to family to see how the work "sounds." Reading aloud is a great way to tell if the writing is balanced and if it works. As for friends and family ending up in my books? Most people tell me stories that they think should be in the books - especially when I meet people from Kankakee.

Mysteries aren't the only thing you write. Can you tell our readers what else you've worked on besides Jane Wheel stories?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure (more...)
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