I recently had the pleasure of contacting Julie Hyzy and arranging an interview. To prepare for the conversation, I read some of her books, two of which she graciously donated to me. Those books (Grace Cries Uncle, Foreign Eclairs, and Playing With Matches) were the perfect escape I needed during finals that spring. After finishing the books, I sent Julie the following questions, and she emailed back the responses featured below…
NICK EDINGER (NE): To start this interview off, Julie, I’ll ask that you distill for the reader who you are, what you do, your general philosophy, and why someone who knows nothing about you should read this interview.
JULIE HYZY (JH): Super brief: I’m an amateur sleuth at heart and I’m still waiting for a real-life mystery to solve. And so it makes sense that, although my first few professionally published short stories were SF (science fiction), mystery fiction is what I love best. I currently write the Manor House Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime. The seventh in that series (Grace Sees Red) comes out June 28th. In January, the ninth (and final) installment in the White House Chef Mystery series was released, also from Berkley Prime Crime. I’ve had four other books and a few short stories published over the years. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve won several awards and am able to have “New York Times Bestselling Author” on all my books.
As far as my general philosophy, have you ever read Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata? That.
Why should anyone read this interview? Tough question. Don’t know that I have a pithy answer. Because it’s about writing? For me, that’s pure enjoyment. Like-minded souls may find a nugget of interest here. I hope so.
NE: When we first corresponded, you said you wanted to “warn” me that you write commercial instead of literary fiction, and write murder mysteries above all else. You did state that you’re not apologizing for loving the types of books you write. But am I correct in assuming that such defensiveness for your work hints at a stigma against commercial fiction in the literary world? What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe your works are “real art”?
JH: Sure, there’s a sense that literature (however you care to define it) is superior to commercial fiction. I’m not going to argue that point because, frankly, to do so is pointless. And I’m not blind to the fact that “beach reads” or “airplane books” are considered low-brow. But really, who cares? Commercial fiction sells very well because people ENJOY it. Isn’t that what really matters? I love creating stories for readers. That they write to me and tell me how much my characters meant to them is beyond gratifying.
You asked: What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe my works are “real art”?
If someone actually said that to me, I’d probably be too stunned by the person’s rudeness to reply. That happens to me a lot <grin>. Later, I’d reflect and realize that there are folks in this world who only feel good about themselves when they put others down. It’s a lot easier to critique than to create. Took a while for me to develop a thick enough skin to let such things roll off, but I’ve gotten better at it.
The truth is “real art” is subjective. We all experience beauty and happiness and art differently. Just because someone’s X is awesome doesn’t mean another’s Y isn’t pretty great too. I wish the world would get away from constantly comparing. We’d all be so much better off if we enjoyed things for what they are rather than for what they are not.
NE: How has the publishing world changed since you got your first story published? What did you learn on your writing journey that’s still useful advice in the ever-changing world of publishing?
JH: The world of publishing has changed enormously since my first short story was published. Even though that was 2002 – not even 15 years ago – almost everything has been turned upside-down. Everything back then involved acres of paper and buckets of ink. The Internet has been an amazing boon to writers. You probably don’t remember the days of SASE submissions, do you?
Now submissions are as easy as a click. And Amazon has irreversibly changed the landscape by opening avenues to aspiring writers. I’ve heard this era called the Wild West of Publishing and I believe that’s an apt description. It’s almost to the point where you can stake a claim and use that to create a career.
What hasn’t changed, and what I believe will never change, is that content drives everything. Readers want stories. There’s an insatiable demand for them. That’s wonderful. That’s why writers write. The problem, however, is that many writers don’t pay as close attention to the business side of publishing. There’s a lot going on and it’s a challenge to stay on top of it all.
NE: There’s a popular writing phrase circling over every author’s head: “kill your darlings.” I’ve heard of an alternative, however: take the darlings that don’t work for your current project, and just save them for something else. What were some of the “darlings” that you had to kill that might appear somewhere else in your fiction?
JH: So far I haven’t resurrected my darlings and I don’t have any plans to bring them back. For each of my projects, I open a “Dump” file. Whenever I cut out big chunks—be they go-nowhere scenes or simply the result of plot changes—I paste them into the Dump file. Some of these bits aren’t necessarily “darlings” though. They’re genuine cast-offs. Some are phrases or moments or details I’m particularly proud of and yes, it hurts to cut them, but I do. I have a super short-term memory though and once they hit the Dump pile I usually forget them!
NE: How dramatic are your revisions? Do you often only have to change a few things, or are you more familiar with throwing out entire plot lines? Or maybe the answer’s somewhere in between?
JH: Generally I have fairly mild revisions. Except for this current WIP, I generally work from an outline, but use it merely as a guide. The story always changes—sometimes drastically—from the first page to the last. I revise as I go. I cycle back about five pages or so, tweak, and then move on. By the time I get to the end, it’s usually where I need it to be.
NE: Dan Schneider, in hosting one of his interviews, labeled two types of writers: the sculptors, who build a lot and then shave to get to the final draft, or the builders, who write little for their first draft before expanding to completion. Do you consider yourself a sculptor or a builder? What was your process like either sculpting or building, say, “Playing With Matches?”
JH: I’m a sculptor, for sure. I tend to overwrite. My first drafts generally have at least 10k more words than they end up with. And I’d have to say I’m pretty consistent that way. Interestingly, Playing With Matches was written in about six weeks. I’d heard about a contest for PI novels and wanted to enter. So I did. Didn’t win, unfortunately, but I’m proud of it. Many of my readers are accustomed to my cozy novels (Manor House, White House Chef). PWM is very different. Riley is tough. She swears. She breaks a guy’s arm by page 3.
NE: You create many characters for each of your novels, as most readers have pointed out and as some readers have complained about. What do you do to keep so many new characters fresh in a reader’s mind so readers don’t forget your creations fifty pages later?
JH: For recurring characters, it’s not a problem. Readers seem to enjoy revisiting old friends in new adventures. But because I write murder mysteries, there needs to be a victim or two, as well as plenty of suspects. That’s where new characters come in. I like to give a new character some unique habit, nickname, manner of speaking, or appearance. And when the character reappears in a later chapter, I reference that uniqueness. It helps the reader “see” that character again. So far, it seems to be an effective technique.
NE: From the novels of yours that I read (“Grace Cries Uncle,” “Foreign Eclairs,” and “Playing With Matches”), I’ve noticed a heavy dialogue focus. Which writers have had the most influence on your dialogue? What techniques do you use to keep dialogue realistic, but not mundane?
JH: I can’t say which writers have had the most influence on my dialogue. I think I pick up a little something from everyone I read.
But I do always prefer to deliver information via dialogue versus exposition. I think it’s more lively. And the abundance of white on the page spurs the reader to keep going.
Because real-life dialogue is often boring, I do my best to use it to deliver the essence of the conversation without all the slow-downs, crutch words, and unnecessary filler. I like to have characters ask questions, but not get direct answers. That sparks reader curiosity. I try hard to keep polite chatter to a minimum – “How are you?” “Fine, and you?” “Thanks for asking.” Bleh. Dialogue needs to move the story forward. “How are you?” “Why, do I look sick?” is not great, but certainly more interesting.
I also try to avoid having one character do a monologue. And by that I mean more than two or three sentences at a time before breaking things up with an interruption, movement, or internal thought.
Dialogue is fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a paragraph that explained everything in a scene and ripped it out in favor of changing it to dialogue.
NE: I’ve also spotted a running theme in the novels you shared with me: intrepid female protagonists working for powerful and wealthy men. Does this commonality reflect an aspect of your own life? Why do you think that formula resonates so well with so many of your fans?
JH: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that before you mentioned it. I’ll certainly be more aware of that tendency going forward.
I don’t think it really reflects my current life, although I have to admit that when I was working full time it was for (relatively) powerful and wealthy men. That was years ago, but mostly during my formative (post-college) years and I’m sure those experiences do inform my stories.
Fascinating observation, though. Thanks.
NE: Ollie’s occupation from your White House Chef Mysteries was given to you by a higher-up. But how did Grace Wheaton and Riley Drake end up with their jobs (as in, how did you choose their careers. You can also give me their in-universe stories too if you want)? Do these roles ever feel limiting when it comes to what you can do with a character? Why is it that most descriptions of your protagonists start with their jobs instead of their strengths, weaknesses, or flaws?
JH: Another great insight! I do start with their jobs and I think that’s because what Grace and Riley do for a living makes them interesting and sets them apart. It’s no secret that readers love a hook, which is why, I think, the White House Chef mysteries were such a hit. A behind-the-scenes look at the White House? If I hadn’t been writing them, I’d probably read them, too.
Grace came about when my publisher asked if I had any other ideas for a series and I scrambled with my then-agent to come up with a list of possibilities. I’d always been fascinated by mansions—especially the opulent ones like Hearst Castle in California, the Robert R. McCormick mansion here in Illinois, and the Ringling estate in Sarasota, Florida. I know nothing about being a curator, but it doesn’t matter. Grace’s position has evolved since she was hired there and she now runs the estate like a business.
As I mentioned earlier, Riley came about when I decided to enter a contest for best first private eye novel. I’ve since made a few changes and published it myself.
And to answer your question about feeling as though their roles are limited? No, not at all. The characters are in charge here and they tell me where they want to go.
NE: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write? How did you come up with him/her/them?
JH: No, actually I don’t. I’ve discovered that my readers range from teenagers to ninety-year-olds. Male and female. I write stories I would like to read and I’ve been very fortunate that people seem to enjoy what I produce.
NE: In other interviews, you’ve talked about your love of researching. At what point do you decide that you have enough information for a book? I imagine that a research lover like you never truly stops, but you probably still need time to write those two books a year.
JH: I generally research by the seat of my pants. I’ll write until I need a nugget of information and then go after it gangbusters until I have exactly what I need. And usually quite a bit more. The thing about research is that it’s a rabbit hole. Scampering in is always fun, but I risk getting lost following tantalizing threads. The good news is that those threads often bring me some new insight I may never have imagined on my own. The bad news is that research eats away at my writing time.
When is it enough? Never. But I make myself stop.
NE: If you had unlimited time and budget, and no restrictions, what novel would you write? Be as detailed as you can. It’s ok if you want to respond with “I’d just write more about Ollie, Grace, and Riley.”
JH: I would write a standalone novel about an ordinary person who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and whose quest/adventure/tale presents a question or assumption that gives the reader pause. I want readers to be touched emotionally. I want them to remember my characters and how the story made them feel, long after they’ve finished reading.
NE: And, finally, a fun question. Which puns did you end up rejecting as titles for either your White House Chef Mysteries or your other works?
JH: Some of the ones I liked, but my publisher didn’t:
A Salt on Freedom
The Manchurian Canape
War and Peas
A Need to Know Basil
But the worst, the ABSOLUTE worst, was the one my publisher suggested. They loved it. I hated it. It took significant begging on my part to get them to abandon it:
Star Spangled Banana
NE: Thank you very much for your time.
JH: Thanks so much, Nick!
These were great, thoughtful, questions. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my books and arranging for this interview.