In chatting with novelists over the years, it has always fascinated me how they go about choosing careers for their protagonists. Some of those professions are dream jobs the writers themselves would love to have pursued–provided, of course, they could gracefully pirouette across a stage without tripping, fearlessly jump out of a plane to pursue a villain in the alps, or design breathtaking architecture that truly takes everyone’s breath away. Others draw from personal experience and give us insider insights into career choices with which we may not be familiar The insurance industry, for instance. The latter was the case for author Susan Calder, who drew from her expertise as an insurance adjuster–and her remembrance of some of the more unusual claims–to create a most watchable series character, Paula Savard. In her new novel, Ten Days in Summer, we meet Paula as she is investigating a suspicious building fire that caused the death of a hoarder.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What (or who) first ignited your passion for writing?
A: As a child, I wrote a few plays for the kids on our street to perform for our mothers. I also enjoyed writing stories and poems for school, and got encouragement from my teachers. My sister and I spent countless hours making up stories with our paper dolls or simply with our voices talking out characters. I set that kind of storytelling aside for 27 years, until a personal crisis shook me up and landed me in a place where I felt I had things to say and wanted to create stories again.
Q: Were you a voracious reader as an adolescent and teen? If so, what are some of the titles we might have found on your bedroom nightstand?
A: I recall an uncle admonishing me for burying my nose in a book rather than appreciating the sunset, so I must have read a fair bit. My most memorable books on my teenage nightstand were Gone With The Wind, High Wind in Jamaica, The Catcher in the Rye and The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. I also loved two novels we studied in class: Pride & Prejudice and Of Human Bondage. They led me to read other novels by Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham. Glad as I am that I read all of these books and more, I think my uncle was right about the sunset.
Q: What attracted you to the mystery genre?
A: My childhood reading included an abundance of mystery novels. Whenever I found a series I liked, I read every book I could get my hands on. It began with The Bobbsey Twins and continued to Nancy Drew, The Happy Hollisters, Trixie Belden and several British series. In my teens I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s romantic mysteries and later I got into Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier. So, mystery novels were never far from my nightstand and we tend to write what we read, for good reasons. Several themes intrinsic to the mystery genre appeal to me. The search for the truth. Who can you trust? What’s really going on beneath the surface?
Q: Who are some of the mystery authors whose work you especially admire?
A: Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for their complex characters and plots. I like Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series for its Venice setting and the dark story endings that rarely show justice completely served. And I still think my classic favourites, Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, stand up to the best of mystery writing.
Q: In your view, what governs the choice to make a mystery novel a standalone title or a series?
A: When I wrote my first novel, Deadly Fall, I intended it to be a standalone. Paula, my protagonist, functioned as an amateur sleuth and I wrote it as a story of personal growth within a mystery plot. It was only toward the end of the second draft that I thought I would like to continue with these characters, to see what happens to them next. This was partly because, with the attention needed for the mystery of the victim’s life, I didn’t have space to explore all I wanted about Paula. A standalone is probably a story where the protagonist primarily investigates her own life. It becomes her defining, life-altering experience and why would she need another one?
Q: One of the biggest advantages of series fiction is that one’s lead characters are already well known to readers. A challenge, though, is in ensuring that one’s readers actually read the books in the same order in which they were written. Is this the case with your own work or could a reader be introduced to your protagonist at any juncture in the line-up?
A: I think a new reader to the series could pick up book 2, Ten Days in Summer, and quickly become acquainted with Paula, her family, friends and colleagues. They are where they are at this point in their lives and I make little reference to past cases and experiences. I plan to do the same for book three. Except, there are a couple of spoilers in Ten Days in Summer for those who read Deadly Fall afterward and there will probably be one more spoiler in my next book for people who read that one first.
Q: What aspects of your real-life career in the insurance industry influenced your approach to planning and writing works of fiction?
A: I wanted Paula to have a career and figured it would be easiest to give her one I know well—insurance adjuster. It didn’t occur to me until I was almost finished with the first draft of the novel that adjusters might stumble on insurance claims that conceal a murder, such as burglaries, fires and automobile accidents. Rather than continue with Paula as an amateur sleuth, a genre that’s hard to make believable, I wanted her next mysteries to come from her job. To start each novel off, I have to think of the kinds of insurance claims I encountered in my work.
Before Deadly Fall, my insurance career inspired a short story called “Adjusting the Ashes,” which in several ways is a forerunner to the Paula books. I chose a type of case we encountered periodically, which I found peculiar and humourous. Our company insured a brewery. Every so often someone would claim he swallowed a mouse in his bottle of beer. We settled these claims for nominal amounts to get rid of them. But I thought, what if one of these nuisance claims mushroomed into something huge? This story has been published so I can’t do the mouse swallowing again, but it would be fun to come up with an unusual claim for a future Paula story. Maybe for book four.
Q: Ten Days in Summer is set in Calgary. What elements of this city’s “personality” are infused in the storyline and make it as much a living, breathing character as the human players?
A: The Calgary Stampede wild west festival takes over the whole city of Calgary for 10 days each summer. People dress cowboy and cowgirl; banks and stores sport bales of hay and drawings of horses on their windows. I wanted the atmosphere to permeate the novel and I doubt there’s a chapter without some reference to the Stampede. Several scenes feature it prominently. Another aspect of Calgary is that it’s an oil town, subject to boom and bust. Ten Days in Summer is set when the price of oil and the city is near bottom, and that mood prevails in the book. But during the booms, Calgary’s a place where people come to try their fortune or escape their past. It’s also a city of entrepreneurs and individualists, reflecting the western spirit. I try to bring this out through the characters Paula meets in her investigation. Paula, herself, is a migrant from Montreal, who moved west to improve her life and found that everything didn’t work out as she’d hoped. Now she’s moving in new directions.
Q: What was your inspiration for this particular plot?
A: I was mainly inspired by the Stampede and Hoarding. Since Deadly Fall was set in the fall, I wanted the sequel to take place in another season and settled on summer. Among other things, summer in Calgary means the Stampede. I find two weeks or thereabouts a good time frame for a novel and realized I could set the whole story over the Stampede’s 10 days. My sister had once lived on the top floor of a building with a view of downtown Calgary and the Stampede grounds. I joined her one evening to watch the fireworks from her deck. I decided the novel would begin with Paula at the opening day parade and end the last night of the Stampede, with a group of characters watching the fireworks from the deck of the building damaged in the fire claim Paula was investigating.
At the time I was developing the idea, my siblings and I were engaged in assorted legalities regarding our late grandmother’s house. With our mother also gone, we had to deal with her only sibling, a hoarder who occupied the home’s second floor. He made things so difficult that I decided to fictionally kill him off. A hoarder’s home would be a high fire risk, which gave me the idea to have this character die in a suspicious building fire. Paula would come in to handle the property insurance claim and deal with his heirs, who gained financially from his death.
Certain things changed in the process of writing the book. I discovered it worked better to start the story the night before the parade. Technically, it’s still Stampede time, since the fair grounds are open for preview on this sneak-a-peek night. And the hoarder character inspired by my annoying uncle became the most sympathetic character in his fictional family.
Q: Which comes first for you – the characters or the storyline?
A: The characters. For Deadly Fall, I first thought of Paula, her associates and her family members. Then came the inciting plot incident—her best friend from childhood is murdered. Next more characters arrive: two detectives, people from her friend’s life. Their actions and agendas fuel the plot, which develops all the characters, including Paula.
For Ten Days in Summer, I already had Paula and the continuing characters in place. So the characters came first again. To start things off, I needed a plot point, the insurance-related incident, and decided on the fire. Through her work, Paula meets people involved with the victim and the claim. They create plot and are, in turn, affected by story developments.
Q: Do you work from an outline or allow the plot to unfold as you go along?
A: I start with a few elements – basic ideas for characters, a murder or suspected murder, and setting details. I also have some thoughts about what’s happening in Paula’s personal life. Paula spends the first quarter or so of the novel draft meeting with suspects, colleagues and family members, setting up the story problems. I try to write loosely, letting unexpected details and dialogue creep in, while keeping on top of the pacing, to make sure this beginning doesn’t get sidetracked or go on too long. From this setup, the plot unfolds. There should be enough to keep it rolling to the middle, when I need new wrinkles to raise the conflicts and tension until the end.
Q: You’ve won a number of contests for your short stories and poems. Are these two outlets easier or harder than writing a full-length novel?
A: Generally speaking, I find the more words in a piece of writing, the longer it takes to write and revise to make the best I can. In that sense, a full-length novel is harder than shorter works. The few short poems I’ve written have come to me almost fully formed. I can write them down in an afternoon. After that, I tweak and revise, but there are only so many words and punctuation marks to play with. I also feel I’m not experienced enough in poetry to know how to improve poems a lot. I haven’t won contests for poems, but have published four—vs. only two published novels that represent many more years of work.
While there are contests for unpublished novels, there are many more contests for unpublished poems and short stories. Usually these contests come with publication. I discovered I had better luck getting my short stories published through contests than through regular submissions. Perhaps this was a fluke, or perhaps there is less competition in contests due to the entry fee. To build a resume of published credits, I entered contests and sometimes won or placed. It’s nice to say now that my stories have won contests, but it doesn’t mean more than publication.
Q: Do your characters ever surprise you over the course of writing their story?
A: Since I develop my characters in the process of writing the story, they always surprise me, at least in small ways. A large surprise in Deadly Fall was realizing, in draft # 4, that a character I had not considered a suspect might be the killer. I seriously considered changing my plan about who did it. I figured, if I hadn’t had a clue, how many readers would? In the end, I stuck with my original vision, although this character’s new involvement in the case solved a plot glitch.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would you like to see cast as Paula Savard?
A: This is fun. Since no one came immediately to mind, I did a Google search for Hollywood actresses aged 50. I like Diane Lane. She’s not highly recognizable and I’ve admired her work in movies. I can also see that a number of others who are more familiar could suit the part and infuse themselves into Paula’s character. Choices might be Emma Thompson (if she’ll do a Canadian accent), Andie McDowell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Julianna Marguilies, who I enjoyed on the TV show ER when she was involved romantically George Clooney’s doctor character. I could handle George Clooney as my movie’s male romantic lead.
Q: How much was research was involved and what were your principal resources to ensure authenticity?
A: My insurance work experience was long ago and didn’t involve many property claims. At a literary reading, I happened to talk with a man who told me that he’d recently retired from insurance claims work. He gave me his email address and I contacted him with questions about insurance, to get those details right and up to date in the book. To learn about building fires, I called a friend’s son who is a fire fighter and met with him and his colleagues at a Calgary fire station.
When I was writing my first mystery, Deadly Fall, I belonged to a Calgary Mystery Writers group that featured monthly speakers on topics related to crime writing. Some of these were police officers or others with knowledge relevant to my book. I learned much about police procedure here and also took the free Calgary Citizens Police Academy course, a 12-week program with speakers from different branches of the police.
Any time I step outside my immediate experience, I have to look things up, even something simple like the location of a particular street. The Internet helps. I read a couple of books on hoarding to confirm and enhance my understanding of this psychological condition. It’s surprising how much research you need to do for a contemporary story set in your home town, but I want to make things as accurate as I possibly can.
Q: Do you revise and edit scenes as you move along or wait until the very end? Why is your chosen method an effective one for you?
A: I write to the end before doing any editing. The rare times I might revise a scene would be when I can’t move forward without doing this. Since I don’t write from an outline, the first draft becomes my process of developing the story and discovering what it’s all about. Only when I reach the end do I fully know if the novel works and what I need to add, delete, change or enhance in the earlier chapters.
Q: Do you let anyone read your work in progress or do you make them wait until you have typed THE END?
A: Ideally, I wait until I’ve typed THE END. I believe the first draft should be only the writer’s vision. After that, you find out how the story and characters are coming across to others and modify them for readers. Now that I have more confidence in my writing, I will occasionally show people small pieces before I’ve finished the first draft. For someone newer to writing, I think if you show your work too early, you risk being swayed too much by their opinions and you might lose what’s strongest and most original about your story.
Q: When and where do you feel you do your best wordsmithing?
A: I mainly write at home, in my den at my computer and don’t feel the need for different locations to wordsmith better. I like writing best in the mornings, when I’m fresh, but other activities often get in the way of this.
Q: What, for you, is the hardest part of the writing life and what helps you to move past this hurdle?
A: Rejection. By this I mean rejection from publishers and losing out on contests and awards that I’d thought I had a chance with. It’s also criticism of my writing at any stage in the process, from showing an early piece of work to others or receiving a critical print review.
What helps me move past this, is forcing myself to sit down and write. Before long I’m into it, and realize that it’s the process of writing that I love and it’s not really about outside opinion.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I read The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell as a teenager? It surprises me to recall that I did, partly because today we don’t hear much about this philosopher, mathematician, political activist and 1950 Nobel prize recipient for Literature. ‘Bertie’ inspired me to take a math option at university because he declared that math was essential to the study of philosophy.
On the other side of the intellectual coin, for the past forty years, off and on, I’ve followed Coronation Street, the British TV soap opera about working classes residents in Manchester. I enjoy the tangled relationships between those everyday blokes. This was one thing I didn’t need to research for Ten Days in Summer, when I made Paula’s mother a Corrie fan.
Q: When you’re not writing, what do you do for fun?
A: Travel. Over the past few years, my husband and I have been to Europe and Mexico several times each. We make regular shorter trips to eastern Canada to visit relatives and friends.
Hiking. For the past 8 years, we’ve belonged to a hiking club that does weekly day trips to the nearby Rocky Mountains from May-Oct. Our club organizes an away trip each summer, this year to Revelstoke where I’ve never hiked before. The rest of the year, we do two hour walks in Calgary and region parks. Every couple of years, a member organizes a hiking holiday. This winter, about 25 of us spent a fabulous week in Mesa, Arizona.
I also enjoy my twice-weekly Zumba class and look forward to bicycling when the ice and winter grunge finally disappear from Calgary’s pathways and streets.