Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Carolyn Haines

When I was growing up, I wanted to be two things—Nancy Drew and a cowgirl. I was obsessed with horses and reading about Nancy and her contemporaries, the Hardy Boys (I think the Hardy boys had more fun and better toys). I have to say, living on my small farm in southern Alabama, I have achieved both dreams, sort of.

I have 8 horses, 4 of which are rescue, and while I don’t herd cows (thank god, I’d “adopt” them all) I do enjoy riding. And I write mysteries.

The road from childhood to here has been interesting and tough and joyful. And I was lucky that I actually had parents who encouraged me to be a writer, though they thought journalism was a far safer bet than publishing novels. But the storyteller seed that was planted when I was a child and fell asleep each night to the voices of my parents or grandmother telling me a story, has continued to grow.
I write a lot of different kinds of books, because I grew up reading all kinds of stories. This year I had 3 novels and 1 short story released. Thanks to my newspaper background, where deadlines were daily and editors were demanding, I am a fast writer.
FEVER MOON, a thriller set in 1944 Louisiana and woven around local legend, was out in February with St. Martin’s Minotaur. HAM BONES, the seventh in the Sarah Booth Delaney Delta mystery series was out in July with Kensington. REVENANT, a serial killer thriller, was released by MIRA in September, and my short story, “The Wish” was included (thank you Charlaine and Toni!) in the NYT Bestselling anthology MANY BLOODY RETURNS, also out in September.

I love horror and dark tales and also books that make me laugh, and I decided to follow my heart and write what I loved.

I teach graduate and undergraduate fiction classes at the University of South Alabama, and in working with some very talented students, I’ve come to several conclusions about this job of writing that I love so much. The true gift of writing is “the story.” This is what is unique and special and thrilling.

So many people are flawless writers, but their stories don’t grab the reader. Then there are those who have grammar issues, yet there is something undeniably powerful in their work. They have a story to tell, and it is bursting to get out.

This is the thing that compels me to write and write and write. Story. These characters jump into my head (yes, I have had a brain scan and nothing physically is out of kilter) and they won’t leave me alone. They clamor to be put upon a page and set free. Or sometimes it’s a killer plot idea (killer, murder mysteries—yeah, I know), or sometimes it’s an idea or a theme that gets into my heart and demands exploration. The wonderful thing about growing up the way I did is that there was no prejudice attached to any kind of story. Horror, gothic, mysteries, literary, adventure, Southern—hey, if it was a good story it didn’t matter what label someone stuck on it.
And that has freed me to write humorous mysteries like the Bones series, and also the darker explorations such as PENUMBRA, which was named one of the top five mysteries of 2006 by Library Journal.

My job, and I do see writing as a job, is to honor the story. To tell it with as much truth and passion as I can. The story is a gift given to me, and the hard work of crafting and telling it is a joy and an obligation.

And every morning when I slog out to feed 8 horses, rain or shine, freezing or so humid that I almost can’t breath, and every night as I sit at the computer and work while others sleep, I tell myself that I am blessed. I am living the life I dreamed as a child. In all of its messiness and hard physical labor and frustration, I am a writer who makes enough money to support the animals given to my care and who rides horses.

I am blessed.

I’d love to hear from people about what they love to read and why they love it, or about how childhood dreams have played out in their lives.

Carolyn Haines is the author of over 50 books. She has three new books out this year, and a short story included in the NYT bestselling anthology Many Bloody Returns.
Fever Moon, (February 2007) was a Booksense Notable book. This is the second literary thriller published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Penumbra was named a top five mystery of 2006 by Library Journal. That same honor was bestowed on Hallowed Bones in 2004.
Revenant, a thriller set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pre-Katrina, was released in September by MIRA.

Ham Bones, the seventh book in the popular Mississippi Delta Mystery series, was released by Kensington in July. The series will continue next summer with Wishbones.

Haines is a recipient of an Alabama Council on the Arts Fellowship. She is an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama where she teaches graduate and undergraduate fiction classes. She shares her home with 8 horses, 8 cats, and 5 dogs and urges all pet owners to spay and neuter. For more information visit


ajmayhew said...

Thanks for a great post...there are so many things you mentioned that I'd like to respond to, but will focus on what I love to read and why I love it, and how childhood dreams have played out.

I, too, grew up in a book-infested house. My mother and father always had books on their bedside tables; they talked about them at supper. Mama took a bag of books with her on our vacations. Their reading wasn't particularly high-brow; I remember they both read and raved about FOREVER AMBER, which had been banned in several states (that's why they read it). They loved GONE WITH THE WIND, and other popular bestsellers of the time (40s and 50s). For Christmas every year I got Nancy Drew...didn't read the Hardy Boys concurrently, but when I did, I was jealous of them; as bold as Nancy was in comparison to my tame life, the Hardy Boys had REAL adventures!

I was the story-teller in our family for seven sibs and cousins. When we didn’t have a book for me to read to them, I made up stories that often featured the wild west (about which I knew nothing besides what I learned in the movies).

When I was 16, a high-school friend gave me a tattered and dog-eared copy of TROPIC OF CANCER. You can imagine the passages that were dog-eared. When I went to school, I hid it under my mattress (where else?). One day I came home to find it on my bedspread with a note from Mama, who’d changed the sheets that day: “I hope you read the good parts, too.”

What do I like to read now? Quality mainstream fiction. I emphasize “quality” because at 67 I don’t waste my time on mediocre books. I’ve been known to stand in a store reading 5-10 pages of a book I’m contemplating buying. Most go back on the shelf. Right now I’m reading A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS (Khaled Hosseini) and am wrapped up in it. Also CLAY’S QUILT by Simon House. I go for national and international books (SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy--couldn't put it down), but am also getting re-acquainted with southern literature.

In my late teens I dreamed of being a famous writer; fantasized about that for many years before I started writing in my mid-40s, after rearing my children (mostly as a single parent, so where’s the time to write?). But from then on, I didn’t stop. I don’t reckon I’ll ever get to the “famous” part (and that’s not so attractive to me now—I like my quiet life), but I’ve seriously made it to the “writer” part (my novel’s with a top NY agent and…well, I find it hard to type with my fingers crossed).

I’ll be interested to see what others have to say in response to your intriguing closing questions.

Carolyn said...

Sorry to be slow to post back. I've been at a library convention--always a good place for a writer to be.

I want to congratulation you on finishing your novel. That's a serious accomplisment. So many start and never get beyond the first 100 pages. So celebrate! Celebrate each success, no matter how small. This is a tough, tough business--and you've done a lot of hard work.

I'm reading a contest now, so my focus has been on thrillers. It's been fascinating to have a steady diet of these books, and I've discovered some wonderful new writers. (New to me!) This is an enriching experience that has given me back far more than the time and effort I've put into it, and it's re-taught me the value of reading with an open heart.

I did a coming of age novel, Summer of the Redeemers. It's available in trade paper. And I think it's one of my best works. That's a special genre--these books of near adulthood, when innocence is striped away.

I do wish you the best of luck.


ajmayhew said...

Thanks so much for the encouragement, Carolyn. I'll get Summer of the Redeemers and read it.