Interview with Mystery Author Michael Craft

Give us a brief summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.

I grew up in Elgin, Illinois, and attended the University of Illinois, first as an architecture major (which is evident in a good deal of my writing), but I ended up graduating with a degree in graphic design. After a couple of years of grad school, I landed a job at the Chicago Tribune, where I designed various features sections of the paper for ten years. During that time, I moved north to Kenosha, Wisconsin, commuting by train every day. It was a long ride, so I decided to make use of that time by writing the draft of a novel, which had been a long-held goal. Flash forward to retirement in California, where I finally got that graduate degree, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. My new novel, “ChoirMaster,” will be my 16th in print.

What prompted you to move from the grittier Mark Manning mysteries to the Brody and Marson cozies?

Actually, the move to cozies occurred with the third Mark Manning book, “Body Language,” in which Manning moved from Chicago to the fictitious town of Dumont. The first three books in the Manning series were all distinctly different from each other; I was “finding a voice” not only for the series, but for myself as a writer. By the time I was ready to write “Body Language,” I had lost touch with Chicago on a regular basis, and I felt I needed to invent a new setting in Wisconsin. I came up with Dumont, as well as a different narrative voice (first person), and the combination led to the cozy transformation of the series. When I began to brainstorm the Mister Puss series, with Brody and Marson, I knew that I wanted it to pick up in Dumont.


Will Mark and Neil pop up in future Dumont cozies?

Many readers have asked me about this. I know the answer, but I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ll find that “ChoirMaster,” the second Mister Puss mystery, begins to flirt with the question of what happened to Mark Manning. Then, on the last page, there is a development that drops a hint about the third book, where much more will be revealed. I’m about to begin drafting it.

Tell us about the Claire Gray series. Her story interacted with Mark’s, correct? How did you get into the mind of a female theater professor? Was it a challenge to write from a woman’s perspective?

The Mark Manning series and the Claire Gray series “intersect” when Mark’s nephew, Thad, moves to California to study theater with Claire. My first published novel, a slim little literary paperback titled “Rehearsing” (1993), featured Claire Gray as its central character. She was based on a theater director I worked with and admired while I was at the University of Illinois. I could easily hear her voice as I wrote that first book, almost as if I was “channeling” her. I loved getting into her head and writing from a woman’s perspective. In fact, when the first Claire Gray mystery, “Desert Autumn,” was published in 2001, my partner (now husband) said something like, “I recognize a lot more of you in Claire Gray than I do in Mark Manning.”

How has the cozy world reacted to a gay couple as the central characters? Many series have LGBT characters, but not many have a gay married couple as the primary actors. Has there been pearl-clutching from readers, or has the cozy world welcomed Marson & Brody? (Personally, I want them to design a Craftsman home for me and let me join their circle of friends.)

No pearl-clutching whatever. It’s all been good. And I’m sure you’d be more than welcome among Brody and Marson’s circle of closest friends.

Who inspired Glee Savage? She’s so very true to herself and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks. She’s great! Why does she love castor beans so much? And what kind of miracle mechanic can keep an AMC Gremlin running?

The Glee character was directly inspired by an actual reporter at the local paper in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Since I myself had newspaper experience in Chicago, I was naturally inclined to foster friendships with the staff of the local paper. When I was working on the draft of “Body Language,” in which Manning moves from Chicago to take over the Dumont Daily Register, and when I got to the scene where he first meets Glee, watching her walk up the front sidewalk to his house — I had a remarkable writing experience that I will never forget. This new character, Glee Savage, absolutely took on a life of her own as she strutted up the walkway and stepped into the story. I love her. It’s no accident that she’s the one character from the Manning series to figure so prominently in the Mister Puss series.

As for the castor beans, I’m not sure. That was a detail that just fit my plotting needs in the chapter where they were introduced. And regarding the miracle mechanic who keeps Glee’s old Gremlin running — well, this is fiction, remember.

How did Mister Puss introduce himself to you?

Four or five years ago, in a NY Times column by Maureen Dowd, she made passing reference to Tobermory, a talking cat that appeared in a 1911 short story by the author known as Saki. With my curiosity piqued, I found the story, read it, and was thoroughly intrigued by it. And I recalled a much earlier conversation with my agent, who knew that I liked cats and suggested that I might look into cat mysteries — which, at the time, I didn’t even know existed. One thing led to another, and the result was Mister Puss.

What’s your research process like? What does it involve?

It involves digging up whatever details I need to know in order to tell the story with credibility and authority. Before the Internet (yes, I go back THAT far), it was tedious and time-consuming, involving frequent phone calls to the local research librarian. Now though, online, it’s surprisingly simple. Each plot has its own research demands, but overall, I just avoid areas of knowledge that don’t interest me. For instance, I don’t give a hoot about guns or police procedures, so I keep that sort of action offstage by writing a central character who’s an amateur “sidekick.”

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go?

I’m a steadfast outliner, not a “pantser.” Since mysteries are so plot-driven and detailed, I need to have everything outlined and researched before I begin the actual writing. Then, when I do get around to drafting, I can stay truly focused on it. I can’t imagine doing it any other way; it’s just the way I’m wired. That said, I’m well aware that many fine fiction writers wouldn’t dream of using an outline.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

I have a dedicated office, a separate room in my home, where I spend most of my day, as if “going to work.” When I’m in the heat of drafting a novel, I work on it seven days a week. The drafting stage is exhausting, and I won’t write when I’m tired, so my daily limit is about three hours or so. At that rate, it takes me three to four months to complete the first draft. During periods when I’m not writing a draft, I’m still working ON my writing every day: planning, researching, revising, corresponding, publishing, promoting, etc.

My early novels were drafted in longhand and then transcribed each night on a typewriter — there were no other options back then. Revising a novel meant retyping the whole book. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to buy an IBM “personal computer” the first year they were available, in the mid-1980s, as I recall. For quite a few years after that, I continued the ritual of doing pencil revisions on a printout of the manuscript, then transcribing the changes back to the computer, but I have now abandoned that practice as well. Start to finish, I work on my 27-inch iMac.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

It’s impossible for me to come up with a list of my “favorites,” but these are writers who have had a lasting effect on me.

Past: Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates, Paul Bowles, and of course Agatha Christie.

Present: T.C. Boyle, Elizabeth Strout, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice Munro, Christine Sneed.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

What I like best: The sheer creativity of the process, answering only to my imagination. The ability to do it anywhere, anytime, with no special tools or equipment required (other than a keyboard, of course). And I love the long-term commitment of creating a novel.

What I like least: The necessary duties of promoting the book after it’s published. By that point, my mind is already focused on the next project.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

Unlike most gay men, I am not fond of travel (the “getting there” part) or cabaret acts (the god-awful patter between songs always makes me squirm).

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