Alice K. Boatwright’s celebrated career path is quite instructional as well as inspirational. She works intuitively (as I do), allowing her inner artistic muse to dictate the flow of the story, but at the same time, she consciously shapes the contours of the creative journey, in order to arrive at a destination only she knows initially, sharing the revelatory details with the reader as they develop organically.
This dedicated professionalism and craftsmanship may come naturally to her, but as she explains in this interview, commerical success was achieved via seasoned strategy…
The breadth of your work is very impressive, from a series of linked novellas about the Vietnam era (Collateral Damage) to your mystery series featuring Ellie Kent (the second of which, What Child Is This, came out in November). Do you think writers need to stretch beyond their “comfort zones” to explore different genres and voices?
Yes. I had a sculptor friend who once told me that, in his work, he tried to scare himself a little bit each day. That’s how he knew he was on the right track and still growing. I try to live up to that idea by taking on projects that involve some aspect I think is beyond me. Impossible.
In Collateral Damage, one of the novellas is written in the first person from a man’s point of view. Some people told me I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but that only made me more determined. The result is Toby Woodruff, who has a lot of me in him, but is also himself, and no one has yet said they don’t believe his story.
When I began writing my first mystery, Under an English Heaven, the challenges were to write a full-length book and to take on a plot-driven genre. I never outline. I like to let my stories develop as I go along, but in a mystery you have to constantly monitor the plot to ensure you are giving enough clues, at the right moments, so the reader is both surprised and satisfied at the end. I’m always happy when readers say they didn’t guess who the murderer was, because, as the writer, I knew from the first sentence. Writing What Child Is This? was hard because I was intimidated by the success of the first book. Could I do as well again? Do better? Thoughts like that created a different type of dis-comfort zone to push through.
As far as other genres go, I have an idea for a book set in 17th century England, and I also want to write and illustrate a picture book. Watch this space.
You’ve been very successful in marketing your own books. Can you share some of your secrets vis a vis self promotion, especially in such a competitive marketplace?
Many of my day jobs have involved marketing and public relations, and I enjoy the chase of trying to figure out what works. That is undoubtedly an advantage. I am more stressed by NOT being able to control the promotion, as with my first publisher, than I am by my current situation, where my publisher gives me a lot of autonomy.
My secrets. . . I understand that you have to spend money to make money, but I don’t have a lot, so I try to focus on promotional activities that have a good cost/benefit ratio. This means I don’t emphasize activities that once were central to book marketing plans, such as print reviews, radio/TV interviews, book tours, and conference appearances.
I do view myself as a sole proprietor business, and I have worked hard to develop my promotional tools – website, newsletter, etc. After so many years of doing these things for clients, I have to admit I get a kick out of doing my own. I’ve learned a lot about social media, online book promotion, and online advertising, and I prefer activities that allow me to track and analyze results – although “awareness-building” has its place. I also enjoy reading from my work. Not many books are sold that way, but it’s fun and a chance to meet readers in person.
I think it’s important to decide what marketing tools suit you, your time, your budget, and your book (and which ones you might even enjoy). Then use them as well and as thoroughly as you can.
How would you describe your brand of mysteries, considering the many subcategories (noir, thriller, hardboiled, etc).
Before my first mystery was published, I thought I was writing a cozy, but that’s because I didn’t realize the term now connotes a much lighter type of mystery than what I set out to write. My books are more what is now called “traditional.” They’re more serious and character-driven, but still have an amateur sleuth and little violence.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
As a mystery writer, I am inspired by the classic early 20th century writers, such as Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Marjorie Allingham. I also love Sara Paretsky for her combination of feminism, politics, and a fast-paced story. I admire a lot of the European writers too: especially Georges Simenon, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and Karin Fossum.
Creatively, music is a big influence. I like to have a song that’s a sort of mantra for what I’m writing. When I was writing Collateral Damage, for example, I wanted it to have the rhythm of “Paint It Black” and the power of “No Retreat, No Surrender.” For What Child Is This?, the music that is woven into the story, including the Christmas carols and songs from Shakespeare, were a very important element for me.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on the third Ellie Kent mystery and also hope to self-publish a “chapbook” of three short stories set in the San Juan Islands combined with paintings of the region by a local artist, who is an old friend from when we both worked at UC Berkeley.
Thank you Alice, cheers!
Alice K. Boatwright is the author of the award-winning Ellie Kent mysteries. In the first book, UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN, life brings the skeptical American Ellie Kent to an English village as the vicar's new wife; but death keeps her guessing how long she'll be there. Winner of the 2016 Mystery & Mayhem Grand Prize for best mystery, UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN has attracted an enthusiastic following.
The series continues with WHAT CHILD IS THIS? It's now Christmas in Little Beecham . . . a season to celebrate with caroling, mistletoe, and mince pies. Ellie Kent is looking forward to her first English village Christmas, but a missing Oxford student and an abandoned baby soon draw her away from the fireside into danger.
Alice is also the author of the award-winning COLLATERAL DAMAGE, three linked stories about the Vietnam War told from the perspective of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught in the crossfire.
Alice holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and has taught writing at UC Berkeley Extension, the University of New Hampshire, and the American School of Paris. A native of New England, she lived in San Francisco for many years. She and her husband spent a decade in France and England, before returning to the US in 2014 to make their home in the Pacific Northwest.
What’s Up? (newsletter): http://eepurl.com/cER4Cj
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/alicekboatwright/
Under an English Heaven: https://www.amazon.com/Under-English-Heaven-Ellie-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00KOSUU3U
What Child Is This? https://www.amazon.com/What-Child-This-Ellie-Mystery-ebook/dp/B077HFWH1W
Collateral Damage: https://www.amazon.com/Collateral-Damage-Alice-Boatwright-ebook/dp/B06XH6KPW6
PHOTO: ALICE K. BOATWRIGHT