Interview with Sarah Graves ……. Lea Wait

Lea: Sarah Graves’ first Home Repair is Homicide mystery, The Dead Cat Bounce, was published in 1998; her latest, Knockdown,14th in the series, was published this year. In between those books her heroine, sleuth, handywoman, and former New York financial advisor to the legally-challenged, Jacobia (Jake) Tiptree has been shot, nearly drowned, buried alive in a gravel pit and escaped from several burning and/or exploding buildings. She’s also survived innumerable blows to her head and various extremities. But never fear — Jake’s always gotten her man. Or  woman. Or both. And what dark city filled with crime and dastardly villains does this intrepid woman call home? Try — Eastport, Maine. 

Sarah, at first glance your Jake Tiptree books appear to fit the classic definition of a cozy. Jake is not a crime professional. Your characters have relationships, but there’s no sex “on camera.” Where you do go a bit overboard, though, is on the violence scale. Most mysteries have one or two murders per book. Some of your books have five or six. Or more. How would you categorize your Home Repair is Homicide series? 

Sarah:  When it began, the series was pretty much straight mystery. I didn’t deliberately turn it into a cozy series, but instead wrote about the characters and their lives as I saw them. Not doing sex scenes on camera was more an aesthetic decision than a category strategy. I never saw Bogart and Hepburn in an explicit sex scene, but I got the idea, all right, and I figured my readers would, too.

As the series went on, of course, I didn’t want to write the same book over and over, so I began to experiment with point of view. The first books were entirely in first person, but I began to use third person a little bit, and then a lot. The who-dunnit format started feeling constricted to me, also, and I got interested in the thriller form. So that also was more of a pushing-the envelope decision than a conscious move to another niche, marketing-wise.

Nowadays I’d have to call the series a cozy thiller series. Interestingly, I get a lot of reader comments saying they appreciate the absence of explicit sex, but not many complaints about the violence. So go figure.

Lea:  How has the series changed since you started writing it?

Sarah:  In addition to the changes noted in the previous answer, I’ve explored the minor characters considerably more in the most recent books in the series.  Sam’s (Jake’s son) addictions and his struggles with them have taken the main stage fairly often and Bella Diamond’s determination to overcome what she sees as her flaws and foibles have as well. Even Bob Arnold, Eastport’s police chief, has gotten more three-dimensional in the upcoming book, Dead Level, due out in May of 2012.

Lea:  Since all your books have taken place in Eastport, a small Maine town, how have you avoided the dreaded “Cabot Cove Syndrome”, in which eventually you’ll have to kill off everyone who lives there?

Sarah:  It’s true, they’re dropping like flies in Eastport – fictionally speaking. Fortunately, I’m not killing off real people, and once in a while I knock off a tourist, too. But that’s the beauty of fiction: you can always invent more inhabitants. That seems to be one thing readers have been pretty forgiving about, since of course in real life there’d be a government agency here investigating the super-high murder rate. I guess the short answer is that I’ve avoided the Cabot Cove Syndrome by ignoring it. Hey, works for me.

Lea:  Give us a little background:  Who were you before you were Sarah Graves?  What took you to Eastport?  And, are you Jacobia Tiptree?  Were you a financial adviser to the mob in your former life? 

Sarah:  I sometimes wish I were a financial adviser to the mob. From what I see in the financial sections of the newspapers, that’s a very lucrative position, and there’s not much downsizing to worry about. Matt Taibbi’s new book, Griftopia. expands nicely on the topic, and I recommend it. But back to your question.

Nearly 20 years ago my husband and I were looking to get out of the I-95 corridor. We explored pretty much the whole east coast. Finally we came to Maine and found Eastport and also found a big old house that needed a lot of repair. At the same time I was starting a mystery series, and the next thing I knew much of what I was doing in the house was going into the books. It did help that a lot of home repair makes me think about murder, and the beauty and remoteness of the setting lent itself naturally to fiction. And then there are the long winters, in which it really is necessary to have two projects going – one mostly physical, the other mostly mental – each providing a break from the other.

But I’m not Jacobia Tiptree. There’s really not a single detail about her that’s true about me. In my former life I wrote a lot of ad copy, public relations material, some catalog copy – none of which she’d have the patience for. She’s a completely made-up character.

Lea: What about Jake’s Eastport – is it really there, or do you invent locations? And is your home Jake’s home?

Sarah: Almost everything in the books is real, but when necessary I’ll massage a location to make it work. And I don’t use any other Eastporters’ private homes as settings. I wouldn’t want anyone to set a murder in my house, and I don’t think my neighbors would enjoy it, either. Nor do I give real directions to places, for exactly the same reason. Eastport is real, and the Eastport in the books is real. But they aren’t precisely the same in all respects. As for the house… it is fairly close to my real house, especially as regards anything that breaks, collapses, sags, crumbles, peels, leaks, throws sparks, smokes, or blows up.  

Lea:  Fourteen books is a long series. Do you ever want to break out and do other writing? Another series? A stand alone? What can we expect from Sarah Graves in the future?

Sarah:  I have a new project just in the very beginning stages, but I can’t really talk about it yet. Within the next few weeks, though, I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement about something I think will be a lot of fun. As for the stand alone, if there’s a series writer in the world who doesn’t aspire to one, I’d like to meet that person. I mean, is it just me, or has that become the genre holy grail or something? And I’m no exception. And, finally, I’m now beginning on the next Jake Tiptree adventure, which will introduce a brand-new major character, one with a lot of surprises up her sleeve. Oh, and there’s a .38 up that sleeve, too, so watch out.

Lea: Thank you, Sarah!  I can hardly wait to hear that announcement.Thank you for taking the time to share some of your world — and Jake’s — with us today.

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