Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, going into fan-girl mode because our special guest today at Maine Crime Writers is Dorothy Cannell, best known for her lighthearted traditional mysteries featuring Ellie Haskell and her husband Ben. Dorothy, who lives year-round on the coast of Maine, has generously agreed to let me interview her. She’s also (fanfare, please!) agreed to return to Maine Crime Writers to post blogs of her own.
Kaitlyn: First off, listening to you speak in one of those lovely English accents we Anglophiles love to hear, I have to start with the obvious question—you’re not from around here, are you? Or, to put it another way, how did you end up in the U.S. and, more specifically, in Maine?
Dorothy: I was born in Nottingham, England. My parents moved to the London area when I was four. I traveled by ship (only cruise I’ve taken) to the U.S. in 1963 to work as a secretary in Chicago. It was a fad at the time to hire English girls for these because of the accent was thought classy, but as I didn’t answer the telephone or greet clients at reception the one positive going for me didn’t mitigate the negative of my being the world’s worst secretary. A rejection letter I received years later, after submitting a short story read: “Dorothy you’re a lousy typist and a rotten speller, but you can write. (I should also note that my punctuation is wonky.) I bless my lack of marketable skills; if I’d had any I might not have had the staying power to stick with writing for seven years before making a sale. My husband told me when I was feeling discouraged that it would be wicked to inflict myself on any further employers.
Originally I intended to stay in the U.S. for only a year, but before it was out I had met Julian. Who could not be swept away by a man who does his own ironing and mine too? Six months after we married we moved to his home town of Peoria, Illinois and remained there until he retired. At which time he asked me to run off with him to Maine, where we had never visited, but as I love lobster and he blueberries, it seemed a sensible thing to do.
Kaitlyn: Your first novel, The Thin Woman (1984), was named as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association. Can you share with us a bit of the history behind writing and selling the novel?
Dorothy: I got the plot from three episodes of Phil Donahue, which I watched while not doing the ironing. The first was an interview with Tony Randal who was staring in a movie about a family reunion. It may have included a treasure hunt, but I may have filled in that bit. ‘Ha!’ I said, picturing a butler descending the staircase with a flickering candle held aloft and informing the goggle-eyed relatives in the hall that the master was dead of unnatural causes. Being married to a lawyer I was aware that death often means a will. I spent the rest of the day (not vacuuming, Julian does that too) willing the main female character into view. The following morning (or so it seems) I again watched Donahue. That one was about women who hired male escorts. The captivating point was that they often charge expenditures to their credit cards. ‘Ha! Ha!’ I thought. My female for some reason or other does not wish to attend the family reunion without a man accompanying her. But why would she feel that way? Enter a gorgeous, fashion model cousin who has always made her feel inferior. Progress. But why does Ellie–she now had a name—have an ego problem? The next day (or so it seems) the Donahue program was about women who were perceived by society and themselves as overweight and, therefore, unattractive. Got it! I didn’t create Ellie. She stepped onto the page and included me in her adventures.
Kaitlyn: Did you plan to write a series featuring Ellie and, if not, is there anything you would have done differently in The Thin Woman if you’d known it would turn into one?
Dorothy: I knew so little about publishing that I had no idea that a series was pretty much a must with mysteries. I didn’t know I written a mystery until my agent mention the word.
Kaitlyn: Your most recent book, Sea Glass Summer, was a departure from your mysteries. It’s set in Maine, not England. You use multiple viewpoints with special focus on a young boy. And while there are mystery elements, this is not a crime novel in the usual sense. As any writer will agree, there are times we just want to do something different, or to put it another way, write the “book of the heart.” Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write Sea Glass Summer? And, by the way, I loved it.
Dorothy: So glad you enjoyed it. I knew a departure was a risk but it was a story I knew I’d regret not writing. Three years after moving to Maine, we sold our first house and relocated a few miles away on a road overlooking the bay. Six of my grandchildren visited that summer, along with my older daughter Rachael. Every day we’d go down to a cove and the children would help me hunt for sea glass. When they left I said to Rachael that I would always remember our sea glass summer. I loved the idea that what is broken can also be beautiful. That would be theme; but I needed a plot. Around that time we heard of a woman in her eighties who had a son of sixty who had Alzheimer’s. It seemed such a cruel twist of what nature intends. We later heard that he had disappeared. His body was found a year later in the woods. At that same time I had a beloved uncle who was dying of Parkinson’s. This led me to a grandfather of an orphaned nine year old boy, Oliver, who had to go and live with an aunt and uncle he’d never met in a grim old house with secrets. His hope of being adopted by a young couple who love him was important to me, because both my daughters are adopted.
Kaitlyn:Several of your short stories have been nominated for awards and “The Family Jewels” won an Agatha. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about how writing short stories differs from writing longer fiction?
Dorothy: I love writing them. The best suggestion I can suggest comes from Nancy Pickard (who has written wonderful ones) is that should end with a moment of epiphany. O. Henry was a master in this.
Kaitlyn: You’re famous (infamous?) for your some of your titles—Bridesmaids Revisited, Femmes Fatal, How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, and Withering Heights, among others—do you have any stories you’d like to share about how you come up with them?
Dorothy: In each of these cases I came up the title first and worked the plot into them. My friend Joan Hess gave me Withering Heights. Femmes Fatal was the result of my aforementioned rotten spelling or lousy typing. I meant it to be Femmes Fatale, but the editor thought it a clever title. So I didn’t own up.
Kaitlyn: What are you working on now? Can we hope to see more of Ellie and Ben?
Dorothy: I’m just finishing up the first in a new series set in an English village in the early nineteen thirties. It’s titled Murder at Mullings. Yes, I do hope to write another Ellie, but I feel I should get at least one other about these new characters out first.
Kaitlyn: And, finally, the question we ask of everyone we interview here: what question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? And, of course, please answer that question.
Dorothy: You’ve asked some great ones here. I suppose it would have to be: Which do I enjoy more–reading or writing? The answer: Reading. Love of books was a gift from my father. He died when I was fifteen and I still miss him, but I never feel he is all that far away when I have a book in my hands.
Dorothy’s most recent entry in the Ellie Haskell series is She Shoots to Conquer. Most of her older novels and collections of short stories are now available as ebooks. The stand-alone Sea Glass Summer was published in 2012. Dorothy will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at Malice Domestic 26 in May 2014. And she’ll be back here at Maine Crime Writers very soon.