Step into cozy-reading for the winter with Maggie Blackburn (Once Upon a Seaside Murder), Amita Murray (Arya Winters and the Tiramisu of Death), and RV Raman (A Will to Kill). They read from and discuss their stories—a mystery panel discussion that exposes a decades-old crime, family heirs isolated at a haunted mansion in India’s Nilgiris district, and an English village baker of macabre desserts who… well, in all cases, murder ensues and an investigation follows! Moderated by Leone Ciporin.
Watch the recording of this event and read the transcript below:
[Praise for Little Bookshop of Murder, first in this series], “[A] charming series launch… Plenty of booklore… enhances the sleuthing.”—Publishers Weekly
“This superior cozy from Murray turns the genre on its head in this wryly witty and at times poignant outing.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A modern-day take on the classic locked-room murder mystery, transported to a remote mansion high in the hills of southern India.”—The New York Times
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life, from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us for Are There Murders in the Building?
A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time with the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window.
If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the schedule of upcoming programs and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Thank you to Ting for supporting our virtual programming. Our authors today are participating from Virginia, England, and India.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s moderator, Leone Ciporin. Leone’s short stories have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Women’s World, and numerous anthologies. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and she lives in Charlottesville.
Thank you all for joining us for Shelf Life. Over to you, Leone.
LEONE CIPORIN: Thank you, Jane, and welcome readers. As Jane mentioned, my name is Leone Ciporin, and I’ll be moderating today’s panel with three mystery authors. We’ll be chatting about the mystery genre, how they develop their plots, and the role setting plays, but we also want to hear from you. So please submit your questions using the Q&A tab at the bottom. Let’s meet each author.
Maggie Blackburn is the author of Once Upon a Seaside Murder. She also writes under her real name, Mollie Cox Bryan. And since I know Mollie, I’m going to be referring to her as Mollie throughout the panel. Mollie’s books have been finalists for the Agatha Award, the Daphne du Maurier Award, and named a top-ten beach read by Woman’s World. Welcome, Mollie. And would you read the opening of Once Upon a Seaside Murder?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Sure.
Even though Hildy Merriweather’s heart was pagan, she loved Christmas.
It thrilled her to tell anybody who asked why it didn’t conflict with her Goddess-loving pagan ways. “As we practice Christmas today, it has very little to do with the birth of Christ,” she’d say. “In fact, the Christmas tree, the holly—all of it—has pagan roots in the solstice. As far as historians can tell, Christ was born in April, and his birthday was tacked onto the solstice celebration as a sneaky way of getting pagans to convert,” she’d say. And then she’d offer you the best vegan brownie you’d ever eaten. Disarming? Yes. But that was Hildy—Summer’s mother—and she was all about peace, love, and stardust. But she was gone.
Summer drew in a breath and she walked in the sand. The sound of the ocean had always soothed her ever since she was a child. Christmas without her mother … she didn’t know how she’d get through it. But get through it she must.
LEONE CIPORIN: Very appropriate for this time of year. Thank you, Mollie.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Thank you.
LEONE CIPORIN: Amita Murray, author of Arya Winters and the Tiramisu of Death, is based in London by way of Delhi and California. She’s had writer residencies with University College London and Plymouth University and taught advanced fiction at the University of East Anglia. Welcome, Amita, and would you read the opening of Arya Winters and the Tiramisu of Death?
AMITA MURRAY: Thank you, Leone. I’d love to.
Loneliness killed my Auntie Meera. It wasn’t the stranger that she inadvertently let into her house. It wasn’t a burglar or an unknown lover. None of these possibilities point to the true reason that she died a few months ago at the age of sixty-one, murdered in her own home, left naked and splayed on her kitchen floor on a January morning when snowflakes sang arias outside her window and robins hopped on frosted branches of holly. It was loneliness.
People think it’s only unfriendly people who are lonely—the ones who are rude and obnoxious, the ones who push others away. But that isn’t true. Nice people are often the loneliest, people who do and say nice things, who step aside to let others pass, the ones who open doors and thank people, who smile and act as if everything is fine. Whose smiles hide the fact that they believe, deep down inside, that no one will catch them if they fall. Those people, I think, the ones who are unfailingly nice—those are the ones that are most in danger of ending up like Auntie Meera.
LEONE CIPORIN: Thank you, Amita. That theme of isolation really resonates after the last year and a half for all of us, I think.
RV Raman is the author of The New York Times Editors Choice book A Will to Kill and A Dire Isle, as well as the Inspector Ranade and Inspector Dhruvi thrillers, which are loosely based on his own corporate career. Welcome, RV.
RV RAMAN: Thank you. Lovely to be here.
LEONE CIPORIN: And would you read the opening of your book A Will to Kill?
RV RAMAN: Sure. So here it goes:
The visitor was ill at ease, fidgeting with his watch’s metal strap, locking and releasing the clasp repeatedly. He had made two attempts to convey the message he was carrying but had pulled up short both times. Across the table at Channai’s New Woodlands Hotel, Harith Athreya waited, studying the willowy young man who had given his name as Manu Fernandez. The sealed envelope Manu had brought remained unopened on the table beside a steaming tumbler of filter coffee.
Manu had just invited Athreya to his family mansion in the Nilgiris on his father’s behalf and was ineffectively trying to pass along the rest of the message.
LEONE CIPORIN: Thank you, RV. And we’ll talk about what was in that envelope later in this panel. So if all the authors could make sure they are on screen so everybody can see all three of you. Mollie? Great.
All right, so a question really common to all of you has to do with the subgenres of mysteries. When you say mystery, that includes things from psychological suspense to thriller to traditional or cozy mystery. And your books—all of them—could be considered at least partially in the cozy mystery genre. Do you agree, and in what ways do you think your books fit that genre and in what ways do they defy it? And Mollie, I’m going to start with you because Summer, your main character, has assumptions about cozy mysteries, some of which turn out not to be true. And can you talk about that?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Yes. Summer is—I mean, this book really squarely fits in the cozy mystery genre. And Summer herself is a bit of a book snob. She’s a Shakespeare professor. In the first book, she ends up loving romances. And in this book I think she ends up loving cozy mysteries. But she does assume that they’re not very needy, and all the crimes are all wrapped up too quickly. Which sometimes that’s true. So the ways that this mystery might be a little bit different is that Summer herself is sometimes not very likable. She is a little prickly sometimes, but she does have her soft side. And this book is about a cold case, and most cozy mysteries don’t focus on cold cases. So that’s where it differs. But it does have the amateur sleuths, the small town setting, a bookstore setting. So those are very much all cozy mystery elements.
LEONE CIPORIN: And you talk about a not totally likable character, and that makes me think a little bit of Arya Winters. So I wanted to know, Amita, if you had a comment on that.
AMITA MURRAY: Yes, I liked the things that Maggie said about what makes her book kind of fit into the cozy genre. And I agree with those. Similarly, Arya Winters—it has a small kind of villagey setting. That’s kind of true to the cozy genre. It has a baker who is an amateur sleuth. She bakes Halloween-y desserts. So there you go for the cozy mystery. There’s a romantic element. There’s lots of quirky characters in the village. So I think those features do kind of fit into the cozy genre.
But I have to say that, having not thought about this at all when I was writing it, but then since having it published I’ve heard it again and again, that there is a character that isn’t entirely likable—so that’s Arya Winters. And she herself says not a lot of people like me because she’s very blunt. She’s very forthright. She tends to tell you what she thinks, even if you don’t want to know what that is. If she doesn’t want to talk to you, she will let you know that she doesn’t want to talk to you. So there’s that kind of edgy element to her.
But the biggest thing that people tell me is there’s too much sex in this for a cozy mystery. Maggie’s laughing at that one.
LEONE CIPORIN: But you came up with a unique way around being explicit about that.
AMITA MURRAY: Yes, yeah. That’s right. I mean, I wasn’t too explicit about some of it—some of the sexy elements. But there is obviously—the fun sex is a little bit more explicit than some of the gory side of things. So there’s sort of the fleabag attitude to sex. There is that, that you don’t normally find perhaps in a cozy mystery quite as much. The vulnerability of sex. The getting it wrong. The getting it right. The desire side of things. So yes, there’s a sort of a mix of cozy and not-so-cozy elements.
LEONE CIPORIN: RV, could you talk about how your book fits or doesn’t fit. One way in which it seems to fit is the locked room mystery. But if you could talk first about your main character, since we’re talking about our protagonists here?
RV RAMAN: Sure. So as a background, it’s a story about an elderly man who is being threatened by a number of people. And people have tried to kill him before. And that is why he calls Athreya. Now the setting is a remote valley. You can’t imagine a place more rural than that—a remote valley. All the characters are there in an old colonial mansion. And a landslide takes place. So everybody who is inside in the valley is cut off. So to that extent, it’s a very closed community, which is one of the features of cozy mysteries.
The other feature is that the protagonist—the sleuth—he is a likable person. And most of the others are also likable people.
The other feature of—I think all my writing—is that my writing tends to be very clean. I don’t use swear words. I don’t use profanities. So I’m a little bit of old school. So to that extent, it fits into the cozy category.
Where it doesn’t is that the sleuth, although he’s a nice guy, he is an ex-police officer. He is a retired police officer, which is not necessarily the case in most cozy mysteries. And in the background, there is a ghost, and I don’t know how many cozy mysteries have ghosts. And there is one character who comes in in the middle from outside the valley who is reputed to be an assassin—a killer. He is added to the mix.
So this is how partly my book is cozy, partly it is not.
LEONE CIPORIN: Your books all include—Maggie, you mentioned cold crimes. Your books all include an element of past crimes. RV, could you talk about the role of that in your book first?
RV RAMAN: Yeah. The main crime that takes place is very much in the present. There are two murders that take place very much in the present. In the background, there are some old crimes. Some of it is murder; some of it is some other thievery. Now the role those play is in providing the motive. So beyond that, there isn’t as much a long shadow from the past. So to provide a very strong motive, which comes as a surprise towards the end—sorry, I just lost you there.
LEONE CIPORIN: Well, I’ll ask all three of you—and RV, you’re on mute. I’ll ask all three of you. You all have a past crime and a present crime in your books. So I’m curious—which did you start with? The one in the present and then tie it to the past, or the other way around? Amita, what would you say?
AMITA MURRAY: Yeah. I wrote the first page just as I read it today. So it was to me—it did start where the book now starts. That’s how I started writing it. I think one of the big things about mysteries that I absolutely adore is the psychological motive to the crime. I really like that. I’m not so good at the spies and the big plot or the assassins. I’m not very good at that kind of stuff. I like the psychological motive behind the crime. I like to trace it back to what happened to this person that they became like this. So I do tend to dwell on that a bit.
And because of that, I also wanted Arya to have a motive to jump into this. Why does she care about solving this crime? And I think it helped me to understand that—when she could tie what happens in the next couple of days in the book—there is a crime, and she kind of follows that and tries to solve it. But for her it’s because she links it to something that happened to her auntie. And she links those two crimes. And that was quite a strong pull for me. I can understand then why someone would get roped into looking into a crime. Because normally perhaps we wouldn’t.
So that was my way of kind of bringing it all together. But the other thing is I was really thinking about loneliness. And to me, Auntie Meera was a lonely person. And so there was a thread that links a lot of things in the book.
LEONE CIPORIN: Mollie?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Well, it was definitely—I thought about the cold case first when I was writing this book. The other crime that takes place is linked to that in the modern day. But it’s not as relevant, I think, to the book as the past crime. And I’m with Amita on this. The longer I write mysteries—and I think this is my eighteenth or nineteenth book, I don’t know. But the psychology of everything really fascinates me. I think a lot of what this book is about is how Summer is dealing with her mother’s murder and then finding out that her mother had this fascination with a cold case, which is so much unlike her mother. And then finding out the link and why she was fascinated. There’s a lot about how murder trickles down through the generations and how it affects everybody through this book. So I think that’s what I was trying to get at by writing the cold case.
LEONE CIPORIN: RV, following up on Maggie’s comment about murder trickling down through the generations, how would you say that plays out in your book?
RV RAMAN: It does. To start with, when I visualized the story, it was very much the present-day crime. When the book starts, it looks like a fairly plain, vanilla inheritance-driven murder. Or inheritance-driven motives. Then as you get into the mansion and meet the people, then you see that there is art and antics to come to play. And many of them are from old times. Many of them are from Europe. They are from Vienna, from Germany. So then there is more complexity that comes in. Then you look at it—the past, about twelve to fourteen years. A few other crimes had taken place in Europe, although my story is set completely in India, the past crimes are in Europe, and they are art related.
That motive starts coming out a little later, and then some of the characters in the book turn out to be people who they are not what they claim to be.
LEONE CIPORIN: And that’s a common theme too: people not what they appear to be. So RV, staying with you for a moment, when you read the opening, there was an envelope on the table that had not yet been opened. But it’s opened very early, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to talk about what’s in it. Would you tell us what’s in it? Because it’s an unusual device that you’ve used.
RV RAMAN: In the envelope is a letter which has been written by the old man. His name is Bhaskar Fernandez. Now Bhaskar has had a very checkered history, and he’s the lord and master of this huge mansion in the hills. So he writes to Athreya and says, listen, I’ve been a great fan of crime fiction as well as nonfiction, and it would be great if you could come over to my place and spend a few days where I can talk to you and try and tap your experience in crimes. Athreya, as a background, is an extremely experienced investigator. He was with the Indian police for about thirty years or so.
So this thing that links these two elderly gentlemen is crime—fiction as well as nonfiction. And then as the book goes on, there are other aspects that come in.
LEONE CIPORIN: The two wills, for example. Which I won’t go into detail. Amita, you said earlier that you started with the opening that you read to us, and then the rest of the story came from there. So what inspired you to write such a poignant discussion of loneliness?
AMITA MURRAY: I’m weird. I think about loneliness a lot—sometimes when I’m feeling lonely and other times when I’m not. But I find—like Arya, I find that we do tend to use politeness sometimes as a way of keeping people at a distance. And I think that’s not something that we are always aware of because politeness or being nice or being charming is seen as something good. It’s seen as a good thing, that it facilitates social relationships to develop and evolve.
But I often think how many times do we say the polite thing instead of how we’re actually feeling. If we’re feeling really rubbish on a particular day, how many times are we going to say I feel really rubbish instead of saying fine, great, I’m going to go play tennis later, or whatever.
So I just wonder how much we keep ourselves in little sort of lonely bubbles because we are being polite and because we’re doing the right social thing. And I like Arya because—it’s a weird thing to say about your own character—but to me, she’s a separate person from me. And I want to be like her. I want to be the kind of person who can just say what’s on their mind because I will many times do the polite thing and say the thing that the social situation needs or requires. Not always. I’m getting better at not doing that. But I like that Arya doesn’t sort of play by those rules that we think are important. She wants to be accepted for who she is, and if that’s not possible, then she will push people away. And even though that keeps her lonely, she still thinks that that’s a better bargain than pretending to be who she’s not and being lonely for that reason.
So I guess, yeah, I think about it a lot. And I have to say, in the last year, I’ve heard people talk a lot about loneliness, isolation, and social anxiety much more than perhaps we used to. We’ve thought about what it is that we crave and the connection we crave with other people much more in the last year or so—the last couple of years now. So I think it’s very relevant to a lot of us, perhaps in a way that I didn’t even think when I was writing it, but feels very important for all of us to be able to talk about now.
LEONE CIPORIN: That’s so true. I do think that this loneliness was emerging as a theme even before because characters in mysteries that are socially awkward or more socially direct have been more common. For example, Sarah Gran’s Claire DeWitt, who is a little bit like Arya Winters. There are a couple of mysteries with autistic characters who for those reasons are very direct. So it seems like we’re seeking characters who maybe are not so polite and pull back the façade.
Mollie, your book combines two very disparate themes: Shakespeare, because your main character is a Shakespeare professor; and you also have Muslim culture. And I noticed in previous books of yours, because I’ve read them, you’ve brought in themes before, whether it’s immigration or other issues. So two questions, I guess. One is how did you think to combine two such different themes; and two, what led you to bring these issues into your cozy mysteries?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Well, that’s a really good question. When I first started writing cozy mysteries, I guess I didn’t understand that you were supposed to stay away from certain issues or bring in diversity. That was years ago, of course. So I started reading my reviews and seeing that people didn’t quite like some of the edgier elements. So I used the tagline, “I write cozy mysteries with edge.”
So I wasn’t thinking about mixing the Shakespeare and the Muslim culture because Summer is already a Shakespeare professor. So that’s all sort of solidified in the first book. But to me, I guess they kind of—the Muslim culture is so rich. Just like Shakespeare. The literature from the Muslim culture is incredible. So I guess they work together. They seem to. And I do enjoy getting in there and bringing out some issues that people might not want to talk about or feel uncomfortable about. I think it’s important. I think as writers—I mean, not all writers like to do that—but as writers, I think one of our jobs is maybe to make people think a little bit differently.
LEONE CIPORIN: Yeah, the best combination is to both entertain and enlighten. And if you can hit that, you really hit it. And talking about kind of bringing in elements that were not brought in before, RV I know that you are an admirer of locked room mysteries. And what made you decide to have one set in India?
RV RAMAN: That’s a slightly long story in the sense that when I was a schoolboy, of course we used to read a lot of fiction. And India has a lot of stories—epics, fairy tales, love stories, war stories—a lot. But there was one genre that was missing, which is the whodunits. Murder mysteries—there are very, very few. So we would read the Christies and Conan Doyles and the Erle Stanley Gardners of this world, but we didn’t have very many Indian authors who wrote murder mysteries. That actually continues to today. It’s not just books; it’s also films. There are very, very few Indians films which do well which are about murder mysteries. For some reason, murder mysteries are not consumed very well in India. Even today, it’s difficult to sell one.
So going back, when I was reading those books from Christie and Conan Doyle and others when I was a kid, I always longed for something like that, which is set in an environment which I knew—that is, India. And I couldn’t find any. So I did contemplate the possibility of writing one, but I had absolutely no confidence in doing that. Then years passed—decades passed—and then I was approaching fifty. When I crossed fifty, I decided to take a shot at it, and that’s what became of it.
LEONE CIPORIN: So you saw a need and pushed the envelope there as well. And what is your connection to the setting: the Nilgiri Mountains. Tell us about the setting and how you came to choose it.
RV RAMAN: Okay. In this series of murder mysteries, I intend to take the readers to different parts of India. I’ve just about started writing the fourth. So each one of them takes the reader to different places. The first one was set in a colonial mansion in the hills, which is a very typical golden age kind of setting. And one has read so many of those golden age books that I was thinking about the setting for the first one—I said I’m going to do it in an old colonial mansion. Of course, I could have set it wherever I wanted.
The other thing was, before writing this one, I had written four other crime thrillers. And I hail from a place called Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. And one of the feedbacks I was getting was that you live in that part of the world, and you haven’t set one of your stories there. So I decided to set this one—to set this colonial mansion in the hills of Tamil Nadu. And that’s what I read out—the first page, it starts in Chennai. So that’s the history behind it.
LEONE CIPORIN: Okay. So you have a deeply personal connection to the setting. So Mollie and Amita, do you have a personal connection to your setting? Mollie first.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Well, I can tell you how the series was inspired was I was on a beach vacation with a girlfriend. And we had no children with us, nor did we have husbands. So it was her mother’s condo, so we didn’t even have to pay for the condo. And it was just a wonderful vacation. We did what we wanted; we didn’t have to answer to anybody. And I said this is just paradise. The only thing that it’s missing is a bookstore that we could just walk to and browse and buy books. And so that’s how this series started for me, was imagining a dream of a bookstore, which is what Beach Reads is. It has free coffee, free tea all day long. It’s got beautiful local artwork, and it’s got two levels. One has a balcony that looks out over the ocean. So that’s how it started for me. Which is very different for me because a lot of my books are set locally in Virginia. So it was a lot of fun.
LEONE CIPORIN: Sounds like it. Amita?
AMITA MURRAY: Well, I do live sort of just on the outskirts of London. So there is that personal connection. I like the fact that it’s so close to sort of central London, and yet you have the woods and there’s quite a lot of outside spaces and green spaces. So I like that. But I think the biggest thing about it is perhaps that—there should be something quite ideal about a setting like that, if you live there, where everyone knows you, and they know your name, and they recognize you. And yet, for Arya, it’s those very features that are claustrophobic for her. So she finds—oh, I don’t know. She wants to belong, and yet she finds it very, very difficult to belong. She has this craving to be accepted and loved, and yet the very fact that people know her and want to talk to her and want her to be involved in stuff is something that she really, really has barriers against.
So in a sense, that feeling of wanting to be close to people and yet not being able to be close to people—I think it was a good setting for that. Again, while I’ve traveled so much, I’m not as good at kind of the big, flashy locations where you travel a lot and you go first to Germany and then to China and then to somewhere else. It would be cool if I could, but I’m better at kind of the cozy, the psychological, the kind of simmering underbelly of what’s going on just locally to people that just look sort of like anyone else. So that’s what attracts me, I think, to those kinds of locations.
LEONE CIPORIN: Well, the contained, closed setting which is so common to cozy mysteries does lend itself more to a deeper psychological analysis and interaction. And another element of cozy mysteries, which is somewhat related to that, is that there are often quirky characters. I think, Mollie, you mentioned that at the beginning of the panel. So what quirky characters for any of you would you want to highlight? Secondary characters in your books.
AMITA MURRAY: Yeah, I mean, quirky characters. I love quirky characters. That’s what draws me to writing. This is why I’m no good at writing something gothic. I love reading gothic. When I heard about Maggie’s kind of Daphne du Maurier side of things, I was really excited about that. Because I love that genre—but I can’t write it—because my mind always goes to the quirky and the witty side of things or the humorous side of things. So it’s difficult for me to write something sort of haunted.
Quirky characters are so important. I mean, in the characters in the village, of course there’s Arya, but there’s the next-door neighbor who’s really needy and kind of wants to—when she sees Arya, she has these two conflicting needs. One is to tell her off for not joining in with anything. So she is always saying, “Arya, we invite you to things, and you always just say no. What’s that about?” So she says that, but at the same time, when she bangs the door in her face, she opens it and says, “Do you want a cup of tea?” So she’s very needy. She really does, again, want to connect with Arya, and Arya is just holding her at arm’s length.
Two other ones that I love. Veronica Chives, who’s American. She makes frozen yogurt and sells frozen yogurt. I love her. She’s just up front about her sexuality, about her sexual needs. She’s really just a—I like Veronica. She’s so unabashed. She’s not shy about expressing her needs and her wants, so I like that about Veronica.
And then there is the nearly hundred-year-old Olga, who I also love, who’s always talking about assassins and how she got away from them and about Russia and the Ukraine. And she’s always talking about when I murdered that general when I was young. And she’s like a hundred years old. So it’s a great sort of quirky character. In my mind, I want to know Olga. Yeah, so I love quirky characters.
LEONE CIPORIN: On the neighbor, you talked about her conflicting needs—to push Arya away and to reach out, which mirrors Arya’s own situation, right? Of wanting to belong and pushing away. So they’re kind of—it perfectly matches the dance—if they were on Dancing with the Stars, they’d be doing great together.
AMITA MURRAY: You’ve identified a very cool thing, actually. Arya needs to think about that a lot. She’d be horrified if you said that she was a bit like Mrs. Sherma. She would just be horrified. Because she’s always keeping her at arm’s length. So that’s a really astute thing to say.
LEONE CIPORIN: Thank you. Mollie, you’ve got some quirky characters in your series.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Oh, yeah. I have Glads, who has decided that she’s going to cover all of her body with wildflower tattoos. And she helps solve the crimes. And then Summer’s family is full of quirky characters.
But I’d like to bring up something that’s in a lot of cozy mysteries, and it’s in this one—in several of mine—which is the animals. I have a bird, Mr. Darcy, in this book who is—I mean, I don’t know whether this is something I should be proud of or not. But a lot of people say that’s their favorite character—is Mr. Darcy. So he’s an interesting bird. He is definitely grieving the loss of Hildy through the first book. And I don’t think that we think of animals as doing that, but they certainly do. So for me, I love writing animals, so I wanted to bring that up.
LEONE CIPORIN: RV, what would you say is the most—who would you say is the most unusual character in your books?
RV RAMAN: I think Bhaskar Fernandez, who’s the patriarch of the family, is probably the most unusual for a couple of reasons. One is, like I said, he has had a very checkered past. And he was a go-getter, full of energy, all kinds of things. But he lost his legs. And after that, he is wheelchair bound. Despite being in a wheelchair, he probably moves around the estate at a far higher pace than anybody else. So he moves around and zooms like a missile—a man full of energy, full of enthusiasm. And he’s the guy somebody is trying to kill.
So he comes up with this idea of two wills. He says, “Listen, somebody is trying to kill me for the inheritance. So what I’m going to do is this. I’m going to write two wills, which I’ve dated and signed exactly the same. And here is one will, which comes into effect if I die naturally. Here is another will, which comes into effect if I’m killed.”
Now the first one is public knowledge—his nieces, nephews, and everybody knows about it. But nobody knows what’s in the second will if he’s killed. So this is something which was interesting for me because of all the cozy mysteries and other traditional mysteries we have talked about or read, there is this question of which is the latest will. Is there another will that has been written that we do not know of?
So I was thinking about that and said, let’s push the envelope and say, “What if there were two wills which were written, signed, dated exactly the same?” And I reached out to a couple of my lawyer friends and gave them this question and asked what would happen. Of course, there’s no precedent to that. They said as far as the law is concerned, I think it will stand. Because in both cases, there are very clear conditions under which one particular will will work over the other. So he’s an interesting character—Bhaskar.
LEONE CIPORIN: And that approach, with the two equally valid wills, was very interesting as well.
We’ve talked about your books, and I’m going to move to discussing your writing process and your publishing journey. But first again, I want to remind the audience that you can ask questions in the Q&A tab at the bottom for any or all of the authors. So RV, you had talked somewhat about your writing journey and about the fact that these mysteries don’t sell well in India—or haven’t until now, I think, maybe. So can you talk about your publishing journey and how it all came about?
RV RAMAN: Okay. As I said earlier, I started writing when I was fifty. So before that, I did not write. My writing interestingly did not start with crime fiction; it started with fantasy. When my children were in school—and they are great fans of The Lord of the Rings. So they wanted to create a universe of their own. So the three of us sat after dinner for several days and came up with our own world. This world existed in our heads, nowhere else. So they said, “Dad, why don’t you write something about it?”
So I wrote one scene. It was just a simple sword fight between some guys. And then they liked it, so then it began the next scene, the next scene, then the previous scene. That ended up becoming a series of four novels, totaling about half a million words, which I self-published. There is no market for that here.
Once I did that, I said, okay, I can write. I thought I couldn’t write. I can write. So let me start with my favorites: crime fiction. I wanted to write a Christie or a Conan Doyle kind of a thing. But honestly, I feel that a murder mystery is more difficult to write because the logic and the clues have to fit very well. It’s a lot easier to write a thriller. So I ended up writing four thrillers, which are based on my experience in the public world. So once I did that and I had the confidence that I can pull it off, I took a shot at writing this. And that’s how A Will to Kill happened.
LEONE CIPORIN: That’s an interesting story of self-discovery helped along by your children.
RV RAMAN: Yeah, exactly.
LEONE CIPORIN: Mollie, tell us about your publishing journey not just with this series because this is not your first series by any means.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Yeah, I started off as a journalist and moved into the specialty of food journalism. And I wrote cookbooks, and my agency was always looking for fiction authors. And I had an idea that I pitched to them, and my first book was Scrapbook of Secrets. That’s the one that was up for the Agatha Award. And it’s a series of scrapbooking sleuths. And I guess I would say that I’ve been writing probably my whole life. I’ve been telling stories since before I could actually physically write. So I guess—and for a period of years, I was writing probably two or three books a year. I’m no longer doing that. Now I have a full-time job, and I have to get up early in the morning before I go to work in order to write. So that has slowed me down a little bit. I just need one huge hit. Just one huge hit. And then I won’t have to do the nine to five, people, okay? But I do love my job. I must say I love my job. It’s at UVA.
LEONE CIPORIN: It just interferes with your writing.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Yeah, it just interferes with my writing. That’s all. Yeah, I think every part of your life you just kind of have to fit it in. When my girls were little, when they went to school, that’s when I wrote. And now they’re off and I’m working nine to five, and I have to write in the morning. So I think you just have to fit it in where you can.
LEONE CIPORIN: Well your job—or at least your former job—has influenced your writing. Because I think maybe it was your journalism that led you to bring some of these issues—immigration or—
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: I think so. I think you’re right.
LEONE CIPORIN: So it all relates, doesn’t it?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Yeah, it does. Absolutely.
LEONE CIPORIN: Amita, tell us your publishing journey.
AMITA MURRAY: I relate to some of the things that Maggie was saying, actually because I feel like there are two sides of me. One, the very sociable one—I sound like Arya now—and the one that’s very private and wants to just sit by themselves and write. And the person that wants to sit by themselves and write sometimes wins, and I let go of the other things a little bit. And I go into my world, and I go, oh, I don’t need other jobs. I can just carry on writing. And then I’ll do the two to three books a year that Maggie’s talking about and kind of exploring ideas and experimenting. But then the sociable side of me, the one that wants to work with a team and wants to have sort of the thing that I do with other people, wants to—then that wins sometimes. So like Maggie at the moment, I also work nearly sort of full time. So I write around that. And sometimes that means missing out on sleep when you’re really into a book and you really want to kind of get it all out. And other times it means just feeling quite harassed, and your head kind of bursting with ideas.
So I also tend to balance sort of working at university. I taught creative writing, but at the moment I’m doing more staff training and stuff. So I do that, and I write.
My journey has been really, again, narrowing down on what I want to write, I think. I have written similar kind of themes before but not in a mystery genre but more in an emotional suspense kind of family-comedy genre. And I realized that wasn’t something I could sustain long term—that the quirky mystery, with the character looking to find out who she is and looking for love and getting it wrong and all those things are really important to me. So now I feel like I’m closer to what I want to be doing with my writing than I’ve ever been before. But I think it is a kind of honing down, letting go of things kind of process that sort of happens cyclically over and over until you kind of keep narrowing it down to what you want to do.
LEONE CIPORIN: From what I’ve seen, there are two elements of the mystery genre that tend to draw writers, and I’d be curious to hear if one or the other was what drew you. And one is that it’s got a defined structure, at least in the whodunit. You have a crime, you have a detective or an amateur sleuth, and you have then the clues and follow the path to discover the killer. So that defined structure draws some writers to the genre.
The other thing that draws them to the genre is a little bit of what you said, Amita, which is the search for justice. The order of society has been ripped, and we need to restore it. So, comments on that?
RV RAMAN: Okay, shall I go first?
LEONE CIPORIN: Please.
RV RAMAN: Okay. I think the second thing that you mentioned was a strong part for me. You open the newspaper in the morning, and you see misery. You look out of your window, and you see misery. You go out for a walk, and you see poverty. At least this is the world I live in, right? So there is no justice, is the sense you get.
So part of me wants to create a world in which I can dispense justice. And that happens even in my fantasy. It’s not just this genre. But that is very, very strong for me.
The other big attraction for me in this genre is the cerebral element. Puzzles. So I have always been attracted to that. So that’s the other thing that really I enjoy.
LEONE CIPORIN: Wow. Mollie or Amita?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Yeah, I agree. When I think back to that first novel, it was just crazy. I was just writing scenes and characters. And I told my agent I don’t know what I’m doing, and I told her a little bit about it, and she said it sounds like it’s a mystery. It’s a mystery. So when she told me it was a mystery, then I had a structure that really helped me pull everything together. So that structure is very important to me. As a person, I’m not a linear person. I don’t think linearly. But when I sit down to write, I am very linear. I want that structure.
And I do want justice. It’s sometimes a very sad world when we see what happens and people not getting justice. So it’s wonderful to at least have that feeling of justice when you’re writing the books.
AMITA MURRAY: Yeah. I find there is a little bit of safety in that structure, isn’t there? There’s sort of a, “okay, it’s going to get sorted out at the end.” And even though you don’t always know how it’s going to get sorted out, and that’s why you’re turning the pages, you know that there is sort of a safety in that enclosed kind of structure. And I like that. I’m very character based. I’m not plot based. I start with character. I let the character kind of do what they will. And why this character—why have they done what they did—is a really important puzzle to me because none of my characters—I hope they’re not interchangeable. They are people in their own right. So why did somebody do this is quite an important thing for me. So that psychological motivation does really set up the plot for me.
Now because I don’t think in terms of plot, the plot comes as I write. So I start with something, and I often go back on myself a lot in the first ten to thirty thousand words. I’m kind of going back on myself and making sure I like where my characters are and what they’re doing, and they’re believable.
But then after that thirty thousand word point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and the plot ideas keep on falling into place—if I’m doing it sort of regularly enough. The writing. So I think it’s driven by character, but there is a really lovely kind of safety around having that murder mystery structure where I know that, in the end, things will sort of—whether you like the answer or not to the mystery, there will be an answer. So I quite like the safety of that. I would find it difficult without that. I struggle then because I’m so character based that the plot doesn’t easily fall into place unless I have that lovely safety net.
LEONE CIPORIN: The circle closes, yeah. Well as this conversation shows, I think writing can reveal a lot and express a lot. So I’m curious as to what family and friends—how they’ve reacted either to this book or your first book or another book. Any interesting stories there to share as we near the end? We’re not quite at the end yet.
AMITA MURRAY: I think for me, my family sort of loves that I write. I think it’s—I feel like I almost have to shut everyone’s voices off to be able to write. Because if I’m thinking about them too much, about anyone too much or about anyone’s reaction, I can’t exactly write what I want to write. So for example—
LEONE CIPORIN: But once you’ve written it. For example, when Arya Winters came out, how did they react to it?
AMITA MURRAY: So I think—again, because it’s just come out, not everyone has read it yet. I’ve only just got my copies recently. What I would say is that, again, my family also really likes the safe space of the murder mysteries. They really like the humor. I know that some of them are more comfortable with sort of the sexy scenes, and others are a bit less comfortable. Like my dad goes a bit quiet when he’s read a book of mine that has a sex scene in it. So he never refers to it; he’ll just say it was interesting, that book. Whereas if it doesn’t have the sexy element, he’ll be like, yeah, that was great. But if it does, then he gets a little bit quieter about it. He doesn’t want to quite talk about that. Whereas my mom is like, oh yeah, I liked that one.
So I have to shut them off and not pay too much attention to what anyone might think when I’m writing because I feel like—you know you have to write—in Bird by Bird, that wonderful book, there’s the line that you have to write to expose the unexposed. And I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking. We have to write to expose the unexposed; otherwise, there’s no point writing. So I feel like you kind of have to say everyone go away from my brain so I can do what I want to do.
LEONE CIPORIN: Well, we are getting close to the end, and I don’t want to end without hearing what each of you are working on next. And RV, I’ll start with you.
RV RAMAN: Yeah, I’m doing two things. I’m writing the fourth Athreya mystery. I’m just conceptualizing it. But what I’m actually writing now is a science fiction. I’ve tried fantasy. I’ve tried thriller. I’ve tried mystery. So I’m going to go to science fiction. So that’s what I’m doing now.
LEONE CIPORIN: You’re exploring other genres.
RV RAMAN: Yes. So this is a post-retirement hobby for me to keep myself intellectually occupied. So I will do various things. I don’t have structure. I don’t push myself to do anything. Because once there is structure, then it becomes like work. So I want it to be a hobby, and it works just the way I want it to work.
LEONE CIPORIN: Well you’re doing well. As a matter of fact, as we talked before the panel started, your latest book was featured in Crime Reads, in that section of Lit Hub. So you’re doing well.
RV RAMAN: Thank you.
LEONE CIPORIN: Mollie, what have you got next?
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Well, I am re-releasing a book of mine that was released by a publisher who’s no longer in business. And I’m going to indie publish it early next year: The Jean Harlow Bombshell. When it went out of business, I had almost finished the second book in the series. So that will also be coming out. And it’s called The Audrey Hepburn Heist. And I’m also writing a novella to wrap up my Buttermilk Creek series, which is the series with the cows on the cover and features a cheesemaker. So that will all be coming out in the near future.
LEONE CIPORIN: Okay, so more variety is the theme here. Amita, what’s next for you?
AMITA MURRAY: Well, lockdown was strangely—I was being very prolific over lockdown. So I wrote the first three novels in the Arya Winters series over that period. And maybe loneliness keeps on coming into it for that reason as well. So I suppose Arya Winters will keep on going. And I have an idea in mind for book four for that, so I’ll be working on that. There is a TV option for Arya Winters book one that I’m sort of—I’m toying with how a scriptwriter might deal with it. So I’m dealing with that at the moment. That’s very exciting news. That should be—that in the next couple of years hopefully it will materialize and become a real thing.
And I keep on experimenting with genres as well, like with the same kind of witty, comedic mystery style. But sort of I play with location and time period. So I am exploring which non-Arya thing I might do next. And there’s a couple of things I’ve been kind of toying with.
LEONE CIPORIN: So more exploration for all of you. Well, thanks to all of you. It’s time to wrap things up. So I do want to thank you Mollie/Maggie, Amita, and RV, and also thank everyone who tuned in. And please consider buying these books from your local bookseller or through the links on VaBook.org. Va is short for Virginia—Book.org. You can also check out future virtual events and watch past events from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. So it’s time to say goodbye, so thanks to all of you for watching. Authors, would you like to say a word of goodbye?
AMITA MURRAY: Thank you so much, everyone. Thank you, Leone, and thank you Maggie and RV. Always a pleasure.
MAGGIE BLACKBURN: Thanks so much. Thank you. Nice meeting you all.
LEONE CIPORIN: Goodbye and good reading.