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An Interview with Joan Hess, Author of Deader Homes and Gardens: A Claire Malloy Mystery

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Joan Hess has produced another fun romp with her new book, Deader Homes & Garden, the latest in her Claire Malloy mystery series. Her books are always light fun reads and if they don’t, at times, make you laugh they at least make you smile. And if they don’t do either you need a humor transplant.

I enjoy Joan’s books even more because I know the two cities on which the books are partly based: The Claire Malloy series are based, at least geographically, on Fayetteville, Arkansas where Hess lived for many years and I lived for about two years. In the books the town is called Farberville. Her other series is about Arly Hanks in a town called Maggody, which is similar to the quirky town not too far from Fayetteville called Eureka Springs.

She received a B.A. in art from the University of Arkansas in 1971 and a M.A. in education from Long Island University in 1974. Her first published novel, Strangled Prose, the start of the Claire Malloy series and her first published novel, was nominated for the Anthony Award in 1986. Mischief in Maggody, published in 1988, was nominated for the best novel.

Hess won the American Mystery Award in 1989 for A Diet to Die For. Her short stories have also won awards. She has written nearly 40 books. Hess is a member of Sisters of Crime and a former president of the American Crime Writers League.

I should admit from the outset that I have a bias here in that I’m a friend of Joan‘s but that story is one of the type that could come straight from her books, a sort of weird but funny coincidence:

I worked as a newspaper reporter in Northwest Arkansas for about two years and while I mostly covered Springdale, Ark. city government I would also cover other items and always made a point of attending the UFO convention in Eureka Springs so I will forever associate that city with people — albeit visitors — a bit on the kooky side.

Anyway, one day I was asked to interview an author named Joan Hess. I’d love to tell you all kinds of dirt or gossip about that interview but I have no memories of it. To my credit, this was back when I was writing 10 stories a week on average. After the interview I read a few of her books and found them witty and sharp.

Fast forward about 10 years — I’d moved from Arkansas to Maryland and then, partly due to having family in Austin, moved to Austin. I’d started playing backgammon at a weekly tournament. While I’d left the field of journalism to work in special education I still interviewed authors.

One day I’m playing a woman at the backgammon tournament who recently moved to Austin from Arkansas and she mentions she writes mysteries. Having not caught her name I asked if she had ever read or heard of Joan Hess to which she responded, “I AM Joan Hess!” Like me she recalled meeting before and doing an interview but neither of us recalled the details. 

We struck up a friendship and play backgammon regularly and I thought it only fitting we do another interview, this time one we’ll, hopefully, both remember better. This is the result. Her new book comes out Feb. 14.

Is this the first book written and published since you moved from Arkansas to Austin?  Have you started writing another since you started this?

I was writing the book when I moved to Austin.  I missed the deadline because (1) I moved to Austin, and (2) I did so with a broken shoulder.  I subsequently had surgery and many delightful sessions of physical therapy.  For four months I was unable to drive, write, or pick up my adorable newborn grandchildren.   I’m currently working on another Claire Malloy novel based on my personal experience at a literacy council.  I may have to watch my back when I visit. 

Can you talk about how life in Austin differs from life in Arkansas? I ask because your two main series are both based in Arkansas.  Should we expect a new series with a character in Austin? I’m just wondering if it will be hard to remain accurate to Arkansas if you’re no longer living there or if you have enough memories and anecdotes to keep filling up your fun novels?

Life in Austin seriously differs from Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was born and lived for pretty much 60 years.  I lived in Italy for a year, and in New York to get a graduate degree.  Fayetteville has a population of perhaps 70,000, and is home to the University of Arkansas.  Like Austin, it’s a blue island in a big red sea (and also very green).  But we didn’t have these nightmare freeways and rush hour and crimes de jour.   I miss my old friends and Friday nights at the Joneses.   No new series in Austin, unless the muse whacks me upside the head.  C’mon, 60 years in Arkansas and eighteen months?  I have Razorback blood, buddy.

I noticed you dedicated your book to your grandchildren — that’s why you moved to Austin, right? Should we expect to see things they or other family members do appear in your stories? Are you one of those writers who uses some real life moments in your fiction?

Indeed.  I had no family left in Fayetteville… the great-greats moved there in the 1880s and built a wonderful old house with a parlor and an attic.  I was never allowed to go down to the cellar, which led me to wonder if my grandmother and my great-aunts were offering elderberry wine to gentlemen callers.  After my parents died, I decided that it was time to live elsewhere, and since my adorable daughter was having twins.

I occasionally use real people, especially those of whom I am not fond.  Twenty years ago my daughter came into my office, flopped in a chair, and said, “You have to kill my basketball coach.”  A friend asked me to take out a principal.  There’s a certain police officer who hassled me (if I thought he knew how to read, I’d be worried).  Real life moments add authenticity, and they’re usually free. 

How did the idea for this particular story come about? Can you describe for the readers what this novel is about?

Finding a house was the logical step for Claire and Peter, since I harped so often about her tiny duplex (which is located on University Ave, for you Fayetteville folk).  And I sold real estate before I began writing.  I couldn’t bear to do the body-in-the-basement/attic/window seat, so I scattered the bodies elsewhere.  The house that Claire loves so dearly is my dream house, sans the neighbors.  I can describe every inch of it, as well as the wildflowers in the meadow and the songbirds in the orchard.  If Hollywood would realize what a wonderful movie the book would make, and pay me zillions, I’d be calling every real estate salesperson in the U.S.

The book’s about Claire’s determination to get her house, despite the neighbors’ determination to prevent the sale.  The neighbors are a tad unpleasant.

This is the latest book in your series in which Claire Malloy is the protagonist. Can you talk about ways you are similar and different from Claire?

Claire and I share the same view of the world; she provides catharsis.  She always knows what to say (wish I’d said that!) and has the last word.  Then again, I have plenty of time to see that she does.   

You also have your Maggody series. Is another Maggody book on the horizon?  I expect you have fans that prefer one series over the other.

Each series has its fans.  A lot of readers identify with Maggody (pop. 755) no matter where they lived.  Those who prefer Claire buy more books, which is why the next two books will feature her.  If you Maggody people want another one, buy ‘em now.  And remember: I’m better in hardback.

How would you explain the difference between the two series to those unfamiliar with your books?

In the Claire books, I use polysyllabic words.  In the Maggody books, a goodly percentage of the words have four letters.

What have been the high and low points of your literary career? It must have been great winning some awards for your writings.

My first foray into fiction was writing romances.  I’d never read any, but the market was hot.  I proceeded to write twenty unpublishable novels and synopses before I decided to give up and go get another degree, which is what adults do in a crisis.  I’d been accepted into a PhD program at the U of A when my agent told me to write a mystery.  Strangled Prose saved me from academia.  

Winning awards is very nice.  What has meant so much more to me are the friendships I’ve developed with other mystery writers.  We’re a bit weird, but very funny and supportive.  I couldn’t just call anybody and say, “I’ve got to move the body.”

If you could make anyone reading this interview go read books by 3 to 5 authors who would you make them read? 

If I could MAKE anybody do anything?  If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a tea cart.  Some of my favorite writers are Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy Cannell, Parnell Hall, Donald Westlake, Susan Rogers Cooper, Harlan Coben, Susan Isaacs, Margaret Maron, Mary Kaye Andrews.  It depends on my mood.

I like to end my interviews with what I call my bonus question: What question do you wish interviewers would ask that they usually don’t ask: Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Q. If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby?  

A: No.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Kristin

    Found this interview after searching whether another Maggody book was in the works. I’m sad to hear there’s not! Hurry! I love this series.

  • Scott Butki

    Glad to hear you liked the interview and enjoy the series.

  • Candice A

    I’m also very sad to hear there aren’t more magoty books in the works. One of my favorite series of all time.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks for the feedback

  • Gail D.

    Please, please, please, another Maggody book!

  • Glenda Sweatt

    I do buy Maggody in hard back as soon as they hit the bookstore! I’ve reread them all – need a new one! Glenda Sweatt

  • Anita McGlothlin Gibson

    I sure do hope Joan is busy writing me another Claire and Arly book to read…get on with it! Love you Joan Hess!