The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned at a young age, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California.
Originally from Southern California, Leslie moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs) and after graduation, parlayed her degree in English literature into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock and roll band. Exciting though this life was, she eventually decided she was ready for a “real” job, and ended up at Stanford Law School.
For the next twenty years Leslie worked as the research and appellate attorney for Santa Cruz’s largest civil law firm. During this time, she rediscovered a passion for food and cooking, and so once more returned to school to earn a degree in culinary arts.
Now retired from the law, she spends her time cooking, gardening, cycling, singing alto in her local community chorus, reading, and of course writing. Leslie and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai‘i.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, A Measure of Murder. When did you start writing and what got you into mysteries?
I spent twenty years as a research attorney, drafting legal memos, briefs, and appeals. And although this work could be mind-numbingly dull and tedious at times, I was always thankful that I’d managed to find a job as a writer. When it came time to retire from the law, however, I knew I wanted to try my hand at writing something more freeing—fiction.
But, I wondered, what kind of fiction? I’ve had a lifelong obsession with food and cooking, and had even gone back to school while working as a lawyer to get my degree in culinary arts, so food fiction seemed the obvious choice. And then I hit on the idea of a culinary mystery, something that could combine my analytical/logical/lawyer side with my food-crazy/artistic side. Perfect.
What is your book about?
Sally Solari is a fourth-generation Italian American, part of the community of fishermen who first emigrated to Santa Cruz, California back in the 1890s. Her dad runs an Italian seafood restaurant called Solari’s, but Sally has recently found herself caught between two different cultures: that of the traditional, old-school restaurants like her father’s out on the Santa Cruz wharf, and that of the recently-arrived hipsters, whose trendy food movement has now descended full-force upon the surprised old-timers.
In the most recent book in the series, A Measure of Murder, Sally is juggling work at Solari’s along with managing Gauguin, the upscale restaurant she’s just inherited from her aunt. Complicating this already hectic schedule, she joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem.
But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard—and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident. Sucked into investigating, Sally’s already crazy-busy life heats up like a cast iron skillet set over an open flame.
What was your inspiration for it?
Although the primary focus of the the Sally Solari mysteries is on food and cooking, there’s a secondary theme to each of the books in the series, as well: one of the five senses. The first, Dying for a Taste, concerned (duh) the sense of taste, and A Measure of Murder involves the sense of hearing—more specifically, music.
Music has long been one of my passions. I studied clarinet as a youngster, later fronted and wrote the songs for two different bands, and for the past seventeen years have sung alto in my local community chorus. So when it came time to plot the story about the sense of hearing, there was no question but that it should focus on music.
As with Sally, one of my favorite compositions is the sublime Mozart Requiem. But in addition, the piece is perfect for a mystery novel, as the Requiem itself is surrounded by secrets and mystery: who commissioned it, who completed it after Mozart died, which parts were composed by whom. So, truly, how could I resist?
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
Raymond Chandler once dismissively said of his time writing detective stories for pulp magazines, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Taken as a metaphor, this actually isn’t bad advice for the crime writer, since it’s good practice to periodically throw in a surprise to keep your reader on edge. But the way I see it, an engaging story is one that is constantly moving forward. Every scene should advance the plot in some way, and the end of every chapter should leave the reader eager to learn what happens next.
In addition, subplots and underlying themes serve to flesh out your mystery novel and make it more exciting. A Measure of Murder is, at its most basic level, simply the story of Sally trying to figure out whether the tenor was murdered and, if so, who did it. But other parallel plot lines keep the story moving forward as well: How will Sally juggle managing Gauguin, the restaurant she just inherited, as well as working at Solari’s, with all her chorus rehearsals? Will she be able to extricate herself from having to help her dad run Solari’s, and how will this effect her relationship with her father?
What was your publishing process like?
It took over two years to write the first draft of the book, and then another three to re-write it. I was fortunate enough to have some insightful beta readers who critiqued the early version and helped me see where it needed reworking, but even after these revisions the manuscript was still “not quite there,” according to passes I continued to receive from literary agents.
After over eighty rejections I was starting to have serious doubts—about myself as a writer as well as the book—but decided I’d give it one last shot by hiring a developmental editor. I needed someone who could not only help improve the manuscript, but who could also be objective, and let me know if it was worth continuing to send out.
After this rewrite, I started querying agents again, and within about a month I finally got “that phone call,” from Erin Niumata of Folio Literary Management. She’s a former editor herself, and steered me through further revisions before pitching the book to publishers. It still took another nine months of edits, pitches, and then some further edits, but I ultimately landed a deal with Crooked Lane Books.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the tremendous ego-boost that comes with being a published author. After all those years of hard work—writing and revising the manuscript, querying agents and finding a publisher, then editing and polishing the text until it’s as good as it possibly can be—it’s exceedingly gratifying to finally hold a copy of the printed book in your hands.
But this rush, euphoric though it is, can dissipate quickly. So for me, by far the most gratifying aspect of the writer’s life—at least over the long term—has been the relationships I’ve established with other writers. Mystery authors are the most generous, helpful, warm, and supportive group of people I’ve ever encountered in my life, and the friends and colleagues I’ve made over the years at conferences and conventions, as well as online through organizations such as Sisters in Crime and the Guppies, have been invaluable.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
Realize that rejections are the norm in the publishing business. Literary agents receive dozens—if not hundreds—of queries every single day, and most only represent between twenty and thirty authors at a given time. So not only does your book need to be well-written and compelling, but it needs to jump out as special to that particular agent (or acquiring editor). In other words, although getting traditionally published takes an enormous amount of hard work, it also takes a certain amount of luck—for your manuscript to land on that one agent’s desk at the particular time that the agent is looking for something just like your book.
So my advice is never give up and never stop believing in yourself as a writer. As the fabulous developmental editor, Kristen Weber, said to me when I became discouraged after receiving so many passes on the manuscript that ultimately landed me my publishing contract, “You can get hundreds of rejections, and many writers do. But remember: It only takes one yes.”
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
I’m a huge fan of George Orwell, in particular his lesser-known works such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying (which recounts something of this painful relationship with writing) and A Clergyman’s Daughter. Based on his books, I’m guessing George did indeed have some nasty demons, which no doubt made his writing process more onerous than for many others.
That said, even those of us without internal demons (and I’m thankful to say I don’t seem to be plagued many—as yet) may often find the writing process to be difficult and, at times, painful. My father, a constitutional law professor who wrote a slew of law review articles and books, once said, “There are only two times when I’m miserable: when I’m writing and when I’m not writing.” And I have to agree. Because when you’re in the middle of a writing project, you’re nervous about getting it right and doing it well, and you’re angsting that you should be working on it whenever you’re not. But when you’re not in the middle of a project, you feel as if there’s something deeply missing from your life.