Adam Van Winkle Interviews Southern Mystery Writer Maggie Toussaint

Maggie Toussaint

No genre has dominated writing, reading, television, movies, even our games, quite like the mystery.  Since Poe, through Doyle, Hammett, and Chandler to Christie, Leonard, and Burke, the genre has its masters.  Knowing the magnitude of the canon, I’d think it’d be intimidating as hell to try and stake out a place in the genre.  That’s just what Maggie Toussaint has done.  And she’s done so in the most genuine way possible.  She has a love of the mystery and the puzzle and she’s damned good at writing mystery puzzles for the reader.  Moreover, her angle as a southerner is grittier and more authentic in voice than many you’ll find.  It takes a truly Southern and gritty writer to name a character “Doodle,” after all.

I wanted to ask Toussaint about just those things.  How does it feel to try to write well and publish in such a landmarked and over-full genre like mystery?  How does being a southerner influence that task?  Where does the thread of the idea for a mystery puzzle come from?  Thankfully, Toussaint was willing to sit down and answer such queries.

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AV: You sort of remind me of an Agatha Christie-trained in the sciences, writing puzzle style mysteries.  Do you find a common thread there?

MT:  It is an honor to be compared to Agatha Christie. She has had a profound influence on my writing, as I’m sure she’s had on every contemporary mystery writer. Regarding our shared background, Agatha Christie was trained in nursing and pharmacy whereas I worked in cancer research and environmental analysis. We both share familiarity with toxins and the scientific method. Science is puzzle solving and asking the right questions, both of which are necessary for mystery writers. My scientific training helps me create mysteries, story worlds, and strong characters.

AV: Speaking of icons in the industry, did you ever find it intimidating to write in the mystery genre?  Like, was there a conscious thought of, “wow, there are some giants in this genre—Christie, Chandler, Hammett, Poe, Collins, Clark and Spillane—how can I make a mark?”  Or is that something that never presented itself as a hurdle?

MT: I am awed by the writings of well-known mystery icons but not intimidated. Everyone has gifts and talents, and it’s our responsibility to use them wisely. I feel privileged to write in the same genre as Christie, Poe, Spillane, and more. Very few individuals in any walk of life become icons and that has never been a conscious goal for me. Instead, I do my best each time I sit down to write or edit. My wanting to “leave a mark” has always been related to libraries. When I was in my early teens, my parents divorced. Money was beyond tight for my family, but the library contained such wonders. I spent every spare moment reading library books. My goal has always been to have books in libraries. Reading opened my mind to new people, places, and things. I am indebted to libraries and am delighted to have an opportunity to pay it forward.

AV: While we’re doing this tour de force of authors in the genre, who are your mystery writing heroes?  Who do you draw inspiration from?

MT:  Though I consider myself a Southern author, I read widely in the field of mysteries. I enjoy books by Harlan Coben, Jeffery Deaver, Donna Andrews, Lori Rader Day, Sue Grafton, Craig Johnson, and the list just keeps going. However, I am biased to purely love books by fellow Southerners Charlaine Harris and Ellery Adams. I love Charlaine’s series mysteries, especially the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries and her Midnight, Texas series, both of which are paranormal in nature. Ellery Adams’s series about Storyton is the ultimate book retreat with libraries of wonderful books.

AV: Not to dwell completely on the past, I was blown away by the freshness and angle of the plot in Confound It:  “A meth cook is dead, and when Baxley visits her beyond the Veil of Life, she determines that the woman was murdered. Baxley pities Mandy Patterson, a single mother with aspirations for her teenage son Doodle. Unconcerned about the death of a criminal, the authorities pursue the drug-supply chain angle. Baxley worries about Doodle and vows to find out who killed his mother.”  Where does a story like this explode from?  Is it personal experience?  Are you looking to merge a southern gritty lit with mystery?  Something beyond this?  Gritty regionalism and mystery well, well done.

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MT: I wanted to write about real-world experiences intersecting the story world I’d created. It challenged me to write about a meth cook victim in such a way as to create reader sympathy for her plight.

I’m from the South. I write about things that occur in this region of the country. Southerners generally are not about pretense. They don’t sugar coat things, which is why characters in my books come across as gritty. I create characters with real problems and challenges. Southern regional culture is based on rugged individualism tempered with a strong sense of family and community. People have lived in the South for generations, some often not ranging fifty miles from home, and they’ve had to rely on their wits and resources to survive. With this innate pluck, Southerners often take a unique approach to problem solving, which I find highly refreshing.

AV: I love that. “Unique Approaches” would be a great title for a collection of Southern character sketches and speaks eloquently to understanding what being a “Southern writer” means.  What might a reader look at beyond your work and the mystery writers you mention to get a good sense of what you mean by this?

MT: From hills to marshes, Southerners learned to thrive in impoverished rural areas and that feat fostered an unsinkable individualism. It’s my belief that Southern authors imbue their main characters with the same homegrown blend of drive, ingenuity, and pluck. For instance, my amateur sleuth Baxley Powell and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse don’t fit a standard mold, but each character stands tall for her loyalty and her quest for the truth. There’s no one-size-fits-all for Southern protagonists. Each is uniquely crafted, nontraditional, and yet grounded. Southern writers impart regional flavor with finesse, drawing the reader into a world that’s beautifully seductive, fraught with peril, and vastly entertaining.

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AV: Where does the spark for a character or story happen or come from most often for you?  Like, I think most of mine happen while I’m driving and I have to voice text it to myself or remember to jot it down later.

MT:  My inspiration wears a superhero cape and drives an invisible car. She strikes anywhere, at any time. I can jumpstart her into overdrive with arts and crafts, photography, or any other nonliterary art. I don’t appreciate her sneak attacks, but I’m beholden to her unique perspective and her bubbly “what if” slant on things. Like you, I record the revelations promptly so I can mull them over at my leisure. Some books launch with a character voice, others with a story seed. I’ve awakened with these gems, heard them in conversations, adapted them from news stories, and more. I am an equal-opportunity idea sponge, though all ideas are not equal. How do I recognize the right idea? It won’t turn me loose.

AV:  Speaking of the spark of an idea, I love this reflection on your website: “I found myself jotting ideas down on little scraps of paper. I clipped interesting newspaper and magazine articles. I studied faces and products in catalogs, wondering if I were to ever write a book, would my characters look like this? I saved photos of interesting gardens—I might need them someday. About that time, I realized how different my carefree coastal Georgia childhood had been from my daughters’ suburban childhood, and I decided to write what I remembered about growing up. This prompted calls to old friends and family, and a lot of letter writing. I got it all down and sat back and thought about my accomplishment—I’d written a book. Could I sell it? 

I think a lot of writers feel this urge, and you present it so beautifully, from gathering the ideas to forming the characters, to getting to really writing.  How’d you translate this inspiration, these notes and clips and images, into manuscript pages?  What’s your process for writing? When do you get to write?  How often?  What does it look like?

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MT:  Thank you for the nice compliment. I shape characters that compel and capture my imagination. Then I challenge them with their greatest weakness while they are being forced into action on a larger problem. Conflict creates tension and drives a story, so I use it to best effect. Perhaps my scientific background helps me solve story problems and wrap up each book I attempt. Perhaps my gritty Southern heritage fuels my resolve to finish what I start. I’m the type of person who keeps putting one foot in front of the other until I reach the end.

As for my writing process, I’ve always felt more creative in the morning hours, so that’s when I write. Some days life intervenes, and I must write outside that golden window. It takes much longer to create in the less-optimum time period, but I stick with it until I reach my daily word count goal of 1,000 words.

I’ve evolved into creating a rich story world during prewriting, peopling it with Southerners, and then creating obstacles in the way of their personal agendas. My ideas originate from observations, real-world experiences, and “what iffing” situations to create alternate scenarios. No matter what I’m working on, I rise each day, eager to write. My first drafts need polishing, so that’s where editing comes in. I use a technique I learned from author Margie Lawson to highlight different story elements on the page so that I can better see what’s present and what’s missing. Once I achieve that objective perspective, I layer more truth into the story.

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AV:  You mentioned earlier that your scientific background helps you shape story worlds and stronger characters? How so?

MT: Science experiments use the scientific method to test hypotheses. Conditions are set before research begins, then variables are applied to a test group but not the controls. The results are compared and analyzed.

Applying this testing system to characterization, my protagonists’ traits are established during prewriting. My story goals test my sleuth’s puzzle solving strength while challenging a personal weakness. Both conflicts fuel the plot and spur character growth.

In science, results are muddied if there are multiple variables. Translation to fiction: if too much is going on in one scene, the writer can’t effectively follow all leads in the manner they deserve. Unless you have rotating point of views or a special circumstance in genre fiction, scenes should connect and build. When they don’t, it’s jarring to the reader. Information should be parsed out sparingly. Having a clear direction from one scene to the next reshaped how I wrote and led to publication.

AV: Nicely said.

Comments

  1. http://Maggie%20Toussaint says

    Thanks for the interview. I’ve been writing intensively for the last few weeks and forgot to keep an eye out for this. Love it!

  2. Inspiration can come at the most inopportune times, but it’s true we need to roll with it one it does!
    Great interview!

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