CHM: Carolyn, you’ve written 16 Sarah Booth Delany books, and an abundance of other stand-alone books, and here you are, starting a new series with the Pluto’s Snitch Mysteries. I read where you’ve written over 50 books, but then again, I’ve read where you wrote over 70. Just how many books have you written?
CH: Over 70 have been published. I have books that I wrote that were never published (and likely never will be!).
CHM: How in the world have you managed to find time to write so many books—and teach and run a small farm and rescue animals?
CH: I worked for years in PR, which was a lot less emotionally demanding than journalism, which was my first love, back in the day when journalists actually served as the watchdog of their communities. I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I would have to find time to write. I got up early and wrote, or I wrote late. I was lucky to have the habit of writing every day from my journalism career. If you want something badly enough, you find the time to do it. I know that sounds a bit simplistic, but I structured my life so that I could find those hours each day to write. I sacrificed a lot of things.
CHM: You were a journalist in South Alabama at one point, I know, because we almost crossed paths in the Mobile area. Can you tell us a bit about your newspaper days, and if or how print journalism led to your writing books?
CH: I had a wonderful, exciting life as a young photojournalist. I was exposed to all kinds of people and situations. I covered two state legislatures, educational issues, police, crime, courts. I got to learn a little about a whole lot of things. That exposure is vital to a fiction writer. You have to know a little about a lot of things to create convincing characters. I also learned discipline and to be edited.
CHM: You rescue horses, don’t you? And other animals. Can you tell us something about that, and where you and the critters all live? Do you care for them all yourself?
CH: I have a small farm in Semmes, Alabama, with 3 horses now (several have passed on), 9 dogs and 8 cats. I do take care of them by myself with a little help from my friends and my family. The day to day care is up to me, but I am fortunate to have great veterinarians and family and friends to help during emergencies. The horses I have now were going to be sold for meat so I bought them. The dogs are strays that I found on the roadways or who strayed up; the cats are mostly feral cats I’ve trapped and who are now lovely housecats. I can’t take any more animals—there’s just not enough of me to go around, and this is an expensive vocation. I am a 501(c)(3) and Good Fortune Farm Refuge has been lucky in obtaining grants to help low-income people get basic vet care. We also sold cookbooks for a spay and neuter initiative. We are desperately in need of spay and neuter funding for low-income families.
CHM: You have been working on fighting animal abuse in Mobile County. How is that coming along?
CH: I’m not on the front lines of investigating or prosecuting these abuse cases. It’s very difficult to bring a cruelty case in this area. I use social media a lot to call attention to cases that petitions or court appearances can impact. I write my legislators and congressmen, asking for legislation. It’s not been very successful, and it’s terribly frustrating. We have the power to end the suffering of unwanted cats and dogs with simple spay and neuter laws and incentives, but no one will take action. There is even some pushback from some veterinarians trying to close the few low-cost spay and neuter clinics we have in the state. Greed is mindboggling.
CHM: You recently retired from teaching graduate and undergraduate fiction writing classes at the University of South Alabama. How does it feel to leave the classroom behind? And what important lessons did you learn from teaching that you can share with us?
CH: I loved teaching, and I was surprisingly good at it once I got over my fear and realized I had “the power.” I loved teasing the students and we had a lot of fun. I learned so much from them—because I had to clarify my thoughts and reasoning to be able to give it to them. It was a terrific two-way street. I’m not a big believer that degrees bestow literary skills on writers, but a solid writing program aimed at giving students skills, feedback, contacts in the business, etc., can be tremendously helpful. And my teaching job brought home again that learning should be fun, not punitive. We should learn all of our lives.
CHM: You write under the pseudonyms of R. B. Chesterton, Lizzie Hart and Carolyn Burnes. Did I miss one? And why use these pseudonyms? And do the names in the pseudonyms have any particular meaning to you that you chose them?
CH: They all have murmur diphthongs, which is supposed to bring luck and good fortune. The pseudonym was more of a signal to the reader—this isn’t Sarah Booth, this is different. And I did think a male sounding pseudonym (R.B. Chesterton) might be more suited to the type of book The Darkling and The Seeker are. Pseudonyms are hard to manage, and when I reissue the books as I get the rights back, I’ll simplify my life and use my legal name.
CHM: Among the many, many books you have authored, I know of only one nonfiction book, My Mother’s Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story, which is about one woman’s testimony against Byron de la Beckwith in the Medgar Evers murder. Publishers Weekly called it “powerful” not once but twice in its review. What led you to write this? And did your background as a journalist help in the writing and research? Do you plan to write other nonfiction books?
CH: Peggy called me up one day and asked me to write her story. I refused. She persisted, and finally I met with her and let her tell me her story. It was such an incredibly difficult life—one she had survived by sheer will alone—that I had to write it. My journalism background did help, but this book is so intensely Peggy’s personal story that I was pulled into her life and almost lived it with her. It was harrowing. I have no plans to write other non-fiction. I have a million stories I want to tell, and fiction is where I’m happiest.
CHM: Have you set any of your books outside the South? If so, which books and where?
CH: The Seeker is set at Walden Pond, a place as magical as the South, but most of my books are set in the South. It’s the land I know and love and sometimes despair of.
CHM: For someone so prolific and versatile, I have to ask: What’s next?
CH: I’m waiting on edits for the seventeenth Sarah Booth book, Sticks and Bones, and I’m writing A Place of Memory, the next Pluto’s Stitch mystery. I’m also working with a group of authors on a fun project. More will be revealed later!