This month I’m interviewing Amazon international bestselling mystery writer, Judy Penz Sheluk. A Canadian, Judy writes two mystery series: the Glass Dolphin Mysteries (The Hanged Man’s Noose; A Hole in One) and the Marketville Mysteries (Skeletons in the Attic). Her short crime fiction appears in several collections. Judy is also an accomplished freelance writer, and she serves on the Board of Directors of Crime Writers of Canada, representing Toronto and Southern Ontario.
Anna: Because I write something that I (but no one else) calls Gothic cozy, I think a lot about the different kinds of mystery stories out there, who likes what and why. You’ve told me you write “amateur sleuth with an edge.” Can you tell me why you chose this intriguing sub-category and what you think it adds to the mystery genre?
Judy: Amateur sleuth with an edge was a term I coined when I couldn’t find one that actually fit my books. My books are cozy, in that they have an amateur sleuth, the requisite small town/community, and there’s no overt sex, violence or bad language—but there are also no cats, crafts or cookie recipes… the sort of things you might find in a more traditional cozy. Reviewers often comment that my books are darker in tone than a traditional cozy, and the plots a bit more complex. When I decided to write a novel, I wanted to write a book I’d like to read, a good escape from reality with some meat on the bones. I hope I’ve accomplished that.
Anna: Years ago a quotation from P.D. James lodged in my brain and has never left. She described readers of mysteries (and maybe writers too) as secretly in love with law and order. In part I think this was because of the way crime fiction gets resolved, in line with some version of capital J Justice. Agree or disagree? What, if anything, do crime novels contribute to our ideas of justice?
Judy: I’m not sure I’m secretly in love with law and order, but I do wish for a world where there are fewer bad guys, and the good guy always wins, where what goes around, comes around. So, yes, there is something innately satisfying about reading crime fiction, seeing justice fulfilled, even if it sometimes gives us false expectations of reality. But then again, it’s fiction, right?
Anna: What are your favourite and least favourite crime novel conventions? Have you ever gone out of your way in your books to deliberately bend some conventions and to what purpose?
Judy: Dead body by page 3 (or early on) is one convention that is both a favourite and a least favourite. If it’s done in a formulaic manner, I’m quick to close the book and move on. But if it’s done well, I can buy into it pretty quickly. That said, I love a slow, drawn out mystery. One author I really admire is Sara J. Henry (Troy Chance mysteries). I love the way she paces, slow and steady. At the opposite end of the pacing spectrum is John Sandford. He’s the master of fast-paced mystery/suspense. I never try to deliberately bend conventions, or stick to them, for that matter. My only goal is to write the story inside my head, and hope it translates to the page.
Anna: What makes Canadian crime novels unique?
Judy: I don’t think they are unique, other than in the way that every book, regardless of setting, is unique. I do believe it was very difficult to get a contract from a U.S. publisher for a mystery novel set in Canada, but I think that has changed/is changing, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Louise Penny, Maureen Jennings, Giles Blunt, and other talented authors like them.
Anna: Name three writers who influenced you on your writing journey, for better or worse, because you loved them or hated them. What did you get from them?
Judy: Barry Dempster, an award-winning Canadian poet and novelist. I took my first creative writing workshop with Barry in 2003. He taught me to “put the best words in the best order,” to avoid clichés, and to never use exclamation marks to express surprise, shock, anger etc. when the sentence should do the work, vs. the punctuation. It’s great advice, although of course, Elmore Leonard is famous for saying the same thing in a different way.
Agatha Christie: The queen of mystery, I read every one of her novels by the time I was twenty-five. The fact that they still hold up today – and are still being made into movies – speaks volumes for her talent and masterful storytelling.
L.M. Montgomery, but not for ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. When I was about eight, a family friend bought me EMILY CLIMBS for Christmas. It’s the story of a young woman, Emily Starr of New Moon, PEI, who wants to grow up to be a writer, and writes in her “Jimmy Book” by candlelight. I remember reading that book and thinking, “that’s what I want to be when I grow up.” I still have EMILY CLIMBS on my bookshelf, and have reread it more than once, as a child and as an adult. When I finally did get to writing my first novel, I named my protagonist Emily. It seemed only fitting.
Anna: What advice would you give a new writer starting out today in Canada?
Judy: I always quote Agatha Christie when I’m asked this question: “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”
Anna: Enough with the serious. What was the most embarrassing experience you ever had as a writer? What was the best moment you ever had?
Judy: Most embarrassing: Being invited to speak to a group of Girl Guides on “Career Day” when I was working as a freelance writer. The other speaker that evening made dolls… with hair and eyes to match each little girl there. Suffice it to say that it was a humbling experience. I don’t think too many little girls left there saying, “Hey, I want to grow up and be a writer.”
Best moment: Signing my first book contract (for THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE) with Barking Rain Press. It was Canada Day 2014. I can still remember the sound of the cork on the champagne bottle popping. And dancing in the backyard, barefoot and laughing, with my husband, Mike, my 12 year-old Golden Retriever, Copper, trying to get in on the act.
Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life. You can also find Judy on Facebook (facebook.com/JudyPenzSheluk) and Twitter (@JudyPenzSheluk) and on her Amazon author page, amazon.com/author/judypenzsheluk.
Find Judy’s books at all the usual suspects, including the publisher: Barking Rain Press: https://barkingrainpress.org/judy-penz-sheluk/, as well as on Audible: https://www.audible.com/search/ref=a_search_c4_1_1_1_srAuth?searchAuthor=Judy+Penz+Sheluk&qid=1509387400&sr=1-1