Interview with Shelley Costa (’83)

  1. How did you first come to write mysteries? And why mysteries particularly? And why funny mysteries?

Actually, I wrote my first mystery story at the age of ten, and during my teens I was very drawn to romantic suspense. Nancy Drew happened early, and Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie – which is something you’ll hear from many mystery writers. From childhood I have always loved what’s mysterious, and if it’s also grand and important besides, I’m happy.  The farther I got in my education, the deeper I felt the tug toward stories that fall anywhere between the detectable and the forever unknowable.  And in the most satisfying tales, I want it all – richly drawn characters, complex plots, themes of crime and human nature. As for funny, I love the experience of reading it because it’s especially hard to do when murder – so serious! – is afoot, and as a writer I like infusing a crime story with some humor because life holds what’s terrible and delightful in balance all the time.

  1. Could you describe your creative process? By this, I don’t mean the pencil or pen question, but rather your decision-making process—what choices you make about characters, locations, perpetrators, crime in the beginning stages of your work. For instance, Practical Sins for Cold Climates is the first in a new series. How do you know it will be a series? What moved you away from the Miracolo mysteries?

Writing a new mystery novel is a bit like moving into a new house, where you’re not quite sure what the plantings are, so you wait to see what comes up in the springtime. What comes up first for me is character.  If Val, my narrator/sleuth in Practical Sins, is a city girl with no wilderness skills, then it makes good sense to put her in the Canadian Northwoods. So let’s have her encounter murder in a setting that’s especially difficult for her. Who, then, is her foil? Who, then, is her match? How, then, can I make these characters more than what they seem at first glance? Once you know what drives your characters, you know who’s capable of murder.  I know Practical Sins will be a series because (a) the heroine (Val) lends herself to other crime-solving adventures, and (b) the publisher offered a three-book deal. What moved me away from the Miracolo mysteries is lack of any additional interest from Simon and Schuster! Book Two in the Val Cameron series, A Killer’s Guide to Good Works, comes out in September. To give you a sense of it, the epigraph is a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

  1. Who are your favorite authors? Mystery authors?

Some things never change. I have always loved Henry James, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Graham Greene. Among mystery authors, I especially love Robert Goddard – had the pleasure of presenting him with the Edgar Award a few years ago – C.J. Sansom, Jasper Fforde, P.D. James, Louise Penny. I’m forgetting many.

  1. Although Lake Wendaban, the location of Practical Sins, is fictitious, the descriptions of wilderness and the lake community seem so spot on and well observed. Are they based on places you’ve experienced yourself?

Oh, yes! In large part, in Val I am poking fun at myself during our family camping and canoe tripping days in the Canadian Northwoods.  The endless paddling relieved by endless portaging of canoes and heavy gear relieved by tent camping and night terrors. Ah, yes, indeedy, talk about your good times. Val’s experiences are a collage of many of my own.

  1. How does your writing intersect with teaching? Are the classes you teach rooted in your own struggles with fiction?

I’ve been teaching fiction writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art for sixteen years, and I can’t imagine a better gig. When I’m writing, and the students are writing, it’s all a delicious welter of creativity and discussion about – at the very bottom – how best to tell the story you want to tell. Those decisions are part of the difficult and wonderful writing life.  When I’m in front of the class talking, say, about tightening down the plot around the hero, suddenly I hear myself and I learn what I actually believe. It’s a writer’s version of an out-of-body experience, I think, and I love those moments.

  1. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

Absolutely.  Throughout my doctoral program, I became kind of hyper-aware of how mystery, suspense, and detection are elements of even what we’d consider non-mystery fiction. I think this is so because those are elements of discovery – of moving from what’s unknown to what’s known – and if your characters don’t discover, at the very least, something new and disturbing or ennobling about themselves or someone else in their world, why tell the story? Mystery is at the core of character. And as Henry James put it, “incident” (plot) comes out of character. In the early ’80s, these ideas found their way into my dissertation on narrative suspense (the topic still fascinates me), and shaped me as a mystery writer.

A 2004 Edgar nominee for Best Short Story, Shelley Costa is the author of You Cannoli Die Once (Agatha nominee for Best First Novel) and Basil Instinct. Practical Sins for Cold Climates (Henery Press, January 2016), is the first book in her exciting new mystery series featuring New York editor Val Cameron, who is sent to the Canadian Northwoods to sign a reclusive best-selling thriller writer. Murder ensues. Shelley’s stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Blood on Their Hands,The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, and Crimewave (UK).  Shelley Costa has a PhD in English from CWRU (’83) and is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she teaches fiction writing.

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Shelley Costa