She had a highly-regarded editor pluck her out of the online equivalent of the slush pile and signed her two a two-book deal with St. Martin’s. She’s also eighty-something years young. But Eugenia Lovett West does not rest on her laurels or her age when it comes to writing tightly-plotted mysteries. Her latest novel, OVERKILL, features Emma Streat, a stylish former opera diva protagonist who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in murders and mayhem, especially if they threaten her loved ones. I thoroughly enjoyed how Lovett West was able to seamlessly move her plot forward in a nail-biting mystery. If you are looking for explosions, car chases and graphic violence in your mysteries, Lovett West’s style isn’t for you. But if you enjoy staying up late at night trying to chase down an intricate web of mystery, make sure your night light is handy. You won’t be able to put it down.
Please enjoy part two of our two-part interview with Eugenia Lovett West. (Missed part one? Go HERE)
Q: Your protagonist Emma Streat is feisty and opinionated, yet her motivations are always authentic and come organically from the story. What is your approach to characterization? What do you think writers should keep in mind when they are creating their characters?
ELW: That’s a really hard question. No doubt every writer has a different approach. People often ask if I use people I know as characters. The answer is a firm no, they are all a mix. For my main protagonist, I wanted someone I could admire and like. It took several revisions to find a suitable age and name: Emma was once Maggie, then Molly, then Torey. By now I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and I know her as well, maybe better, than my own daughters. I think writers should keep in mind that the plot can be masterful, but all is lost if the reader loses interest in the main character.
Q: In OVERKILL you explore diverse topics such as opera music, viral epidemics and international espionage. How much research did you do, and what’s your method for incorporating information to the reader without resorting to the dreaded “info dump”?
ELW: For some reason, I feel the need of a global subplot that threatens us all. In Without Warning it was advanced weapons. In Overkill it is the spread of Avian flu. I ask questions of experts. I go online. For me, using dialogue as a tool can be helpful as a way to give facts without resorting to the “info dump.” I try to follow the maxim of Show, Don’t Tell. Above all, the reader is owed one’s best attempt at accuracy.
Q: The setting for OVERKILL moves from Boston to Venice to Ireland. Is place important for you in terms of inspiration for your novels? How can writers use place to their advantage other than giving a travelogue?
ELW: For me, place is key in transporting the reader out of his own orbit. I was lucky enough to have had a CEO husband who traveled on company jets and stayed in the best hotel suites. I took notes. These days the shoe leather has to hit the pavement. For Overkill, I went to a big emergency room in Boston and had a tour of the Taj Boston. I find that most sources, if approached in a non-aggressive way, want to be helpful. Plus there’s the element of fear. They want to make a good showing in print.
Q: What should writers keep in mind when planning a series?
ELW: Again, I feel that it’s important to like your main character and be able to imagine her/him in different settings. In mysteries, there is usually a sidekick or colleague. I needed a romantic interest as well, so I dreamed up a rich, handsome British peer who works undercover in his intelligence world and can help Emma when disaster strikes; it’s a complex relationship that can be extended for quite awhile as long as they don’t marry. I try to have a hook at the end of the book, showing the reader that Emma will be back.
Which craft books have helped you the most?
Right now, I’m learning a lot from P.D. James’s newest book titled Talking About Detective Fiction. She’s another mystery writer of a certain age who keeps going. Her life and work is inspiring. I’ve just started two courses on disks from The Teaching Company. One is Building Great Sentences. The other is The Art of Reading. Can’t hurt, and they might help.
Q: What are you reading right now?
ELW: My bedside book is The War That Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander. With elegance and style, she brings the non-scholar painlessly into the world of Homer’s Illiad. We revisit mythology and those volatile gods. We are given new slants on connections between the Trojan War and the present day conflict.
Q: What’s next for you?
ELW: I’m putting final (I hope) touches on a historical suspense novel set in Philadelphia in 1777. This was a pivotal, dangerous time when independence hung by a thread. I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned in writing mysteries, and there is a strong focus on budding American intelligence, spies, and threats on George Washington’s life. What about the third Emma Streat? This is a fun time as pictures begin to run through the mind like a film. There are so many avenues to explore, so many What Ifs. Best of all is the pleasure of waking up in the morning with work to do and places to go—even if you’re sitting at a computer.
Thank you, Eugenia. OVERKILL is available everywhere.