by Barbara Ross
enjoying the last gasp of the season, and running the heat, in coastal Maine
I’ve been a fan of Susan Santangelo’s Baby Boomer Mystery series (Every Wife Has a Story) since book one. Since she’s Wicked–i.e. a New Englander who divides her time between coastal Connecticut and Cape Cod, and cozy–the books are funny and warm–she’s a perfect fit for the Wicked Cozy Authors blog. I asked her to come along and answer some questions I’m dying to know the answers to.
Tell us a little about your series, your protagonist Carol Andrew, her family and friends, just to get us into the world of your books.
I’ve been writing feature articles for newspapers and magazines for years, but I’ve always wanted to write a mystery. With 78.2 million boomers in the U.S. as the potential audience — including my husband and me — it seemed like now was the perfect time for a series of humorous mysteries dealing with issues we’re all facing. So I created the characters of Carol Andrews and her Beloved Husband Jim.
The series follows their journey along life’s rocky highway toward their twilight years — with one dead body thrown in to keep tings moving along. In Retirement Can Be Murder, the first book in the series, Carol dreads Jim’s upcoming retirement more than a root canal without Novocain. She can’t imagine anything worse than a husband underfoot 24/7, with time on his hands and nothing to fill it, except interfering in the day-to-day activities of the household and driving her crazy. Until Jim is suspected of murdering his retirement coach. And, of course, she feels she’s the only one who can prove him innocent. With some help from her three best girlfriends, Nancy, Mary Alice and Claire; her two adult children, Jenny and Mike; and two English cocker spaniels, Lucy and Ethel.
The first book took off like a rocket! I hit a real nerve among wives who were dealing with their own husband’s retirement. The second book, Moving Can Be Murder, deals with the now-retired Jim and Carol as they decide to downsize and sell the family home; the third book, Marriage Can Be Murder, is about the destination wedding of Carol and Jim’s daughter on Nantucket. Book 4 in the series, Class Reunions Can Be Murder, takes Carol and her best friends back for their fortieth high school reunion. All the books in the series — both those already published and those in the planning stages — deal with real-life issues we all face. Except, of course, for that dead body!
I once heard Dennis Lehane say (actually at the New England Crime Bake) that no matter what genre you write in, if you’re going to spend a year writing a book, make sure it’s “about something.” It seems to me the very best authors in the cozy/traditional genre are always writing “about something” and you exemplify this. All your book are light and funny, but they’re also about what it’s like for Boomers to negotiate a new world of retirement, finances, downsizing, parenting grown children and so on. Your latest book, Class Reunions Can be Murder, is escapist and entertaining, but very much “about something”–bullying. Why did you make this choice in your novel?
I do like to have a serious issue underlying the humor in the books. The bullying thread in Book 4 came about because one of my schoolmates — we went to both grammar school and high school together — posted on Facebook that she realized after witnessing something that had happened to one of her grandchildren that she herself had been bullied at a birthday party when she was in sixth grade. I was shocked, and e-mailed her privately to find out what she meant. And was even more shocked when she confided in me. I think many of us suffered hurts when we were children at the hands of others. We may have called it teasing rather than bullying. But hurts like that are something that can affect us as we grow. Some people never entirely get over an incident that wounded them when they were young. Because of that story from my classmate, I decided to make female bullying a thread in the book. I created a character named Meg — not based on anyone I knew. I always have websites in the back of the books for readers to find out more information. I found a website which described the characteristics and methods of a typical female bully. And I was amazed — and very proud — that the character of Meg fit the profile exactly.
I love the way Carol Andrews breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the reader. It makes your books feel so intimate, like Carol and I are having a glass of wine together. Why did you decide you use that approach to the story-telling?
I started writing Retirement Can Be Murder in the third person. I got more than halfway through the first draft, and it just didn’t feel right. So I went back and rewrote it in the first person. And bingo! Carol was there, right beside me, telling me what to say and how to say it. And she still does! I’m often introduced at book talks as Carol, which makes me laugh.
You know I love your covers. Tell us about your cover models.
I have a wonderful cover artist named Elizabeth Moisan who does all the covers. Since the two dogs — Lucy and Ethel — are such an integral part of the plots, we’ve used them on the covers of Books 2, 3 and 4. The cover “model” is our own English cocker spaniel, Boomer. He’s not happy posing as two females, though. I may have to give him more Milk Bones for the cover of Book 5!
You had recipes in your books years before I ever had to do it. Is it hard to find recipes? Do you test them all?
The first book, Retirement Can Be Murder, has only one recipe in it, for Ice Cream Bread. I was looking for a super easy recipe (Carol, like me, doesn’t like to cook) to work into the plot, and a family friend suggested this two-ingredient bread. I was interviewed on an NPR show after the book came out, and listeners called in to say how much they loved the Ice Cream Bread recipe. In the funny way that the universe works, the food editor of the Cape Cod Times heard the broadcast and contacted me to say the paper wanted to run a recipe contest for the second book! We were inundated with entries, so in the second book, Moving Can be Murder, there are 15 recipes. The recipe in Book 3, Marriage Can Be Murder, was created by Paulette DiAngi, a chef here on the Cape. It’s called the 7 Deadly Sins Cheesecake. Paulette also did all the recipes in the fourth book, Class Reunions Can Be Murder. She created a reunion brunch menu and did the recipes two different ways — the way they’d be made forty years ago, and a low-fat version for today’s more healthy lifestyle. She also has a local television show, so we can test out a lot of the recipes there.
What are you working on now?
I’m just starting Book 5 in the series. Since I don’t outline, I’m not really sure where it’s going yet. I always start the books with the murder, and then tell the story. So far I’ve got Carol and her daughter Jenny at a funeral home. There’s a dead man in the casket — with a bit of a twist. I’m not sure who he is yet, but I’m sure Carol knows, and when she’s ready, she’ll tell me!
Susan, thanks so much for joining us. Readers, try these wonderful books, you won’t regret it. Leave questions and comments for Susan here.