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Interview: March 23, 2007

March 23, 2007

Joanne Fluke is the bestselling author of the Hannah Swensen mysteries, which revolve around a small-town bakery owner with a penchant for amateur sleuthing. In this interview with's Roz Shea, Fluke explains how the books have evolved from her original ideas and describes the step-by-step process of writing each one. She also discusses how she develops and tests recipes, recounts her first experience deep-frying a candy bar and reveals what she has in store for her protagonist in future installments. Your long list of successful novels includes suspense thrillers and murder mysteries. What led you to write about murder? And how did you come up with the idea to create a mystery series based on the owner of a bakery?

Joanne Fluke: I've always loved to bake and I wanted to do a baked-goods cookbook with anecdotes about small town Minnesota life. My editor suggested doing it as a mystery series, and that's how Hannah was born.

BRC: The characters in Lake Eden seem so true to an actual small Midwestern town. Is it modeled after a real place?

JF: I was born and raised in a small Minnesota town, actually much smaller than Lake Eden. The characters and setting reflect a lot of small towns I've been in, but no town or person in particular.

BRC: You always feature a tasty dessert in the titles of your books. How does a recipe inspire each mystery?

JF: Desserts are associated, in my mind at least, with certain events or seasons. For instance, key lime pie is a little exotic in rural Minnesota, but it's the sort of thing a farm wife might try for submission to the baking competition at a county fair. So, KEY LIME PIE MURDER is set against the background of Lake Eden's Tri County fair.

BRC: My favorite aunt wrote a cooking column and moderated a radio cooking show in the Iowa town where I grew up. She tried out all her recipes on her family and friends, often with amusing results. How do you test your recipes?

JF: I test all Hannah's recipes on my family, friends and neighbors. I also have several volunteer bakers who test them, following the recipes and instructions that will be in the book. I try hard to make all Hannah's recipes simple and yummy. From the letters I get from readers who have tried them, I succeed more often than not.

BRC: Hannah is a natural to judge a county fair baking contest. Have you ever served as a judge for such an event?

JF: No, that's something I've never done. I think it would be very tough because those farm ladies really know how to bake.

BRC: Do readers send you recipes, or do you ever hold contests for readers?

JF: I get a few recipes from readers, although I usually tinker with them. Whenever I use one, Hannah will say something like, "I got this from Lisa's Aunt Judy."

BRC: I hope I don't divulge a plot point by asking this burning question: Have you ever personally eaten (no crossing your fingers behind your back, now) a deep fried Milky Way bar?

JF: Oh yes! We'd heard about them and I thought the whole idea was over the top, but my husband begged me to try making them. So, we went out and bought a small deep fryer and a bunch of candy bars. I whipped up some experimental batters and played around with the method until we got some that were up to Hannah's standards. They were sinfully yummy, but very messy!

BRC: In KEY LIME PIE MURDER, Hannah helps out a claustrophobic friend by appearing in a magic trick in a closed cabinet. When you develop a storyline like this, do you imagine the situation, or do you actually test out the action yourself?

JF: You're not going to catch me climbing in a box like that! I'm a little claustrophobic myself. No, a writer's most important tool is her imagination. I've been blessed with a good one.

BRC: How long does it take to write a Hannah Swensen mystery?

JF: That's not easy to answer because I don't just sit down and do it. It progresses by stages. In the beginning, I sit down with my husband, who was a TV story editor, and we just talk about it. "Who are we going to kill this time?" "Who would want to kill him (or her)?" "What would the motive be?" When we have a victim and a number of possible killers, each with a motive, I go off and go to work on an outline. That part might take a week or a few months. At the same time I'm developing recipes. When I have a fairly detailed outline, I sit down again with my husband, who is very good at spotting holes in the plot. Eventually I'm ready to do the actual writing, which takes several months. From start to finish takes the better part of a year.

BRC: Hannah's love life is as complicated as ever, though her cat, Moise, seems to have made his decision about who she should choose. Do you plan to keep your readers in further suspense, or will Hannah finally settle down with the bold sheriff or the heroic veterinarian?

JF: Hannah has a mind of her own and won't take any advice from me about her romantic life. People think I'm crazy when I say that, but it's true. I've tried making her do things that weren't in character, but I've always had to go back and rewrite it the way she'd have it. Right now, she seems content to leave things as they are. Perhaps one day she'll want to choose one or the other of the guys, but only when she's ready to do it. And don't forget, there's also Ross in the picture.

BRC: Are you cooking up the next tasty murder for Hannah to solve, or is it just simmering on the back burner?

JF: I just finished CANDY CANE MURDER, a novella coming out this October in a collection of three murder novellas. In it I get to achieve a life-long ambition --- I kill Santa Claus. (I think it's because I didn't get the doll house I wanted as a kid.) I'm also starting the outline for CARROT CAKE MURDER, the next full novel in the series. It involves a cherished Minnesota tradition, a large family reunion complete with three-bean salad. Guess what? Someone gets murdered. It'll be published in March of 2008, so I'd better get back to work.