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Interview: January 7, 2005

January 7, 2005's contributing writer Shannon McKenna, along with Carol Fitzgerald and Wiley Saichek, interviewed Sarah Graves, author of TOOL & DIE, the eighth installment in her "Home Repair is Homicide" mystery series. Graves talks about the rewarding and challenging aspects of writing recurring characters, her inclusion of home repair hints throughout her novels, and her fairly extensive background in various fix-it projects. TOOL & DIE is the eighth mystery in the "Home Repair is Homicide" series, which has earned a loyal following of readers. According to the readers who contact you, what is most appealing about the series?

Sarah Graves: Many readers have grown fond of Eastport, with its wonderful old houses and scenic location on the coast of Maine. But what they seem to enjoy most are the relationships between the continuing characters. Jake and Ellie, their husbands Wade and George, Jake's deliciously dreadful ex-husband Victor and their son Sam --- people want to know what's going on with all these folks. And I'm happy to let them in on the latest, of course.

BRC: For readers who may be new to the series, can you shed some light on Jacobia Tiptree, including where her unusual name came from?

SG: Jacobia Tiptree is an ex-Wall Street money professional who visited Eastport on a whim, became captured by it, and soon found herself with a whole new life there. And part of that new life was a very old house that needed fixing up in the worst way. Her name is a tip of the hat to a science fiction writer who some readers may remember, James Tiptree, Jr.

BRC: What is the most rewarding part of writing a series with a recurring character? The most difficult part?

SG: The most rewarding part of writing a recurring character is the opportunity to find out a little more each time. Characters don't just tell all their secrets on the first date! They have to get comfortable with the writer before they'll confide much. So it's like getting to know any other friend, which also tends to be a pleasant process. The hardest part is summing up the background information for new readers without boring the returning fans. Fortunately, Jake knows how to keep her "history lessons" brief!

BRC: How has the character of Jake changed from book to book?

SG: I'm not sure her basic character has changed much at all. She grew up learning to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. That's a good way to approach home repair, by the way! But living in Eastport has helped her believe it's not always going to be the worst. She's learned to trust people a bit more.

BRC: Where did you get the idea to include the home repair hints throughout the books? How long have you been interested in home repair? What sparked this interest?

SG: Moving into an old house just like Jake's made an interest in home repair mandatory! Although I've always enjoyed fixing things, so I can't say it was a brand-new activity for me. As for the hints in the book, so often I'd have the impulse to let Jake give a little home repair lesson, but that just didn't fit into the story. So I decided to sprinkle a few "nuggets" throughout --- that way Jake can give lessons without climbing onto a soapbox.

BRC: There are so many clever moments in your writing. One that comes to mind quickly was titling the household help agency that Dinah Sanborne runs "Gopher Baroque." Do you find yourself writing down names and phrases to save for when you write, or do you come up with them on the spot as you are writing?

SG: I do tend to write things down if I think I might use them later, but the ones I end up using are the ones that stick in my mind without my writing them down. Any that I come up with on the spot are just gifts from heaven --- and generally those end up being the bits I like best.

BRC: Jake left a career on Wall Street to move to Eastport. What interesting details from your past can you share with us? Have any of them made their way into the books?

SG: I'm afraid Jake's life is much more interesting than my own! My financial expertise, for instance, comes from the Wall Street Journal and Investor's Daily, not personal experience. But before I started fixing up an old house I had already repaired washing machines, lawn mowers, and other small items of machinery. So my fix-it background is fairly extensive. And unfortunately it's been exciting on occasion. Like the time I started out fixing a toilet seat and ended up having to turn off not only the water, but also the electricity to the house before I could finish safely.

BRC: What is your favorite home repair project, and what jobs would you happily delegate?

SG: My favorite home repair project. Hmm. That would be the one for which I call the professional, then go to Tahiti for a week in February while he or she does it. No, seriously, I do like taking down old wallpaper. And I love putting on the fresh paint! I don't dislike rehabilitating antique windows, but it is a long, tedious kind of job.

BRC: We could see this as an ongoing television series. The combination of mystery and home repair would play so well in a world where how-to and home shows now have their own cable channels. Has there been any television or film interest in the "Home Repair is Homicide" series?

SG: There have been a few nibbles, actually, but nothing definite to report right this minute. Murder really is a natural partner with home repair though, isn't it? Especially since while you are doing the latter you are so often feeling like doing the former. The first victim in the TV series has to be the person who painted all my old windows shut, okay?

BRC: What can you tell us about your current writing projects? Will Jake be involved, and when can readers expect to see them?

SG: I'm working right now on the next Jake & Ellie entry in the "Home Repair is Homicide" series. It's called NAILBITER, and with luck it'll be out in 2006. I can't say too much because I don't want to give away any surprises. But I think I can safely say that in NAILBITER, Jake's old house gains a new ghost --- and her heart finally learns to put an old ghost to rest. Oh, and there's a murder in it, too!