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Interview: November 6, 2009

November 6, 2009

Joanne Fluke's 12th novel, PLUM PUDDING MURDER, finds baker-turned-amateur detective Hannah Swensen in the middle of yet another murder mystery, this time amidst the chaos of the holiday season. In this interview with's Amie Taylor, Fluke reveals the inspiration behind her appealing protagonist and secondary characters (both human and feline), and reflects on the direction of Hannah's unpredictable love life throughout the course of the series. She also explains how --- after writing a dozen novels --- she manages to keep track of character and plot details, discusses her upbringing in Minnesota and how she's adjusting to her current life on the west coast, and talks about her next release, APPLE TURNOVER MURDER. We can all relate to the hustle and bustle that surround the holidays. Watching Hannah juggle a business, a big dinner and a murder mystery was quite enjoyable. Do you have as much fun writing this series as we do reading it?
Joanne Fluke: Probably more. When I'm writing a scene that really tickles me, I often laugh out loud. Writing about Hannah and her friends is pure pleasure for me.
BRC: Where did the idea for the character of Hannah Swensen come from?
JF: Hannah is the best friend I always wanted, and she's running the little cookie shop I always dreamed of opening in my old hometown. I love Hannah's quick retorts. She’s much faster at snappy comebacks than I am, but that's probably because I can take my time writing them for her.
BRC: Are the supporting characters based on anyone you know, or do they just spring from your imagination?
JF: They’re a mosaic of various characteristics I’ve noticed in people. It's a bit like the baby who has Dad's eyes, Mom's hair, Grandpa's ears, Grandma's hands, and Aunt Emma's nose. I've never met anyone exactly like any character in the Hannah books, but they all seen very familiar to me. (I did write in an old high school boyfriend in one of the books. He was the victim. That might have had something to do with the fact that he dumped me for a cheerleader right before the prom.)

BRC: What influenced you to create Moishe, Hannah's wayward cat?
JF: There was a real Moishe. He was our Billie’s “boyfriend” and I used him as a model for Hannah’s feline roommate. Because our neighborhood cat had only one good eye and a torn ear from a battle, we named him after the Israeli general Moishe Dyan. The Moishe in the books has our Billie’s personality and some of her quirky traits.
BRC: Will Hannah ever choose between Mike and Norman, or is there a chance a new man could come into her life and steal her heart?
JF: We’re going to have to wait to see if Hannah chooses one over the other. I have very little to say about Hannah’s love life. I can throw her a curve, of course, like Ross or perhaps even another new boyfriend, but she has a mind of her own. People think I’m crazy when I say that, but it’s the truth. I've tried making Hannah do things that don't “fit,” and it never rings true. I always have to go back and rewrite it her way. There are days, many of them, when I feel like Hannah's biographer.
BRC: After writing so many Hannah Swensen novels, do you ever have to go back and look over past events in order to keep track, or do you just know your characters and stories inside out?
JF: I keep character lists by first name and last name, a list of Lake Eden organizations, stores, street names and highways, and a list of the main characters, their physical descriptions, hobbies, favorite foods, etc. And of course, I keep a master file of the recipes.  Sometimes all that documentation doesn't count for a hill of beans, and I have to go back and reread a chapter from a previous book. There are other times when I'm sure I'm remembering something correctly, but readers will e-mail to tell me I'm wrong. It's a bit like trying to be accurate when you're recalling events in your own past --- that fish you caught 20 years ago keeps getting bigger and bigger.
BRC: Do you come up with all of the recipes yourself, and if so, how do you have time to write along with concocting one tempting treat after another?
JF: Some of Hannah’s recipes started out as old family favorites from my mother, grandmother and my aunts, but many I dream up all by myself. Sometimes Hannah will use a recipe sent in by a reader. When that happens, she’ll say something like, “I just got this recipe from Lisa’s cousin Terry, or Mother's friend Alma.”
You're right about time. It takes a lot of it to test all those recipes. And don't forget that sometimes the recipes don't work. Then I have to start over from scratch. I really need an extra day a week just for baking. It could come right after Sunday and we could call it "Yumday." You'd get a three-day weekend and I'd have time to come up with lots of new recipes.
BRC: Do you have a favorite recipe from this series? How about a favorite book?
JF: That’s like asking me if I have a favorite child. I love them all. But... if I had to choose... no! I really can't do it!

BRC: Can you tell us a bit about growing up in Minnesota and how it has influenced your novels?
JF: I was born and raised in Swanville, Minnesota. The sign outside town said we had a population of 217, but I think that was counting the dogs and cats. Just about everything in my books is infused with the small-town experiences I had. I suppose the most important influence was waking up on cold winter mornings to the aroma of vanilla, chocolate, or cinnamon drifting up the stairs. My mother and grandmother always waked on winter mornings to warm up the kitchen and they never had to call me twice for breakfast!
BRC: From what I understand, you live in California now. Is there any part of you that misses Minnesota? What do you particularly like about California?

JF: There are a lot of things about Minnesota that I miss. I loved the small-town feel, the fact that you could let kids play in the vacant lot and you didn't have to worry about crime, that there were four seasons and once spring arrived, you felt you'd really survived something. Whenever I get homesick, I write about Hannah. It's like taking a trip back to my old hometown again.
What do I like about California? The weather! I threw away the windshield ice scraper I had in my car, and got rid of my snow shovels. I did keep the sled, though. You never know...
BRC: What does a typical work day involve for you? Are there any special things that help you get into writing mode?

JF: I get up early to work before the phone starts ringing. I’m fairly disciplined and usually get my quota of 10 pages a day. When I stop, I always leave Hannah in the middle of a situation. That way I know exactly what I'm going to write the next morning, and I'm not faced by one of the scariest things a writer can face --- a perfectly blank page.
BRC: While so many of us name you as one of our favorite authors, can you tell us what authors you enjoy reading yourself?

JF: There are so many good writers out there that I hesitate to recommend any particular one, but here are a few that I’ve often enjoyed. Laura Levine's Jaine Austen Mysteries makes me laugh out loud. She's outrageously funny. Leslie Meier is also a favorite of mine.  When I want to read a good thriller, I choose something by Beverly Barton, John Lutz, or Lisa Jackson, but only if it's broad daylight and I'm not alone in the house! When I don't have a looming deadline and I have time for a little research, I like to decipher the old family recipes handwritten on the backs of envelopes, loose scraps of colored paper, and tattered file cards that are jumbled up in the 27 shoeboxes in my kitchen cupboards. (Over the years, I've discovered a universal truth --- the recipes with the most chocolate splatters and smears of butter on them are the best.)
BRC: What can you tell us about Hannah's next adventure, and when can we expect to see it in print?
JF: It’s called APPLE TURNOVER MURDER, and it will be published in March 2010. Despite the fact that Hannah's past will come back to haunt her, she'll bake a lot of delectable goodies at The Cookie Jar, find a body while she's doing a favor for a friend, and sift through clues to find the killer. I'd tell you more, but then I'd have to make you the victim in my next book.

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