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Interview: April 20, 2001

April 20, 2001

Fans of Martha Grimes have long been familiar with her Richard Jury series, mysteries that often evolve in the quaint villages and colorful pubs of England. Her remarkable characterizations and intuitive sense of human nature raise her novels far above the level of the genre they've been assigned. Her departures from that series have been acclaimed, as well, for their rich prose and literary essence. In this interview with's Ann Bruns, Martha Grimes reveals her frustrations with being labeled a mystery writer, her curiosity with her character "the Girl", and much more!

BRC: COLD FLAT JUNCTION is a continuation of your novel HOTEL PARADISE, the story of a 12-year-old girl's obsession with a drowning that occurred 40 years ago. In your opening chapter, Emma admonishes, "...if you think I shouldn't have waited so long to tell you more of this story, just remember: I haven't been away. You have." Why did you wait so long to return to this captivating story? Were these two novels originally written and intended to be one, or did COLD FLAT JUNCTION evolve later because Emma was nagging you to finish telling her story? Near the end Emma states, "This is my story, and it's not over til I say it's over." Is she hinting she may have more to tell us?

MG: The novels evolved out of my wanting to write a "trilogy," the first being THE END OF THE PIER. This story actually happens some time after the other two, although it was written first. Given the content of THE END OF THE PIER it couldn't have happened before Emma's story or she certainly would have made much of it. When I finished HOTEL PARADISE I knew that although the story didn't have to be "tied up" --- given that none of these three books is a mystery --- still there were questions I, myself, wanted to answer, so that's how COLD FLAT JUNCTION came about. Now, I guess there'll be another one because there are still questions that nag me. Who is this Girl that Emma keeps seeing?

BRC: COLD FLAT JUNCTION involves three tragic deaths in the same family. Emma's interest in the whole affair began with a vision of "The Girl" near that family's Spirit Lake home. Readers will undoubtedly be divided on whether "The Girl" really exists, whether she's the spirit of the little girl that died, or that it's Emma's overactive imagination. Do you believe a spirit can haunt the scene of a tragedy?

MG: Who is she? It beats me. Although I know she's a flesh-and-blood person, she appears to have some significance that goes beyond the events in the two books. Emma is convinced she's Fern Queen's daughter. And the fact that Ben Queen does not want her identity known further supports Emma's notion. Ben appears to think she shot Fern (hence his protective behavior). I think the Girl is the same "girl" who appears in BITING THE MOON. I think she's also Carrie Fleet in THE DEER LEAP. I think her coming back again and again is very, very, very strange. Do I believe a spirit can haunt the scene of a tragedy? I don't know. Maybe if I knew who the Girl is I could better answer that question.

BRC: To describe Emma as precocious would be an understatement. She's sharp, imaginative, resourceful, and obviously far more independent than most girls her age. Yet, she is often troubled by feelings of loneliness and self-doubt. Is it her insatiable curiosity or her need for attention and recognition that compels her to investigate the Devereau family tragedies?

MG: It's not Emma's curiosity that keeps her on this case. It's her unconscious knowledge that if this awful death could happen to Mary-Evelyn Devereau, it could happen to her, too. She's also 12; she also lives with people who appear to be indifferent to her. Emma is scared, although that might come off as her "nebbiness." (I love that word.)

BRC: Emma's saga is a unique blend of mystery and coming-of-age stories with equal emphasis on each. Did you begin with the idea of combining both of these elements, or did that just evolve as you were writing?

MG: I never have any idea when I begin a book, so I certainly had no intention to make this either a mystery (it isn't, incidentally) or (shudder, shudder) a "coming-of-age" story.

BRC: The parent-child relationship in COLD FLAT JUNCTION is an important element on many levels. In Emma's case, her mother is barely involved in her life, yet Emma expresses more emotion at the rift in her friendship with Sam than her mother's lack of attention. Is her need for a symbolic father more important? Or is her anger toward Ree-Jane, the pampered daughter of her mother's partner, actually subconscious jealousy and hurt?

MG: Well, shucks, if I'd ever known the Sheriff, I'd sure would have been more distressed over losing him as a friend than I would over my mother's indifference. Emma's adoration --- it's almost religious --- her mother's cooking is her way of expressing her feelings for her mother; the expression of feelings is not encouraged in this place, which is pretty clear. Yes, I'd say Sam (and Ben) are symbolic fathers, just as Maud is very much a mother. As for Ree-Jane, I don't think the jealousy and hurt are subconscious. I think she's fairly well aware of them.

BRC: On your website you state that, except for the murders, Emma's tale is "the story of my 12-year-old life." Aside from your brother Will, are the characters in these novels based on people you've actually known? What are the parallels between life at the Hotel Paradise and the summers you spent at your mother's hotel?

MG: Yes, many of the characters are based on real people and were just as I've described them. It surprised me that certain characters (such as Walter) got such big roles in the story. Yes, there was even a Miss Bertha. Will's friend Mill is real enough that the model for this kid recognized himself immediately, 50 years later, and it's been that long since I saw him. The only characters that aren't based on real ones are the nice ones: Sam, Maud, Dwayne, etc.

BRC: With few distractions other than the local movie theater, Emma role plays with entire scenarios she creates like her imaginary trip to Florida. Her brother and his friends perform amateur productions in the barn. Do you think children of earlier generations were more creative by having to rely on their own imagination?

MG: Yes. And because of this, I think we were luckier.

BRC: Cold Flat Junction is a rather dreary whistle-stop town forming part of the triangular locale for HOTEL PARADISE and COLD FLAT JUNCTION. Your descriptions of the actual train station and its atmosphere are reminiscent of the setting for your recent novella, THE TRAIN NOW DEPARTING. Was there a conscious link between the two settings? Was the woman from the novella in any way a reflection of a grown-up Emma?

MG: This is an interesting question to raise about THE TRAIN NOW DEPARTING. There is no conscious link between this town and COLD FLAT JUNCTION. But I am apparently very much taken by railroad stations. I have no idea where this comes from. And the protagonist of TRAIN does, perhaps, reflect something of Emma's imaginative quality.

BRC: Although COLD FLAT JUNCTION is a sequel, it's actually the third novel you've written involving the people from the La Porte area. THE END OF THE PIER, the first of these, featured both Sheriff Sam DeGheyn, Maud Chadwick and others that appeared in subsequent books. Will we hopefully see even more novels revolving around others in this marvelous cast of characters?

MG: Yes, there'll be others.

BRC: The use of Edward Hopper's "Hotel Lobby" and "Railroad Sunset" as jacket covers is so wonderfully appropriate for these novels. Were his haunting paintings part of the spark that resulted in the writing of Emma's saga?

MG: No, I chose his paintings because I thought they reflected the subject matter of the books.

BRC: You've also written another novel outside of your British mystery series featuring two teenage heroines. BITING THE MOON is a mystery, but the real focus is on animal cruelty with some pretty grisly imagery. Have fans reacted to this book as positively as you'd hoped they would?

MG: The readers I've heard from reacted very positively. Of course, some wouldn't get through it because people don't want to know about animal cruelty. One reader wrote that she liked the book, but "skipped those parts" as they were too tough to take. This book is the first in what I mean to make a series. And, again, I don't consider BITING THE MOON a mystery. It's extremely disconcerting to me that I'm not "allowed" to write anything but mysteries.

BRC: Your highly successful Richard Jury series, fondly known as the pub series, is somewhat of an anomaly in the traditional sense --- British mysteries with an American overtone. Why did you originally choose England as your setting? Have you actually been to each of these English pubs? How do the English people react when they find out you intend to use their local pub in a murder mystery?

MG: I chose England simply because I liked it. I've been in most of these pubs. Ordinarily, I don't say anything about using the pub as a setting. I did do that once: I asked the owner of the Old Silent if he minded my setting the book there. His answer (shrugging), "Suit yourself."

BRC: Your novels always contain a seductive mystery, but it's the characters that really command the spotlight. How do you approach writing a new novel? Does the premise surrounding the murder come first or the characters?

MG: Here we go with "mystery" again. What I begin with is an image, not an idea. I don't write outlines or summaries. I just begin with the little I have.

BRC: At the end of HOTEL PARADISE Emma said, "However much I want to believe the story has a neat ending, I guess it doesn't. Turn the page, another story; another page, another story." Does this more or less summarize your philosophy of writing?

MG: Emma says that because that's the way it appears to her. This isn't the way it appears to me. I don't have a philosophy.

BRC: When you were Emma's age, what authors inspired you?

MG: I didn't do any writing when I was Emma's age. I read somewhat, but I'm not aware of being inspired by any particular authors.

BRC: Many writers state they don't read in their own genre because it might complicate their own creativity. Do you read books by other mystery writers? Who do you read for enjoyment?

MG: If any writer ever said that to me I'd throw up. But I suppose some do say things like that. I like to read novels of psychological suspense, but not books that feature a "sleuth" (such as R. Jury). I like Jane Austen, Henry James, Joyce Porter (the only series I really like, and, perhaps the only writer who has consciously influenced me).

BRC: HOTEL PARADISE and COLD FLAT JUNCTION would seem to be ideal for a movie adaptation. Would you ever consider letting your novels be adapted into screenplays? Have you ever wanted to write one?

MG: Sure, I'd like to see the books adapted. I'm currently hoping that the Jury books will be taken on as a series by a British TV producer.