Monday, April 25, 2011

Scene of the Crime with Author Sharon Fiffer

It's always a treat to introduce one of my favorite crime fiction authors to you and today is no exception.

Sharon Fiffer is the author of the Jane Wheel mystery series which uses Kankakee, Illinois, as a setting for most of the stories. Jane is a picker and a collector who dearly loves showing up bright and early at garage and estate sales to find treasures to sell on to others... and to keep for herself. The dead bodies Jane finds put a dent in the amount of time she can spend on searching for treasures.

In the first three books of the series, reading about Jane's feelings toward the things she collects will bring out understanding smiles in those of us who have the collecting bug-- or they'll win over new converts who will begin their own treasure hunts.

The setting, the physical "props" of the series, and the mysteries are strong draws for me, but the characters of people like Jane and her mother, Nellie, are what keep me coming back for more. They evolve throughout the series. If you haven't  read one of Sharon Fiffer's books, I strongly suggest you do so. You're in for a treat!

There are currently seven books in the Jane Wheel series:

Killer Stuff (2001)
Buried Stuff (2004)
Scary Stuff (2009)

If you'd like to learn more about Sharon, here are a few links for you:

Now it's time for the best part-- the interview!

What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?

I was an early reader--I had an older brother who took me on as a student before I actually started school.  By the time I was in first grade I was gobbling up books in the classroom.  Since my parents were both working long hours at the real EZ Way Inn (so similar to the one run by Jane Wheel's parents in my books--what a coincidence!), I spent a lot of time in the children's section of the Kankakee Public Library after school and I can remember finding The Cat In The Hat and thinking it was the funniest thing in the world.  I loved the word play and the story--and since I was alone a lot as a child, I probably really liked the idea of this wild, wild babysitter.  So that's the first book I actually remember reading out loud to my parents because it was so funny. When I was eight, my grandmother bought me a beautiful copy of Little Women in a slipcase--a beautiful edition that she said she'd read to me if it was too difficult.  It wasn't.  I loved that book, inhaled it, and read it again after I finished it the first time. What made it special?  Jo March--who was an actress and a writer--was a marvelous real person to me--flawed and flawless--and I wanted to be just like her.

Outside of your writing and all associated commitments, what do you like to do in your free time?

I'm a knitter and a reader and a cook and although I love to write and I love to teach--a perfect weekend for me involves great yarn and a new pattern, a Saturday farmer's market and friends coming for dinner, and a new book to crack open before bed.  Oh--and I've been known to go to a few garage sales, rummage sales and estate sales on the weekend--part Jane Wheel research and part treasure hunting for real.

If I were to visit your hometown, where would you recommend that I go? (I like seeing and doing things that aren't in all the guide books.)

When I go back to Kankakee, Illinois, I always drive by Cobb Park and spend a little time staring at the Kankakee River.  It was my favorite childhood spot.  I think I might send you to Blue's Cafe for breakfast, then you could go walk the wooded path behind the Civic Auditorium (that's a location for Backstage Stuff and one of my old haunts) and then, if you were hungry, I'd send you to the Root Beer Stand on River Street OR The Dairy Queen on Station Street.  If you visit in August, you could hit the Kankakee County Fair--as a child, I looked forward to that all summer long.  By the way, if there is a guide book to Kankakee, Illinois, I'd like to see it!  Heck, I'd like to write one!

You have total control over casting a movie based on your life. Which actor would you cast as you?

Nora Fiffer
Easy--my daughter, Nora Fiffer, is an excellent actress and is working a lot here in Chicago theater.  She is far more beautiful than I was at her age--with terrific red hair that I can only envy--but nonetheless, it's my movie, right?  So she could play the teenaged and early twenties me.  Kate, my older daughter has done some acting,too, and is also a beauty, but now writes and also works as a puppeteer, so she could do some flashback and dream sequences with her artistic creations--and, finally, to play me as a (ahem) more mature woman? I think I'll cast Susan Sarandon.  Yup, I'd be happy with that.

Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?

I think I have to say Harriet Vane.  I was a little snobby about detective fiction when I was just out of college and thought I had put my Nancy Drew days behind me.  Then, when I was working as an advertising copywriter, a co-worker handed me Murder Must Advertise and I took off reading all of Dorothy L. Sayers and absolutely fell in love with Harriet Vane. I also have a huge crush on Adam Dalgliesh--I think the novels of P.D. James are outstanding.

Before your very first published mystery, what else had you written (short stories, articles, unpublished manuscripts)?

I had a pretty lively writing career before Jane Wheel entered my life.  I wrote a biography of a young Cambodian man, Paul Thai, who fled the killing fields and became the first Cambodian-American to work on the Dallas Police Force.  That was my first book, Imagining America.  After that, I wrote a book with my husband called Fifty Ways To Help Your Community:  A Handbook For Change, published by Doubleday.  Then I co-edited three collections of literary memoirs called, respectively, Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their OwnFamily:  American Writers Remember Their Own;  and Body.  In between those books, I wrote a slew of short stories that were published in literary magazines.  I re-discovered my inner Nancy Drew when I started to write a memoir piece about the E Z Way Inn, growing up in my parents tavern in Kankakee--and somehow it came out as the first chapter of Killer Stuff.

What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore? How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published?

When I got an offer on Killer Stuff, my agent said to go ahead and celebrate but not to buy expensive wine because the advance would probably end up being quite modest!  I had been published before--and had great fun with each publication--and was proud of each of the books--but this one, Killer Stuff, my first Jane Wheel novel, was really special.  The advance was modest, but we bought the expensive wine.

I don't know if you've seen it, but I love Parnell Hall's video about book signings. What is the most unusual experience you've had at a book signing or author event?

Sharon Fiffer
I have seen Parnell's video--I love it.  I was a few authors down from Michael Connelly at my first Bouchercon so I know the feeling of seeing a line out the door for someone else.  The thing is, I'm such a fan of other writers that I left my spot, got in line to tell Michael how much I had loved his much earlier book, The Poet.  My weirdest experience?  Signing at a vintage/thrift  store where no one could figure out why my books were full price, and my saddest experience was appearing at a library function in a public place where, while we all moved to the tables for dinner, the book tables were left unwatched and my beautiful alpaca poncho (hand knit) was stolen, but all my books remained untouched.  

The way some people talk, the only way to read now or in the future is with some sort of electronic device, like my husband's Nook. What is your opinion of eBooks, and how will they affect you as a published author?

 My job is to write the very best books I can.  As long as I have stories to tell and tell them well--as long as I can touch someone's heart or make people laugh or make them think twice, I am doing my job.  I prefer holding a book--but I am also getting used to reading on my brand new Kindle--a birthday gift from my husband a few months ago.  I find that the story is what transports me.  I will always acquire books and I will always be a collector of books--but I will read for the story, not for the means of production.  NOW, I will say this.  I think it is extremely sad that mass market paperback versions of my books and some other authors like myself are no more.  I am being published in hardcover and electronically, but paperbacks are what many of my readers love--and I am saddened by the disappearance of many, many series paperback versions. 

Thank you so much for spending this time with us, Sharon! I hope we're able to read many more adventures of Jane in the years to come.

Don't forget to stop by next Monday when my guest on Scene of the Crime will be Irishman Sam Millar.


  1. Thank you for this post. The author is new to me so I certainly enjoyed the interview.

  2. I enjoy a lot of cozy mystery series with a theme. This one sounds very good.

    Book Dilettante

  3. OMG, Sharon's answers to "what do you like to do in your free time?" could have been written by me, except these days I'm making more lace than I am knitting.

  4. Kankakee? I'm adding her to my list immediately. We went to a Civil War reenactment at her park when we lived in Chicago. Lots of fun, if out of place since those battles never got anywhere near Kankakee. :D Also saw boat races on the river there. Nice place. And, I also have a crush on Adam Dalgliesh.

  5. I love that you had Sharon Fiffer here, Cathy! I've really enjoyed her series. I remember when I read KILLER STUFF, I was managing a thrift shop for a non-profit I was involved with at the time. It was right in the midst of the whole "shabby-chic" era. I was so impressed that I knew what a lot of the items were that she mentioned - Bakelite for example. It was fun! LOL

  6. Mystica-- I'm glad you enjoyed the interview, and I hope you get a chance to read her books!

    Harvee-- It is. I hope you'll read at least one of her books.

    Beth-- I needlepoint. Seems like we're getting most of the needlearts represented here! :)

    Barbara-- I, too, visited Kankakee several times when I lived in Illinois. We could even have been at the park at the same time.

    Kay-- I had fun with Killer Stuff, too. With my collecting forebears, I also know what Bakelite and many other things are!

  7. Thanks, Cathy, for the interview--great job with the links and pics! And thanks everyone else for the kind words about my Jane Wheel books. Currently working on #8, Lucky Stuff! Come on over to Jane Wheel's page on facebook where we share some weekend finds and I try to keep everyone up-to-date on my writing...and on the secondary market for "stuff." By the way--this is Sharon posting, despite the fact that my webmaster Susan's name comes up whenever I leave a comment!

  8. Sharon-- I just thought you were testing our deductive skills.... ;) Thanks so much for taking the time for the interview. It was fun!


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