Monday, November 14, 2016

At The Poisoned Pen with Mizushima, Wolf & Baker!

This was one of those evenings at The Poisoned Pen when three authors were scheduled to appear, and I always have mixed emotions when writers "gang up" on me. I tend to prefer the one-on-one interviews because you can learn so much more about that writer, but when the authors have yet to become Big Names, grouping them together can mean larger groups of fans. Tonight I was excited to see Margaret Mizushima because I've enjoyed her two Timber Creek K-9 mysteries so much. Joining her would be Kevin Wolf, whose first book The Homeplace had just been released, and Shannon Baker, whose first Kate Fox mystery set in the Sandhills of Nebraska was new on the shelves.

Although Denis had never heard of any of the authors, he came with me, and I think he's happy that he did. Before the official start of the event, we had authors come out early to chat with fans.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Kronenfeld.

Margarter Mizushima is the lady in the light-colored cardigan standing to the left in the background in the photo above, and author Jeffrey Siger is the white-haired gentleman standing next to Barbara Peters to the right. (Barbara is his editor.) When Siger arrived, I was sitting in my chosen folding chair while Denis was sitting in the back at the author signing table. As Jeff made his way through the bookstore, he kissed the cheeks of every woman he met. After a few minutes, he came to me and I got kisses, too. He then sat down to chat with me, and before we could get to the topic of books I warned him that I was going to stop calling him a "silver-tongued devil" and refer to him as "the kissing bandit" instead. I'm slowly gathering a list of authors whom I love to sit and chat with, and I have to admit that Jeffrey Siger is right at the top. I was almost sorry to see the actual event begin!

L to R: Shannon Baker, Barbara Peters, Margaret Mizushima, Kevin Wolf.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Kronenfeld.

To begin, Patrick King who's in charge of the Croak and Dagger book club which meets at The Poisoned Pen, had a few questions for Margaret Mizushima. Her first book Killing Trail was that club's favorite book last year.

Where did the characters Mattie Cobb and Robo come from?

"I had a friend in Bellingham who was a K-9 handler, and she handled a dog named Robo," Margaret replied. "One time they were conducting a search, and the explosives went off while the two were inside the building. Handler and dog survived, but they both had lung issues, and Robo was deafened, so he had to retire. My friend allowed me to shadow her while she trained, and she told me Robo stories."

Margaret Mizushima
She went on to tell us that Mattie is a compilation of several traits of people she knows. Mizushima spent twenty-five years as a speech therapist, and her husband is a veterinarian.

Margaret developed the character of Cole Walker before Mattie, and Patrick told her that one of the things the book club enjoyed so much about Killing Trail was the veterinary insights.

For anyone who's curious, the "Timber Creek" area mentioned in Mizushima's books is the South Fork area of Colorado.

What's your favorite part of writing?

"Before I get to that, I have to say that Killing Trail was the first mystery I'd ever written, and it was heavily edited once I came under contract. It was originally written as a suspense novel instead of a mystery. Previously I'd written mainstream women's fiction. To get back to your question, I'd have to say that my favorite part of writing is characters and their family relationships."

"I would've thought that the favorite part of your writing was the dog!" Barbara quipped. (She also enjoyed the books.)

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Where did you get the idea for the drug element in Stalking Ground?

"It happened in my husband's practice," Margaret replied. "Stalking Ground was conceived in my husband's clinic, and I gave birth to it at my kitchen table.

"Drugs are coming into the United States from Mexico then through our national forests into Denver. And can I just say that I wasn't a mystery reader before I started, but now it's all I read!"

While we laughed and clapped, Patrick King left the interview area and Barbara Peters took his place. It was time to get to know the other two authors who'd joined us that evening.

Kevin Wolf is the current Tony Hillerman prize holder for unpublished fiction. (In order to be eligible to win, a writer's manuscript has to be unpublished, and it has to be set in the American Southwest.) Before they went any further, Barbara and Kevin told us that the Tony Hillerman Prize was moving to the Western Writers of America, and would be awarded through that organization in the future.

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"Why Colorado?" Barbara asked, talking about the setting of his first book, The Homeplace.

"My great-grandfather was a homesteader in eastern Colorado," Kevin replied, "so there's a family connection. Writing the book really did feel like 'going back to the homeplace.'

He also mentioned that he had been given something that relatively few authors are: input into the cover art chosen for his book. Then Margaret Mizushima said that she, too, had had input into the cover art for her book. I know that few authors do, so it was unusual to have two who did sitting in the same room!

It's been sixteen years since Chase Ford-- Wolf's main character-- has been home. He left as a high school basketball star, got into the NBA, and as a star rookie became famous during a championship game. Then he was injured, and at last finds himself returning home.

Kevin Wolf
"There are three times in the book when Chase says he's 'outta here,' but there's always something that happens to keep him there," Wolf told us.

In The Homeplace, "each character tells a little piece of the story, so the reader knows more of what's going on than the individual characters.

Of the three authors that night, Wolf seemed the least comfortable in front of an audience, but I did notice that when everything ended, several people added copies of his book to their purchases. (Not that that's ever happened to me!) 

Now it was time for us to get to know more about the third author, Shannon Baker. I already knew a little about her from reading her first Nora Abbot mystery, Tainted Mountain, and from attending one of her panels at Left Coast Crime.

Shannon Baker
When asked why writing and why mysteries, Shannon said, "Sue Grafton wrote A Is for Alibi because it was safer than killing her ex." That definitely got her some laughs, although she wasn't really being funny.

Barbara praised "the wonderful ending to Stripped Bare," which is the first book in a new series set in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

"I always wanted to write about the Sandhills," Baker said. "It sits on the deepest part of the world's largest aquifer, and there's only .95 people per square mile.

"I was in a difficult marriage, and I survived by focusing on the Sandhills-- the landscape and the wildlife. After living there for twenty years, my husband had an affair right there in our town which had a population of two hundred."

All of us knew-- especially those of us who had lived in very small towns-- that this meant everyone knew about her husband's affair.

Baker continued, "All small communities are like Agatha Christie; they're just larger than a country house."

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"Yes, confined settings can add a great deal to a mystery," Peters commented.

As interviews (and conversations) often do, there was a bit of wandering from topic to topic. Shannon liked to raft down the Dismal River and told us that you had to be wearing the right harness-- a harness that could hold your beer for you, and that made us laugh once more.

Baker was in town for a Sisters in Crime meeting, and both she and Barbara mentioned that Hank Phillippi Ryan would also be there. Both are huge fans of Ryan, with Peters making us laugh again by telling us "There's nothing fake about Hank except possibly her eyelashes!"

Believe it or not, it was now time for some questions from the audience. (Time certainly flies at these events!)

L to R: Shannon Baker and Barbara Peters

One fan mentioned the settings and the authors' influences in each book. Mizushima's setting was greatly aided by her hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. Kevin Wolf admitted that he wanted his setting to be a character in his book, while Baker said, "My intent was 'Now you don't have to go there anymore.'" Barbara looked at the authors and said, "I love to read and learn about new places." (She wasn't the only one who felt the very same way.)

As far as writing goes, Mizushima found herself influenced by Margaret Coel ("two protagonists attracted to each other") and J.A. Jance's Joanna Brady series which "has a female sheriff in a rural setting."  When a fan asked what had happened to the original Robo, Margaret replied, "Robo had died of old age by the time I got to know his handler, Beth, but I did get to watch Beth train a new dog."

Once all questions had been asked and answered, it was time to fold up the chairs and form the signing line. Another fun and informative evening at The Poisoned Pen had come to an end!


  1. Sounds like another fantastic night at the PP, Cathy! On the one hand, it's nice, of course, when you really get to know one author a little better. On the other, meeting three just makes the experience so rich. Thanks for sharing.


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