She has published short stories, non-fiction and is the author of two series, An Italian Restaurant Series, published by Simon and Schuster and the Val Cameron mystery series published by Henery Press.
Tell us a little bit about your dissertation, which was on the nature of suspense. What lessons can writers learn from this?
Well, I argue that suspense isn’t limited to crime fiction; it occurs naturally in all storytelling. One passage I remember as filled with suspense is a lengthy paragraph from Henry James’s late, great novel, The Ambassadors, in which he describes a lady’s glove falling to the ground. We know that gravity will bring that glove down to the ground, so where’s the suspense? Who will retrieve it? What does it signify? Will this interaction break the ice? Such a simple image and so fraught with delicious dread. I think writers can hear in this example that slight occurrences and objects can carry great meaning.
Did that lead to your first book on “The Everything Guide to Edgar Alan Poe?
No, not directly. The Poe book happened twenty-five years after my dissertation. But my area of “expertise” is nineteenth century American lit, and, of course. . .that’s Poe. And even though I had read, loved, and taught Poe, it really wasn’t until I got the book contract to write The Everything Guide that I came to understand his true centrality to our national literature. The more I researched and delved in order to do him credit in that book, the more I discovered the breadth of his originality. Nice, after all those years, to keep right on learning!
Any revelations about Poe that mystery readers would be surprised to learn?
He loved cats. He loved his little home. He was popular in school. He was a powerful swimmer. He had a wonderful speaking voice. He was a good dresser. He liked highly accomplished women. He was a bad judge of character (e.g., he unwittingly made his arch-enemy his literary executor). He was an excellent cryptographer. He served in the Army. He attended the funeral of Thomas Jefferson. He tried – only once – to kill himself, with an overdose of laudanum (the only time he ever took an opiate), after he was rebuffed by a woman he romanced. He considered himself first a poet.
Your first book in the Italian Restaurant series “You Cannoli Die Once,” was a funny culinary mystery which was nominated for the prestigious Agatha Award for best first novel. Tell us a little more about this series and will we see more?
Ah, the Angelotta family! I had a wonderful time writing Cannoli and its sequel, Basil Instinct. They tell the story of a family-owned Italian restaurant outside Philadelphia. Eve Angelotta, the head chef and narrator/sleuth, is the granddaughter of the woman who owns, runs, and swans around the restaurant. The grande dame. Eve, who tries to keep her grandmother at bay, is assisted by her cousins Landon and Choo Choo, sous chef and maitre d’, and murder keeps popping up on the menu. I find Eve extremely funny and would enjoy spending more time with her, but Simon and Schuster has not “re-upped.” We’ll see. Maybe, down the road, the Angelotta family will find a new publishing home and new stories.
You are also writing the Val Cameron mystery series, which is a traditional mystery series which is much more literary. Tell us a little about this series.
This is a fish-out-of-water mystery series because I love and deeply identify with that element in a novel. (I have often said I’m a fish-out-of-water everywhere.) Val is a senior editor at a NYC publishing house who, in the first book, Practical Sins for Cold Climates, is sent to the Canadian Northwoods to sign a reclusive bestselling thriller writer to a book contract. But first she has to find him. And she has no wilderness skills whatsoever. And she has to solve a cold case murder because the clues point precisely to the writer she’s there to sign. She suffers what I think of as The Canoe Trip From Hell with a local float plane pilot, the husband of the murdered woman. Book Two, A Killer’s Guide to Good Works, just came out last month. Lots going on for Val, again – the murder of her best friend, a curator, theft of holy relics, ancient documents, murders, and benighted prophecies.
You also write short stories. Which do you like better and which is harder for you, novels or short stories?
I like both, and I know there are novelists for whom the short story is a slippery, rambunctious form they can hardly comprehend, even though they ache to write it. For me, I can write a short story of the kind of heart and depth I seek in a solid week. But a novel? Not so much. In a way, I bring my own short story writing skills and sensibility to the novel. The short story writer in me naturally moves toward economy of language, (I hope) nicely honed imagery and effects, careful description of character, and a point. Here I channel Poe, on whose imaginary knee I learned that a story should strive for a single effect and be complete in one reading. I like that kind of coherence and intensity and think all that “story stuff” finds its way into my longer works.
Share a little bit about your background. In your blog article Congratulations you failed. You talk about difficulties in your freshman year of English in college. What made you keep going?
What kept me going was, essentially, the determination to prove them wrong. In my gut I knew I was a writer, and stubbornness made me figure out how to write college papers. I also just plain had to mature and consider the outrageous possibility that perhaps those freshman English teachers were right to give me a hard time. They may not have been particularly kind, but in a weird way, their lack of support made me determined to learn what I needed to. There’s a lot to be said for sheer stubbornness sometimes. I found a lot more support, incidentally, for my fiction and (eek!) poetry and plays among later college professors. They helped me on my way.
Which writers inspire you?
I appreciate so many writers, but for actual inspiration, in terms of writing work that addresses something that matters, I’d say: Graham Greene (top of the heap – gorgeous writer), Henry James, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, so many more. Among mystery writers, P.D. James, C.J. Sansom, S.J. Rozan, Jasper Fforde – I’m forgetting about a dozen others. . .
What is your favorite book and why?
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Written in the 50s, called the first “academic novel,” a beautifully plotted and peopled novel with great wit and heart, this book is a send-up of academe. The hero, Jim Dixon, in post-WWII England, finds himself trying to get ahead as a history instructor in one of the provincial colleges that sprang up in the wake of the war. Tradition and excellence are hard to find, while mediocrity and ego abound. Jim’s professional fate is linked to these folks, and the story describes – with great hilarity — his increasing rebellion against it all.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I keep re-reading When Things Falls Apart by American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, as a source of new ways of thinking; and I’m going to grapple with George Eliot’s Middlemarch in honor of our lawyer/friend who recently died who loved that book above all others. I need to understand why.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
You’ve heard the usual stuff: read a lot, be disciplined, join a writers’ group, and so on. I’ve got no complaints with those suggestions. But I would add these: 1) Seek balance in your life – it’s not all about writing, no matter what you think, and you prove nothing, not even your worth as a writer, by over-attention to it. 2) Stay open to new ways of thinking about your work. You may be a writer, but maybe you’re not a playwright. You may be a fiction writer, but maybe it’s not crime fiction. Discovery is ongoing.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included? What’s new?
Book Three in the Val Cameron series, Rules of Divine Assistance, comes out next June. Playful story, lots of action. Looking ahead, I’m writing a proposal for a mystery series set at the turn of the twentieth century in Cochin Province, India, about a Jewish family in the pearl trade. The heroine is a young woman determined to excel in the family business. Her first excursion finds her crossing paths with thieves and murderers who are after The Death Pearl, which her family owns. It has disappeared and may be lost forever. I’m also working a mystery called In the Hall of Broken Things, set in present-day New York, in which my heroine, who directs the Room of the Arcane at the NYPL, investigates murders arising from a newly discovered manuscript by. . .Edgar Allan Poe.
What is your favorite social media site?
I have a presence on a couple and, because it all gets too much to tend, let others slide.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
These are the best ways:
Blog: a tab on my website
Facebook: Shelley Costa Mystery Author gets you to my fan page; Shelley Costa gets you to my profile
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.
Thank you, Lynn! These were extremely interesting questions.