Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Marcia Talley: Murder, She Wrote

It was a breezy, fall afternoon back in 2003 when I first interviewed librarian-turned-award-winning mystery writer Marcia Talley. We sat on the patio of her suburban Annapolis home, sipping hot coffee and talking about murder. Sixty-something Talley is not a serial killer, of course. Far from it. She has spent much of her adult life working as a librarian for the federal government, raising two daughters, and caring for Barry Talley, her college sweetheart, who recently retired after serving for 36 years as the Director of Musical Activities at the U.S. Naval Academy.

In 1999, her life changed when she landed a book contract with Dell Publishing, a division of Random House. The New York publisher commissioned her to write a three-book series about the capers of Hannah Ives, a smart, sassy, breast cancer-surviving sleuth. The first book, “Sing it to her Bones,” won Talley awards and accolades. The second, “Unbreathed Memories,” came out in 2000, winning more awards and more accolades. Part three, “Occasion of Revenge,” was published in August 200l.

This Christmas, she published book number seven in the Hannah Ives series, Dead Man Dancing her first hardback — this one published by Severn House Publishers — that will keep the royalty checks rolling and the fabulously brave and funny Ives alive and well.

A ROAD LESS TRAVELED Talley has not always been on the literary fast track. In 1993, Talley's life took a dramatic turn when she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix. She had previously overcome b bout with breast cancer in 1983. This second illness made her realize it was time to make a change. A big one. "I was under tremendous stress at work, and the commute was terrible," she explains. "Barry and I had always talked about the fact that stress can contribute to illness, and I was walking proof. I figured I could die at any minute, so why go on living a life that wasn't making me totally happy?"

What would make her happy, she knew, was writing. At first, she thought she'd create literary pieces, stories that were elegant, traditional, and a tad highbrow. She tried it for a while but found these stories didn't sell easily. Friends at her writers group in Annapolis convinced her to write in a style she loved. For Talley, that was the mystery novel.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT Despite her penchant for mystery novels, Talley wasn't convinced she could write one herself. At least, not one that a publisher would buy. She wrote anyway, coming up with plots and characters, clues and twists whenever she could—while making that long commute, baking bread and folding laundry.

She fleshed out her stories in a 9-1/2 x 6-inch yellow executive notebook she always carries in her briefcase. Once the story line was complete, Talley headed to a makeshift office she assembled in the corner of her daughter's old bedroom. There, she transcribed her notes onto an old laptop so worn that some of the letters were gone from the keycaps. Her writer’s group friends got the first glimpse at the story, made suggestions, and she incorporated those suggestions before sending out the story to editors. It is a process she still follows today.

Back then, many of the stories met with rejection letters and were tucked away in her daughter's antique dresser that doubles as Talley's filing cabinet. But she didn't give up. Instead, Talley took to writing long, fantastic letters about her life and sending them via e-mail to long-time friends—including the late Sara Ann Freed, then executive editor for Mysterious Press, an imprint of Warner Books (now Grand Central, a division of Hachette Books).

"She'd send me these wonderful, hilarious vignettes about her life," recalls Freed, who met Talley at an American Library Association conference in 1980. “I told her she had to write a novel. She said she didn't have time, and I said stop writing e-mails to your friends, you'll have time. I think I bullied her into it." Figuring she had nothing to lose, Talley started writing her first book the next day. (Talley shares: "Sara Ann died tragically young, at 57, of leukemia. I miss her every day.")

GOING FOR BROKE Even before those words of encouragement, Talley had been kicking around an idea for a novel. Based on a real murder in 1970 in her husband's hometown in western Kentucky, the plot centered in the death of a high school student who had gotten pregnant by a farmer. He didn't want the baby and didn't want anyone to find that he was having an affair with a minor, so he sent the girl to see a friend who tried to give her an abortion. He botched the procedure and the girl bled to death.

Events went from bad to worse: the farmer tied cement blocks to the girl's legs and tossed her into a cistern on a nearby farm. She wasn't found for years. "The story made the front page of the local newspaper," recalls Talley. "I'll never forget seeing the photograph that ran in the paper of the girl's parents walking hunched over along the dirt path away from the cistern after identifying the body. The look on their faces always haunted me, and I never could get it out of my head."

She figured readers would be mesmerized, too. Wanting to get her hands on those old newspaper clips, Talley traveled to Kentucky and went straight to the local library to search through old records. She came up empty—until she asked the librarian for help. "The librarian told me she thought that someday someone might want to look at those old newspaper stories, so she clipped the articles and tucked them away in a filing cabinet," Talley explains, pulling copies from her own files. "I couldn't believe my good luck. I will forever be indebted to that woman."

SNEAK PEEK: DEAD MAN DANCING Driving a wedge between sister Ruth and her fiance Hutch is not what Hannah intends when she recommends J & K Dance Studios to her sister. Ruth is determined to shine on her wedding day, but when Kay Giannotti, the svelte, stunning half of J & K floats across the floor to greet Hutch with a kiss, it's clear this isn't the first time they've met. Setting jealousy aside, Ruth dazzles the instructors with her footwork, and Jay Giannotti charms the couple into auditioning for "Shall We Dance?," a TV talent show. Then Ruth is sidelined by a brutal attack, and Hutch is partnered with Melanie, whose deafness is no bar to success. The couple is waltzing to a win, until a ruthless killer turns the competition into a blood sport. Hannah steps in, and the dancing gets down and dirty. Jealous partners, pushy mothers, brats in rhinestones, hired thugs ... Will Hannah discover who is capable of murder before the final tango? Buy the book.

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