Leave Room for Serendipity

August 30, 2017   •   By Susan Dunlap

MARGARET MARON CONCLUDES the NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series with a story that Publishers Weekly calls “the top of her game.” Take Out combines the best of both of her series settings — i.e., she has created a small town within the city. 

Margaret Maron is the author of 33 books, 20 featuring Judge Deborah Knott in Colleton County, North Carolina (near Raleigh), nine with NYPD Police Lieutenant Sigrid Harald, two stand-alones, and two short story collections. Her first Deborah Knott mystery, Bootlegger’s Daughter, won every single US mystery award presented for Best Novel. Her books are New York Times bestsellers. Mystery Writers of America chose her as 2013 Grand Master, the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing. She has been president of Sisters in Crime and MWA and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Now, after this long and impressive career she says she is retiring. She has tied up the loose ends in the Deborah Knott series, and Take Out does it for Sigrid Harald, and, I have to say, it is very satisfying. If we must leave Sigrid Harald, this is the way to do it.

After I read Take Out, I interviewed Maron over phone and email.


SUSAN DUNLAP: Let’s talk first about your latest, and you say is the last book featuring NYPD Homicide Detective Sigrid Harald. What was the idea for Take Out? The first little tickle of an idea.

MARGARET MARON: Fugitive Colors was supposed to be the last Sigrid Harald novel, but as I was winding up my Judge Deborah Knott/North Carolina series, I realized that I had left several loose ends dangling back in New York: Sigrid’s artist lover had died in a car crash out in the hills above Los Angeles. Now I began to wonder just where he’d been headed when he decided to drive in those hills. And why?

Some valuable paintings were hidden in a tatty historical house. They needed to be found. Sigrid had been left almost paralyzed with grief, and I wanted to show her getting on with her life.

What about the murder itself? Where did that come from?

I used a familiar street down in Greenwich Village where I had seen people from that neighborhood leave take-out food on a bench for the homeless and the what-if? factor kicked in. What if the take-out food was poisoned? Was the poison meant for the man who wound up dying? Or had it been meant for the person who had left it there?

Now to move to the other end of your career — i.e., the beginning: the story I’ve heard you tell is that you wrote a short story with a NYC detective, a 2,500-word short story, which did not sell. So you rewrote it, doubling its word count. And rewrote and redoubled again till you had not the 10,000 words we might assume, but 60,000. You make it sound as easy as unfolding a sheet of paper again and again. But how did you do that? What was the process? Did you create an entirely new plot? New subplot? New roadblocks? Did you add more characterization?

I was a short story writer the first few years of my career and was convinced I could never write a book. But the short story market had almost completely dried up so I backed into writing that first novel. Yes, it began with a short story about a murder set in a college art department and the police lieutenant was male. It didn’t sell, so I gave him a sex change and broadened the scope. That didn’t sell. By the time I had added all the adjectives and adverbs I could get away with, I bit the bullet and interpolated a long subplot that finally brought the word count up to book length.

Were the first three chapters, in which you describe the college and the professors part of the additions? I can see what an achievement it was, describing 10, give or take, characters so clearly and amusingly and with the little mysteries that make up chapters. I couldn’t make myself stop reading at the end of the chapters even though there were things I needed to do. My question is: Was there anything you learned in doing that much description?

It was a bit of a juggling act to give each of those characters enough individuality to let my readers keep them separate, but remember: it was a college art department, and art departments thrive on individuality. What I really learned from that book though was to leave room for serendipity. I had never outlined my short stories. I would invent a plot and then create characters who would jump through the necessary hoops. But the sheer length of a novel meant giving the characters more depth. Imagine my surprise when the person I thought was the killer refused to do it. “I’m not that kind of person,” she said — and she was right. She wasn’t. Thankfully, another character volunteered and not only did he have a better motive, but he also had a more inventive method. Since then I’ve often started books without a clue as to who did it. In fact, in one book, the killer changed three or four times. Clearly, I never learned how to outline.

Deborah Knott seems similar to you — a gregarious woman who grew up in North Carolina, as you did. But Sigrid Harald is in many ways your inverse — different background, different personality, reactions, and who lives in a place with which you are very familiar, but where you do not live. When you are writing Sigrid, are you Sigrid? If so, how does that change you? In any case, what are the challenges and perhaps surprises of writing someone so different?

My favorite writing quote is from Walt Whitman: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” When I get behind the eyes of whatever character is telling the story, I do become that character. At least, I try to. I see, feel, taste, smell, hear whatever that character would be experiencing in that scene.

Because she came first, Sigrid Harald is actually the positive of Deborah Knott’s negative. Sigrid is uncomfortable in her skin, a loner with no siblings, slow to open up to others, and with such a dry sense of humor that people are surprised she even has one. So I made Deborah self-confident, impulsive, ready to laugh at herself and her large rambunctious family. (She has 11 older brothers.) I used to say that writing Sigrid was like putting on a jacket that was one size too small so that I felt constricted. Writing Deborah was like driving too fast down a backcountry road with all the windows open.

Picking up a series after 25 years has to present challenges. Back then you were surrounded by the life you were writing about. Now you have to think about settings, attire, assumptions, et cetera. So, big challenge to write Take Out. What were the biggest challenges? How did you manage to set it in the mid-’90s and make it seem contemporary?

At my age, 20 years wasn’t that long ago. I just had to remind myself that cell phones were not ubiquitous but tethered to a wall jack, the Trade towers still stood, subways still took tokens, and one could smoke in restaurants, bars, and at work. Sigrid doesn’t care about fashion or contemporary music, so that was nothing I had to notice either. Greenwich Village has changed very little. The street life remains similar, so I only needed to sprinkle in a few key details to bring the ’90s back.

Have any of your works been optioned? What would you say would be the most likely? (My own choice would be Bootlegger’s Daughter.)

There have been nibbles but no solid offers. I don’t think the Sigrid stories are gritty enough to interest a producer. Not much sex or violence or exploding cars. I love the way the BBC adapts modern mysteries set in sleepy villages, but that’s not likely to happen here. Deborah’s very first appearance was in a short story — “Deborah’s Judgment” — and I’ve always thought that might made a good one-episode pastoral TV program without the complications of her large sprawling family.

Where do you start with a book? Plot idea, character, setting, something else?

With the Sigrid series, it’s usually plot. A murder occurs and Sigrid and her team arrive to investigate. With Deborah, it’s setting. I decide what aspect or locale of North Carolina I want to explore and then I send her to hold court there and watch what happens.

How do you write on a short schedule? More than once you called me at 11:00 p.m., to talk plot. Somewhere in the conversation it would strike me that it was 2:00 a.m. your time. Do you sleep? How do you write?

I’ve always been a night owl. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve actually seen sunrises in the same context as larks instead of after working through the whole night. The gears simply don’t start meshing till I’ve been up for at least six or eight hours.

You are a games player, a legend for a game of Scrabble you won by making three seven-letter words! Weekends at your house revolve around Scrabble in the gazebo, Scrabble in the breezeway, Balderdash in the living room, and when midnight has passed maybe just another couple games of Scrabble. Have games always been a part of your life?

I do love games and I think it’s so kind that you indulge me when you come to visit. And yes, I do play solitaire, but that’s to unblock my subconscious when I’ve reached an impasse with the book. Physically shuffling the deck and laying out a hand on the counter behind me (not on the computer) lets my brain switch sides. After two or three hands, my subconscious will usually come up with a solution for going forward on the book.

You have walked the tightrope of taking a stand on social and political issues in the context of compelling mysteries. You yourself have protested with Moral Mondays in Raleigh, lifted a hammer with Habitat for Humanity. You were the second president of Sisters in Crime. How do you see your role as a writer, a New York Times best-selling author and a writer particularly well known in North Carolina?

Basically, I just see myself as a citizen who wants the fairness of a level playing field for everyone. I’ve been saddened by the mean-minded backward path North Carolina has taken in the last few years. Resegregation along economic lines is a reality, as are the efforts to curtail the reproductive rights of women, the redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the one percent, and redistricting to achieve voter suppression. Usually, I content myself with letters to the editor, but sometimes it does spill over into the books. I’ve never wanted to use my books as a soapbox, yet funding for mental health, better schools, a more humane medical system, fairer taxes, or sensible drug laws that are less about punishment and more about rehabilitation can make me forget that I’m supposed to be entertaining, not preaching.

Seems to me, you write of life as it is. It’s what makes your characters who they are. Their struggles are what creates the richness of the stories. But, for those of us who live in California, it also shows us North Carolina as it is, and the problems of New York in 1990 through a number of lenses.

Thank you. New York has always been a popular setting. Rural America less so. I like to think I was one of the early proponents of the regional mystery, much like Tony Hillerman, for instance, where the setting is as important as the characters. Not the mean streets and not Deliverance either.

One more thing. You say this is your last book, not that I entirely believe that of you or any writer. But if it is, are you really “retiring”? And how do you feel about that?

As a writer yourself, Sue, you know that writers never walk away from their keyboards entirely. It’s liberating to feel that I’m done with contracts and deadlines and I have no plans to write another novel, but I did begin with short stories and I will continue with them. In fact, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine just bought two that should be published in the coming year. I’m also toying with the idea of a set of linked short stories set in Rome circa 197 AD. It’s a new adventure!

What advice would you give a new writer?

Finish the book. And read, read, read!


Susan Dunlap is the author of the Darcy Lott and Jill Smith mystery series.