What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I hate to say this, but it wouldn’t involve writing. A perfect day would be me alone with my camera (and a big memory card) in a beautiful place with lots of wildlife and other intriguing things to photograph. Taking a perfect picture of a place or thing is every bit as satisfying as writing a perfect description of it.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I seem to wear a lot of blue, but it’s not a conscious “signature” color. Since one friend expressed shock when she saw me wearing something other than blue, I’ve tried to vary my choices. Isn’t it irksome how we get into ruts, always choosing the comfortable and familiar without realizing what we’re doing? That’s a bad habit for a writer. No fragrance — perfume makes me sneeze!
Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
I had one teacher, and only one, who told me that I had a talent for writing and should develop it. Most of my inspiration has come from reading. The work of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers had the strongest influence on me. Although they had different styles and tones, both were southerners, as I am, and wrote about ordinary people — poor, working class, middle class — living through the kind of domestic dramas that can break hearts and taint souls but will never make headlines. Their work made make see that daily life contains all the inspiration any writer will ever need.
Do you listen to music when you write?
No, because I’m sensitive to sounds and music would distract me. Even the grandfather clock chiming in our foyer breaks my concentration sometimes.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Snicker’s — unpretentious but richly textured, with a surprising blend of smoothness and crunch, darkness and lightness, and thoroughly satisfying!
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Rural areas all over the U.S. are under pressure from development, and that gave me the starting point for the plot. A big developer wants to build a resort for the rich in the Blue Ridge Mountains community of Mason County, and the promise of sudden wealth and plentiful jobs — at the expense of the land and a way of life many cherish — divides neighbors and families. The guns come out and several people are killed. But as I said, the development fight is just the starting point. The controversy re-ignites old issues, rivalries, jealousies, and creates a storm of dangerous confusion in the mind of one older man suffering from Alzheimer’s.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I don’t do it deliberately, but every book I write has a strong parent-child element. These relationships are all dysfunctional, of course; they wouldn’t be much use to me in a crime novel if they were perfect. I started with Rachel and Judith in The Heat of the Moon and I’ve added one or more bad parent-child relationships in every book since. As for why, I’m not sure I want to get into that!
Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
When I began writing about Rachel in The Heat of the Moon, she was tormented by memories she didn’t understand and intimidated by her authoritarian mother, Judith. The bravest thing she’d done was defying Judith’s wish that she become a medical doctor by choosing veterinary medicine instead. She had to wage a psychological battle with her mother to find out the truth about her family, and she emerged a stronger but deeply scarred person. In every book, she’s faced challenges that have strengthened her, and she’s developed into a confident woman who not only stands up for herself but doesn’t hesitate to defend those who are weaker. Her love for animals and her inability to stand by and do nothing when she witnesses injustice are the qualities that define her.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
My heroine is Jane Goodall, and Rachel feels the same deep connection to animals and desire to protect them that Dr. Goodall demonstrates. She has our own real-life veterinarian’s approach to patients and clients. In her personality and character traits, though, I’ve tried hard not to pattern Rachel on any actual person or to draw qualities from other writers’ characters. I want her to be uniquely herself, unlike anyone else. I’m afraid that if I started thinking of her as being like So-and-so, I’d lose my grasp on her.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
It would be fun to eavesdrop on a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Dennis Lehane. I’d love to ask Agatha Christie about the current state of crime writing — What would she make of the amount of action and violence against women in thrillers? Does she feel flattered or bemused when today’s cozies are likened to her books? Would she join Sisters in Crime? I would love to hear what Ruth Rendell and Janet Evanovich might have to say to one another. And Tess Gerritsen would improve any gathering.
What’s next for you?
I’m leaving Rachel to live in peace and quiet for a change while I write a psychological suspense novel that’s been growing in my imagination and demands to be recorded. I think leaving the familiarity of my series, at least for a while, will be good for me, and fun too.
Sandra Parshall is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard Mysteries. Although her series features a young female veterinarian and animals abound in the stories, the books aren’t cozies. They’ve been called thrillers, suspense novels, and dark mysteries, and the author considers them a blend of all three subgenres. Sandra and her journalist husband share their home in the Washington, DC, area with two unbelievably spoiled cats, Emma and Gabriel, who have acquired their own fan base on Facebook and never let Mom forget it for a second.
Sandra is a past member of the national board of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She interviews other writers regularly for the The Big Thrill, newsletter of International Thriller Writers, and she reviews crime fiction for the Washington Independent Review of Books.