Author Conversations: Paula Munier And Jeffrey B. Burton
Paula Munier, author of upcoming novel The Wedding Plot (July 19, 2022), recently had a conversation with Jeffrey B. Burton, whose upcoming book The Lost will be released on June 28, 2022.
In this conversation, that follows, Munier and Burton discuss their background, inspirations for their stories and their settings, and more.
JBB: Hey Paula, thank you for taking time to speak with me. You’ve had such an interesting career – from reporter to literary agent to bestselling author. Can you tell me about yourself and your background?
My father was in the military so I grew up all over, from Georgia to Germany, Oklahoma to Ohio, and everywhere in between. I was an only child, and in a world where I was always the new kid, my books and my dog were my most constant companions. My ninth grade teacher told my mother I should be a writer, and I ignored them both, until I started writing articles in college for extra money.
I was an only child, and in a world where I was always the new kid, my books and my dog were my most constant companions.
When I found myself divorced and broke with two kids to support, I talked my way into an editorial job at a business magazine in Monterey. I worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines as a reporter and editor until I landed my first job in book publishing, for Prima (now part of Crown)—and I was home. I worked as acquisitions editor for nearly twenty years before becoming an agent. I started writing fiction seriously at that time as well.
I know you were a reporter as well, Jeff. Tell us about that….
JBB: Though I got my BA in Journalism at the University of Minnesota (Go Gophers!), my emphasis was in Advertising/Copywriting—kind of what Don Draper’s team did on the TV show Mad Men. Out of college I did some freelance advertising, unfortunately the emphasis was on the free.
I butchered my junior high yearbook for a direct mailer regarding a computer tutorial for schoolchildren. The cover was a keyboard, but a few keys were missing, replaced with the smiling faces of my old classmates. I made a darned nice prototype, but they lacked the budget and just went with the image of the keyboard instead. I wound up in instructional design, creating online courses for learning management systems, while writing short stories on the side. About a dozen years back, I dove headfirst into writing full-length mysteries and haven’t looked back.
The Wedding Plot is the fourth novel in the Mercy Carr mystery series (following A Borrowing of Bones, Blind Search, and The Hiding Place). Can you tell me a bit about the trouble Mercy and Elvis get into (and, hopefully, free of) in this outing?
PM: I live in northern New England, where the seasons are as distinct as they are beautiful. My books are set in Vermont, and I write the books season by season. After The Hiding Place, which was set during that treacherous transition between winter and spring, my editor said, “No more snow!” Which was fine, because that put us right on track for The Wedding Plot, which is set in June, when the wild orchids bloom right along with the brides. Mercy’s grandmother is getting married in what promises to be the destination wedding of the year, held at one of Vermont’s most exclusive resorts—but when people start turning up dead, Mercy and Elvis must save the bride and groom, before death do they part.
Bridezillas, familial melodrama, and murder—all great fun to write about!
In your latest Mace Reid mystery, The Lost, you’ve got familial melodrama to spare. Tell us about your new book.
JBB: A home invasion turned kidnapping at the mansion of billionaire financier Kenneth J. Druckman brings Mace Reid and his golden retriever, Vira, to Glencoe, a wealthy northern suburb of Chicago. Druckman was assaulted, left behind while his wife and young daughter were taken for ransom.
Brought to the scene by the FBI, Reid specializes in human remains detection, and Vira is the star pupil in his pack of cadaver dogs he’s dubbed The Finders. After Vira discovers the dead body of the mother, former supermodel Calley Kurtz, in the woodland behind Druckman manor, everyone is on high alert to find Druckman’s missing daughter before the five-year-old disappears forever.
A few months before Covid smashed its way onto the scene, I attended a countryside wedding where, at the end of the reception (after a night of dinner and dance), the newlyweds were going to stay overnight in a stylish-looking treehouse (they gave tours before the wedding). It’s what I visualized when I read about the treehouse Mercy stays in at the Lady’s Slipper Inn where much of The Wedding Plot takes place. Is there a resort or location that you modelled the Lady’s Slipper Inn after because, if so, I’ll have to add it to my bucket list?
The Lady’s Slipper Inn is my own creation, but it is inspired by the historic inns of Vermont, like The Equinox and the Woodstock Inn & Resort, and by the over-the-top luxurious Twin Farms, which was named Hotel of the Year by Forbes Travel Guide in 2020.
In The Lost, the action takes place in some very swanky venues among the uber-rich. What inspired those settings?
JBB: One subplot in The Lost is a battle of wits between old money, as characterized by eccentric billionaire Audrick Verlinden, and new money, as represented by Kenneth J. Druckman. Verlinden lives in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin—a playground for the rich back in the day—from where he sets events in motion per a most twisted sense of justice. Druckman lives in a lakeshore mansion in Glencoe, along Chicago’s North Shore. And, of course, there’s Mason Reid, a man of meager means—living paycheck to paycheck—who finds himself and his pack of finders playing catchup in a battle royal in which nothing is what it appears to be.
I love how you begin each chapter with quotes from famous authors on . . . well . . . love. It not only ties into your novel, but you’ve made it much easier for me to enhance future Valentine’s Day and Anniversary cards (provided my wife doesn’t read this). Were these quotes ones you’ve collected over the years or did you compile them all for the novel?
I collect quotations on all manner of subjects, and I read a lot of poetry, and inevitably this informs my work. As a reader, I’m a sucker for chapter openers, and I like to use them as a device in my writing. I have great fun finding just right quote for each chapter; it’s my favorite way to procrastinate!
What’s your favorite way to procrastinate when you should be writing?
JBB: My beagle, Milo, is fully aware he gets two walks a day. He’ll even come nudge me when he knows it’s past time. We’re spoiled as we’ve got three nature trails within walking distance. If I’m not in the writing mood, I’ll take the rascal out for an extended hike. I suspect the neighbor kids all think of me as that crazy talking-to-himself guy, when in reality I’m thinking out loud about dialog or trying to memorize a phrase to jot down as soon as I get back home.
Whether it’s a red herring or not, the making of cheese weighs heavily in The Wedding Plot. You’ve instilled in me a desire to select something tastier than the boring brands I’ve been eating since time immemorial. Are you a cheese aficionado? If so, do you have a few recommendations, especially for a novice like me?
You can’t live in northern New England and not love cheese. We have wonderful artisan cheesemakers here—Vermont even has a very popular Cheese Trail that attracts cheese lovers from all over the world.
You can start with something basic Cabot’s Alpine Cheddar, of course, but my fave are the goat cheeses from the one-and-only Lazy Lady Farm.
Munier: In The Lost, Mace and the dogs snack on pretzels. Are you a pretzel aficionado, and do you get complaints from readers about giving the dogs in your books people food? I sure do….
JBB: Though I do love me my pretzels, I don’t get complaints about people food as much as I’ve had a few readers get shaken up over the dogs being placed in danger. I’ve even had one or two reviewers on Goodreads or Amazon state they stopped reading because the dogs were in danger. I shake my head and think about the dogs in the Jack London novels or Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller or the Mercy Carr series . . . hey, those pups were in danger, too. Turns out I’m in great company.
One of the many things I admire about your writing is your ability to lay down a scene. You’ll have Mercy and Elvis pull up in Mercy’s Jeep and, while Mercy’s internalizing her difficulties with her mother or contemplating the death of her old love, the description of the scene is being expertly woven (the types of trees and plants and flowers, the goat barn, the architecture and history of the Lady’s Slipper Inn, etc.). It rolls perfectly off your tongue. As a writer, this part is most difficult and time consuming for me (a ton of Googling), yet you make it appear effortless. Is it as easy and effortless as you make it appear?
Nothing about writing is effortless. That said, exploring the flora and fauna of New England might be the greatest pleasure of writing the series. We live on 19 acres of woodland full of wildlife, so it’s home to me. This love of the wilderness is something I share with my heroine Mercy Carr. Like me, she does her best thinking in the woods.
For me, the weaving of the various elements of fiction—inner monologue, description, action, dialogue, etc.—is a process that I must refine in multiple drafts. I tend to overdo the nature and underplay Mercy’s emotional life in early drafts….
Munier: How do you approach the rewriting process?
JBB: First, I get the grumbling out of the way and then dive in. It took a while, but I’ve come to realize every time I edit or rewrite or incorporate an editor’s feedback, it makes the work better. My first book in the Mace Reid mystery series, The Finders, was originally a standalone novel, but my editor at St. Martin’s Press wanted me to break it into two books. Did they not realize that my first draft was perfection incarnate, and they should not so much as touch a comma? Did they not realize that, Paula? Of course my editor was right—there were too many episodic events occurring for one novel—and, hey, I wound up with a series.
Okay, Paula, enough pussyfooting around – let’s talk dogs. Why dogs? What prompted you to write a K-9 mystery series?
I was writing The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings (Writers Digest/PRH) and I needed a first chapter I could use as the basis for a number of exercises—revision, story questions, etc.—and I couldn’t use one written by anyone else. So I had to write one. Along with many of my fave New England crime writers, I’d just helped out at a fundraiser for Mission K9 Rescue, hosted by the inimitable thriller writer Leo Maloney.
Mission K9 Rescue is a nonprofit dedicated to assisting and finding forever homes for retiring and retired military working dogs, contract working dogs and PD-K9s. At the event I met some of these dogs and their handlers—and I fell in love. Inspired, I wrote the opening chapter for the writing book, featuring Mercy Carr, an Army MP home from Afghanistan, and a bomb-sniffing dog named Elvis. I set it in Vermont, my happy place. My agent Gina Panettieri read it, and told me: “You should write that novel.”
Follow up: Can you tell us a little about your own rescue dogs?
As for our real-life menagerie, we’ve got Bear the Newfoundland-retriever rescue, who inspired Susie Bear in the novels; Bliss the Great Pyrenees-Australian cattle dog rescue; our pandemic puppy Blondie, a Malinois rescue (our own Elvis!), and Ursula The Cat, a rescue torbie tabby who does not think much of the dogs.
Your turn to talk dogs, fictional and otherwise….
JBB: As a child I had the world’s biggest dachshund (perhaps it was a matter of perspective as I was seven). I named him Barrel after the game Barrel of Monkeys. He was strong as hell and the neighbor kids wound up in our backyard for endless games of tug-of-war. Unfortunately, Barrel only lived seven years.
His death crushed me. I thought I’d never get another pup as a result of that level of sadness. However, when my wife and I got our first house, we became the dog people we were meant to be. In fact, each of the books in the Mace Reid series is dedicated to one of the dogs I’ve had the honor of sharing my life with.
So, what’s an average day for you in a household of three dogs, a cat, and a variety of writing deadlines?
I’m an agent by day, so much of my 9-5 is spent working with clients and editors and publishers. I do most of my writing late at night and early in the mornings. I wake up, feed the cat and the dogs, throw the ball around for Blondie (she lives for a game of fetch), and get to work. I take a break for lunch, and walk the dogs before settling back down to work. If it’s growing season, I sneak in some gardening, too. I’m lucky to work at home except when I’m on the road. I get a lot of writing done on planes and trains and buses, so I’m doubly glad to be (sort of) traveling again.
You have your own pack at home. How do you juggle dogs and books and writing?
JBB: My beagle keeps me company 24/7, but Lucy the Pomeranian is currently sitting on my lap, no doubt reading what I’m typing to make sure I’m not libeling her. I am a binge writer. For the most part I poke about at an okie-dokie rate, but when I’m on a binge—that’s when the sausage gets made. Three or four days of caffeine and junk food will fly by and I’ll find I’ve cranked out thousands and thousands of words. I love it when these binges strike as that’s when I make the most headway.
Beagles! Freddie was so mischievous I had to write a book about him. There are so many stories about Freddie—the only dog we ever had with his own shrink and Prozac prescription—but the most challenging was coming up with a suitable constraint for the refrigerator when he figured out how to open the door. When it came to food, Freddie was a genius.
Let’s hear your best beagle story:
JBB: Okay, on one of our morning strolls Milo and I encountered some neighbors setting up their driveway for a garage sale. I scanned about to see if they had any table stacked with used books for sale; however, Milo had something entirely different in mind. When I glanced down, his hind leg was up in the air as he streamed onto a box of goodies as yet to be unpacked. I may have jumped ten feet in the air. Thankfully, nobody spotted Milo doing this and—don’t judge me, Paula—we fled the scene at once.
Let’s see, Paula—now I’m going to rattle off all the plot spoilers in your mystery. Oh, wait, it appears we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with me. And if anyone is looking for a great summer read, chock-full of twists and turns and head feints, be sure to RSVP a copy of The Wedding Plot at a bookstore near you.
Thank you, Jeff, and Mystery Tribune! And don’t forget to look for The Lost, Jeff’s fabulous new Mace Reid K-9 mystery!
Mystery Tribune’s archive of conversations with notable authors in crime, mystery and thriller genre is available here.