An Interview with Maggie Pill, Author of the “Sleuth Sisters” Series

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Maggie PillGreetings, Peg Herring!

To give our readers who are not familiar with your books a brief summary, your Sleuth Sisters books, written under the pseudonym of Maggie Pill, are written about three middle-aged sisters who take turns as narrators of the books. The older two start the Smart Detective Adjective, while the youngest is eager to butt in and join. The plots are all very exciting, with plenty of intrigue and twists, but the power in the books is the lessons we learn about working together to form a stronger unit and empowering women to stand up for themselves, as well as to pass on this message of empowerment to future generations of women. I also like the way each sister has her own unique romantic relationship that she makes work for her and her man, thus showing that there is no one “right way” of doing things.

Tell me a little about yourself. What made you want to write in the first place, and what kind of background experiences do you bring to your writing?

I started out as a high school English teacher, the daughter, grand-daughter, and great-grand-daughter of teachers. I always wrote stories and poems for my students, but I never thought about publishing them. When I became drama director at the school, we had trouble finding plays with “good” parts (meaning funny) for the forty kids that wanted to be onstage, most of whom were girls. I wrote a play called Four Chicks, Three Hunks, and a Frog, which is a mash-up of “Sleeping Beauty, “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” and “The Frog Prince.” The audience loved it, and so did the publisher I sent it to. After that, there was no stopping me! I began writing mysteries as Peg Herring (historical and traditional genres). Unlike my surprisingly easy entry into publishing plays, it took me six years to get my first novel published.

How much of what you write is drawn from your own experiences and how much from imagination?

I don’t think any author can say she doesn’t use her experiences when writing. We absorb things we hear, see, and live through and they morph into “fiction” that isn’t truthful but is still true to life. I often start with a person I know in my head to help me make my characters real. In my humorous paranormal mystery, The Dead Detective Agency, one protagonist is Tori. She began as a student I once had, meaning she looks generally like her and has her determination and sweetness. The character becomes her own person though, and by about page ten, she bears little resemblance to the original. (Tori likes the idea that she inspired a character, though getting shot dead on Page One was less appealing.)

I do use events sometimes to move a plot along. Once in a book called Shakespeare’s Blood, I had the protagonist get invited to go to England as a companion to an older woman whose family didn’t want her to travel alone. I was told by a contest judge that the idea of a modern woman being taken on a trip as a companion was ridiculous and only happened in Jane Austen novels. Oddly enough, that exact offer had been made to someone I knew. Writers often joke that we can’t put a lot of the weird stuff that goes on into our books. Even though it might happen in the real world, in a book people won’t believe it.

Each sister has a very distinct character and voice when she narrates. How do you keep them straight? Do you identify with one in particular?

I started out thinking of myself as Barb, the practical one, but over time I began to see all of the sisters as parts of me. I can be as soft as Faye and as shallow as Retta, though I hope I have a little of each of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. My own two sisters are supportive, so some of the feelings we have for each other come into the book: loyalty, fun, memories, and love. My fictional characters are crusaders though, so they are more likely to act on their love of justice, Barb because it’s right, Faye because it’s kind, and Retta because she wants to see if she can do it. None of us is much for flirting and high fashion, but I chose to make Retta a sassy type so she can create trouble. She always comes through in a pinch though, having more courage than most.

It is difficult when writing the books to keep track of who knows what. Retta is likely to go behind Barb’s back, but she tells Faye what she knows. Barb tries to keep Retta out of her business, so Retta has to find things out by using her cunning. Faye feels bad when Retta’s left out, but she doesn’t share her opinions much with anyone. As I write, I have to give them reasons to share information and make sure they each know what they need to know to solve the mystery.

Your books are full of animals. You have the 2 Dogs named in the title of the second book, plus horses and even reindeer! Can I take it you’re an animal person? What pets do you have or did have who were especially memorable to you? Did you ever have a reindeer?

All my life I’ve had animal friends. We grew up on a farm a lot like the one in the books, though we didn’t have any exotic animals. We had ponies as kids, and my dad boarded horses from Mackinac Island during the winter, so we learned to ride. In my own family we’ve always had dogs and cats, most of them strays picked up along the way. Now that we travel a lot, we’ve stopped adopting new fur babies. We have only a very old cat who pretty much runs the house, and she’s probably the closest animal friend I’ve ever had, simply because she’s been around for more than two decades. I am god-mother to my brother’s dogs, who live nearby, so I sort of have two black Labs and a Newfoundland, who became Styx in the books. My sister had a dog once who was much like Faye’s Buddy, fiercely loyal to her and not very tolerant of anyone else.

The reindeer belong to friends who live nearby, and they were kind about sharing information about them with me. I had the misconception that they’d be shy animals, like the wild deer that live on our property, but they’re very curious about people and love attention—as well as treats.

A major theme in your books is inspiring women to be the best they can be and to pass that on to future generations. What women in your life particularly inspired you?

Definitely our mother first and foremost. She was strong but loving, proud of whatever we did but insistent that we do our best. She went to college against all odds, with a farm to run and two (later three and then four) children to raise. She became a beloved teacher, and people still tell me today how she made them feel loved and wanted in her classroom.

Both my grandmothers were also influential. We shared the farm with my paternal grandparents and despite crippling arthritis, my Scottish gran was very active. We gathered eggs. We weeded the garden. If we sat down, it was to shell peas or husk corn. My mother’s mom was always available and willing to help, and my little German gram never got old. We joked about her taking care of “little old ladies” when she was well past retirement age. Another women who inspired me was a neighbor who was like a second mother. Never in all the years I knew her did I hear her say an unkind thing to or about anyone. As you can see, I was surrounded by strong, loving women who were great examples. Thinking as an author, Margaret Atwood inspires me, because she’s never settled into writing “another of the same” book simply to please the public. She takes risks, and I admire that.

Maggie Pill is a pseudonym for Peg Herring. Why the pseudonym, and how did you choose this one?

As I said, I was writing historical and traditional mysteries, and I wanted to try a cozy, but I wasn’t sure I could write something funny. I also wanted to wade into self-publishing, having learned a lot from my years with three different publishers. Still, if I wrote and self-published a book that failed miserably, my traditional publishers were liable to be unhappy with me. To solve these problems, I “borrowed” my grandmother’s name, made it into Maggie Pill, and published an e-book called The Sleuth Sisters. It became very popular, and someone said, “Please release it in print, so I can give it to a friend.” So I did. Then someone said, “My mother would love this book, but she can only do audio.” So I went to ACX and put the book up for auditions. I was lucky enough to be picked up by Actors’ Audio in Chicago, who hired three actresses, Anne Jacques, Laura Bednarski, and Judy Blue, to read the different sisters’ chapters. I thought it was a great idea to do it that way. The first book sold well enough that I started writing a second book, 3 Sleuths, 2 Dogs, 1 Murder. Now my husband thinks it’s funny that Maggie sometimes gets invited to book events when Peg isn’t. Grandma would love it!

Barb sneaks around town doing “correction events” in which she stealthily improves the world by fixing the grammar on public signs. As a grammarian myself, I must admit to wishing I could join her. Have you ever done a correction event yourself?

I’m off duty as a corrections officer after twenty-six years in the tenth grade. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice, but I’m not a grammar snob, and I recognize that we all make errors. Besides, grammarians themselves don’t always agree (see next question). People speak as they choose, but it irks me when efforts aren’t made to present information to the public in proper form. Before you post a sign, send out a newsletter, or give a speech, hire an editor. Ask a friend who uses correct English to check your work. Use spell check. Come on, people!

I’m thinking the next book will focus on Barb’s night-time activities, and they will get her into big trouble!

In Sleuthing at Sweet Springs, Barb and Retta get into the Battle of the Oxford Comma. [For those unfamiliar with this grammatical term, it refers to the question of whether writers ought to put a comma in front of every item in a list or skip the comma that would otherwise go in front of the conjunction, usually the word “and,” that goes before the last item in a list.] What stance do you personally take on this all-important topic?

I am a strong proponent of the Oxford comma. It doesn’t hurt a thing to put it in, and it often clarifies a sentence. For example: John, Mike and I went to the party. Are you telling John that you and a friend attended, or are you telling me that three of you went? Punctuation is all about clarity, and I hate it when authors confuse me with run-on sentences or no quotation marks. When I’m into a story, I don’t want to have to stop and re-read to figure out what’s going on, who’s speaking, or whether they’re talking out loud or to themselves.

What books do you enjoy reading now, and what did you grow up reading?

Growing up and into young adulthood, I read the classic mystery writers from Christie to MacDonald, and I also devoured historical novels of all kinds, memorably Mary Renault, Leon Uris, James Michener, Mary Stewart, Jean Plaidy, and of course, Frank Yerby. (Where else was a nice Methodist girl going to learn about passion?)

These days, I lean toward historical and traditional mysteries. A few of my favorite writers are Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Charles Todd, and Anne Perry. I also seek out authors who are talented but don’t get enough attention, like P.J. Parrish and Michael Orenduff. For nonfiction I read about the brain. I’m fascinated with what we’re learning about how it works. In literary fiction, I’m a big fan of Kristin Hannah, Margaret Atwood, and I’m currently reading/loving M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. I also finally read Go Set a Watchman recently and loved it. Don’t let people scare you away from it!

If readers have questions for Peg, they can reach her on Facebook, visit either Peg’s () or Maggie’s website (http://maggiepill.maggiepillmysteries), or email [email protected]

Click here to read my earlier review of Sleuth Sisters

Click here to read my earlier review of 3 Sleuths, 2 Dogs, 1 Murder

Click here to read my earlier review of Murder in the Boonies

Click here to read my earlier review of Sleuthing at Sweet Springs

Website: www.pegherring.com

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