Once a month or so, as the authors in my circle publish new books, I’ll interview them. We begin with R.J. Harlick, whose fifth novel, A Green Place for Dying, is published this week. This Canadian mystery is also a significant novel in its own right as it deals with the sensitive and important issue of missing aboriginal women. Pour yourself a cup of tea, pull up a chair and let’s chat with Robin.
About R.J. Harlick
Where do you live and why do you choose to live there?
First of all, thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me to do an interview. I always enjoy reaching out to new readers.
I am most fortunate to live in two places. Although I grew up in Toronto, I was very grateful to my husband for finding work in Ottawa, a much smaller and easier city to live in. And with its close proximity to cottage country we ended up building a log cabin in the wilds of West Quebec, less than an hour’s drive from our Ottawa home. Now I bide my time between the two homes and enjoy them equally.
Was there a moment that changed everything when you knew you were a writer?
Even after five books, I hesitate to call myself a writer because I still can’t believe that I am actually doing it. But there was a defining moment when I decided to write a novel. I had just passed a significant birthday and was asking myself what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Writing fiction had lurked in the back of my mind since I was a child, but I’d never actually acted on it. Looking for a change in my life, I decided the time was right and set out to write my first mystery which became Death’s Golden Whisper, the first book in the Meg Harris series.
What is your most memorable experience in a library or bookstore?
I was on tour for my second book, Red Ice for a Shroud, and doing a book signing in the St. Catharines’ Chapters, when a woman rushed in waving a review of my book in the Globe and Mail that unbeknownst to me had been published that morning. She couldn’t wait to buy a copy and was overjoyed that I was actually in the store, so I could sign her copy.
About your writing life
Describe a typical day in your life when you are working on a book, that is writing, re-writing, editing, proofing.
I treat writing as a job, so after breakfast and walking the boys, my two standard poodles, I retreat to my office where I do whatever needs to be done with my writing. This can cover anything from the various stages of the writing process, to organizing events and doing the various online promotional activities I involve myself in, such as Facebook and blogs. When I am starting out with a new book and writing the story for the first time, after two or three hours I run out of steam whereas I can go for many hours when I am in the editing and proofing stages.
Describe your writing process. How do you get from concept to finished manuscript?
I’m afraid I am one of those writers who fly by the seat of their pants. Although I have tried to outline, invariably my characters and the story take off in directions that I hadn’t planned. Now I start with an underlying theme, such as missing aboriginal women, which is the theme of my latest book, a location, which in my latest is Vancouver and Haida Gwaii, a few key characters and a starting scene. I generally have an idea of where I am going and how I want it to end, but rarely do I know whodunit until I am almost there. I am also a writer who doesn’t read the previously written chapters until I reach the very end of the first draft. But I prepare a point form outline of what occurred in each chapter as I go along. This way I can keep track of the action and make notes of where I will need to make changes during the re-write.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what type/artist/songs?
No, as much as I love music, I would find it too distracting.
Please share a memorable experience you had with a reader.
I’m always thrilled whenever an e-mail arrives from a fan wishing to tell me how much they enjoyed my books. But I suppose the fan letter that stands out most is an actual letter that a fan took the time to pen and send via real mail. She wanted to tell me how much the reading of my books had brought back her own memories of treasured vacations spent in a cottage wilderness very much like Meg’s Three Deer Point. She even included some photos of the lake.
What’s the nicest thing a critic or reader has said about your work?
A difficult choice, since I have received many good reviews for my books, but I suppose the words that tend to stand out for me were those mentioned by Mike Gillespie in the Ottawa Citizen when he called me “one of the brightest new voices in the mystery business” And needless to say I am thrilled with the first review of my latest book, which came from Publishers Weekly, “Meg Harris….gets an education in evil in Harlick’s absorbing fifth mystery.”
Which mystery author, living or dead, has influenced your writing the most?
I’m not sure that anyone writer has actually influenced my writing, although I do strive to try to write as well as some of my favourite mystery authors, such as P.D. James, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and the like.
Do you think writers are born or made?
I think it takes a bit of both. I don’t think you can be a writer without some natural talent, however unless you work really hard to exercise that talent, you will never become a writer.
What is the most rewarding part of being an author?
Both creating the story and completing it. I get tremendous satisfaction from creating my own story world and penning the final words gives me a terrific sense of achievement.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Don’t give up. At times finishing the novel and then getting it published will feel like an insurmountable goal, but keep at it for eventually you will achieve both. But don’t forget the necessary re-writing to help make that happen. With each re-write your writing not only improves, but you also get to know both your characters and story much better.
About your new book
Make your pitch! Describe what happens in your latest book in two sentences.
In A Green Place for Dying, Meg Harris returns home from the Arctic to discover that the daughter of a friend of hers has been missing for over two months. Vowing to help, Meg finds herself uncovering an underside of life she would rather not know exists.
What challenges did you face writing this book?
Missing aboriginal women is a sensitive topic, and with two young women currently missing from an Algonquin reserve in West Quebec it was doubly sensitive in the writing of this book. Since my story involves a missing Algonquin woman, I didn’t want it to mirror the situation with these two women.
What sets this book apart from your previous work?
As with most series, apart from the central mystery theme of each book, there is an ongoing back story related to Meg that evolves further with each book. In A Green Place for Dying, Meg’s demons come back to haunt her and she is forced to own up to a secret she has been hiding since a child. This was alluded to in previous books and was at the core of her breakup with Eric, her friend, her lover. Now if she wants to win back Eric, she must reveal the ugly truth.
The “or” questions
Cup of coffee or glass of wine? Ah, a glass of wine….
Twitter or Facebook? – Facebook. I think if I tried Twitter I would never stop tweeting, after all I’m a robin…J
Library or bookstore? – Bookstore. I love to roam through the aisles, sampling this and that
Print or ebook? – a very tough question – I love the comfy, cozy feeling a book gives me and the feeling of satisfaction I get when flipping the last page on a good read. But I tell you, I sure love the convenience of ebooks…..
Setting or character? I love both and am most dissatisfied when a book doesn’t provide me with both
Book or movie? I would much prefer to read a good book
What’s next for R.J. Harlick?
If you could choose anywhere in the world to write your next book, where would it be and why?
The sixth Meg Harris mystery has already begun and I have situated it in a part of Canada that I had always wanted to visit, the Queen Charlotte Islands or Haida Gwaii, as the islands are called today. As a child, my father often spoke of these mystical islands on the edge of Canada. During his university days at UBC, he spent a summer working in one of the logging camps and had talked of returning to them, but never did. So last June as part of my research, my husband and I spent a fabulous week getting to know the islands and its people, the Haida. You can get a sneak preview of their magic from my photos on my blog http://rjharlick.blogspot.com/2011/06/gwaii-hanas.html.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I’m still fleshing out the story of a Silver Totem of Shame, so it will no doubt change before it’s finally frozen in published form, but basically it will have a Haida thread. Totem poles will play a key role, particularly their use in the telling of stories. I do know that it starts off with the killing of a young Haida carver in a carving shed on Granville Island in Vancouver. His vicious murder takes Meg to Haida Gwaii, where she gradually unravels a tangle of shame and clan rivalries that reach back to the 1880s. I want to bring the magic of these islands alive for my readers.
That was wonderful, Robin. Thanks so much. I can’t wait to read A Green Place for Dying.
Visit R.J. Harlick at rjharlick.ca
A Green Place for Dying is published Feb. 17, 2012.