Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Sharon Fiffer

  1. Q. Whether you are writing memoir or a Jane Wheel mystery, you draw stories out of physical objects and memories of real objects. Do you find this easier and more satisfying than conjuring up an object from your imagination to fit your story?
I simply find that using objects works for me—and I usually like to find something real.  The hunt for the object helps me think out the story. That’s not to say I don’t make objects up.  When I am writing about a “mystery” suitcase that Jane Wheel picks up at a sale, I might have her open it to find a Bakelite pin that I will describe in great detail.  It isn’t necessarily a piece of jewelry I’ve seen—it might just be something I think should exist.  As far as memoir, I think real objects can lead you into memory in a concrete way.  They just help anchor your thoughts, help you focus.  That’s been my experience.
  1. Q. When you use fiction for creativity and filling in the blanks in memoir, how do you keep from slanting the story so that it is more entertaining or self-serving than is true to the actual events?
I do not use fiction to fill in the blanks—and I hope I don’t ever give that impression.  Compressing time or using composite characters isn’t really fiction.  Writing actual dialogue for someone that’s true to the person or event or true to your memory isn’t  what I would call using fiction –although it might be using the tools of fiction writing.  Also—if your memoir isn’t entertaining, why are you writing it?  I think all writing should teach and please (badly paraphrasing Aristotle there) to a certain degree—and if your story doesn’t have a point of view or doesn’t increase someone’s understanding of the human condition, doesn’t expand the world in some way, it might be a very interesting personal diary, but it isn’t necessarily memoir to be shared.  And as far as writing being self-serving?  That’s what journals are for!  To work out all those revenge fantasies!  That is not what I think of as memoir.
       3. Q. How does a memoir that uses fiction compare to a personal historical novel?
I think I have to repeat myself here—using the tools of fiction writing to craft your memoir is not using fiction.  I’m not sure what a personal historical novel would be, but unless I had changed history in some way, I’m not sure I’d attempt it
       4. Q. You take the unusual approach of using real family members and    locations identified by their real names in your novels. Does this technique make you tend to put yourself as a character or raise questions from family and friends?
I use characters who were part of my life—like my mother and father—and their place of business, The EZ Way Inn.  Because I have great affection for the people and the place I feel I can base characters on them without raising any negative questions from anyone who knew them.  But make no mistake, even though my Don and Nellie are based on the real Don and Nellie, Jane Wheel’s parents are my fictional creations.  I never feel bound by the real people—my wonderful characters are all troopers in that they live to tell the story.  By the way, the only characters whose real names I use are my parents who have now passed away.  Although I use some real place names and street names, I would never have something terrible happen in a real ongoing Kankakee business.  
  1.  Q. Have you received encouragement or recognition from the city of Kankakee, Illinois for setting your stories there? Would your stories have more flexibility in a fictional town?
I think the people in Kankakee who read my books love them.  That’s what they tell me when I go there to read and sign.  And someone from Kankakee is presenting the key to the farmer’s market to me in June and naming a carrot after Jane Wheel—I’ll be there signing and they’ve asked me to hand out recipes for Nellie’s vegetable soup.  And as far as flexibility?  I can tell whatever story I want—just as Sara Paretsky can make Chicago home for V.I. but tell any story she wants.  If I feel wanderlust at all, Jane visits someplace else.  Book #3, The Wrong Stuff, takes place in Michigan and Hollywood Stuff, Book #5 takes place in LA.  Having a real home base for the series is, I think, an advantage. 
  1. Q. You and your husband are both writers. How would you respond if he wanted to co-author a mystery with you? Do you think co-authoring works well?
We’ve written one non-fiction book together  and edited three collections of memoirs together.  Pure pleasure.  Steve is a non-fiction guy—all plot and structure—and I am much more interested in dialogue and character so we make a good team.  I think it would be a lot of fun to do a mystery together—we just have to find some time when we both aren’t swamped with separate projects.
  1. Q. Do you have other types of writing that you would like to pursue? Would you feel obligated to keep the Jane Wheel series going while you wrote other things?
I’ve been lucky that my editor and and publisher have not required a strict book –a-year schedule.  Between books  #4 and #5 I took some extra time to work on some other projects.  I still have a few other stand-alone novels I’d like to write—and I think I might even have another series in me.  I just need a few extra hours in the day, a few extra days in the week.
  1. Q. Would you please give a few examples of items you see at estate sales, and what you think they tell you about their former owners?
Photo albums are obvious storybooks—but I prefer handwritten items.  I love old autograph books, old high school yearbooks that have been signed, even old notebooks from high school classes.  Love to find other peoples’ doodles and notes and lists.  I also like old kitchen items and recipe boxes with lots of hand-written recipes with notes on family dinners and adjustments made to recipes.  I also love finding handmade things—crocheted potholders, knitted blankets—all that time and love and domestic art!
  1. Q. I noticed that on your business card, you give Jane Wheel, PPI her own e-mail address. Does she receive a lot of e-mail, and how would you characterize it?
Jane gets a fair amount of fan mail.  I use that email address on my website,, so fans who visit the website can email directly.  The idea of using one side of the card for Jane’s name and title, PPI (picker and private investigator) is a bit of whimsy that appeals to me. After seven books, Jane’s earned some professional swag.  
  1. Q. Did your parents ever read a Jane Wheel mystery, and if so, how did they react to being in it? If they didn’t read one, how do you think they would have reacted?
Sadly, my father died long before Jane Wheel was born.  He became ill one year after he and my mother sold the EZ Way Inn and retired.  I know he would have loved the books—he’d probably have plenty of ideas for scenes in the tavern—and would probably share lots of anecdotes that I never got to hear.  My mother was not a reader—I always tell the story that I apologized that the Nellie character came off pretty rough in the first book (but has redeemed herself many times over—and Jane has begun to better understand where her mother’s gruffness comes from) and my mother told me not to worry about it.  “Hell, honey, I won’t ever read it anyway,” is exactly what she said.  I did read some parts of the book to her—and she enjoyed hearing me describe the tavern and some of the characters.  She died at 92, and remained as feisty as the fictional Nellie until the end.