Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lisa Lutz and Ona Russell Mystery Readers At Home

Last night several dedicated mystery readers weathered the storm (o.k., it was rain and hail, not snow, but this was California), to meet with two terrific mystery authors Ona Russell and Lisa Lutz. Ona regaled us with her personal history, as well as her interest in historical research. Edgar award nominated Lisa Lutz talked about humor, booksignings, and more personal reactions to fame and glory. The set up at Mystery Readers International At Homes consists of short intros by the authors followed by questions and dialogue. Ona Russell and Lisa Lutz had not met before, but they were soon engaged in dialogue over the book publishing business, why they write, reactions to their work, book signings and independent mystery stores.

Russell sets her history mysteries against different historical 'dilemmas' in 1920s America. The first in the series, O'Brien's desk, is set in Toledo, OH, and deals with corruption, sexual promiscuity and bigotry vs. the high ideals of Progressive reformers. The germ for this story was when Russell found a scrapbook of news stories and letters that her husband's mother had kept on her father. Judge O'Brien O'Donnell was caught between these two forces. The second in the series, The Natural Selection, involves the Scopes "monkey" trial. One point that Russell stressed at the At Home is how fiction can bring history alive. She certainly does that in her books. Her next book will be set in Los Angeles and deal with the stock market, and we all know how that ended up. The historical dilemmas she chose seem to mirror the contemporary period.

Lisa Lutz' books are not written in the traditional mystery genre mold--no dead body on the first page. They are more concerned with the people who try to solve mysteries. The Spellmans are a dysfunctional family of private investigators. The Spellman Files, The Curse of the Spellmans, and the new one coming next month, Revenge of the Spellmans, are filled with humor, as this family interacts with each other, as well as clients and crooks. At 28, Isabel Spellman, the protagonist, has not quite grown up, and her life has been filled with "romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism." Lutz reiterated that the books are not autobiographical despite the fact that her mother asks that question at every booksigning she attends. Lutz's books are filled with laugh out loud lines and situations. Humor is such a difficult thing to write. It can't be forced. It has to come from the characters and their circumstances. Lutz succeeds in transferring her humor to the printed page, no mean feat. A tip of the hat to the Edgar committee for including a humorous mystery among their nominees. After a long stint at screenwriting (read Lutz's Confessions of a Hollywood sellout on Salon) and several other odd jobs (we all know screenwriting is odd but so were some of the others), she's found her true calling, for now, as a novelist. The fact that they're mysteries is a bonus for readers. The Curse of the Spellmans, originally written as a screenplay, has been optioned, and luckily, for her, she isn't working on the script. She's delighted with the people who are, and more power to them. Lutz told us there will be four Spellman books. After that? Well, we'll see. A new series? A totally different type of book? Whatever she decides, I'm sure it will be unique! Lutz's booktour.

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