Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cool Canadian Crime: Mary Jane Maffini

Today marks the first of several interviews that David Cole has organized with Canadian authors. These interviews were organized with the assistance of Cheryl Freedman, executive director of Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), and David Cole, a US author and CWC member. The group of 13 authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel.

Mystery Readers Journal, a thematic review magazine, had an issue on Cool Canadian Crime a few years ago to which many CWC authors contributed.

Mary Jane Maffini, Master of Ceremonies for Bloody Words Mystery Conference, Ottawa, 2009. Mary Jane Maffini is the author of two Fiona Silk mysteries, the Camilla MacPhee books, the Charlotte Adams mysteries and nearly two dozen short stories. A six-time nominee for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Awards, she scored two awards for best short story as well as nominations for best first novel with Speak Ill of the Dead and best novel Lament for a Lounge Lizard, the first Fiona Silk book.

DC: Canada doesn't have a long history of crime fiction. What do you think 
has changed in the past fifteen years or so?

MJM: Plenty! It's great to be a Canadian crime writer these days. This is an excellent time to be a reader too. Business is booming. More than sixty Canadian crime books landed on the Arthur Ellis submission list for best novel this year, to say nothing of the other categories. But it hasn't always been this way. For many years, it seemed that the doors of every publishing house were closed to all but a handful of beloved crime and mystery writers. Until recently, our cultural agencies put their muscle into literary fiction and quality non-fiction and there was a tendency to look down one's pointed nose at what was known as 'commercial fiction' -- one cut above shower scum.The genre was considered not only at a lower level, but also seen to be in competition for scarce readership. Snap open a crime novel and a reader would be forever ruined for Atwood and Ondaatje, although they've been known to read mysteries.

A large percentage of intelligent readers adore mysteries. Just ask any librarian! But people can only read books they can find on the shelves of libraries and bookstores or what they spot in reviews. As long as publishers were not bringing out new Canadian mysteries, people continued to get their mystery fix by inhaling books from the USA and the UK. All the while, in Canada, we had our own stories to tell. Gradually, over the last few years, something changed: new presses and regional publishers began to serve up wonderful works of crime fiction. Larger publishers took on new names. Readers began to take notice.

Crime Writers of Canada beat the bushes, connecting with librarians, bookstores and readers to spread the word about our 'home grown homicide'. Cheryl Freedman, our executive director for many years, worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the CWC members. The Canada Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage funded awareness programs that allowed CWC to have a presence at key conferences and to produce publications about Canadian mysteries. In Ottawa, Capital Crime Writers helped many writers to learn the craft and launch their series. Along the way, reviewers began to pay attention. The Globe and Mail now provides coverage of mysteries from Canadian presses large and small. Even though review space is shrinking, papers such as the Ottawa Citizen, the London Free Press, the Hamilton Spectator and the Sherbrooke Record pay close attention to new Canadian mysteries in their review sections.

Meanwhile, libraries across the country sponsor readings and special events with Canadian crime writers and readers are flocking to them. And a key factor for Canadian mysteries has been this warm and welcoming Bloody Words conference, which has done so much to build excitement and to draw people from across Canada and from other countries. Individual Canadian crime writers have also worked hard to promote themselves, their books and those of their colleagues. As a result of these interactions, Canadian writers and books are now routinely mentioned in online discussion groups, which, luckily, know no borders.

Canadians have truly been discovered elsewhere. Louise Penny's international success has been something to celebrate. Peter Robinson and Linwood Barclay also routinely make the bestselling lists in other countries. Our biggest names are shooting stars in other countries. Back home, readers are catching on. I have found that since my own American books have been published, readers in the USA are discovering my two Canadian series as well. Contrary to the belief of the New York publishing houses, American readers love Canadian settings and books. Perhaps that's the next obstacle we'll all overcome.

As a lover of Canadian mysteries and crime fiction, I have been glad to visit our country coast to coast through the works of other talented writers like Thomas R. Curran, R. J. Harlick, Barbara Fradkin, Vicki Delany, Stanley Evans, and Lou Allin to name just a few. We have found our Canadian voice in mystery. Finally, it's spring and our crime fiction is in full bloom.

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