An Interview with P.J. Parrish
by Pamela White
P.J. Parrish, the author of DARK OF THE MOON, DEAD OF WINTER and the upcoming PAINT IT BLACK is the pseudonym of two sisters, Kristy Montee and Kelly Montee. Kristy lives in Florida, Kelly lives in Mississippi, but through the magic of the internet they share their experiences in one voice. For up-to-date information on their upcoming books, visit http://www.pjparrish.com
PAM WHITE: Your protagonist, Louis Kincaid, is biracial -- born of an African-American Mother and Caucasian father. I understand this is a way to honor your own grandchildren. Are you receiving lots of feedback based on the biracial issue? Are readers finding it a refreshing and honest portrayal?
P.J. PARRISH: The central part of Mississippi is rich in history, almost to the point of being able to feel the triumphs, tragedies and yes, ghosts in the humid, summer air. It is also a place that peacefully lingers several steps behind other parts of the country, comfortable in its traditions and slow life-style. It was this atmosphere, combined with the entry into the world of a beautiful child named Charlotte, that spawned the character of Louis Kincaid. Comments on his heritage are few compared to those who have simply found him a likable, refreshing protagonist. We feel that it is not so much his heritage that warms the reader's heart, but his humanistic approach to his job, his life and the world in general. We wanted to create someone different from the hardened, bitter detective who is drug back into the case by a fellow cop because he is the only one on the face of the earth who can solve it. We have been pleased that the response to Louis has been overwhelmingly positive. We have gotten emails from African-American readers who relate to his struggles and search for identity. We even got a message from a teacher who used DARK OF THE MOON and the Langston Hughes poem in the forward in her class for Black History Month.
PAM WHITE: Your choice of setting includes dating Louis's police work in the 1980's. To some of us, the 1980's seem like yesterday, but in terms of technical and forensic advances it's ancient history. Louis is without cellular phones, DNA testing and internet connection. Why?
P.J. PARRISH: One of the reasons was so we could step back a few years when the New South wasn't quite so new, and also to force Louis to solve a crime that still would've met resistance. We did find, when we researched a certain small town sheriff's department to find out if they had a fax in the 80's, not only didn't they have one in 1983, they still had none in 1997. Another reason was so we could focus more on our characters and their bare-bones ingenuity in their approach to their crimes. We didn't want the crime lab solving everything. We wanted the people to do it. DNA has radically changed some aspects of police work, and we wanted to avoid that. (We plan to deal with its advent in a future book, however.) In the third Louis Kincaid book, "PAINT IT BLACK," which takes place in 1985, we have a female FBI agent who comes to help out with a serial killer case, and she is one of the bureau's earliest "profilers." So we get to introduce readers to the early days of what is now a routine part of such investigations.
PAM WHITE: I understand Louis is heading south in the third of the series. Will he enjoy some sunny, warm weather for a change? Or will your expertise with pathetic fallacy continue and we'll find Louis solving murders in a hurricane?
P.J. PARRISH: Louis will certainly encounter dangers in Florida, but hopefully a hurricane won't be one of them. Yes, we intend to give him warmer weather and reunite him with Sheriff Dodie from DARK OF THE MOON. Many readers were concerned about Louis's lack of comfort in DEAD OF WINTER and we want them to know we plan to improve his lifestyle in Florida. And he gets to keep Zoe's cat, Isolde. Lots of readers messaged us concerned about the cat.
PAM WHITE: For many writers, collaboration is foreign territory. Kris has been a journalist and author for years, but writing was a new career direction for Kelly. Was your decision to write a novel together a late night, giddy idea or did it grow slowly over years and just take hold and not let go?
P.J. PARRISH: Kelly has been a closet writer, obsessed with murderous stories beginning as a teenager and running on for years on the pages of spiral notebooks. When not writing, Kelly was furiously racing through the pages of true crime novels or mystery fiction. Lacking the polish, but not imagination, Kelly was always on the verge of pouring out her ideas on paper, but was never quite able to refine the compulsion to tell stories properly. At the same time, Kris was stymied in her career as a romance writer and lacking general knowledge in the mystery genre. It was Kris's husband's idea for them to collaborate. One day Kris called Kelly and said "I have a proposal for you." Thus, P.J. Parrish was born.
PAM WHITE: You base your physical settings on towns you've known. Does this make writing the scenery easier? Are you taking a risk of having neighbors disturbed at having murders in their back yard, albeit fictional ones?
P.J. PARRISH: Familiarity with the book's setting is vital to painting an accurate picture, both in fact and emotion. We received many compliments on our ability to make the reader's feel they are actually there. So far, no one has complained. Like many writers, we think of the location as a character in itself...its geography, weather, idiosyncrasies like accents, go a long way to contributing to the mood and suspense of a story. DEAD OF WINTER, set in the remote Michigan woods, has an entirely different feel than the woods of Mississippi. Likewise, Louis's new location, the southwest coast of Florida, will have a special feel and flavor all its own. We do "location" research for our books, much the way movie producers scout locations for films. Kelly traveled through Michigan's upper peninsula for DEAD OF WINTER, and although Kris frequently vacations on the Florida west coast, we both recently traveled there for "scouting" and "atmosphere absorbing." We have decided to give Louis a fictional town in Florida, so we will be taking liberties with the geography around Ft. Myers. We take photographs that go up on the walls by the computer to fuel the imagination -- even a picture of a beach cottage where Louis will eventually live.
PAM WHITE: At the risk of sounding like Fred Rogers, did you know you wanted to write when you were a child? Did you write then? Why wait until you are grandmothers to publish murder mysteries?
P.J. PARRISH: We both always knew. Kelly has a story of about 5 pages written at the age of ten called The Kill. The main cast of characters were The Beatles and Kelly killed one of them off. Kris's path to crime was more convoluted. She started out writing stories about pet cats with ESP. Some things don't change; Kelly still likes to write the killer parts and Kris likes the character parts, although Kris is starting to really get into true crime and research books about police procedure. As for being grandmothers, hey, it worked for Miss Marple. No one really seems surprised we write gritty, realistic police procedurals instead of say, cozies. But all of our mail does come addressed to "Mr. Parrish." When our agent submitted the manuscript for DARK OF THE MOON, the male editor who bought it asked, "So, who is this guy?" Our reader mail comes addressed to "Mr. Parrish," and some readers confess they are surprised we are two women. But as one fellow wrote recently to our website: "Hey, two sisters, two brothers, two uncles...who cares. The Louis Kincaid series is a great read."
PAM WHITE: The descriptions, emotions and action of both DARK OF THE MOON and DEAD OF WINTER play through the readers mind like a video. Any nibbles concerning movies based on Louis Kincaid and your novels? Any favorites to play Louis?
P.J. PARRISH: No nibbles, but DEAD is being "shopped around," as they say. We've had many readers say they see the cinematic qualities in the books and have offered casting suggestions. If we were casting, we'd go with Coby Bell of Third Watch.
PAM WHITE: About writing the novels: Please give us brief walk through your first book's conception, collaboration, and completion.
P.J. PARRISH: Kelly conceived DARK OF THE MOON while living in central Mississippi. It just came to her one day while driving along one of those tree-lined country roads. She wondered what would happen if they found bones of a man killed during the civil rights era of the 60's today, Much like other unprosecuted crimes of that period, it was logical the crime would go unpunished, even if the local law enforcement officials managed to solve it. The story was already in its infancy when we struck our deal as co-writers. So it blossomed from there, poured onto paper with the fury of a starving man at a feast. It went through no less than ten re-writes, enormous AOL bills (this was still in the days of $2.99 per hour), and hours of frustration as we had to learn each other's quirks and sore spots. Ultimately it found at home at Kensington.
PAM WHITE: Are either of you a Dorothy L. Sayers-type and likely to fall in love with your own creation, as she was reported to have done with Lord Peter Wimsey?
P.J. PARRISH: If we were twenty years younger, I don't either of us would have a problem asking Louis to dinner. Evidently, we are not alone. Louis gets lots of shall we say...fan mail. One lady wrote, "I am so in love with Louis, but he doesn't have to worry because I'm 65 years old."
PAM WHITE: What are the pluses and minuses of writing as a team?
P.J. PARRISH: The best is the double insight you get into your characters, plot and overall story. To say nothing of the double dose of energy and imagination. What one doesn't catch, the other does. We have concluded that we each have very special qualities we bring to the books, qualities that seem to blend effectively. We had an interesting letter from a man who said had he known DEAD was written by two people he wouldn't have bothered because he hates "writing by committee." Can't blame him, but we seem to have learned, as writers, to speak with one voice. One reviewer said she was looking for "the seams" of our collaboration but couldn't find any. The only real hard part is coordinating time.
PAM WHITE: Please, share your first or funniest book signing experience as new author.
P.J. PARRISH: Wow...funny stories? We joke that we should get cards made up like Palladin that read, "Have Cardtable, Will Travel." It's kind of strange at times, sitting there in the mall in front of a Waldens with your books displayed in front of you like tomatoes and artichokes. And you get tired of folks asking you where the Piercing Pogada is. But you have to remember that most mystery writers build their audiences slowly, one reader at a time. It's a brutally competitive business and you have to be willing to...well, go out and sell your tomatoes.
PAM WHITE: Do you have any tips for writers? Any thoughts on the necessity of having an agent? Self-promotion advice?
P.J. PARRISH: Kris taught a writing class once and when she asked folks what their ambitions were, one guy said, "I want to be a best selling author." She told him, "try being a writer first." Every writer dreams of huge success, but the hard truth is, very few make it to Grisham levels. If you don't do it because you love it, you will never succeed. But at the same time, you must treat writing as a business, not some high-minded "calling." Being a writer is no different than being a pianist or a pro basketball player. You must learn the craft behind it, practice until you're blue in the face and find avenues for your expression, however small. Craftsmanship cannot be underrated; it is the backbone for everything. Kris used to quote the great acting teacher, Stella Adler: "Craft makes talent possible." You can learn to write. Now, talent...that is what takes you beyond. As one author described it, anyone can learn to hit a baseball; but only a few have that "home run" eye. As for agents, it's great if you can get one when you are unpublished but it's very, very difficult. You don't need one for the first book, as editors still read "slush piles" looking for those rare gems. (That is how Kris broke into romance writing with an unagented ms.) The Writers Digest books have tons of helpful info on this. And if you can, try to find a good writer's group to join. They not only offer constructive help with your work-in-progress, but needed emotional support.
PAM WHITE: Which authors do you read or have inspired you?
P.J. PARRISH: James Lee Burke for his strong characterization of Dave Robicheaux and his almost lyrical approach to creating atmosphere in his New Orleans setting. Thomas Cook for his suspenseful pacing. Minette Walters for her use of characters. Joyce Carol Oates (she uses the AKA Rosamond Smith for her crime novels) for her elegant style and the way she integrates the psychological aspects of the criminal mind....kind of a gritty version of P.D. James. Oates is the best fiction writer bar none in America today.
PAM WHITE: Thank you and I look forward to many more investigations with Louis Kinkaid and P.J. Parrish.
Ms. White is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in how-to books. She also writes articles about writing and writes restaurant, book and web reviews.