Marcia Muller Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Marcia Muller
© Tom Graves

Marcia Muller

An interview with Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller talks about her heroine, Sharon McCone ... and so much more.

Since Sharon McCone works in San Francisco, was it hard to get the flavor of the city in the books?
It's extremely easy to get the flavor of the city because San Francisco is a place that lends itself to description. It's the city of many small enclaves; each with distinctive flavor. When I write about it, the city becomes a secondary character in the novel.

Did you read a lot of Dashiell Hammett before you wrote about a San Francisco detective?
I read the Maltese Falcon. The primary influence on my fiction was the Santa Barbara writer Ross Macdonald. There were interesting parallels between my life and his. We both have advanced degrees from the University of Michigan. Neither of us is a native Californian. He described the state beautifully and I felt he brought a fresh perception to it because of it being something new to him.

In 'Both Ends of the Night', Sharon went to a lot of places. Was it tough doing the research for so many locations?
It's a pleasure doing research. I travel to all the locations with camera and tape recorder in hand. When I'm there I talk with as many of the local residents as possible, plus gather materials such as books and tourist information. The research on site is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing the book.

You've chosen San Francisco as the town in your stories....any reason why?
I first went to San Francisco in 1967. I fell in love with the city. Not only is it beautiful, but it's ethnically diverse, politically interesting, and a great city to get out and research in. I felt that it would be a natural place to set a crime fiction series.

Who would you say were your major influences when it came to mystery writing?
My major influences were Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Lillian O'Donnell and Dorothy Uhnaa.

A .357 Magnum is not a "lady's" gun, and it isn't easy to conceal. Why do you have McCone packing a cannon like that?
I was advised by my gun expert that she needed more fire power. Perhaps some day she'll trade it in on something better.

I have not read all your books (yet), but have you or will you have Elena Oliverez and Sharon McCone together in one book? And do you think they would get along?
I don't think they'll get together, mainly because Elena has retired from detection. I'm certain they'd get along.

Is it hard to come up with mysterious ideas? How do you do it?
It's never hard to come up with the ideas. They are everywhere: in the newspaper, in conversations with friends, in the events that happen to me or to others. Ideas are never a problem; it's getting them down on paper that is.

Ms Muller, what has been the hardest part about writing about a PI... especially a woman PI?
The hardest part about writing about a PI is trying to think as brave as she is. Sharon McCone does detecting on the mean streets. I do my research from inside a locked car on those same streets.

Do you ever base your characters on friends? If so, has anyone ever recognized themselves?
Sometimes I base part of characters on friends; for instance, a certain mannerism or personality trait. None of them has ever recognized themselves. In fact, I have a former husband who has appeared in little pieces through the series, and he has never recognized a one of them.

What kind of research did you have to do to start out as a mystery writer, and what kinds of research do you do now for your stories?
Initially, I researched into police procedure, and private investigators' methods of operation. Now I do all kinds of research from on-site exploration of locations to actually taking flying lessons.

Do you ever read what your critics say about your work? What do you think?
I read the reviews that the publisher sends me. Since they don't like to send negative reviews, I'm usually very pleased with them.

Are you a fan of detective shows, movies?
I love detective shows and movies, especially the old film noir. I own dozens of tapes of the old movies and watch them faithfully.

What do you think of the PBS Mystery Series and how faithful do you find them?
I think that they're extremely high quality, and every time they've done a book that I'm familiar with, they've been quite faithful.

I saw on your bio that your creative writing instructor said you'd never become a writer. After that, how did you keep trying?
For a number of years, I didn't. Instead, I went to graduate school for a degree in journalism. Unfortunately, I wasn't a very good journalist. I tended to make things up and put more interesting quotes into peoples' mouths. It wasn't until the early 70's that I gathered the courage to try my hand at fiction writing again.

If you could be doing anything other than writing, what would it be?
Sitting around looking at the Pacific Ocean. :-)

Are you doing a signing tour? If so, where can we look for you in the near future?
I have been to Washington, D.C. and New York already. I will be signing in San Francisco at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore on June 5th, and in Davis, California at Capitol Crimes on June 12th.

Who do you think your audience is?
My audience covers an extremely broad sector. I have teenage readers as well as people in their 90's, and it's about equally divided between men and women. The most letters I get, surprisingly, are from men.

Have you every written a script for a TV show or movie, and if not, would you like to? And which of your books do you think would make a good movie?
I have never written scripts because it's not a type of writing I do well. The series has been optioned twice by film companies but no one has ever gotten as far as the script stage. I think Both Ends of the Night, or Wolf in the Shadow or A Walk Through the Fire would make good action films.

Will we ever see a Sharon McCone movie? And if we do, who would you pick to play the character?
I wouldn't pick, because I'm not the sort of person who recognizes celebrities. If one were to walk in the room right now, I'd probably call 911 and say I had a very attractive burglar. I don't think an actor's physical appearance matters as much as the ability to convey the personality.

Do you know the answer to the mystery before you write it? Or do you figure it out as you go along with the book?
I never know where it's going to end up until I'm about half way through. Even then, it can change completely in the final scene.

How has Sharon McCone evolved over the years? Has she taken the direction you originally envisioned for her?
I don't think originally I had a sense of a long term direction. In the beginning, she was what one critic called "something of a cheerleader". She was very excited about being a private eye, very thrilled with her life in the big city, and a little too upbeat for one in her occupation. The events that she's encountered since then have made her more cynical, less willing to take people and situations at face value, much tougher, and much more professional. As for where she's going, I'm never sure until she tells me.

What was your original career choice? Did you know you always wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be a writer from the time I could first read and write. At age 12, I wrote a book containing the serious elements with my cocker spaniel as the main character. I also illustrated it...very poorly! Unfortunately, I made multiple copies of this masterpiece and passed them out to relatives who are now holding them for purposes of blackmail.

Mean streets - where? And do you have a PI or two that you talk with? And do you talk to the Police? How helpful are they?
Mean streets.... anywhere the story takes me. I have a friend who is a PI who is willing to share his methods of investigating. Unfortunately, he seldom gets out of the office and operates mostly on his computer. I also have police officers who are willing to advise, and people in many other areas. People are extremely helpful, and always willing to talk about what it is they do. For 'A Walk Through the Fire', the Hawaii State Librarian helped me by taking me around to some of the raciest areas in paradise, and also arranged for me to spend time with a homicide investigator in the Honolulu Police Department. One of the greatest things about being a writer is meeting so many people who are willing to help.

How much do you have to get involved in the business end of the literature business? Do you like that part, too, or just the writing?
It's absolutely essential to be aware of the industry. Even though I have an agent who watches over those aspects, I keep in close touch with her, as well as with my editor and my publicist. Fortunately, they are three of my favorite people, so the business aspects are not too burdensome.

For an individual who is full of ideas and a story line, what advice can you give for writing their own novel?
The best advice I can give an inspiring writer is to sit down and write something every single day. It can be a paragraph, a page, or several pages. The actual process of disciplining oneself and doing the work is one of the most important things to go through. Although it may be difficult to accept, it's best to remember first fictional efforts are merely a learning experience. I myself have the first dreadful Sharon McCone manuscript, which will *never* see the light of day, hidden in an undisclosed location in my garage, with a note on it saying "To be burned in the event of my death."

Is this your first interview by Internet? Have you surfed the net any, or done on-line research?
Yes, it's my first interview on the Internet. For many years I was a confirmed technophobe. However, I'm happy to report that two months ago I purchased an iMac and am happily searching the net.

Are there any of your books that you really like the best? Could you tell us why if there is?
The books that I liked the best are the ones where some major change in the direction, or in Sharon McCone's character, takes place. The Shape of Dread, because the book took on a darker, more serious tone. Wolf in the Shadows, because Sharon became a much tougher and adventurous person. Both Ends of the Night, because Sharon and her creator learned to fly. And always the one I'm currently working on.

How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes about nine months in the actual writing. Often, I'll be researching for it for several months beforehand. All told, about a year, and then there is the process of dealing with it as it goes through production at the publishing company.

Have you thought of teaching? And what would you want to teach?
I'm not a very good teacher in the sense that I can't really explain why I do certain things, or what I do. I think I'm better off sitting in a little room, writing.

Do you have a family, and if so, how do they like your career choice?
I don't have any children, but I'm married to another writer, Bill Pronzini with whom I have frequently collaborated. He likes my career choice just fine.

What sort of hobbies do you have when you aren't writing?
I pull a lot of weeds when I'm trying to work out blocks. I build miniature houses and have done two now: one of Lone of All Souls Legal Cooperative and the other of Sharon McCone's earthquake cottage. In addition, I love to fly, but not pilot. I'm currently doing some renovation on a cottage that is suspiciously like Sharon's on California's Mendocino coastline.

Are you a fan of Magnum P.I.?
I used to watch the show a lot when it was on, and sometimes I pick it up in syndication. I think he's very cute.

Will you do writing in other genres, or only mysteries?
I have done a number of western short stories, which I really enjoyed because I am fascinated by history and I love researching the historical aspects.

Unfortunately, we've come to the end of our chat. Thank you, Marcia - it's certainly been a pleasure having you here today. Is there anything you'd like to leave with us? Maybe a hint or clue about what you're doing next?
I'd just like to say that I'm really very grateful to the people who read me. It's very rare that someone gets to be just what they wanted to be when they were growing up. I owe it all to them, and you.

Frequently Asked Questions on Marcia Muller and Her Character Sharon McCone

Where did Sharon McCone come from?
She's first-named for my college roommate, last-named for the late John McCone, former head of the CIA. Something of a joke, considering her left-of-center political leanings. Mr. McCone learned of this and, fortunately, was amused. Sharon's personal appearance and background mirror those of a couple of my colleagues from the days I worked for SUNSET Magazine.

How much alike are the two of you?
She's taller, thinner, and braver. Does her investigating on the mean streets while I do my research from inside a locked car. But over the years we've grown together and become very similar in spirit. A couple of years ago, I began to envy her piloting abilities and took to the sky myself. And this past fall my husband and I bought a property on the Mendocino Coast that eerily resembles Sharon and Hy's Touchstone.

What was it like, learning to fly?
Picture yourself in something that resembles a matchbox with wings, hurtling at 100 mph down a 3600-foot runway that's getting shorter by the second. Imagine the whole process complicated by the presence in the two-seater plane of a third party -- the invisible Sharon McCone. A challenge? Right!

How do you keep your large cast of ongoing characters straight?
Sometimes I don't. In the first novel in the series, Sharon's brother John had three children. In a later entry, he only had two. When I was writing Wolf In The Shadows, I noticed this discrepancy, so I had to kill off one of them with a childhood disease. Poor little Kimmy -- we hardly knew her.

Will McCone ever find happiness with the right man?
I think she has, with Hy Ripinsky. She's certainly had relationships with a motley assortment of men: a male chauvinist police lieutenant who dared to nickname her "Papoose"; a free-spirited disc jockey who proceeded to turn into a houseplant (my word for the kind of man who fixes dinner and then whines if business prevents you from getting home in time to eat it); a college professor who suffered a similar fate. But in Ripinsky, she's met her match -- in fact, he can even outsmart her.

© 1998 by Marcia Muller. Reprinted by the permission of the publisher, Mysterious Press, an imprint of Time Warner.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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