Jane Tesh is the author of the Madeline Maclin mysteries, starring ex-beauty queen turned detective Madeline Maclin and her con man husband, Jerry Fairweather, and the Grace Street mysteries, featuring PI David Randall, his psychic friend Camden, and the many colorful Southern characters who live at 302 Grace Street. The sixth installment of the latter series, DEATH BY DRAGONFLY, is now available. In this interview, Tesh talks about her inspiration for creating the Randall/Camden pairing, the importance of alternating between two different series, and why she has set all 11 of her mystery novels in North Carolina, where she has lived all her life.
Question: David Randall is probably the only private investigator in the business who has a sidekick (Camden) who is psychic. What gave you the notion to create a pairing like this?
Jane Tesh: These characters have been with me in one form or another since my teens. Way, way back, Cam was a telepathic creature in a science fiction novel that never got off the ground. When I began writing the Grace Street stories, Randall was an ornery, overweight, down-and-out salesman living in Cam’s house, a very minor character. I kept having trouble finding the point-of-view character for the series, and one day, Randall came to my door and said, “It’s my story. Let me tell it.” When I agreed, he added, “And you’d better make me a damn sight better-looking.” Once he began to narrate the story, the whole series took off.
JT: I wouldn’t say that I approach my writing any differently, but I’ve learned quite a lot over the years, especially about adding texture and details to the stories. I love dialogue, so I have to slow myself down and say, “Now where are these people? What do they look like? How are they feeling?” Otherwise, the novel is going to be a play.
Q: Both the Grace Street series and your Madeline Maclin mystery series contain elements of the paranormal. Did any earlier crime series influence you in shaping your books in this manner?
JT: I love fantasy and science fiction, so I thought that’s what I would be writing. I couldn’t sell any of the fantasy books, so I thought I’d try writing a mystery. Since I really have to have some sort of paranormal action going on, the first Madeline book is a combination of two fantasy stories reconfigured into a mystery.
Q: What does alternating between two different series enable you to do that sticking with a single series would not?
JT: When one set of characters isn’t in the mood to talk, the others usually are. When things have slowed down a little on Grace Street, I go over to Madeline and Jerry in Celosia to see what’s going on there. Taking a break from one series helps jumpstart the story when I return.
Q: Growing up, who in the mystery field did you like to read? And who do you turn to now when you’re just looking for a good crime yarn?
JT: I discovered Dorothy Sayers when I was in college. Also Rex Stout. I’ve read all of Reginald Hill’s books and everything by Dick Francis. I think Carl Hiassen’s books are hilarious. Recently, I’ve read the Rowland Sinclair books by Sulari Gentill, a very interesting series set in 1930s Australia. What all these books have in common are characters the reader instantly cares about. That for me is the most important thing, whether I’m reading or writing. Do I care about these characters and what happens to them?
Q: North Carolina is your base and, logically enough, the setting of your 11 mystery novels. What does NC provide you that is so special when you’re writing?
JT: I’ve lived all my life in North Carolina, first in Greensboro, which is the third largest city in the state, and then in Mt. Airy, a lively small town of about 7,000 people, so I have had experiences in both kinds of places. The people are the same, though: friendly, chatty, and full of crazy stories about their families and Southern sayings you don’t hear anywhere else. If I’m running low on ideas, all I have to do is read the Mt. Airy News, where it doesn’t take much to get people arguing. And there’s always some local color. Recently, a fellow thought he’d climb through an air duct to rob the Golden Corral. Of course, the Buffet Burglar, as the paper dubbed him, got stuck. It took hours to get him out, and then he looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, as we’d say around these parts. There’s a story right there!