Author Interview: Susan Runholt


You’re in luck gang! Another author interview is up today for your reading pleasure. Susan Runholt, author of The Mystery of the Third Lucretia, is here at Shelf Elf to chat about writing, travel, art and inspiration. Welcome Susan!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Food / Music / Works of art…)

In a sense, all those things — people, places, food, music, art — have inspired me in one way or another. And all of them, with the possible exception of food, have had a bearing on the fiction I write. (I am, in real life, a dedicated “foodie,” and one of my great frustrations is that the audience for my books tends to be a great deal less interested in food than I am, limiting my ability to really give scope to what I write about this particular sensory pleasure. Drat!)

But as far as inspiration for fiction is concerned, place is probably first among equals. Here’s an example. My upcoming book, Rescuing Seneca Crane, is about a 15-year-old piano prodigy performing with an orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. I had known for quite some time that the book would involve the kidnapping of that young musician, and I knew who had masterminded her abduction. I knew a three-year-old boy named Parker was going to play a major part in the story’s resolution. Beyond that, I knew very little about the details of the tale I was going to write.

To ensure authenticity and to generate the ideas that would give the narrative texture and excitement, I traveled to Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. In addition to the week I spent in Edinburgh itself, my journey included several days each in Glasgow, Inverness, and on the Isle of Skye. A primary question was where the central character, Seneca Crane, had been taken after she was abducted.

Thanks to the Sunday Philosophy Club books by Alexander McCall Smith, I was familiar with the prominent Scottish name Dalhousie. Traveling by bus on my way back from the Isle of Skye, I had an idea. The name Dalhousie is pronounced very much the way an American might say dollhouse, with the addition of a y at the end. Dollhouse. Dollhouse. Skye. Might a three-year-old hearing these words together mistake them for “dollhouse castle in the sky”?

This idea became central to the work as a whole.

In a couple of months I am off on another trip where I seek inspiration. Book number four in the Kari and Lucas series will be set in Venice during Carnevale. My daughter and I went to Carnevale 12 years ago, and I’ve been to Venice a number of times since then. This time I’m going back in search of inspiration, and I fully expect I will find it, given the lapping of the ocean around (and sometimes on the streets of) the islands, the chill of Venice in winter, the breathtaking architecture, the maze of streets that makes even reputable maps of this mysterious city unreliable, the canals, and the masked figures that appear out of the dark, foggy air during this world-famous pre-Lenten celebration.

I would imagine that plotting is a complex exercise for a mystery writer. Do you outline? Write scenes and then see how they fit together? Just start and see where you end up? What’s your process?

I once read an essay by the late, great mystery writer Robert Campbell that brilliantly described his process, which, as it happens, is similar to my own. He said that for him, setting off on a new book was a lot like beginning a journey. He knew where he was starting and he knew where he was going — who did it and why, and sometimes what would lead to the discovery. He knew a few of the events he would encounter along the way, just as I know, in the book about Kari and Lucas’s safari adventure I am now writing, that there will be a balloon ride, a night safari involving danger, something having to do with lions and possibly one or more hippopotamus, and a few other elements. But he didn’t know what was over the next hill, and wouldn’t know until he got to the top and could see the view beyond.

That’s how it works for me. I often find it inefficient — I routinely find I write a scene and have to scrap it because of something that happens in later pages — but I rather like the opportunities for puzzle and discovery this process offers.

Where do you write?

At my computer. Most often this is in the office in my home — boring, boring — but I occasionally take my computer with me and go away for a weekend to, say, a place with a view of Lake Superior, where I can both write and look out the window. I hope in coming months to be able to reduce the amount of time I spend on my other profession, which is serving as a fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations. When I’m able to do that, I plan to do a great deal more traveling with my trusty computer in my bag.

A lot of people have romantic visions of what it means to be a writer. So, what’s one part of your job that’s truly dreamy and fantastic, and one part that’s not?

The one aspect of my life that I think people would view as romantic is my international travel. I’ve written a bit about that above. Actually, the trips I take for my work are far less than relaxing — indeed, one such journey, in the spring of 2007, to check locations in Amsterdam and several points in Scotland, was one of the most brutal eight days of my life. But at least it sounds good, right? And even on that grueling trip there were moments and hours when I was absolutely transported by the joy of international travel, which is one of the great pleasures of my life.

Speaking of grueling, the most difficult part of my life is maintaining three jobs. I’m single, and my cat doesn’t bring in much of an income, so I have to work full time to buy groceries and keep a roof over our heads, his and mine. I also have to write novels and meet deadlines — another full-time job. And then there’s the business of writing: communicating with agent and editor, answering fan mail, arranging for and making public appearances, and maintaining a web presence (the latter of which I have shamefully let go). Between September 15 and December 15, 2008, I made 24 public appearances in libraries, schools and bookstores here in the Twin Cities and on a self-funded tour that took me to Baltimore, Washington, DC, Asheville North Carolina, and Atlanta Georgia. I work very, very hard and have had to sacrifice a great deal because of these multiple demands. I’m not alone in this complaint. This is a common challenge among authors in their first few years after initial publication. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things will change a bit in the coming months.

Why Rembrandt? Why Lucretia? What made you choose those paintings to be at the center of your mystery?

The Mystery of the Third Lucretia was written in part to bring me closer to my daughter, Annalisa, who, when I began this book, was a typical rebellious teenager. She and I actually wrote this book together in some important ways. As I mentioned in my acknowledgments, she chose and named the characters, decided what they looked like, what they were like in terms of personality, and she vetted every chapter. Kari’s voice is actually Annalisa’s voice at age 14.

In casting about for subject matter, it occurred to me that an art-centered mystery would be ideal, given the love for art my daughter and I share. And I remembered that, when she was 11 years old, we had gone to see Rembrandt’s two paintings of Lucretia, exhibited together at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (The Art Institute, as we call it, is permanent home to one of the two paintings. The other was on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.)

My daughter was so deeply moved by these works that she actually wrote a letter to thank the museum director for the exhibit. So as I cast about for a plot, I remembered her response to the two Lucretias, and wondered, What if someone suddenly discovered a third Rembrandt painting of Lucretia?

Your book is filled with strong girls and women (Kari, Lucas, Grandma Stickney, Kari’s mom, the Sisters, even Lucretia). I hesitate to use the words “girl power,” but in a way, they fit this story. Tell us about why you decided to place so many gutsy, principled female characters in your book.

Many reviews of my book have noted the strong female characters. But oddly enough, writing these women into the story was not really a conscious choice. This is simply how I think of girls and women.

My paternal grandmother, Kari Runholt, for whom my character is named, immigrated to the United States from Norway with her children and single-handedly founded the farm that has now been in the Runholt family for nearly 120 years. I grew up with a mother who was extraordinarily bright and independent, and who was really the mastermind behind my parents’ entrepreneurial successes. I am myself a strong woman, and have been single, almost always happily so, for more than 25 years. I have lived a somewhat unconventional life and tend to be comfortable with risk — on more than one occasion my mother has accused me of having more guts than sense, and I think she’s probably right. My women friends, married and unmarried, are almost uniformly strong and independent, and a number of my female friends and acquaintances have chalked up remarkable achievements. All of my friends, women and men — in fact, all the people I love, are characterized by compassion and integrity.

As for the nuns, I served as a fundraising consultant to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet province here in Saint Paul, and believe me, the activism and courage and strength of the real nuns I came to know during that time goes far beyond anything I wrote in the book. (By the way, look at the history of the educational and health care infrastructure of most cities in North America, perhaps even wherever Christianity has flourished, and you will be amazed to discover the role these gutsy women of faith have played in establishing the fundamentals of caring communities everywhere.)

So I guess I don’t think I wrote about strong and principled women. I think I just wrote about women.

Kari and Lucas really complement each other. They have different talents and they know what they’re good at. They use their skills with confidence. I think that these two characters might inspire girls who read your book to take pride in their natural abilities and cultivate their talents. What else do you think Kari and Lucas could teach tween/teen girls?

I believe that kids in the United States — I won’t speak for young people from other countries — tend to become quite isolationist in their thinking. For clear and simple economic and geographic reasons, many of these kids have never had the opportunity to visit places outside the US, and they grow up thinking that America is the only wonderful place on earth. And many children in my country grow up believing that the arts, except in their most popular form, are boring or, at minimum, are accessible exclusively to rich, educated people, and out of the reach of everyone else.

In fact, the world is a fascinating place, and the arts can enrich the lives of anyone. I would like the young people who read my books to acquire from Kari and Lucas an insatiable curiosity about the world they live in and the ability to respond authentically and viscerally to the riches of culture that surrounds them.

I’m also interested in values. I’m alarmed by a number of very popular titles for girls these days that blatantly promote a single-minded preoccupation with looks and popularity. I wanted the kids in my books to care about honesty and integrity, to feel compassion and have the capacity for self-rebuke when they fall short of their own standards.

Time for five favourites:

Favourite museum in the world and why…

It’s a tie between the Chicago Institute of Arts and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, for the same reasons: because the collections are superb, but I don’t feel overwhelmed when I’m in either place.

Favourite work of art and why…

My favorite painters are the French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard and the Viennese master Gustav Klimt, but my favorite works of art, Lucretia aside — two paintings, tied  – are not by either of these two painters. One is L’absinthe by Edgar Degas, which hangs in the Musee D’Orsay. The second is A Bar at the Folies Bergère by Edouard Manet. That one is at the Courtauld Gallery in London, which I visited for the first time last summer. What a treat!

Favourite city in the world and why…

Another tie. London, because it’s the center of the universe, just as New York City is, with a more reasonable pace, because I know it very well from personal experience and literature, and because at heart I am an unrepentant Anglophile. Have been since a kid. The other choice: Amsterdam, where I lived for a year after college. Because it’s totally cool and utterly charming and manageable, and even after all these years away, I feel at home there.

Favourite snack when writing…

Very boring: string cheese and yummy almond crackers made by Blue Diamond or another line of crackers called Mary’s Gone. Must keep it low cal or I would instantly bulk up.

Favourite mystery story for young people you wish you’d written…

I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have written mystery books for young people, so I’m not going to jeopardize these relationships by trying to single out just one! Let’s just say that on a less-than-fully conscious level, my goal in launching the Kari and Lucas series was to create a contemporary answer to the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries of my childhood

Thanks so much to Susan for stopping by, and for giving us all a glimpse into the secret life of a Mystery Writer. BTW – The Mystery of the Third Lucretia belongs in lots of stockings this year. Happy Reading!


2 thoughts on “Author Interview: Susan Runholt

  1. Sara Ann Fagin

    I knew Susan 15 years ago and am so pleased to read abouit her exciiting career as an author. Congratulations Susan.
    It seems a lot more fun than fundraising.

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