S. 6, Ep. 5: Interview with Crime Writer Karen Neary Smithson

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Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Karen Neary Smithson on the Crime Cafe podcast.

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We did it again! This week, there’s a transcription of the show notes. Click here to download a copy in PDF.

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Debbi (01:44): Hi, everyone. Today’s guest is someone I got to know at a book signing we did it at a local diner, which just goes to show you can do a book signing anywhere that people will have you, at least back in the old days before we couldn’t do things in public or in restaurants or whatever. Anyway, be that as it may I’m very pleased to have with me a guest who’s a mystery author and an artist. You should definitely check out her website and not only for her books. I’m pleased to have with me, as I said, fellow Marylander and mystery author, Karen Neary Smithson. Hi, Karen. It’s good to see you.

Karen (02:31): Hi Debbi. I’m doing great. How about yourself?

Debbi (02:33): Not too bad. Thanks. Doing, doing quite well, all things considered. And thank you for being here today. I appreciate it.

Karen (02:42): Thank you for having me.

Debbi (02:44): Sure thing. First of all, I had no idea until I looked at your website that you’re also an artist. So art came before writing, is that correct?

Karen (02:57): Yes, that’s correct. Yes. I majored in college in art and art education and I was an art teacher for a number of years, so I just really want to be a painter. However, I had to be a little more practical. So, but because of that, I had a lot, I had a variety of jobs because I couldn’t really get an art job. So it kind of gave me a lot of different kinds of experiences. So I’m doing a painting now and I have a couple more that I’m working on at home in my studio. So.

Debbi (03:44): That’s really cool that you’re still painting, as well as writing.

Karen (03:49): Yeah. So it’s kind of a balance. It’s, it’s a little hard to balance it. So I’m still trying to work that out because when I’m writing, I just basically want to write. When I’m painting, I basically just want to paint, but I just finished writing a book. So I decided this summer, I was just going to focus on painting.

Debbi (04:11): Well, that’s really cool, because I kind of get what that’s like. I do novel writing as well as screenwriting, and they’re very different types of writing. So I always have to kind of balance which one I’m going to do when.

Karen (04:28): Right.

Debbi (04:30): Let’s see. You’ve made some really interesting career choices. You were a child advocate, a human rights advocate and art educator. Is that correct?

Karen (04:39): Yes. yes, I did those things. Yes. I worked in Florida for a nonprofit that worked for legislation for children’s issues. And, in Howard County, I was the human rights commissioner for awhile. I also worked in the foster care system and I was a program coordinator for an independent living program. And then I was an art teacher. So I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things.

Debbi (05:19): Well, that’s fascinating. You probably know some of the attorneys that I’ve gotten to know in Howard County through your work for children.

Karen (05:29): Oh, well, that was in Florida where I worked for the …

Debbi (05:35): I guess the human rights in Howard County.

Karen (05:36): Researching the legislature. Yeah. Howard County Human Rights Commission. Yeah.

Debbi (05:44): That’s very interesting. Do you feel that this has led to inspiration for your work? Do you feel that the work that you did before works its way into your books at all?

Karen (05:59): I would say so. It was actually when I was working in a shelter for battered women in Florida that I first thought about writing. Because I had never thought about writing before. So that’s kind of what inspired me to start writing. And from there I found out that I really enjoy doing it, so I just kept writing.

Debbi (06:28): That’s great. When was that exactly when you decided to start?

Karen (06:34): It was right when I get out of college. So it was back, it was quite a while ago. It was back in the late Eighties.

Debbi (06:43): Late Eighties. So, you took some time to really work on your craft before you got published.

Karen (06:54): Quite a long time, but I was doing so many other things. So that was, I was doing other things. I was, you know, different jobs and I would write when I could get a chance, but then I was also trying to paint and then I had to get, once I started teaching, I’d get a master’s degree and I had to do a lot of work, my artwork. So I always tried to fit in. But when I stopped teaching, that’s when I focused more on the writing. Yeah. Which was, which was like around 2008. So.

Debbi (07:29): So, that’s really when you focused more fully on writing?

Karen (07:34): Yes.

Debbi (07:36): That’s very encouraging actually for anybody who’s out there, who’s working a job who might want to do it in their spare time and could eventually get to where you are now.

Karen (07:50): A lot of things happened. I, you know, I got married in between there and you know, all kinds of, you know, how it is with life. So many different things happen. So, but I always kept at it, but it was like a 10-year period where I don’t think I wrote at all, because I was teaching, I was going to graduate school. I was spending summers over in Europe and Asia studying art history. So I wasn’t writing fiction. I was just doing like writing papers, things like that. So I think it was about a whole 10 years that I, I didn’t do it. So I was happy when I got back to it.

Debbi (08:38): I’m glad that you did. Your debut novel, Death in Disguise, features an Irish sleuth named Beth Getty. What inspired you to write about this particular sleuth?

Karen (08:54): She kind of evolved. Um I, I really don’t. I really don’t really know how I came up with her. I had been to Ireland and I am 42% Irish, but I don’t, I really don’t know. It’s, it’s interesting. I just started writing and there she was, so she’s a former fashion model and married to a homicide detective, so she just, she just kind of evolved. The funny thing is I wrote the book such a long time ago, and then when I went back to it and start rewriting it, you know how it changed so many times, I think I wrote that book about five times and each version was different. So I finally got to the one that I liked. So she kind of evolved over time to be how she turned out. So.

Debbi (10:07): Cool. Is fey a real thing?

Karen (10:12): Pardon me?

Debbi (10:13): This thing called fey.

Karen (10:16): Fey. She does. Yes.

Debbi (10:18): Where does that come from?

Karen (10:22): Well, she has a sixth sense and, in Ireland, they use the word fey, so.

Debbi (10:29): I’ve never heard of it before.

Karen (10:30): Oh, well, she, she really believes that she has it, her husband does not believe it. So it’s sort of like, does she really have a sixth sense or does she not have a sixth sense? So she truly believes in it, and she lets that guide her through her sleuthing. However, in the sequel, there’s more of that in that book. So she really starts depending on it more and believing in it more.

Debbi (11:10): I noticed you have a tendency to pick some glamorous locations, like your first one was in Los Angeles and you were dealing with some celebrities there. Your second, the one I had the pleasure of reading was set in Venice, Italy. So, can you tell us a little about each of those stories?

Karen (11:31): Okay. So well I set the one in Los Angeles because that story is well, Beth is a former fashion model. So I figured that she, when she came to this country, she would be in New York or, you know, any of the coasts. So I decided to settle her in Los Angeles and her best friend is an actress. So that’s what kind of, you know, so that’s why I settled her there. I just have a little bit of experience of being involved in movies and TV shows. So I’ve been like extras in a movie. And I kind of, I kind of learned a lot just from observing how that process is. And so it was kind of fun. And so I guess I wanted to put some of that in and then my characters are newlyweds, but they’ve been married for almost a year and they’ve never had a honeymoon.

Karen (12:42): So in the second book, it picks up with them going on their honeymoon to Venice. And I always love Venice. I think the first time I went to Venice, I was probably around 17. So I always, I always liked it. And then I figured, well, a nice place to go on a honeymoon would be Venice, cause it can be romantic. So that’s why I had them go there. Plus Shane, who is Beth’s husband, the detective, he was studying architecture before he made a radical change and went into law enforcement. So one of his favorite architects is Andrea Palladio, who is a Venetian architect, who was a Venetian architect. So I kind of tried to incorporate all of that in there. So, that’s why they they’re in Venice.

Debbi (13:39): Well, it’s a very glamorous city.

Karen (13:48): It’s a very beautiful, yeah. And I like Venetian artists, and it’s just something about Venice for me. I know a lot of people say it’s a tourist trap and this and that, but really if you just walk a few blocks away and then you’re into the center of Venice, it’s very different. And I just, I just like everything about it. So that’s why I chose that locale.

Debbi (14:15): It’s unique. It’s really interesting. Those maze-like streets. I’ve been down them, you know, and it’s real interesting just to walk them and just walk around. Cause eventually you’ll get back to St. Marks. You’ll find your way back.

Karen (14:32): Eventually. It’s, it’s easy to get … I can remember the first time, the first or second time I was there, I was still like a student and, and the teacher saying, well, you can’t get lost in Venice because it’s an Island. You’ll come back to where you started. I was, Oh yeah. I, I was able to get lost.

Debbi (14:59): Do you have any kind of overall plan as to where you’d like to take the series?

Karen (15:07): Okay. So yes, the next one, which I will be starting soon is going to be titled Death Cut, and that one will take place mostly in Baltimore. So what happens is that my two main characters were back from their honeymoon. They’re back in California, but Beth’s best friend who’s the actress is making a movie in Baltimore, which is going to lead her to Baltimore to try to help her out when she gets herself in trouble. When the director is murdered.

Debbi (15:53): I noticed that you’ve been an extra in Baltimore-based movies and TV. So I once did a stint on Homicide, actually as an extra, although it was actually my car that was the extra.

Karen (16:10): Oh, really? Were you in your car?

Debbi (16:13): I was in it.

Karen (16:14): You were in your car?

Debbi (16:15): I was driving around and around the block, this block in Baltimore and kept getting on Route 40, which was passing as I-95. And we had to go by an overturned tractor-trailer or something. It was an episode of Homicide. And I remember that Andre Braugher was shining a flashlight at every car that went by. I looked right at him as I went by.

Karen (16:49): Wow. That must have been fun.

Debbi (16:54): Yeah. It was really something. I was there until all hours of the morning. I got to tell you, it was quite the thing, but it’s really interesting to do that kind of stuff. Ever worked with John Waters?

Karen (17:08): No, but I was in a movie with Kevin Bacon.

Debbi (17:15): Cool!

Karen (17:15): So that was, yeah, it was, it was kind of fun. It was very fun. That one was, that was just a night shoot. So it was a week during and it was like, I think we got there around six or seven at night, and it went all night and it was just one scene I was in. But so that was really fun. So, yeah, it kind of gives you an insight.

Debbi (17:41): Did you end up in the movie?

Karen (17:44): Yes. Well, as an extra, yes. Yeah. But it kind of gives you an insight as to all the things that go into making the movie, all these little tiny things that they, that they’re doing and how they take so many, well, not so much in the TV shows, but in the movies, they take a lot of takes and they do it over and over and over again. So and those things, when you’re watching a movie, you don’t realize how meticulous they are about making those films.

Debbi (18:24): Yes, absolutely. True. so who are your favorite writers and which writers inspire you most?

Karen (18:36): Okay. So I have a number of favorite writers. Of course I liked Mary Higgins Clark a lot, you know, in the mystery, from a mystery point of view. And I always thought, when I started writing, especially when I started writing mysteries, I felt like her style of writing influenced my writing. So I like her. I like Alexander McCall Smith, and I like so many. Julia Spencer-Fleming and Tracy Chevalier is one of my favorite writers, but she’s not a mystery writer, but she incorporates a lot of art into her into her novels. But basically I’ll read almost anything. I’m a really big nonfiction reader, though I write fiction. So I find myself, when I look at the books that I’ve read over the year, the bulk of them are more nonfiction than fiction.

Debbi (19:51): Is there a particular topic that you favor?

Karen (20:07): I can say anything that I think is interesting. I’ve been reading World War II memoirs right now. Biographies, art, art books, anything with archeology, things like that, theology books, anything that, that I think would be interesting to read.

Debbi (20:40): Cool. who is your favorite artist? Do you have a favorite period or type of art?

Karen (20:53): Okay. So my overall favorite artist is Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci. My favorite contemporary artists are Joseph Sheppard, who is a local artist. He was an instructor over at Maryland Institute College of Art, and now he lives between Maryland and Italy. He is up in age, I think he’s 89 years old. He’s an amazing artist. Also Cesar Santos, who is a Miami-based artist, and Erik Koppel, he’s a New England artist. So those are my favorites. Favorite periods are the Renaissance and the Venetian painters. I like ancient art, Greek art, Egyptian art. So the better way to say it is what, what I’m not crazy about. I’m not crazy about impressionism that much and surrealism.

Debbi (22:11): So, you’re more of a classical kind of girl?

Karen (22:16): Pretty much. Basically. I like Hudson River School. That’s American. I like I, I just, I just like, I like the Dutch artists. Vermeer is one of my favorite artists. There’s just so many. I just really, I just really enjoy you know, the Dutch. Rubens is a real favorite, one of my … Tintoretto and other Italian artists. There’s just, there’s so many. I really like art history. And I think I have enough credits to be an art history major, but I just, I just I was one of those people, I think there are writers like this too, or wannabe writers. Like I just really want to write, I just like the process, I like the process. I would like to be a writer. The same thing with art. I would like to be an artist. I would like the process, but for me it’s more like I’m, I’m more in appreciation of it. So I had a cousin who really wanted to be a writer, but she liked reading more than the writing. So I’m one that appreciates the art more than actually doing it, but I want to do it. I just really appreciate it. So, so, and when I used to take the students to the galleries and talk to them and they would see art that we had studied in class, they would get so excited. But there is a funny story where I was teaching the kids who were doing ancient Egypt and they were going to be making cartouches, which would be their name. You’ve seen hieroglyphics. And it was kind of a cut and paste project, kind of a collage.

Karen (24:10): And I was talking to them about hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt and stories about the Egyptians and cats. And so showing them one example of Egyptian art, and I was saying, this is hieroglyphics. And one little kid raised his hand and said, well, what does it say? And so they thought I could actually read hieroglyphics. So I was like no, I, I, I don’t know if I just made something up or I said, I really can’t read it, but that did prompt me to buy a book. So I started going through trying to, you know, understand hieroglyphics a little bit, but that’s very complicated.

Debbi (24:52): Well, the diversity of your interests is intriguing to me. Cause I tend to be the same way. I’d kind of like find a subject that I find fascinating and want to appreciate it, the history, all of that.

Karen (25:07): Right. Right. And I do, I have started, I have a pretty good coin collection and so they’re mostly ancient. So I like that too. And I, and I liked the fact of, you know, having, like, having say Alexander the Great coins. So, you know, that’s like 300 BC, you know, to have something like that that has gone through lots of people’s fingers. So it’s just about really interesting. And I do, I also was very interested in African art. So I do have a lot of that, too. So that’s, that’s really, those were my interests. So and it’s always fun going to auctions and bidding on pieces and, and things like that. So it’s fun.

Debbi (25:56): Wow. That’s cool. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about before we finish up?

Karen (26:06): Oh, well. As I just said, the sequel will hopefully be coming out next spring. So it was pushed back because of the pandemic. So the sequel will be coming out and then hopefully I’ll be ready. Death Cut. Also, I started a new series, which is more of a cozy mystery series and I just finished writing the first book in that series. So and that was lots of fun cause all of my books, well there. Mmm. There’s not too much. And then there’s, it’s just traditional mystery, but in the cozy it’s a lot more lighthearted and it was really fun to write.

Debbi (26:56): The Beth Getty series is very much like a thriller mystery, correct?

Karen (27:02): More like that. Yes, I think so.

Debbi (27:04): As opposed to the other series, which is cozy.

Karen (27:06): It’ll be a cozy series. So I’m hoping to find a home for the cozy series now.

Debbi (27:17): Interesting. I didn’t know you had another series in the works.

Karen (27:24): Yeah. Yeah. I just started it and it was, it was really fun to write. So I have a couple ideas for the next two books in that series, next two or three. So and it has cats in that and I base those cats on my cats and my cats were all rescues, but I showed them. So when you go to cat shows, it’s not just the pedigrees, but there is, there is a group called the household pets where [you can show] any kind of cats that you’ve adopted or cats without papers. And so that’s what the cats are in this, in the cozy series. And so it was fun. I liked putting my cats in there. Oh, and I based it on, my town is based on Ellicott City. So I changed the name to Bailey’s Landing, but it’s really, if you, if you know this area, you will know that it’s Ellicott City.

Debbi (28:32): Well, I love cats. I’ve got to tell you. So that’s really cool. I think it’s cool what you’re doing with your cats. So thank you so much for talking with me today and being here and telling us about your books. I really appreciate it.

Karen (28:52): Well, thank you so much, Debbi.

Debbi (28:55): My pleasure. And I also am happy that people are listening, and that the podcast is getting some nice reviews. So if you would leave a review for the podcast, if you enjoyed this episode, I would appreciate it very much. And if you go to my website, debbimack.com, you’ll not only find links to where you can buy the Crime Cafe box set and short story anthology, but also you’ll see the podcast’s Patreon page, and you can subscribe to the podcast there, too. So thanks again for listening. And our next guest in two weeks will be Jessie Chandler. In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading.

Reprinted from the original post here dated August 30, 2020.

New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.

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