Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where her first novel is set, and like her main character, she lived several years abroad while growing up. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Elizabeth now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, dog and two chickens. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and has a black sash in Tai Chi.
Where did the idea for Lay Death come from?
I love murder mysteries that reach way back into a character’s past, so I knew from the start that I wanted to build Lay Death around a very old case with long shadows. I was also pretty sure I wasn’t going to write a detective story. So I didn’t want a cold case, exactly. I wanted an old murder that would come back to life. From there, I got to the idea of a murder that was long ago solved—or so everyone believed. It was a short step from there to chapter one of Lay Death: an old murder comes back to life when the man who was blamed for it is exonerated.
How did your years at the Attorney General’s Office influence you in writing this book?
I got the bare idea for the opening situation of my novel from a real case—of a man who was exonerated of rape after spending almost two decades in prison. I heard about that case while I was working at the AG but had no direct contact with it—I only read about it in the news. But because of my job I was more aware of it and maybe also better able to understand what was going on as I followed it.
Also, at the AG’s office I met a number of people who worked in victim services. The victim advocate in Lay Death is totally fictional, but many of the issues she raises and talks about are real. The story she tells about herself is loosely based on a real story once told to me by a rape victim.
What’s the writing process like for you?
Because I write mysteries, I start with two stories. One is the hidden story of a crime. The other is a story of discovery. I begin by writing out the bare essentials of the hidden story: what happens to cause someone to commit a crime? How exactly does it go down? What does the killer do to conceal the crime?
The actual plot of the mystery novel begins with the first inkling that a murder has been committed—shots are heard, or someone disappears, or a body is found. From that starting point, I write out a summary of how the whole hidden story of the crime is brought to light. That’s the basis for my outline.
What books and writers have most influenced you?
Ruth Rendell. Rebecca. Since I’ve been writing about crime, I have reread Crime and Punishment more than once. It’s a tough read, but there is so much great stuff in it. My all-time favorite author is probably Edith Wharton. When I try to name the ten best books I’ve ever read I usually mention A Hundred Years of Solitude.
I read Nancy Drew as a child and graduated to Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner as a teenager. In my teens I also read a lot of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, and other 19th century English literature. I love the short stories of Somerset Maugham and the novellas of Joseph Conrad.
I’m partial to British mystery writers. I’ve read all of Dorothy Sayers, PD James and Marjory Allingham, to name a few. Among American mystery writers, in addition to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald has had a huge influence on me.
Among contemporary mystery writers, I love Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly. I admire Walter Moseley more than I can say—especially for the Easy Rawlins books. I thought SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep was wonderful.
What is your writing day like?
I’m such a morning person I’m almost a night owl in reverse—I’m always up way before sunrise, often as early as four.
I wake up full of ideas for what I’m writing, sneak out of bed and take a pot of tea into my office, which is really just a little nook between the pantry and the dining room. It’s very cozy and decorative and quiet. There’s a strip of red oriental carpet on the tile floor, a small oak desk, and an upholstered armchair. My dog gets up with me and goes back to sleep on my feet while I work. I do all my best and most creative work in the early hours, while it’s still dark out, before my inner editor and critics wake up.
I break at about eight to walk my dog, make breakfast and feed the chickens. Then I write for another hour or two. Later in the day, I shift to a big leather chair next to the window and the fireplace in the living room (where I am right now). As the day goes on I turn to more analytical tasks like editing or writing short pieces like interviews or blog posts. I never write after about four o’clock in the afternoon, except possibly to jot down a thought that occurs to me.
I work on a laptop and take breaks to practice Tai Chi and putter in the garden. Or in the summer I swim—I live in Texas, and it gets very hot!
Who is Kate Cranbrook? Is the character based on a real person?
She is who she has to be to do what she does. It’s an extraordinary act she’s committed—accusing an innocent man of murder. I started with the idea for a situation in which a person might choose to do such a thing. Even then, in the same circumstances, not just anyone would do what Kate did. So I had to make her into the kind of person who would. Sometimes people ask me which comes first, character or plot. To me, they are inseparable. I will say that story comes first.
Is Kate at all like you?
I share a few traits with Kate. We both lived in other countries when growing up. Kate was born in Kenya and came to the US as a teenager. I lived a few years overseas, in France, Germany and Japan. So both Kate and I had the experience of reentering American culture from abroad. We both love gardens. And like Kate, I went to a women’s college (Smith, versus Sweet Briar for Kate). But there the resemblance ends. I mean, I would hope so! Kate is not a very nice person!
Why tell the story from Kate’s point of view?
Because no other way could I get deep enough inside the story to tell what I wanted to tell and to end it the way I wanted it to end. But it was a dangerous choice, because she makes a rather dark protagonist. Many readers want the main character of a book to be likable. I don’t feel that way myself—I can be just as happy and interested reading about someone who is unlikable or even bad, as long as the story is worthwhile in some way.
How did your childhood help form you as a writer?
When I was very young, my family lived way out in the country in southern France. It was a beautiful place, but also very isolated. There were no other children, and although I had a brother and sister, they were a lot older than me.
Did I mind? Not at all. I was one of those kids who invents imaginary friends. I had four: Inka, Dinka, Encore and Carrot. Inka and Dinka were twins. Encore and Carrot fought with each other a lot. In the evenings, at the dinner table, when my parents and siblings told each other about the day, I would pipe up with a blow-by-blow of what my imaginary posse had been up to.
I’m still doing the same thing, but now I call it being a writer. I dream up characters, put them in situations, and spend my time working out what happens.
What kind of books do you like to read?
Murder mysteries of all kinds, but especially those of the same general type as Lay Death at Her Door. They say you should write the kind of book you most like to read, and that’s what I’ve done. I like a book that’s somewhat dark, but pure fiction—not too gritty! Serious, but a good mystery with lots of clues. I’m not especially into being scared or thrilled or anxious when I read—I’d rather be intrigued and puzzled and surprised. I enjoy a good setting, too.
What are you reading now?
Arnaldur Indridason and Malla Nunn account for the last eight books I’ve read! Love the settings (Reykjavik and South Africa, respectively). I’ve also recently read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (which is non-fiction) and Alexander McCall Smith’s Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (12th in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series).
You’ve come to writing at the end of a full career. How did that happen?
Good question! I have always known that what I most wanted was to write novels—yet I haven’t published a full-length work of fiction until now. I’ve been pulled down other paths repeatedly—and who am I to say that isn’t how my life was meant to be? But when I left the AG’s office, I knew the time had come. It was now or never, and I’d never been more ready. I’m so glad to be here!
Do you keep a journal?
Absolutely! Daily—to the tune of at least 200,000 words a year. For every book I finish, I write about two books’ worth of journal! I think best when my fingers are moving on a keyboard. I work through issues of plot, character, structure, and theme by writing in my journal. I constantly go back and forth between manuscript and journal when I work.
What other creative activities or hobbies do you enjoy?
I sometimes like to swing all the way over from the verbal to the visual world. I have always loved painting with watercolors, and I was fortunate to study watercolor painting with JU Salvant a few years ago. She is both a wonderful artist and an excellent teacher.
I’ve maintained a large and rambling website (pommelhouse.com) for more than ten years—purely for my own entertainment. It’s like an online journal—my virtual home. I love to cook, and I have a black sash in Tai Chi. Right now I’m learning the Chen 38. I maintain a Tai Chi Notebook on Pommelhouse as I study.
I’m also a very ambitious gardener—out of control! I have more than fifty roses, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens and a greenhouse. The yard is nearly an acre, and the whole thing is planted and bedded and riddled with paths and benches and little rock walls. It’s always changing, never finished, and occupies an inordinate amount of my time.
How does a person go about becoming a writer?
It’s deceptively simple: if you want to be a writer, write! Actually, it’s a three-step process: Read. Write. Share. Read what you love, and this will be the kind of book you write, but also read about craft. Luckily, there are many great books on the craft of writing fiction. Once you have a manuscript of some kind, you can seek out other writers locally and online. Without my writer friends, who read my work and helped me figure out how to make it better, I could never have gotten from manuscript to published novel.