Today I am pleased to have as my guest Jeanne Matthews, best known for her Dinah Pelerin international mysteries.
We have only become Facebook Friends recently yet we had met before. Jeanne, you probably don’t remember meeting me through someone else’s blog a few years ago, where I won the first Dinah Pelerin novel, Bones of Contention, but I am very glad that we reconnected!
So am I, Tonette. Thanks for inviting me to Four Foxes, One Hound. I hope you enjoyed Bones of Contention. I had a lot of fun writing it.
You have had a varied career as a paralegal, a copywriter, and an English and drama teacher. Did you write during your times working in those fields?
As a paralegal, I wrote deadly dull interrogatories and requests for production of documents. My career as a copywriter required me to dream up words of extravagant praise for some pretty unglamorous things. The Root Assassin Shovel. “For that special sort of digger…”
Were you more inspired to be creative as a teacher or did you do the inspiring?
Teaching is a collaborative experience. You always hope you’ve instilled a love of language and reading in your students, but the inspiration flows both ways. Every kid has a unique take on the world and some have amazing stories to tell.
You now live in Washington state, across the country from Georgia where you were born and raised. Despite your love of travel, do you miss where you grew up?
I think we all carry our hometown with us regardless how far we stray. The South was formative for me and I’ve indulged my nostalgia by making my protagonist a Southerner.
Dinah Pelerin rather fell into becoming a world traveler and an amateur anthropologist by her life’s circumstances, but you, Jeanne, have traveled for pleasure. Your interest in cultures, myths, and folklore comes out through your works. Do you choose your travel destinations based on those interests, or do you become interested in the local cultures when you arrive in a new place?
When I first traveled to Australia, I had no idea that for 25 years after the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, the Australian government maintained a policy of eugenics designed to eradicate the Aboriginal population. My interest in the “Stolen Generation” of Aborigine children became part of the plot of Bones of Contention. [“The Rabbit-Proof Fence” with Kenneth Branagh tell is very well.]
My fascination with Hawaiian culture and myth began many years ago when I studied the hula and oral literature of Hawaii at the University of Hawaii. Native Hawaiians have a deep spiritual connection to the land. The myth of the fire goddess Pele sprang from that intrinsic psychic connection. Pele personified all things volcanic – the fire, the lava, the steam, and the new-formed land. At the time I wrote Bet Your Bones, Native Hawaiians were trying to reclaim title to their Crown Lands, seized when a group of American sugar planters overthrew their queen in 1893.
I had read about the so-called “Doomsday” seed vault in the Norwegian Arctic before I ventured north to see it for myself. What mystery writer wouldn’t be intrigued by a place where it is actually against the law to die? It’s so cold that bodies don’t decompose in the permafrost and anyone who feels sick enough to die is advised to head south pronto so he can be buried in softer ground. The political controversy over how to preserve the world’s agricultural heritage from rising seas, hurtling asteroids, and nuclear holocaust – not to mention agribusiness and bio-engineering – furnished a devil’s brew of motives for murder in the third book, Bonereapers.
Her Boyfriend’s Bones came about through sheer serendipity. A lawyer I once worked for invited me to come and stay in his house on the Greek island of Samos where, he said somewhat ominously, “strange things happen.” As I soon learned, “strange” didn’t begin to cover it. The Greeks have a plethora of ancient myths and capricious gods and goddesses, but Samos has a serious modern-day problem of desperate (and sometimes dead) migrants washing up on their beaches. I knew before I went about the former, but not the latter. [Oh, I want to hear more about the ‘former’ !-T]
Berlin is one of my favorite cities and a perfect backdrop for a murder mystery. When I discovered that Germans are infatuated with American Indians, I was inspired. Dinah’s trouble-prone mother is Native American and I immediately envisioned all manner of mayhem she might cause if she happened to visit. There are “der Indianer” clubs in Germany in which people dress as Indians, adopt Indian names, erect tepees in their back gardens, and hold powwows. These clubs presented a variety of interesting characters and the re-introduction of Dinah’s mother provided a bridge to my first book. After a blackmailer is murdered and scalped in a Berlin park, Dinah finally learns Where the Bones Are Buried.
Your characters speak colorfully, use localisms and usually have decided accents. Those can be difficult for many writers to impart to their readers. Do you tend to pick up accents from people on your travels? (Personally, I have to be very careful; I tend to pick up accents and speech patterns, whether in conversations or even from movies.)
You are right, Tonette. It’s easy to pick up the local patois. I try hard to differentiate the voices and speaking styles of my characters. I fell in love with Aussie slang and Hawaiian pidgin English. Wherever I go I like to settle in some inconspicuous spot and eavesdrop on the locals. As for my Southern characters, my relatives keep me well supplied with colorful sayings. Not every character speaks with a distinctive accent. That would drive a reader crazy. But with each of my settings, I’ve tried to convey some flavor of how people in that particular place talk and think.
The series is packed with cultural information. Is it hard to choose how much to impart within your story to interest the reader and how much could become overload (or distract from the plot)?
Yes, there’s always a tension. I regard “place” as a central character and to some extent my books are a kind of armchair travel. Some cultural and political information forms the basis of the plots. Humor is a good measuring stick for what to leave in and leave out. Is a particular superstition or myth amusing? Is it something that belongs in the mouth of a certain sort of character? Does it give Dinah a chance to show her flippant and irreverent side? I avoid “information dumps,” but strew tidbits of local lore fairly frequently.
All of your titles contain the word “Bones.” Was that planned or has it just taken off by itself?
The word “Bones” in the title of the first and last book fits to a “t”. The other titles came about at the suggestion of my publisher. Unfortunately, Bones of Contention was sometimes confused with non-fiction works disputing the age and provenance of dinosaur bones.
How did you choose the name “Dinah Pelerin.”
“Dinah” is an old-timey Southern name and “Pelerin” is the French word for “pilgrim.” I wanted the name to indicate that this character is on a journey. Not only does she travel from place to place, but she is on a personal pilgrimage. The first book might even be described as a coming of age story as Dinah seeks to understand her clouded history. As she moves through the arc of the series, she continues on a pilgrimage in search of professional satisfaction and, just perhaps, a romantic partner she can trust.
Dinah shares many characteristics with you: being a native Georgian, love of travel and anthropology. What else do you have in common? What are your definite differences?
I think both Dinah and I have a subversive streak and a somewhat wry sense of humor. The most obvious difference is that she’s young and footloose, with a propensity to take daredevil risks. Me, I’m all about minding my head and looking both ways before I cross. Maybe I’m a bit jealous of Dinah’s boldness.
Are you working or contemplating a new adventure for Dinah?
I left Dinah to get on with her life in Berlin while I work on a historical mystery set in Chicago just after the Civil War. Even in 1867, it was quite “the toddlin’ town” as the song goes. I’m enjoying the research and totally immersed in the city’s wild and woolly past.
Other than your very amusing and information-filled blog, do you do any other writing? (I have been side-tracked reading through your past posts!)
I’m so pleased that my blogs have entertained you, Tonette. I have a lot of fun writing about off-the-wall subjects – crime writers nominated for sainthood, the popularity of Scarlett O’Hara in North Korea, how people get “verbed.” With so much weirdness in the world, it amazes me that anyone could ever be bored.
We will end with advice from one of your posts. Will you share with our readers essentially what you wrote about celebrating along the path of writing/publishing a story?
I think you’re referring to a piece I wrote for Writer’s Digest. I urged writers to celebrate every step of the writing process, from the first draft to the fortieth. Writing a novel is one of the hardest things a person will ever do and being published is a huge accomplishment. But there are ups and downs in every writer’s career. If rejection comes, accept it as a badge of courage and keep on writing and improving your craft. It’s important to enjoy the ride… and don’t stint on the champagne!
Thank you so much for being our guest, Jeanne Matthews!
Please let our readers know how they can learn more about you and your works.
For more information about Jeanne’s books, check out her website