Special Writer's Digest Interview: Author Mary Kay Andrews - Writer's Digest

Mystery Writing: An Interview With Author Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews was a successful journalist and mystery writer, but she still hadn’t found her niche—until a career renovation pushed her out of her comfort zone and onto the bestseller list.
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Publishers Weekly has described author Mary Kay Andrews’ work as “authentic,” a “Southern charmer” and “bright, engaging and thoughtful.” Judging by her loyal following of readers—who devour her latest bestselling beach reads, delight in her mystery writing backlist, enthusiastically follow her blog, and invite her into their lives through book clubs and social media—the same might be said of Andrews herself.

But for those fans who love her as much for her character-driven stories as for her willingness to blog her favorite recipes and thrift store finds, how Andrews got her start might come as a bit of a surprise—though how she ultimately found her niche makes the best kind of sense.

Andrews started out not as a fiction writer, chef or antiques dealer, but as a reporter covering the most serious of stories: the real-life Savannah, Ga., murder trial that became the basis of John Berendt’s iconic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She went on to spend a decade as a feature writer with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before trying her hand at a different kind of murder story: the mystery novel. She had modest success publishing 10 mysteries under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck—but she wanted more. She wanted, truly wanted, to push herself as a writer. And she wanted, one way or another, to debut in the top 10 on The New York Times bestseller list. Pulling it off would require another career turn—to women’s fiction, a pen name and a heightened emphasis on outreach to her readers.

Now known for the kind of bestsellers that are best matched with sweet tea and sunshine, most recently Deep Dish, The Fixer Upper and Summer Rental (which hit No. 5 on the NYT charts), Andrews is looking ahead to the release of her ninth women’s fiction title, Spring Fever, in June.

Today, Andrews says she views her career as a fixer-upper of sorts: Much like the 1926 Craftsman home she’s lovingly restored in Atlanta, her 20 years of publishing have been driven by her ability to envision renovations to her identity as an author—and then put in the necessary work to make them reality.

In an exclusive interview in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, Andrews shares her insights on how other writers can use this approach to find publishing success. In this bonus online-only Q&A, she talks more about her own path and her writing process—and even shares a favorite recipe.

You started your writing career as a journalist in Savannah, eventually working as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 10 years. How did news reporting contribute to your success as a novelist today?
I didn’t spend a lot of time as a news reporter. The greater part of my experience was as a feature writer. As a kid I was always fascinated with crime. My uncle was a career police officer and at Sunday dinners he’d tell us what he was working on. I always loved and read newspapers. I had an early interest in crime and court, and that played a part in my starting to write mystery novels.

Southern culture is so embedded in the people and places you write about. How much time do you spend on research, and how do you manage to capture the essence of the South so well?
I don’t have to do [much] research. As a reporter I traveled all over in that capacity—I was always interested in listening and watching the people, even when I was writing nonfiction, so that part comes pretty naturally. I do some research. I had never been [to the Outer Banks, where Summer Rental is set], so I went online, read … I went to local bookstores and bought books and read them.

What’s your writing process?
I still write a synopsis. I’m not good with Roman numerals. [Laughs.] I talk about the protagonist, figure out her dilemma, figure out who are the supporting characters. I always need to know about the setting. Setting is so important to my books. I try to figure out where the story is going, what the dilemma is, and what my character’s backstory is. I know I’m working toward a happy ending. I do that and then [my agent] and I hash it over, talking about it, e-mailing back and forth. If he likes the idea I float it to [my editor, Jen] and we hash it back and forth. Jen asks me more questions about my character’s head and makes suggestions. She has the golden touch. I think she knows how to pull a story out of you. And after that I go to work.

I start writing lots of time with a yellow legal pad longhand. I’ll start a scene and when it’s going good I may do the whole chapter longhand. When things really start cooking I switch over to my computer or laptop. I work all over the house. Ten pages is a good day, 10 triple-spaced manuscript pages. But I don’t write every day, because I have business to take care of.

And lots of times I go away. My children are out of the house—we’re empty nesters—but there are still a lot of distractions at home. When I was writing Summer Rental I rented a cottage on Nag’s Head several different times, four to five days at a time. I lock myself up, no TV, and give myself page quotas. If I meet those quotas, I go for a walk, ride a bike, go junking. It’s the only time I work at night. [I tell myself] if you write five more pages, you can have a glass of chardonnay. Cheap chardonnay is what fuels me. [Laughs.] Sometimes I can squeeze five more pages, sometimes 10.

When it’s going well, I write really fast. The closer I get to deadline, the faster I have to write. I’ll spend days when I don’t get out of my bathrobe. I keep my laptop beside my bed and I’ll give myself an assignment, like, Why is that character doing that? I get myself to dream about it, then I roll out of bed, get my Diet Coke and start typing.

You’re generous not only in how accessible you make yourself but also with what you give—recipes, contests, lists of your favorite places to shop. I imagine many readers view you as not just author, but friend, even if they don’t know you personally. How has this impacted your role as author?
I think it makes my readers feel connected to my success. They feel a part of it and if I’ve connected with them, they become my marketing, viral marketing. It’s important that it be genuine. I wouldn’t do any of this if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it. If I share a recipe on my website or on my blog, I’ve cooked it, I’ve served it. If I mention a great junk spot, I’ve been there, shopped there, I think you’d like it. Three years ago [my publisher] said to me, “Hire your own marketing firm.” So I chose Meg Walker [with] Tandem Literary. She designs [my newsletter] and lines up book bloggers to help get the word out. A large part of my success of Fixer Upper and Summer Rental had to do with this. Not everybody is ready to have it, not everybody is at the point where they want to spend that kind of money. I feel it’s worth it. Harper and St. Martin’s have great marketing and publicity departments but they’re stretched.

When not writing, connecting with readers and junking, how do you spend your time?
I have a 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter and a 5-month-old grandson. My idea of a great Sunday is cooking Sunday dinner and having everyone around in the kitchen.

You often share recipes, online and in your books. What’s your favorite?
Grits ’n Greens casserole—it sounds revolting, but once you try it it’s kind of addictive. [Below is the recipe]

Grits ’n Greens Casserole

courtesy of Mary Kay Andrews

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whipping cream or half and half
  • 8 cups chicken broth, divided
  • 2 cups grits—not instant or quick cooking.
  • 1 large bag chopped frozen collard green
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 2-1/2 cups parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
  • 1 cup cooked and crumbled bacon

Grease a 13×9 casserole dish. Combine cream and 6 cups chicken broth and bring to boil. Stir in grits, and cook over medium heat until grits return to boil. Cover, reduce heat to simmer and stir frequently to keep from burning for 25–30 minutes. Add milk if needed to thicken to proper consistency. (If you’re Southern, you know what that is! If not, think of slightly runny oatmeal.) While grits are simmering, cook frozen collards with remaining 2 cups of chicken broth until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well in colander, squeezing out remaining liquid. Add butter, Parmesan and pepper to cooked grits, and stir until the butter is melted. Stir in cooked greens, and spoon into the greased casserole. Top with additional Parmesan and crumbled bacon. This dish can be served at room temperature, or heated in 350-degree oven until browned on top.