First of all thanks for agreeing to be interviewed Mel. This is a real treat for me seeing as you’re my favourite author.
Q. Sorry. I have to ask:I’m sure we’re all curious what your first initial stands for. Is it a secret?
A. My given name is Helena – a name that was chronically mispronounced throughout my life, prior to the actress Ms. Bonham-Carter appearing on the scene. I got Heleeeena, Helayna, Helenna – every combination except the right one and it drove me nuts. I worked in the theatre biz for ten years, (with its constant introductions to new people) and found it easier to be known as Mel (a family nickname), which nobody could mispronounce, even if they tried.
Q. As a fan of your books and writing style I’d like to know how your hero, Polly Deacon, came about. Is she a collage of people you’ve known, or a character you cooked up?
A. I wanted to create a character who was different from the competent, tough and oh-so-together women detectives who populate the crime fiction of the day. I wanted her to have as many flaws as I do, and as many struggles with society, authority and the hydro bill as I know many of my readers have. Basically, I tried to make her human, and not so unlike myself that I would struggle with writing from her perspective. Polly is a figment of my imagination, certainly, with characteristics that a reader might identify with.
Q. How did Polly’s “landlord” come about? He seems like a pretty unusual character.
A. George Hoito appeared in the first book as a kind of secular confessor-type, an older, wiser and gentle foil for Polly’s impulsive nature. His Finnish background wasn’t deliberate, particularly, except that there are plenty of Finns in the north of Ontario, and it’s not a culture that gets written about a lot.
Q. Is there a Mark Becker (Polly Deacon’s male interest) in your life? What’s his occupation?
A. No – Mark Becker is purely imaginary. Although people locally who have read my books often ask if I’m having an affair with a police officer and who is it? (Grin.) I’ve never dated a cop. I don’t think we’d have much in common. Becker might be said to be an amalgam of every difficult man I’ve ever gone out with.
Q. Who picks those hilarious book titles (e.g. Dead Cow in Aisle Three)? You?
A. Yes – I take a great deal of care with my titles. A bad title will not help sell a book, and I believe a good title will. I also try to make sure the title tells a potential reader a little about my style – that the book is likely to be funny and quirky. I am lucky to have a publisher (Sylvia McConnell at Napoleon/ Rendezvous Press) who has faith in my weird choices.
Q. Polly lives in Ontario in a rather unique setting. Is this because you live in Ontario and know the surroundings?
A. Yes. The Muskoka region where I live, which is the basis for the fictional Kuskawa, doesn’t appear much in mainstream fiction – it’s uncharted territory – rich in character and detail. There’s a wealth of material here. It’s also stunningly beautiful, and I enjoy the opportunity to describe it.
Q. You’re in a rather unique situation as a Canadian writer. You don’t write about Canadian history and you’re a success story: at least I say you are! How do you feel “pioneering”?
A. The pool of Canadian crime writers who set their books actually in Canada is relatively small. I don’t feel I’m a pioneer, per se, though it feels good to be one of a small group who remain more interested in creating a fictional landscape that Canadian readers can identify with, instead of setting their books in New York City or London. When my books started getting attention, one of the things people often said to me was “It’s so amazing to be able to recognize my own home-town in print!” Of course, Kuskawa is not exactly a reproduction of the real Muskoka, but it’s close enough to be familiar to many readers.
Q. Has your publisher or agent been supportive of Polly’s unique “smoking” habit from the beginning or did you ever face pressure to kill it off?
A. No – Sylvia has always been supportive of the unusual aspects of Polly’s lifestyle, which I appreciate. In the first book, I tended (in early drafts) to use the novel as a bit of a soapbox in order to lobby for the decriminalization of marijuana, and she put a stop to that – not because of the politics, but because it made for boring fiction. Instead, I include Polly’s recreational use of pot as an aspect of who she is – not a theme. And you know, this makes a lot of readers identify with her, too. What a concept, eh? She smokes dope occasionally, and it hasn’t turned her into a raving maniac! Imagine!
Q. Did Polly ever have to lose other character traits or interests prior to her “birth”?
A. In an early draft, Polly’s last name was Sypnewicz. Don’t ask. But that got axed fairly early on, which is probably a good thing, as my fingers got knotted up on the keyboard every time I tried to spell it.
Q. Can you give us a little bit of info on your history?
A. I was born in Oxford, England, and my family emigrated to Canada in 1966. I grew up in Bracebridge, Ontario. My Dad was an Anglican priest turned social worker, and my mother was a civil servant. I have two older brothers. We moved to Toronto when I was 15, and I stayed there until the mid 80s, when I began working in the theatre business as an actor and stage manager. I lived in Nova Scotia for a few years and moved back to Muskoka in my early 30s. I don’t work in professional theatre any more, though I keep my hand in. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a waitress (endlessly), a carpenter, a forms-designer for the government, a drama teacher, and dozens of other things. I don’t have a university degree, though I’ve spent about seven years, all-told, at post secondary studies of various sorts. Lots of life-experience, which has all been useful in terms of providing things to write about. I also work a lot these days as a cartoonist and illustrator – I went to art college for two years, directly out of high school, and I knew that would come in useful some day.
Q. How on earth did your dogs wind up being named Karma and Ego? (Kewl names by the way!) What breeds are they?
A. The dogs are siblings – mongrels, really – lab/Shepherd crosses, mixed in with goodness knows what else. When I got them as puppies (they were only 8 weeks old) I was heavily into the puppy training books by the Monks of New Skete, who suggested that the best names for dogs were short, two syllables at most, with hard consonant sounds in them. That makes it easier for name-recognition, apparently. You know that joke – “Your karma has run over my dogma”? That’s where it began, I think.
Next week: In part 2, H. Mel Malton talks about writing, touring, and finding inspiration:
Laura Seymour first published herself, at age 8. She has since gone on to publish a cookbook for the medical condition Candida. She is working toward her B.A. (Psyc).