FEATURED AUTHOR: R.J. LEE
ABOUT THE BOOKAfter four bridge players are poisoned, newspaper reporter Wendy Winchester sets out to catch a killer who's not playing with a full deck . . .
When the four wealthy widows who make up the venerable Rosalie Bridge Club never get up from their card table, this quiet Mississippi town has its first quadruple homicide. Who put cyanide in their sugar bowl? An aspiring member and kibitzer with the exclusive club, Wendy takes a personal interest in finding justice for the ladies.
She also has a professional motivation. A frustrated society columnist for the Rosalie Citizen, she's ready to deal herself a better hand as an investigative reporter. This could be her big break. Plus, she has a card or two up her sleeve: her sometimes boyfriend is a detective and her dad is the local chief of police.
Partnering up with the men in her life, Wendy starts shuffling through suspects and turning over secrets long held close to the chest by the ladies. But when a wild card tries to take her out of the game, Wendy decides it's time to up the ante before she's the next one to go down . . .
Title: Grand Slam Murders
Author’s name: R.J. Lee
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Kensington Books (January 29th, 2019)
Print length: 304 pages
On tour with: Great Escapes Book Tours
INTERVIEW WITH R.J. LEE
Q: What’s the story behind the title of your book?
A: Grand Slam Murders: A Bridge To Death Mystery is so titled because four wealthy widows in a small, historic Southern river port are all poisoned together at a bridge luncheon before they play a grand slam bridge contract in practice for an upcoming championship. The series title derives from the fact that all the cozy mysteries will have some connection to the game of bridge. The reader will not have to have an extensive knowledge of the game to follow the plot, however.
Q: Tell us about your series. Is this book a standalone, or do readers need to read the series in order?
A: Grand Slam Murders is the debut novel in the series. The second novel in the series—Playing The Devil—will be released in January of 2020. The main characters will continue—the female amateur sleuth and investigative reporter, Wendy Winchester; her police chief father, Bax Winchester; and her detective boyfriend, Ross Rierson. However, each novel will have a different murder victim(s) and a new cast of suspects. It will not be necessary to have read Grand Slam Murders to follow Playing The Devil. There may be references to continuing characters as they appeared in the first novel, but they will not confuse the reader in any way. Based on the success of these first two novels, my publisher, Kensington, may choose to offer me another contract to write more in the series. In any case, it will not be necessary to read any of the novels in order, although the hope is that readers will be intrigued enough to go back and catch previous entries in the series if they do not start at the beginning.
Q: Where’s home for you?
A: I live in the university town of Oxford, Mississippi, location of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) which William Faulkner called home, of course. Many current writers live in the Oxford area, and the university, itself, is very supportive of all of us.
Q: What do you love about where you live?
A: The fact that it is a university town, and there is respect for diversity. The country in general is about diversity, but we need to live up to that more.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born and grew up in the historic river port of Natchez, Mississippi, which was founded in 1719, two years before New Orleans. I have gotten a lot of my ideas for characters and plots from living in Natchez. It is a very laid-back, party town which can find an excuse most any day of the year for a festival or celebration of some kind. It celebrates Mardi Gras, for instance, and even has a go-cup ordinance allowing people to carry their drinks around town. Bars are also open twenty-four hours. In some cases, I have had to tone down characters and events that occurred in Natchez so that they would be more believable.
Q: Truth is often stranger than fiction! What’s your favorite memory?
A: The day I got married to the love of my life in Biddeford Pool, Maine.
Q: If you had an extra $100 a week to spend on yourself, what would you buy?
A: I would give it to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. I have all I need right now.
Q: What’s the dumbest purchase you’ve ever made?
A: A food processor. I have never used it, even though it seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Q: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
A: How to love unconditionally and put someone else before myself. I did that during the years of my marriage.
Q: Have you been in any natural disasters?
A: Yes. I have lived through several hurricanes growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, and then moving to the New Orleans area later on.
Q: What is the most daring thing you've done?
A: Deciding to switch from humorous fiction to cozy murder mysteries. I had always wanted to write mysteries. Finally, I made the choice to write them, made a proposal to my editor at Kensington, and he was onboard. I think mysteries are my niche, but I was afraid to take them on for a while.
Q: What is the stupidest thing you've ever done?
A: Wasting so much time in my twenties NOT writing, even though I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Finally, though, I bore down, started writing fiction, eventually got a New York agent, and then the New York contracts followed. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Q: What’s one thing that you wish you knew as a teenager that you know now?
A: That it is entirely acceptable to be different. That no one has the right to prevent you from living an authentic life. No political party, no church, no school. It is your life. Live it authentically.
Q: What makes you bored?
A: Getting caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic anywhere.
Q: If someone gave you $5,000 and said you must solve a problem, what would you do with the money?
A: I would willingly give it to cancer research, especially that involved in genomics and gene editing. Eventually, that will break cancer’s back—replacing faulty genes with working copies. It will likely happen in my lifetime.
Q: What makes you nervous?
A: I’m too far along in life to be nervous anymore. I accept graciously what accrues to me and don’t worry about the rest.
Q: What makes you happy?
A: Being in love made me happy. My memories still do.
Q: What makes you scared?
A: That some very evil forces in this world may prevail. I will not name names or movements. But they are out there.
Q: What makes you excited?
A: Getting good reviews for my books.
Q: Do you have another job outside of writing?
A: Not anymore. I am a full-time writer now. But for a long time, I had other jobs to help pay the bills. Part of the journey.
Q: Who are you?
A: I am a writer who has lived many lives already. I hope I am contributing enough to the world to make further progress in the universe.
Q: How did you meet your spouse? Was it love at first sight?
A: I met my husband on an intellectual website online. We had some of the same opinions on a variety of subjects, so we kept corresponding. Then we started calling. Then we visited each other on our own turf. After two years, we knew we wanted to be together the rest of our lives. So, no, it wasn’t love at first sight. But once we fell, we knew it. It is life’s greatest gift, caring about someone more than yourself and being willing to do anything to help them.
Q: What are your most cherished mementoes?
A: I have very few. But one is a family artwork—a large silver bird that we called ‘The Magic Bird.’ My grandmother told my mother and her siblings that it could come to life at any time. I inherited it and display it proudly on a sideboard I also inherited. Also, my wedding ring.
Q: What brings you sheer delight?
A: Memories and dreams of my spouse.
Q: Would you rather be a lonely genius, or a sociable idiot?
A: Neither. I have been a sociable writer in love, and that’s just about the best I can think of to be.
Q: What’s one of your favorite quotes?
A: Winston Churchill on ending a sentence with a preposition: “That is something up with which I shall not put.”
Q: That’s one of my father’s favorites! If you could live anywhere in the world, where in the world would it be?
A: Maybe upcountry Maui.
Q: What would you like people to say about you after you die?
A: His novels were entertaining and also made me think.
Q: What would your main character say about you?
A: R. J. Lee endowed me with brains to offset my strawberry-blonde hair and blue eyes. He made sure I was no bimbo, and he also gave me a flinty, independent streak.
Q: How did you create the plot for this book?
A: It just came to me all at once. I wanted to switch from humorous Southern fiction to cozy Southern murder mysteries. I had played bridge in high school and college, and it just came to me that there had never been a mystery series centered around bridge. At least, not one that I knew of. My editor at Kensington told me that he had always wanted to learn bridge but never had. That was after my proposal. He okayed the idea, and then the actual plot just hit me like a bolt of lightning. It hit me backward. First, the idea of the surprise solution came to me, then I plotted the opening and the middle. I think that might be the key to coming up with an original plot. Instead of struggling to find a solution, you already have one in mind and work backward. It certainly worked for me. But as to where the idea of the surprise solution in Grand Slam Murders came from, I cannot truly say. I have this desire to communicate with others, this instrument that I feel I must use. Is it mine and mine alone? Or on loan? I feel that it is imperative that I take advantage of it gratefully.
Q: Are any of your characters inspired by real people?
A: All of my characters are blends of people I have known around the South. I am careful to bring out my Literary Brand Mixmaster when I create these people. I change things here and there—gender, age, race, religion, occupation, etc., so that no one can ever say that the particular character HAS to be him or her, or their mother or father, etc.
Q: Is your book based on real events?
A: No. Four wealthy widows who belong to an exclusive bridge club in a small Southern town were never poisoned together. That I know of. It is not my intention to give people ideas. Don’t you dare.
Q: Are you like any of your characters?
A: No, I am not like any of my characters. Bits and pieces of me are distributed here and there over several characters. But I have never written ME in a novel.
Q: One of your characters has just found out you’re about to kill him off. He/she decides to beat you to the punch. How would he kill you?
A: Probably carbon monoxide poisoning in my house.
Q: With what five real people would you most like to be stuck in a bookstore?
A: I would love to be stuck long enough to chat with film legend, Doris Day, Prime Minister Theresa May of the UK, Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, Broadway star Sutton Foster, and my editor, John Scognamiglio of Kensington Books.
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
A: Agatha Christie, Michael Morris, Harper Lee.
Q: What book are you currently reading and in what format?
A: Bluebird Flying Backward by Peggy Webb (Anna Michaels) in print.
Q: Do you have a routine for writing?
A: I am more of a night person than a morning person. But I don’t structure myself too much when I am in the zone writing a novel on a deadline. I do a lot of self-editing to make my editor’s job easier. So sometimes I will self-edit my previous work at a different time than I do new writing. I have also been known to wake up in the middle of the night after having solved a sequence in my head. I want to get it into the computer as soon as possible.
Q: Where and when do you prefer to do your writing?
A: I do my writing either at a table overlooking the woods where I can actually see deer come and go and ducks on a pond, or at my desk in my small office with my white noise and surf-noise machines going. I tend to write more in the evening, but I have done morning sessions from time to time.
Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about your writing?
A: “I was inspired to get up and start doing things at my age when I read about your feisty widows in ‘Waltzing At The Piggly Wiggly’” an elderly reader wrote me. This was an earlier series I did with Putnam under the pen name of Robert Dalby.
Q: If you could be a ghostwriter for any famous author, whom would you pick?
A: I would never settle for being a ghostwriter. Period.
Q: Where is your favorite library, and what do you love about it?
A: It’s my hometown library—George Armstrong Library—in Natchez, Mississippi. I have done a couple of fundraisers for it. I want them to be able to offer state-of-the-art library equipment and materials to their patrons.
Q: You can be any fictional character for one day. Who would you be?
A: Maybe I would like being Hercule Poirot for a day. Maybe. He’s a bit too fussy, though.
Q: What’s the worst thing someone has said about your writing? How did you deal with it?
A: I had one of my earlier works published by a small press. It was called O Bed, O Breakfast! and was about a Hollywood actress who comes to the small-town South to do a film and wants to scope out the three B & B’s there for her stay. I was doing a talk and signing at a library in Louisiana when a woman in the audience said to me, “I read your book, and I told my girlfriend in the next cubicle that I thought she would like it because it’s so trashy.” I just smiled at her and said, “Thank you for reading my book.” P.S. The rest of the audience was very sympathetic to me.
Q: What would your dream office look like?
A: Oh, maybe a little bigger than this one is. It’s a bit cramped, and I don’t keep it that neat. Maybe with a better view.
Q: Why did you decide to publish with Kensington Books?
A: I have had three contracts in succession with Kensington Books in New York and two before that with Putnam. When my agent at Jane Rotrosen presented the manuscript for my first novel (which became a series), there was interest from several publishers. My agent negotiated the contracts for me, and I accepted her advice and counsel.
Q: Are you happy with your decision to work with them?
A: I am very happy working with my editor, John Scognamiglio, at Kensington Books; also very pleased working with my agents, Meg Ruley and Christina Hogrebe at the Jane Rotrosen Agency. I was able to be signed by Jane Rotrosen about 16 years ago as a result of being seated next to the President of the Large Print and Audio Division of Random House at a sales conference for Books On Tape Audio, which had just been purchased by Random House. I represented Books On Tape to public libraries in several Southern states at the time. My small press novel—O Bed, O Breakfast!—had been picked up by Books On Tape in audio and done very well. I mentioned that to the Random House exec at my table, and he asked if we were working on anything new. I told him that I had my Waltzing At The Piggly Wiggly manuscript ready to go. As if out of a Hollywood script, he said, “Do you have an agent?” I said, “I just fired one for doing nothing for me.” He said, “Well, I have one. Would you like to be introduced to her?” Calmly (though I don’t know how I remained so), I said, “Sure.” He then introduced me to Meg Ruley at Jane Rotrosen via e-mail, I sent my manuscript to her, she signed me, and within a year I had my first New York contract.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for someone who is self-published?
A: I have no recommendations here. But self-publishing is very expensive. And you are not guaranteed a distribution mechanism or review mechanism nor a publicist nor a marketing strategy. Try your hardest to get a reliable agent who can represent you to editors in New York. And never agree to pay any agent or agency until they have sold a manuscript for you. Many agencies make their money off of ‘reading fees,’ where they will charge you hundreds of dollars just to tell you your manuscript is no good. Don’t waste your time and money.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have just submitted the second novel in my Bridge To Death Mystery series—Playing The Devil—to my editor at Kensington. I am waiting for his response, which might include any edits he might ask me to make. If he signs off on it, I receive more of my contract advance and the novel goes into production for January 2020. So I would be working on some possible edits, depending upon what my editor says.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. J. Lee follows in the mystery-writing footsteps of his father, R. Keene Lee, who wrote fighter pilot and detective stories for Fiction House, publishers of WINGS Magazine and other 'pulp fiction' periodicals in the late '40's and '50's. Lee was born and grew up in the Mississippi River port of Natchez but also spent thirty years living in the Crescent City of New Orleans. A graduate of the University of the South (Sewanee) where he studied creative writing under Sewanee Review editor, Andrew Lytle, Lee now resides in Oxford, Mississippi.
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