This week we've hauled in author Julia Platt Leonard to face the glare of the Interrogation Room spotlight. She faces questioning from one of our detectives, Diana Renn.
Julia is the author of COLD CASE, a mystery for middle grade readers, which was published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster earlier this year. She has also worked as a television reporter, a pastry chef and bread baker for Todd English, and a food consultant. She currently lives and writes in London. In her novel, 13-year-old Oz Keiller discovers a dead body in his family's Santa Fe restaurant. When Oz's older brother becomes the prime suspect in the murder, and he then learns that the crime is tied to their dead father, he sets out on a perilous mission to uncover the real killer.
Here is the full transcript of our interview with Julia.
Ms. Leonard, we’ve brought you in on suspicion of fleeing the scene of a crime. Your middle grade mystery novel COLD CASE portrays Sante Fe, New Mexico in rich detail. You convey an insider’s knowledge of the city, particularly of the restaurant scene (the protagonist in your novel, Oz Keiller, discovers a dead body in his family’s restaurant). Yet one of our sources has informed us that you actually live and write in London. We’re hoping your answers to these questions can shed more light on your research experience and your writing motives.
First of all, why did you choose to set your story in Sante Fe? How important was a sense of place for you in COLD CASE?
I’m not from Santa Fe but it’s a place that is near and dear to my heart. My Granny moved to Santa Fe in 1950 and I went there every summer. I still do and thought it would be the perfect spot for a bit of murder and mystery.
How much research was involved in nailing the details of your novel’s setting? (We are particularly interested in how you came to know so much about detective work and police procedures in New Mexico).
I had a great map of Santa Fe that I kept on my desk so I could get Oz from point A to B. One of the fun parts was including some of my favorite Santa Fe restaurants – Café Pasqual’s, The Compound, Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill. I created Chez Isabelle (where the crime occurs) but I based the layout on a restaurant I love. I was having dinner there one night and thought it would be the ideal setting so as soon as I got home I sketched it out on a piece of paper. As for police procedures, I was lucky enough to speak to a police officer and also a forensics specialist.
So what brought you to London? What is it like to live and work as a writer there?
My husband and I moved here for a 2-3 year expat stint and fourteen years later we’re still here. London is a great place to live…wonderful museums, lots of culture and the food is fantastic (contrary to what people think). Working here as a writer is probably like writing anywhere – a lot of staring at the computer screen and wondering if it’s lunchtime yet.
Have you been back to New Mexico since publishing COLD CASE? Do you ever travel stateside to meet with readers?
I think once you write a book and it’s published it’s no longer yours – it’s co-owned by whoever reads it. We all bring our own interpretations and experience to a book and hearing those experiences first-hand is a real pleasure. So it was great to spend time with readers when I was out in Santa Fe this August. I did several school visits and got to hear what kids liked and what they thought about the characters and plot.
Our informants have also suggested you lead a double life. We have learned of your culinary background. You have worked as a pastry chef and bread baker for Todd English, you’ve worked as a food consultant, and (*shuffling paper, coughs*) you’re a recipe tester. Hmm. Did that experience help you to write COLD CASE? And do your culinary interests and experiences affect your writing in general?
Do I need an attorney??? You’re right. When I lived in Boston I took a cooking class with a great chef named Ana Sortun. I was hooked, quit my day job and went to cooking school. When I graduated, I worked for Todd English, did some catering, and food writing before moving to London. Food is incredibly important to me – I plan dinner while I’m having breakfast – so I knew food had to play a big role in my book.
What have you found to be the particular challenges and rewards of writing a mystery for kids? (Especially a murder mystery?)
Writing a mystery requires a lot of planning. You’ve got to create doubt in the reader’s mind (the old red herring) but they can’t feel cheated when they discover the truth. It has to be the ‘oh that’s what happened’ moment at the end when it all makes sense. But when you do it and do it right it is fantastic because a good mystery hooks you and keeps you turning the pages. When one kid told me she wanted to finish my book but her Mom made her do her math homework, I was thrilled.
Who are some of your favorite mystery authors and why?
I adored Nancy Drew growing up and then moved on to Agatha Christie and Daphne DuMaurier. I’m a big fan of classic noir writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. I like their muscular writing style and hard-boiled detectives. I read a lot of contemporary Scandinavian authors too but I have some pretty weird dreams if I read them late at night.
Will your next book also be a mystery for young readers? Or is that classified information?
Can you keep a secret? Yes, my next book will be a mystery. I’m hooked.
One last thing: what writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of this interrogation room?
Don’t be too quick to judge your writing. A lousy first draft is okay. A lousy second draft is okay too. Just get the words down and you can edit them later. I find that it takes time to get to know your characters and the plot has a way of taking you in directions you might not have imagined. And don’t forget to have fun.
It looks like we can clear Julia of the charges. Her motives are all good, and it's clear that her expat lifestyle and her experiences with the food industry have had a positive impact on her work. We are grateful to Julia for putting up with the interrogation, and hope to make it up to her by spreading the word about COLD CASE, which is a really great read. Buy it! Or . . . win it! (Details below!) And we can't wait to see what great mystery Julia is cooking up for us next!
For more information on COLD CASE -- and Julia's thoughts on writing -- visit Julia's blog!
We are giving away a copy of COLD CASE autographed by Julia Platt Leonard! To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Tuesday October 4 and Friday October 14. Contest closes October 14 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Monday, October 17. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day.