Plotting Change: An Interview with Writers Joe & Pam Reese

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It’s no mystery that marriage is a partnership. But for married IPFW faculty members Joe and Pam Reese that partnership turned mysterious when they started co-writing “cozy mystery” novels. Pam (assistant professor, communication sciences & disorders) and Joe (limited-term lecturer, English and linguistics) have co-written ten novels, the popular Nina Bannister series. Recently, they took some time away from plotting mild murders to answer questions about their writing process, finding inspiration, and to discuss a new series set in Fort Wayne.

Pam, why did you decide to adopt a pen name instead of using your own as Joe does? And how did you come up with T’Gracie?

T’Gracie: When the first Nina Bannister book was accepted for publication, I had just graduated with my PhD. I knew I would be writing professional articles and books, and I thought I needed a pen name to distinguish my academic writing from our mystery writing. We had been living in Lafayette, Louisiana (Cajun country), and people there frequently use the letter “T” before a name or a noun (like t’baby) as an endearment. It comes from the French “petite.” My middle name is Grace, so T’Gracie was born. It has proven to be a fortuitous choice, as T’Gracie distinguishes our books in searches on sites like Amazon.

Can you tell us a little about yourselves? How did you meet? What do you like to do when you’re not at work or busy writing novels?

We met in Salzburg, Austria, where we were part of a university summer studies program.

We love to travel, and spend time with our three adult children.  When we travel, Nina is always in our minds and everyone we see becomes a potential murder victim—or killer.

At home we like to work in our garden, watch sports and old classic movies on TV, and occasionally go out to dinner.

Tell us about your writing process. Is one person the primary writer, and the other gives tips? Do you sit down and brainstorm together? Type side by side? 

T’Gracie: If you took all ten books together, Joe would be considered the primary writer. The characters all talk to him.

Joe: When the characters you invent are more real to you than people you know, that is a sign of insanity—unless you are a best-selling author, in which case it is called creativity.

sea_changeT’Gracie: We co-invented Nina and Bay St. Lucy when we took a weekend trip and passed through Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. We stopped and visited a bakery, walked to a building where an art exhibit was happening and looked at each other and said, “She could live here!” We talked the rest of the way home to Lafayette about possible characters and where Nina would live. I think we even came up with the name Nina Bannister during the drive.  Joe wrote a little description and lots of character description and dialogue. I went through and added description. And then Sea Change was published in 2013.

Joe: We took the title from Shakespeare, when Ariel says “Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.”

T’Gracie:  The second book was Set Change. We were inspired by a trip to Jena, Louisiana, to see a community theater production with friends. That led us to discussing on our way back to Lafayette, all the different little town theater productions we had seen. Joe had a ridiculous, unbelievable murder method, to which I said, “No!” and plotted how the murder could actually occur.

Joe: T’Gracie did let me use the murder method in our parody of cozy mysteries Climate Change.

combinedT’Gracie: Our third book, Game Change, was inspired by the IPFW women’s basketball team. I had two CSD students who were on the team, and suddenly Nina, a retired high school and English teacher, finds herself coaching the Bay St. Lucy high school women’s team! Oil Change was my inspiration: from both a real life accident in Lafayette (a graduate student was accidentally hit by a car and was found the next day floating in a coulee, a man-made drainage canal). My other inspiration came from the BP oil disaster. Both were sad events, but still got me thinking about a fictional murder and Nina on a deep sea oil rig. For Frame Change, I had gone to a Bottle and Bottega painting event with friends in Fort Wayne, and when I got home and showed Joe my painting we both laughed at the thought that Nina could do that event, too, and get mixed up in smuggling of stolen paintings.

Joe: As for sitting side-by-side writing, we’re sitting side-by-side as we write this.

T’Gracie: As to ‘brainstorming’, I think we do that all the time. A recent trip to Pokagon State Park led us to talk all the way back about how a Nina story could be put there, who could die, who could be the killer.

Joe: Watch out for a huge kayak in the upcoming book in the Nina series.

How much research goes into writing mystery novels? Pam, have you ever utilized your training in communication sciences and disorders/speech pathology in any of the novels or plots?

combined-vertical-2T’Gracie: I haven’t used my CSD training in any of the Nina books, but we are playing around with that idea in our roughly planned Fort Wayne series.  Oh, but Mind Change was a natural for us because it takes place in the graduate school of a major university. We just both drew from personal experience for it.

Joe: And Sex Change is the combination of two things. Watching the television and realizing we need more women in Congress, and rereading Aristophanes’ classic work, Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens and Sparta engage in a sex strike to force the men to end a ruinous and insane war.

T:Gracie: Nina’s followers in Washington, D.C., form the Lissy Party to support women running for Congress.

Joe: Time Change, features Hurricane Camille, which really devastated the Gulf coast in 1969. Using a real hurricane required research, and we get this knowledge the way everyone gains knowledge today: Google.

T’Gracie: But you actually saw the damage from Camille, didn’t you?

Joe: Yes, I drove along Old State Road 90 that borders the shore in 1969 right after Camille. I will never forget the damage.

T’Gracie: You took from personal experience for Bed Change.

Joe: Pam and I were in San Antonio for a convention a few years ago. I was about to get into a swimming pool when I noticed my ankle was swollen to almost twice its normal size. This led to being hospitalized overnight for observation, and, of course, everyone who is in a hospital wonders if the nearest nurse is actually a psychotic killer in disguise.

T’Gracie: We sometime even turn to books. Joe [spent] part of winter break browsing some books I bought about Chickasaw Indian culture.

How did you get into writing “cozy mysteries”?

T’Gracie: I have always read mystery books, and Joe, a writer of young adult books, plays, short stories, and humorous articles hasn’t. So I was pestering him to “write me a mystery” a few years ago. He did! It was called Swan Song and I was the detective! It was set in Lafayette, Louisiana during Mardi Gras, and a CSD graduate student (me) was menaced by an insane professor. I loved it and Joe sent it out. He got a response from a Cozy Cat Press, and the editor said she thought he was a strong writer, but the book was too “dark” to be a cozy. At that time we had no idea what a cozy mystery was. So we googled it, and learned it has no bloody violence or graphic sex or profane language. She encouraged us to try again. That was when we started talking about a cozy mystery together and were still talking about it when we took our little trip to Bay St. Lucy.

fort-wayne-skyline

What can you tell us about the new Fort Wayne based series?

Joe: It doesn’t exist.

T’Gracie: But I think it’s a great idea, and I already have two or three mystery ideas set in Fort Wayne. Who knows, maybe I will be the detective again.

Could any Fort Wayne landmarks or personalities make an appearance?

Definitely! We are driving around Ft. Wayne and constantly finding sites and people who could appear in the series. You will positively be able to identify the sites, and make good guesses at the people, although, if pressed in court, we reserve the right to deny, deny, deny!

How far along in the process are you (regarding writing the new FW series)?

Joe: We are at least one-third finished with the dedication.

T’Gracie: We need to finish Faith Change first. I think Joe could start on the Fort Wayne series when he takes breaks from Faith Change. He’s not teaching this semester, and I think he should have time to do it as long as I keep him inspired.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers at IPFW?

Joe: Our favorite piece of advice comes from Somerset Maugham:  “There are three rules for writing a great novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

T’Gracie: Really, that’s all you’re going to say?

Joe: That’s it.

T’Gracie: Well, I think the advice is to write, write and write.

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