Featured Writer Carolyn Haines Interviewed by Kathleen Duthu

Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines, an award-winning and USA Today best-selling author, grew up in the small town of Lucedale, Mississippi where both of her parents were journalists for the local newspaper.  As a young girl, she often accompanied them to help cover stories and take photographs.  After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, she worked as a journalist for newspapers, but wanted to be a novelist.  She began her career in the 1980s writing more than twenty romantic suspense novels under the pseudonym of Caroline Burnes.  Now she is best known for her Sarah Booth Delaney Bones mystery series, which will release its twentieth book this year.  In April 2019, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Library Association for her contributions to literature as the author of more than eighty books.

Since retiring from teaching creative writing at the University of South Alabama three years ago, Carolyn spends most of her time writing and working on her five-acre farm, which is currently home to twenty rescue animals.  On a crisp March day, we were the first customers to arrive at a popular Mexican restaurant in Mobile, Alabama.  During a vegetarian lunch with a frozen margarita, we talked about her career, passion for animals and the environment, and changes in the publishing industry. After the tables around us filled and emptied again, Carolyn left the parking lot in her Toyota Prius to return to her farm in north Mobile County for an afternoon delivery of sod. 

Interview with Carolyn Haines by Kathleen Duthu

KD: The settings of your mysteries and other books have been in the South, most often in Mississippi, where you were born and raised, and Alabama, where you live now.  You’ve received the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer Award, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Writer’s Guild. Do you consider yourself “a Southern writer,” and what does that description mean to you?

CH: I am a Southerner who uses place to provide my stories with a reality.  I agree with Eudora Welty’s observation that “Southerners have such an intimate sense of place.”  We are tied to the land and fight for it, rightly or wrongly.  There is great violence and bigotry in the South, but those deficits of character can be found in any region.  When it comes to someone being a Southern writer, we have to look beyond the dated language or character types who have faded into the mist of history.  Society and our culture have changed since many of the great Southern authors were writing, but the heart of the story is still there and beating strong.

KD:  Which authors from the South have had the greatest influence on you as a writer, and why?

CH:  Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor changed my life because they wrote about people I know and who share common experiences with me. Their stories have wonderful imagery, sharp dialogue, and fierce wit.  As others have noted, Welty “used details of daily life to illuminate the mysteries of the heart.”  Years ago I would drive by Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson, Mississippi hoping to see her outside, but am not sure what I would have done if I did. I’ll also add Harper Lee, Doris Betts, Lee Smith, and James Lee Burke to a longer list of Southern writers who have influenced me.

KD:  You were a good friend of the late Eugene Walter, the poet, short-story author, actor, screenwriter, and colorful raconteur from Mobile, Alabama.  Did he also influence your writing or leave with you memorable stories to tell? 

CH:  Eugene was a remarkably talented man with a unique world view. I learned so much from the way he deeply embraced the eccentrics and characters he wrote about—the teasing sidelong glance, but one given with affection, not judgment. He talked to me about writing, and he gave me the incredible gift of acceptance as a serious writer. When I met Eugene, I was working on Summer of the Redeemers, a coming of age literary novel, but I was writing black cat adventures. Eugene didn’t judge books by silly labels, but by the enjoyment and emotion he derived from reading them. That was a valuable gift and a life-changing lesson—don’t judge people or books by the labels someone else hangs on them.

KD:  Since leaving your position teaching creative writing in 2016, how do you typically spend your time writing and with the rescue animals at your non-profit Good Fortune Farm Refuge?  

 CH:  I get up about 5:00 a.m. to have a cup of coffee, check email, and check social media. That’s an important work tool when it comes to book promotion, but I’ve also developed a lot of good friendships there.  Then I feed the nine cats, eight dogs, and three horses I have on my farm.  I write about 1,000 words in one of my books and do farm chores before lunch.  In the afternoon, I write about 1,000 words in a different book before feeding the animals again.  Many of the animals require medications and vet care because they are senior or have chronic health problems.  If I get stuck in writing, I can take the dogs for a walk or clean stalls and let my sub-conscious do the work. Often I also do work for my own independent press, KaliOka Press.  In the evening, I like to relax with a cocktail on the porch if I don’t attend a social event.    

 KD:  Why did you start KaliOka Press and what is the significance of the name? 

 CH:  KaliOka Press publishes the Familiar Trouble black cat detective books written by me and now also by other talented writers, allowing me to reissue some of my early books and release new ones in digital and print formats.  KaliOka is a Native American word that means edge of the spring. I love spooky stories, and there’s a great legend about KaliOka Road. There’s a bridge over Cry Baby Creek in south Alabama, and the old tale goes that if you sit out there quietly at night, you can hear the wails of a little baby that was drowned in the creek. And I just love the way KaliOka feels when I say it--kind of musical.  

KD: In your Trouble the black cat detective novels, the human characters do not give the animals enough credit for thinking and feeling, and helping solve the mysteries.  You are a strong supporter of animal rights and prevention of pet overpopulation. While your mystery stories are often fast paced and humorous, what other important messages or life lessons would you like readers to learn from them? 

 CH:  I write my books to be entertaining, but they can also be read on a deeper level, one that considers serious topics such as GMO crops and food safety, environmental protection, and religious freedom.  I have no tolerance for intolerance and injustice. In the twenty years of Sarah Booth I’ve delved into religious intolerance, funding for public schools, the veil of privilege that often covers something very rotten, and the incredible complex history of my home state. One thing I hope that I convey is that no human being starts out with a perfect understanding of injustice or bigotry. We are works in progress. Sarah Booth has grown and changed in her views, as I have. That is the most hopeful thing I can say about the human condition—we have the power to change and become more compassionate and better humans if we only apply ourselves. One of the greatest gifts I received from my father, who was a journalist, is a sincere curiosity about people that comes with the desire to listen and tell their stories in a nonjudgmental way.  He used to tell me, “Everyone has a story. A fascinating story. You only have to take the time to listen.” In my books, I avoid villain tropes and make the villains as complex as the protagonists.  I find motivation the most fascinating aspect of a character.

KD:  In your recent book, A Gift of Bones, the central character Cece Dee Falcon is a transgender woman who needs her good friend, private detective Sarah Booth Delaney, to help her solve a mystery.   What made you decide to create the character of Cece, who is a respected journalist and member of the community in her Mississippi Delta town?      

CH: Cece Dee Falcon appeared in my mind when I was writing the first Sarah Booth Delaney mystery about twenty years ago and she has been part of the series and fictional Zinnia, Mississippi ever since.   There was no real political ambition when I created a transgender character, but I have been touched by the many thank you letters that I have received for including Cece in the stories, mostly from parents of transgender children. Cece came to be because she was needed. I do believe that creative people are sometimes working on a “channel” that we don’t fully understand. Ideas, characters, plots come to us. We may not fully understand why, but I have learned to trust these gifts and simply incorporate those elements into my work. Cece is one of those gifts. With each book she grows richer (in character and spirit) and stronger. She brings gifts and problems as Sarah Booth’s friend that allow me to explore character and how life shapes character and character shapes life.

KD:  Do you have any plans to write another book outside of your three current book series, Trouble the black cat detective stories, Sarah Booth Delaney cozy mysteries, and Pluto’s Snitch historical paranormal ghost stories?  In 2003, you published My Mother’s Witness:  The Peggy Morgan Story about the Mississippi woman who overheard the confession of Byron De La Beckwith, the murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, years before she testified at the trial.  Will you write another non-fiction book?

 CH:  I don’t have any definite plans, but I keep a log of ideas that I may explore in a novel about animals or my childhood later—my fictional childhood.  Peggy Morgan knew I was a journalist and writer from Mississippi when she contacted me to come talk to her.  She had a fascinating story that I wanted to tell, but it was a very difficult process and I don’t intend to write another non-fiction book. Peggy broke my heart in a million different ways, for all the things she had to endure and for all the pain that could never be erased from her life. I worked for years as a journalist, and I find so much freedom and satisfaction in the world of fiction that I doubt I’ll ever tackle another non-fiction book. 

KD:  As the successful author of more than eighty books, what advice do you have for writers working on their first or second book?  What were the most important lessons you tried to convey to the students in your fiction writing classes?

CH:   Writers should know where their heart lies and follow it, whether it is creating popular fiction, literary fiction, short stories, non-fiction, or maybe a combination of those.  They might have to force themselves to write and avoid distractions at times. Most writers are avid readers, but if you intend to write, you have to begin to read with a different eye. You have to learn to break down a book and examine what makes it tick. Books are magic. In the hands of a gifted writer, a story becomes a living thing that transports the reader into places and problems they never anticipated. A lot of writing is the “gift of the story”--that ideas that comes and must be told. But a lot of writing is also craft. Any writer can learn to structure better sentences, better paragraphs, better plots. Pacing is hard, but it, too, can be learned and improved. It is hard work. Every book brings different challenges. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart.

KD:  If you could invite three living people to your house for dinner, who would they be and what meal and drinks would you serve?

 CH:  John Prine, Willie Nelson, and Jordan Peele. John Prine can tell a novel in a three-minute song. Willie Nelson is one of the greatest narrative songwriters ever and I’d like to invite him just because I think he’d be a blast to talk to. I’d include Jordan Peele because I’d give a lot to get a glimpse of how his mind works. I have a lot of author friends I’d love to invite too, but for this special dinner, I’d go with songwriters and a filmmaker. I’d serve Jack Daniel’s and chicken and dumplings. That’s a pretty gruesome combination, but I think my guests would get a huge kick out of it. With great music and conversation, we’d probably never make it to the chicken and dumplings.     

KD:  When you were a child, what fictional character did you most identify with?

 CH:  When I was a young girl, I wanted to be both Nancy Drew and a cowgirl.  Now that I am a mystery writer who lives on farm, I have become both of those in a weird but satisfying way.