Joelle Charbonneau: The Terribleminds Interview

Joelle Charbonneau is one of the nicest and hardest working authors I know. She kicks ten kinds of ass. We share an agent — the uber-super-ultra-agent, Stacia Decker — but the sad thing is, without that connection I might not have read Joelle’s delightful debut, SKATING AROUND THE LAW. Which would be an epic mistake on my part because it was a blast — and, for a bit of meaningless trivia, the first e-book I ever read (tied with Hilary Davidson’s also-excellent THE DAMAGE DONE, both of which I read at the same time). Anyway — you can find Joelle’s website here, and follow her on Twitter @jcharbonneau.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Why do you tell stories?  Because I always wanted to be a superhero and couldn’t fly.  Okay – maybe that is taking it a little too far, but I have always wanted to do and be more than can be crammed into one lifetime.  Telling stories is a great way to walk in a really cool pair of shoes for a while.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Cut the boring stuff.

Of course, to do that you have to be willing to admit that some of what you have written is boring.  Everyone has their longwinded, boring, pacing stopping moments.  A writer has to take a step back and be willing to say that something they’ve written is crap.  That’s the only way you can make a story shine.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

The whole superhero thing is the great part about being a writer.  There are endless possibilities and as a writer I am able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and create sex-driven grandfathers and camels who wear hats without ever leaving the confines of my living room.  Of course, that being said there are things that totally suck.  The whole mentality of ‘if you build it they will come’ is total crap.  Just because you write something doesn’t mean anyone will ever read it.  It doesn’t matter how great your writing is, just because it is sitting on the shelf in a bookstore doesn’t guarantee that a person will plunk down cold hard cash for the opportunity to visit your imagination.  Promotion is part of the writing business.  It takes away from the time you would rather spend writing and the worst part is that a writer never really knows what PR actually leads to sales.  You just have to keep throwing things against a wall and hoping something will stick.  And even then….  Yeah – it sucks.

You did it, you triggered the alarm by mentioning the word “superhero.” That means it’s time for that tried-and-true question: if you were a superhero, what would your powers be?

My first instinct is to say that I would fly, but that is a totally lame super power unless it comes package with super strength or something equally useful.  I mean, flying is great for a personal hobby, but what good are you to someone who falls off of a building or to a plane that loses an engine.  If you try to catch the person or help the plane you end up dead.  Dead is bad.  So, I’m scratching flying off the list.  Since the wave of the future is computers, I plan on being Data-girl – someone whose mind can meld with and manipulate computers without a single touch of a key.  I’m taking over the Matrix baby!

Follow-up: if you had the chance to write the stories of one superhero, which superhero would that be?

Firestar – I grew up an X-Men fan.  Firestar was always willing to torch some guy’s ass for justice, but no one ever bothered to really deep dive into her character.  Maybe they just thought it was enough that she was a redhead and hot, but I think she got the short end of the stick.

Skating Around The Law and Skating Over The Line are your two mysteries featuring Rebecca Robbins, rink-owner and amateur detective. Can you talk about constructing those books. In particular: how do you engineer a great mystery for an audience?

I think a great mystery needs to have fast pacing, a fun puzzle and most of all it needs to play fair with the reader.  If the main detective (amateur or otherwise) knows something about the case then the reader needs to know it, too.  Which in my mind means that the reader has to have the puzzle pieces in front of them to solve the crime – especially if you are writing in first person.  Pointing the finger at a bad guy the reader has barely met or never had any real information on is cheating.  As a reader, there is nothing I hate more than investing my time in a book where the ending feels forced or comes out of left field.  Surprise is good, but the reader needs to be able to go back through the book and find the sprinkling of clues that in hindsight points them in the right direction.  If those clues aren’t there, the mystery often falls flat.

The Rebecca Robbins mysteries are both mystery and character driven.  I want readers to be equally invested in both.  Each book has a stand alone mystery that should engage and entertain the reader, which means you don’t have to start at the beginning of the series.  A reader can jump right into any book without feeling like they are playing catch up.  However, it is my hope that I’ve constructed the storylines to allow the characters to grow from book to book and that the readers will come back for those characters as much as they come back for the mysteries.

A lot of your characters are quirky and endearing. You write them well and so it forces me to ask, what’s the secret in writing great characters?

Wow.  Thanks.  Now I feel the need to say something profound and earthshaking about characters.  One moment while I get a paper bag to stop my hyperventilation.

Ok – the bag worked so here goes.  I think the best characters are at the core people we can identify with.  If you start out with the intention to write a wacky, eccentric character, you come out with a caricature instead.  Characters aren’t one dimensional.  They need to be well-rounded.  You have to start at the bottom, find the pieces of the character that everyone can identify with and build from there.  In my case, I didn’t start out writing Skating Around The Law saying “I want Rebecca to have a lothario grandfather with a penchant for impersonating Elvis.”  My intent was to create a touchstone for Rebecca in her old home town that she fought so hard to get out of.  I wanted her to have a caring presence in her life who supported her and at the same time wanted her to think twice before selling her deceased mother’s roller rink.  At the core, he is the grandfather we all can identify with.  He loves his granddaughter, but he also is selfish enough to try and keep her close by.  It just turns out that he juggles multiple girlfriends and loves mimicking The King.

We need to talk about the camel. Elwood the camel is such a great character. Yet because he’s a camel, he’s built in very simple, straightforward strokes. Where’d you get the idea for Elwood?

Good question and I even have an answer to it!  When I’m not writing or chasing around after my toddler I’m a voice teacher.  A few days after I started noodling the idea for Skating Around The Law, I had a lesson with a student who owns horses.  While we were chatting, she let me know she wouldn’t be able to make her next lesson because her horse had to go to the U of I.  Being the sarcastic sort I said, “Wow, smart horse.”  She laughed and explained that she was taking her horse to the large animal veterinary clinic at the university.  She then went onto say that the last time she went to the clinic there was a guy there with a camel.  Stranger still, the guy wasn’t the camel’s owner.  Turns out the camel didn’t like the farmer he lived with and caused problems whenever the farmer brought him to the clinic.  In fact, the last time the farmer brought him, the camel broke out of his carrier and went running down I57 in an eventually aborted jail break.  The image of the camel racing down the road flanked by cornstalks and soybean plants stayed with me long after the lesson and I couldn’t quite figure out why anyone in the middle of Illinois would own a camel.  A few days later I wrote the opening to Skating Around The Law and at the end of chapter three there was a camel wearing a fedora – my explanation as to why a camel would be living in rural Illinois.

Both those books are “cozies.” You ever want to write something totally opposite to that? Grim and gory and noir-soaked and blood-caked?

I would like to point out that my agent has labeled my books “Itchies”  – not quite cozy…kind of like a wool sweater that keeps you warm but makes you twitch a bit while wearing it.  I’m not sure if that is flattering, but it sounds about right since my sense of humor is a little edgier than the typical cozy.

And YES!  I have written and will hopefully continue to write stuff that is grimmer, gorier and more disturbing that what appears in Indian Falls.  I have no idea if those books will ever sell, but I think it is important for me to explore the darker ideas to keep my writing sharp and my imagination fresh.  Anyone will tell you that writing comedy is tough.  When you push too hard to get a laugh everything falls apart.  It’s important to take a step away every now and then and remind yourself that you don’t need to be funny.  You just need to write the characters and let them tell the story.  Writing something different always helps me take that step back.  Conversely, writing the lighter stuff makes me look forward to spending time in the shadows.

As for the stuff I’ve written that explores those shadows, well, I hope they will make an appearance on bookshelves.  In this business, it is tough to say what will sell and what won’t.  As writers we just have to keep telling stories and hope that at some point someone will get a chance to read them.

Favorite word?

Outstanding.

And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Craptastic –Does that count?

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Sauvignon Blanc.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.  It always reminds me of peeling an onion.  Layer by layer you learn that everyone on the train has a secret.  How cool is that?

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

Just line the zombies up like an alley full of bowling pins and I’ll mow them down.  Me and my pretty blue bowling ball can do some damage.  (I can also sauté up a mean Zombie soufflé, but that’s for after the war is won.)

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

I knew those crimes would catch up to me.  Okay, if I’m going out I’m going out with a bang.  I’m thinking Crawfish etouffee over dirty rice and as much freshly baked cornbread as I can eat.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’m about ready to start the second book in the Paige Marshall mystery series.  The heroine is a classical singer turned amateur sleuth.  One of my other professions is stage performing, so I’m looking forward to once again merging those two facets of my life.  As far as the future?  The hell if I know.  I’ll just keep sitting my butt in the chair and getting words on the page.  Hopefully, people will continue to read them.  If not, you might find me racing around town in tights and a cape.  You just never know.

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