Judy Alter's Skeleton in a Dead Space

My guest today is Judy Alter. A lifelong fan of mysteries, she turned her attention to writing them when she retired from a career with an academic press. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies subgroup of Sisters in Crime, Western Writers of America, and the Texas Institute of Letters. The Forth Worth Public Library recently elected Judy to their Texas Literary Hall of Fame. Judy is also passionate about cooking and loves to experiment. She blogs about food at Potluck with Judy.

Welcome, Judy! Let’s talk writing.

Anne - When did you first realize you were destined to be a mystery writer?

Judy - I knew from the age of ten or twelve that I wanted to write. My mom saved the short stories I laboriously wrote on small notebook pages, about a spinster lady, Miss Shufflebaum, and her cocker spaniel. The idea that I might write fiction came only after graduate school. In school, I was trained to support, defend, not give in to my imagination—fiction calls for exactly opposite skills. My first novel was published in 1978—to my surprise, it was classified as a young-adult novel. But the knowledge that I wanted to write mysteries came slowly.

For twenty years, I happily wrote about women of the American West. In the first years of this century, that market dried up. I was a lifelong reader of mysteries and finally told myself if others could write mystery, so could I. I made several false attempts before I finally crafted one that got some attention. I also joined Sisters in Crime and several sub-groups, as well as other listserves, and began to learn about the world of mysteries.

Anne - Tell us about your book.

Judy - My first mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, is published as an e-book and in print by Turquoise Morning Press.

The blurb for it reads:

Kelly O’Connell never thought real estate was a dangerous profession. But while updating early-twentieth-century Craftsman houses in an older neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, she stumbles over a skeleton and begins unraveling an old murder. The police call it a cold case, but Kelly knows she must solve the murder if she is to finish the house and sell it. She and her two young daughters quickly become the target of threats and vandalism, and someone is telling her ex-husband in California what’s going on. Tim Spencer arrives to protect his daughters by taking them to California with him but is soon found shot to death. Then a new client barges into Kelly’s life, and she finds herself facing a gun, a deadly killer, and the solution to the mystery of the skeleton and Tim’s death.” The story grew out of an interest in older houses and neighborhoods and my love for Fort Worth. Plus some of it is me: a single parent raising young children.

Anne - Is there a message in Skeleton in a Dead Space you want readers to grasp?

Judy - There’s been a lot of talk on the Sisters in Crime listserv and Guppies lately about themessuch as redemption, but I write to entertain, to offer readers a chance to get lost in the world of the novel, because that’s what I want to do when I read a mystery. Yet I find there is a message in this novel about single parenthood and strong women. Kelly O’Connell is scattered and always slightly guilty in her own mind of not being the perfect mother but in truth she does a good job of parenting, running her own real estate business, and solving a murder. I think she’s a strong figure.

Anne - Of all the characters you’ve created, does one hold a special place in your heart? Why?

Judy - Kelly O’Connell of Skeleton in a Dead Space may well work herself into the favorite character slot by the time I finish as least two more books about her, but for now my favorite is Ellsbeth in After Pa Was Shot, my first published novel (1978).

The setting is a small town in East Texas, about 1904. When Ellsbeth’s father, a deputy sheriff, is shot by a released prisoner, her mother is too grief-stricken to care for the family. Ellsbeth steps into the caretaker role—and in a year that for her does not have the summer vacation that most children enjoy—she does the cooking and laundry and bed-making for a boardinghouse her mother opens. And she watches in horror as her mother makes a really bad choice in another man. Does Ellsbeth save the family?

Anne - Outside of writing, what accomplishment are you most proud?

Judy - Even more than writing, I am so very proud of having raised four adopted children as a single parent. They are today wonderful parents themselves, good citizens, engaged in their work and the world. They’re also nice people, and we are a close family, with get-togethers all the time. I recently spent a week in Scotland with the two oldest and could not have had better traveling companions. I am most blessed.

Anne – We’d love an excerpt from Skeleton in a Dead Space, please!

Judy – Here it is:

When I entered the kitchen, he pointed dramatically to the space behind where they’d [spice shelves] been, and then he wiped his brow again. Whatever could be wrong with him? I looked inside the dead space, but it was too dark to make out much except what appeared to be a wooden box. “Pull that out,” I said to him.

“Mother of God, no, not me.”

I couldn’t imagine what had him so upset. “Well, give me your flashlight.” I shined the light inside the box and pulled back quickly when I saw what appeared to be a skeleton, a human form curled in a fetal position. I gasped and stared at Anthony, but he was no help. Adrenaline must have given me strength, because suddenly I pulled that box out, while Anthony simply stood there watching.

“I’m sorry, Miss Kelly.” He always called me Miss Kelly, which irritated me a bit. I didn’t call him Mr. Anthony. “I wanted to warn you, but . . .” His large shoulders shrugged expressively.

“Nothing to be sorry about, Anthony,” I said. “You didn’t put it here.” But my heart was pounding, partly from exertion, but only partly.

He held up his hands, palms out, denying any knowledge.

I wasn’t sure what I felt—shock, surprise, but not the horror you’d expect. A skeleton is, oh, impersonal. It doesn’t seem like a human being, and you don’t feel—or at least I didn’t—the horror that you would feel on finding a body.Instead I felt a sort of apprehension, a dread that this discovery would only lead to something worse. I looked again. Mummified bits of skin around the mouth pulled it back into a grotesque grin. Bits of hair, faded now so that no color was discernible, clung to the skull, and scraps of fabric clung to the bones. It was impossible to tell without touching—which I thought I shouldn’t do and didn’t want to anyway—but I thought the fabric was lightweight, maybe once even floral. Now it was dirty gray. A woman, I decided, and, from the size, a young woman. But for all I knew, it could have been a boy.

Anne – Thanks so much, Judy! That leaves me wanting more. Where can readers reach you online?

Judy - Three places: my website, my blog, Judy’s Stew, my website, and on my Amazon Author page.

Anne – Thanks so much for dropping by today, Judy. I wish you all the best with Skeleton in a Dead Space and look forward to your next release! 
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Lenasledgeblog.com said...

Great interview. I like that she writes to entertain. I think that's vital, entertain readers and let them learn the heart of the story on their own without forcing and they'll enjoy it more. Sounds like a fantastic book.

Thanks for sharing.

Judy Alter said...

Thanks, Lena. If you'd like a digital review copy, please let me know at j.alter@tcu.edu.

Anne K. Albert said...

Hi Lena, I agree! Entertaining the reader is crucial. It's why I read, and I'm sure why readers read. Thanks for dropping by!

Anne K. Albert said...

Hi Judy, I just wanted to say thanks again for stopping by my blog. I wish you all the best...and Skeleton in a Dead Space is on my TBR pile. :)