Ten years ago, Gerry Schmitt of Plymouth was running an ad agency and working around the clock. Today, she's writing "cozies" -- comfortable murder mysteries -- under the name Laura Childs. She has three series going strong -- one set in a South Carolina tea shop, one in a New Orleans scrapbooking shop and one in a small-town Midwestern cafe -- and publishes three books a year. How did this transformation take place? Let's ask her:
Q Why did you start writing books?
A I was in advertising for 30 years, and I got tired of it. So I started writing a thriller in my spare time. It was about geriatric Nazis and stolen WWII treasures. I thought it was fabulous, but I didn't know what to do with it. I called a friend, and he said, "Oh, we need to call my friend Mary." And I said, "Who is this Mary person?" And he said, "Mary Higgins Clark."
Q So you went to New York and met her at a convention?
A Right. She was this marvelous little dynamo in a Chanel suit. I came away with four agents who wanted to represent me. I settled on one and she called me a couple weeks later, and said, "There's an editor at Penguin looking for someone to do something about tea, some kind of a tea mystery." So I went out and bought three cozies, and I hated every one of them. I thought they were too slow, and I didn't think there was enough action, and I thought the characters were one-dimensional.
Q So why did you write one?
A I thought I could do better. I thought I could write something between a cozy and a thriller. Call it a thrillzy. The first one I wrote, "Death by Darjeeling," became the No. 1 bestselling mystery for the independent mystery bookstores. And then the Literary Guild picked it up, and I became the 2001 New Discovery Winner of the Literary Guild Mystery Club. And it just never quit from there on.
Q What exactly is a cozy?
A I think it started with Agatha Christie. Kind of a bloodless murder, an amateur sleuth, no gratuitous sex, no crude language, things like that.
Q How did your other series start?
A A lot of my friends were doing scrapbooking, so I did my market research and found out it was something like a $50 million industry, and the No. 1 craft in America, so I wrote a pitch, and they bought it. Those took off like crazy, too. So then, insane woman that I am, I came up one day with this Cackleberry Club series. The world was changing, people were going back to slow cooking and crafting and home-made, and I thought, it may not play real well on the coasts, but in middle America, I might have something here. And they bought that one, too. I'm a very lucky girl.
Q You're a very logical girl.
A Well, it's my business training. And writing is a business. I know every professor is going to say write what you love, but I gotta tell you, a lot of those books get dropped. I write what I think will be appealing, which is what I've always done in advertising. You have to write to an audience.
Q Will it disappoint your fans to hear that you have no particular interest in tea shops?
A Oh, but I do. I love tea shops. Somebody has a pot of jasmine at one table, and they've got Earl Grey at another, and you sit down and they bring you this beautiful three-tiered tray. It's like aromatherapy. You find your breathing has slowed, and it's marvelous.
Q Until someone runs in and says, "There's been a murder!"
A I don't have people murdered in the tea shop. That's the refuge.
Q You publish three books a year. How is this possible?
A I just write fast. I try to write 10 pages a day. The next morning I look at it, and I keep punching it and punching it and punching it and punching it. And then I write 10 more.
Q What do you mean by "punching it"?
A Going back and making it smoother, adding something more colorful, more interesting. Punching up the dialogue.
Q How do you plot your books? Are there things that have to happen, besides a murder?
A You can't spring the killer at the end. You have to kind of sprinkle him in, and you have to sprinkle in other viable suspects, too. I figure, if you can wrap up a murder in seven or eight days, that'll keep your pace moving along fairly briskly. I do a big sheet that says "Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday," and then I put in all the action under each day. I color-code my killer and my suspect and make sure they're in there fairly frequently.
Q Your books devote quite a bit of space to lovely things -- teas and muffins and antiques, with recipes at the end. Why?
A Half of my e-mails are about recipes. They love the recipes.
Q Where did you get the name Laura Childs?
A My husband came up with it. I said, "Oh, I like that so much" because on the bookshelf in Barnes and Noble, it's going to be near Agatha Christie, and Mary Higgins Clark.
Laurie Hertzel is the books editor of the Star Tribune. She is at 612-673-7302.