The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned at a young age, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries, a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. Her latest in the series is entitled A Measure of Murder.
Originally from Southern California, Leslie moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs) and after graduation, parlayed her degree in English literature into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock and roll band. Exciting though this life was, she eventually decided she was ready for a “real” job, and ended up at Stanford Law School.
For the next twenty years Leslie worked as the research and appellate attorney for Santa Cruz’s largest civil law firm. During this time, she rediscovered a passion for food and cooking, and so once more returned to school to earn a degree in culinary arts.
Now retired from the law, she spends her time cooking, gardening, cycling, singing alto in her local community chorus, reading, and of course writing. Leslie and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai‘i.
Thanks for letting us interrogate you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why you wanted to be an author?
To be honest, it was food that brought me to my current vocation as a mystery author. Like my amateur sleuth, Sally Solari, I too was once an attorney who’d stare out my office window fantasizing about food and cooking when I should have been busy churning out those endless billable hours. But unlike Sally, my family didn’t own restaurants—nor would I have wanted to make that switch in any case. Two years waiting tables after college, and then later working the hot line during cooking school, had taught me just how exhausting and stressful a career in the food business can be.
Writing, however, was something I did enjoy. Sure, drafting legal memos, motions, and appeals all day long could be mind-numbingly dull and tedious. But writing fiction—especially a story about food—now, that would be fun.
But what sort of fiction? I’d been a fan of mysteries since my teenage years, when my mom handed me an Agatha Christie she’d just finished (Nemesis, I remember it was, because I had to ask her what the word meant). So why not combine my love of the culinary arts with crime fiction and write a food-themed mystery novel?
Tell us (we won’t tell—promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
As for perks, by far one of the most gratifying aspect of my life as an author has been the relationships I’ve established with other writers. Mystery authors are some of the most generous, helpful, warm, and supportive group of people I’ve ever encountered in my life.
But it’s hard and constant work—harder than I expected, to tell the truth. Because at any given time, you’re simultaneously promoting the last book, editing and re-writing the current one, and planning or starting to write the next one. No rest for the wicked, indeed!
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
It took over two years to write the first draft of Dying for a Taste, the first in my Sally Solari mystery series, and then another three to re-write it. I was fortunate enough to have some insightful beta readers who critiqued the early version and helped me see where it needed reworking, but even after these revisions the manuscript was still “not quite there,” according to passes I continued to receive from literary agents.
After over eighty rejections I was starting to have serious doubts—about myself as a writer as well as the book—but decided I’d give it one last shot by hiring a developmental editor. I needed someone who could not only help improve the manuscript, but who could also be objective, and let me know if it was worth continuing to send out.
After this rewrite, I started querying agents again, and within a month or so I finally got “that phone call,” from Erin Niumata of Folio Literary Management. She’s a former editor herself, and steered me through further revisions before pitching the book to publishers. It still took another nine months of edits, pitches, and then some further edits, but I ultimately landed a deal with Crooked Lane Books. So believe me when I say you need to be patient, persistent, and perseverant!
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
My wife and I both retired from our former jobs at a fairly young age, with the idea that we’d have lots of time for travel, leisure, and just hanging around reading the Sunday New York Times. And when I decided to try my hand at mystery writing, she was very supportive, reading and editing my manuscript and encouraging me when I got rejection after rejection from literary agents.
But then I actually landed a publishing contract.
No longer was I that carefree retiree. Instead I’d transformed once more to a working stiff, spending almost as much time on this new vocation as I’d done before as a research attorney.
So no, she’s not super happy about that part of it all. (But she is still supportive and encouraging.)
This is for pet lovers. If you don’t own a pet, skip this question, but do your pets actually get their food on time or do they have to wait until you type just one more word?
My Jack Russell mix, Ziggy, does sometimes come into my office and give me “that stare.” Though it’s generally demanding a walk rather than food (she is, after all, half Jack, and we all know how much energy they have). But unless I absolutely cannot stop writing at that moment, I usually welcome the interruption, because I use my walks with her to recharge, clear my brain, and work through sticky plot points.
This is for plant lovers. If you don’t own a plant, skip this question, but if you do, are they actually still alive?
I’m actually an avid gardner, and when I’m finished writing for the day, find that the most relaxing way to unwind is to get my hands in the dirt and weed, or prune, or pick tomatoes, or deadhead my roses. It’s wonderful therapy!
In writing your book, how did you deal with the phone ringing, your family needing dinner or your boss calling you saying you’re late?
Luckily for me, since I was retired from the law before starting to write my books, I haven’t ever had an irate boss to worry about. But the others can be more problematic. I apparently don’t have the ability to simply let the phone ring and then check my messages later. So I’ll always jump up to answer it. And boy do I hate it when it’s a telemarketer.
As for dinner, well, because I’m the cook in the family, that is generally on me. But I love to cook, so it’s never a problem to knock off for the day and futz around in the kitchen. And sometimes the dinners actually help with my writing, since I can test out the recipes for my books on my wife and friends!
What was the craziest or most insane thing that happened to you in the book publishing process?
My Sally Solari mysteries take place in Santa Cruz, California, which is on the Monterey Bay, some seventy miles down the coast from San Francisco. So you can imagine my surprise when I received the initial artwork for the cover of the first book in the series, which depicted the Golden Gate Bridge in the background behind the Santa Cruz Wharf.
My publisher was initially unwilling to take my suggestion and switch out the bridge for the Giant Dipper roller coaster (which is there, and is equally cool looking), because, they said, “everyone associates the Golden Gate Bridge with California.” In their defense, being the New Yorkers they are, they didn’t realize that putting the Golden Gate Bridge in Santa Cruz would be akin to placing the Statue of Liberty in New Haven, Connecticut.
Thankfully, I was ultimately able to convince them of the grave mistake this would be, and ended up getting my roller coaster. And I love the cover!
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
I love Facebook, and post regularly to my author page as well as to others concerning mystery writing and food. I also have my own blog (Custard and Clues) and enjoy being a guest on others’ blogs. But I have to admit that, although I do also have a Twitter feed, I’m not great about using it. And I have only a faint understanding of the mysteries of Instagram and Pinterest.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question, no? We all need sales to ensure those renewed publishing contracts, but I think most authors would agree that they’d much rather be writing than promoting their books. Since marketing and promotion are a huge part of the game, however, I try to enjoy the process, by blogging, posting on social media, doing giveaways, hustling reviews, appearing at bookstores and book club meetings, and—perhaps most importantly—supporting other authors.
What is one thing you’d like to jump on the rooftop and scream about?
Can it be a happy, rather than an angry scream? Because I truly have nothing to be angry about regarding my writing career. But I am elated and thrilled that the newest book in my Sally Solari mystery series, A Measure of Murder, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who said of it:
“Engaging characters, terrific writing, and a savory blend of musical and culinary erudition...polymath Karst sauces her plot without masking its flavor. And she’s a dab hand with the red herrings.”
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above don’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the tremendous ego-boost that comes with being a published author. After all those years of hard work—writing and revising the manuscript, querying agents and finding a publisher, then editing and polishing the text until it’s as good as it possibly can be—it’s exceedingly gratifying to finally hold a copy of the printed book in your hands.
And yes—notwithstanding the crazy schedules, the pressure of deadlines, the abject fear when you suffer a bout of writer’s block, and the hurt in your gut that can come from negative reviews—I love my life as an author and indeed would not have it any other way.
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