Marianna Heusler is an Edgar nominated author of ten novels and hundreds of published short stories.
Her cozy series, taking place at St. Polycarp School, in which two amateur teachers solve murder mysteries, was originally published by Hilliard & Harris. The first three novels were chosen by Harlequin as part of their Worldwide Book Club. The fourth book in the series, Trouble Purse Sued, was just released.
A former elementary school teacher, Marianna lives in New York City with her husband, her son, and her little dog, Dolce.
ME: How did you decide on the St. Polycarp School as the setting for your mystery series?
MARIANNA: I taught for twelve years in a Catholic school on the lower east side of Manhattan. I had a wonderful time there and met my best friend, Amy Bowllan, who was also a teacher. We had a lot of fun. When she left to take a job in a private all girls’ school, I actually went with her.
I told a fellow writer that when I was teaching at St. Brigid’s, my little second grade girls would rush into the classroom, to see what color shoes I would be wearing that day. He said, “You know there’s a novel in that.” And so I wrote it.
ME: When reading No End to Trouble, I was impressed by the way you had plenty of suspects with good motives to commit murder. Also, you were able to throw red herrings in and twists that made sense in the story. Many mystery writers try to do this and it just does not work. Is this a talent? How did you learn to do this?
MARIANNA: I’m reading a fascinating book right now – Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Colvin attempts to explain why some people who seem to possess extraordinary talent never become successful and others, with just a smidgen, go on to change the world. He talks about the necessity of practicing, not just a little, but a whole lot. Only it’s not just practicing, it’s “deliberate practice.” Colvin goes on to say that most people, when practicing, just keep doing the same thing over and over, and as a result never really progress, because they don’t recognize what they’re doing wrong and no one is there to take them to the next level. He discusses the importance of a mentor, who can give you a clear, unbiased view and help you to choose the best practice activity, something we are incapable of doing by ourselves. He writes that we just don’t have the extensive knowledge nor the best methods for developing in our chosen field.
I was very fortunate to have a great teacher, Alice Orr. I took three mystery writing courses with her and she taught me how to write a mystery.
But I’m also very lucky, because my sister-in- law, Jamie Ramondetta, and her four children are all mystery readers. Before I submit a book to my publisher, Jamie and my nieces and nephew all give it a careful read. They tell me if the solution is too obvious, because maybe I need more suspects, or that there are too many suspects and the plot is getting convoluted. If the motive doesn’t work for them, they tell me, or perhaps a character isn’t fully developed. I take their criticisms very seriously and almost always make the changes they suggest.
I also read quite a bit and I’ll analyze a book to learn why something works or, if I end up putting down the book, what I could have done differently.
I may have some natural talent, but truly I suspect that there are a lot people who have a lot more talent than I do, but who will never get published, because they don’t want to put in the time or the effort.
ME: What was the biggest challenge thus far that you’ve faced writing the St. Polycarp School Mystery series?
MARIANNA: When I was teaching I asked my third graders what they thought was the hardest part of being an author. They had various answers- thinking of a plot, naming the characters, choosing the cover. Then one little, quiet girl, who sat in the back of the classroom and hardly ever said a peep, raised her hand and stated quite boldly, “No one is even going to know that your book exists.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
According to AARP in the year 2015, 700,000 books were self-published. That doesn’t include books published by small presses or bigger houses. The challenge is always – how do you get a reader to pay attention to your story when there is so much competition out there?
My publisher, Hilliard & Harris is fairly aggressive promoting, but still, unless you have a huge budget and lots of contacts, it’s an uphill battle. Everyone wants to be heard.
ME: In your next St. Polycarp mystery, Trouble Purse Sued, looking at the cover, it looks like there is a very stylish purse involved. I know you have a fashion blog. Will we see more about fashion in this book?
Marianna: Absolutely. My friend, Hedy Cavanaugh, recently gave me a great compliment. She said that I inspire people just by the way I dress. Everyone likes to see someone who is wearing something pretty. It just makes them feel happy. I used to tell my students that I dress up everyday, and I take great pains to look nice, because they are so important to me that I’m willing to make the extra effort. My main character in the Polycarp Series is Mrs. Hopwood, who, like myself, loves clothing and shoes and all sorts of accessories.
In Trouble Purse Sued, she inherits some vintage clothing and accessories from a dead aunt and decides to use them in a fashion show to raise money for the school. But, of course, buried in one of the accessories is the key to a long ago murder mystery.
ME: Besides the St. Polycarp School Mystery series, what other books have you written? Would you tell us a bit about them?
MARIANNA: Trouble Purse Sued is my tenth published book and I’ve written several young adult novels as well.
My first young adult novel The Night the Penningtons Vanished was nominated for an Edgar. It’s about three girls in a small New England town, who solve a murder mystery. The Day the Fortune Teller Died is the sequel.
One of my favorite books is One Stone Left Unturned. It’s also young adult but very different from my other novels. It’s about the Russian Revolution seen through the eyes of Tatiana Romanov, the daughter of the Tsar.
I spent over a year researching just to make sure I got all the details right. Part mystery, part history, part fantasy, it traces her path from the palace to Siberia and eventually to her execution.
The book also follows the life of a teenage girl in this day and time, whose life in many ways parallels Tatiana and eventually the two stories tie together. This keeps the book from being too dark and makes it an easier read for young adults.
It was published originally by a small press. Wildwood Publishing, as a kindle book. About six months ago, I received a notice that they were closing their doors and all rights would revert to me.
I was very disappointed, because I really love the book. However, a few weeks ago a publisher from Croatia contacted me and asked if they could translate the book and make it available to all the libraries in Croatia. They will be publishing it in hardback with a brand new cover. Of course, I said yes, and I am thrilled and honored that the novel is going to be read by young adults thousands of miles away. And I’m grateful that this book has been given a second chance.
ME: Of all the characters you created, which one is your favorite and why?
MARIANNA: Of course, I love Mrs. Hopwood, because she’s light and bright and funny, and she’s able to wear pretty clothes and influence her students. And she gets to solve murder mysteries with her best friend.
But I also have a soft spot in my heart for Tatiana Romanov. She was a real person, who lived a life of splendor and then, through no fault of her own, had it yanked away, was forced to live in deplorable conditions, and was subsequently murdered. I hope my book does justice to her memory.
To find out more about Marianna’s books, click here. To go to Marianna’s fashion blog, click here.