Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judge Deborah Knott interviews Margaret Maron

(Note:  This "interview" first appeared on the Hachette web site.)

Deborah Knott: We first met when Sara Paretsky asked you to write a short story for A Woman's Eye, an anthology of short stories she edited in the early 90s, back when I was still practicing law. That story won an Agatha and set the tone for my career. Did you know right away that I was going to run for a district court bench?

Margaret Maron: You've surprised me more than once, Deborah, but not with your desire to be a judge. You pretend it's because you like telling people what to do, but we both know that despite your veneer of flip cynicism, you do hope to make a difference in Colleton County, North Carolina. That's why you keep bringing up issues that affect our state and the people who live here. You care about polluting our sounds and our rivers, about over-development of our mountain tops and sea shores, about the plight of migrant workers and domestic violence.

DK: Hmmm. Maybe, but why did you have to go and saddle me with eleven older brothers? Our readers grumble that they have trouble keeping them straight. Even I have to stop and count up sometimes.

MM: I figured it'd take a big family to keep you in line. And readers shouldn't grumble. A family tree is printed in the front of every book they play a part in and whenever I mention a brother by name, I do explain who he is if it's really necessary to know. It's the same when someone marries into a strange family. They don't know why the relatives snicker every time Uncle Benjamin's name comes up or why they've been warned never to ask about Aunt Sarah's first husband. With time comes familiarity. Your brothers range from the older ones who may have dropped out of high school to the younger who have advanced degrees. It gives us a representative range of the people who inhabit the county with you.

DK: Do you come from a big family yourself?

MM: Not really. I'm the middle of three two siblings, but one of my grandmothers had ten and I was always fascinated by the dynamics of that large family. Some of the older children were married before the youngest was born.

DK: But you did grow up on a working farm like I did, right?

MM: I did. Chopping corn and weeding peanuts in the spring, housing the tobacco in the heat of summer, picking cotton in the fall. As we both know, working in green tobacco is a hot, dirty job. I'm glad to have done it, but I'm even happier that I never have to do it again.

DK: You didn't go to law school, but—

MM: —but I did take some paralegal courses so I'd have a bit of the jargon.

DK: All the same, you don't have a law degree. How do you know legal technical terms and how I would rule on any particular case?

MM: Email is a wonderful research tool. Over the years, I've met many generous attorneys and judges who have offered to act as resources. I can dream up amusing or illustrative cases for you to hear and then I email them to say, "Here's what I've given Deborah to rule on. What sort of penalties or fines would she give the guilty parties?" They come back almost within the hour with all the legalese I need. When I finish a book, I send the manuscript to my three favorite judges in Wilmington, NC. After they've read it, I drive down and take them out to dinner for an intensive critique session. Without them, you would have been disbarred ages ago.

DK: Next time you take them to dinner, spring for a bottle of good wine and put it on my tab.

MM: Your tab?

DK: You deal in fiction, don't you? Let's go back to something you said earlier about how I've surprised you at times. Aren't you supposed to know everything I'm going to do before I do it?

MM: One would think. But I had no idea that (a) you were ever going to get married and settle down; or that (b) it was going to be with Deputy Dwight Bryant, a man you've known your whole life. If I'd had a clue, I would have given him a better name. "Dwight Bryant" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? On the other hand, he appeared on the scene a few years before you in a stand-alone book titled Bloody Kin, and was never meant to be a major character. When you came along, he was already there. I thought he could be your eye into the sheriff's department and a handy escort when you were between lovers. Could've knocked me over with a broomstraw when I realized what was happening.

DK: You were surprised? What about me? When he proposed in Slow Dollar, I thought it was for pragmatic reasons only. I was totally unnerved to find myself falling wildly in love with him after we were engaged.

MM: Well, our readers seem happy that it's all worked out like this. However, given the tragic ends to the mates of so many sleuths, I've had a bundle of mail from people worried about him. I've had to promise that you won't cheat on him, divorce him, or slip Terro Ant Killer into his iced tea.

DK: Listen, you harm one single hair on his head and I'll—

MM: Don't worry. He's safe.

DK: Good. After solving so many murders since we met, I'd hate to be hauled in for killing you.

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