SinC Canada West interview: Bernadette Calonego

We recently had the chance to ask Bernadette Calonego a few questions about herself and her writing process. Bernadette is a foreign correspondent, freelance writer and novelist. She was born and raised in Switzerland and now lives near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Bernadette’s novels were originally published in German before being translated into English by AmazonCrossing. Her most recent novel, The Stranger on the Ice, debuts this week. Her previously published English titles include Stormy Cove (2016), Under Dark Waters (2015) and The Zurich Conspiracy (2012).

 

Sin-CW: What was the inspiration for your latest book, The Stranger on the Ice? Tell us a little about the story.

Bernadette Calonego: I like to set my murder mysteries in remote Canadian landscapes, preferably in the North. These barren, isolated areas fascinate me and captivate my imagination. In The Stranger on the Ice, Valerie Blaine, a tour guide from British Columbia, takes a group to Inuvik, a small Inuit town near the Arctic Ocean. It is in that area that her mother died 30 years ago on a snowmobile expedition with her husband, Valerie’s father, a Canadian hockey legend. Valerie and her twin brothers were never told exactly how their mother died. Her death has always been shrouded in mystery. Equally mysterious is the very recent death of a young woman who was found just before Valerie’s arrival, near Inuvik on the ice road, a frozen runway that crosses the mighty Mackenzie River. Both deaths turn Valerie Blaine’s Arctic journey into a precarious search for the truth. She is helped by Clem Hardeven, a ruggedly handsome Northerner who has fled from his own past to Inuvik where he mingles with local Inuvialuit and Dene First Nations. Clem feels responsible not only for the upkeep of the ice road, but increasingly for Valerie’s safety as she attempts to unearth hidden secrets in this unforgiving vast frozen space.

What is it about the Arctic that made you want to set your book there? Have you ever been to the Arctic?

I caught the Arctic fever when I travelled through the famous Northwest Passage on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. At the time I was working as a foreign correspondent for European media and I had always devoured books about Arctic expeditions in the past. Such a lot of drama and suspense! Two years after my first Arctic voyage, I made the same trip as my main character, Valerie Blaine, and her tourist flock. I drove the Dempster Highway in late winter, stayed in Inuvik and travelled on the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk, where I reached the frozen Beaufort Sea. The Arctic is a place like no other on Earth. Life there is always a matter of survival, and many people have perished in this hostile, but incredibly beautiful environment. The Arctic has a strong pull, and the region attracts tough, independent and colourful characters. I also admire the Inuvialuit, as the natives in the Western Arctic call themselves. I like to think that they are the true adventurers of the ice-cold North.

Your novels are published in German first, and then translated for the English market. How did that come about?

I used to live in Switzerland and started writing in German. The first of my five murder mysteries were published by a German publisher. Eighteen years ago, I emigrated to Canada. My books caught the eye of the publisher AmazonCrossing in Seattle and they started translating my novels and publishing them. I work very closely with my translator, Gerald Chapple, and I feel very lucky to have his cooperation and support.

I have thought about writing in English but German is actually my mother tongue and I feel much more versed in German. But let’s never say never. Maybe one day I will write in English, too.

Do your characters come first, or do the stories (i.e., were the characters looking for a story or vice versa?)

Actually, I would say the locations come first. Then I think about what kind of characters would live in such places. My main character is always a woman—be it a photographer (as in Stormy Cove) or a lawyer or an event marketing specialist—and she acts as an amateur sleuth. Sometimes I’m inspired by actual events, which doesn’t mean the same events will occur in my crime novels. But they help me to create a certain atmosphere, or mood, circumstances, possibilities. Often the main character is raised in a different corner of Canada and travels to a remote area. Hence there are the options for culture clash, tensions, misunderstandings, but also attraction of opposites.

Imagine you’ve been kidnapped or trapped by a natural disaster. Which of your own characters (from any work) would you want to rescue you? Why?

Valerie Blaine, the heroine of The Stranger on the Ice, would be my favourite candidate. As a tour guide, she has to keep her clients safe and she has to be prepared for all kinds of dangerous situations. She is not afraid of travelling with people to the Arctic, a potentially hazardous or hostile area, with risks of extreme cold, sudden changes in weather and dangerous roads. She is resourceful and knows how to act fast and in a professional way. I have to say, I admire her tremendously.

Describe your current writing workspace(s).

I would definitely have to use the plural here because I travel a lot and I write in different locations. In Newfoundland, where I spend almost every summer and fall, I work in the home of a fisherman, in an annex of the house, a bright room painted entirely in white. I’m sitting in an armchair, with a laptop on my knees, and with a view of a wood pile, a shed and the tundra.

On the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia where I spend the winter and spring, I have a very large, cozy room in the basement, where I sit beside a gas fireplace, again in an armchair with my laptop on my knees. The view is so beautiful from that house, extending over the bay and the mountains, that it can be, at times, distracting, which is why I dive into the basement.

What’s your current writing project? How do you feel about it right this minute?

I like Stephen King’s approach of not revealing too much about his next writing project. I’m a quadruple Scorpio and very secretive (smile). But I can give you the location of my next crime story: Labrador. The Great Big Land, as it is called.

How do I feel about it? Initially dwarfed by the challenge, as always, which is probably not a bad thing. Later, once I have shaped the story in my mind, excitement will set in. But generally speaking and contrary to what a lot of people think, writing is hard work.

Do you remember what sparked the idea for any of your stories? Tell us about one.

I wrote my murder mystery Stormy Cove after I had spent several summers in a tiny fishing community in Northern Newfoundland. This is a remote, rather isolated area with a very different way of life. In that particular region, over a span of some 20 years, several people had disappeared without a trace. Shortly after Stormy Cove was published, a mother of two daughters vanished without a trace in St. Anthony and she still hasn’t been found. For the police, it is a suspicious disappearance. It feels so eerie and shocking when such a tragedy, such a crime happens in real life and so close to home.

Do you belong to any writer’s groups or communities? Do you think these types of social interactions are important for writers?

I’m a member of Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime – Canada West. The exchange with other (crime) writers has become more important to me than it was a few years ago. I’m still in the process of finding out how I can benefit from these writer’s groups and I have met some really interesting, open and helpful women writers in small circles and I’m looking forward to this kind of meeting again.

Which one of your characters is the most like you? The least?

All my heroines have a core that is essentially me. However, they also have aspects that are totally different from mine. So, in my crime novels, they live through many of my experiences, they are strong and vulnerable at the same time, they are curious and adventurous but they also have their flaws which makes them human.

And which one is the least like me? The criminals in my books, I would hope!

Have you written any series characters? What’s their appeal for you?

No, I haven’t. I like to start every book from scratch. I find it more exciting for me as a writer to have totally new characters every time. But then again, never say never. Maybe I will feel inspired to write a series one day.

Do you remember the first story you wrote? Tell us about it.

I don’t remember my first story but I remember my first published story. I was eleven years old, and a local newspaper printed a fairy tale that I had written. It was about a king and his three daughters. I was very proud and I still have a copy of the page.

Have you had to deal with bad reviews? How do you manage them?

Bad reviews are a staple of every writer, I think. I read them because often you can learn from them in one way or another. And I tell myself that a bad review is still better than no review. I have also realized that reviews are very subjective, and it can be almost funny that what one reader really loves can be a no-no for another reader.

Once, a reviewer criticized me for mentioning salami (??!!) about 20 times in my first book, The Zurich Conspiracy. Initially I got upset about this weird and inaccurate comment but in the meantime it has become a good anecdote!

Are there certain themes that keep coming up in your work? If so, is it intentional, or something that just happens?

In almost all of my books, a woman travels to a place or an area that is unknown to her. She encounters interesting or dangerous people and finds herself in situations that require courage and astuteness. This kind of adventure is also a journey to the unknown in herself. When I think about it, it is something that I like to do myself, too: Explore unknown territories, meet people whom I never would have met and reinvent myself in foreign places. It can be daunting, but it is definitely also energizing.

Are you a planner/outliner/architect or a pantser/gardener/discovery writer?

I don’t know what you would call me actually (a discovery writer?) but let’s say that I usually start with a location and with some ideas about who the main character is, her profession and the reason for her trip to a particular area. At the beginning, I don’t know who the perpetrator of the crime will be, how many people the leading lady will encounter, what exactly she would do there and what the outcome of the story will be. I get inspired by the writing process: the ideas pop up as I advance through the story. I could never have all these ideas at the beginning, before starting the act of writing. This process works for me because it fits with my personality and that way I never get bored. Again and again, I surprise myself with twists and turns, and the characters transform themselves in totally unexpected ways. The “downside” is that at the end, I have to rewrite part of the first half of my book because it doesn’t match the ending. But this doesn’t bother me at all.

Do you think there were early influences as a reader that have guided the stories you create as a writer? What were they?

As a child, I loved to read adventure stories. My favourites were books like Ivanhoe, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Leather Stocking Tales (in the German version of course). I read the books by the German author Karl May about the Wild West and the Orient. But I also was crazy about love stories with a lot of drama, jealousy, betrayal and redemption. I treasured stories in exotic places and I hijacked my brothers’ and my parents’ books and read them all. Another source of immense pleasure were the dark fairy tales written by the Grimm brothers and other such writers, and the old German and Swiss legends that sometimes were so eerie that I couldn’t sleep afterwards.

Adventure, exotic places and the darkness of human nature all reappear in my crime novels.

Do you think the place where you live (or somewhere you have lived) influences what you write? In what way?

Canada is a country with vast areas of wilderness, places where you still feel the pioneer spirit, a stomping ground for adventurers. On the Sunshine Coast where I spend my winters, bears and cougars walk through your backyard and the wilderness is at arm’s length. Northern Newfoundland is tundra and rocks: rugged, barren, wild, with unpredictable weather. It can be harsh for people to live there. When you go for a walk with the dog, you can encounter a moose bull or a lynx. Danger always lurks around the corner. People can disappear without a trace. That’s where my imagination runs wild.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a writer in 2018? What’s the best thing?

Speaking for myself, the challenge is to give yourself enough time to finish a book. Enough time for reading and doing research. This is a fast-paced world with urgent demands coming from the market. But a book takes a certain time to hatch. Otherwise you run the danger of repeating yourself and producing rubber stamps.

The best thing is to see the seemingly indestructible fascination and the enduring success created by books, despite the internet, despite the prevalent short attention span, despite the competing distractions and the lack of relaxation time.

Do you prefer music, silence, or some other noise in the background when you write? 

Silence. Silence. Silence. I get easily distracted by noise and sounds. After having written a few pages, I like to walk around in my house like a zombie—and please, don’t talk to me then! I’m still totally immersed in my book and need to think things over.

Many writers also put their creativity to use in ways other than writing. Do you consider yourself a “creative person?” What other creative outlets do you have?

I’m a hobby photographer, I love to take good pictures, usually of landscapes and my travels, which I post on Facebook or Instagram or on my website www.bernadettecalonego.com. I learned to create glass dishes with a technique called glass fusion and would love to do more of it in the future. I have done some abstract painting and I’m involved in finding creative ways to help a local animal rescue group.

Tell us about your other works, projects, publications, and what’s on the horizon next. This is the shameless self-promotion portion of the interview.

I have written six books so far, and four of them have been translated into English. My first mystery novel The Zurich Conspiracy is set in Switzerland and centers around murders of some top managers of a Swiss company and around a young, curious, hardworking woman in event marketing. In Under Dark Waters, a Swiss historian travels to British Columbia and the Northwest Territories to find out why her husband had perished in Canada in a suspicious seaplane crash. In Stormy Cove, a photographer from Vancouver gets a mysterious assignment in Northern Newfoundland where she hears about a woman who disappeared without a trace and a girl who was found in a strange grave. I have also finished a manuscript about a lawyer from Vancouver who returns to her home town in Northern British Columbia where a horrible crime had been committed. As mentioned earlier, the location of my next crime novel will be Labrador in Canada. At the same time, a publisher has sent me a contract for a travel guide about Newfoundland and Labrador. I have some interesting travels ahead of me, for sure!

What question do you wish you’d be asked in an interview, but it never seems to come up? Ask it and tell us your answer.

Question: Which book by another author would you like to have written?

Answer: Late Nights on Air by the Canadian writer Elizabeth Hay. This book has all the ingredients that I enjoy: It is set in Northern Canada (Yellowknife), there is adventure (canoe trip on the wild Thelon river); there is historical reference (the Berger Inquiry) and tragedy (the deaths by starvation of three men in the tundra). There are unusual but very credible and immensely fascinating characters, a modern love triangle and many stories within the story, surprising twists and sometimes a very unassuming but captivating sense of humour. Quite suspenseful—and it is not even a crime story!!!

 

Bernadette Calonego’s website is www.bernadettecalonego.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SinC Canada West interview: Cathy Ace

Cathy Ace was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales and Cathy is, like her heroine Cait Morgan, now a Canadian citizen. “Cait’s Welsh Canadian, as am I. They say ‘write what you know’, so a short, plus-sized Welsh woman, who’s quite bossy, fits the bill! But Cait and I are not one and the same: she’s got skills and talents I don’t possess, and I’m delighted to say that I don’t usually encounter corpses wherever I go. I’ve burrowed even deeper

into my roots by creating a cast of characters in the WISE women who come from all four corners of the United Kingdom, and work in a uniquely British setting – a ducal estate set in the rolling Welsh countryside of the Wye Valley in Powys, where I spent a good deal of time when I was young.”

Cathy’s short stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. Two of her works, “Dear George” and “Domestic Violence”, have also been produced by Jarvis & Ayres Productions as “Afternoon Reading” broadcasts for BBC Radio 4.

Cathy won the 2015 Bony Blithe Award for Best Canadian Light Mystery (for THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR) and was shortlisted again in 2017 (for THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE). “Steve’s Story”, which appears in The Whole She Bang 3, published by Sisters in Crime Toronto, was shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2017 Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing.

 

Sin-CW: What was the inspiration for both your series, the Cait Morgan Mysteries and the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries?

Cathy Ace: I think that, like many writers, I initially created a character close to my heart – and to myself, personally. Cait Morgan is a short, overweight, bossy Welshwoman, who is a professor of criminal psychology at a university in Vancouver.

When I wrote the first two books I was still lecturing at Simon Fraser University in marketing and marketing communications, not criminology. I was able to audit the entire criminology syllabus when I was there, which was fantastic! I’m not Cait, and she’s not me, but there are definite similarities. I have spent my life traveling a great deal, and have been fortunate to live and work in some wonderful places around the world. I took Cait on journeys to many of those places – places where I was able to write with real knowledge about the locale, history, architecture, art, people, food and drink… the critical factors that mold and express culture.

For the WISE Enquiries Agency mysteries, I wanted to use a setting that allowed me to spend more time “back in my homeland” of Wales. I migrated to Canada in 2000 and, although I still visit my family in Wales frequently, I wanted to “spend more time there,” which the books allow me to do. I also wanted to use multiple points of view and voices – rather than the first person I’d been using for Cait.

What is it about those locales that made you want to set your series there?

Personally, I’m not keen on the process of travel – especially these days. But I very much enjoy “being” somewhere “else.” Having traveled for decades both on business and because I am an inquisitive person, I have developed a fascination for how outsiders see places versus how those places are made and experienced by those who have always lived there. The world has so much to offer, but I’m only too well aware that, for many, visiting other countries is not possible. So I do my best to bring the places I love to those who can enjoy them in their armchairs, reading nooks, or in bed before they turn out the light. Each Cait Morgan book takes place in a different country, and each mystery really could only happen exactly where it’s set, as I like to weave the locale into the work so thoroughly that it becomes a character in its own right. There are still many places I would enjoy taking my readers.

Please tell us about your writing workspace.

I’m sitting at the dining table – because my writing room is in such a mess! A “big sort out” stalled, and I can’t face the piles of paper in what needs to be a mentally quiet place, so I’m now ignoring it and have moved my laptop to the dining table – which gives me a great view out, which is rather distracting!

Do you remember what sparked the idea for any of your stories? Tell us about one.

I can’t say too much, because it would result in a great big spoiler, but The Corpse with the Silver Tongue grew out of a moment of inspiration that struck when I was listening to a program on BBC Radio 4 about snail farmers in Scotland. Until that moment I’d been happy to eat escargots without thinking about the fact that snails might actually be farmed, as opposed to… I don’t know… picked at random from the fields? I learned a lot listening to that program… and put it all to nefarious use.

Do you belong to any writer’s groups or communities? Do you think these types of social interactions are important for writers?

Writing is, at its heart, a solitary process, and existence. I, personally, am also someone who tends to stand outside, looking in. That said, when my first novel was published I realized I knew nothing about the world of crime writing, or crime publishing… I knew a great deal about crime reading, as that was my reading genre of choice, so I joined Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) in 2012. In 2013 I became regional representative for BC, in 2014 I became National Vice President (a title changed to Vice Chair in 2015 when Canadian bylaws shifted) and then was Chair from 2016-2018. I’ll be “Past Chair” until the current Chair (Mike Martin) steps down. As you can imagine, therefore, CWC has taken up most of my time and energy for the past six years. Now that I am able to take a backseat, I’ll make sure my memberships of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers Association (UK), Mystery Writers of America and Crime Cymru are all areas I’ll grow into. I find the aforementioned bodies useful because I can dip into all of them for insights (pertaining to different markets, audiences, and specific subgenres) but I’m promising myself to keep my membership online, because that’s where I find the “socializing” to be most useful.

Do you remember the first story you wrote? Tell us about it.

The first short story I wrote was called “Dear George.” I was waiting at an airport for my sister, whose flight was delayed… I bought a magazine that had a short story-writing competition in it… I entered. As a result, “Dear George” was published in the 1980s in an anthology with works by “real authors,” and I was chuffed to bits! I had also just set up my own business, so I wasn’t about to give that up just because of one short story. The story was anthologized again in a book called Thrillers which was a set book on the GSCE English Language syllabus in the UK (the exam all 16 year-olds sit), which was fantastic, and was then produced for BBC Radio 4 in 2007. It was this which spurred me to begin to write fiction again – which I did in 2007, self-publishing a collection of short stories, then a collection of novellas in 2008. I have recently re-written and re-edited that original collection (though I think I’m correct in saying that I changed maybe only two sentences in “Dear George”) and the collection Murder Keeps No Calendar contains many of them, plus some newer pieces.

Are you a planner/outliner/architect or a pantser/gardener/discovery writer?

I’m most definitely a planner. I know some authors say they sit down and just let the story flow from their fingertips, and I think I envy them… but it wouldn’t work for me.

For me? I think through the entire story until I can run it in my head like a movie, from beginning to end. Then I do the outlines of the “acts,” then the “scenes.” For each scene I know where it takes place, who’s there, the role they’ll play, and what has to happen by the end. I lay all this out within an Excel spreadsheet, then add a column for what I hope the reader will feel (rather than know) at the end of that scene. When it comes to writing the first draft I work from that outline. If it needs to change, I change it, but it usually stays pretty much as I had planned it.

Do you think there were early influences as a reader that have guided the stories you create as a writer? What were they?

I grew up (as did so many I know) reading Nancy Drew books, plus a wide range of works by Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. Throw in Ngaio Marsh and Ellery Queen and you’ve got the background to most of my early reading, which all absolutely influenced my writing. Traditional crime is the core of my work – it’s where I am happy to read, and write.

You’ve recently moved into the independent publishing world from traditional publishing. What has that been like?

I would characterize today’s world of independent publishing as a place where you can do whatever you like… as long as you learn the rules of the game first. There’s a huge learning curve just in terms of formatting, etc., but what you also need to understand is how people want to read your work. I ended up publishing in mobi for Kindle and via Createspace for print via Amazon, but also through Ingram Spark for print to be available through bookstores and libraries, as well as epub for Kobo and Nook. All need slightly different formatting, all need you to jump through the hoops in terms of setting up accounts, getting to know their systems. But it seems to be working (I think!).

Do you prefer music, silence, or some other noise in the background when you write? If music, what kind?

I’m an absolute silence kinda gal! Of course there’s no such thing, but I’m lucky enough to live halfway up a little mountain where we have no through traffic, so I can usually hear the birds singing rather than the thrum of traffic, which suits me down to the ground. I can work if there’s “white noise” like news TV in the background, but just can’t cope if I can half hear a bass beat in the distance, for example.

Tell us about your other works, projects, publications, and what’s on the horizon next. 

As I write this I’m awaiting feedback from my editor and beta readers on “something new.” In my recent collection Murder Keeps No Calendar, readers were able to be on the spot when Cait Morgan first met Bud Anderson, and when the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency decided to work together… they also met DI Evan Glover of the West Glamorgan Police Service.

In my new book, The Wrong Boy, Evan is two days from retirement, and encounters the most baffling case of his career. This is closer to being a domestic thriller, with a thread of non-procedural police intervention than it is to “traditional” crime. As for what I’ll do with it… oh my goodness me, I wish I could tell you. Suffice to say, I am talking to all sorts of people about all sorts of possibilities at the moment. I fired my agent last year, and walked away from a contract with an existing publisher – so I am free and clear and… having to decide exactly what to do, and how, next. Having dreamed of being published by a traditional publisher, and of finding an agent, I am now peculiarly unafraid of being without either. I don’t know why I’m not scared, I’m just not. I’m happy with where I am at the moment, and looking forward to whatever the next chapter brings – though, unfortunately, I know I can’t write it like I would a scene in a book and have it turn out exactly as I might wish. One thing I do know for certain is that a re-written and re-edited collection of four novellas, Murder Knows No Season, will be out before the end of 2018; I have my editor booked, and have to work on the manuscript quite soon. Then… who knows? Watch this space!

To find out about the works I’ve already had published, please check out my website: http://www.cathyace.com/

To be up to date with all my news, follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Cathy-Ace-Author-318388861616661/  and on Twitter, you can find me here: @AceCathy