Exclusive interview with Leslie Karst “Murder from Scratch”

1. Were you always planning to be a mystery writer, or was it more an unexpected culmination of your life history and personal interests? 

Though I’ve always been fascinated with words and language, I never actively “planned” to be a writer. Nevertheless, I ended up doing so for most of my adult life. As a college student I wrote papers about literary criticism, then dabbled in poetry in my angst-ridden early twenties, moving on to penning songs for two different rock bands I formed. And later as a lawyer, I worked drafting research memos and appellate briefs for twenty years. So by the time I retired from the law, I realized that writing was clearly in my blood. But I was ready to try my hand at something new: crime fiction.

I also knew I wanted the stories to focus on food and cooking—and to take place in Santa Cruz, where I’d lived since the beginning of college. Santa Cruz had long been a sleepy beach community, full of Italian fishermen, farmers, and retirees. But with the advent of the university in the late sixties, the town had started to attract a new sort of inhabitant: students and hippies, then later, hipsters and techies. And at the time I was pondering ideas for my murder mystery, the food revolution has recently descended full-force upon the town’s surprised old-timers.

One day, while I was wandering down the historic fisherman’s wharf, it hit me: What would happen if a local Santa Cruz gal found herself caught between the world of her family’s old-fashioned Italian seafood restaurant and that of the newly-arrived, politically-correct foodies? Yes, I thought, the perfect backdrop for a culinary mystery.


2. What was the inspiration for your protagonist, Sally Solari, and how much of yourself is poured into her personality?

Back in my new wave rock n’ roller days, I wrote a song about a gal named Sally (inspired by Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”). Many years later, when casting about for a name for my fourth-generation-Italian amateur sleuth, I decided it would be fun to use the same moniker—partly because it meant I could have her named after her grandfather, Salvatore.

But I also needed a last name for the restaurant-owning family, whose fishermen ancestors arrived from Liguria in the late nineteenth century. Researching surnames from that area of northern coastal Italy, I spotted “Solari” among a list and loved how it evoked the word “solo,” as in someone working on her own against the odds. (There’s a reason other fictional characters have been called Napoleon Solo and Han Solo.)

As for Sally’s personality, there is indeed quite a bit of me in her. Like Sally, I’m an ex-lawyer who’s obsessed with food. We’re also both recreational cyclists and share the love of dogs, opera and Elvis Costello, the Giants baseball team, and single-barrel bourbons.

Sally, however, is far braver than I—perhaps even too risky. I’d never have the nerve to investigate an actual murder. (Then again, I’d make for a pretty uninteresting sleuth.) One of the best things about being a writer, however, is that you get to give your characters all sorts of traits and possessions you don’t have, but might wish you did: hence, Sally’s tall, lanky build, her cool ’57 T-Bird convertible, and her Italian heritage.


3. Many different arts show up in your Sally Solari series, from painting, to singing in a chorus, and of course the culinary arts. How do you balance these details with the brisk plot required of a mystery novel?

My favorite mysteries are those in which the reader is thrown into some new and different subculture and is thereby introduced to fascinating details concerning this unfamiliar culture or way of life. (Dorothy L. Sayers was a master at this, with her peeks into the worlds of the British aristocracy, London advertising, bell ringing, and academia.) So when I set out to write a mystery series of my own, I wanted each book to touch on a slightly different theme—while at the same time focusing on food and cooking and the life of a restaurateur.

The concept I came up with was to highlight in each story one of the human senses: taste (Dying for a Taste); hearing (A Measure of Murder, in which Sally joins a chorus singing the Mozart Requiem); vision (the plein art painting in Death al Fresco); and touch (Murder from Scratch features a blind character whose heightened sense of touch helps Sally solve the murder). And yes, book five, which I’m currently writing, will concern the sense of smell.

But this is of course a delicate dance—ensuring that the subplot doesn’t step on the toes of the lead story. As a result, I’ve tried to ensure that the restaurant business, the music, and the painting are all integral to the mystery and the solving of the puzzle, and not simply present as window dressing. (I’ve had the assistance, as well, of a terrific editor at Crooked Lane who ruthlessly slashes passages where I wax far too poetic regarding arcane issues of Latin vowel pronunciation in choral singing, gouache undercoat painting technique, the details of whipping up a sauce béarnaise, and the like.)


4. Why did you chose to include a blind character in your new book, Murder from Scratch?

While spending the afternoon with a blind friend a few years back, I was struck by how easily he located whatever he needed in his home—be it that jar of orange marmalade in the fridge, a specific CD he wanted to play for me, or the right colored shirt to match his green slacks.

How much more reliant on their other senses a blind person must be to get along in the world, I thought. And how very organized their life needs to be, compared to someone who can simply rely on their vision to get by. And then I realized what a perfect setup for a murder mystery that would be—a blind character who, by virtue of her heightened sense of touch, is able to discover clues the sighted sleuth misses.


5. Any similarities between writing and cooking?

I’ve been a devout plotter for all my fiction-writing career and have to admit that the mere thought of sitting down with only a vague idea and then simply writing a mystery novel scares the heck out of me. You have to plant clues, after all, and red herrings, and suspects. How could you just do that willy-nilly?

Yet when it comes to cooking, I’m the exact opposite. Sure, I love to read cookbooks. And my favorite day of the week for the newspaper is when the food section comes out, so I can peruse the recipes, maybe learn a new technique for rolling out pasta, and drool over all the seasonal ingredients highlighted that time of year. But I don’t tend to use recipes when I prepare food, since I have a solid understanding of the chemistry of cooking and therefore know instinctively what will work and what won’t. So unlike with writing, in this area of my life I’m a full-on pantser—tasting my sauce as I go, adding a dash of this or that, then tasting it again.


6. Any similarities between writing and practicing law?

I didn’t used to think so, but I’ve since changed my mind.

One of the most important components of writing a good mystery is the story: how you set it up, how you place your clues and red herrings, how you characterize your protagonist, suspects, and villain. Well, the same is true in the law.

The purpose of a legal brief is to convince the judge that, based on current law as applied to the facts of your case, you should prevail. Thus, how you set forth the facts of your case in your brief is vitally important. First, you must decide which facts to include and which to leave out. Of course, there’s the ethical component to consider, i.e., you can’t omit facts relevant to the case simply because they’re harmful to your client. But the same is true in a mystery novel, where it’s considered unfair to leave out information vital to resolution of the mystery simply because it might make readers more easily guess whodunit.

In addition, legal cases are often won or lost on how you tell the story. Which elements do you emphasize and which do you play down? This is, of course, similar to how one employs red herrings and clues in a mystery novel. And finally, there’s voice and readability. As with any great novel, the attorney drafting a brief wants the judge to be drawn into the story and truly care about the case.

So I’d have to say that all those years as an attorney did in fact help make me a better mystery writer.


7. Fill in the blank: If I weren’t a writer, I would be…

…the singer/songwriter for a country-rock band.

As noted above, I actually tried to do that for a while back in the 1990s. I’d grown weary of my life as a research and appellate attorney and needed something new and different in my life, so my sister, Laura, and I formed a band. After several false starts, we eventually morphed into Electric Range, with the two of us singing two-part harmonies—a sort of “Everly Sisters,” but with more of an edge.

I wrote the songs for the band, and would travel to Nashville each year to shop the tunes to the publishers of Music Row but, alas, never succeeded in getting that big break. We did, however, record a CD of my songs, so perhaps it’s not too late!


8. …and why not a restaurateur?

Not on your life. Although I did go back to school to get a degree in culinary arts (while working as a lawyer), I never had any intention of opening my own restaurant. I’ve worked in the food business enough to know that the hours are lousy and that it’s a rigorous, stressful, and exhausting job (and about half of the restaurants fail within the first three years). I much prefer to throw small but fabulous dinner parties and to write books about someone else running a popular and trendy restaurant.


9. What are the best and worst things about being a writer?

By far the best part of being a writer has been the relationships I’ve established with other mystery authors, for they are the most generous, helpful, warm, and supportive people I’ve ever encountered.

As for the downside, I’ll quote my law professor father: “There are only two times I’m miserable: when I’m writing and when I’m not writing.” Because when you’re in the middle of a book, you’re nervous about getting it right and angsting that you should be working on it whenever you’re not. But when you’re not in the middle of a book, you feel as if there’s something deeply missing from your life.


10. How great did it feel to receive the Left Coast Crime Convention’s Lefty nomination?

My aspirations as a writer have gradually increased as I’ve found myself at different stages along the way. First was simply completing that initial m.s., then finding an agent, and later a publisher. Next came getting positive reviews, and then decent sales figures. After that was the contract for the next book.

But one thing I found myself hesitant to ever talk about with others was an award nomination. You see, many of my good friends in the mystery-writing community had been nominated for awards, and quite a few had even won. But not I. So when I received that email telling me I was one of the six nominees for this year’s Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, a variety of emotions passed through me: incredulity (I had to read the email about six times to make sure it truly said what it did), shock, amazement, and finally, euphoria. I guess I’d have to say, therefore, that it’s terrific to finally feel as if I’ve become one of the “Big Kids.”


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