Susan Cox is the author of the Theo Bogart mysteries, and winner of the Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Prize for The Man on the Washing Machine.
Theo Bogart, the lead in Susan Cox's series, is a British expat hiding out from a family tragedy in San Francisco, making a new life for herself. Cox is a vivid, engaging writer, and seemingly fearless. I love the way she tells a story, throwing everything into it, and coming out with a great narrative in the process. Her new book is The Man in the Microwave Oven.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: What was it like to win the St Martin's/MWA First Novel Prize? Was this your first approach to publication? What was the process like?
Susan Cox: It was validating, exciting, and yes, life-changing.
No one who knows me well will be surprised by this, but I need a solid eight or nine hours of sleep a night. I’m not an early riser and I’m definitely not a night owl, but as a friend once told me, I can rock 11 am like nobody’s business! All of which meant that, unlike some writers who can somehow add four hours at the beginning or end of their day in order to write, I took a leap of faith instead.
I left my job as a nonprofit fundraiser and gave myself 18 months to be a full-time writer. I never even considered writing anything except a mystery and when I read about the MWA/Minotaur Books contest for an unpublished first crime novel, I was all in. I submitted the manuscript in December knowing I’d have until the end of March, when the results were decided, to dream about being a published author. (In the same way, buying a lottery ticket lets you enjoy your world cruise and new home on a Bali lagoon until someone else’s numbers are chosen.) I almost forgot about the contest in the months that followed, until I received a telephone call from Minotaur Press at three o’clock in the afternoon on the last day of March.
I can’t say enough about the effort that goes into choosing the winner of this award. Hundreds of submitted manuscripts are given to a committee of Mystery Writer of America authors. They read and rate the novels and submit their top candidates to the editorial staff at Minotaur Press. Once there, the manuscripts are read again and the winner picked from the short list. The prize is substantial—a $10,000 contract with one of the New York publishing industry’s top names. A winner isn’t chosen every year, which, if anything, adds extra prestige to the thrill of having your novel chosen.
It has been quite a bit of time between the publication of our first book and this one. Can you talk about that a little bit?
It’s quite a harrowing story. I wrote my second Theo Bogart mystery and was about to send it to my editor when I had a burglary at my home. I wasn’t saving my documents to the cloud at the time, and the burglar came into my home while I was asleep and stole all of my small electronics, including my phone and e-reader, my two laptops, and the external hard drive back-up, too. He even got the memory stick I was using as a backup to the backup; I kept it in my purse, with the idea that I could grab it and run in the event of a fire, but the burglar stole my purse, too. I lost everything I had been working on for years—not only the completed manuscript for The Man in the Microwave Oven, but several other half-finished novels, too.
I know there are people who can bounce back right away from something like this, but I learned I’m not one of them. It took me a long time to regroup before I could rewrite the novel from scratch using some handwritten notes and my memory. In a way, it was lucky that I had so recently finished the novel because it was fairly fresh in my mind. By the time I had rewritten it, I found it almost impossible to recreate my other novels. My laptops have never been recovered, although the burglar was eventually caught. Perhaps I’ll use the story in a novel some day.
I love your heroine, Theo Bogart, with her nod to both the British and the American detective traditions. You've made her an expat—a stranger in a strange land, perfect for a detective. How did you come up with and develop her character?
I wanted to write a mystery with a San Francisco setting, partly because I lived there for so long and love it. It’s a young city, and its founding families weren’t aristocrats or religious leaders or anything really, except blue-collar working people. They were grocers or tailors or they made shovels and pickaxes. They were all from somewhere else and a lot of them fled some disaster back home or wanted to build something new out of nothing. Maybe because of that history, San Francisco is still welcoming to everyone and doesn’t ask too many questions. It seemed like the perfect place for someone with secrets to hide, so in a way, San Francisco formed Theo, even though she was born 5,000 miles away.
I haven't read the first book, but in this book you do flesh out her backstory a bit, and the reason she's fled England. Do you plan to circle back to that part of her story at any point?
Definitely. Parts of her past will come back to haunt her and cause even more trouble for her in Theo #3.
Is the neighborhood in San Francisco a real one, or an amalgam of a real neighborhood? The details feel real.
Thank you! It’s completely imaginary, although in a way, Theo lives in the building my husband and I lived in for nearly 15 years, in a different neighborhood. Like Theo, we used to live on a hill (It’s hard to find somewhere completely flat there!) and I'd look out of our top-floor back window onto the backyards of the other buildings on our block and imagine how it would look if all the yards were combined into a single, large garden space. Fabian Gardens is definitely the result of that fantasy! I chose to place it on a block of Polk Street because it’s an interesting neighborhood of small shops and restaurants, near the California Street cable car line, close to a bus route, within easy reach of the Tenderloin, Chinatown, the Civic Center, and even the Financial District. It’s a neighborhood, in other words, where anything can happen.
I loved that you weren't afraid to change up what was happening in different parts of the novel. By turns it's an espionage novel, a girl finding herself novel, and a (sort of) traditional cozy novel. What was the through line for you when you were plotting your book—what was most important?
I wanted to develop a story line for Theo’s grandfather, one of my favorite characters from the first novel, The Man on the Washing Machine. He isn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of grandad, quite the opposite in many ways, and I thought if he was somehow suspected of murder, he and Theo’s relationship would develop further, perhaps in surprising ways. We know from a few hints in the first novel that he had a background in espionage and I thought it would make an interesting secondary plot alongside the murder investigation. I was able to use some of the (very few) stories my father told me about his own undercover activities, too.
I love the people who surround Theo—Nat, her grandfather, her employees and friends. This is traditional for a cozy mystery, but in your case it's so grounded and really feels organic. How did you develop what I call a character matrix for her?
Perhaps it feels organic because that’s how it grew. She starts in The Man on the Washing Machine as a stranger to the city and all the people she knows are introduced to us almost as she meets them. As the story develops the characters acquire greater or less importance to Theo and the plot more or less at the same time.
Who are your influences, mystery wise?
The Golden Age of detective fiction is a great favorite. It may be strange considering that I love a good murder and I create characters who do the very worst things, often for the worst of motives, but I enjoy reading about, and writing, characters who behave honorably. Agatha Christie—each of her books is a master class in plotting--Dorothy Sayers, Dick Francis, Peter Lovesey.
Can you name a book that was transformational for you?
Oddly enough, I can’t remember the title, but it was an Agatha Christie mystery. I was about 15 I think, and I had been reading science fiction a lot—probably because my dad was a great reader of science fiction—when I found myself on a station platform in London with nothing to read. In our family, the thought of a three-hour journey without a book was the stuff of nightmares. I had three minutes to catch my train and enough money in my pocket to buy one book, so I grabbed an Agatha Christie novel at random. By the end of the trip—I have no recollection where I was headed—I was a fan. I switched from science fiction to mysteries in the space of that journey and never went back.
Finally, what's next for Theo? I hope we can look forward to another book!
Her third adventure is already underway. I’m trying to think of a working title for it and I need a sinister appliance!
Susan Cox's first mystery novel, The Man on the Washing Machine, won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Award. Before that, Cox was a newspaper reporter, designed marketing and public relations for a safari park, raised funds for nonprofit organizations, and was president of the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Attractions Association. She previously served on the board of the Florida chapter, Women’s National Book Association. When not writing, you can often find her gardening or enjoying time with her family and their standard poodle Picasso and cat Midnight.