Not Quite Twenty Questions for Elaine Viets

hank-2013-bioHANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Imagine yourself in a crowded room, maybe Bouchercon. (Have you registered yet? It is going to be fabulous )

Imagine yourself in a room full of mystery writers and mystery readers.

Okay. Got it? Now imagine—and this isn’t too difficult—a roar of laughter from one corner of the room. Someone has obviously said something hilarious.

Who is it that made the bon mot, told the joke, found the funniest way on the planet to regale her colleagues with a side-splitting story? Betcha it’s Elaine Viets.

She’ll also be the one giving the good advice, working a million hours a day, being generous and loving and diligent. She’s the one writing two series, no, three, making every best-seller list and is short-listed for every award.

Elaine, who years ago had the infinitely brilliant idea to do real-life research as a hotel maid, a telephone boiler room caller, a sales person, a dog walker—and then write her Dead-End mysteries with the insight she gained from real life. She taught a whole generation of fellow mystery authors on book tour never to leave a hotel room without leaving a tip—when she reminded me how difficult it was to pick up a pile of wet towels, it changed my life.

Not Quite Twenty Questions—for the fearless, hilarious and intrepid Elaine Viets.

Photo by Cristiana Pecheanu. Hair and makeup by Mario Ortega.

Photo by Cristiana Pecheanu.
Hair and makeup by Mario Ortega.

Title of your autobiography?

I had to fight to go to journalism school at the University of Missouri. My parents wanted me to go to a genteel women’s college, so I worked my way through school proofreading medical books and journals. I fought to marry my husband. My parents disapproved. Don and I have been married 43 years. When I worked at a newspaper I fought to break out of the traditional women’s assignments and eventually became a syndicated humor columnist for United Media in New York. In 2007, I was hit with six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, and had brain surgery. It took a four-year fight to regain my health, but I’m fully recovered.

Movie you would see again and again?
“Burn!” the 1969 movie by Gillo Pontecorvo, starring Marlon Brando as Sir William Walker, the British mercenary who starts a slave revolt on a mythical Caribbean island.

Haunting music, good writing, stunning photography, and a fine performance by Brando. Much underrated.

Exotic drinks?
Vintage port at the Savoy Hotel in London.

(You are so sool.) More mundane: Pizza or chocolate?

Spouse? Children? Special people in your life?
My husband, Don Crinklaw. My friends. I’m very lucky to have so many friends in St. Louis, South Florida, and the mystery world.

Two cats, Harry and Mystery

Reading and walking along the docks near our home late at night.

I live in a condo. My garden is a pot of basil, a Kentia palm, and an eight-foot-tall papyrus plant, all in my livingroom.

ElaineViets_BoardStiffDo you watch TV? What?
Love TV. Have to ration it, or I’d sit down in front of the set and stay there all day. I like “The Rachel Maddow Show” and love watching series DVDs, especially “The Good Wife,” “Downtown Abbey,” and “House of Cards.”

Can you sing?
Only in the shower.

Best concert you’ve ever seen.
Duke Ellington playing in the Rainbow Room in New York.

Book you wish you had written.
Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

It’s a fine piece of reporting and entertainment.

Fear or phobia?
Spiders. I kinda like rats, especially tame ones. They’re very smart.

What someone might not know about you.
I’ve eaten brain sandwiches and pig ear sandwiches.

Um, really? Why? I mean—why did you do that?
Both are ethnic specialties. Brain sandwiches are a local specialty in St. Louis, my hometown. My family is German-American, and the thrifty krauts never wasted anything. A deep-fat-fried calf brain sandwich, properly prepared, is like biting into a cloud. My grandma made good brain sandwiches. Few people eat brain sandwiches any more, and that’s probably a good thing. One sandwich had 3,000 mg. of cholesterol, which I think is the average annual cholesterol allowance.

Pig ears are an African-American specialty and delicious. They taste like pork rinds in barbeque sauce and they’re crunchy.

Do you have a recurring dream?
I’m late, I’ve forgotten something, and it has to be done now.

How about a secret talent?
I’m good at finding four-leaf clovers.

If you could meet and chat with one person, it would be…
Helen Mirren

JM-09-Fixing_to_DieWhat was the very first moment of your very first idea for your very first mystery—do you remember?
Yes. I think good mysteries are also good reporting and I wanted to report on reporting in my first series, the Francesca Vierling novels: Backstab, Rubout, The Pink Flamingo Murders, and Doc in the Box.

I was a newspaper reporter in St. Louis for more than 25 years, and this series is about when newspapers went from being crusading institutions to corporations. I wanted to write about how newspaper management brought in consultants for “team building exercises.” Reporters already had team building exercises. We hung around and griped about management.

This four-book series is darker than my Dead-End Job mysteries, and still in print as e-books and paperbacks.

Can you believe how wonderfully your career turned out?
It’s had so many twists, turns, and coincidences, I wouldn’t be allowed to use them in a novel.

Things you say to yourself when writing:
You’d rather read a mystery, Elaine? Go ahead. Miss this deadline and you’ll have plenty of time to read.

When you are writing, do you have moments when you think—“wow, this is good!”? Or are you more likely to think—whoa, this stinks.
Both. Some days the words seem to flow from my fingers and I enjoy writing. I can feel sparks flying. Other days, writing is a chore. When I go back and read my work later, I can’t tell if it was written on a good day or a bad day, but there are always passages I wish I could improve.

What do you think about that?
I think all writers feel that way, don’t you?

Elaine Viets CatnappedI do! Absolutely. I hear it all the time. So what are you working on now? Or—what’s your latest book? Or both?
My latest Dead-End Job mystery is Catnapped! set in the world of cat shows. I’m just back from a cross-country tour promoting it. I’m currently writing my May 2015 Dead-End Job mystery, Checked Out.

Tell us something else about that!
Checked Out is set at a Florida public library, and my protagonist, private eye Helen Hawthorne, goes undercover as a library volunteer to find a missing million-dollar watercolor that was stashed in a book donated to the Friends of the Library. The library is supposed to be haunted, and Helen is also on the track of the so-called ghost.

I’m working as a volunteer at my local library, the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center to research Checked Out.

Are you enjoying it?
Absolutely. I love libraries and librarians. They keep us writers going by recommending our books and hosting reading programs. I like volunteering at Galt Ocean Mile, too. I find myself reciting the alphabet when I shelve books and DVDs.

Do you have a motto? What is it?
Work hard and work smart.

HANK: Cannot put it better than that! What’s the worst job you’ve ever had, sisters? (I worked at the candy counter at G.C. Murphy’s, but I wouldn’t call that bad. Although I cannot look at a peanut butter krispy thing ever again in my life.) A copy of Elaine’s latest book to one lucky commenter!

Oh, and don’t forget to register for Bouchercon!

And you do know about SinC’s special fabulous amazing forensics class with Jan Burke and a cast of incredible insiders the day before, right? Hope to see you there—check it out now!


Elaine Viets MURDER UNLEASHED coverElaine Viets is the author of two national bestselling mystery series. Her Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum wage world. Her character, Helen Hawthorne, works a different low-paying job each book. She’s been everything from a telemarketer to a hotel maid. The South Florida series has been called “Janet Evanovich meets The Fugitive.”

Publishers Weekly called “Murder Unleashed,” Elaine’s hardcover debut, “wry social commentary.” Her series has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and raves in The New York Times. Catnapped! is her thirteenth Dead-End Job mystery.

Her Dead-End Job series is taught in universities in the United States and Japan.

Elaine’s second series, featuring Josie Marcus, is a look at the pink collar world of secret shopping. This critically acclaimed series debuted in October 2005 with Dying in Styleand tied with Stephen King on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list. Fixing to Die is her ninth adventure.

Elaine’s short stories have appeared in two New York Times bestselling anthologies. “Vampire Hours” was in Many Bloody Returns, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner and reprinted in Vampires in Love, published by Barnes & Noble. Her short story, “The Bedroom Door,” was in Mystery Writers of America’s Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris.

She has had short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and anthologies such as Drop-Dead Blonde, High Stakes, the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes I, Mystery Writers of America’s Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Mystery Writers of America’s Show Business Is Murder, edited by Stuart Kaminsky; and The World’s Greatest Mystery and Crime Stories, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg.

Her short stories have been published worldwide, including Britain, Australia, Turkey and France.

Elaine Viets is a frequent guest on local, national and international TV and radio shows, including the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, and Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? show. Elaine also hosted the syndicated Travel Holiday Radio Show and was a commentator for the National Public Radio station KWMU. She hosted a prime time television program, Viets Beat, for KMOV-TV in St. Louis and won two local Emmys. She was featured on National Public Radio station WLRN with Jeff “Dexter” Lindsay on Literary Florida. She was inducted into the St. Louis Media Halls of Fame in 2011.

She hosts the half-hour Dead-End Jobs Radio Show on Radio Ear Network.

Elaine has served on the national boards of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards.


Wrong GirlHANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 EMMYs, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism. A bestselling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her newest thriller, THE WRONG GIRL, has the extraordinary honor of winning the 2013 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel! A four-week Boston Globe bestseller, it was dubbed “Another winner” in a Booklist starred review and “Stellar” by Library Journal.  She’s on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Watch for her next novel, TRUTH BE TOLD, on October 7, 2014.

Visit her online at, on Twitter @hank_phillippi and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.


About Lisa Haselton

Lisa Haselton has had several short mystery stories published and has a couple of novels in various stages of completion. She always enjoys learning new tidbits about other writers, and takes great pride as an editor when working with writers on polishing their manuscripts. She's living a life around her passions for writing, photography, volunteering, and anything related to New England, particularly New Hampshire.
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29 Responses to Not Quite Twenty Questions for Elaine Viets

  1. Dru says:

    That was a great interview. Thanks Hank and Elaine. My worst job lasted one day when I had to work in a medical lab. Gross.

    BTW, I’ve eaten pig ears before. Have you had pig feet? Not a fan of chitlins.

  2. hankpryan says:

    Dru Ann. Yeesh. I’m going to have coffee now. No ears, no feet. No insides. xoxooo

  3. Mary Sutton says:

    Unfortunately, Bouchercon is out of the budget this year. Loved this interview, but I will pass on the brain sandwiches, thanks all the same. It is so cool that you’ve actually worked in the areas you use in your books – I would imagine the research is priceless (and yes to tips on pillows and piles of wet towels).

    • elaineviets says:

      Brain sandwiches are an acquired taste. Now, with mad cow disease, absolutely no reason to try them. Maybe next year at Bcon? I think it’s in North Carolina.

      • Mary Sutton says:

        Going to N. Carolina in September for Writers’ Police Academy – so that is definitely more doable (if I start planning and saving now).

  4. hankpryan says:

    Oh, Mary we will miss you! Yeah, brain sandwiches. Gotta wonder…

    • Mary Sutton says:

      I know – and at the beach no less. But maybe I’ll catch you soon, at one of the Ohio events for TRUTH BE TOLD or Malice next spring (or maybe I can bribe you into swinging by Pittsburgh?).

  5. sallycootie says:

    Grocery bagger. Lasted half a day. Supposed to be “easy money, do it while the kids are in school.” Ha. Could hardly keep up putting the groceries in the bags. Not grocery cart but the tall ones we never see anymore. Florida, pouring rain, my co-workers helpfully put a tarp over the groceries – tarp gets caught in wheels. Afraid to drop cart and smash/have to pay for all the groceries I tip it back and “gently” lower it — on to my knuckles, both hands. Customer laughs at me. Family doctor very sympathetic too: boy, you sure are a klutz. Returned to the office where I belong.
    Used to eat pickled pig’s feet with my father. Can’t believe it now.
    Oh yes, going to Bouchercon! Can’t wait. I check out the attendees list after every one of these terrific interviews.

  6. marylouh says:

    I remember when Elaine was in St. Louis. If my memory is still good – she worked for the Post-Dispatch. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a job that I really hated. Maybe I didn’t stay in the work force long enough. Enjoyed the interview. thanks.

  7. At age 16, I worked as a greeter in a model home, handing out brochures. Alone. Isolated in a new development. No way you’d give that job to a teenager today! And I’ve eaten deep fried crickets. They taste like popcorn.

  8. elaineviets says:

    Even real estate agents don’t go alone to homes now, Marcia. I’ve heard crickets are a tasty source of protein, but I can’t get past the ick factor.

  9. Maria Kight says:

    I worked as a paramedic & saw plenty of gross things BUT one day we were driving near the brewery in south St. Louis & I witnessed a pick up truck carefully pulling out of a parking area. In the bed of the truck was a port-a-potty being steadied by a man standing up trying to keep the turquoise plastic outhouse from tipping over. I assumed it was a “full” outhouse & realized that I could never have a worse job than that guy!

  10. elaineviets says:

    That’s worse than eating crickets, Maria. How’s Jaspurr?

  11. elaineviets says:

    Of course you are. I, too, am cat staff.

  12. Elaine, I always smile when I see you, and I’m smiling now at reading this interview. Crackling bread was a real treat when I grew up in Mississippi: chitlings in cornbread. I’ll be at Bouchercon, God willing!

  13. elaineviets says:

    I love pork crackling, Charlaine. That’s what we called the hard skin on a pork roast, and it had fat hanging on the back. Crunch! Yum!

  14. Kris Neri says:

    Great interview, Elaine. My worst job had to be waiting tables in a pricey tourist restaurant. I made good tips, but the trays were heavy, and all the smells of different foods and drinks made my stomach queasy by the end of the night. Thankfully, they didn’t offer brain sandwiches! Ewwww. You’re sure adventurous.

    • elaineviets says:

      I may be adventurous, buit I couldn’t remember an order or carry a heavy tray across a restaurant without dropping or spilling something. That job must make running your bookstore, the Well Red Coyote, seem easy. (Almost)

  15. JKW says:

    What a Great interview with a Great lady. I met her first at an FLMWA meeting. We are both from the midwest. At the time my 90+ year old daddy loved her books right along with Harry Potter. He had always been a voracious reader. I remember sitting with her (on her way back after her strokes) at the round table (Deerfield Beach) with another great lady Barbara Parker. What a time we had. Good memories. My worst job = all of them, except retired and able to write. Blessings, Janet

    • elaineviets says:

      Thanks, Janet, for the kind words. Barbara Parker was a talented writer and a good friend. I still miss her. She always made me laugh. Mystery lovers, if you haven’t read Barbara’s Edgar-nominated “Suspicion if Madness” or her other mysteries, treat yourself. Enjoy your retirement and your writing, Janet, and I’ll see you at the FMWA meetings when they resume in the fall.

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