Joani Ascher on Seeking Vengeance, Training Seeing Eye Dogs and Baking Killer Cakes
All of your book titles have the word “Vengeance” in them. Are you a vengeful person? :)
Not really, although I do get even with people who annoy me by killing them in my books. In Vengeance Tastes Sweet, for example, I poisoned an obnoxious caterer and in Vengeance Cuts Loose I got retribution for a particularly offensive hair cut by having a hairdresser stabbed to death with his own scissors.
How did you come up with the idea for your Wally Morris mysteries?
The character of Wally grew out of the first mystery. I wondered who would care that a young college student was murdered and a high school cheerleader was missing. Wally, who always wants to make things right and to help out in times of need, seemed perfect for the role. She always has a refrigerator and freezer full of food, so she can provide meals for those in distress, and she has a big heart, so she could understand the grief of the family who lost a son. It helped that her younger daughter had caught the eye of the local detective, Elliot Levine, because he was a lot more willing to share information if it meant he could spend time with Wally’s daughter.
Oops—I thought Wally was a man.
Wally is a woman. Her real name is Voltairine, but she rarely uses it. People can learn more about both of us by going to www.joaniascher.com.
Your website has many pictures of handsome dogs you refer to as “my Seeing Eye puppies.” Do you train Seeing Eye dogs? And what about the solitary cat pictured there?
My family has been raising Seeing Eye puppies for twelve years. We don’t train them, that’s for the trainers at Seeing Eye to do, but we raise them to be civilized members of canine society. We take them on socialization outings, so they become accustomed to the day-to-day things that a blind person might encounter, such as trains, stores, public buildings, arenas, shopping malls, and hotels for overnight trips. The more they get used to, the easier it is for them to become guide dogs.
Smudge, the cat, thinks he’s a dog. We adopted him a few weeks after receiving our second puppy, Misty, who is one of the two who had career reassignments to be our pets. Smudge personally endorses and helps train each successive puppy in the fine art of living with a cat. He’s also good at chasing away deer.
How does one go about training a Seeing Eye? Do you yourself need special training?
We attend meetings twice a month, where all the dogs work on a variety of commands and behaviors, such as ignoring distractions, coming on command, and other more complicated work. It’s amazing to see twenty or thirty dogs in a room together without any barking or growling. There are many rules to follow when raising one of these valuable animals, all designed to make a successful guide dog when they are finished being trained. It is a 4-H project, by the way, for the children of the club, and they can learn a lot from it. There are many adult puppy raisers as well. By the way, most of the names in my books were names of Seeing Eye puppies.
You like to make theme cakes. What’s the coolest cake you’ve ever created? Did you bake a cake in honor of getting published?
When one of the library cataloguers retired I made a cake for her that looked like a book. The title was GONE WITH THE ISBN or HOW TO RETIRE IN STYLE. It was picture of a sandy beach, made with granulated brown sugar, a lounge chair with umbrella, and a plane flying overhead with the first part of the title trailing from it. The cake even had the correct Dewey decimal number on the “spine.”
When I have a book coming out I invite all my friends to come celebrate. I spend days baking all different kinds of cakes, pies, and scones and I cover the dining room table with them. For my most recent book I made a flourless ginger chocolate soufflé cake, a cappuccino cream cheese cake, a lemon pound cake, a blueberry pie, an applesauce cake, cranberry orange scones, a dark chocolate brown sugar bundt cake, and a cinnamon sour cream pound cake, all from scratch. For the health nuts out there who are cringing from the carbs, there were fruit and cheese platters.
Oh my gosh, I'm drooling now. Tell us about your latest mystery, Vengeance on High.
Real estate tycoon Keith Hollis’s plans to develop the Grosvenor quarry cause an uproar at the Fourth of July celebration. As the last ember falls below the rim of the quarry, so does Keith. Wally’s former students were his daughters so of course she gets involved. At the same time, Wally’s daughter Rachel is friends with Keith’s estranged wife. There are numerous suspects since many people were opposed to a residential development in the abandoned quarry which had turned itself into a nature preserve. As the police are getting nowhere, Wally must help out. Her special knack of getting people to talk jeopardizes her life.
You have volunteered at local libraries for fifteen years. What’s your favorite children’s book?
After volunteering at the local school libraries for fifteen years, I took a job in a public library when my youngest child went off to college. I work in the children’s/young adult’s room and I process all the new books. There are so many wonderful ones.
I loved animal stories, mysteries, and science fiction as a child. To answer your question, though, I’d have to say one of my favorites back then was A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle, but there are so many more that I love now. One that had long term impact on me was Follow my Leader, by James B. Garfield. It was what got our family into raising Seeing Eye dogs thirty years later, after I gave the book to my daughter to read.
You and your husband have lived and traveled many places. What was your favorite?
My favorite place is wherever my husband is. We’ve been living in Northern New Jersey, just outside New York City where we grew up, for twenty-three years and we both like staying in one place. As far as favorite places to visit, that’s another hard question. We’ve had great vacations in England, France, Israel, the southwest, the Pacific northwest, the Canadian Rockies, Vancouver, Alaska, Hawaii, Charleston, Savannah, Washington, D.C., Death Valley, and several other places in California. We had a wonderful time in the Napa Valley, I think. I was so full of good food and wine that it’s hard to be sure.
You love puzzles, especially Sudoku. Do you think it’s this that compels you to write mysteries?
Sudokus are a new entry in my puzzle mania. I love jigsaw puzzles so much that I once did an entirely red one called Little Red Riding Hood’s hood. Now that we have all these critters around, I don’t dare do a real one, because I’d hate to get to the last piece and find out it’s been chewed. Luckily for me there are jigsaw puzzles on the internet. I also do crossword puzzles, cryptoquotes and other word puzzles. Writing mysteries is actually like creating a puzzle more than solving one, and I’m the one responsible for making sure the pieces fit together. If I have any left over, I just call them red herrings.
Did you read mysteries as a child?
Absolutely. Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie. I don’t know about back when I was a child, but nowadays there are mysteries for every level of reading ability, and I think that’s great. Creating new mystery readers is good for all of us.
What are you reading right now?
In bed I’m reading Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich, in the car Death is a Bargain by Nora Charles, and in the family room I’m finishing up the historical postscript of The Plot against America by Philip Roth. I also read at work, but those books, since they are children’s and young adult’s books, don’t take long to read.
Sounds like good reading. Thanks for sharing, Joani.
Thanks for asking. It’s been fun.
|here do you get your ideas for the Wally Morris series?|
|Some of my ideas come from dreams. The idea for Vengeance Beyond Reason was a dream about a college student being assaulted just after someone said, “I’m not Leslie.” With a few modifications, and a deadlier crime, I had my mystery. The second book, Vengeance Tastes Sweet, was inspired by an actual, albeit less serious incident, that triggered my imagination. I asked myself “What if?” and “Who?” and the story quickly developed.|
|Wally is an unusual name, and Voltairine, Wally’s real name, is even more unusual. How did you choose it?|
|She is named for my lovely neighbor whom I admired very much. She was a wonderful lady who was still taking college courses when she was over ninety. Her real name was Voltairine, but people called her Wally.|
|How did you start writing?|
|I suppose I am a natural story teller, even for every day occurrences. No event was too minor to relate, with full color, drama, and humor. I used to write about many episodes in long letters to friends and in essays. News stories caused me to ask myself how people could make the choices they do and to wonder what would happen if they chose a different path. I combined that with all the elements of story telling and I was set to write fiction.|
|It can be very frustrating to be a writer. How do you deal with that?|
|It isn’t as if I can stop. Scenes start coming into my head and I have no choice but to write them. Until I do, they just replay over and over, like in Groundhog Day. I can’t get any sleep. I had to get a pen with a light, so I can jot down my thoughts in the middle of the night.|
Sticking with writing is the best way to make it better and persistence is the only way to break into print. Until then, even if the only person you satisfy is yourself, you’re still ahead of the game.
|What is most unexpected about your writing?|
|People are surprised that I have all these ideas and conjure up these characters. It’s not that unusual, every writer does it, but I guess no one expected it of me. I get a big kick out of it when people tell me how much they liked a book or the way I looked at an event or person. Also, although what I write is truly fiction, set in a fictional town, I have heard that people have been driving around my town trying to figure out where my fictional events might have happened.|
|You mentioned in your bio that your family raises Seeing Eye®puppies. How do you manage to get any work done with a little puppy around?|
|I really meant it when I said I get a lot of work done with a puppy asleep on my foot. I tend to stay right where I am (at the computer) so that I don’t wake the puppy.|
|Will you continue the Wally Morris mystery series?|
|I have promised Avalon at least two more—Vengeance Cuts Looseand Vengeance On High. Wally is a great character, whose caring nature makes up for her tendency to meddle, and she is very smart. How else could she solve those murders?|
I’d love to hear from other writers and readers. Please visit me at my website: www.JoaniAscher.com.