INTERVIEW WITH MARTHA C. LAWRENCE

By Denise Baton

Martha C. Lawrence Our first interview is with MARTHA C. LAWRENCE, author of MURDER IN SCORPIO and THE COLD HEART OF CAPRICORN, both available through St. Martinís Press. These are the first two novels in a series which features the parapsychologist detective, Elisabeth Chase. MURDER IN SCORPIO was nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony and an Agatha Award for best first mystery. Martha has worked as a book editor, a professional astrologer and a business writer. She currently lives in Escondido, California. I was lucky enough to meet Martha at the Sisters In Crime conference in Los Angeles. I found her to be engaging and forthright and immediately wanted to interview her. She seemed especially appropriate for Mysterical-e because she integrates mystery and crime with the supernatural.

I was very impressed by the intimacy Elisabeth Chase's psychic ability afforded us in relationship to the victims. It created a certain immediacy and a great sense of danger. Were you conscious of this effect?

Part of the intimacy you sensed came not only from Elizabeth's psychic ability, but from empathy on the part of the author. I was raped by a serial rapist in 1985. I lived through the experiences described by the rape victims in CAPRICORN: Being awakened in the middle of the night by a stranger shoving my head into my pillow, threatening me with a knife, doing the unthinkable. They say that nothing bad can ever happen to a writer, because if you live through the trauma and write about it, you'll have some great copy. CAPRICORN is testimony to that little piece of wisdom. It was a tough book to write, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. What I'm most proud of is how inspirational the story is. It's the ultimate underdog triumphing over adversity story--and it's my own.

To answer the original question: I'm largely unconscious about the effect Elizabeth's psychic world view has on the reader, only because I'm too close to it. Whatever we want to call it--hypersensitive, intuitive, receptive, or psychic--this is how I see the world. It's a stretch for me to imagine a world without this dimension.

Knowing that CAPRICORN was inspired or based on your own experience I can see how such a writing project would be healing. I understand that you've had a lot of experience with support groups and other community-minded organizations that work to prevent violence against women and help women recuperate from being "victims". I especially appreciated the moment in your novel when Elisabeth insisted that the person be referred to by name as opposed to being repeatedly mentioned as "the victim."

It's a great privilege to write for a living and an even greater privilege to inform as well as to entertain. It's my hope that CAPRICORN gives readers not only a good story, but also moral support, like a friend's arm around your shoulder when you need one. I know I'm speaking for a lot of peopleóboth women and men--who've been hurt by the crime of rape.

Did your first novel have any characters or issues that were born from personal experiences?

Yes. I stumbled into a den of drug dealers and lived to talk about it. I was also stalked by a former boyfriend. SCORPIO barely touches on the subject of stalking and I'm unlikely to ever give that issue book-length treatment. I learned from CAPRICORN that you'd better be willing to spend a year or two with your darkest demon if you choose to write about it. Ten years had passed since my rape when I wrote CAPRICORN, and I felt so raw writing that book that it felt like only weeks had passed. My stalking experience was so terrifying that I have no desire whatsoever to relive it, no matter how good the story might be.

It was such a relief to me when each of the women who had been raped and/or attacked went to court to name her attacker and tell her story in the end. You also addressed succinctly the issue of women being blamed for rape without glossing over it. I appreciated your treatment of these extremely sensitive issues.

Thanks, Denise. That was certainly my intention early on -- to create a story in which the victims were not merely convenient plot devices, but were fully realized characters in their own right. As with most social issues, it's much easier to understand the problem when it's brought down to a human level.

You are clearly a rising star. Did you expect to be nominated for so many awards with your first publication? Did you know that your character Elisabeth Chase would be such a hit?

I've been flabbergasted by the way the reading public has embraced my novels. I was so unsure about a psychic detective that I queried three agents before I even wrote the first book. I sent a few sample chapters with a cover letter to test the waters. To my delighted surprise, all three agents wanted to see the manuscript. (And I've been behind schedule ever since!) There was a bidding war for MURDER IN SCORPIO, which again shocked me. After all, having a psychic detective was considered "cheating" by the old rules of mystery.

In writing a psychic character, however, I was following the adage, "Write what you know." I see the world through psychic eyes, so the character comes naturally to me. The fact that SCORPIO was nominated for the Edgar, Agatha and Anthony tells me that the timing was right for my character. And the fact that my books are published in so many foreign countries tells me that this is not just a U.S. phenomenon.

I get the impression that you are under pressure from your publisher to produce a book a year. How does that work out as schedule as far as writing versus promotion?

You get the correct impression. I know a lot of writers who had finished two or three manuscripts before their work was picked up. As I mentioned above, I did not have the luxury of sitting on any finished manuscripts. When fans get hooked on your character they want to read a book a year. I understand that -- I'm a mystery fan, too, hooked on quite a few other authors!

This last year I spent about two months on the road and completed a novel during the other ten months. It's a full-time-plus job, but that's okay because I'm driven. I've just finished PISCES RISING and have had a few days off but am already itching to get started on my fifth novel. The scenes are there in my mind, waiting to be written. I must obey!

Do you enjoy the promotion aspect or do you resent that it takes away from your writing time?

Both. I enjoy promotion a lot more, now that I'm past that awkward stage where I found it almost nauseating to talk about myself so much. Most writers are natural observers and prefer describing what's in the limelight, rather than being in the limelight. These days, though, I love talking to folks because they give me so many great ideas and so much praise and support. It's wonderful, like having a love affair with the world.

There are times, however, when I feel crunched for time and wish I could just write. I do a lot of rewrites and sometimes it takes a long time to get what I want on paper. The writing always seems more important than the promoting -- but if there's no audience to read your work, the writing isn't so important anymore now, is it? (Emily Dickinson notwithstanding.)

I understand that you had an interesting experience at the Huntington Library during a book signing there. Would you care to share the details of that with us?

Thanks for asking--I'd love to. By the way, I saw that the Huntington Library was in the news this week. Apparently the library gardens contain one of the only "corpse plants" in the U.S. It's a giant flower that blooms once a year and smells like a dead corpse. But I digress!

The "experience" was this: After a talk I'd given at the Huntington, I was told that many people had reported a presence in the library. At the request of the administrators, Dorothy and Bea, I did a walk-through to check it out. Toward the end of the tour they led me into a basement archive. When I got to the bottom of the stairs the hair on my back stood up and I said, "I feel something here." We stood there talking and suddenly the three of us heard a man calling out, "It's okay --" and then more words we couldn't quite make out. The voice was very loud and so plain that Dorothy said, "Oh, my goodness. Someone's down here." We looked all around for the source of the voice. Then it dawned on us that the room had been locked and the light had been out when we came in. No one, of course, was there.

We told the woman in office at the top of the stairs what had happened and she said, "A man's voice? Well, you know there was a man who shot himself at the bottom of the basement stairs a few years ago. . . ." What excited me was that even the two "non-psychic" people, Dorothy and Bea, heard the man's voice. It's one of the few times I've had a shared psychic experience like that.

What is the subject and/or title of your next project?

The next book to hit the shelves will be PISCES RISING, due in February, 2000. In that story, Elizabeth investigates a murder at an Indian gambling casino. She hooks up with an Amafrican-Native American shaman, who teaches her some new psychic tricks. Amazingly, shortly after I finished the book I met the Amafrican-Native American character in real life. God, I love my job!

One of the things I find so fascinating about your character is the fact that she has such strength and yet is just as vulnerable as any other human being. For instance, the fact that she has this sixth sense but doesn't necessarily know everything. In CAPRICORN, for instance, she is bereft that she did not foresee certain things, just like any other detective or investigator.

I think that's what's made Elizabeth so popular. She's not some woo-woo psychic that you can't relate to. She's very human and fallible.

Your investigator is so widely versed in the spiritual arts. Would you say that Elisabeth Chase is New Age?

Elizabeth Chase is living in the New Age, but the skills she brings to the table are older than recorded history. We're just rediscovering now what the ancients knew thousands of years ago. People wake up to these things at their own pace. I'm just thrilled there are so many awakened ones to read my books.

In your first novel, MURDER IN SCORPIO, the ending was a classic smoking gun exponentially expanded. In your second, THE COLD HEART OF CAPRICORN, the ending is quite physically active. I find this another fascinating aspect of your "spiritual" investigator. She is so grounded in hardcore, material realities.

Again, write what you know. Because of my own brushes with crime, I'm a damn good shot with my own nine (a Glock, by the way). The ending of AQUARIUS [AQUARIUS DESCENDING, another novel in the Elizabeth Chase series] is very violent, perhaps disturbingly so, in part because someone very close to me died the year I wrote that book. I was working through that loss and didn't shy away from the pain in my work. I think the ending of PISCES RISING is my best yet. It manages to be gripping yet heartening at the same time. Finally!

Another delightful aspect of Elisabeth Chase is that though she takes her psychic gifts very seriously as she pursues the truth, she also has a great sense of humor about it.

Thanks, but I have to give my friends credit for that. I have some of the most comedically gifted friends in the world: Harlan Coben, author of the Myron Bolitar series; Sparkle Hayter, author of the Robin Hudson series; G.M. Ford, author of the Leo Waterman series; and Lev Raphael, author of the Nick Hoffman series. These writers liberated my inner stand-up comic and I'm eternally grateful to them.

McGowan is such a big sweetheart in your stories. Do you use him for momentary relief between the evident harshness of the crimes and the endeavor to solve them?

Tom McGowan was the first person to bring Elizabeth a case in MURDER IN SCORPIO. He plays the part of the doubting Thomas, the rational person who questions Elizabeth's psychic abilities. As such, he's an alter ego of mine because in spite of psychic experiences too numerous to count, there's a part of my brain that can't quite believe that my premonitions and visions are real. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Tom McGowan needs Elizabeth's insight, though -- just as I need mine -- and against all good sense he falls in love with her. They make a great team. There's an allegory there.

It seems that you sometimes make Elizabeth Chase's psychic ability a hindrance and not always a strength.

You know what they say -- a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I think that's one element that makes the series so successful: Elizabeth can't always count on her psychic ability to guide her in the right direction. There's a stereotype out there that psychics go into trance and pull answers from their subconscious minds as easily as magicians pull rabbits from hats. Not so. The information can be ambiguous and there's always the danger that the psychic's subjective goals and wishes will cloud his or her judgment.

In MURDER IN SCORPIO, the child and the cat were most interesting as casualties of the murderer, being members of the family. Certainly, the wife and the beautiful girlfriend paid a high price for their association with the murderer. Was this a conscious statement as a writer or did that just happen as you created the story?

Perceptive question! MURDER IN SCORPIO tells the story of what happens when basically good people get too close to what are sometimes termed "lower companions." The statement was both conscious and subconscious. We're all connected; you can't compromise your principles and justify it by saying that you're hurting only yourself. Every act sends ripples into the universe. Not only do your actions affect those close to you, they affect people you may not even know. Whether you believe it or not, you make a difference.

MURDER IN SCORPIO cover THE COLD HEART OF CAPRICORN cover


Copyright © 1999 Denise Baton