BARBARA SERANELLA INTERVIEW

By Denise Baton

Barbara Seranella's latest book, UNFINISHED BUSINESS, is out to rave reviews, and for good reason. Her series features a female auto mechanic who goes by the name of Munch Mancini, and she's an uncommon woman in every sense of the word. The unusual combination of Munch's dark past and pure spirit make for conflicts and complications that suck you in long after you've turned the last page. Barbara Seranella is a crime fiction writer like none other.

I first met her at the Beverly Hills library when my writing group insisted we go see a panel of writers who were speaking that night. I learned that Barbara had been an auto mechanic like her character and that, also like her character, she had kicked a heroine addiction. I was struck by Barbara's authenticity and her ability to truly speak to the questions that were being asked. I knew then that she was a writer that I wanted to know more about.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to read all the books in the Munch Mancini series. Let me just say that these noir novels are thrilling, the characters are rich, the stories are packed with action and the emotional intensity is sure to keep you coming back for more. But don't take my word for it, check out her record. Barbara's first book, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, debuted at #5 on the LOS ANGELES TIMES bestseller list, made Amazon.com's list of ten best mysteries of 1997, was nominated for DEADLY PLEASURES 'BARRY' award and went into four printings. She followed that up with NO OFFENSE INTENDED, a selection of the the DETECTIVE BOOK CLUB. UNWANTED COMPANY was on the LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSELLER LIST for five weeks, debuting at #2, and was also selected for the DETECTIVE BOOK CLUB, POISONED PEN HARD-BOILED BOOK CLUB and M IS FOR MYSTERY'S BOOK CLUB. Barbara's protagonist is the most unique I've encountered in the mystery genre. A wealth of wisdom fills the pages of her exciting and moving stories. I was pleased when Barbara agreed to do an interview for MYSTERICAL-E.

Denise: Your first book was entitled NO HUMAN INVOLVED and it was so pertinent to the theme of the story. In fact, the humanity of the Munch Mancini character, her wry humor and the extreme bitter-sweetness of her life story are a throughline of the whole series. Your other titles, NO OFFENSE INTENDED, UNWANTED COMPANY and the newly released UNFINISHED BUSINESS are excellent as well. How do you decide on your titles? Do you know your title from the beginning or do they transpire over time?

Barbara: Thanks for your kind, much-needed words. The first title was a gift. I explained the plot to an ex-cop and asked him if they had any inside terms that they would use in such a situation and he gave me that AVA, NHI line. I knew right then it was my title. When I went to write the second book in the series, I had a plumber over to my house who I had to help thread a steel line into a brass fixture and then loan him a tool from my roll-away SnapOn tool box. He still didn't understand that I was a mechanic until I showed him my '68 Camaro with the LDYMECH license plate; then he said the opening line of the book, "No offense, but don't you think ...etc." Again, I knew I had my title. When I wrote UNWANTED COMPANY, I tried to come up with another NO title, but I just couldn't, especially after thinking of the title that was to stick.

By this time I learned that it might confuse readers, having too similar titles. I wouldn't want someone to not buy a book because they thought they'd already read it. And also, UNWANTED COMPANY had much resonance (as we say in the writing biz). The limo business was unwanted company, Ellen certainly was up to a point; and then there's the CIA euphemism of The Company. So it worked well. This last book, same thing. I thought I'd come up with another UN title, and I learned in the writing of the book, sometimes past emotional traumatic experiences come back to haunt you, as well as the rape victim in the book being physically stalked.

Denise: The character Mace St. John, Munch's police friend, is a strong counterpoint for Munch and brings in a strong investigative aspect to your stories. Is he based on anyone your know?

Barbara: He's an amalgam. Some of cops I've known or thought I've known. Some of my husband, especially the part where he loved his dad blindly, how he feels about his dogs, and how the woman who loves him has to see through him sometimes.

Denise: In your book, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, Munch Mancini is in desperate circumstances. Getting a cup of coffee is no mean feat, yet along with her weaknesses we experience her strength. It is a visceral thing. Even though she is petite and terribly fatigued, hungry, her will is indomitable. Would you claim such strength in the face of adversity as your own? Did you impart that to your Munch character?

Barbara: At the risk of sounding egotistical, I'd like to think I react like Munch in the face of adversity. She has really become her own person, though.

Denise: The authenticity of your bad guys and the dark world they move in has a strong presence in your stories. It is such a pleasure to go to such horrible places with Munch, who is honorable, courageous and wiley as a coyote. In fact, the intelligence of Munch and her familiarity with the reality of those characters gives her an edge and insight that make your novels unique. Have you actually come across such characters? Is it your past that informs you, or are you making all that up?

Barbara: No, I don't make it all up. I've hung with some real lowlifes in my past life. Sidewalk commandos, bikers, junkies, cons. I usually try to think of someone I've spent time with to base a character on, and then the circumstances of the story bring out more of who they are. Whenever possible, I try to keep the names of the real assholes the same in my fiction as they were in real life. My only regret is that I didn't know too many of their last names.

Denise: In NO OFFENSE INTENDED we experience a stronger, wiser Munch who must rescue a baby after both her parents are killed. It is very satisfying to have witnessed her reclaim her soul in NO HUMAN INVOLVED and then follow Munch in the book NO OFFENSE INTENDED when she goes back "into the life" to save someone else who is so defenseless. Have you raised foster children yourself? How many?

Barbara: I had a foster son from age 11 to age 15. He's in his thirties now and comes to my book signings. I also help raise four step-daughters.

Denise: The FBI figures extensively in the conflict in NO OFFENSE INTENDED. How did you go about researching this aspect of the story?

Barbara: I read a book about the FBI that was recommended by a real FBI agent as a reliable source and then I spent some time with another special agent whom I was introduced to through a mutual friend. He was a very nice guy, even took me shooting. He was a swat team captain.

Denise: I'm guessing its not such a far stretch from automotive repair to trip wires for explosives. Do you actually know how those trip wires work?

Barbara: I spent a lot of time learning about the trip wires, again through army manuals, survivalist magazines, and talking to guys who knew. I haven't actually done it myself.

Denise: In UNWANTED COMPANY your plot starts to get pretty sophisticated with CIA operatives and a very scary weapon. What was the genesis of that storyline?

Barbara: I started with what year I wanted to write about. I decided 1984 was a very interesting year in LA because of the Olympics, and then I knew that I could tie in my experience with owning a limo company. I have neighbors in the desert who worked for the Secret Service and the NSA, or so they claimed. The one person told me stories of the CIA running amok through the streets of LA looking out for terrorist plots and pretty much considering themselves above the local law. I thought this would be interesting.

Denise: You also introduce the most amazing female character in UNWANTED COMPANY. Ellen, Munch's jailbird friend from the past, appears and jumps right in. What an incredible combination of humor and pathos she is. All I can say about her is, she's all right with me. Will we get to see her again?


Barbara: Thank you. I, too, love Ellen. I wrote what I thought would be the next Munch book, title NO MAN STANDING, but then my agent wouldn't even show it to the editor because she felt Ellen took over and it was too soon in the series. Someday I'd like to get a copy of these "mystery series rules." They seem to be written in stone somewhere, but the only way you get to learn about them is if you've broken one of them. So I quickly wrote another book, UNFINISHED BUSINESS, in which Ellen doesn't appear at all. Then I switched publishers to Scribner/Pocket. I set UB chronologically before the time frame of NMS. Now I've reworked NMS a bit to acknowledge some things that happened to Munch in UB and it has been welcomed as my next Munch book. Ellen is back full force, and that book has a lot of energy because of it.

Denise: Munch's daughter, Asia, is a handful; not much gets by her and her emerging personality is absolutely irresistible. Will Munch ever marry and have someone help her raise her daughter?

Barbara: I don't know yet. Depends who she meets. I know Asia will eventually be a teenager and that should be very interesting. As to having a husband help raise a kid, he better be special, very special.

Denise: In UNFINISHED BUSINESS you confront issues of abuse, exploitation of sexuality, rape, voyeurism, just to name a few, in a whole new way. I found it extremely interesting that Munch is not even aware how deeply these issues affect her personally until she tries to reach out to help someone else. The Stockholm Syndrome aspect came across as a metaphor for how women can be brainwashed and become malleable in the face of abuse. Was that your intention?

Barbara: Absolutely. I'm so glad you picked up on that. It was also my experience in writing the book that I didn't realize how deeply my past experiences had affected me. A journalist who interviewed me recently asked me if this book caused me to seek out therapy. The truth is the book is my therapy.

Denise: It was fabulous to see you at the LOS ANGELES BOOK FESTIVAL on the panel of FEMALE CRIMESOLVERS. You mentioned that you wanted to write ever since you were a kid. Was there a particular book you read that ignited this desire? Why did you want to write?

Barbara: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was my first really exciting journey into fiction and what the possibilities were. I also always had very long and detailed dreams and had a difficult time getting family members to sit still long enough to listen to them. When I wrote stories, they were read.

Denise: What is your writing day like?

Barbara: I like to write in the morning when my mind is the freshest. I think of the book I'm working on all day long and whatever I'm exposed to during that time informs the writing. Recently I saw a special about strippers on HBO and the interviewer asked one of the women, "What's the dumbest question you ever get asked?" What a brilliant question, I thought, for a cop to ask who is trying to put his subject at ease and get into their world. The girl answered, "Who shaves you?" I went back into the chapter I had already finished where the cop interviews the stripper and added that. I had already sent the manuscript off to my editor so I sent the chapter by itself.

Denise: Tell me more about WIDOW'S WORK.

Barbara: I have about 100 pages written. It's funny, but it's difficult to maintain the somewhat farcical tone. I actually abandoned it last summer when I learned my sweet Nicky, our border collie mix, had cancer. She died within two months and I just couldn't make death funny anymore. I will go back to that book. It's a nice change from Munch, and keeps me fresh.

Denise: Your first published work was a short story for EASY RIDER at the young age of nineteen. What urged you to write that story?

Barbara: I always wanted to be a writer. At the time my subject matter was the biker lifestyle. A wonderful collector named Mike (I need to find out his last name) presented me with a copy of the issue last Friday. It wasn't an essay, but a short story titled BIKER WEDDING. I'm going to put it up on my website. I was 19 when that was published, and I wrote it after smoking a joint. I used to journal all the time back them, keeping track of all my exploits. When I got sober, I worried that I wouldn't be able to write anymore (stupid, really, as if drugs and alcohol enhanced any abilities. Drugs and alcohol always diminish). I used to send short pieces in to Reader's Digest, but they never got published.

Denise: When you go on ride-alongs and work with professionals to do your research, do you get the feeling that they enjoy sharing their work lives with an outsider?

Barbara: Not at first. They are reserved, as a rule, with outsiders. Although my last ride-along in the desert with a K-9 unit was great. We hung out from 3 in the afternoon until 1 in the morning. The dog had terrible gas, which served to break the ice. By ten that evening we were swapping stories and having a good old time. I didn't tell him about my past other than being a writer and auto mechanic. At one point we arrested this guy for possesion of meth (he also had burglary tools in his car and no ID). We took the guy all the way to custody. When we got inside the jail where they do the booking, I was just standing in the middle of the floor, taking it all in, and the cop beckoned me to come stand behind the counter. "This is where the good guys stand," he said. I was surprised how good that made me feel. I had to hide sudden tears.

Denise: Your own recovery from drugs and self-destructive behavior informs your writing and makes for high stakes even when the issues are more subtle and more complex than, say, kicking heroine. Do you think that you are still growing? Maybe I should say, blossoming.

Barbara: I hope so. I was surprised to discover how past rapes had affected me, especially in the romance area. I always strive to be brutally honest with myself and my motivations. I believe people respond to the truth and always recogninze bullshit.

Denise: I saw by your schedule that you are going to a signing today with Gayle Lynds. Do you like sharing signings?

Barbara: Not really. I prefer to be the star attraction. But in the case with Gayle, it worked out well. We each brought different people who were just as interested in one of us as the other. Plus, I got to hitchhike on her publicity. Most times you can't avoid sharing the spotlight. Many events are panels, so you just hope you don't get hooked up with a mike hog. So far this tour, I've been lucky in that regard.

Denise: Are you concerned about the environment? Do you consider yourself pro-green?

Barbara: Yes, every book I write mentions recycling. Unfortunately, I'm doing a lot of solo driving in a car with a V-8, but at least it's a newer car with smog devices. My last car was a '68 Camaro. Great car, terrible polluter.

Denise: What writer's convention or conference would you recommend to a writer that feels their novel is ready to meet the world?

Barbara: The one in San Diego in January. This is where I met my first agent. The conference attracts a lot of agents and editors and seems more focused on commercial and business aspects of the writing world.

Denise: Would you change anything about your past?

Barbara: I hate this question. Sorry. Big exercise in futility. I'm happy with who I am today and all of that is a result of my experiences and past.

Denise: Does being a bestselling novelist mean that you are a commercial success?

Barbara: Alas, no. It just means your book sold well that week. I was on the bestseller list with NO HUMAN INVOLVED and there were only 1800 copies in existance. It was like finding out I had won a race I didn't even know I was running.

Denise: How do you feel about juggling the promoting with writing?

Barbara: I don't do the two at the same time. Writing is such an interior journey, and promotion such an extroverted one.

Denise: What is the promotional schedule like? Is it a certain number of weeks once a year? How does it work?

Barbara: I hit the stores real hard when the book first comes out, hoping that I can start a fire that will spread. I do a very concetrated tour for the first two months, and then I taper off to just a few a month, and then pretty much get back to writing. If a good conference or Friends of the Library event comes up, I do that anytime.

Denise: So you have a publicist and your publishing company has a publicist. Are they always in sync? How do you feel they compare?

Barbara: My private, paid publicist works very hard and for me. She's experienced in the mystery world, very persistant without being pushy, and she gets me fantastic results. It's not inexpensive. I'm lucky to be able to afford her, but she's worth it. The publicist provided by the publisher is usually very young, not terrible experienced, overworked and geographically removed. I never expect much from them and am not disapointed.

Denise: Your website had some great photos of you in Alaska - will that location appear in one of your books?

Barbara: I doubt it. That was just another wonderful experience opened to me by the writing world. I learned to not turn down any free lunches or opportunities such as that.

Denise: You mentioned that your first agent did not represent mystery genres. So like, was he so impressed with your writing that he just had to have you? How did that happen?

Barbara: My first agent had never sold fiction before. She was impressed with the writing and sold my first book within a month of my meeting her. A lot of things went wrong after that and when Sandy Dijkstra offered to represent me, I jumped at the chance. An agent is all-important to a writer's career. Sandy has kept me in print, and gets me a better deal every time out.

Denise: What advice would you give to new writers?

Barbara: Read a lot. Write a lot. Take classes, go to conferences, read books about the craft.

Denise: What would you like to see happen in your life over the next five years?

Barbara: I'd love to make a million bucks in a movie deal. I have a pair of step-daughters from my last marriage whom I'd like to help financially. It would also be a nice validation for all this work. I'd also like to win a writing award, like an Edgar or Anthony. I'd like to be a better and better writer, which I think is possible if I keep my head down. Oh yeah, and world peace and an end to hunger.

Copyright 2001 Denise Baton