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