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Remembering Barbara Seranella

Barbara Seranella wrote a terrific series of mysteries featuring Miranda “Munch” Mancini. Much was a mechanic with a troubled and checkered past. She was a bit of an anti hero but fans couldn’t help but rally behind her. Seranella’s own past wasn’t too different. She ran away from home and ended up living in a hippie commune in San Francisco. She eventually fell in with a biker gang and got into drugs. Along the way she also learned to be a mechanic. By the time she was 21 she had been in jail 13 times for various things. She made the decision to change her life and went to work in Sherman Oaks as a mechanic. There she met the man who would become her husband. Realizing she may not want to be a mechanic the rest of her life they discussed what she might want to do. She had had a short story published in Easy Riders magazine under the name Crazy Barbara and decided to pursue writing.

Ruth and I with Barbara in the book room at Bouchercon in Austin

Ruth and I with Barbara in the book room at Bouchercon in Austin

I had a chance to meet Barbara on a number of occasions and really enjoyed her company. She was down to earth and a very “no bullshit” person. I also loved the books. When we saw Barbara at Bouchercon in 2006 she was recovering from a second liver transplant. She actually still had tubes coming out of her and was making trips to the hospital in Chicago each day to check up on her. She was in great spirits and refused to let a health problem keep her from seeing her people in the mystery community. During a signing she actually handed out onions with notes attached that read “You can have the onion, I’m keeping the liver”. The following year we sat with her at the Anthony Awards in Madison where she won the award for the best short story.

I miss Barbara a lot, and her memory still inspires me. If you haven’t read her before I would suggest picking up her books as they are truly unique and wonderful, as was Barbara.

This is an interview I did with Barbara back in April of 2002

Jon Jordan: How would you describe Miranda Munch Mancini?

Barbara Seranella: She is pragmatic. She deals with her problems by being morally courageous, practical, and honest. All of these traits go through her own filter and might not meet society norms. Part of the advantage of being an ex-junkie, hooker, hell-raiser is that the small things don’t get to her. She doesn’t judge people for anything other that who they are now and what they are doing now.

Barbara on a panel at Bouchercon Washing DC

Barbara on a panel at Bouchercon Washing DC

JJ: Like Munch you actually worked in a service station. Were you also a mechanic? How about driving limos?

BS: I was an auto mechanic for twenty years. Technically, I still am since the knowledge didn’t go away. I started working on cars when I was 15 and living in a hippie commune in the Haight. I quit officially in 1993 when I was 36 to pursue the writing life. I had my own limo company for four years. It was a horrible business and cost me much more than I ever made. But nothing bad ever happens to a writer. I’m using all those experiences now to get Munch into situations.

JJ: Do you have a favorite among the books?

BS: I hate that question. It’s like being asked if you have a favorite child. The book I’m most excited about is the one I’ve just written or the one I’m working on. In the process of editing and proofing, I have to read my own books so many times that I lose all objectivity. Every so often I go back and read an earlier book after letting it sit for a while and I always end up thinking (in all modesty), “Hey, this is pretty good.”

JJ: I saw that your first published work was in Easy Rider magazine. I’m guessing that wasn’t a real high paying gig. Does any one still call you Crazy Barbara?

BS: They actually sent me a check for $125 which was a small fortune to me in those days. No one calls me Crazy Barbara to my face. I have no idea what they whisper behind my back. I once spoke to an assembly of kids-at-risk at the High School I never went to because I dropped out. The first question from the audience was, “If you went to court today, would you be declared legally insane?” Another kid wanted to know if I had any diseases now. I found out later he had AIDS. The hardest question I got that day was, “If you were going to commit suicide, how would you do it?”

JJ: It says on your website that you may be the only member of Sisters In Crime who was actually ever a criminal…..Is this something you can elaborate on?? Or would it be better to just say “that’s really interesting and move on?

BS: It’s all public information anymore. By the time I was 22, I had been arrested 13 times. (This was in an article written about me in the LA Times. My husband read the article and turned to me aghast. “You were arrested 13 times?” I’m sure I mentioned it. Sometimes he doesn’t pay attention) Anyway, I served over a month in Sybil Brand Institute for Women in L.A. because the judge wouldn’t set bail until I got all my charges under all my different names cleared up. My dear father hired a lawyer and I was given three years probation and one year in prison, suspended. Coincidentally, this is about the time I got clean and sober and so successfully completed the probation and didn’t have to serve any more time.

seanella_nooffenseintendedJJ: What prompted you to start writing?

BS: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little girl and first began to read. I met my husband in 1991. He came in to be my boss at the gas station where I was wrenching. We fell in love. He didn’t want me working on cars when I was forty. He felt it would be too hard on my body, and encouraged me to pursue my dream. Without his financial and emotional backing, Munch Mancini would probably never have happened. My back is giving me problems now. So I probably lifted one transmission too many. Not to mention the aches you get from sitting hours hunched at a computer. I guess there’s no way to escape the ravages of aging.

JJ: You’ve lead an interesting life so far, hippie commune, motorcycle clubs, becoming an auto mechanic. Do you think that this gives you an advantage in your writing?

BS: Certainly for the subject matter I write about. If I had lived a different life, I’d be writing about other things. Who knows? Maybe in that other life I would still be a practicing alcoholic. A housewife in the suburbs. Or I might have been ruined by a formal education.

JJ: I quit drinking back in ’96. One of the first things I noticed when getting sober was the change in my sleep habits. Thus, more reading, and thank good for the internet! But it also allowed me to focus on things and concentrate like I haven’t in years. Also, people seem really surprised that I’m so willing to talk about it. I figure that it’s part of who I am. I don’t want to repeat it, but it also got me to where I am now. Any similar experiences?

BS: The program dictates that we don’t ignore our past or shut the door on it. We’re only as sick as our secrets is another good cliche. Also, when we freely and honestly come forth, we reach others and hopefully help them. I think everyone has innate bullshit detectors and when you’re not completely honest, it’s picked up on. I know when I think someone is bullshitting, I’m turned off immediately and tend to stop paying attention. Personally, I love attention so I don’t want that. Writers write because they have something to say.

JJ: How important do you think the side characters are to a series? In yours people like Mace St. John and Ellen seem to really fill out the books.

BS: It’s always fun to create new and interesting characters. I love Mace St. John. Ellen is great because she’s unpredictable, whereas Munch has to toe a certain line. In the book I’m working on now (Munch #7), Asia has a viewpoint and she’s a cool little kid.

JJ: The glimpses back to Munch’s hell raising days really add to the character. I think part of that is because they make what she has now more important. Do you think Miranda will ever totally conform and settle down, or will she always be a product of her past?

BS: In the next book, UNPAID DUES, which will be published by Scribner next year, we see a lot of Munch in the bad old days. The story line revolves around an incident that happened ten years previous (to the 1985 time setting of the series) with Munch and her cohorts. I wrote several scenes set in the mid-seventies showing Munch at the height of her despair and using. It’s a very powerful and gritty book. The next one I’m working on (#7) brings back Asia’s aunt (her father’s sister) from book #2, NO OFFENSE INTENDED. Lisa has been away in the Witness Protection Program all this time. I only work on one book at a time. So I don’t know what will happen next yet.

JJ: What kind of things fill your time when you aren’t writing? I get the impression you and your husband like to golf.

BS: We live on a golf course. I like golf, maybe once or twice a month. I play tennis twice a week “in season.” We have three dogs who we devote a lot of time to. I swim, walk, go to movies, and read, read, read. My husband thinks I read too much.

JJ: Are you a good golfer, or do you play strictly for love of the game?

BS: Ahem. So glad you asked. I play in the club’s 9-holer group. Last year I won the club championship.

JJ: Have you had any interesting experiences while doing research?

BS: Oh gee, tons. I go to prisons, strip clubs, cement block manufacturers. Whatever. That’s a whole other interview. As much as possible I like to go places and talk to people rather that getting my information from the internet. And of course ride-alongs are a lot of fun.

JJ: Do you right on a regular schedule, set hours each day, or more like binge writing?

BS: I leave the computer on all the time and sit down when the mood strikes me. Fortunately it strikes often.

serenella_unpaid_duesJJ: What do you think is the best looking Harley made? And, any plans to come to Milwaukee next summer for the 100 year anniversary?

BS: I’m torn between the Panhead and the Knucklehead. I always thought the Shovelhead was boring, and I got in a terrible accident and knocked out my teeth on a Sportster. Basically I like them chopped, lots of chrome, Springer front end, pull back handlebars, Black tank and fenders. If I had one super power, it would be Teleportation. Then I could go in the blink of an eye to all the places I’d like to. If they invent a transporter for home use by next year, I’ll come to Milwaukee.

JJ: I think the realism of your characters is part of what makes your books a joy to read. I think it’s easier to connect with a protagonist who isn’t rich and driving a Porsche, solving mysteries for fun. Is having the characters come off as real important?

BS: I think so. I want to believe the story I’m reading. I want to get lost in it. I don’t want to feel the author is making the whole thing up or envision the writer at work at the computer.

JJ: Is there any subject you wouldn’t write about? And why?

BS: Jeez. Never say never. I did start writing my last book about a dead kid and I couldn’t handle it, so I changed the story line to having the murder victim clutching a life-size doll in death and that was just as interesting. It did take me 200 pages to figure out what part the doll played in the story. That’s a cool aspect of the writing process. I become a detective. I have to make sense of the clues as they present themselves.

JJ: The mystery genre seems to attract very loyal fans. Aside from the Sci-Fi/fantasy readers I can’t think of a group more loyal. And most of the authors are every bit fans as well. Why do you think that is? What is it about mysteries that hooks people?

BS: Well, first of all, we’re all such darn nice, interesting, smart people. I think about this a lot actually. I think after reading good thriller/crime novels/ mysteries, you get jaded. Nothing raises the stakes like murder or life and death scenarios. Wondering if some college professor is going to leave his wife just doesn’t hold the same punch.

JJ: What kind of music do you enjoy?

BS: Rock n Roll. 70s and 80s mostly.

JJ: Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading?

BS: Just read HELL TO PAY by George Pelecanos. Terrific book. Mike Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Dennis Lehane, Martha Lawrence, The Harry Potter Books, Harlan Coban, Martin Cruz Smith. I just finished LITTLE AMERICA by Henry Brommel. Phenomenal use of language and setting. Again, a difficult question because I read so much and don’t want to not mention many friends. These are just the first that come to mind because I read them most recently.

JJ: With all the events you attend, what is the coolest panel you’ve done?

BS: GM Ford moderated a great panel at Left Coast this last March in Portland, I also had a lot of fun with Martha Lawrence when Left Coast was in Tucson. And let us not forget sitting up there with Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard in Denver. That was so amazing I kept checking my watch, which Walter teased me about.

JJ: I’ve heard that your books have been optioned for a possible TV show. What’s the news on that front?

BS: I’m still waiting to hear. Two men are writing the pilot. They haven’t asked me for any input. Last I heard they were shopping it to USA. Two years ago, before it was optioned by StudioUSA, my agent tried to get HBO interested, but they passed because it was too dark. Can you imagine? I’d like to put that on the book jacket.

JJ: Any thoughts on writing something outside the series at some point?

BS: I feel like I should, but I’m very content to stay with Munch for now. I love sci-fi and the possibilities of creating universes where anything can happen. I don’t really have a solid enough science background to write the things I like, but maybe some day I’ll do something along those lines.

JJ: What’s the one thing always in your refrigerator?

BS: Milk, ice water, Snapple, and Non-alcoholic beer. Good question. The freezer always has chocolate