Susan M. Boyer / LOWCOUNTRY BONFIRE Interview

A North Carolina native and lifelong Southerner, Susan M. Boyer has got that hospitality thing down—and it’s won her a legion of readers who treat each book as a coming home of sorts. Boyer’s charmingly cozy Liz Talbot mysteries are steeped in the deep-rooted traditions of her heritage, and have earned her USA Today bestseller status by virtue of their popularity. The first, LOWCOUNTRY BONFIRE, won the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense and was also nominated for the Macavity; her third, LOWCOUNTRY BONYARD, was a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Okra Pick, a Daphne du Maurier Award finalist, and short-listed for the Pat Conroy Beach Music Mystery Prize. Last year’s LOWCOUNTRY BOOK CLUB was a SIBA Summer 2016 Okra Pick.

On June 27th, Boyer—a proud member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, The Private Eye Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers—will revisit Liz Talbot and co-investigator Nate Andrews as newlyweds in the series’ sixth book, LOWCOUNTRY BONFIRE (Henery Press). Hired by a Tammy Sue Lyerly to look into her husband’s skullduggery, the couple expect it to be a relatively straightforward case of domestic discord. But when said husband turns up dead the day after they deliver a set of incriminating photos to their client, it becomes clear that Tammy Sue is the prime suspect—and that it’s now Liz and Nate’s burden to prove her innocence.
Recently, Susan laid out the virtual welcome mat, generously sharing insights and reflections on her craft and culture …

John B. Valeri: LOWCOUNTRY BONFIRE is the sixth book in your series. How do you endeavor to keep things fresh, both for yourself and for your readers – and is this progression influenced by genre conventions?

Susan M. Boyer: When I start thinking about a book, I start with the plot. I know, I know—Liz Talbot is the character who drives the stories. But in every case, behind the scenes, it starts with who did what to who and why. I write it for myself from the perpetrator’s perspective. Then I go back and figure out how Liz is going to solve this case, and how it will impact her. The story that ends up on the page, of course, begins and ends with Liz and her client. But before I get to the page, it’s the culprit’s story. For me, and ultimately I hope also for the reader, this keeps things fresh. I suppose this helps me avoid straying too far from genre conventions, but I honestly don’t think of it in those terms.

JBV: In what ways does this entry work as a standalone while also advancing the overall series story arc – and how do you balance engaging longtime readers with providing the necessary background for newcomers?

SMB: Because of the way I approach the story itself—from the culprit and victim’s, my hope is that every new Liz Talbot Mystery will work as a standalone. Each mystery is complete in one volume. The personal lives of Liz Talbot, Nate Andrews, and their family and friends in Stella Maris and the greater Charleston area, play out over the course of the series, but those stories are sub-plots that lend texture and color. I don’t really have an overall series story arc per se. As a reader, once I bond with a character, I don’t want her to change too much. As a writer, I guess I have the same perspective. I think because I’m not planning big changes for Liz, especially after LOWCOUNTRY BONEYARD (the third book), this helps me keep the amount of backstory I have to weave in so that readers won’t be lost to a minimum.

JBV: Your protagonist, Liz Talbot, has a co-investigator in Nate Andrews. How does that dynamic lend itself to heightened suspense – and in what ways do their interactions allow for organic character development?

SMB: I think especially because Liz and Nate are newly married—and very much in love—there’s an added element of tension. Liz may be somewhat cavalier about her own safety at times, but, although she trusts him to make good decisions, she worries about Nate. The reverse of that is also true—he worries about her. I have to balance their concern for each other in dangerous situations with their professional respect for each other, much the same way real-life couples who work together have to balance their natural desire to be protective of their significant other with professional concerns. Having them work together often facilitates character development because they can observe things about each other and it’s more natural and often more active and interesting than having one character sound too much time in self-reflection.

JBV: These books take place against the backdrop of a small town. Why does this setting appeal to you – and how does it serve the types of stories you like to tell?

SMB: I adore small towns! I grew up in one, and my parents live there to this day. I think the extended “family” and sense of connectedness that comes with living in a small town is truly a gift. On the one hand, I wanted to create this sense of community on the page, with characters readers would want to revisit time and again. On the other hand, I wanted a canvas on which to explore the various ways things can go sideways in this group dynamic. But of course my small town had to be very close to a city—Charleston—because I knew that a small town would not realistically provide a business-sustaining caseload for a private investigator. In other words, I could only drop so many bodies in that small town before it became unbelievable.

JBV: You are Southern through and through. How does your heritage inform your books – and, in your opinion, why is it important to represent culture through the arts?

SMB: That question made me smile! In this sense, I truly write what I know. I can only write from a Southerner’s perspective because that’s the lens through which I see the world. That isn’t to suggest that every woman born in the Carolinas holds the same views that I do—I could talk all day about how similarly and yet how differently my sister and I see things. But there’s a rock of common experience at the core of our worldview. We speak the same language, and understand the context and the subtext of what is said and what is left unsaid. My hope is that if we can share our experience through the arts, we can understand one another better.

JBV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

SMB: Well, I’m working on that right now. Liz Talbot’s next adventure will hit shelves in May of 2018, with another installment coming in September. While LOWCOUNTRY BONFIRE takes place mostly in Stella Maris, with just a few scenes in Charleston, 2018 will see Liz and Nate working cases that take them back to downtown Charleston. I haven’t settled on titles yet, but I’m tossing around words that start with “Bo” to see what’s a good fit.