Author Interviews/Features


Meet Roberta Isleib

Roberta Isleib   
New Jersey born clinical psychologist and golfer Roberta Isleib says that she began writing golf mysteries to justify the time she spent on the links. Her first series, featuring a neurotic professional golfer and a sports psychologist, was nominated for both Agatha and Anthony awards. Her new series, starring a Connecticut psychologist and advice columnist, debuted in 2007 with Deadly Advice. Roberta is the president of Sisters in Crime and the past president of the New England chapter. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

Visit Roberta's website.

Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/13/2008

Preaching to the Corpse is the second book in your series (following Deadly Advice). It features Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a psychologist and advice columnist. You're a clinical psychologist, Roberta—did the idea for this character come out of your own on-the-job experience, or from somewhere else?

Like most writers, I constantly borrow characters and dialogue from real life and tweak them for my books. Although my psychologist character is different from me in many ways, I do use my experience as a therapist in New Haven, CT in shaping her. I don't use the specifics of any of the patients I saw—that wouldn't be fair play. Deadly Advice opens with a scene based on something that happened to me in graduate school. I was newly separated from my husband and living in a tiny, anonymous apartment. I read in the paper one morning that my neighbor had shot herself and had been dead for three days before anyone found her. As you can imagine, this had a profound impact!

The idea for Preaching to the Corpse must have germinated when I was sitting in a church meeting. Either I was bored to death or annoyed to death; probably grumbling to myself that someone was going to die if they didn't stop yakking. I started daydreaming, as writers do: What if one of the members of a committee like this one was murdered? Wouldn't it be especially frightening to have the crime committed by someone you think you know, in a place where most people expect nothing but good thoughts and deeds?

We noticed that the first two books in your new series came out quickly: Deadly Advice in March, 2007, and Preaching to the Corpse in December, 2007. What's the writing history behind that one-two punch? When do you expect the third book to be published, Roberta?

My agent suggested that schedule, thinking it would jumpstart the new series, and the folks at Berkley Prime Crime agreed. It was a little fast for my muse, but an interesting experiment! Asking for Murder will be published in September.

Muses have their own timetables, don't they? But to meet those close-together deadlines, you must be a fairly disciplined writer. Do you keep regular hours, or fit in the writing when you can? What's your favorite writing space? Are you still a practicing psychologist? If so, how do you juggle your time?

As I begin a book, I look ahead to the due date and figure out how many pages I will need to write each week in order to hand it in on time. I build in time for trips and family and time for my writers' group to read and critique, and then time for me to rewrite. Then I determine a page goal for each week. I write until I've hit the goal, sometimes even getting a little ahead. For practical purposes, I do write most days. And mostly in the morning, saving the promotion and other "easier" work for when I'm less alert!

My favorite writing space is sitting in bed—my husband calls this my "command post." I try not to spend too much time there because it's bad for my back and bad for sleep!

I'm not practicing psychology right now—way too busy. I have kept my license up to date, just in case....

We love the idea of that command post, Roberta! But here's another question about working habits. Some writers know where they're going when they start a book, others discover the path as they go along. How would you describe your writing process? Has it changed over the years you've been writing?

The first draft is always the hardest for me. I'm finding that forcing myself to know the characters and story better before I start (the dreaded outline) helps! For the third book in the Rebecca Butterman series (Asking for Murder), I got together with two of my writing buddies to brainstorm our works in progress. As a result, I had a much more complete synopsis spelled out than I've had for any of the other books. And the book was easier to write. Don't get me wrong, I still spent plenty of hours in the middle moaning about where I was headed...but fewer.

The Butterman series is your second. The first featured a golfer with an attitude and some terrific titles. (Our favorites: Putt to Death and A Buried Lie.) In what ways are the two series different? In what ways are they similar?

Both are in the first person and feature spunky female amateur sleuths. My golfer character, Cassie Burdette, was younger and more reckless than Rebecca Butterman. I did insist that she get into therapy and that improved both her golf game and her taste in men. But she despised the process and made fun of it as she went.

Rebecca, on the other hand, is an insider in the psychology world. She's closing in on forty, divorced, with a sad backstory. She has a good sense of humor but she's not a smart a**. As with all of us, Rebecca has been shaped by her family and life history. But as a psychologist, she understands the importance of knowing herself thoroughly so she doesn't mix up her own issues with those of her patients. Hence, psychotherapy! But she's still vulnerable to feeling lonely and she yearns for a big lug to take care of her, though she's quite capable of managing her life. But these feelings drive her to get involved with situations she'd be better off leaving alone. (Like solving murders of course!)

I love that I can highlight my background in psychology and write about folks in that field who are competent and caring, rather than the idiotic and downright hurtful professionals you often see in movies and on TV. I'm very proud of the time I spent working as a clinical psychologist, and yet happy to be writing now.

We're happy that you're writing, too! But writing isn't the only thing authors have to do. For better or worse, they're expected to promote their own books. How do you approach this challenge? Do you enjoy this part of the business?

I really do enjoy the promotion and networking, though I have to be careful—it's a time sink! The biggest arrow in my quiver is my website. I've had a lot of fun designing the site and adding material over the last few years. Besides information about my books and me, I've included articles and links about writing and getting published and many links on psychology and advice. I also have a virtual press kit with downloadable author photos, book covers, and press releases, and I post sample chapters and reviews.

I participate in a number of mystery-related listserv groups that I use to spread the word when I have a new book out. I search out as many potential review sites as possible and offer them a copy of each book. And I've started the requisite blog. :) I also belong to a group blog of New England writers called Jungle Red Writers.

I've done quite a few bookstore and library talks and attended many mystery conventions. The hard part about all this is that you never quite know what works and so you need to guess about how to spend both time and money. Writing good books has to be a priority—everyone's heard the advertising slogan: "Nothing kills a bad product like good publicity."

In addition to writing books and introducting them to readers, you're currently president of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports women mystery authors. It's a large organization with an active board and a full calendar of activities—must be a huge job for you! What do you find most satisfying about it? What do you hope to achieve during your presidency?

Sisters in Crime was founded in 1986 by a small group of writers including Sara Paretsky and Nancy Pickard, and has grown to an international organization with over 3400 members. SinC began by monitoring review space in newspapers and pointing out potential biases to reviewers. The group found that a book written by a man was seven times more likely to be reviewed than a book by a woman, important because libraries and fans make choices depending on reviews.

Over the past twenty years, SinC has continued to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries.

The publishing world is changing and our current goal is to figure out how to continue to support women crime writers even as publishing gets more challenging. We will be thinking of ways to strengthen our chapters, help our published authors get the most out of their books, and educate our unpublished writers. It's an amazing organization! I truly knew no one in the publishing business or the mystery field when I started to write. The New England chapter has come to be an enormous source of support and energy for me and I'm honored to be part of the national leadership.

You're getting a good look at the mystery world from both sides, both as a writer and as president of Sisters in Crime. Are you seeing many changes in publishing opportunities for women mystery authors? What suggestions do you have for new writers just entering the field?

The competition in the publishing business is brutal. I know that a lot is changing with online publishing and self-publishing these days, but it's one thing to have a book made and quite another to get it reviewed, sold, and read.

That said, you can't afford to send anything out that's not your best. Find a critique group, hire an editor, take get the idea. The persistent writers who are willing to hone their skills and keep trying even in a discouraging market are likely to see their books succeed.

So what's next for you, Roberta?

I'm just finishing the copyedits on the third book in the Rebecca Butterman advice column series, Asking for Murder. Rebecca's good friend, a social worker who does sandplay therapy, is found beaten and left for dead. Rebecca searches for clues in her patients' sand trays to track a would-be killer. The book will be out next September (2008). And I'm thinking about what to write next...

We'll be eager to read Rebecca's third case—and whatever comes after that. Thanks for chatting with us, Roberta! It's been fun getting to know you a little better.

Thanks so very much for this opportunity. And for giving writers the chance to get their books known through Story Circle Book Reviews!