Heather is a story teller by nature and loves the written word. In her career, she’s written short stories, novels, comedy acts, plays, television treatments, ad copy, commercials, and even ghost-wrote a book.
One of her first jobs as a writer was given to her by her then agent. It was that of writing a love story for a book published by Bantam called Moments of Love. She had a deadline of one week and then promptly came down with the flu. She wrote “The Sands of Time” with a temperature of 102 and delivered some pretty hot stuff because of it. Later on, she wrote short comedy skits for nightclub acts and ad copy for such places as No Soap Radio, where her love for comedy blossomed. Many of her short stories have been seen in various publications, as well as 2 one-act plays produced in Manhattan, one at the well-known, Playwrights Horizons.
Her novel, Murder is a Family Business, the first in the Alvarez Murder Mystery series, has been epublished by MuseItUp Publishing in January, 2011. The second in the series, A Wedding To Die For, debuts April 22, 2011. She is currently writing the 3rd of the series, and says they are a joy to write. Heather gets to be all the characters, including the cat!
Q: Thank you for this interview, Heather. Can you tell us what your latest book, Murder is a Family Business, is all about?
A family of detectives, baby. Set in the present, Murder is a Family Business is the first in a series of humorous mysteries revolving around Lee Alvarez, a combination of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Janet Evanovitch’ Stephanie Plum.
Just because a man cheats on his wife and makes Danny DeVito look tall, dark and handsome, is that any reason to kill him? The reluctant and quirky PI, Lee Alvarez, doesn’t think so. However, the 34-year old ½ Latina, ½ WASP and 100% detective has her work cut out for her when the man is murdered on her watch. Of all the nerve.
The rest of Alvarez Family are: Lee’s Never-Had-A-Bad-Hair-Day aristocratic mother, Lila; computer genius brother, Richard; beloved uncle “Tio;” and her energetic orange and white cat, Tugger. When this group is not solving murders, they run Discretionary Inquiries, a successful Silicon Valley agency that normally deals with the theft of computer software. Seemingly light and frothy on the surface, the novel nevertheless explores familial love, the good, the bad and the annoying. And there’s a corpse or two thrown in, for good measure.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
I knew I wanted to write a mystery series with a human and likable protagonist, Lee Alvarez, who had a few things going for her. Not perfect, but striving. I didn’t want yet another protagonist who learned nothing, who was ostracized from those she loved, who owned one crummy black skirt and life was one, long penance. Lee Alvarez loves life. She’s funny and though she makes mistakes, she learns from them. Like most of us, she grows as she goes along. After all, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Lee’s lucky to have strong familial support to see her through it all, even though they are often a pain in her jazzercised derriere.
It was also important for my series to include two important elements: the recently immigrated, which is one of America’s best natural resources, and the family unit. Hence, the Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, a family of detectives, was born. The first book — which took me so long to write, I suspect planets have formed and decayed in the interim – I knew had to be called Murder is a Family Business to set the tone for the series. However, the Alvarez family is a little off-center. They aren’t the ‘classic’ family i.e., father, mother, sister, brother, and large dog, all driving around in a shiny SUV eating Snickerdoos. Of course, these days a family like that is harder to find than a dinosaur with feathers. Oh, wait a minute. Archaeologists are digging those up all the time from unsuspecting peoples’ backyards. That means the Ozzie and Harriet family does still exist somewhere. Helloooooo out there!
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Well, if my mother-in-law is standing around, then they come totally from my imagination. I’m not sure she’d like to know that some of Lila Hamilton Alvarez’ traits are based upon hers. Ditto for my ex-boss. In truth, no one is safe from landing in a writer’s stories, whether the writer admits to it or not. You steal a trait from this one, take a habit from that one and voila, you’ve created a fabulous character that you love like a child.
I know where I’m going to end up. How I get there is half the fun.
Q: Your book is set in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Princeton-by-the-Sea, i.e. the Bay Area. Can you tell us why you chose this area in particular?
Putting aside I know California’s Bay Area fairly well, it’s an international tourist destination because it’s fascinating and downright gorgeous. It just begs for writers to pen rich, descriptive phrases about it and I, for one, obeyed. Also, I like to read about this area, so I figured others would, too. And it gave me an opportunity to do even more research. I had a ball!
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Definitely. It does for any writer.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
This is the scene in a restaurant where Lee and her mother, Lila, butt heads about murder, the widow of the murdered, and whether or not to order wine with lunch. Lee opts for iced tea.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
One of the best? That’s debatable. However, here you go with one of the excerpts I think shows where Lee’s thinking is:
“Oh, stop being so dramatic, Liana. It’s just a little water,” the woman who gave birth to me chided. So much for mother love. “It’s too bad you’ve lost him so late in the proceedings, though. We were doing so well,” she added.
I loved the way she included herself in all of this. “Well, don’t tell me you want me to go into the warehouse and look for him,” I said, with an edge to my voice. An involuntary shiver ran through me, as I felt a movement of the wet papers at my feet. This wind even comes through Plexiglas, I thought.
“Absolutely not! We agreed to follow him from a safe distance, not to make contact. If we lost him, we lost him. Go on home.”
“Oh.” I felt the air go out of my balloon of martyrdom. “Sorry about this,” I added. This may have been my third tedious day following a man who made Danny DeVito look tall, dark and handsome, but I was a professional and trained to do the job. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what that job was. His wife thought he was cheating on her. Okay, that’s understandable given who she was, but once she caught him in flagrante delecto, what then? California has a no-fault divorce law with a fifty-fifty property split, pants up or pants down.
As far as I could see, this wasn’t quite the same scenario as demanding the return of stolen property, intellectual or otherwise. I mean, what was he going to “return” here? If Wyler dropped his drawers elsewhere, literally, could he just return his private parts, figuratively, to the little wifey with a vow to never do it again?
When I thought about it that way, I guess you could make a case for it. However, if Lila considered a philandering husband in the same category as computer espionage, and if D.I. was heading in that direction, I was going to get out of the business and become a nun.
“It can’t be helped,” Lila replied, interrupting my mental wanderings.
“What can’t be helped?” I said, still lost in my own thoughts.
“Pay attention, Liana. I’m telling you to go home. Make sure you log all the information you’ve got on the computer when you get to the office in the morning.” She added, “We’ll go over it tomorrow with Richard. By the way, have you been able to come up with the owner of the warehouse?”
“You mean in my spare time?” I retorted. “No, I’ve done some digging, but I can’t find a company name yet. I think we’re going to have to bring in the Big Guns.”
“Hmmm, strange,” Lila pondered. “By ‘big guns,’ as you‘ve put it, I assume you mean Richard.” Mom has an irritating way of underlining certain words of a sentence with her voice. I don’t mean to complain, but it can be almost as exasperating as her modulations. And then there’s her overall aversion to the use of slang words, which is too bad, because I use them all the time. Dad’s side of the family.
Aside from Dashiell Hammett, my formative years were influenced by any 1940s movie on television I watched. That was whenever I wasn’t being thrown outside to play. When I was ten years old, much to my mother’s dismay, I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Sugarpuss O’Shea in the movie Ball of Fire. I imitated “jive talk” every waking moment until I got hustled off to a craft summer camp. The camp may have curtailed my jiving, but to this day, Miss Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses, along with Selma Hayek, who I just loved in Frida.
Mom continued her train of thought about the warehouse, oblivious to my inner musings.
“At first, I didn’t think it was important enough to tie up Richard’s time, but now I’m curious as to why something as simple as finding out the ownership of a building should be so difficult. Maybe we’ll ask his department to see what they can discover tomorrow. We’ll talk later. Go home.”
With that, she hung up without even so much as telling me to drink some hot tea when I got there or to be careful driving in this weather. It was at times like these I wondered if Mom and Medea had maternal similarities I didn’t care to think about.
I threw the phone in my bag and leaned against the Plexiglas, reluctant to go out again into the storm. All of a sudden, I felt movement again at my feet and looked down. Under the papers was a small lump, a moving one! I drew my breath in, as I opened the door to the phone booth. Water rat! There was a rat in this phone booth with me! I stepped out in the rain backward, keeping my eyes on the mass of papers. Then I thought I heard a plaintive cry. I leaned my head back into the booth ignoring the rain beating down on my back like small pebbles.
“Kitty?” I said. “Kitty, kitty, kitty?”
A meow sounded again. I pulled the wet papers from on top of the lump to reveal a small, orange and white kitten, drenched to the skin. It turned amber eyes up to me and let out a silent meow as it cowered in the corner.
“Oh, my God! Look at you.” Reaching out a hand, I picked up the trembling creature. “What a little thing. And so wet. Come here.” Like an idiot, I looked around for the owner until I caught myself. I tried to unzip my jacket to slip the kitten inside but the teeth still wouldn’t release one of my best cashmere sweaters. The jacket’s pockets were huge, so I wound up sort of stuffing the kitten inside, as gently as possible, of course. It turned itself around and stuck its head out with a puzzled stare.
“Well, I can’t just leave you, and it’s pouring out there. So you stay inside until we get to my car.” With that pronouncement, I pushed its small head back inside the dry pocket and left my hand inside for protection and company. The kitten moved around a little and then settled down, leaning against my open palm.
Half walking, half jogging to my car in the torrential downpour, I glanced back in the direction of the warehouse and began to play the “on the other hand” game with myself.
On one hand, Wyler has to be in the warehouse. But it looks dark and deserted. Did he somehow get by me? No, no, he can’t have!
On the other hand, when I was lying flat on my back swallowing half the Bay, maybe he did. Stranger things have happened.
Oh, come on, I other-handed myself again. I had the only entrance and exit under constant surveillance for the last three agonizing hours, and I was only indisposed for less than a minute. How likely is it he got away? He must be there. On the other hand, and now I was up to four hands, why aren’t the lights on if he is?
This might not look so good on my resume. Uh-oh! I should check for his car. If I let him get by me, Lila will never…wait a minute!
I began to see a silver lining in all those damp clouds.
If Portor did get by me, Lila will never let me live it down. Following this line of logic, she would probably never, ever ask me to do something like this again.
I continued this new train of thought sloshing through puddles up to my ankles and almost broke out in a dance like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
The movements of the kitten in my jacket distracted me, and I wondered what I was going to do with it when I got back to the car.
Well, I reminded myself, I couldn’t just leave it back there to drown.
That settled, I removed the keys from my bag, pressed the beeper to unlock the doors and slipped into its dry, comparative warmth.
This classic ‘57 Chevy convertible was my pride and joy, the last extravagant gift from my father shortly before his death. It contained a rebuilt engine, in addition to all the latest gewgaws offered in newer automobiles. Dad had outbid everyone at a vintage car auction for this stellar rarity still wearing the original white and turquoise paint job. He gave it to me for my thirty-first birthday, a reward for surviving a rotten marriage and a bitter divorce. I never knew what the price tag was, but the insurance premiums alone are enough to keep me working until I’m around ninety-seven.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Heather Haven. We wish you much success!
From your mouth to God’s ears. And thank you for your time. This has been fun!