Not sure why, but it's become difficult to find great young-adult mysteries. Here's hoping that will change in the future, but right now "The Silence of Murder" fills the gap in a big way.
Apparently the people bestowing America's highest award in mysteries agree: Dandi Daley Mackall's novel won this year's Edgar Award in the young-adult category.
"The Silence of Murder" centers on the tough-but-tender Hope Long and her brother Jeremy who has been accused of killing the town's beloved baseball coach. Hope is the only person who believes Jeremy is innocent. But since Jeremy hasn't spoken a word in 9 years, he's unable to defend himself. Hope sets out to find out what happened to the baseball coach, and why.
I adored this novel. The plucky protagonist wasn't annoyingly snarky. The challenging mystery played fair with the reader. And not once was I pulling back from the page by the depressingly prevalent shock-factor that ruins so many otherwise good YA books.
Dandi Mackall dropped by Deeper Mysteries for a chat about book, kids, reading and writing. And on writing, she's an esteemed veteran. Over the course of 20-plus years, she's produced dozens of articles for mainstream magazines and around 400 books (yes, really) for children and adults, with sales of over 4 million. A frequent guest on radio and television talk shows, Dandi lives in rural Ohio with her husband, three children, horses, dogs, & cats.
I'm curious, did the idea for "The Silence of Murder" come to you over time, or in one thunderbolt-aha! moment?
And the answer is…YES! I have a habit of playing with words the day after I turn in a big manuscript. I let myself write for fun, being free because I’ll never try to turn it into a novel. So, about 10 years ago, I wrote the entire first chapter of what would eventually become THE SILENCE OF MURDER. I placed it in a file on my computer: “Play.” Every year or so, I’d pull it up and mess with it a bit. But I couldn’t see where it was going, so back into the file it went. Then about 2 years ago, I pulled it up and decided I would write the next chapter, no matter what. The first words I typed were: “Your honor, I object!” And I realized that the whole first chapter was an account by Hope, who occupied the witness box in a courtroom, where her brother was on trial for murder. After that, the story unfolded for me.
Have you written mysteries before? And what kind of research was necessary for "The Silence of Murder"?
I love mysteries. I’ve always read mysteries right before going to bed. I write a lot of teen and pre-teen books, and I do sneak in a mystery whenever I can. Each series I write has at least one mystery: Midnight Mystery in Winnie the Horse Gentler series; Dark Horse inStarlight Animal Rescue. Degrees of Guilt, Degrees of Betrayal. But SILENCE is my first honest-to-goodness murder mystery. I interviewed (read, “hounded”) a local district attorney, a judge, a prosecutor. I observed trials. And because I wanted to recreate courtroom scenes, I read transcripts of murder trials. I had to research Ohio law since the story takes place in Ohio. I don’t think I’ve ever done so much research for a book—but I loved it…most of the time.
I tend to vacillate about the term "special needs," partly because as a Christian, I think every one of us is considered "special needs" one way or another. But, for the sake of clarity, we can say one of your main characters in this book is truly "special needs," in the physiological sense. Did you consciously choose to write about that subject, or did that character just appear in the process of writing the story? By the way, he's a great character.
Thanks—and I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a problem with the term “special needs,” and we do have a daughter who fits into the category. I didn’t set out to write about a special needs character; I never do. And yet, they keep popping up in my fiction. The first time I realized this, I was doing a school visit, giving an author’s assembly, followed by Q and A. One fifth-grade student asked me why I wrote about special needs characters. I thought she had me mixed up with someone else, but I didn’t want her to feel silly. “Well,” I answered, “I really don’t write about special needs characters, but that’s a great idea. I’ll have to think about it.” She didn’t say a word. But after the workshop, she came up and handed me a sheet of paper with 14 of my books written on it…and the special needs characters that appeared in each book—a little sister, Special Olympics, a friend, a classmate, etc. Our daughter Katy is on my mind a lot. I guess we write what’s on our hearts, even if we don’t intend to.
You're a believer, but your book isn't explicitly Christian, which is one of the book's terrific strengths. The story contains many unstated themes (which, of course, are the best kind of themes) concerning sacrificial love. Can you talk a bit about how your worldview informs your writing -- or doesn't?
I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to write what I want, more or less. I do have books that are more openly Christian. But I love it when those unstated themes are integral to the whole. I guess it’s like writing about special needs characters. If Katy is on my mind, I should expect parts of her to appear in my writing. And if Christ is on my mind, in my heart, I should expect to see evidence pop up in natural ways—a “church lady,” who surprises us by not being judgmental, a moment when characters simply know that God is in the courtroom, a character who makes the right and wise choice to wait until marriage to have sex because she wants it to be fantastic.
What was it like to win the Edgar Award? (Editorial aside: ???!!!! )
I LOVE this question! All the clichés work—unbelievable, dreamlike, surreal. When I found out SILENCE was a finalist, I thought it was mistake. I mean, Harlan Coben was a finalist! But my hubby and I got to go to NYC for the big awards banquet, and I knew I’d get to meet all the authors I’ve read for years. I remember sitting at the Random House table, with my Knopf editor, my agent, and everyone at Random who’d worked on the book. And I thought, All these people gussied up and are here…for me. I felt God’s love and grace at that moment as strong as I’ve ever felt it. They actually open an envelope and read the name of the winner. When they read my name, Joe and I just stared at each other…until my agent shoved me to go and get my award. I hadn’t prepared a speech because I never thought I’d win. I’m not sure what I said, but Sandra Brown, the MC, later told me my first two words were “Holy Cow.” Now, whenever I think of that night, I picture God grinning at me because he knew I never thought I’d win, and he knew I was the happiest person there, win or lose. What are you working on next -- another mystery? Will the vivid characters from "The Silence of Murder" return again?
I think I’m the ADD or writers. I’m working on another mystery, and mostly I’m loving writing it. But the next novel to come out is a coming-of-age novel set in rural Missouri in the sixties. I’m also working on a WWII novel, using my parents’ letters, which they wrote for nearly 2 years during the war (3 times a day for 2 years). My dad was an army Dr., stationed in France and Germany, and Mom was an army nurse in England and France. They met in boot camp, married 8 weeks later, had about a week as husband and wife, and then Mom got shipped out, followed by Dad—but never to the same place. I’m also working on several rhyming children’s books and a Bible story devotional for toddlers and….
What's a typical writing day look like for you, Dandi?
I travel, speaking at conferences and doing school visits. But when I’m home, I get up early, usually by 5 am (I know, I know…my writing friends hate that.). I have a quiet time, then do my fresh writing and first drafts in the morning. In the afternoon, I rewrite and research. Most days, I walk around our lake (5 miles) with my mini-tape recorder and talk in scenes and dialog and ideas. My neighbors often refer to me as “that lady who walks and talks to herself.” They don’t see the recorder.)
Writing for young adults: How is it different from writing for adults? What are the challenges/pitfalls/joys?
I love writing for young adults, and in many ways there are few differences in writing for YA or for adults. The biggest difference is perception and what’s important. For example, when I first wrote MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS (Dutton/Penguin), the climax took place on the main character’s wedding day. But my editor asked me to change it to a prom for YA audiences. I thought she was wrong, so I visited high schools and asked young women which would interest them more—prom or wedding. Wedding won.
Here's your Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card: Talk about whatever you want to say or wherever you want to go on any topic:
I just want to say thanks—thanks for letting me ramble, Sibella.