June 7, 2007

An interview with Cheryl Hagedorn, author of Park Ridge: A Senior Center Murder

I recently received the most wonderful email: “Bedraggled sixty-year old local (Des Plaines) author looking for an interview on your blog the first week in June as part of a I-put-it-together-all-by-myself virtual book tour. Any chance? We can even keep it to 5 questions -- such as, ‘What are you doing here?’ Cheryl Hagedorn, Author, Park Ridge: A Senior Center Murder, http://murder.booklocker.com” What followed was a delightful email exchange – and the start of a new ChicagoWriter feature: Around Town interviews. Thank you, Cheryl, for getting us started!

Michael Burke: Tell us about your new book, Park Ridge: A Senior Center Murder.
Cheryl Hagedorn: Four elderly pinochle players at the neighborhood drop-in center decide to whack the overzealous activity boosters. It's based on real-life observations. Some folks do genealogy, trips, book discussions, folk dancing or square dancing at the senior centers. Some folks play cards and do some of the other, but mostly they just play cards. There's a real dichotomy here. Not between the haves and the have-nots, but between the doers and the don'ts. As the silver tsunami crests, I think you're going to find the divide widens between relatively active seniors and those described as passive. What I think that most people who are concerned that seniors need to "get off their whats-its and do something," are missing is that to play cards at the center involves getting out of the house and getting to the facility. That's not something to be sneezed at when you're a geezer. Second, playing pinochle or bridge exercises the brain to the point where I get exhausted thinking about it. Lastly, why on earth can't these people -- at their age -- do what they want to do without being demeaned for it? Let's get real. In Park Ridge the constant in-your-face verbal assaults (that's the way the killers see it) are finally too much. One of the guys, Jack -- there's two men and two women who play together -- kills a booster in a fit. The other three card players agree to cover it up. Then they indulge in fantasizing the murders of their own particular nemesis. Before you know it, fantasy becomes fact. Unfortunately, the reviews are mixed - not bad, but mixed! "Human nature drives her plot, and one can imagine the seething resentments, even in a place that should be completely non-threatening. But there's the rub. Take a seemingly neutral environment and add passion and cruelty, and one has an excellent plot" (Midwest Book Review). On the other hand, "I really enjoyed your book. The characters were funny. It wasn't a slap you in the face humor. Perhaps because I have a nursing home ministry that I found the humor. The people at the card table reminded me of my husband's grandmother. She said exactly what she was thinking. She considered it wisdom. [I love the idea of] the people sitting there playing cards and nonchalantly talking about murder and in their minds plotting one. I guess I'm weird but I found it ironic and funny" (Reader Views). What else can I say?

MB: What's the most surprising reaction you've received to your book?
CH: Can I give you one in several categories? Most surprising reaction under the Pleasant Category: Shelley Glodowski at Midwest Book Reviews thought Park Ridge "could easily convert to an enticing television movie.” Most surprising reaction under Astounding: Debra Gaynor at Reader Views wrote on Amazon, "This book is uproarious!" She went on to call it "delightful" and "extremely funny." Most surprising reaction under People Who Know Me (I quote from a conversation with a friend of 40 years): "You said that the book deals with moral issues, particularly about the way people treat other people, and I clearly see what you mean. I was reading more for entertainment than for deep insights into the ethical behavior of people. Light reading is the way I unwind at the end of the day. I work hard, am always with people, and don't want to have to dig for deep meanings when I read a mystery. I want to be entertained.”

MB: Besides Park Ridge: A Senior Center Murder, what two or three good books have you read recently that you'd recommend?
CH: Ancestors Brocades by Millicent Todd Bingham gives an incredible account of her mother's involvement in what Elizabeth Horan has called "The [Emily] Dickinson Copyright Wars." Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd by Polly Longsworth. Believe me when I tell you how tempted I am to write a play based on this book! The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin disturbed me and satisfied me as well. Laskin's explanations of the meteorology behind the freak blizzard were not overwhelming and his use of diaries, letters and newspaper accounts to forge a narrative was extraordinary. On the lighter side, The Poet And The Murderer by Simon Worrall is a fascinating true-crime reconstruction of the discovery of a "new" Emily Dickinson poem.

MB: You're in the midst of creating your own virtual book tour. How's it going?
Actually this is one of my last stops. But let me tell you what I've learned. One, not everybody can write interview questions. When an author is lining up a virtual tour and scouting for an interviewer, he/she really needs to think about that. I've spent hours filling in answers to questions that I thought were frivolous and sometimes redundant. On my blog where I often do interviews, even if I haven't read the book, I read every scrap of info I can get my hands on to craft decent questions. Two, I've met the most fantastic people. Several times I almost wished that they weren't interviewing me because I wanted to interview them! Three, good intentions aren't enough to get you gigs. My ability to find a clever angle or an unusual approach seemed to be the deciding factor in several cases. It's a lot like querying agents and publishers :-)

MB: Why do you write?
Mainly for pleasure. I think I also write to make sense of what I see and what I know.

MB: Why do you think human beings need to tell and hear stories?
To make sense of what happens to them, to people that they care about, to make sense of life itself, I guess. It's a way to explore violent impulses without anyone getting hurt. To imagine a different way of living your life or discovering possible explanations for seemingly inexplicable behavior.

MB: How has your writing changed since you first began writing seriously?
I'm more focused on the heart of the story. Especially after grad school, I thought that a narrative "had to have ..." whatever. I trust myself more now. I once read a piece to a class for critiquing. In the story a female character sat down on a tree root near the bank of a river, had an alarming experience, and escaped. The instructor hammered on the fact that the audience knew nothing about the character. What did she look like? How was she dressed? How old was she? Then we moved on to setting. How wide was the river? Where was the river? Shall I tell you what I did not dare to tell her? The female in question had no age - not in the story, nor in my mind. She was me as a very young child, as a teenager, as the sixty-year-old woman that I am now. All at the same time. Because that is who in fact we are -- all those ages we have ever been -- simultaneously. I could have said that her body was that of a twelve-year-old, but how to say that she saw with the eyes of the sixty-year-old and responded like a teen?

MB: What's the best and worst advice you've received as a writer?
CH: Professor Lucy Rinehart told me to trust my own voice, bless her. S.L. Wisenberg pretty much forced me to personalize an essay that eventually blew my mind when I finished. I wrote an author whose work I respected asking him to write a blurb that I could use in promoting my book. He offered to do so if I would send him a chapter. I did. He essentially rewrote it according to his style and his lights. I think he may have been miffed when I wrote back, thanked him for his comments, and then told him it was already in print.

MB: How can people order Park Ridge: A Senior Center Murder?
They can order it directly from BookLocker. While they're there, they can read about the hoohah over the murder by banana. They can also order it from any online bookseller or request that their local brick-and-mortar store order it for them.


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