A Conversation with Mystery Author David P. Wagner

November 9, 2014

We are delighted to welcome novelist David P. Wagner to Omnimystery News today.

David's second mystery in his Rick Montoya, Italian series is Death in the Dolomites (Poisoned Pen Press; September 2014 hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to catch up with him to talk a little more about his books.

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Omnimystery News: When you wrote Cold Tuscan Stone, did you know at the time it would be the first in a series?

David P. Wagner: Rick Montoya became a recurring character when I added the subtitle "A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery" to the first book's title. At that point he was locked in. He has already changed somewhat from book one to book two, and will continue to change in the third. Everyone changes, gets older, except perhaps Dennis the Menace. But since we would all love to stay in our thirties, I won't let Rick get much older than that.

OMN: Into which mystery subgenre would you place this series?

DPW: If on a scale of one to ten, a cozy is one and a dark, Scandinavian mystery is a ten, my books are at about five. Unlike characters is the ten category, Rick Montoya is a relatively normal guy, with supportive family and mostly nice friends. But he's also fascinated by the two cultures, American and Italian, that he has moved in during his life, and the conflicts that sometimes appear when those cultures clash. He also loves figuring out a mystery, so the books are procedurals, though the procedure stuff is usually handled by the cop characters.

OMN: Give us a summary of Death in the Dolomites in a tweet.

DPW: Rick wants skiing, but gets a murder. Is the victim's sister suspect? The mayor? The baker? So much intrigue for such a tiny Alpine town.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the books?

DPW: Both books in the series take the reader to towns in Italy I know well after living in that country for nine years. As I wrote in the author's notes at the end, I've tried to describe the places accurately. The characters, of course, are made up, though some of them may be a composite of various people I've met, but my lips are sealed as to which ones. The food Rick enjoys in both books are dishes I like, I'd never put in something I didn't want to eat myself. Not that such a thing happens often in Italy.

OMN: Describe your writing process.

DPW: With a mystery, you have to know how it's going to end to write what comes before it. At least that's the way it works for me. So I write a detailed synopsis first, then start writing scenes from there. Except for Rick, my protagonist, I usually decide on the personality of each character when that character first appears in a scene. So sometimes someone who starts out as a nice guy turns cranky when he gets to the page, or vice versa. Of course clues and red herrings pop up as the writing progresses, but with the final ending in mind.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

DPW: Since I include a great deal of local culture about the towns in the book, I do quite of a bit of fact checking either on line or using a whole library of books on Italy I have at home. The challenging part is avoiding getting immersed in some fascinating bit of history which takes time away from writing. I also use the internet mapping programs to "drive" down the streets of the towns so that I can describe them accurately, since my memory of them may be a bit fuzzy. And I throw in the occasional Italian word into my dialogue, so I've had to be sure each one is accurate and appropriate.

OMN: How true are you to the settings?

DPW: Rick Montoya goes to real places in Italy, and I try to describe them accurately. Setting is an important part of both books, since each area, or even town in Italy is very different from the next. (Volumes have been written about Italian regionalism.) Moving Rick to a different town also allows me to have him sample regional foods, as also mentioned above. I probably should not have been surprised at the strong positive reaction from readers about my descriptions of the food, but it has been fun to get them.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

DPW: Let me see … Italy? My plan is to continue to have Rick find himself in a new Italian town in each book, and they will be places a bit off the beaten tourist track so I can show readers something different from Rome, Florence and Venice, the usual tourist spots. Eventually, I suppose, he'll stay home in Rome and get directly involved in some crime with his uncle, the policeman, but for the moment there are too many wonderful places to take him.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

DPW: I play golf, but that probably won't get into any books. My traveling around New Mexico and the Southwest has occasionally meant that local stuff creeps into the books, especially since Rick Montoya has family here and went to the University of New Mexico.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

DPW: My editor told me, after reading an early draft of Cold Tuscan Stone, that I was writing as if the characters were there to support the plot, when it should be the other way around. So both advice and criticism. I've never forgotten that. When you think of books you've enjoyed, how ofter do you remember the plot? Sometimes, if it's extremely clever, but usually it is the characters which stick in your mind. So be sure the characters are well-developed and believable, would be my advice.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".

DPW: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also a mystery reader." The cliché is that you should write what you know and what you like, but this cliché is true. So if you want to write mysteries you must read a lot of them.

OMN: Tell us about the cover design.

DPW: Poisoned Pen Press uses a great cover artist named Nick Greenwood, who's done the covers of both my books. He captured the peaceful yet ominous atmosphere of the small towns perfectly. I hope that future Rick Montoya Italian Mysteries will continue to have his covers.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from your readers?

DPW: The best part of this author thing has been hearing from old friends as well as perfect strangers who have read the book and enjoyed it. The most frequent theme in the comments I've gotten is how people liked the descriptions of Italian culture and especially the food. What surprises me is that small detail that sticks in someone's memory about a book. One old friend, who worked with me in Italy, spotted how Rick doesn't like to drink grappa. Another person told me that reading it made him want to learn to make spaghetti alla gricia. It's very satisfying when someone who has actually spent some time in Italy says that my descriptions were spot on.

OMN: Suppose this series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing Rick Montoya?

DPW: Who could play Rick Montoya? That's a tough one, especially because I don't go to movies so I'm not that familiar with actors. But there is an Italian actor named Raoul Bova who might fit the bill, but a young Raoul. He was the love interest in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Another possibility, but again at a younger age, would be Rufus Sewell, who played the Aurelio Zen character in the BBC series that ran on PBS.

OMN: Have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

DPW: My favorite sub-genre, within mystery, is the comic caper. The master of it was Donald Westlake with his Dortmunder books, but Lawrence Block has ably carried on the tradition, especially with the Keller series. And there are others, like Hallinan and Crais. My goal is one day to write a truly funny mystery.

OMN: What kinds of books do you read for pleasure?

DPW: Other than mystery, I read history. Often it is something connected with Italy, like a biography of Cicero I have next to the bed now, or a history of the Italian campaign in WWII I read a couple months ago. I also like to skim through cookbooks.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

DPW: Since I put a lot of food in my books, here's a list of five dishes to try on your next trip to Italy:

1. Spaghetti alla gricia: a classic but simple roman favorite
2. Melanzane alla parmigiana: you'll throw rocks at eggplant parmesan in the States after eating this dish in Italy.
3. Gnocchi verdi alla gorgonzola: spinach gnocchi in a gorgonzola sauce, what's not to like?
4. Spaghetti alle vongole: Again, you'll never be satisfied with clam spaghetti again.
5. Macedonia di frutta: the simplest and best dessert, fruit salad.

OMN: What's next for you?

DPW: I'm working on the third book in the series. Rick Montoya goes to Bassano del Grappa, a beautiful little town on a hill next to the Brenta River with a famous covered bridge and a tradition for making ceramics. He's there doing a translation job at an international conference which turns deadly. And (I suppose this could be called a tease) a surprise character walks back into his life.

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