Mary Vermillion is the author of Death by Discount, a mystery that follows Mara Gilgannon, a queer character, as she investigates the murder of her aunt, Glad. This book has wonderful LGBTQ+ representation, and it keeps you guessing until the very last moment. It's even been nominated for two Lambda Awards! If you would like to read the full review of Vermillion's novel, click here. Editor Jessica Purgett sat down to talk with Mary about her inspiration, writing, and publication processes.
Q. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, how important was it for you to include LGBTQ+ characters?
A. Incredibly important! Representation matters. All readers want books by and about people like them. LGBTQ+ literature tends to feature urban and coastal settings, so when I started writing Death by Discount twenty-one years ago (yikes!), I wanted more fiction about someone like me: a queer nerdy woman from a small Midwestern town. That’s how the protagonist, Mara Gilgannon, was born.
Even though the novel takes place in her hometown of Aldoburg, Iowa, I also wanted to depict her life as a member of the lesbian community in Iowa City, so that’s why I created Mara’s ex and the triangle with Mara’s boss/nemesis, Orchid. And to ensure my writing would be fun, I gave Mara a gay BFF who is an over-the-top drama queen (and sometimes drag queen).
Q. How did your personal life inspire your series?
A. Mostly in terms of setting. Aldoburg is based on my hometown, Atlantic, Iowa. It’s right in between Omaha and Des Moines. The radio station where Mara works—and where the murder occurs—is based on one where I deejayed in high school. It really is right next to a cornfield.
When I started writing Death by Discount, I was afraid my hometown was dying, and I wanted to capture its glorious foibles on paper. Fortunately I was wrong about the dying part!
If you know me, you can see my sense of humor and stubbornness in Mara, but we are quite different. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-nine, but Mara was in eighth grade. Maybe a bit of wish fulfillment there!
Q. Death by Discount was a finalist for two Lambda awards. Can you talk a little bit about how the novel was nominated for those?
My editor at Alyson, Angela Brown, nominated my novel for Best Lesbian Mystery and Best Lesbian Debut novel. I felt thrilled and honored to be a finalist for both awards. My partner and I went to the awards ceremony in New York. Lea DeLaria was the emcee!
Q. Are you a planner or a pantser? If you're a planner, how do you go about outlining your novels?
A. Although I wish I could be more of a pantser, I’m a planner through and through. I need a solid plan to give me the confidence to draft, but I’m also pretty good at letting go of my plan and adapting it if it isn’t working or if the muse has other ideas.
I can’t imagine writing a mystery novel without doing some planning. There are just so many intersecting stories. There is the main story of the sleuth investigating and solving the murder. There is the back story of how and why the murder actually happened. And the back stories of the other suspects.
I worked back and forth between all these stories. I had no actual outline, but I created summaries of the backstories as I developed characters. Then for the actual story, I created a notecard for each scene. Most cards included the setting, the characters (and their desires and conflicts), the false clues/red herrings, and the actual clues. Placement of clues is important because when the killer’s identity is discovered, it must feel both surprising and inevitable.
I’m very tactile and visual (and old-school) so the notecards were helpful. I could rearrange them, and I could easily see whether key scenes were effectively positioned, whether I needed to expand or contract parts of the plot.
But even after all that careful planning, I ended up completely revising the novel’s opening and slightly altering the killer’s motive for the murder. Both changes were suggested by my writing group and made the novel much stronger.
Q. How do you create your characters? Are they composite characters of people you've met in real life?
A. Yes, my characters are mostly composites. I’ve always loved people watching, and I’m always on the prowl for details. Gestures, verbal tics, strange habits, haircuts, you name it.
Of course I’m also influenced by characters I’ve encountered in my reading. Mara’s best friend, Vince Loyacano, was inspired by Cordelia Thorn, the hilarious sidekick in Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series.
Q. What draws you to writing mystery?
A. I’ve always loved reading them! They’re one of my favorite escapes. I love the intellectual puzzle of trying to figure out whodunit along with the sleuth. And I love the many comforting fantasies the genre offers: a world where you can count on the truth being discovered, order being restored, and good triumphing over evil—and not because of magic or superpowers, but because of curiosity, smarts, and persistence.
The restoration of innocence—that’s what poet W.H. Auden says about the appeal of mysteries in his classic 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage.” I didn’t read it until after I had published my second mystery and was teaching a class on mystery writing. I don’t agree with all of Auden’s ideas, but he did help me understand why I like mysteries so much. You can read it in Harper’s archives.
But even though mystery novels are escapist, they also allow writers to gently educate readers about social issues. And these days, they’re so diverse. They introduce readers to all sorts of cultures, places, hobbies, jobs.
Mostly, though, I write mysteries because it’s a blast! I love plotting them, and I love creating all the characters’ back stories and secrets. I love brainstorming ridiculous situations for Mara and Vince. I also love asking questions, and that’s basically what a sleuth does. So that’s fun too.
Q. What was the publishing process like for this series?
A. A roller coaster!
After I completed Death by Discount, I queried agents. Most of them suggested that I submit directly to gay and lesbian publishers, so I did. Then two publishers wanted it! I sought the advice of Paul Ingram at Prairie Lights, the world’s best bookstore, and I went with Alyson Books, which was then located in LA. I had the great good fortune to work with editor-in-chief Angela Brown. She offered me so much encouragement and made my debut novel the best it could be.
But the publishing world is turbulent. Alyson moved to NY, so I had a different editor for my second novel, Murder by Mascot. He was also very helpful, but Alyson didn’t want my third novel. Honestly, that made me cry and cry. Finding a publisher for a third novel in a series is extremely difficult. The publishers I queried said they’d be eager to look at a new series if I started one, but no thanks on number three.
Nevertheless, I persisted. (Like my sleuth, I am dogged.) Eventually, I found a home for Seminal Murder, and my new publisher also republished by first two novels as e books. Through that publisher, I met many wonderful writers and made many great friends. But long story short, I had a disagreement with the publisher, and we parted ways.
Q. Are you currently working on writing anything else?
A. Yes! Lots of things! My partner, Benjamin Thiel, and I are seeking a publisher for All the Changes, our dual memoir about the impact of his gender transition on our marriage.
I’m about a third of the way through a novel about a fourteen-year-old transgender girl who is a basketball prodigy. Unlike my novels, which are in first person, this one is in third. It’s told from the perspectives of the girl’s mother and teammates. It’s also heavier than my mystery novels, maybe too heavy for me to continue drafting during a pandemic.
Our COVID world is actually giving me lots of ideas for essays and blog posts, some of which are helping me process the pandemic.
I’ve also been kicking around a new mystery series, and I’m thinking now might be the ideal time to start it!
Q. What writers/authors inspire you?
A. All of them! Seriously, writing is challenging and important, so I admire all writers.
But the biggest influence on my own mystery novels is Ellen Hart. Before I encountered her Jane Lawless series, I had no idea that you could write about a detective who was a lesbian! I also really admire Sandra Scoppetone’s Lauren Laurano, Janet Dawson’s Jeri Howard, and Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli. And anyone who is writing about a female detective owes a huge debt to Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Well, and Agatha Christie.
I’m also influenced by comic mystery writers like Gillian Roberts and Joan Hess. And by Alison Bechdel’s delightful depiction of the queer community in Dykes to Watch Out For. I could go on and on.