Cozies, the mystery subgenre, are how Grammia takes her attention away from worrying about whether there will be enough money next time she rings open the cash register. She recently delighted in the combination of fine chocolate and taxidermy while knocking off JoAnna Carl’s The Chocolate Moose Motive, the author’s most recent tale of murder, mystery and fine chocolate.
Whenever Grammia (a conglobulation of Grandmother and Mamma Mia with roots lost to time) updated everyone back of the Cupid Alley shop with the latest from Warner Pier, the resort town on Lake Michigan where Texas beauty Lee McKinney seems regularly to stumble upon a little bit of death and a whole lot of intrigue while managing Aunt Nettie’s TenHuis Chocolade shop, we began to think (too gruesomely and probably too glibly) of how much we’d like to see the book adapted for television — possibly under the title “Murder She Ate,” celebrating Carl’s mysteries, chocolate on television and also giving a shout out to the forever syndicated show starring Angela Lansbury as writer Jessica Fletcher who was always turning up something amiss in Cabot Cove, Maine.
Accompanying the dream of future television shows is the desire to learn more about the author. In real life she is a fifth-generation Oklahoman and former newspaper reporter for a quarter century or so, who loved mysteries from earliest reading age, was encouraged into writing cozies by a book editor and decided to base it around a chocolate shop as a daughter was then employed in one. She is also kindly enough to share a few minutes and answer some of our questions.
Cupid Alley Chocolatieres: Do you remember the first chocolate that made an impression on you and is there any path you can draw from that taste to the Chocoholic Mysteries?
JoAnna Carl: My mother loved chocolate and mysteries. As a pre-schooler I can remember loving chocolate milk, which she told me I called “choc.” Once, she said, she was reading when I asked for “choc,” and she replied, “Let me finish my chapter.” I sighed and said, “Whenever I ask for choc, you say you want to finish your chapter.” So you see that chocolate and mystery were linked in my mind from early childhood. There’s no direct path from choc to Chocoholic, however.
CAC: What about a business selling chocolate suggested that it would make the perfect base for series of mysteries?
JC: The Chocoholic Mysteries were inspired by a former editor, who suggested I “try something cozy.” When your editor makes a suggestion, a smart writer takes it seriously! It took me about eight hours from his suggestion to the recollection that my younger daughter was business manager for a small company that made luxury chocolates. Then the next day (I was at a convention) Earlene Fowler, author of fabulous mysteries with a background of quilting, commented, “No one’s ever written a series with the word ‘chocolate’ in every title.” My heart leaped, and I said, “Someone’s about to.” And Earlene said, “The idea’s all yours.” I give her all the credit for inspiring my titles!
Anyway, by the time I flew home from the convention I was well into the world of chocolate. First, because I could ask my daughter questions, it would be easy to research, and for a lot of reasons I won’t enumerate here, I needed to act fast on the editor’s suggestion. Second, it was an idea I could adapt to a small town setting, and I prefer a small town setting for a cozy. Third, there’s nothing in the world more cozy than chocolate, and that’s what the editor wanted.
Sometimes readers act disappointed when they hear that writers come up with ideas to order, so to speak. But every truly professional writer I’ve ever known has done this. It’s what makes us “professional,” I think. After all, being “professional” means you get paid for your work, right? On the other hand, a good writers write what they feel compelled to write, say what they have to say. Perhaps an analogy would be if a customer came to a dressmaker and said, “I need a gown for the Oscars.” A professional dressmaker wouldn’t then design and make her a pair of overalls, no matter how much the designer herself loved denim. But maybe overalls made of velvet and trimmed in tulle… Does this make any sense at all? A creative professional can give the customer what she wants, so to speak, while still being creative.
CAC: A particular treat of your books is how “chocolate lore” is infused. What are your favorite bits?
JC: I like the historical bits. One of the most fascinating books I’ve read about chocolate was The Emperors of Chocolate by Joel Glenn Brenner. This is a look at the long and bitter rivalry between Forest Mars Sr. and Milton S. Hershey. These two giants of American culture and of industry had lives as dramatic as any novel could be. Okay, you’ve uncovered one of my secrets! I’ll always be more interested in people than in the melting point of chocolate. My books are mysteries, not how-to books on chocolate.
CAC: What are your personal favorite chocolates and how has writing about chocolate changed the way you enjoy chocolate?
JC: My favorite candy bar is Cadbury’s Caramello, and I’m also very fond of Heath Bars – to the point I don’t dare have either in the house. At least neither stays in the house very long. For homemade chocolate, I go for “Gran’s Fudge” or “Linda’s Toffee.” The recipe for “Gran’s Fudge” is among the lore in “The Chocolate Moose Mystery.” Linda’s Toffee is even better than a Heath Bar, but I’d have to track Linda down and get her permission before I could hand her recipe out, and I’ve lost touch with her son, who gave it to me.
Okay, okay, I admit I’m a chocolate lowbrow. Real chocolate aficionados taste chocolate much as wine freaks taste wine. First, they want only dark chocolate pastilles, little squares. they sniff it. They let it melt on the tongue. But I assure you they do not spit it in the waste jar! I, however, like sweet fillings, nuts, and other goodies mixed with my chocolate, and I wolf it down.
CAC: If you will, what kinds of recipes, mysteries and ideas are being cooked up in the kitchen of TenHuis Chocolade for future books?
JC: Things have changed for TenHuis Chocolade, and that’s largely because my daughter left the chocolate business and went to work for a chicken wing company. (My new editor loves chocolate, but says there’s no mystery in the chicken wing business!) Of course, she remembers a lot about chocolate – as I say, she was in the business office and didn’t actually dip truffles, etc. But I was lucky enough to meet a really nice chocolatier named Elizabeth Garber (Twitter’s @IndyChocolate), who owns and operates Best Chocolate in Town in Indianapolis. In addition to making fabulous chocolates, Elizabeth — and her husband and mother-in-law – is a mystery fan. If I need to know how to do something, I give her a ring, and she helps me. Plus, she lets me copy her product line. So the chocolates offered by TenHuis are a bit different from the ones in earlier books — more exotic — but they’re still good and authentic.
CAC: In addition to the mysteries enveloping the world of Lee McKinney, and her Aunt Nettie, what other projects are near and dear to your heart?
JC: I’m not sure I have any projects ready for plugging. But someday…For one thing, I remain an unreconstructed Okie, although the Chocoholic books are laid in a Lake Michigan resort. Well, I love that area, too – we’re “summer people,” after all. But I’d eventually like to write something else laid in Oklahoma. Possibly historical. Oklahoma may have the most fascinating history of any state in the union. I’d like to mine it.
CAC note: The Chocolate Book Bandit, scheduled for publication in October is available for pre-order. Also, readers interested in seeing a different side of JoAnna Carl should consider that while Eve K. Sandstrom hasn’t published anything new in a while, her “Down Home” books are available as POD books (order a print-on-demand copy through your local bookseller) and keep an eye out for announcement of an eBook deal on the Nell Matthews/Mike Svenson books published in the ’90s.