Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor who lives in Leonia, New Jersey, where she plays blues guitar and writes mysteries. She has won awards for her short fiction, and her stories have appeared in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and numerous ezines. She’s a woman who follows her dreams…and an inspiration to us all.
Your professional background includes stints as a college English professor (medieval literature), a guitar player, and now mystery writer. Tell us about the journey.
I was destined to be a writer. I read constantly, so school was a congenial atmosphere for me. Also, back when I was growing up, the role models for women were limited: teacher, nurse, or secretary. I couldn’t see myself doing any of those things so I resolved to stay in school as long as I could. While I was in grad school working on my Ph.D. in medieval literature, I discovered the joy of submerging myself in a writing project. I saw the college teaching as a day job that allowed me to pursue my real love, which was scholarly writing. I did some research projects that I’m very proud of, including a book about the medieval understanding of Greek mythology.
In my forties I had the same experience many people do—I evaluated what I had done so far and asked myself whether I’d be happy with a life that contained only that. The answer was no. I needed to do something more expressive, and that’s where the guitar came in. My son was taking guitar lessons and I had recently started listening to the classic rock station on the radio. I loved blues-rock in the sixties and it occurred to me that if I applied myself, I could actually PLAY those songs. I eventually formed a band that played enough gigs to give me a sense of what it’s like to keep a band together. That experience became the inspiration for my first mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, named for a Muddy Waters tune.
At that same time, I said to myself, If I can write a whole book about Greek mythology in the middle ages, why couldn’t I write fiction? I read a lot of mysteries in grad school, to relax from reading heavier things like Beowulf. I had always enjoyed the puzzle aspect of the form. And I thought mysteries were probably easier to publish than literary fiction.
Mysteries are like rock and roll. People look down on these forms for being unintellectual, but secretly everyone enjoys them. I guess I’ve always wanted to capture people’s attention by entertaining them. [Way to go! - Blog hostess comment. Sorry, I couldn't help myself...]
Tell us about how your background writing scholarly works prepared you for the world of fiction, mystery fiction, to be precise.
First, I learned that you don’t have to be in the mood to write. If a paper’s due, it’s due. Once you start writing, ideas will come. So grad school and my later scholarly writing gave me a disciplined approach to writing.
Second, a good mystery requires planning and strategizing. The clues have to come along when they’re needed, red herrings have to be planted to keep the reader guessing, and everything has to end up in a satisfying way. Writing a mystery is an intellectual process, just like working out the argument of a scholarly paper. [More blog hostess applause.]
How does your music affect your writing?
Music touches people in an emotional way, and writing appeals to the intellect. When I started writing mysteries set in the blues world, I was determined to evoke in words the experience of listening to music. Readers tell me that I’ve succeeded.
I’m also aware of rhythm and phrasing when I write. I try to give my prose the same feel as a good blues solo. When I was learning how to solo on the guitar, I listened to solos that I thought were successful. For each phrase I’d write out a sentence whose cadence seemed to imitate what I’d heard musically. For an example of how words can imitate music, listen to “Salt Peanuts”—the famous jazz tune in which Dizzy Gillespie’s horn seems to be saying “Salt Peanuts” over and over.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Keeping going in the face of rejection. And now, balancing writing and promotional activities.
What is the title of your most recently published book? Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.
Sweet Man Is Gone. It introduces my blues-singer bandleader sleuth, Elizabeth “Maxx” Maxwell. She’s formed a band and is living her lifelong dream when her guitar player dies under mysterious circumstances. The police declare his death a suicide, but of course Maxx doesn’t believe them and has to investigate on her own. The fact that she’s never been able to resist guitar players adds an extra dimension to her quest for his killer.
My publisher, Five Star/Gale/Cengage, markets primarily to libraries, and the book is in lots of libraries. People who want their own copy or want to give the book as a gift can find it on Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com.
What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?
Five Star has bought my sequel, Got No Friend Anyhow, and it will be out a year from now. The third book in the series is already in the works.
Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?
You have to be aware of the market. Many people say that one should write the book one wants to write and let the market catch up, but in this publishing climate that can be a recipe for intense frustration.
Are you a member of any writer’s organizations? Why? Why not?
Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. I tell all the would-be writers I meet to find associations of writers who write what they write and join those groups. The networking and exchange of leads are crucial to getting and staying published. And it’s a great way to meet like-minded people. Most of the people I now consider my best friends are people I met through MWA and SinC.
Do you have any upcoming book signings or appearances? If so, give us all the details.
I try to keep my schedule as full as possible and all my events are listed on my website. Winter is a little slow because of the weather in the New York City area, where I live, so my next event isn’t till February 26. I’ll be speaking to a group at the Teaneck Public Library in Teaneck NJ about mysteries set in New Jersey and my use of the New Jersey setting for Sweet Man Is Gone. The talk is from 10:30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m.
I attend as many mystery conferences as I can fit into my schedule. This spring I'll be on panels at Left Coast Crime in Los Angeles and Malice Domestic in Arlington, VA.
I’m in a band now that practices every week in the bass-player’s living room. We’re in the process of lining up some library and bookstore gigs for late spring.
FUN QUESTION: Electric or acoustical guitar – and why?
Electric, absolutely. I love the sound—very different from acoustic—and the guitars themselves are gorgeous. A great fashion accessory! When I started taking lessons, I played an acoustic guitar because we had one that my brother-in-law had discarded. But my goal was always to play an electric guitar. My first teacher once said, “The electric guitar is easier to play but you can do harder things on it.” He was right! The sound of sixties blues-rock could never have existed if the electric guitar hadn’t been invented. At this point I’ve gotten so used to the feel of my electric guitars that I’m all thumbs if I pick up an acoustic guitar.
What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):