Interview with KT Ashely, author of “Murder In Hot Coffee”

A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?

I definitely know some who are, but I love to interact with people. Some of my favorite characters are based on them—that is, the aspect of their being. You must study people to write good works; that is, if your characters are people. But with that said, we can never discount the masterpiece of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

I fell in love with history as a child. Cavemen, Native Americans and the world around me in all of its anthropologic evolution. If you want to see a thing, look to the past and envision the future. You can always make it up as you go along. How exciting.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

An absolute must. I want the facts to be as true as possible. Then I can bend and twist them at will. But first I must understand a thing. The thing about fiction is that if you can “lie” about something and have someone believe it to be true (as a writer)—then you have a captive audience. And a winner of a story!

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

The first story I can remember writing was in the fourth grade. I have been writing off and on since then and for different reasons. Some were work related for technical manuals, others for instruction and still more were recipes when I was a professional chef. I have always written something either for myself, school or for my children when they were young and separated from me by divorce. But it was not until age 55 when after looking for a job hopelessly for two years that I had an epiphany. I had always had the tools with me, why not use them and do what I truly loved—critics be damned.

How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?

I rarely have a problem with that. I won’t write if I am distracted. It is a waste of time for me. I have to have 100% concentration or forget it. My readers are worth at least that.

Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

No. I write until I am satisfied with what I have done. It may be an hour or literally several hours and into the next day. If the flow is there, I write. Sometimes I have to make myself stop.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I do both. I start with an idea, and then it evolves. Sometimes it is spot on course, and other times it can twist and morph into several sub plots and angles. But it usually connects back to the original idea.

What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?

Solid research. If you have an idea and know well of it, then the only problem is editing.

Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?

My ability to form and twist plots. Just because the title says a thing or a character does a thing—look out. I love red herrings. I strive to be the master of subtly giving clues, then twisting the facts, and eventually surprising the reader with what they already read but dismissed as not being noteworthy. It’s usually all there right in front of you. Pay attention!

Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

Yes. If I cannot find the information I need and it feels incomplete, I will shelve it until I have the research done. This is very important to me. I respect my reader and want the best it can be.

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

Once a book is done and published—that’s it. Of course I second guess myself and of course my earlier work is not my best. But if an author were to rewrite everything they do after completion—Lord help them. I prefer to let it go, be free, and be judged for it warts and all. That is the trademark of a great writer. Evolution.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

I believe that taking the time and money for the best cover you can possibly create is important. My artist is Zach McCain. He is great. I tell him what I want and then I let him do his magic. I totally trust him. As far as the title—that is an enigma. Who knows? I go with my gut.

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

Yes, my first book The Pool. It had mixed reviews. Although it was exactly the way I wanted it, other “industry experts” said it didn’t tell what the book was about. As a visual artist and author, I thought it was good. When I discussed changing it on another edition, I got blow back from that. Now I work with an experienced cover artist. We make magic together.

Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

Yes. Good or bad a review can tell you a lot about the reader and their relationship to the author. It makes me a better writer. A well written review can be invaluable. I appreciate those. Reviews with little substance are not much help but at least I know the reader took the time to post it. Even a bad review keeps the book in the press.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

If it is detailed, I can learn from it. It can give insight to the marketed audience, reader’s thoughts at a given time, and of course brings to light how clearly the author has communicated the theme. If it is epically critical or laced with obscenity and gross exaggeration, then I pretty much gather it is a troll and I can keep their comments on file for a character study and place the critique in a quote bank.

Did you ever think you would be unable to finish your first novel?

No. I am still working on the first one (2016). But I knew if I regularly wrote several short stories, novelettes and novellas it would be good practice and that would satisfy my hunger to write while I complete my lengthy research on the first book.

Do your novels carry a message?

No. The characters carry the messages. Every character is its own entity. Love or hate them, we all have our own opinion about things. I try not to tell the reader what to think. It is my goal that one person read the story and another reads it as if it were entirely different. It needs to have a personal connection.

Are there any books that you are currently reading and why?

Currently I am reading The Free State of Jones by Victoria E. Bynum for background research on my second novel, and The Angel of Elydria by A.R. Meyering for fun. I also frequently reread A Scheme in Every Scene by my good friend, author, and brother of another mother Hzal Anubewei Fudge because I love his work. I find Hzal’s abstract works the most stimulating of all authors I have ever read and like to indulge in their challenging beauty often.

Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

Yes. The Spacek and Toussaint Mystery novel series which are historical fiction novels involving two journalists who investigate urban legends. Murder In Hot Coffee is a prequel to the second novel titled Ghosts of the Leaf River.

Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?

Sure. My Muses are those who have passed before me—“the Buddhas.” I am guided by enlightened beings from the other side. They could be family, people I have known or maybe not. But sometimes I write things into characters and then later find that what I have written is to have been true. How else can I explain this? I believe I have been helped many times.

Poets and writers in general, have a reputation of committing suicide; in your opinion, why is that the case?

We are artists. We feel, live, love and play on another level. Sometimes the world is just too big for us. It is as if we make art to express all that we feel in the universe. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.

Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

Of course. I encourage all interested to write. With practice you might even get good enough at it to get a contract if that is your goal. But even just writing down your family history, life story or things that interest you—if it brings you joy, do it.

People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?

If they think brushing your hair, taking a shower, and putting on clean clothes to sign books at an event is glamorous, than yeah I guess so. But what would they think if they saw us sitting half nekid at the computer with wild bed head, dawned with the t-shirt worn the day before to keep the chill off your half naked body, and reeking of yesterday’s body odor from a delayed bath because you had a thought in the middle of the night and had to start composing until early morn? Is that glamorous? I call it work.

Do you believe it is more challenging to write about beliefs that conflict with the ones you hold yourself?

Only in research. I try to separate my prejudices from fact or opposite opinion. I really try hard to let the reader make up their own opinion and not insert my own.

Did the thought to give up writing ever occur to you?

Yes. It’s a tough way to make a living. Between the critics and poverty, it can grate on you. That’s why it is important to have someone believe in you as much or more than you do yourself.

How critical are you in your evaluation when you are reviewing someone’s work?

Very. I explain what I see and make suggestions. If you ask me to review a work then I suppose you want an honest answer. Constructive criticism is knowledge. I want that. I don’t have time for ego stroking.

Doesn’t it bother you that when books are turned into movies, they are often changed to suit the audience needs?

Not really. Ultimately they are two pieces of artwork—like fan fiction. If you want the real deal, take the time to read the original.

Any particular writer in mind whom you would want to complete your unfinished works in the event of your death?

No. Once I’m dead it is finished. Publish it if you want. But don’t screw it up with someone else’s ideas.

Although all books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but are they really all fictional and made up?

I don’t use real people as characters unless they have a historical significance, that is, if they need to mark an event. But even then I don’t characterize them. As far as others, I only use the traits from some people and morph the character into a fictional entity. I never completely use a real person as a character in my books although they may seem familiar; and that is the point of realistic fiction—to make what is unreal real. If a reader can identify with the character I have done my job.

Have you ever written a story you wish you hadn’t?

No. Art is Life. Stories are fluid and express a time, place and the mood of the author. If we regretted everything we did because our opinion or circumstance had changed, there would be no stories to tell.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

Murder In Hot Coffee is a mystery only the reader can solve. Travel to the 1930’s Deep South where moonshine, Angel’s Trumpets, death, and a black elixir abound. The novelette is a prequel to Ghosts of the Leaf River—the second novel of the Spacek and Toussaint Mysteries which are currently being written by author. The mystery series are historical fiction novels involving two journalists who investigate urban legends.

Anthony Spacek and Amélie Toussaint will encounter yet another mystery in south Mississippi based on the more mature characters from the prequel novelette Murder In Hot Coffee; the Free State of Jones (a historical secession of neither Union nor Confederacy during the Civil War) and an enigmatic American opera singer of color will evolve from main character Denia Andersen’s past.

The series first novel Onionhead starts with its major setting in 1970’s south Louisiana north of New Orleans around Lake Pontchartrain. The story of the Creoles, Choctaws, and an unsolved grisly murder from the 1920’s are detailed around the mossy bayous and cemeteries of the region. Murder In Hot Coffee is a taste of what is to come as all is tied together in the connecting stories.

Ever learned anything thing from a negative review and incorporated it in your writing?

Oh yes, I write those people into characters all the time—“Then (I) kill them and eat their livers” (the Penguins in Madagascar). Negative reviews for me are of great value. I need that critical feedback to be able to analyze the craft of my work. Sometimes negative reviews can be better than the positive ones. Who wants to be great all the time? I don’t. I need to know if I am connecting with my audience in both positive and negative ways. Why was the review negative? Was it a visceral connection to a character or was it the way the story was written? Good or bad if I can make a connection, someone is reading, cares enough to talk about it, and it keeps me sharp.

It is often said that in order to write something, you must believe in what you are writing. Do you agree with that?

Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” No. I don’t believe everything I write. I let my characters have their own voice. I despise and also love many of my characters but I try not to let my own prejudices prevail. I do, however, believe in the art of writing. I give it my best when I do it.

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

Oooh—music inspires me, soothes my ills and brings much joy to my heart and writing. It is meditation for my soul. After a dramatic or especially draining scene that I have written (as in Lee Roy), I listen to music to heal the hurt.

Have any of your past loves inspired characters in your books?

Oh yes. And current ones. How could those joys and hurts not find their way into the pages of an authors work? I don’t write for dead people. We are all connected. We all identify with pain and joy. Connect with the reader—that is the key to a good work.

If you were to watch your favorite book (which hasn’t been turned into a real life motion picture) turn into a movie, which would you choose? Or would you rather keep it stayed as a book?

Like I said, books and movies of books are two different things entirely to me. I’m not sure if there are any books I’d like to see, but I would like to see a movie about the Inklings—an authors group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis during the 1930’s and 40’s.

If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?

Loads. I try to visit that place, but money and even danger can be a constraint. I gather as much as possible before I write about it. And then I fact check again and again from reliable, consistent, and knowledgeable sources. That accuracy is what keeps me up at night.

Did you have a lot of differences with your editors in the beginning while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited?

I value a good editor. I despise those who promote themselves as having less than honorable credentials. If you can’t back up your remarks with substance, I will fire you. If you give me straight forward and insightful criticism, I will love you forever. I have had both. Unfortunately in the early days I was duped. It is a lesson I will never forget. ALWAYS check an “editor’s” credentials.

Have you ever written a character vaguely based off a real life acquaintance and they found out when they weren’t meant to?

If yes, then please tell us, it would make a terribly interesting story! In my short story Me, Myself, and I the inhabitants of a planet are so egotistical that they are destroying themselves and those around them. Unbeknownst to them, they are all about to die. Inhabitants from another planet know of their fate, but deicide not to help them because they do not want the “cancer of their culture” to spread to the new galaxy they are evacuating to. I posted the link to this story on my high school reunion Facebook page. I was subsequently banned. I could not figure out what was wrong with my access to the private group. Later I was told by another writer classmate that there had been a big uproar and debate about my shared link. I had never had any trouble before. People shard all kinds of things. I had announced links to my weekly writings regularly. But it was not because of my site, but because of the story. Apparently it hit a nerve with some people. It was called “inappropriate.” It seems that some people actually identified with the fictional character’s racism, egomania and class warfare. I was stunned. How shallow can a person be to actually self-identify with a Sci-Fi story in so much that they have an author censored? It boggled my mind. But I knew the story was a success.

Tell us about an interesting or memorable encounter you had with a fan?

Once a young lady bought one of my books at a book festival. It had been sold by another member of my group while I had gone to get lunch. She wanted me to sign it for her. The girl came back in a while and said she had misplaced it or forgotten it somewhere. My colleagues were not sure what to do so they got her phone number and had me call her. I told her I would replace the book free of charge and to come back. I did and she was most happy.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

I think many on-the-go people and the younger generations find this medium inviting, but I don’t. It takes away from the appreciation of the complete artwork from writing, to illustration, to the print craft. I see the trend as established and that it will not stop. I also believe it is a shame that art has become a “fast food” commodity.

Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?

I have a piece shelved for now from a dream, or rather a hallucination. I was very sick with the flu and the brocade on my curtains looked like rabbits. It inspired a novella but I have much, much more research to do on the setting which takes place in China’s Spring and Autumn period (771—476 BC). I can’t wait to get started but I want to do travel research for this one.

Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?

Some of my best paintings have been created while smoking cannabis. That is not the case for writing—that takes a much different concentration. I never have nor have had a desire to be intoxicated while writing. The two creative zones I go into are completely different from each other. Each is their own world yet similar in walkabout.

Do you think translating books into languages other than their origin forces the intended essence away?

I am not fluent in any other languages but I once heard a scholar speaking on just this subject. It was about the translations of Don Quixote. From it I took away the notion of being jealous that I was not immersed in the language and culture. I would like to experience books as they are written for the culture. I love the Russian masterpiece The Master and Margarita. But I fear its English translation is not the same as to my Russian friend Masha who turned me on to it. I long for that.

And who is that one author you would love to write the biography of?

There really is not an author but I would love to write the biography of artist Egon Schiele. In fact that is on my list—or at least a fictional account of him. When money provides I plan to do a research trip in Europe on his life. I am fascinated by him and his work. He has everything that ticks it for me. Art, drama, madness; that’s my kinda guy—story telling anyway. To walk in he and Klimt’s steps (metaphorically) would bring out the utter best in my writing of fiction.

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