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Books Chat

Author Sandra West Prowell on ‘When Wallflowers Die’

May 30, 2000
Web posted at: 12:18 p.m. EDT

(CNN) — Phoebe Siegel, a feisty redheaded detective, comes from Montana. In "When Wallflower Die," she is called in to find the murder of a candidate for governor and unearths more than she bargains for. A favorite with fans, the popular private eye is soon to reappear in her fourth novel, "An Accepted Sorrow."

Like her protagonist, Phoebe, Sandra West Prowell lives in Billings, Montana. She is active in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Private Eye Writers of America. Raised on a strong oral tradition, she has always wanted to be an author. "When Wallflowers Die" garnered her a nomination for the Shamus Award in 1997.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN Book Chat, Sandra West Prowell.

Sandra West Prowell: I would like to say hello. It is another plus for cyberspace! It gives authors a chance to meet the people who read the books and I am appreciative of that!

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about your latest book, "When Wallflowers Die."

Sandra West Prowell: First, I need to address the protagonist who is a private investigator, half Irish Catholic and half Jewish, who investigates crime with an 'attitude.'

This book is based on solving a murder that is 25-years old, and the questionable justice that comes out of Phoebe's investigating the crime.

Chat Moderator: Is Phoebe based on any real-life person, or how did you create her?

Sandra West Prowell: I dreamt her . . . literally. I tried writing a romance and found out they were very hard to do. I have a lot of respect for the romance writers out there.

I was deciding to write what my interests were, in the criminology field, and I went to bed one night and dreamt about this very feisty, redheaded, short, private investigator who named herself! And as crazy as all this sounds, I really did dream her.

Question from Diana: Hello, I would like to know what are Ms. West Prowell's favorite things in life?

Sandra West Prowell: Oh boy! My favorite thing is writing. I love to have the muse come to visit. My second favorite thing is Kombucha, which is a fermented tea -- non-alcoholic -- and I also have a friend who is getting into soap making, that is fun. And I would probably rather be fishing than doing anything!

Question from Kldee: Sandra, have you ever had writer's block, and how did you get over it?

Sandra West Prowell: Oh Lord! I don't believe in writer’s block per se. I do believe that when you are writing a book, if you are not listening to the voices that tell you how to write that book, you will shut down.

If you hit an area in your work where you have writer’s block, and you shut down, it is best to go back over everything you have written and see what you are doing wrong to see if you are forcing an issue that should not be forced.

An example of this is when I tried to kill off a certain character that refused to be killed off. As soon as I decided that character was integral to the story, everything started flowing again.

Question from NotBot: Ms. Prowell, what do you think about the new electronic book technology?

Sandra West Prowell: I am not OK with it. I don't think anything will ever replace walking into a library, or a bookstore, and picking up that book that has gone thru the process of being written, being sold, being edited, and ending up in the book stores. I don't think anything should ever interfere with that experience.

Chat Moderator: How did you come to be so interested in writing mysteries? Did you always enjoy reading mysteries?

Sandra West Prowell: I grew up on gothic mysteries. Victoria Holt, Mary Stuart, all the old ones, plus God help us, all the Nancy Drew books. But I preferred the Hardy boys because they had more fun.

Comment from Good: Good morning, Sandra. This is Suzan from Roundup.

Sandra West Prowell: Hi Suzan!

Question from Piton: Are you working on another project now?

Sandra West Prowell: I am working on another project. I am finishing up another project. It is not part of the series that involves Phoebe Siegel, it is a stand-alone suspense entitled, "Lap of God," and it is about the rise of the Neo Nazis and the far right in Montana.

Chat Moderator: How do your deep Montana roots affect your stories and your writing?

Sandra West Prowell: I think Montana is probably the main character in most everything I write. Montana -- and I am prejudiced -- is what is best about the United States.

We had Ted Kaczynski. We had the militiamen. We had a lot of bad press. What people didn't stop to think about is the reason these factions come to Montana is because they have certain anonymity they are not afforded elsewhere.

It is a beautiful state from the high plains down to the Rockies. It has everything any other state has but more of it and fewer people. There is a tremendous work ethic in the state. It is mostly agricultural. We have very few businesses, and I believe everyone is dedicated in the state to keeping it like that.

And of course we have no crime! And if you believe that, you will believe anything!

Question from Kldee: Sandra, "Wallflowers" ended with a pretty negative view of the justice system. Did you give Phoebe this experience because you have encountered a lot of injustice in your own life? What kind?

Sandra West Prowell: I haven't encountered a lot of injustice. This is not from personal experience. I do believe the system is screwed up. I believe that we have to come to terms with restorative justice and back off the purely punitive justice that is dealt out.

When you write, you have total control over people's lives and the outcomes of those lives. I believe the perpetrator, or murderer in "When Wallflowers Die" was meted out justice, although it was not standardized.

Chat Moderator: What kind of research do you do for your books?

Sandra West Prowell: I do a lot of research and end up using about one percent of it. I read a lot of forensic textbooks, a lot of abnormal psychology. I talk to a lot of law enforcement personnel, from the DEA to the FBI to local law enforcement, and I do a lot of people watching for character formulation. So if anyone sees me looking through the coat rack at a local restaurant, it is just ME observing human behavior.

Question from Suzan: Sandra, do your friends, neighbors, and acquaintances ever "see" themselves depicted as your characters?

Sandra West Prowell: God I hope not! I really try to disguise the innocent to protect the guilty. There was in "Wallflowers" a big Victorian mansion. I researched all the big mansions in this area, and one of them tried to sue me for defaming their house! So I am not sure it is the people you have to worry about.

Question from Hello: What time of day would you usually start writing? Do you find it hard to stop? Or start?

Sandra West Prowell: I start work early in the morning about 6 o’clock. I work till nine, and then I eat breakfast and work ‘till two. Then I go out and tend to my chickens and then I live a normal life up until the sun goes down. If I have tense scenes to write, I like to do them at night.

Question from Maggiemary: When do you think Phoebe will return?

Sandra West Prowell: Phoebe will return probably in the spring. The fourth Phoebe book is called "An Accepted Sorrow." And it is about the witness protection program.

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It comes from a funny story. I was listening to a police scanner when a domestic abuse call came in. They were sending policemen to the scene, the dispatcher giving address numbers and all. About 30 seconds later, a broadcast was sent to the police not to go there because it was a witness protection house, and I thought, "Oh Brother! They just broadcast the number on that witness protection house to anybody!"

There goes the Witness protection!

Chat Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us today. Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Sandra West Prowell: Keep reading! Electronic publishing may work for some people, but our libraries need all the help they can get from anyone!

Get involved with your local literacy programs and get people reading!

Sandra West Prowell joined the chat via telephone from Billings, Montana. CNN provided a typist for her. The above is an edited version of the chat.

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