I met Carolyn Haines at an MWA-University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was immediately charmed by her humor, her down-to-earth attitude, and her huge heart. She runs an animal rescue and, when she’s not writing and teaching university classes, spends most of her time (and money) caring for needy dogs, cats, and horses. And she’s a heck of a writing instructor.
I’d read several of her Mississippi Delta Mystery novels, a series of cozy mysteries featuring Sarah Booth Delaney. Cozies are often too light for my taste, but I enjoyed these very much. (Ham Bone was one of my favorites, probably because of my own experiences with community theatre.) The series is charming and witty, with engaging characters and a sassy, charismatic ghost named Jitty who counsels Sara Booth. I’ve seen many authors use this device unsuccessfully (the ghost seems to know everything except when the author needs them not to, so they end up giving vague clues that just make them seem to be playing games with the other characters’ lives), but Carolyn manages to avoid this pitfall. Jitty is intuitive but not omniscient, and her advice helps Sara Booth use her own strengths to find solutions. It never feels like Jitty knows who the killer is but refuses to tell because of some plot-convenient, other-worldly rules.
For those who like to read a series from the very beginning, it starts with Them Bones, in which Sarah Booth is “flat broke and about to lose the family plantation.” You can see the whole list on the Bookshelf tab on Carolyn’s website.
There’s even a cookbook based on the series. Bone-a-Fied Delicious contains more than 700 recipes compiled by 13 cookbook “directors,” each of whom assumes the voice of a character in the series to comment on recipes, life, relationships, sex, and each other. According to the catalog copy, “The comments range from serious, to humorous, to ribald—and the recipes cover the gamut of fabulous to so-sinful-and-delicious-you-will-die-happy.” I ordered this today and can’t wait to dive into it.
Carolyn has a darker muse as well and has written several horror novels and short stories under the pseudonym R.B. Chesterton. As you might imagine, the tone is notably different in these stories–heavier, more somber–but the writing is as skilled and polished. Her short story, “The Hanged Man,” begins with a couple at odds about returning to New Orleans, where their 9-year-old daughter disappeared. The wife wants to go back, saying she needs to heal. The narrator, the husband, is appalled and infuriated by the idea. It’s a tender, terrifying story.
Apparently, Carolyn channels her dark side into her horror writing, because in real life, she’s a fun-loving prankster. When she first began teaching writing at the university level, she gave her freshmen a long, serious spiel about the importance of literature as a gateway to truth. Each day, before class began, they would have to strike their chest twice with a closed fist and then extend the right arm and say, “Truth and valor.” It took them most of the semester to realize that their genre-writing professor’s tongue was tucked firmly in her cheek.
I asked her about the best prank she’d ever played. After a thoughtful moment, she said, “One dark and foggy night, I was telling ghost stories to my niece, Jennifer, and her friend, Heidi. They were about 12. For a bit of atmosphere, I drove them to Magnolia Cemetery, a huge old cemetery in Mobile with a lot of wonderful gravestones. We were riding in the thick fog and I told them a suitably creepy cemetery ghost story. I stopped the car and said, ‘Oh, no, I think I have a flat. Would you girls check it for me?’ The got out to look and I drove off. But I didn’t go far. I would let them almost catch me and then spurt ahead a little. They were so mad and I was so tickled. Trust me, Jennifer got me back a number of times.”
In many ways, Carolyn Haines seems bigger than life. She’s generous, not only with her animal rescue and her mentoring of other writers, but with her readers, giving every book her best.