Kay Pritchett retired from the University of Arkansas in 2016 after a long career as an educator in the world languages department. Then she traded her teacher card for a student one. The freedom of no full-time career gave her the space to try something she'd always wanted to do -- write a book.
As a Spanish literature teacher, Pritchett spent much of her professional life contemplating literary works, so going into the writing life, she had a good analytical mind. It led her to think that maybe she knew a thing or two about crafting a book, but looking back now, she says she was mistaken about those initial ideas.
Pritchett honed some new skills as a writer through creative writing classes and gained the confidence to make her stories into "Murder in High Cotton," a series about character Mosey Frye -- a real estate agent who sells houses where people were murdered, but who personally gets more of a kick out of helping solve the case than making a sale.
That series got picked up by Wild Rose Press in New York. Pritchett released "The Summer House at Larkspur," the fourth Mosey Frye tale, in January and is currently working on "The Incident at Sunny Banks," book five of the same series.
Kay Pritchett's short novels draw upon people, settings and events she knew growing up in Greenville, Miss., but she sets them in fictitious Hembree, Ark. -- somewhere between Memphis and Vicksburg.
People who exist in the Delta paradigm, Pritchett says, are folks who mind their manners but "speak their minds, should the occasion arise."
Congratulations on your continued publishing! What did you think when your series was first accepted? I'm curious: How long does it take for you to write one of these books?
It was a huge shock. Fiction writers know it can be difficult to be published. At any rate, it went forward. They decided to publish Mosey Frye.
I move along at a slow pace. (It takes me) eight or nine months to get from start of production to (the titles) being on shelves. I've started book number six.
How did your teaching experience inform your writing?
My main field was contemporary Spanish poetry, but I also love fiction, and I taught quite a few courses in it. I looked at it analytically all that time, and thought I understood something about writing a novel. But then when I started taking fiction courses at the university, I discovered that I really didn't know that much about (it).
From the point of view of the novelist, it's all about craft. I don't think I'd ever used that terminology when I was teaching literature. So I had to learn it (that way).
One of the most difficult things at the beginning was turning off my analytical mind and turning on my creative mind. That's just been a wonderful experience. I guess you could say that I moved from one field into another that's almost the opposite.
What classes did you take to build up your new skill?
They were from the creative writing faculty ... courses that required a good bit of reading. I took a course in fantasy writing, a course in storying social change, that was a very different perspective on writing and required a different genre, and then I took a number of workshops at the undergraduate level. I got a lot of feedback from my teachers, and the people in the class were very helpful in coming to understand how readers might be looking at my fiction. That was extremely helpful.
Some authors know the end of the book before they start writing. Do you?
I'm what is called a perceiving type. I don't plan my stories, I just kind of write my way into them.
So when you start down that path, you don't know where it's going to lead. I think the majority of writers are planners; they know where they're going. I've never been able to write that way.
The first time I tried to write a mystery, a friend of mine sent me advice she found online about how to write a mystery. I agreed with the first nine steps, but step 10 was "Before you start, you must know how the mystery ends." I would never be able to do that.
Even if I had an idea, I'd probably get really bored, because for me the suspense is interesting and stimulating, thinking 'It's this person' or 'It might be that person,' switching back and forth and then finally in the last couple chapters, I must decide, 'OK, it's this one' and going ahead and finishing it.
That's pretty much the way I write these mysteries.
So the story reveals itself to you rather than the other way around?
Exactly. When I was studying authors closely at the university, there was one famous Spanish 19th century writer Pérez Galdós who said he allowed his characters to write his novels. I thought that was strange, but once you get the characters formed in your mind and have a good grip on what that character's mindset is, and what his or her voice is like, the characters will do a lot as far as helping you move forward with the story.
How did you come up with the main character in "Murder in High Cotton"?
I have two protagonists in that series. One is Mosey Frye. She has a major role in the beginning, but as the series progressed, Gustavo Olivera develops a more important role.
You've got two people looking at a situation from two very different points of view.
Mosey Frye has lived in Hembree her whole life, and she's about 35. She depends on local history; she thinks that's very important, a lot of her insights are based on the fact that she's lived there so long and knows the place so well.
Olivera, on the other hand, is Hispanic and from California and has always lived in a big city. He gets fired from his job as chief of detectives of the Santa Clara Police Department. He comes to love Hembree because he's his own boss ... doesn't have to worry about supervisors cutting him off at the knee. His contribution to solving these crimes is more technical and professional. He works closely with the very young coroner (and) he's sweet on this young woman. He's always running over to the morgue to discuss the case.
These two angles eventually merge, and he learns to be more tolerant of Mosey. He'd prefer to solve on his own, but becomes dependent on women in this town -- Mosey and her step-aunt who's a lawyer and ... has an incredible archive going back decades. Both Gustavo and Mosey have learned to rely on this rather outrageous woman Carlotta Humphrey to get the information about people living in Hembree.
So that's how the murders get solved -- with Mosey and her local history and Carlotta and her big archive and Gus Olivera and his professional background.
I love the way you describe the style of these characters, folks who mind their manners but speak their minds.
That's how people from the Delta are. I only lived in the Delta for the first 18 years of my life. Delta people tend to think they are better than other people. I hate to say that, but it's true!
How have you put that to use in your books?
Something about the Delta that most people might not know is that it's a very diverse community. When I lived there, there was a population made up of a lot of people who arrived in Greenville because it was a big port on the Mississippi River. So we had large populations of Lebanese people, Chinese, Italian, Irish (people), also had a very large African American population.
In these stories, I wanted to represent that diverse community and wanted them to embrace one another and work together.
So that's what I'm trying to do, creating a community that in a sense is very realistic, but it's sort of what I'd like the Delta to be.
Were murder mysteries a favorite of yours to read, is that why you wanted to write one?
I did love mysteries. As a little kid I loved Nancy Drew. Then I stepped away from it for quite a long time, until I got a job at the University of Seville. I was teaching their sophomore course in English and on their reading list of 10 books was one by Agatha Christie. At that point, I had never read a book by Christie, but I ... read it and thought, 'This is really interesting and she is really a good writer,' and that's when I became interested in mystery writing. I started reading Agatha Christie and read just about everything she ever wrote.
When taking fiction courses, we were asked to write mainly short literary fiction stories. But most of the 14 stories I wrote for fiction workshops all sort of wanted to turn into mysteries even if they weren't. They also wanted to turn into novels rather than short stories. Even some of my teachers would say this sounds like a novel, we want to see chapter two!
I kind of got the idea that maybe I'm hard-wired to write mysteries.
In January you released "The Summer House at Larksburg," book four. Do all the titles have something to do with a house?
Yes. That's since Mosey is a real estate agent. When she goes to list or sell a house, typically she finds a dead body somewhere, maybe in an old sistern or maybe in the garage, or a person (died there previously) but they haven't been able to solve the murder. She's constantly dealing with these stigmatized properties.
What other influences do you have? Do you watch mysteries too?
Yes, but when I'm writing, I try to focus on my own mystery because I'm afraid of being influenced by someone else's ideas and not even realize it.
For example, I had no idea I'd been so influenced by Nancy Drew until one of my former students said, 'Dr. Pritchett, this sounds like grownup Nancy Drew to me!" I usually think of it as Agatha on a veranda, or Agatha on a towboat. But to her, it was grownup Nancy Drew.
I went back and realized that there are commonalities. Nancy is a teen. Mine is older, has a job and is married. But their fathers are both lawyers, Mosey's father is dead, but he comes back and talks to her all throughout the mysteries. That's a quirky part to it. She hears her father's voice.
One of the fun things about Nancy Drew is that she has good friends she hangs out with. It's not just Nancy's adventures, and Mosey is the same way, she has her best friend Nadia and (also) Saffron Smiley, who is reluctant to go along with this.
I hadn't even thought about (those elements), but I think that's sort of the way it happens. You discover something you liked and maybe added something (to your story) without your realizing it.