Interview with Jo A. Hiestand

Welcome to Deckarhuset/TheCrimeHouse, Jo A. Hiestand!

Thanks so much for wanting to talk with me, Joachim!

As we understand, you are an American writing books with stories that all take place in the UK, and you also have a special interest in British customs… You must tell us what started all of this!

Yes, I’m an American who writes British mysteries. I live in the U.S., too, which makes it slightly difficult at times to do research. My first series, the Taylor & Graham mysteries, uses British customs as the backbone of each book’s plot. Each book is set one month apart in time, so I go through the year with these customs and the mysteries I’ve created based on those customs. For example, December’s book, “Sainted Murder,” features a St. Nicholas festival; in January, “On the Twelve Night of Christmas,” I use a Twelfth Night party as the catalyst of the crime; in the book “A Terrible Enemy,” the mystery is tied to May Day Eve or Beltane customs…and so on with each book in this series. I research every tradition quite thoroughly and then create characters who would be involved with the custom. From these characters I develop my plot.

As a child I was fascinated by traditions — not only getting out the tree ornaments at Christmas, or cooking certain foods for Thanksgiving, or making May baskets in school — but ‘why’ we did this, unaltered, year after year. I liked the link with my grandparents and their grandparents; I liked imagining this chain going back generations, people I didn’t know doing the same thing. I liked having my own place in this chain. Most of the American traditions are quite modern compared to European ones, so the idea of people turning the Devil’s stone or hanging Guy Fawkes effigies for hundreds of years intrigued me. The more I delved into the customs and learned about them, the more fascinated I became — they were so different from anything we in the U.S. do! Some were wrapped in superstition, some associated with weather, some with history. These are three areas of interest of mine, so I guess it was natural that these customs cast a spell on me. Plus, I’m really a lost European somewhere along the line — ancestors from Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, and Wales.

You have written many books, but some of our Scandinavian readers might not yet be familiar with your work. Could you pick one of your mystery books and tell us a little bit about it?

Sure! “Swan Song” is the second book in the McLaren Case Mysteries. Michael McLaren is an ex-police detective who quit his job due to a terrible injustice done to a friend. It’s now a year later when the series begins; McLaren is supporting himself by repairing dry stone walls in Derbyshire, England and he reluctantly investigates cold murder cases when people ask for his help. He’s not a private investigator — he’s just poking around on his own and in his own unorthodox manner. In “Swan Song,” McLaren looks into the death of a folk musician who had appeared at a medieval fair re-enactment at Tutbury Castle. A day or so into his investigation his fiancée decides to “help” him and is kidnapped. McLaren not only has to solve the year-old murder but he also has to rescue her. There’s a real Tutbury Castle, by the way. It’s in Staffordshire and is featured heavily in the book. I got the castle curator’s blessing for this, so it’s okay!

Describe your typical writing day.

I try to write seven days a week. If I don’t, I feel as though I’ve wasted a day. In the summer I’m up at 5:30 and at the computer keyboard by 6:00. In the winter, it’s dark and cold, so I’m a bit slower getting up; 7:00 is my usual time to start writing in winter. I work until late afternoon — but I take small recesses throughout the day to do household chores or run quick errands. I can’t sit the entire eight or ten hours so these are good breaks. If I’m stuck with where to go with the plot or on a conversation, I take a half hour walk, bake muffins or wash the kitchen floor! It’s amazing how physical activity stimulates the thought process. I drink hot tea while I’m writing and usually have Baroque music playing softly. By dinner time I’m mentally tired so my evenings are usually spent watching movies on television, doing something with friends, or reading.

Do you read a lot of mystery novels yourself? Do you have any favorite authors?

I’m a great mystery novel reader, which lead me to trying to write them. I lean toward British-based mysteries simply because I like that culture. Favorite authors include Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Peter Lovesey, Charles Todd, Ann Cleeves, Anne Perry, Stephen Booth, and Margery Allingham.

Are you working on anything right now? Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Actually, I’m just wrapping up one project and have just started another novel. The project I’m finishing is a nonfiction book called “Cider, Swords and Straw.” Its chapters are months. For each chapter there’s a synopsis of the Taylor & Graham book that takes place in that month, a more detailed explanation of the custom that is used in the book, and then at least two dozen recipes that can be made to celebrate that tradition. The book features a year of books, customs and recipes. I also include ideas for hosting your own custom-oriented party and there are menu suggestions. It’s a great companion piece to the Taylor & Graham series, an interesting book to read in its own right, as well as a nice cookbook, for it has over 300 recipes.

The newest novel I’m working on is a Taylor & Graham book “False Step” and concerns a rapper team. No, not rap singers. This rapper is a type of sword dance common to the north-east of England. It’s usually performed by seven dancers, two of which are the stock “folk dance” characters of the Tommy and the Betty. In “False Step” one of the members of the dance team is murdered. There is speculation among the police as well as the victim’s dance team that he was trying to decipher an ancient puzzle associated with an ancestor who helped Charles I (of England) sell some of the royal jewels (which Charles I actually did, by the way — to a banker in Amsterdam). So everyone is wondering if his death is connected with one of the jewels or with his tenuous connection to a career criminal. The criminal is part of a gang whose leader wants revenge on my main protagonist, Brenna Taylor. Of course, these could be red herrings and the murder could just be a personal fight…. History and the rapper dance custom are woven into this storyline, so I’m quite happy with it.

I noticed that some of your books are written with a co-author. Who is he? How did you decide to write together?

Paul Hornung is a police officer working in the metropolitan St. Louis area. He’s held just about every position in the department: patrol officer, field training officer, detective, and now, as a sergeant, a supervisor. So you can see, he’s had a lot of experience and he’s got a lot of knowledge – which comes in handy! We met when I did a ride-along with him. During subsequent ride-alongs we became friends. He’s interested in writing, so we had a second mutual interest. I began asking him questions and this lead to him writing small scenes in my books, such as a correct fight scene — it is NOT how it’s portrayed on television, by the way! I then asked him if I could model a character — Scott Coral, a patrol officer — after him, which he let me do. From there he began writing chapters as that character, from that character’s point of view. It’s a nice contrast with Brenna Taylor, my female detective, who tells the story from her 1st person point of view. Paul’s first venture into writing ‘Scott Coral chapters’ appears in “Horns of a Dilemma.” We got good feedback on our collaboration so we followed that book with “The Coffin Watchers.” Paul couldn’t write for the following novel, but he’s back for the current novel, “A Well Dressed Corpse.” We’re trying something a bit different for “False Step,” the new book. Besides resurrecting a character who’s appeared in books five and seven, Paul’s taking an entire thread and developing one of that book’s sub plots. He’s also writing his character chapters. He’s told me the general plot for his story but I don’t know details. When he’s finished I’ll fit it into the main story and then intertwine them at the end. We’ve never done anything like this before but I’m excited about it.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!




  1. Good book, the author obviously worked on the background.

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    13 June 2011 14:36

    mary schroeder

  2. Great interview! I have been reading Jo’s Taylor and Graham series & – as an American – I can say that they have been both intriguing and satisfying mysteries as well as a peek into British traditions and culture. Fun read all around.

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    13 June 2011 16:59

  3. While reading her books, you feel like someone is taking you on a little tour of Derby! Interesting to see how she writes. Would love to hear more about her research into the customs. Looking forward to reading Swan Song!

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    13 June 2011 18:36

    Peter Rose