Monday, February 27, 2012

Interview with mystery author Robert Spiller

My guest today is fellow mystery author, Robert Spiller, who writes the Bonnie Pinkwater series. I’ve had the pleasure to be on panels with him and have enjoyed reading his entertaining novels, which are full of action and humor. His published books include The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, Irrational Numbers and the recently released Radical Equations.

Mike: Radical Equations is the fourth book in the Bonnie Pinkwater series. Tell us what inspired this exciting mystery novel that combines math teaching, murder and mayhem.

Robert: In 2001 the school I model my series after was destroyed by tornado – a beloved teacher had died and everyone was at the wake, so no one was in the building and no one got hurt. I wondered how it would be if someone had been in the building as the storm raged and dismantled the school. So obviously I placed Bonnie at the heart of this danger. Also I had just hiked the famous Paint Mines hike in Calhan, CO and wondered (again) ‘wouldn’t this be a great place to stash a body?’ Lastly, I had always wanted to do a disappearing body mystery, so this also became a theme of this particular novel. Also, I had become enamored with the 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler, so I wanted to feature him as the first male mathematician in a Bonnie Pinkwater mystery.

Mike: You make the world of teaching as exciting as that of Indiana Jones. Mathematics puzzles and history also play a part in your series; Bonnie Pinkerwater uses these to inspire her students.Tell us how your teaching experience influenced your mystery series.

Robert: I myself taught high school math for 35 years (this is my first year of retirement). I used many of the puzzles Bonnie uses and discussed many of the mathematicians (particularly the female ones to inspire my female students) that Bonnie talks about. My goal in the books has always been to offer a little education along with an entertaining mystery. I loved teaching and hopefully my readers can get a taste of the life of a person who also loves the profession and who thinks teenagers are just a hoot.

Mike: Why did you choose a female protagonist?

Robert: Bonnie is modeled after a wonderful teacher friend of mine who has many of the qualities that Bonnie possesses: a phenomenal memory, a love of teaching, a boat load of dogs. I thought a female mathematician would be more interesting, especially an older one (in my case a widow). Also I featured historic female mathematicians in the first three books ( a bit of a hobby of mine) and thought a female math teacher sleuth would make a better conduit for this info. The only problem I had was that my real life model was too sweet and nice. Bonnie needed to be a tad more cranky. For that I threw in a bit of myself.

Mike: Why did you select a fictional town (East Plains) to set your story?

Robert: I taught Mathematics for eighteen years in the small Colorado town of Ellicott out east of Colorado Springs. I went to teach there after a business venture failed. I intended to only stay for one year and ended up staying for almost 2 decades. I loved the community, the ranchers, the survivalists, the small town feel of the place. My first year teaching I taught in a building housing all thirteen grades. I knew every child in the hallway. When it came time to write a mystery I naturally fell into this special locale. Plus there are stories and situations circulating out there that I could mine for ideas. I still travel out to Ellicott to see antelope, and red-tailed hawks, coyotes, and miles and miles of prairie. And I still travel there (now named East Plains) in my mind every time I write a Bonnie Pinkwater mystery.

Mike: Motorcycles play a key role in Radical Equations. Is this a passion or something you researched?

Robert: Actually, in my whole life I’ve owned but one motorcycle – and that was for a couple of years while working in Ellicott. That said, the bike was a blast. I never stunt rode but I used to weave in and out of the lines on the road. It’s a wonder I survived. Now I would like to own a scooter. In fact my wife and I call retired life our scooter life even though we don’t own a scooter.

Mike: Your secondary characters are very entertaining. Tell us about the choice of Bonnie's friend, Rhiannon, who is a witch.

Robert: When I worked in Ellicott I knew a family of Wiccans. They were fun and gracious and agreed to teach me a thing or two about the Wiccan life. Gypsy, the mother dressed like Rhiannon dresses in The Witch of Agnesi (the first Bonnie Pinkwater mystery) and Radical Equations (Number 4). The daughter, who was in my class one year, used to have a small hour glass around her neck that held a few of her dead father’s ashes. You might think this kind of morbid but I found it endearing. The girl herself was a sweetheart. A few years back Gypsy died but I never forgot her. Whereas Rhiannon (who is named after the song by Fleetwood Mac) is not a copy of Gypsy, and is different in many respects, she was born with Gypsy in mind. I find Rhiannon the perfect companion for Bonnie.

Mike: Bonnie Pinkwater is always getting in trouble with school district administration. How much of this rebel behavior is part of Robert Spiller?

Robert: I’ve universally been blessed with wonderful administrators, but a number of my teacher friends have complained about principals and superintendents that were surly, non-supportive, clueless, egotists, jerks, bullies, and all around pains-in-the-butts. These folks were channeled into Superintendent Divine (I won’t give his nickname here) and Principal Zwieback (nicknamed Baby Toast). Bonnie has an affliction I stole from Edgar Allen Poe called The Imp Of The Perverse. This is an internal voice that prompts her into rash behavior. She is not always in control of what she says and does, and many times later regrets her actions. Several of these confrontations are with folks who just so happen to be her bosses. I’m not like that at all. In fact I’ve been told I’m a sweetie.

Mike: Radical Equations is full of non-stop action. Tell us about how you developed these scenes of motorcycle chases, tornados, confrontation and murder?

Robert: I’m glad you think so. I’ve tried to balance Bonnie’s cognitive musings (murder related usually) with Bonnie up to her elbows in trouble, and often danger. I like the idea of a fifty-something year old school teacher willing to put herself in harm’s way (and sometimes in harm’s way unwillingly). Bonnie is braver and smarter than me, so she has to perform at a higher level to keep me satisfied I’m utilizing her to her full potential. Plus I know what I like in suspense and mystery. I like to see the main character in one scrape after another.

Mike: You have been published through a traditional print publisher and have also self-published. Share your experiences of the two approaches.

Robert: My first three novels: The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, and Irrational Numbers were all published through Medallion Press. I loved working with them but we parted company in 2008. I had already finished writing Radical Equations and was shocked when it wasn’t picked up because I thought it was one tasty little number. I went on to write some other things (two historic YA mysteries in particular) with the idea of following a similar traditional path, although I wanted a somewhat larger publishing house. All the while there was this Bonnie Pinkwater novel just sitting on my flash drive. Finally, I partnered up with Courtney Literary and together we went through the process of birthing a novel on our own. Last December we released the e-book of Radical Equations and late February the print copy of the book will see the light of day. I have loved having a say in the selecting of art, being responsible for final edit (I have to confess I am a bit anal), and all the legions of decisions along the way.

Mike: What and who inspired you most in your writing?

Robert: First and foremost Agatha Christie. Bonnie is my Hercule, my Miss Marple. I love the cozie (not much sex or violence) genre. But I also read a lot of mystery and learn from them. I read Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Crais and every read I have these moments when I think ‘that is something I might try.’ As for my all time favorite read: The Count of Monte Cristo.

Mike: Tell us about your writing journey.

Robert: In 1992 my second marriage evaporated and I went on a three week bicycle ride into the Four Corners area of Colorado. I brought along 5 spiral notebooks. I had a vague idea of a science fiction story I wanted to try my hand at. This tale blossomed into the novel The Children of Yei. I won second prize in the Paul Gillette (the writing contest connected with the Pikes Peak Writing Conference). Although no one bought TCOY, I found that I fell in love with writing. I wrote another Sci-fi novel, which I also couldn’t give away. Then I decided to try my hand at a mystery. This story was The Witch of Agnesi. I fell in love with Bonnie Pinkwater and I’ve never been the same again. There’s nothing like holding your book in your hand.

Mike: What's Robert Spiller's writing space and time of day for inspiration?

Robert: I have just recently built an office in my basement (in honor of my retirement from teaching and going full time into writing). The entire space is decked in fabric, billowing and burgundy, the walls and the ceiling. The space is exotic and I love descending into it. I try to write every day, but to be truthful it’s only lately that I’ve returned to my discipline (writing every day). I am working on the fifth Bonnie book.

Mike: How are you finding the retired life?

Robert: I love it, but I miss the kids.

Mike: What's next on your writing agenda?

Robert: I just recently began the fifth Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Napier’s Bones. I’m also a third of the way into a horror novel that is based on a story my father used to tell. The darn thing gives me nightmares.

Mike: Any final comments?

Robert: Please visit my website:
My Facebook page. Every week I give another math puzzle that folks can solve for fabulous non-prizes.

Also I now have a blog, imagine that.
Please, please, please, if you read my books e-mail me : and talk to me about it. I promise I will always write you back.

Mike: Thanks, Robert. For you blog readers, if you haven’t read any of Robert's books yet, add them to your must-read list.

Mike Befeler


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating interview Mike. Our family homestead is still in Ellicott and my grandfather (and siblings) attended Ellicott high school back in the 20's. I love looking at the old school photos! Robert's novels are very intriguing and I'll be putting him in my que. I love a good Colorado mystery. Thanks for sharing the interview Mike!

Peg Brantley said...

I've lived in both Colorado Springs and Limon, so I'm pretty familiar with your stomping grounds, fictional and otherwise.

Kudos on your fifty-ish female math teacher protagonist! I love it when those old stale stereotypes are banished.

Great interview, Mike. Thanks.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great interview, Mike & Bob!

Robert Spiller said...

Thanks for making me look so good Mike. You're the best!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent interview! Thanks for the great questions, Mike, and for sharing all this information, Bob.

I love Bonnie, mostly because of that touch of crankiness and the things she thinks about teens but doesn't say aloud.

Jean Henry Mead said...

A wonderful interview, Mike and Bob. I can't wait to read the book.

Jaden Terrell said...

Robert, it sounds like an intriguing book with a unique protagonist. Have you read ALL CRY CHAOS by Leonard Rosen? Mathematics plays a huge role in that one as well.
Mike, thanks for sharing a great interview.