Congratulations to Ang Pompano, whose new Diet of Death came out last month. This fun and fast-paced amateur sleuth is the first in the “Cooking with Betty” series. But readers might recognize a familiar face…
This isn’t your protagonist Quincy Lazarro’s first outing, is that right?
Yes, there were several Quincy stories in the past, starting with “The Copycat Didn’t Have Nine Lives,” back in 2007. Quincy and I share a bond. He’s the brother I never had. We are very much alike so he’s my go-to character when I write because I’ve built up a little world called Sachem Creek where Quincy resides.
Diet of Death, your second full-length novel, is quite a departure from your Agatha-nominated debut When It’s Time For Leaving. Would you tell us about your journey? What happened? What changed?
What happened was that “virus that shall not be named.” I was working on a sequel to WHEN IT’S TIME FOR LEAVING called RIDERS ON THE STORM. As was the first book, it’s a traditional mystery about a retired police detective whose father comes back into his life after twenty-eight years. The father is in the early stages of dementia and gives the son his detective agency. But there are strings attached the size of ropes.
I think a lot of us hit a slump during the pandemic. We had the time to write but not the heart. RIDERS was coming along slowly, when my wife, Annette, suggested that I turn my story “Diet of Death” into a novel. The story had appeared in PARNELL HALL PRESENTS MALICE DOMESTIC MYSTERY MOST EDIBLE. The anthology had won an Anthony Award and I was so honored to be included in the lineup.
The DIET OF DEATH starts the same as the story but has a completely different plot. I needed to write something light and humorous so I ended up with my version of a culinary mystery. It’s about Quincy Lazzaro who is tricked into writing a food column. He doesn’t know much about food but with the help of his feisty octogenarian neighbor, Mary, the column is a hit and he’s trapped in the job. When an interview with a Diet Guru results in murder Mary uses her Miss Marple-like ability to use observations of everyday situations to encourage Quincy to solve the crime. I do plan to get back to RIDERS but I have a sequel to DIET OF DEATH called INGREDIENTS OF DEATH to finish first.
Do you think about your reader when you write? Do you see your works as appealing to different types of readers?
I always keep my reader in mind in the respect that I’d never want to write something that offended someone or made them feel bad. I think I share many values with my audience so it’s not that difficult.
On the other hand, I write what I’d like to read. DIET OF DEATH is similar in some ways and quite different in others from WHEN IT’S TIME FOR LEAVING. I remember an interviewer asking Paul McCartney why the Beatles changed their style that was obviously working. His answer was something to the effect of “I didn’t want to keep recording the son of Love Me Do.
I expect some people to compare this book to the last. Some will welcome the change others may not. But that’s okay.
You’ve made a name for yourself with your short stories. What prompted you to tackle novels? Is the process different for you?
I always wanted to publish a novel and I’ve written a few of them going back to the 1980s. They are mercifully living on floppy disks that I can no longer access. It’s not that the world wasn’t ready for them. They weren’t ready for the world. It takes practice to learn this craft and nobody ever accused me of being a fast learner.
Then too, I’ve been in a writing group with Roberta Isleib (Lucy Burdette), and Chris Falcone for more than twenty years. Lucy, of course, writes the best-selling Key West Food Critic Mysteries and Chris writes amazing short stories and is about to publish a novel. Since I always had a novel in mind I decided to jump on the bandwagon. They’ve both been great inspirations and have taught me so much.
As for the process, if a short story isn’t working, it can be just as difficult to write as a novel. I was writing a story for the upcoming BEST NEW ENGLAND CRIME STORIES: BLOODROOT that Susan Oleksiw, Leslie Wheeler, and I are putting together. (Yes, we have to submit and be accepted too.) I loved the theme and the characters, but I wasn’t relating to the story, or I wasn’t ready to write it. Whatever. So I wrote something else that I was very pleased with. At some point, I’ll be ready to write the other story and it will flow. By the way, I’m so happy that your story “No Cities to Live” will be in BLOODROOT. It’s a wonderful story.
Thank you, Ang! I’m honored to be included! But back to Diet of Death – the book starts with an amateur sleuth who is writing a cooking column under a pseudonym. Where did that come from?
I think a lot of us stick with a job that we like (or don’t) because we have obligations, but it’s not their dream job. I wanted to take that to the next step so I have Quincy tricked into writing a cooking column on the promise that he will get an investigative reporting job in the future. The fact that he has to hide the fact that he’s the nonexistent “Betty” is a classic theme of gender stereotypes and male/female interpersonal relationships that has been around since Shakespeare.
Your setup is so fast and delivers so many suspects in very few pages. Would you talk a little about pacing?
I like to start with the murder right away. Sometimes in the first sentence, but if not, in the first or second chapter. And I want to give my readers something to think about early on. I’m a Beatles fan. Sometimes I want to hear something fast like Helter Skelter or “Back in the USSR at other times I feel like listening to something slower like Hey Jude or Yesterday. It’s the same thing with reading. At times you want something fast-paced and at others you want might want something slower-paced. DIET OF DEATH is meant to be a lighthearted take on a culinary mystery. I’d like people to read itfor fun, although there are some deeper themes such as living up to the accomplishments of a sibling that died before you were born. But all of that came out later and in bits and pieces. I wanted the reader to know from the first chapter that this was going to be fun. Let’s help this guy who is stuck in a ridiculous job situation solve a murder. There are some whacky characters in that chapter who have interactions with the Diet Doctor. Then in the second chapter, the Diet Guru is dead. Did one of those characters who have a pretty good motive do it? Of course, I didn’t want to exhaust the reader, so I used interior monologue where Quincy reflected on what he had observed up to that point, debated on what his next course of action should be, and even question if he was doing the right thing, to slow it down a bit.
My first book, WHEN IT’S TIME FOR LEAVING, while having some humor, dealt with serious issues such as abandonment, reconciliation, making up for lost time, and duty. It also dealt with some pretty heavy stuff such as dementia. So I had to spend the first chapter getting the reader to understand what life up to that point had been like for Al, the protagonist. If not they might not like him. Quincy, I think, is pretty likable from the beginning. But even in the first book, the murder happened in the second chapter. The reader is there to help solve a murder so I try to give them what they want fairly early.
You doff your cap to the real-life murder of Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower. Did that case play a role in your writing?
Yes, the murder of Herman Tarnower always interested me so I mentioned him in the book. Both he and Carlton Fredericks, a commentator and writer on health and nutrition, were probably in the back of my mind when I created the fictional Dr. Tolzer. I’m interested in holistic medicine and I’d rather eat my nutrients than taking pills. Carlton Fredricks was talking about bioflavonoids and anti-oxidants thirty years before the mainstream medical community. I always listened to his radio show until one day they announced that he was dead. There he was telling everyone how to live a healthy life and he died at a fairly early age. It made me wonder what if… And you know what happens when a mystery writer wonders that. It results in a book.
What writers have you learned from – and can you share any specifics?
I learn something from every book I read. There are some books I read over and over, not only because I like them but to study technique. For example, I read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and THE GREAT GATSBY every summer and I learn something every time. But if you’re looking for books that teach character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, and conflict you can’t go wrong with books by our friends Hallie Ephron (Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel Revised and Expanded) and Paula Munier (Plot Perfect.)
The BLOODROOT anthology is coming in November. And I’m almost finished with INGREDIENTS OF MURDER. then it’s back to RIDERS ON THE STORM. After that, I wouldn’t be surprised if I do a children’s book with illustrations by Annette. I’ve been at this too long to stop now.
Ang Pompano’s short stories have appeared in many anthologies, including the Anthony winning, Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Edible. His first novel When It’s Time for Leaving, was nominated for an Agatha Best First Novel Award. His second novel, Diet of Death was published in June, 2021. A member of Mystery Writers of America, he was a awarded a Helen McCloy/MWA scholarship for a novel in progress. He served for many years as a board member of Sisters in Crime New England and has been on the New England Crime Bake Committee for fifteen years. He is the co-founder and editor of Crime Spell Books. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Annette, and their two rescue dogs.