Author Interview: Nikki Knight

What are the essential characteristics of a hero you can root for?

This was a big question when I started writing Grace the Hit Mom, the main character in my current book, WRONG POISON, because she does, after all, kill people. Evil sexual predators, sure, but how do you make a professional poisoner relatable? So, I emphasized the “Mom” part in Hit Mom. We meet Grace Adair at the Library Book Fair, where she’s volunteering and watching over her young son. She tells us about her life as a suburban mom, and she pitches in to help when a woman collapses. Only at the very end of the first chapter do we find out she’s a killer. By then, hopefully, you like Grace, and you know she’s a decent, hardworking person who loves her family and friends – so you’re on her side.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

Absolutely the characters. As a mystery writer, I agree with the classic idea that a particular crime can only involve these characters, and they’re the only ones who can solve it. It’s a lot tougher than just throwing in a stickup, but incredibly satisfying, for readers and the writer, when it works. In the case of Grace, it’s especially fun, because she has some unique skills as an amateur sleuth who’s also an assassin. More, there’s an added little fizz of tension in her confrontations with potential suspects. We know she can, and will, kill them if necessary to protect her secret life. Character-driven mysteries are always fun, but Grace takes it to a new level.

What characters in your book are most similar to you or to people you know?

Grace is actually a lot like me – except for that poisoning thing! We’re both professional women who took a stall to raise our children and discovered that we love hands-on parenting, to the point that we’re completely rebuilding our lives around it. Her husband, Michael, is a lot more clueless than my Professor, though! Her friends, Corinna, Brian, and Madge, all borrow from my colleagues (Brian even has my on-air partner’s name!) and their relationships are similar: we all do our best to take care of and watch out for each other. And anyone who’s ever been in a school parents’ group will recognize Kryssie – everybody has one officious princess!

Would you and your main character get along?

Oh, absolutely! I’d love to have Grace, Corinna, and Brian, and their kids, over for a family playdate! We grownups would drink coffee – or one small glass of something stronger – and dish about work, school, and family craziness while the kids run around. Of course, Scotchie the giant dog wouldn’t get along with our cat Rheba, but she’d hide. Eventually.

What part of the book was the most fun to write?

The denouement is almost always the most fun for me…and WRONG POISON was no exception. Grace ends up confronting the killer at the PTA Ice Cream Social and cornering them with a giant can of whipped cream. The fact that this woman who’s killed at least a dozen people is coming at the murderer with a truly silly weapon is a big chunk of the fun…and so is how it all turns out. No details, but everybody gets their just desserts. (And yes, I spelled it that way on purpose!)

How did you come up with the title for your book?

WRONG POISON is a riff on the title of my all-time favorite mystery, Dorothy Sayers’ STRONG POISON. Clever wordplay and titles that play off classics are almost a requirement for a cozy mystery, and this one was a natural. It fits, too, because the whole plot revolves around the poison Grace and her sister assassins use on predatory men ending up in the wrong hands.

Whom do you trust for objective and constructive criticism of your work?

I am incredibly lucky to have a few colleagues who beta-read for me. They’re fellow journalists who know how to put a sentence together and follow a fact line, and if something’s not working, they’re honest enough to tell me. Professionally, I’ve also had some absolutely terrific editors, who’ve gone through my work line by line and told me what to fix. After a lifetime in newsrooms, I’m extremely comfortable with the editing process, and I enjoy it. Honest constructive criticism is a gift, and there’s nothing more satisfying than collaborating with a fellow professional to make your work better.

What are your favorite series or series authors?

Dorothy Sayers, of course! Lord Peter Wimsey is a classic for a reason. I grew up reading Elizabeth Peters, both the Amelia Peabody historicals and the humorous contemporaries, and they’re a huge influence. In more contemporary work, I love the diversity we’re seeing in the cozy mystery field right now – from Rob Osler’s quozy (“queer cozy”) series, starting with DEVIL’S CHEW TOY, to Ileana Munoz Renfroe’s Cuban Psychic series – start with A FASHIONABLE FATE.

What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

Pitching this book was a big one! I wrote the proposal ages ago…but my publisher at the time was horrified by the idea of a cozy mystery with a killer as the main character. It sat on my desk for a long time until I found out about Charade Media. They said they were looking for out-of-the-box stories with a twist. I warned the editors, Kent Holloway and Britin Haller, that they might not like it…that Grace wasn’t for everyone. Even said I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if they said no. But instead, they got it, they liked it – and they bought it! Good work eventually finds the right home.

 If you’re planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?

There’s no definite word on the next Grace book – but I’ve started preliminary work. In HAVE HIS CRANKCASE (another Sayers title riff, this time on HAVE HIS CARCASE), Grace is helping her husband defend the widow of Nicky the Used Car Czar from a murder charge…when she discovers that the bereaved spouse had an earlier husband removed by Grace’s sisterhood of poisoners.  

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