Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An Interview with Chicago-area Writer Cheryl Hagedorn

Cheryl Hagedorn, a fellow member of the Chicago Writers Association, is the author of Park Ridge: a Senior Center Murder, published in 2006. I had a chance to interview Cheryl recently.

Seniorwriter: Hello, Cheryl. I enjoyed reading your book, and I'd like to ask a few questions about the book and about you.

First, what inspired this particular story? Did it begin with the younger characters, Teresa and Stan, or with the older senior center members, or something else?

Cheryl: The idea came from an assignment in the writing class that I taught at the real Park Ridge Senior Center in spring 2006. [Note: Park Ridge is a suburb of Chicago.] One of the restrictions was that the murder needed to happen at the senior center, which doesn't leave too many choices for either victims or killers!

I tried to come up with as many motives for murder as I could. Many of them seemed really trivial. A trivial motive might work in a short story, maybe even provide a twist for comic effect. I wrote one short story about a glutton and a gardener in which the gardener, who was a caterer before retirement, puts poison into food that she knows the glutton will swoop down on. The motive there has to do with feeling unappreciated and under-valued. Not a gut-wrenching motive for murder, but it does set up the humorous ending.

On the other hand, I've heard my parents, who are in their mid-80's, complain about a real dichotomy at their senior center between the doers and the sitters. The program director would arrange for special speakers or groups to come in and make a special effort to invite the folks playing cards to join in. They seldom did. My parents coulsn't understand that and it aggravated them. On the other hand, my parents would never choose to sit and play cards all day either. I couldn't explain the resentment between the two groups; I only knew that it existed. So that's what I ended up exploring.

Seniorwriter: Do you believe that senior citizens, or most human beings, for that matter, harbor "deep, focused resentments" that can lead to murder?

I admit I'm not really a murder mystery fan, but I guess I've always thought of that kind of resentment as mainly the province of disadvantaged youth, a few hardened criminals, and victims of domestic abuse. I've always considered those of us in the over-65 or 70 group forgiving and peaceful. Am I wrong?

Cheryl: Why do some wines get better with age while others turn to vinegar? I like to think that as the years have passed I've become more tolerant, more thoughtful, more patient. For me the things that seemed black and white when I was younger have become various shades of grey. But I've watched others harden with age. They've become more bitter, more bigoted, more defensive than ever.

One of the sharpest criticisms of the book came from a good friend. She wanted to know why the card players just didn't stay home or go somewhere else. I felt that it was their choice, their right to be exactly where they were, doing what they wanted. I felt that the overzealous activity boosters were the ones who were insensitive, hypercritical, and demeaning.

Kestrell, who is blind, tried to explain to me why some people might find my book humorous. She said, "I think it is something Charlie Chaplin-ish--the idea of these people we see as disempowered striking back, and what they choose to strike back at is a type we all seem to find annoying: those people who insist that they are helping us for our own good, just as they make us feel the most helpless, because if we were seen as 'real people,' we wouldn't have their help forced upon us."

The answer to your question, do I think most seniors or most people harbor these kinds of resentments, is no. I do, however, believe that there are people who do, and that given the right set of circumstances, they can be pushed or enticed to do things that they normally would not consider.

Seniorwriter: You said that a group from the real Park Ridge Senior Center discussed your book. Do you know how they reacted? How have senior citizens, in general, reacted? Would you say the book is more popular among Seniors, Boomers, or younger readers?

Cheryl: I didn't hear from the book discussion group; however, the leader told me that it was the first mystery she had ever read in which a banana was used as a weapon! Nearly every senior that I've spoken to has immediately recognized and acknowledged the animosity between card players and everyone else.

No one likes to think that the people they know are capable of murder. We want murderers to be psychotic or hot-headed (or plug in you adjective of choice) because then we feel better about ourselves. We can reassure ourselves that we could never do that because we aren't like them. There is no absolution in my novel for the unexamined life.

Seniorwriter: What's your fiction writing method? Do you map everything out in advance, or just begin and let your characters carry you along? Do you begin at the computer or with a pen and paper? What part of the fiction-writing process seems most difficult?

Cheryl: In the case of Park Ridge, I started with a 969-word short story. Then I had to develop back stories for each of my characters--all seven of them!--trying to find out why things happened as they did. Once I had the characters in mind, they told the story to me. There were several points where I had to return to something I'd written and change it, for instance, to layer in the romance. That was an afterthought. It really hadn't occurred to me until I had written half the book.

I work at my computer from start to finish. I do print out the first relatively complete draft and make handwritten notes on it. For me it's easier to draw arrows than to move between places in a file on a split screen.

The hardest part about fiction? First, I want you to know that I never, ever thought that I would write fiction. My preference for writing and reading is non-fiction. So it's all hard. But keeping it real, making it plausible, is the hardest part.

Seniorwriter: What inspired you to return to college for a master's degree after twenty years out of college? That's admirable. Would you like to share any other details of your life either before or after that event?

Cheryl: It took me eighteen years after I left high school to get my bachelor's degree. I'm a bit like an academic cicada! If it wasn't for my partner's support, I could never have made the decision to go back to school.

Seniorwriter: What are your future goals, both for writing and for your life? What are you working on now?

Cheryl: The second book in the series is written, but the publisher that I submitted it to just rejected it last week. I figure when I finish licking my woulds that I'll decide what to do with it. It's called Senior Games and has the Six County Senior Olympics as a background. Depending on what I decide, I'll continue working on the third book. Or I may finish up a science fiction book that I've been fooling around with--or I may rework and finish a novel-length allegory--or finish the biography of Theodora van Wagenen Ward that I'm writing.

Seniorwriter: Thank you, Cheryl. I've learned a lot about your book and you. I wish you the very best in your writing and publishing efforts. You've shown that senior citizens can be effective characters in fiction as real, functioning people, good and bad. Keep it up!

Cheryl Hagedorn earned her Master's Degree in Writing from DePaul University after a varied career that included computer programming and the Salvation Army. In addition to teaching writing at the setting of her mystery, she's also taught writing for the Chicago Department of Aging. She is a member of the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Illinois Philological Society, as well as the Chicago Writers Association.

Cheryl's book is available from BookLocker, Amazon.com, and other online book stores. It may also be ordered from you local bricks-and-mortar book store.

For reviews and excerpts, go to http://www.booklocker.com/books/2637.html.

For Cheryl's blog, "Senior Center Murders," go to http://murder.booklocker.com/.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne


Annie said...

This was an interesting interview. Thank you for posting it. Chicago Writers and books about seniors are always interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your interview with Cheryl Hagedorn. Her book is unusual in that it is not a "Whodunit" but is a "Whydunit." I'm looking forward to her second in the series.

Cheryl Hagedorn said...

Thanks so much for doing this, Marlys!

Peter McGinn said...

Hi Marlys - As a friend of Cheryl's, I was pleased to read your interesting interview with her. It is always intriguing to hear about how other writers work. It seems like no two of us do it the same way.

Plus, as a fellow Booklocker.com author, I appreciate the interview on another level. Booklocker is the sort of alternative publisher that needs to be encouraged in the current restrictive publishing environment.

Thanks for running the interview, and for your support of writers who don't make the daytime talk show circuit.

I am saving your blog page address for future perusal. With a name like McGinn, you know I will want to read your blog entries about Ireland!

I hope your week is going well. Keep writing! Peter.

seniorwriter said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I love to write interviews, among other things. I leaarn a lot about writing that way. I, too, am a Chicago author who doesn't make the talk shows. I love blogging! Between blogs and POD publishers, we can all express ourselves. I'm promoting writing for my fellow senior citizens on Seniors Grand Central and elsewhere.

Donald said...

Hi Marlys, You and Cheryl both did a great job with this interview. It's a candid, probing conversation that makes me both want to read more of your blog and Cheryl's novel. Thanks.

cycleppath said...

Cheryl is a very talented writer I love her wor4k

Bastet said...

Thanks for doing an interview with another Chicago writer. We need to stick together!

medoohsa said...

My oldest sister is the Social Director in an upper scale retirement center so I know exactly what Cheryl is talking about from some of the stories Kathy has told me. The "events" she plans are things like cruises and musicals and upper crust outings, but it's all basically the same kind of stuff - getting the "card players" to mingle with the others.

Cheryl, it sounds like you've done a great job for a non-fiction writer moving into the fiction world. I say you continue to stretch your wings.

Sally Jo

seniorwriter said...

Hi, Sally Jo. I leaarned a lot about seniors from Cheryl, and I am one! In fact, I'm moving into an upscale senior residence (The Clare at Watertower) whenever it gets finished. I won't be one of the card players, but I've already opted out of a lot of activities arranged for future Clare residents. I'll probably sit at my computer rather than participating in much, loner that I am. I hope the social director and the other residents don't push me too hard, but I'm sure I won't resort to murder!


Charles Baker said...

It was a pleasure to read such a fine interview of such a fine writer by such a fine Prof. Styne.