May 11, 2016

Sweet Suspense: an interview with Martha Conway, author of "Sugarland"

A New Mystery by Edgar-Nominated Author Martha Conway

In 1921, young jazz pianist Eve Riser witnesses the accidental killing of a bootlegger. To cover up the crime, she agrees to deliver money and a letter to a man named Rudy Hardy in Chicago. But when Eve gets to Chicago she discovers that her stepsister Chickie, a popular nightclub singer, is pregnant by a man she won’t name. That night Rudy Hardy is killed before Eve’s eyes in a brutal drive-by shooting, and Chickie disappears. 

Eve needs to find Chickie, but she can’t do it alone. Lena Hardy, Rudy’s sister, wants to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder, but she needs Eve’s connections. Together they navigate the back alleys and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago, encountering petty thugs, charismatic bandleaders, and a mysterious nightclub owner called the Walnut who seems to be the key to it all. As they fight racial barriers trying to discover the truth, Eve and Lena unravel a twisted tale of secret shipments and gangster rivalry.

SUGARLAND mixes the excitement of a new kind of music—jazz—with the darker side of Prohibition in a gripping story with “real suspense for anyone who likes a good mystery.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

Find SUGARLAND on Amazon and Goodreads!

Gef: What was the spark that made you sit down to write this book?

Martha: I was listening to an early piece of jazz—“Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” played by the great Sidney Bechet, and I realized I was imagining a story in the back of my mind. A woman was going down a cold, winter road looking for something or someone. That’s all I knew.

Gef: How long have you been toiling away at your craft, and how have you found your progression as a writer thus far?

Martha: I’ve been writing since I was about five years old, only back then it was with crayon on wallpaper. Since then I’ve graduated to paper and computer. My first novel, unpublished thank goodness, was what you might call a “starter novel” — this is where I began learning the nuts and bolts of creating characters and building plots. Every novel is a learning experience.

My first published book, 12 Bliss Street, was a mystery, which I think is absolutely the best genre for a new writer to cut her teeth on, since writing a mystery really teaches you how to build up a plot, and prepare (and exploit) reader expectations. In mysteries, every plot point is a development of something that has happened previously. There’s no wandering (even if it seems, at times, like there’s no clear direction). That’s good practice for any kind of writer.

As I move into historical fiction I find that, whether my novels include crime-solving or not, I want the plot to move fast and have a lot of twists. But every twist has to have its own logic within the story. You have to make a case for it. Sometimes I think that writing is a lot like being a lawyer.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Martha: Dickens, definitely, for his sense of fun and his amazing characters. Also Laurie King, Caleb Carr, and Walter Mosely.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Martha: I studied with a teacher who used to say, “Never go into a character’s head or heart.” This lends distance to the story, in my opinion, and makes it much harder for readers to care about or engage with the character.

I also dislike this advice to new writers: “If you can do anything else, do it.” Sure, writing is hard and can be frustrating and you may not succeed with your project. But I think if you want to write (even if you can do something else—William Carlos Williams sold insurance) you should try! Why not? We’re not all of us going to be Toni Morrison, that’s true, but being creative is an activity that is rewarding in and of itself. At least, I think so.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Martha: I love Patrick O’Brian, all his sea-faring tales. Reading read him and Jane Austen is like eating comfort food.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Martha: My next book will be coming out in 2017; it’s called THE FLOATING THEATRE, and takes place on the Ohio River in Antebellum America. A socially awkward costume designer gets caught up in the Underground Railroad— that’s all I’ll say.

In terms of my many shenanigans, you can always check my web site:


Martha Conway is the author of Sugarland: A Jazz Age Mystery [Noontime Books], available via Amazon as of May 12, 2016. Conway’s first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her second novel, Thieving Forest, won the 2014 North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, The Carolina Quarterly Review, The Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Folio, and other journals. She teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she is one of seven sisters. She currently lives in San Francisco.

Connect with Martha on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and her website:


  1. I did enjoy this novel, but at times could not follow who was a part of what gang. The one thing that was quite striking in telling of the murders and crime was the absence of the police. The police were paid off to look the other way. It is interesting that our society now is seen to be crime-ridden, with gangs, guns, and drugs being prevalent, when almost one hundred years ago, we had the same problems.

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  2. Thanks for this comment, Jasmine. The more I research I do for my historical novels, the more I see similarities in our current culture — which is eye-opening.

  3. I like the sounds of this. And that it was inspired by music. Putting it on my tbr list ;-)