Margaret Maron picks up a pink flamingo perched near her front door, says, “This one needs to be with the others,” and starts walking toward a stand of tall pines where specks of pink glint in the sun.
A flamboyance of flamingos is nestled in the pine needles. Some stand as pink and proud as the day they were stuck in the dirt; others are faded white, beak down and broken-winged.
This is her flamingo rest home. “A refuge for disrespected and dilapidated flamingos,” she says.
If this was one of Maron’s murder mysteries, right about now we’d be finding a body. A skeleton exposed by the recent rains, maybe. Or perhaps just a face would be showing, eyes staring up at the sky. Suddenly this sunny day at the tail end of summer seems ominous and the crunch of a step on a pine cone sends a shiver.
But the crunch is Maron, who, having pushed the flamingo she’s brought down from the house into the ground, is straightening the others while she fusses that the flamingo grove needs some tending.
The birds – the offspring of a long ago joke between Maron and her son – are an unexpected delight, but not unsurprising to those who know Maron or have read Maron.
The author of 30 mystery novels has a quiet sense of humor that reveals itself in her books through wry observations about life or politics. And she answers questions like any good Southern storyteller by taking a circuitous path and invites you to laugh with her along the way.
Her storytelling – most of it set in her native North Carolina – has earned her a spot in the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. She’ll be inducted on Sunday, Oct. 16, along with Clyde Edgerton and Carl Sandburg at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines.
The honor is just the latest in a string that includes the North Carolina Award for Literature and a slew of mystery writing awards that started in 1990 with an Anthony for “Corpus Christmas,” featuring New York City homicide detective Lt. Sigrid Harald. She added an Agatha, an Edgar, another Anthony and a Macavity for her first Deborah Knott novel, “Bootlegger’s Daughter,” two years later. And while Maron says she could have thrown the books that immediately preceded that debut down a rabbit hole for all the attention they received, she’s managed to collect quite a few other awards from her peers and fans along the way.
The bookshelves in her office are lined with the teapots given for Agathas; the bust of Edgar Allen Poe from the Mystery Writers of America given when she won their highest honor, the Grand Master Award; and a plaque for The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award (she’s particularly proud of that one).
Last year, she closed out her popular Deborah Knott series set in fictional Colleton County, N.C., did the usual book signings and mystery conferences, and started another book. That one, the latest – and last – in her Sigrid Harald series, was sent to the publisher last month. (It will be summer before it’s in stores.)
Maron thought she was finished with Harald after eight books, but her husband, Jo,e convinced her she needed one more.
“Did you read the Christmas one?” she asks. She explains Joe was not happy that at the end of “Corpus Christmas” she left some famous artwork in a trunk in the basement.
“My husband, who is the artist, kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get those paintings out of the basement,’” she explains. “So in this book I let them be found.”
Her eyes twinkle, when she says this and you feel as if you’ve been let in on a good secret.
Maron says her decision to end both series doesn’t mean she won’t be writing. She’s returning to her writing roots: short stories. Two collections are already published, and Maron says she has enough for a third.
Love of the land
Fans met her decision to end the Deborah Knott series with dismay. Its appeal for many is not just the heroine, a liberal judge with 11 brothers and a father who was a well-known bootlegger, or the whodunit. Maron shines a light on North Carolina in ways few authors have.
“When you get North Carolina from Margaret’s perspective, it’s through the eyes of love,” says her longtime friend and fellow mystery writer Katy Munger of Durham. “She has a love for all of North Carolina, but the heartbeat for her is right there in Johnston County. ... She’s old North Carolina and modern North Carolina. You can chart the changes in North Carolina through her books.”
Nothing comes out of nothing, so of course some of Deborah is some of me, just as Sigrid is part of me in some respect. … I think Deborah is more outspoken than I am.
So why stop writing about a place you love?
“I’m tired of deadlines,” Maron says, but then she admits to a deeper reason.
“I am so saddened and disheartened by the nosedive that North Carolina has taken the last eight years,” she says. “We used to be the most progressive state in the South, and look at us, we’re the laughingstock of the country now with that stupid bathroom law. … I love this state. I have loved exploring little nooks and crannies from the coast to the mountains, and what they have done to this state has just disheartened me. I just don’t want to write about it any more. I can’t do it without getting on a soapbox, and I’m not going to get on a soapbox.”
It’s a speech befitting Judge Knott, and Maron admits there’s a little of Deborah in her.
“Nothing comes out of nothing, so of course some of Deborah is some of me, just as Sigrid is part of me in some respect. … I think Deborah is more outspoken than I am.”
Like Deborah, Maron lives on family land. Maron’s patch is 40 acres that once belonged to her grandfather.
“On the other side of the woods is the house I grew up in, only that isn’t the house,” she says.
“My grandparents’ house was out in the grove, and that burned in the 1950s ... and my mother’s house burned – we’re bad for burning down houses – in the ’60s.
“We used to grow sweet potatoes where you see those pine trees,” she says. They let most of the fields go back to forest when they built their house there 40 years ago. “That’s how tall trees will get in 40 years.”
At first the house was their vacation home. They’d come in summer when her husband wasn’t teaching art at Brookyn College, but it got harder and harder to go back to New York. So he took a job teaching at Meredith, they added on to the summer place and she wrote her books. They’ve been married 55 years, she says.
A cast of thousands
Over the years her serious New York police woman – born out of feminist desire to answer the misogynistic things being done to women in mysteries written by men, she says – gave sway to a character who liked to have fun. While the Harald series was meant to be a year in the life, the Knott series would be open-ended and feature a big Southern family and a cast of thousands. For those who wonder how she keeps the Knott relations and friends straight, Maron says she keeps a bible of all the characters.
“Every time I create a character I enter them by their last name and then their first name” to avoid repetition, she says. “I tend to want to name all my women characters Ann.” Maron reckons it would take 42 pages to print out all the characters. Each book comes with a family tree in front so people can figure out who’s related to who. Yankee readers tell her they still don’t understand how you can remove a cousin.
Munger, who counts herself lucky to have Maron for a mentor, calls her meticulous.
“She revises and revises. Polishing until it shines.”
Maron’s attention to detail is evident, and she made sure to travel the state to research the Deborah Knott books. Over the years, readers suggested story locales, and if the area clicked for her – like the High Point furniture market – she would do it. Readers also are the reason Deborah married a deputy sheriff.
“About four books into the series, I started getting letters from readers asking ‘When is Deborah going to realize that Dwight is not her brother? And when is Dwight going to realize that Deborah is not his sister?’ And I thought, ‘Where is this coming from?’ I’d had no intention of a romance between those two. … I’d have given him a sexier name if I had known that. Lance or something. … So I went back and read their scenes together, and it’s really great when you can catch your self conscious off guard because I thought, ‘Dwight knows he’s not her brother. She doesn’t know it, but he does.’
“So I thought ‘Well, eventually she’s got to settle down, so I let them,” she says, and smiles.
N.C. Literary Hall of Fame
Margaret Maron, along with Clyde Edgerton and Carl Sandburg, will join the 57 other inductees into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. The hall, founded in 1996, is a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Others in the hall include Thomas Wolfe, Doris Betts, Maya Angelou, Reynolds Price, John Hope Franklin and Elizabeth Spencer.
The ceremony is at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, 555 E. Connecticut Ave., Southern Pines. It is free and open to the public.
Program participants include Rhonda Bellamy, H. Tyrone Brandyburg, Talmadge Ragan, Bland Simpson, Shelby Stephenson, George Terll, and J. Peder Zane.
Margaret Maron on:
Why she writes murder mysteries:
“When I first started to write, I wrote murder mysteries because I could not do a coming of age story. I’m not going to take off my clothes in public and I’m not going to trash my family and my background so I knew I was never going to write a coming of age story. But I grew up reading murder mysteries, and I love them. I love a puzzle, and I thought, ‘You know, I can do that because I thought I didn’t have anything to say, and then I learned that there’s nothing you can’t say in the mystery form.”
The inspiration for Sigrid Harald:
“One of the things that really annoyed me (about books being written by men) was, as soon as the male sleuth fell in love, the woman was either going to be dead at the end of the book or she was going to turn out to be the killer, so that he could dispose of her and in the next book he could lust and love again. … I wanted to show a sleuth who ... didn’t get over the death of her lover that quickly. She mourned him through several books, and she’s only finally coming to terms with that totally now in this last book.”
Sigrid Harald and Deborah Knott:
“Sigrid was a loner, didn’t have much family. Deborah is gregarious, she’s got a huge family. Sigrid is uncomfortable in her own skin, Deborah is extremely comfortable in hers and never saw a pair of tight jeans on a man that she didn’t like.”
Using the family tree:
“In ‘Slow Dollar’ it turns out that this carnival worker who comes out of nowhere is kin to Deborah, and I thought, how could that be? I went back and I looked at the family tree, and I had created a niece … It was a shotgun wedding, and the teenage mother took the child and ran and no one really knew where that child was ... Deborah would be the niece’s aunt, but the niece would be older than Deborah. I thought that would be amusing because that happens in big Southern families. So I went looking and she had changed her name to Tallahassee instead of Olivia, but that was who she was ... and it really totally delighted me.”