There’s no doubt that Janel Gradowski loves to cook. Her blog is filled with recipes and cookbook reviews. So it’s no surprise that her cozy mystery series is based around culinary mysteries.
Today I talk to Janel about the inspiration for her books, her interest in flash fiction, and the intrigue and politics involved in the fictional culinary competitions that are catalysts for the murders in her mysteries. The first book in the series is Pies and Peril.
You can also click here to watch the episode on YouTube.
Transcript of interview with Janel Gradowski
Alexandra: Hi, everyone. This is Alexandra Amor with It’s a Mystery Podcast and I’m here today with Janel Gradowski. Hi, Janel.
Alexandra: Nice to see you. Thanks for being here.
Janel: Thank you for having me.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. So just for anyone that doesn’t know, I am going to give our listeners a bit of an introduction. Janel Gradowski is the author of the bestselling Culinary Competition Mysteries series. She also writes several short fiction series. Her work has appeared in many magazines, anthologies and online journals. She is a wife and mother who lives in the mitten-shaped state of Michigan. I’ve never heard Michigan described that way before and I love it.
Janel: Yes. We always have our map with us when we point to where we live, so it’s great.
Alexandra: It must be easy to teach kids in school then.
Alexandra: Yeah. Oh, fantastic. My parents live in Southern Ontario.
Janel: Not far away.
Alexandra: Not far away. Exactly. So the thing that intrigued me about your books is that you call them Culinary Competition Mysteries, which I thought was really interesting. So they’re not just culinary mysteries; there’s competitions involved.
Tell us a little bit about the books, their background and about Amy Ridley, your heroine.
Janel: Amy loves to compete in culinary competitions, any kind of contest from recipe contests to live cooking shows. It happened in a few of them. So that’s where it came from that I loved watching those kinds of shows on TV, and it goes into my series.
Alexandra: Well done. Okay. And so you obviously like to cook too.
I had a look at your blog and you do recipe book reviews occasionally.
Janel: Yes, I do. I have a huge collection of cookbooks and thank goodness for e-books or they’d be overflowing in my house.
Alexandra: Right. And so tell us about Amy. She’s married. Is she married right at the beginning of the series?
Janel: She is married and I’ve gotten quite a few readers who were surprised by that. It’s not really common it seems in cozy mysteries but, yeah, she is married. Her best friend gets married part-way through the series, and now has had a baby in the latest books, so she is dealing with that.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah. I was reading the descriptions of the books in order on your website, and I noticed that it’s Carol, right? Amy’s best friend.
Alexandra: Carla, Amy’s best friend. She progresses from a love-shy person to someone who’s nearly engaged to getting married to being pregnant.
Janel: Yes, yes. She goes through a lot of changes in the series much more than Amy does.
Alexandra: Isn’t that funny? Yeah.
And are Amy and Carla based on elements of yourself or where would you say Amy’s character mostly comes from?
Janel: The cooking comes from me. And she’s short like I am, so I can give the perspective. One of those sayings that you write what you know, so I give the perspective of being really short. She’s more outgoing than I am though. I’m a little more reserved and she says what hops into her mind and kind of crazy a little bit sometimes, but Carla’s the comic relief in this straight-laced person that’s always knocking her down a little bit when she gets too wild and crazy with their murder mystery theories.
Alexandra: Right. Yes, yeah.
Have you ever been in any cooking competitions yourself?
Janel: No, I haven’t. I heard from a few people that they’re pretty accurate in how I describe them, but, no, I haven’t been in any.
Alexandra: Right. Yeah, I wondered about that. I don’t know if you saw that this year or last year there was a bit of a kerfuffle because at Crufts, the dog competition in England, shortly afterwards one of the top dogs died. It was poisoned. It was murdered essentially.
Janel: I remember that. Yes.
Alexandra: Yeah, and I thought, “Oh, God, that will be a great setting for a mystery.” I’m sure somebody has come up with that idea before.
Alexandra: Your Culinary Competition Mysteries made me think of that as well, and the behind the scenes intrigue and that element of, yeah, people who will go to any lengths to win a contest like that.
That probably comes into your stories as well, yes?
Janel: Yes, that often comes into the stories. And sometimes the murders are with the competition and sometimes they’re not. So I have fun playing around with that, giving myself some leeway to move around a bit in the theme of the series.
Alexandra: And where you live in Michigan, is it a small town?
Janel: I do live in a small town. I actually live in a rural area. There’s a field across the road. But the closest town is a two-stop town. So, yes, I do live in a small way town.
Alexandra: Okay. Yeah.
I can’t remember what it was exactly but something in one of your descriptions made me think of a small town atmosphere where Amy lives. Is it a small town as well?
Janel: I say it’s a medium town for this area. It has a downtown district and a commercial district where district malls and things are. For anybody who knows Michigan, I’d say Midland, which is nearby me, is close to the size of what Kellerton, the fictional town, is.
Alexandra: There have to be a few more people involved in order to have enough murders going on and that kind of thing.
Janel: Yes. Yeah, I move around to different places in the town where I focus on to give me more places for people to be murdered basically.
Alexandra: Yeah, that’s right.
You don’t want to run into what I call Cabot Cove Syndrome, a tiny little place with a murder rate that’s way above New York City or anything.
Janel: Oh, yes. And somehow Amy always manages to find them. There isn’t a murder rate that big anywhere that I know of in a small town in Michigan but it happens.
Alexandra: We all need some leeway, don’t we, with our mystery novels.
Janel: I have to suspend reality a little bit there.
Alexandra: That’s right. Yes, yeah. Exactly.
You have four books in this series, correct?
Alexandra: And then Book 5, you said on a recent blog post, is almost done.
Janel: Yes, I’m editing and getting it ready to turn in. That will be out the summer.
Alexandra: Oh, cool. Great. Okay.
And then there’s also a short story, a Christmas short story midway through the books. Tell us a bit about that.
Janel: That one was written for an anthology for my publisher and I had a lot of fun. There’s no murder in that one because it’s hard to solve a murder in a short story. So that one is sabotage at a cooking competition and it’s pretty much based at the competition and solved as she competes in it.
Alexandra: Okay. You said somewhere else on your blog you’ve written a lot of short stories.
Do you have plans to write more culinary competition short stories?
Janel: There is one in Killer Beach Reads from Gemma Halliday Publishing. There’s another one in there. Well, I started out writing short stories before I began writing novels and so I really love that. I know some novelists have a hard time writing short stories, but it’s one of my loves and I actually have a really easy time writing those.
Alexandra: It’s something I struggle with as well because I always want to say too much and it just becomes a novel anyway.
Is there something that you particularly enjoy about the short story format? Is it that it’s so condensed and concise or fewer characters or…?
Janel: I tend to write pretty condense. My first draft actually ends up short and I have to add words as I edit, so that more condensed version really suits me well with short stories. I actually began writing flash fiction, which is stories 1000 words or less when I first began writing.
Alexandra: Oh, wow.
I saw that phrase on your site, flash fiction, and I didn’t know what it was. Say a bit more about that.
Janel: It’s 1000 words or less. Usually some of them go up to 2000 words and they’re just stories but they’re not vignettes, not just little profiles of something. They have a beginning, middle and end. And I began my writing career writing those and have had quite a bit of success getting those published. I trained myself to write short. So it’s a challenge for me to fill out a novel and actually write a full-length novel.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. I’m a bit the same way, too. When I go through and edit, I end up adding stuff. And some writers as we know tend to be the opposite. They write really long and then have to pare it back. I guess everybody has their own style. The flash fiction you wrote, were those mysteries?
Alexandra: No, okay.
Janel: The short story, which was the beginning of this series, was actually the first mystery short story I wrote.
Alexandra: Okay, got it.
The other thing that I noticed on your site just today was that you do a lot of giveaways, and it’s always cooking-related.
Janel: Yes. I love going to the store and buying neat things to give away, brownie mixes and I have one coming up. I’m trying to figure out…my one-year anniversary for Chicken Soup & Homicide is coming up in a few weeks, so I’m going to do something fun for that.
Alexandra: Fun. Okay. Was that an anthology, Chicken Soup & Homicide?
Janel: No, that’s actually the second book in the series.
Alexandra: Oh, it’s the second one. Sorry, I didn’t recognize the title.
Anyone can enter on your blog for the giveaways. And then you also have what we call a street team, so a team of people who review your books and they’re kind of entitled to more giveaways, I understand.
Janel: I have a few giveaways. I haven’t really had a street team before, so I’m working my way through that. I have about 30 members right now, and I’m sure I’ll open it up to more people in the future again.
Alexandra: And there’s a private Facebook page associated with that?
Janel: Yeah, there’s a private Facebook page that only they can see what I write in there. I try to write some special stuff or let them have some excerpts, and like I said, contests or things like that.
It must be nice having that kind of immediate interaction or feedback from your readers.
Janel: Yes. This last release in December was the first time I had a street team. It was the most exciting release day for me, because they were all chatting with me online and so excited for me and so excited with me. And it was just a lot of fun.
Alexandra: That’s fantastic. That’s great.
If someone wanted to be a part of the street team, do you periodically put a note on the blog saying you’ve got spaces available or…?
Janel: Yeah, on my blog and on my newsletter, and I’d let people know through the newsletter mostly.
Alexandra: Okay, so if somebody wants to be involved, they can sign up for the newsletter.
Janel: Yeah. When I open up calls for it again, then they’ll find out through that.
Alexandra: Yeah. Oh, that’s great.
Do Amy or Carla have a dog because I know Cooper’s a big part of your life?Janel: Yes, Amy has a little dog named Pogo. She calls him a Mutant. That’s funny because he’s a little, grey, fluff ball. But, yeah, he’s her buddy.
Alexandra: Cool. I loved seeing the pictures of Cooper on the website especially in the snow. I live on the West Coast and so we don’t get snow. So it was great seeing it right up to his underarms basically. It’s so deep.
Janel: Oh, yes, and he loves it. He loves ploughing through the snow. And unfortunately we haven’t had hardly any this winter. In fact, last night we had a thunderstorm and it was raining, so it’s untypical weather for Michigan this winter.
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s been weird all over, hasn’t it?
Janel: Yeah, I think it’s that El Niño coming from the West Coast that it’s just messing with us.
Alexandra: Yeah, I think so, too.
I noticed a lot of your reviewers described your books as really fun. Someone said fun and kind of like a little roller coaster ride. Have you always written in that lighthearted, fun tone or is that new for you?
Janel: It’s kind of new. I started out writing more serious stuff, and I think this matches my sense of humor. I’m quiet, but if you get to know me, you never know what I’m going to say. So, yeah, it’s fun. I never set out to write humorous mysteries but it worked out that way.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah. Oh, good.
Amy’s husband, Alex, what does he do?
Janel: He runs a media company, so doing advertising and things like that. And that’s how she met him, so that’s fun.
Alexandra: And then her best friend’s husband is a police officer. Is that right?
Janel: Yes, I had to get that police officer in there somewhere.
Alexandra: Somehow, exactly.
I gather they work together a little bit sometimes when there’s a mystery going on.
Janel: Yes, she helps him a little bit because he’s a straight-laced, tough guy and has no idea about the cooking world since most of the murders do occur in her world instead of his.
Alexandra: Right. Yes, yeah, exactly.
Tell us what the title for Book 5 is. Do you have the title yet?
Janel: I don’t have a title yet. It might be Muffins in Mayhem. That’s the working title.
Alexandra: Okay, cool. So we can keep our eyes open for that.
Alexandra: And so you said maybe summer of 2016.
Janel: Yes, probably early summer, late spring.
Alexandra: Okay, great, fantastic. This has been amazing, Janel. Thank you so much for speaking to me today.
Why don’t you tell everyone where they can find you online?
Alexandra: Cool. Okay, yeah. And as we said, if people want to sign up for the newsletter, then they’ll have an opportunity to get notices about the street team if that opens up. If they like reading fun, cozy mysteries, they can perhaps become a part of that team for you.
Janel: Yes, I was so thrilled with the response. I had set a certain amount of people that I was going to do and had to add more because so many people wanted to sign up for it. So that was really fun.
Alexandra: Oh, lovely. That’s great. Yeah, nice to have that kind of team atmosphere for writers who work alone so much of the time.
Janel: Yes, it’s wonderful.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly, great. Well, thank you so much for being with me today and take care.
Janel: Okay, thank you.