Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Visit to Montana with Leslie Budewitz

I'd like to welcome Leslie Budewitz to the blog today. Leslie writes the Food Lover's Village Mystery series. Crime Rib, the second in the series was released July 1st following last year's Death al Dente.

Kathy: I am very proud of WNY, you seem proud of where you live too. Can you tell me just some of the things that make Montana so special?

LB: First, the people. They’ve got an independent spirit, but are community-minded. Our town – I use the term loosely – is unincorporated, but looks like a town, with its original village and its highway businesses, its neighborhoods and outlying areas. It boasts a tremendous volunteer corps. We make a party and a festival out of nearly everything, from “Clean Your Fork” in the spring when we pick up trash and tidy the roads and parks to the self-explanatory “Decorating Day” in December and “Undecorating Day” in January. We’ve also got far more artists, musicians, and writers than you’d expect in a town of less than 5,000, which most long-timers attribute to a few key people who fostered that spirit in the 1970s. That creativity has become part of our community character, as well as an integral part of our economy, and I try to do my part to nurture it.

And of course, the incredible natural beauty and all the opportunities it offers for recreation. Taking a walk around here is like meditation.

Kathy: I love the idea of being a locavore and am lucky to live in an area with plenty of good fresh local food and beverages. I was, therefore, excited to hear about your Food Lovers' Village Mystery series. What made you decide to turn a general store into a boutique market of local food treats?

LB: Well, Erin did that – not me! Small towns face tremendous pressures in the modern world and to keep up, they’ve got to reinvent themselves occasionally or find a niche – just as businesses do. In my role as a lawyer, I once mediated a dispute between an employer and a manager who complained that the company was constantly changing things, bringing in new products and marketing campaigns, changing the store layout, bringing in new ideas just when he got comfortable with the old ones. The employer’s response was that businesses always have to change, to stay fresh and interesting to the customer. The manager just couldn’t get it – which is why we had a problem.

Erin Murphy, my main character, very much follows the manager’s philosophy. It’s obvious to her that the Merc is struggling because it’s lost its identity and must forge a new one. She realizes that folks won’t come downtown – aka the Village – for groceries unless she gives them good reason. It’s so much easier to slide in and out of the big grocery store on the highway. The tourists want an interesting experience, blending a touch of the familiar with the local and exotic. Summer folks – those who come here every year, sometimes following decades-old family traditions – have their own mix of needs. And the locals – well, they tie it all together. Finding the mix that suits everyone and keeps the money flowing is a real challenge!

And Erin’s mother Fresca can’t understand why things need to change – even though she invited, even begged, Erin to come home to change things!

Just as I was finishing Death al Dente, I needed a birthday present and thought “I’ll pop into the Merc and see what they have.” Then I remembered it only exists in my head and on the page. Either I’ve created a magical, welcoming spot---or I’ve gone off the deep end. You decide!

My neighbors have given me a little flak for creating a business where they’d like to shop---if it really existed. Business opportunity available!

Kathy: In Death al Dente there are rumors of a stolen recipe. Do you guard your recipes, or do you willingly share them all?

LB: I think the recipe sections in the back of the books answer that question! I’ve never quite understood the recipe-hoarder mentality, or the cooks who share but intentionally leave out a secret ingredient. After all, isn’t sharing the love as much a part of cooking as taste and nutrition?

Kathy: In Crime Rib Erin Murphy looks forward to enjoying the 35th Annual Jewel Bay Summer Art and Food Festival. I love festivals and go to a few myself. Do you go to many festivals? Do you have a favorite? Is the festival in Jewel Bay based on a real festival somewhere?

LB: Our short season means we need to celebrate when we can, especially if we want to entertain those tourists. So every town and city in Montana has its festivals: Dog & Grog, Buzzard Days (“celebrating nature’s cleaners” – I’m not making that up), Homesteader Days, Pioneer Days, Strawberry Fest, Sweet Pea Festival, your choice of Huckleberry Days, Pow Wows, Mountain Men Rendezvous, and more. Jewel Bay’s festival combines them all, but it owes its biggest debt to the local festivals.

Kathy: What first drew you to cozy mysteries? Do you write in any other genres?

LB: As a lawyer and aspiring mystery writer, I’d been helping writers who had questions about legal issues in their fiction for years – how would a fictional detective get a search warrant, when are Miranda warnings required, could a particular character inherit from another, and so on. I wrote columns in writers’ newsletters and started my blog, www.LawandFiction.com/blog , and then wrote my first book, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, 2011), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. I love helping other writers. But while writing Books, Crooks, I realized I wasn’t through writing mystery, that I still wanted to tell my own stories. I love all variety of mystery, but decided to focus on the cozy because it combines everything I love about fiction.

Cozies combine plot, character, and setting with fun and community. The amateur sleuth uses her knowledge of the community to investigate, realizing that her skills and connections give her access to information that law enforcement lacks. She helps them and they close the case because of her – they restore external order, through the justice system, but she restores social order. And ultimately, the cozy mystery – whether it’s set in a small town or a particular segment of a big city – is about community. And food!

Kathy: Tell us about your series. Do you have plans for future books either in your current series or a new series?

LB: The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries are set in Jewel Bay, Montana, a lakeside resort community on the road to Glacier National Park. They feature Erin Murphy, manager of The Merc, a specialty local foods market located in her family’s century-old building, the town’s first grocery. Death al Dente was published a year ago and won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The second, Crime Rib, was published July 1, 2014. Delighted to say both are national bestsellers. The third Village book, still untitled, will be published in July 2015, and I hope there will be more.

Assault & Pepper, first in the Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries, will be published in March 2015. Pepper Reece runs the Spice Shop in Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, specializing in herbs, spices, and a pinch of murder.

Each series is published under a three-book contract with Berkley Prime Crime, the leading publisher of cozy mysteries. I’d love to keep telling both Erin’s and Pepper’s stories, but whether the series continue after the third book depends on the publisher – and reader interest.

Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

LB: Erin and Pepper each embody aspects of my own experience – I’m a Montana girl who moved to Seattle for college and a legal career, then returned home in my early 30s. Each of the other characters, major and minor, has their own genesis. In the Village series, I particularly enjoy exploring the relationship between Erin and her mother Fresca, and between Erin and her estranged friend from childhood, Detective Kim Caldwell. Candy Divine and Ned Redaway are pure fun, and even grim Sally Grimes has her moments! And then there are the two men vying for Erin’s romantic attention---Rick Bergstrom and Adam Zimmerman. I hope they all come to life on the page for the reader as they do for me!

Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?

LB: Hmm. I’ll call my friend Marianne Forrest to cater so I can sip wine and enjoy the conversation. Best not to try to cook and serve while awestruck. Now, because I haven’t met any of these writers, I can’t tell how well they’d get along---a factor in any guest list. I can pretty much guarantee this list will change in five minutes, when I remember someone I forgot---which is part of the fun of questions like this!

So today, the list would go like this: Toni Morrison, American novelist and Nobel prize winner for literature. I’ve read her 2008 novel A Mercy several times and am due for another trek back in time with her. Mary Oliver, American poet of the heart and of landscape. I suspect she’s quite shy, so if she wants to bring her dog---whom she often writes about---I’d stock up on liver treats. Ted Kooser, former American poet laureate. I wrote him a fan letter once and he wrote back. And Wallace Stegner, the late novelist and essayist whose Angle of Repose and Big Rock Candy Mountain are to me the essential novels of the West.

Now you may notice the lack of mystery writers. That’s because I get to see my favorite living writers at Malice Domestic, the annual convention celebrating the traditional mystery, where we also celebrate our favorite writers of the past. But if you give me a bonus pick, I’d invite Agatha Christie. And my agent, Paige Wheeler, and my editor, Faith Black, who would kill me if they didn’t get to join us.
What are you currently reading?

I’ve been immersing myself into “kitchen lit” – chefs’ memoirs and journalists’ explorations of food. A few recent favs: Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by clinical psychologist and food writer Scott Haas, Cooked, by Michael Pollan, and Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune in New York City. I’m also pouring through spice catalogs and histories for my Spice Shop series.

Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?

LB: At the moment, writing and my law practice take most of my time, but I also love to paint. My media are watercolor, dye on silk, and pastel. The birch grove on my website (www.LeslieBudewitz.com) is one of my paintings. Mr. Right and I love to hike and sail as well, and of course, we love to cook, to create new recipes, and to share them with our friends and family.

Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.

LB: Kalamata olives, good cheese, crackers, and chilled white wine, preferably pinot grigio or a good NW Chardonnay.

Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?

LB: Not wearing shoes to work. And getting to play for a living. Writing is my passion and my privilege, and I’m so grateful to the readers who make it possible!

For more tales of life in the wilds of northwest Montana, and bonus recipes, visit her website and subscribe to her newsletter. Website: www.LeslieBudewitz.com   Find her on Facebook: LeslieBudewitzAuthor


  1. Thanks for hosting me, Kathy, and for a fun interview!

  2. Wonderful interview. Made me hungry for some wine and cheese, and a good book.
    Luckily, I have DEATH AL DENTE on my bookshelf.