Fire-Sky Pueblo police officer Nicky Matthews must navigate tribal laws and cultural customs and traditions. But as an outsider, why does she see visions of ancient Native American spirits? Are they there to help solve the puzzle of lost and missing tribal members? Or will they lead her and her friends on the pueblo into perilous danger from which they cannot escape?
Interview with Carol Potenza
Carol Potenza’s debut mystery novel, HEARTS OF THE MISSING, will be published December 4th, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur.
Question - Please describe what the book is about.
Carol Potenza - HEARTS OF THE MISSING introduces Sergeant Nicky Matthews, a non-Native police officer working on Native American Pueblo in central New Mexico. A young woman’s suicide leads Nicky to a list of missing tribal members. As she investigates, she discovers not only murder but a horrifying motive that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a member of the Fire-Sky people.
Q - Where did you get the idea?
CP - From ‘visions’ and ghost stories told by my family members (all true!) and a Zuni petit point coral necklace with a four chambered center, like a heart. The stories are from actual experiences my relatives have had which fascinated me because I’ve never seen anything supernatural in my life. When I lost a stone from the necklace around the same time a close relative passed away, I wrote a short story to explain how the loss of the stone was linked to the death or disappearance of a loved one. The idea for the book grew from this.
Q - What’s the story behind the title?
CP - The original title was ‘Spirit’s Heart’. It was the name I gave to a piece of jewelry that plays a prominent role in the book. The editor thought that title was too ‘romance’ and asked for another. In the book, one of the characters has a university course project entitled ‘The Hearts of the Missing Still Beat’. I proposed that title and the editor selected just the core for the book.
Q - No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
CP - Keres, the Native language of many New Mexico Pueblos, is used throughout the book. For the audio book, a Keres speaker was kind enough do a recording of the pronunciation of these words.
Q - Tell us about your favorite character.
CP - I really loved writing New Mexico State Police Chief Darlington Xavier (Dax) Stone. Movie star handsome, smarmy but charming, and with U.S. Senate aspirations, he uses the protagonist Nicky Matthews to help him solve high-profile crimes that will boost his political profile, potentially at the expense of her career. He’s a great pot-stirrer and you can’t trust him because he always comes first on his list—except he has a soft spot for Nicky!
Q - If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
CP - Ha ha! It would be with Sergeant Nicky Matthews on a ride-along on the Tsiba’ashi D’yini Pueblo. I’d love to see the view from the top of the Fire-Sky Casino and Resort and from the Kuwami K’uuti overlook on Scalding Peak, the dormant volcano at the center of Fire-Sky tradition and culture.
Q - Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
CP - Most of them are crafted from the shadows and facets of people I’ve met which I then twist into the characters of the book. It’s like a writing prompt where you’re given the photo of a real person and have to put together their fictional backstory.
Q - How long did you take to write this book?
CP - I started it in January of the year before it was selected as the Tony Hillerman Prize in March of 2017. It took me about six months to write and six months to edit to the manuscript I sent into the Prize on January 4, 2017. During that time, I pitched it to another publisher who asked for a full, but rejected it. After it was selected, the St. Martin’s Press editor gave me some edits that made the story about a million times better. It took 18 months from the time it was chosen to publication December 4, 2018.
Q - What kind of research did you do for this book?
CP - I have ‘sources’ on pueblos here in New Mexico that were/are invaluable for questions about the police procedural processes. I did ride-alongs and visited museums and fiestas on Native American Pueblos. I traveled to Native American ruins, talked to members of different tribes in New Mexico, visited mesas, deserts, plains, rivers, forests so I could describe the scenery. And for the science, I learned it from in-depth reading of the literature and talking to doctors and nurses. And of course, Google was/is my best source. I’ve been to some pretty dark and distant places on the internet.
Q - What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
CP - I removed the POV of a character whose voice initially encompassed about 30% of the book! You know what was funny? My crit group had been advising the same thing. I can’t tell how much better that made the story.
Q - Are you a plotter or a pantser?
CP - I plot in my head, but pants on the page. I always know the beginning, the science, the crime, and the ghost story. I start writing, figure out the end, then write toward it. Sometimes there seems to be an insurmountable chasm to cross, but so far I’ve been able to build that bridge.
Q - What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
CP - Twisting the paths of the subplots together until they form the road my protagonist, Nicky, is running down to the finish. That road is actually an arroyo that’s hard to climb out of, and, by the end, a metaphorical flash flood is chasing her, poor thing.
Q - What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
CP - Honestly? Finding the time to write. Like a lot of writers, I have a full-time job to pay the bills, and someone at home who I don’t see all day and want to spend time with. (I can’t imagine having children at home! Mine are grown and gone now.) I try to write from about 5:00-7:30 am before work and shoot for 4000-6000 words a week. I usually don’t write in the evenings or on the weekends unless my husband is out of town.
Q - Can you share your writing routine?
CP - I have a dedicated office, but also sit at the kitchen table as well as a desk in the den. I’m learning to write everywhere under all conditions. But that is tough. I like longer blocks because I chew up my scenes as I stare at the computer screen and am back and forth and back on forth on language and subplots and themes. I write two steps forward, one step back with lots of highlights and notes. I really try to make anything I put on the page relevant to the story: if it’s on the page, it means something!
Q - Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
CP - I haven’t really. I always have a scene or two waiting in my head that I can write, even out of sequence (although I don’t like to do that).
Q - If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
CP - I only started to write a few years ago. I don’t think I had the maturity for what I needed to do before I turned fifty!
Q - How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
CP - I have three completed unpublished manuscripts, one of which is the second book in the Nicky Matthews series, and two unfinished manuscripts, one of which is the third Nicky Matthews book I am writing on now.
Q - Do you have any writing quirks?
CP - I write two steps forward, one step back, always tinkering and editing as I work through my first draft.
Q - Tell us about yourself.
CP - I have a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California at San Diego. I did research in plant genetic engineering at New Mexico State University for fifteen, before I started teaching (no more bench or field work) biochemistry at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at NMSU. I have two amazing children, one in an MD/PhD program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, and one in a PhD program in Music (he is a phenomenal trumpeter) at the University of North Texas in Denton. I also have a wonderful husband who is a family practice physician (yes, we are all WAY over educated) at health clinics in southern New Mexico. Two goldfish for pets and a bunch of geckos that hang outside on our bedroom window at night eating bugs.
Q - How did you get into writing?
CP - For so many years, I lived and breathed scientific research and had two kids who took up my time. When I moved from research to teaching, my children were in or starting college and I found I had a lot more free time. I was getting older and thought about what I wanted to do when I retired and figured I’d write books—things I would want to read. So I started writing them.
Q - What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
CP - Spend time with my husband, visit family, and travel for research, mostly to central and northern New Mexico to visit the various Native American reservations and pueblos.
Q - Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
CP - I have a number of scientific publications. One is a review of plant promoters that could be useful for plant genetic engineering. I also have a few on plant parasitic nematodes. I’m starting to write articles as a guest blogger for some online newsletters.
Q - Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
CP - My first job was working at Disneyland. I sold hamburgers. Lots of hamburgers.
Q - Which book influenced you the most?
CP - It wasn’t so much a book, but books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I love their innovation, their twisted plots, the science they layer through their work, and the suspense and action that run like a train in all their stories. I literally always learn a new vocabulary word when I read their books. In some small way, I wanted to write like them.
Q - What are you working on right now?
CP - I’m editing the second Nicky Matthews book in the series, writing the third, and researching the fourth. Keeps me busy.
Q - What’s your favorite writing advice?
CP - Write/edit/critique something every day.
Q - The book you’re currently reading
CP - Roger Johns Dark River Rising, and Anne Hillerman’s Cave of Bones, and Catherine Riggs’s What She Gave Away. I always have a few books going so I can choose one to match my mood.
Q - Did you have any sort of agenda when you started this book?
CP - I heard a great piece of advice from a recent meeting I attended: write for story, not agenda. For HEARTS OF THE MISSING, I didn’t come up with a theme or idea and decide to write a story around it. I just started writing something that put together things (mystery, science, supernatural) that I liked to read. I was about half-way through when I realized this might be a ‘Tony Hillerman’ type of book. I was looking for ways to pitch it when I came across the Tony Hillerman Prize. I entered and won!
Carol Potenza’s Biography
Carol Potenza is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Leos, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. HEARTS OF THE MISSING, her debut novel, is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.
Links to Carol Potenza