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Take 5: St. Louis-born author Linda Joffe Hull on new mystery series

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: St. Louis-born author Linda Joffe Hull grew up with a love for books and a father who encouraged that love in his own way.

“My father encouraged us to read and wouldn’t let us read any children’s books, we had to read all the classics in elementary school,” she says. “He read us ‘Metamorphosis’ in third grade. I read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in fourth grade. It really isn’t a book for fourth graders, but I loved to read.”

Hull read the classics her father insisted on, but also found ways to sneak in the Weekly Readers she loved. After graduation from Horton Watkins High School, she studied economics in college. But once out of school, she started taking writing classes.

“As soon as I graduated and found a real job, I started taking nighttime classes ... and never quit,” says Hull, who now lives in Denver.

Hull’s second book, “Eternally 21,” is the first in a mystery series in the cozy genre. Hull, who will be at the Central West End location of Left Bank Booksat 7 p.m. July 9 for a reading of her new book, spoke with the St. Louis Beacon about her work, how she learned to write mysteries and what she’s working on next. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: What was the process like of writing your first novel, “The Big Bang,” and then sharing it with readers?

Linda Joffe Hull: “The Big Bang” is not my first novel. Usually with writers you have a few in the drawer, and I am no different. I brought in 10 pages of (this) manuscript to my writer’s group here -- we have a really good writing organization in Colorado called “Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers” -- and I thought they’d kind of say, "Oh that’s cute, but keep your day job." But they really liked it and encouraged me to write it.

This idea for “The Big Bang” was sort of percolating in my head. Someone had said something that really struck me about the suburbs. “The Big Bang” is a suburban satire/pregnancy who-done-it about life out in the ‘burbs.

Here in Denver it’s way different than suburban St. Louis, although I guess Chesterfield would be the closest. It’s just miles and miles and miles of houses that look the same here. I got this idea -- someone made a comment about some weird stuff going on in their neighborhood, and I was like, oh, there’s a book.

I really spent years playing with the characters and the ideas. It took a long time to get published because it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s kind of it’s own thing.

Your new book, “Eternally 21,” is the first in a series. What can you tell us about Mrs. Frugalicious and about this book?

Hull: I got the idea for that book by watching “Extreme Couponing,” I was flipping through channels and I couldn’t believe how smart you have to be to be a really good couponer. You have to have mad math skills.

A different editor than the one who published “The Big Bang” read it and she she couldn't have bought it because she only did mysteries, and she said, I wish you’d write a book for me.

I don’t know what to write a mystery about. I’ve never written a mystery. And I was watching “Extreme Couponing” and there was my story.

Mrs. Frugalicious is the wife of Channel 3’s financial guru who’s lost everything in a Ponzi scheme, and she’s a well-known housewife who hasn’t worked. Now she has to bargain hunt to make ends meet. So she starts this website to get ideas on couponing as well as give them, and she does so secretly and anonymously, and she goes viral. She has to keep her identity secret because she’s out there giving advice.

I just thought this couponer is the perfect person to get herself involved in a murder at the mall. They could probably solve it in a way a lot of people couldn’t.

Since this was your first mystery, what were the biggest challenges of writing “Eternally 21”?

Hull: I’ve read a lot. I tend to read darker and more literary stuff than I wrote. When that editor asked me to write a book for her, I actually went to this book store in Denver called The Book Nook. It separates books by female authors and male authors.

I took 20 books off the shelf and read one after the other. Of the female-written mysteries called cozy, I got the vibe and the beat of how a book like that works. I figured, I can do this.

Mysteries are very much plot driven and story driven, whereas mainstream or literary novels are very much character driven, so I just focused as much on the story and plot as I do on the characters. I believe that if it’s just story driven or just character driven you don’t have a complete book anyway. I felt like it helped me as an author, actually.

What are you working on now?&

Hull: I’m working on book No. 2 in the Mrs. Frugalious series, called “Black Thursday.” It takes place at a big box store on the black Friday weekend. Someone dies when a pallet of toasters crushes them and it looks like an accident. It turns out not to be, and Mrs. Frugalicious has to solve the mystery again. I’m also working on another mainstream novel. I’m working with a co-author, Kier Graff, and we are writing a pretty serious literary novel about a couple who becomes swingers. It’s kind of a morality-issue novel; and it’s really fun to write, although that sounds kind of tawdry, but the subject matter is really serious.

I’ve read about your background and your education and the things you grew up reading, it seems like you have a very serious, almost classic vein to you. How did you end up writing the kinds of books that you’re writing now, which sound like a lot of fun? How did you end up going in that direction instead of writing the next big American tome?

Hull: It’s interesting. I’m an observer of modern life, and modern life is a combination of things. Some things are very serious. Some things are so absurd, they need to be written about. “The Big Bang,” I feel like, I covered the absurd things. And truly in my Mrs. Frugalicious series, the absurdities of modern life are where I sit as a writer.

The book I’m working on as a co-writer, I’ve had that percolating for about five years. I couldn’t figure out how to make that funny. I do tend to write about what I think are serious things in a funny way. I think I’m a combination of things.

I’m not limiting myself to write about just serious stuff or just satire or just a mystery. I wouldn’t want to be any one of those things but all of those things.

Kristen Hare