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Margaret Maron: Bootlegger Belle
By Scott Nicholson


Margaret Maron is one of North Carolina’s preeminent mystery writers and a perennial candidate for national awards. Now she’s turned her inquisitive eye to the Blue Ridge Mountains as material for her next novel.

Maron, a Raleigh NC native, has been in the mountains conducting research for a novel based in the area that will feature her recurring character, Deborah Knott. Knott is a thirtyish District Court Judge in the Research Triangle area who grew up as an ex-bootlegger’s daughter on a tobacco farm, and is a humorous and passionate woman with loads of colorful relatives who don’t always stay on Knott’s side of the law.

Maron developed Knott as a district court judge as a way to explore North Carolina, since judges rotate among various judges for their court assignments. Maron said that while some of Knott’s traits emerge from autobiography, but are exaggerated. "She has more confidence, is mouthier, smarter and thinner than I am," Maron said. "It’s fun to be able to do and say outrageous things (through the character) that I don’t feel comfortable saying."

Maron took a roundabout route back to her Carolina roots, spending years in New York, which led her to launch her first novel series featuring a New York detective. Lt. Sigrid Harald is a loner whose photographer mother is distant and whose father was an officer killed in the line of duty. That character is another exaggeration of a different side of Maron’s personality, shy and awkward. But before Harald was hatched, Maron thought she was a short story writer, enduring numerous rejections before landing a story in the prestigious Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

She wrote stories for 12 years, including stories outside the mystery genre, before finally tackling a novel. Maron said she was a little daunted by the idea of writing a long manuscript after so many years of writing short stories. Still, the stories allowed her to hone her skills as she focused on her strengths and areas of interest.

The love of puzzles and mysteries dates back to childhood. "I used to love it when my shoelaces got knotted," she said. "I would drop a ball of string and then spend a few days sorting out the tangles. I like to create chaos and then resolve the chaos."

Maron had already moved back to the Raleigh area with her husband when she began writing about her New York character, then wrote a North Carolina-based novel "Bloody Kin." An editor’s encouragement launched the Deborah Knott series several years later and opened the floodgates of Maron’s popularity.

In 1993, her novel "Bootlegger's Daughter" won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Anthony Award for Best Mystery Novel of 1992, the Agatha Award for Best Traditional Novel, and the Macavity for Best Novel, the first time one novel has ever won all four awards.

Basing her work on home ground also allowed her to explore some of the issues around her, such as the conflict of growth versus preservation, as well as using her personal experiences. "I grew up in the country where the nights were dark and you could see the stars,’ she said. "That was then and this is now. Now we have a lot of buildings and we’ve lost the Milky Way."

Maron's works have been translated into seven languages and are on the reading lists of various courses in contemporary Southern literature. They have also been nominated for every major award in the American mystery field.

Maron believes the mystery genre is just as respectable as books generally labeled "literary," and have the added benefit of being well-plotted and entertaining. "I hate that mystery has been shunted over into a separate genre and resent it being said that it’s ‘less valid,’" she said. "There’s nothing you can’t say in a mystery.

Maron stays active traveling for conventions and promotional reasons, though she scaled back her calendar when she realized she had committed to 90 events in one year. She is a founding member of Sisters in Crime and served as its third president. She is also a past president of the American Crime Writers League, and past member of the national board of Mystery Writers of America.

She plans to write at least one more book featuring Sigrid Harald, and her newest book "Last Lessons of Summer," features neither of her series characters. It’s a mystery that sends a young New York publisher to North Carolina to clean out a family estate, uncovering secrets in the process.

After 19 books, Maron has no plans to slow down. She will continue the Knott series for the rest of her career and enjoys exploring her native state: "I expect to run out of time long before I run out of things to write about." Fortunately for her readers, her fictional supply of greed and jealously is also unlikely to be depleted anytime soon.

Margaret Maron's website

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