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'Death by Hitchcock': A Conversation With Elissa Grodin

06/16/2015 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

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Photo: Gretchen Yengst

Elissa Grodin's father, Stan Durwood, was the founder of AMC Entertainment and invented the multiplex and megaplex movie theater concept. Elissa studied film at Dartmouth College, and painting at the New York School of Visual Arts. While living in London, she wrote for the London Times Literary Supplement, reviewing books and films. After moving to New York, she worked for Twentieth Century Fox, reading novels to be optioned for film rights.

As a freelance journalist, while on assignment for American Film Magazine, she interviewed Charles Grodin, the actor and writer. They were married a year later.

Before turning to writing cozy mysteries, Elissa wrote six children's books.

Death by Hitchcock is Elissa's second Edwina Goodman novel taking place in the cozy college town of New Guilford. Soon after the start of showing the Hitchcock classic Spellbound, a scream is heard in the theatre. Moments later, a young woman's body is found in the women's restroom. Scrawled on the wall with lipstick is the message, "Revenge is sweet and not fattening," a line from a Hitchcock film. There are many suspects with varying motives and opportunities, yet each one has an airtight alibi.

Elissa's knowledge of classic films figures into the enigma of who committed the murder. Equally important is the novel's protagonist, Assistant Professor of Physics, Edwina Goodman's knowledge of physics in attempting to solve this intriguing mystery.

How do you go about constructing a mystery novel such as Death by Hitchcock?
I begin with my characters because I love a character-driven mystery. I place them in an interesting setting because I think that's what sparks readers' curiosity. I eventually find my way, but it seems to happen a little differently with each book. I think of the victim first. Who is it I want to kill off? That's the fun part. I think we all have homicidal impulses and it's great to have license to let my homicidal flag fly.

Actually, I work backwards, wondering who in that character's world would have had a motive to commit murder. It's really a matter of placing the victim in the context of relationships within the setting. It doesn't always work, and sometimes I have to delete lots of pages. The fun is the challenge of creating this mystery, and the journey it takes to having it solved. As E. L. Doctorow said, 'Writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlight beams, but you make the journey.'

Many writers worry about where the next idea will come from. Do you?
No, and I'll tell you why. It's because I'm not overly ambitious. (Laughter) If nothing comes to me, I just work in my garden which is a great thing for me to do. I'm kind of a fan of Zen Buddhism. Something in Buddhist thinking intrigues me: even the God of Spring doesn't know where flowers come from. I sometimes ask myself, 'Where did the idea for the last one come from?' and the answer is, 'It came from the same place the idea for the next one will come from.' But how it happens is often a mystery to me.

What are the advantages of writing a series such as the Edwina Goodman mysteries?
There are two advantages. First, a series is more marketable. (Laughter). The second is more important: I really love my characters, and enjoy spending time with them. I want to see what's going to happen to Edwina and Will, her romantic interest. I really delight in seeing my characters evolve. In a way, they're going to let me know where they're heading.

So, you go on a journey with your characters.
Absolutely, I do. And I hope my readers will, as well.

You once said writing a mystery involves bringing order out of chaos. Will you talk a bit about that?
I think all of writing does that. I'm a big fan of Freud. I'm intrigued by the notion that we each have a life drive and a death drive. It seems to me, the death drive entails pushing to get back from whence we came--the cosmic soup of stardust. So, that represents chaos--the death drive. My writing is pacifying, and gives me a delusional sense of control, making order out of chaos with words. With each book, I create my own little ordered universe.

You're a huge film buff. How do films impact your writing?
I'm a very visual person. I visualize character and place, which helps me advance a novel's narrative. For me, it's like watching scenes in a movie. I have various movie scenes imprinted in my brain. I reflect on them as a sort of reference library. My books must maintain the same pacing and narrative drive, just the way a good film does.

What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
(Laughter) I would be puttering around. That's what I like to do.
I'd read, work in my garden, listen to music, and go to museums to look at art.

What do you love about the writing life?
I love trying to experience life in the moment--to be fully alert during any moment in time. Writing does that for me. It keeps me focused in the moment. It's like meditation. I love the absorption of writing, the immersion in the world I'm creating. It's like working in the garden in the sense I experience a deep feeling of connectedness when I'm writing.

What has surprised you about the writing life?
How difficult it is. Ideas are easy compared to the actual craft of writing. It's really hard for me to have a three-dimensional sense of anticipation. It's such a challenge to put a complete world onto one canvas in an entertaining way.

What's coming next from you?
I'm working on the third Edwina novel, tentatively entitled Quicksand of Reason. According to a criminal defense attorney I know, a majority of crimes are committed by people who lack a sense of boundaries and a sense of self. Having too much self-focus clouds our ability to see the world clearly. So, the novel is in part, a metaphor for unbridled vanity.

Congratulations on writing Death by Hitchcock, a mystery combining physics, Hollywood, competitive academics and murder.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of The Lovers' Tango and Return to Sandara