Interview: Sheila Lowe
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Gumshoe Review *Interview
Date: 24 August 2008
Gumshoe: With two books in the Claudia Rose series out and a third in the pipe, are you still enjoying the character and her ability to get into and out of trouble?
Sheila Lowe: Hard to believe, it's been about ten years since I first started writing Claudia, so by now she seems like an old friend who I love to visit. Each book feels like a revelation about her, and hopefully she'll continue to grow and evolve for many books to come before I get tired of writing about her.
Gumshoe: I find the parts of the book that describe Claudia's methods and procedures to be as fascinating and absorbing as the plot and characters themselves. As a handwriting expert yourself with lots of experience in the field as well as books and monographs on the subject, do you feel that the books are also a chance to help educate people to the usefulness and scientific validity of the field?
Sheila: It's my hope that people will learn enough about handwriting analysis to pique their interest and make them want to learn more. Graphology--that's the generic term--is a little-known discipline, and there are many ways it can help people, from self-understanding to relationships, to pre-employment screening and loads more. It would be great if people who read my series discover that graphology is not the hocus-pocus it's so often made out to be. Claudia's special knowledge of handwriting and personality gives her the edge in understanding the people who populate the stories. At the same time, though, my mysteries are not about handwriting analysis-I wrote the Complete Idiot's Guide to Handwriting Analysis to teach how to analyze handwriting.
Gumshoe: In Written in Blood, Claudia runs into a problem with a self-described handwriting expert who isn't. Does this often happen? How do people protect themselves from phony "experts"?
Sheila: Unfortunately, bogus experts seem to pop up in this discipline, as in other fields. I have indeed testified in cases opposing people just like Andy Nicholson, and I know plenty of colleagues who have had similar experiences. Since there's no licensing in the field, it's easy for someone to set themselves up as a so-called expert and charge a lot of money for their services, then damage the people who retain them. The best way for potential clients to protect themselves is to make a few phone calls and check out the main items on the expert's curriculum vitae (professional resume). They may be in for a rude shock when they discover egregiously inflated claims. On more than one CV, I've seen supposed professional organizations cited that turned out to have only one member.
Gumshoe: Because I'm curious I have to ask. Many people are decrying the lack of writing of letters, notes, whatever, in today's computer-centric world. Personally, I haven't hand-written anything more than a word or phrase here and there for months and sometimes go days without actually writing anything on paper. Payments that used to be by check are now debit card or on-line. Does inexperience with handwriting make it difficult for forensic handwriting experts to identify an author of a document? I'd imagine it definitely cuts down on existing writing samples? Any comments or thoughts?
Sheila: There's probably some awkwardness when you start writing after not using handwriting much for a while, but by the end of a page, your brain will remember how to form the letters and things will smooth out. That's one reason it's a good idea to have at least a page of writing for analysis. You might even find the act of writing pleasurable and want to do it some more. As an expressive behavior, journaling a great way to release emotions.
Gumshoe: Getting more onto generic ground, when did you first get the urge to write mysteries and what led to developing Claudia Rose? Is this finally a case of "writing what you know"?
Sheila: I've always loved mysteries, ever since my parents gave me The Sea of Adventure by Enid Blyton for my seventh birthday. I was in my twenties when I started seriously thinking about writing one, but it was a long time until it actually happened. In the meantime, I was writing a lot of technical papers, then my two handwriting analysis books. Finally, though, when you combine a love of reading mystery with some of the interesting stories behind the handwritings I've analyzed (10,000+ at last count), it seemed a natural progression to finally write one. The first two books in my series have a tiny kernel of truth in the plots, which arose out of real-life events.
Gumshoe: How do you manage to balance your writing with your forensic handwriting analysis career? Beginning writer's always want to know -- where do authors find the time to write?
Sheila: The thing about my handwriting analysis practice is, you never know what the schedule is going to be like from one day to the next. For instance, over the past couple of months I was inundated with handwriting authentication (forgery) cases, compatibility analysis, and pre-employment profiling and travel. In August, work screeched to a halt, which left time to catch up on some writing. I "should" probably be more disciplined and schedule time to write every day, but I don't. I mess around, answering emails for a large part of the day, and unless I have a deadline, I tend to write in fits and starts, which means it takes a longer time for a book to develop. When I wrote the first edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Handwriting Analysis (Alpha), the publisher gave me twelve weeks to write 356 pages. Somehow, I got it done on time. They liked it so much, they asked for another 100 pages.
Gumshoe: What has surprised you most about your readership and their response to your books?
Sheila: I've been surprised and pleased at the number of people who have emailed me about Claudia and Joel's relationship, asking me to keep him on. It's been truly gratifying to find that readers like them so much as a couple.
Gumshoe: What writers do you look to for inspiration? What are the last five books that you've read?
Sheila: Inspiration--my favorite mystery writer is John Sandford-his dialogue is so real and I love that Lucas Davenport seems part superman but all human. Closely following Sandford are Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Michael Connelly, Deborah Crombie. Last five books? I'm reading Sheldon Siegal's Judgment Day. Before that: Deborah Crombie's Water Like a Stone, Sandford's Phantom Prey. And I don't remember what else-once I close the last page, I tend to forget everything I've just read.
Gumshoe: What does the future hold? What's next?
Sheila: Dead Write, the book I'm currently working on, involves Claudia in a dating service run by the eccentric "baroness" Grusha Olinetsky. When Claudia's nemesis, Andy Nicholson, makes some serious errors, she flies to New York to help sort things out, and finds herself investigating some oddly coincidental deaths.
Gumshoe: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.