Meeting Clare O'Donohue - 5/9/12

Yes, Clare O'Donohue is an author. That's why she was in Portland recently, to introduce her latest book, "Life Without Parole." First and foremost, however, Clare is a busy television producer.

She started 15 years ago as a script supervisor on the HGTV show, "Simply Quilts." Since then, she has produced episodes on a variety of subjects, including murder victims, convicted killers, and food. She has been a reporter and a writing teacher, and takes art classes for fun. Add all that experience together and you have the basics for two mystery series, one featuring quilting and the other about producing "informational programs" for television.

Her first book was the byproduct of wanting to escape from having to do extended scenes on "a disorganized and awful" shoot. Before she could receive the call back to work, she hurriedly left town. She began the book to take her mind off her troubles and to prove "life is more than a stupid TV show." Later, some of her crew members patronizingly would ask, "How's that little book you're writing?" "I doubt I get more respect [for being a published author]," she laughed and added, "It's just this other job I have."

Although the quilting series is milder and seems to fit in with the recent proliferation of lighter handicraft mysteries, O'Donohue tries to bring depth to her characters. She "wanted it to be more than a throw-away." These books are about "the multi-generational aspect of quilting, a hobby that brings together people from very disparate ways of life."

It was talking about her producing job at author events for her quilting mysteries and her audiences' positive reaction that got her thinking that that might make a good second series. She wrote "Missing Persons," the first Kate Conway book, without a publishing commitment. No worries. It was gobbled up.

In the Kate Conway books, we get an insider's look at what goes into producing a show that's both information and entertainment. "Informational programming," O'Donohue called it. She has taken all she's learned as a producer and a curious person and used it in Kate's stories. "The job of an author is to take real life and make it more entertaining," she said.

The first thing to know about television producing is that "cameramen are obsessed with where they're going to eat." O'Donohue sets Kate up with a cameraman and a soundman, both of whom make good teammates and both of whom are obsessed with where and when they are going to eat. Since the series is set in Chicago, there's plenty of talk about Chicago's food specialties.

O'Donohue's television segments "have to be relatable." A story must retain the gist of what happened -- "accurate-ish is enough." When you see people telling their stories and they appear to be staring slightly off to the side, it is O'Donohue, or someone like her, to whom they are speaking.

In "informational programming," unlike in a documentary, it helps for the producer to be perceived as nice, a good listener, and not manipulative in order to get people to tell a story. "I seem like a really nice person, but I can't tell you the number of times I've done that," she confessed. She has been known to say, "be bigger surprised," to her interviewees as she re-shoots a line. It is this method that Kate uses to get people to talk to her. Other people in the industry may be concerned that O'Donohue reveals too much of the smoke and mirrors. It is the hope of some of the interviewees, however, that "somebody will learn from their story," however it is presented.

How does O'Donohue cope with sad stories? "You can't take it personally," she said, "It's not your grief."

It's important to O'Donohue that Kate is portrayed as a normal person, to be strong but "reluctant to solve murders," as a regular person would be. It is with this in mind that one of the first important scenes in "Missing Persons" deals with the death of Kate's husband, Frank. This puts Kate in an emotional quandary, because they had begun divorce proceedings and Frank was living with another woman. At the funeral, Kate meets Vera, Frank's fiancée, for the first time. (How could Frank have a fiancée when he's not yet divorced, one of the other characters remarks.) It's a difficult moment that O'Donohue could have played differently. Vera, to Kate's shock, seems to be a nice woman. So there's no dramatic face-slapping, swearing, or screaming. Instead, Kate "doesn't know what to do, so she does nothing." Kate "is in a weird position," when she finds herself tentatively and awkwardly sympathizing with Vera.

There are "real person" touches throughout her books. O'Donohue's heroines don't traipse fearlessly into dark alleys, dark rooms, or dark anything. Kate, for instance, takes her crew with her if she's worried or calls the police if something is wrong. And that's how O'Donohue wants it. If it's not real, then it might as well be "a cat solving a crime."

O'Donohue based the second book in the Kate Conway series, "Life Without Parole," on her own experience. It's surprisingly easy to get interviews with prisoners, she said. The prisoners themselves are "polite and respectful, even though they're sociopaths." She believes it's because they're "permanently stuck with their choices -- they can't undo them," but they can act like a good guy for the cameras. "They want to be believed," she said, "Most prisoners won't admit they're guilty."

How does writing compare to producing? "It's nice to have something that's mostly you," she answered. She wants "to sell well enough that people want the next one." "This is my great fear, that the later books in the series aren't as good," she said, "I never want to hear that."