Challenging the Stigma of Mental Illness: Meet Mystery Novelist Martha Crites
I’m so delighted to welcome Martha Crites as a guest author. Her extensive background in community and inpatient mental health has enabled her to write fully developed characters dealing with a variety of mental health issues. Her richly layered novels offer a much needed corrective to popular stereotypes of mental illness. Below are Martha’s responses to my questions, followed by her bio and buy links
First off, congratulations on the release of your second mystery in the Grace Vaccaro series, Danger to Others. Can you tell our readers about the novel and your protagonist Grace Vaccaro?
Grace Vaccaro is a psychiatric evaluator who has the habit of getting over involved in cases. When a young woman says she killed her therapist. Grace suspects it’s delusion until the woman escapes from a locked hospital unit. The search to bring her back forces Grace to face personal demons, including mental illness in her own family.
Did your background in community and inpatient mental health inspire the character of Grace Vaccaro? To what extent are your stories based on your own personal and professional experiences?
For many years, I worked in inpatient psychiatry. When I conceived of Grace, I gave her a job as an evaluator so she could get out in the community and find, sorry to say, more dead bodies. The concept is based on professional experiences, but as I began writing, I realized that what many people know about mental illness and its treatment is based on bad information from films and TV. That began my mission to humanize people others might find scary or funny in daily life. I hope to decrease the stigma of mental illness by writing fully developed characters who also experience mental illness.
Danger to Others is particularly close to my heart because as I was searching for a suitable subplot, I found an article in the Seattle Times about the now closed, Northern State Psychiatric Hospital. Perfect, I thought, then realized that my own grandmother had died in a state hospital—something that was never discussed in my family. So, Grace’s search and mine dovetailed. Some of what I learned inspired Grace’s journey; some was inspired by (greatly changed) experiences of former patients.
Your first mystery, Grave Disturbance, was highly praised for its “grim Northwestern atmosphere.” Do you think of your novel’s setting as almost another character?
I love the “grim Northwestern atmosphere” for mystery writing. The dark, dripping moss and mud reflect the toll of murder, something our sleuths strive to set right. In my work I always try to include a bit of redemption with hope for the coming spring.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a counselor, but was a voracious reader of fiction too. I began my first novel in my forties just to see if I could do it. I thought it would be a different experience for me, with not as much human pain as I encountered at work. Ironically, I discovered that writing character driven novels took me right back to those broken places in people. I guess that’s what I’m meant to do.
What led you to begin writing seriously?
Because I read novels, I write novels. There’s no way to take on a project of hundreds of pages without some seriousness. That said, once I had my very messy first draft I found a wonderful writing mentor who helped me learn the craft. She died a few years ago, but as I’m writing, I still hear her saying “I could wait to learn that,” or “My attention wandered there.”
Are there particular authors who especially inspire you?
My favorite mystery writers are from across the pond. First, Swedish author Asa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series features a troubled protagonist in the far north. I just found out that there will be a sixth novel out early next year after a long break. I am such a fan I can hardly wait. Ann Cleeves’ Vera series is another favorite. I also love memoir and literary fiction, but the structure of mysteries supports me. And drives me crazy.
What is your writing process like?
My process is a cross between a pantser and plotter. I outline as far as I can see, then I have to start writing to really get to know the characters and situation. I was halfway through my second novel when I realized I had chosen the wrong person to be the killer. That took a lot of backtracking, but I’m glad I did it.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
I’m working on a third Grace Vaccaro novel. She will get to know the father who abandoned her. One character will have dementia and the unreliability of memory looks like a theme. My backstory involves the Kent State shooting of four students in 1970, so I’m deep into the research. I grew up near Kent, Ohio but was too young to be involved. Can you tell that I’m excited about this project?
I can tell! Sounds like a wonderful project. You are really off and running in your mystery writing career. What advice would you give aspiring mystery novelists?
Read. Write. Writing has its ups and downs for me. I recently read a quote by Scottish author A L Kennedy “Remember that you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to get it back.” Writing is like a marriage, I realized. I can do it. You also need lots of support. Finding a writing community is so important. My long term writing group and Sisters in Crime are the best.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
My latest passion is the ukulele which I took up early in the pandemic. I love to play jazz standards, folk and Spanish songs. My other love is the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage trail in Spain. I’ve walked hundreds of miles on different routes and also volunteer in pilgrim hostels. I’ll be there this fall.
Thanks so much for visiting today!
Martha Crites worked in community and inpatient mental health for many years and taught at the Quileute Tribal School on the Washington coast. Her first novel, Grave Disturbance, was a finalist for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Nancy Pearl Award. She lives with her husband and her somewhat wild Labrador retriever in Seattle, Washington. Martha is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. You can visit her at https://marthacrites.com.
Thanks for having me Lynn. I love your blog and your interview questions really got me thinking. That’s a good thing!
Martha, I’m so thrilled to see your successes. We were early writing buddies, long ago! I just ordered this one. It sounds terrific.
Thanks Kay. It’s been fun seeing all your writing too.