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An Education in Murder: Robin Cannon on 'Tilly Fig' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Robin Cannon.

Ms. Cannon is the debut novelist of Tilly Fig (Goose River Press, $16.95). She received her BA and MS degrees from Fordham University in New York City and her Sixth Year Degree in Education Administration from Southern CT State University in New Haven, CT. Tilly Fig was largely written on her travels throughout Europe. She has been a schoolteacher for twenty-nine years in Connecticut, where she resides with her husband and children.

Tilly Fig was published earlier this year and has already become a favorite among readers. Jeanine Chiappetta praised, "I couldn't put the book down. Every page had me wanting more. The mystery is intriguing and the flashback creatively enhances the storyline. Robin Cannon captures the characters with such vivid description that I felt as though I knew them deeply...like I had a personal connection to each one of them." Further, Judy Grammatic noted, "Tilly and Skeet exemplify what friendship is all about. Their relationship unfolds and blossoms throughout their many adventures together. A remarkable story of the commitment and devotion between two friends."

From the publisher:

Tilly Fig is about the life of a teenage girl and her best friend. It is a story of love, friendship...and murder.

Dr. Tilly Figlit comes back to her small hometown and the little house where she grew up to visit her ailing mother. While on her visit, Tilly flashes back to her childhood and the vivid memories she has of love and friendship, the funny and poignant events of her school days, and a murder mystery that has gone unsolved all these years.

Through her flashback and present-day visit with her mother and younger brother William, the truth eventually reveals itself to Tilly, enabling her in the end to solve the mystery that no one else could. Astounded, only she will ever know the truth about what happened all those years ago.

Now, Robin Cannon demystifies her creative process for readers …

1) What inspired you to write TILLY FIG – and how did the publication process compare to your expectations?

The simple answer to that is that I love to write and I had the time. Back in the 80's and 90's, when I was doing a lot of world travel, I would write on my long plane rides to wherever I was going--Europe, Asia, Australia. I wrote much of Tilly Fig in Germany and Australia under very romantic conditions. In Germany, sitting under a tree in a pine forest somewhere in Bavaria, and in Australia at a table at a sidewalk cafe that I frequented every night in Sydney. Once I got under way with the story, I couldn't stop writing. I call it my pleasant addiction. But, I think the real reason I wrote Tilly Fig was that subconsciously, I wanted to get some of myself down on paper. I always felt, as I was writing Tilly Fig, that my characters were based on the many elementary school students I've had over the last 30 years or so as a teacher. But, when I really gave it some thought, I realized that Tilly Fig's characters were based on friends, classmates, and neighbors from my own youth...my own growing years. And much of Tilly's character is really based on me and some of my own escapades as a kid. Finding just the right publisher to suit my needs was very difficult, but once I did, the publication process itself went very smoothly. It was a lot of hard work, but it went smoothly.

2) How did your experiences as a school teacher influence your writing – and what do you think is the key(s) to engaging a young adult audience?

My experiences as a school teacher have definitely influenced my writing. As a teacher, I personally feel that knowing how to become a good writer is one of the most important things a student can learn, so I concentrate very highly on it in my classroom. We do a lot of story and poetry writing--almost every day. I tell my students to write about what they know and the words will flow. I encourage them to keep journals, diaries, and to have their parents submit their work for publication somewhere. I think it’s sad that we no longer live in an age of letters because kids are so connected on their technology... they no longer feel that it's important to know how to take pen to paper--a lost art. But, I feel that it's still important and relevant in today's world. I write as often as possible--every day as a matter of fact, and I usually like to write my initial thoughts down in a notebook and then put it into the computer later on. So, I pretty much practice what I preach and I share a lot of my writing strategies with my students. I think the key to engaging a young adult audience is to make your story accessible and familiar--something that the reader can relate to because he's been there too. The characters in Tilly Fig are people we've all known in our lives--the teacher, the grocer, the reverend, the secretary, the sheriff, etc. When someone reads Tilly Fig, it's like wrapping up in an old, childhood blanket. If the audience can relate to the characters, then it will be engaged.

3) The narrative alternates between past and present events. Why did you choose this style – and how do you feel that it enhances the overall narrative?

I thought it would be a good writing challenge to alternate between past and present and boy was I right! It makes the story much more intricate and allows for the twists and turns that are intrinsically threaded throughout a good murder mystery. Once I ironed the story out in my head, jumping back and forth between past and present added to the fun of the story...and allowed for an exciting climax where it all kind of comes together for the audience.

4) Tell us about the setting of the story. How does a small town lend itself to a murder mystery – and the exploration of larger themes?

I made the setting small town/rural on purpose because I felt the audience would relate better to characters like that--again, very familiar in a 'soap opera' kind of way. Once you become intimate with the characters, then you're hooked, vested so to speak. You want to know everything about them, almost in a gossipy sort of way, from how they live to what kind of all-day sucker they like to buy at the grocer! So then, throwing a murder mystery into the mix really makes it fun and exciting because these are people you feel you know really well, as though they're your true friends and neighbors so you want to know--WHODUNIT? The fact that they're fictional characters, and somewhat comical, makes it all totally safe and comfortable.

5) Leave us with a little teaser: What comes next?

What comes next? I have just finished a prequel to the Tilly Fig story and that's all I can say, other than I hope the audience will like it just as much as they like Tilly Fig!

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With thanks to Robin Cannon for her generosity of time and thought.

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