Although mysteries were what made Sharon Fiffer fall in love with reading as a child, she never planned to write them—even after she grew up to be a writer. She'd already written a book on grassroots activism with her husband, Steve, and edited three collections of literary memoirs, also with Steve, when she started a two-week residency at Ragdale, the artists' retreat in Lake Forest, in 1995. She was hoping to start on a collection of short stories set in her hometown of Kankakee and based on people who frequented the EZ Way Inn, the neighborhood tavern her parents owned for 30 years. But writer's block set in, and to break it she started describing the antique doorknobs in her room at Ragdale. "I don't consider writing magical or mystical—I consider it really hard work—but I just started writing," she says.
What she ended up with would become the opening chapter of Killer Stuff, the first book in Fiffer's Jane Wheel mystery series—now five books strong—right down to the discovery of a dead body at the end of the chapter.
By the time Fiffer completed that novel, about an antique collector and garage sale addict who solves the mystery of her next-door neighbor's murder, she still wasn't convinced she was a mystery writer. She was thrilled to get a "great" rejection letter from an editor at Harper Collins, who loved the book but thought she should "yank the bodies" out of it and recast it as a literary novel. But an editor at St. Martin's Press liked the book as a mystery, and Fiffer signed a two-book deal that has since expanded to include the rest of the series so far.
In a way Fiffer is still doing just what she set out to do: painting a portrait of small-town life in the midwest. Her books are "cozies," mysteries that generally avoid violence, sex, and profanity (although her characters do curse occasionally), feature amateur sleuths, tend to be set in small towns, and focus heavily on character development. "Plot has always been incidental to me," Fiffer says; her main concern is creating characters that ring true and have psychological depth.
Many of them are based on people she knew in Kankakee. Fiffer's given Jane Wheel not only her hometown but also her parents (deceased in reality, but not in the books) and the childhood she spent at the EZ Way Inn tavern. Jane Wheel's mother, Nellie, is based on Fiffer's mom—"a real feisty, seemingly unemotional tough gal" who disapproved of drinking and was always trying to send her customers home. Steve warned Fiffer after reading the first book that Nellie didn't come off too well, so she asked her mom, then in her mid-80s, whether that would bother her. "Honey, I don't give a damn," she replied. "I'm not going to read it."
Despite their shared history, Jane Wheel isn't just the author in disguise. Fiffer says she's not interested in treating Jane as an avatar; she wants the chance to discover the character she's creating. "It's no fun for me to write something I already know the answer to," she says. "And besides, I've met other people who've told me that they are Jane Wheel."
For one thing, Jane's less social than her creator, preferring objects to people. She's "trying to fill the holes in her life with stuff," says Fiffer. The books get their titles from this conceit: after Killer Stuff came Dead Guy's Stuff, The Wrong Stuff, Buried Stuff, and most recently, in 2006, Hollywood Stuff.
In fact, Jane was born at an estate sale. Fiffer, who shares her heroine's love of collectibles like Bakelite buttons and vintage flowerpots, did some scavenging in college but could find no time for it once she'd gotten married and had kids. About 15 years ago, though, she stopped at a sale on a whim. It was late in the day, after everything had been picked over, but she came across a box of old wedding photos and remembers feeling terrible that no one cared enough about the people in the pictures to keep them. "The events in people's lives shouldn't be reduced to that," Fiffer says. She bought the photos, and thus was planted the seed of a character who feels she's adopting the old objects she collects.
Objects are important not only to Jane but often to the plot as well. Collectibles serve as clues, weapons, and motives for murder. Fiffer is currently working on the sixth book in the series, Scary Stuff, due out in October. It will feature Halloween collectibles and revolve around fraud on an Internet auction site. She's also planning another, more hard-boiled series, starring a younger, tougher heroine who's a professional detective.
Fiffer considered making Hollywood Stuff the last in the series—she admits to needing a break—but when it ended Jane was in California. "I've got to get her back to the midwest," Fiffer says, "just for my own neurotic feeling of closure."
So for at least one more book, Jane Wheel will return to the EZ Way Inn. Fiffer says that when she was a kid she wanted to take over the bar, which her parents closed in 1977—but her father, who died of lung cancer soon after the closing, always told her, "Absolutely not. [It's] no business for a woman." Still, she says, "I feel like I did take over the EZ Way Inn in a sense, with the books. And it was in a way my dad would have approved of. He'd love them."v
St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95