Helen Barer is a native of New York City, leaving only to attend Bennington College in Vermont. Even her graduate degree (an MA in English Literature) was from New York University. She now divides her time between the Upper West Side and Water Mill, New York. Helen spent many years as a writer of nonfiction material, ranging from cookbooks to television documentaries, before writing “Fitness Kills,” her first in a proposed series of Nora Franke mysteries.
Tyler: Thank you, Helen, for joining me today. First of all, I absolutely love the title for the book. Would you tell us why the title is appropriate?
Helen: Not for the reasons you might think! Men, especially, tend to think of the title as saying something lethal about exercise. And, curiously, are delighted if it’s true. More prosaically, the title refers to the fact that the book takes place at a fitness ranch, and two guests die there. My first title, still preferred by my husband, was ‘Death on the Spa Plan.’ But I wanted something punchier. I’m glad you like it.
Tyler: Tell us a little bit about the main character, Nora Franke. I understand she looks forward to going to the health spa for a couple reasons?
Helen: Nora is a New York City food writer, single, in her mid-thirties. She’s just ended a relationship with her soul-mate, and is now overweight as well as heartbroken, having eaten her way through the breakup. She and her ex-boyfriend, Max, were crazy about each other but couldn’t seem to live together. They were so very different-in temperament, lifestyle (he’s prestigious upper east side doorman building, NY Philharmonic and NY Mets; she’s funky upper west side walkup, pop standards and NY Mets), even eating choices (painful for a foodie!). She is devastated by his loss and wants to ‘get out of town;’ as a freelance food writer and baking instructor she is able to do this.
Tyler: What about the character of Nora Franke do you feel appeals to your readers?
Helen: I think it’s easy to identify with Nora (at least I do). She’s quite attractive but not beautiful; she’s round rather than model-thin; she’s short; she’s funny; and she’s smart (sometimes smart-alecky). And she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Up to that point, I’ve drawn on my own experiences and personality. But Nora’s also more feisty than I am, and more courageous as well. Maybe too courageous for her own good.
Tyler: Where did you get the idea to have a murder happen at a spa, and what was the advantage of it? Were the depictions of the spa intended for a sort of comic relief from the murders?
Helen: Not at all. I love spas. I was actually in an exercise class at a fitness ranch when I got the idea for the book. I looked around and realized that since all of us (mostly women) had arrived on the same day, and would leave on the same day, it was like being on a cruise ship. Trapped together. We all spent time in each other’s company at meals, in the lounge or pool, or waiting for body treatments, and shared stories about our lives and our aches and pains that might have otherwise taken years to reveal. We became instantly intimate. I wondered what would happen if there were a crisis-a crime-at the spa, and how we would all handle it.
There were indeed advantages to the setting. So many places for ‘accidents’ to happen; so many experiences that are intrinsically scary; so many people who are slightly (or more than slightly) eccentric.
Incidentally, I should clarify that when I say fitness ranch, or fitness spa, I mean a destination where exercise, nutrition and health are primary; being pampered is not the main goal, although it’s a welcome adjunct.
Tyler: As a former writer of cookbooks, how did that experience lend itself to depicting Nora as a chef at a spa?
Helen: Writing recipes for cookbooks is a very kinesthetic experience: you have to really focus on the texture, appearance and smell as well as the taste of food. And in describing how to cook something, you literally have to walk yourself through the process in your head: What did I tell the reader to do with that sauté pan? Is it still on the burner? Is there liquid in it or will the bottom be history? Did I give the ingredients the reader will need to deglaze the pan? It’s really fun, but it’s like juggling: you can’t let go of one of the balls in the air or you’ll do your reader a disservice.
Cooking is a very personal, sensory and sensual activity. And fine-tuning a menu, as Nora has to do, is a wonderfully creative act. The menu items in this book have to be low in fat and calories; taste fabulous; and represent the ‘philosophy’ of the ranch.
Tyler: I understand while Nora is trying to solve the mystery, an ex-lover shows up. Will you tell us if this is a rekindling of romance, or is he a murder suspect as well?
Helen: Nope. Won’t tell. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Tyler: What did you find to be the most difficult part of writing a mystery?
Helen: Integrating the plot with the characters and story line was really tricky for me. There was so much to keep track of. I love to write character, and found it relatively easy to do so: I could see each person quite clearly in my mind’s eye, knew their names, where they lived, what they wore, and could even hear their voices. I also knew how the story began, and how it would end, but getting there…wow.
I tried doing plot lines, made charts, and talked it through to myself. The problems didn’t end when I finally worked out the sequence of events: then I had to figure out how and where to drop in a few red herrings and clues.
Tyler: Although you have an MA in English literature, your previous writing was nonfiction rather than fiction. Did you always want to write fiction?
Helen: Always. When I was a little girl, and unselfconscious about writing, I wrote stories for my class assignments. I still have-somewhere-a story called “My Life in the Wilderness.” It was far more interesting to me to invent a family and their problems and pleasures than write a factual report on the American frontier. I think I was eight or nine. Somewhere along the way, I became very self-critical, and lost my spontaneity.
When I graduated from college, I thought writing fiction was a secret, special talent that I couldn’t aspire to. I knew I didn’t want to (and undoubtedly couldn’t) write ‘the great American novel.’ But it finally dawned on me, many decades later, that I didn’t have to: I could write an entertaining, readable novel without pretensions of ‘greatness.’ That’s not to say that I didn’t want to write the best novel I could.
Tyler: What do you find is the most fun about writing fiction instead of non-fiction? And what are the greatest challenges?
Helen: In truth, writing nonfiction for me was great fun. It meant doing research, and I love to do research. I can immerse myself deeply in reference books, newspaper files, old manuscripts. I really like interviewing people, finding out what makes them tick: what do they love, hate, fear, find funny. It seemed very natural to me…after all, I did it for more than 30 years.
Writing fiction certainly is a different craft. You can’t rely on external facts and background. It’s got to come from your head and heart. However, it is lots of fun to create characters, as I’ve described above.
The real challenge for me is to ask ‘what if?’ That’s the center of a mystery story for me. What if someone doesn’t arrive at the right time? What if a letter isn’t delivered or a phone message given? What if he never realizes that she loves him, and she is sure he knows? What if the murderer slips up and leaves an enigmatic clue?
Tyler: Helen, will you give us a hint about what kind of situation Nora will face in your second novel?
Helen: My next book finds Nora back in New York, with a death threat hanging over her head. While trying to resurrect a romantic life, continue her column for MetroScene magazine, and teach baking classes, she finds herself enmeshed in a family crisis, with all of the passion and tension that entails. Who is not familiar with such personal drama? Hurt feelings, accusations of betrayal, fights over money. The tentative title is “Families Are Murder.” Or, if it’s not too cutesy, “Families Kill.”
What’s your opinion?
Tyler: Both titles are good, but I definitely like “Families Kill.” It has the same ironic note as “Fitness Kills.” Thank you so much, Helen, for joining me today. Before we go, would you tell our readers your website address and what further information about “Fitness Kills” they can find there?
Helen: Thank you, Tyler, I enjoyed it. Please take a look at , where I’ve posted some reviews of the book, and a schedule of my forthcoming appearances. I’m even leaving New York!
Tyler: Well, I hope you don’t run into any mysteries on your travels, but that your mystery books continue to sell well. Thank you again, Helen.
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to be joined by Helen Barer, who is here to discuss her new mystery novel “Fitness Kills,” Thomson-Gale (2007), ISBN 9781594145858.