Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Leslie Karst

The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst waited tables and sang in a new wave rock and roll band, before deciding she was ready for ‘real’ job and ending up at Stanford Law. It was during her career as a research and appellate attorney in Santa Cruz County that she discovered a passion for food and cooking, and she once more returned to school – this time to earn a degree in culinary arts. Now retired from the law, she spends her time cooking, singing alto in her local community chorus, gardening, cycling, and of course writing. Karst and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawaii.

Karst's new novel is The Fragrance of Death.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

As I was plotting the first book in my Sally Solari culinary mystery series, it occurred to me that the experience of eating involves not simply the sense of taste, but all five of the human senses. The artful presentation of a dish and its shapes and colors; the heavenly aroma of a slow-roasted chicken; the crackle in your mouth as you bite into a freshly-baked baguette; and the sound of that crunch as you chew. These all combine to create the joyful experience of eating. So why not, I decided, incorporate each of the human senses into the books I was writing about food and cooking?

As a result, when I came up with the title for the first of my mysteries—Dying for a Taste—I unwittingly set myself quite the difficult task. For the rest of the series, the titles would all have to impart three very different ideas: a murder, a food theme, and one of the human senses. Oy.

This newest book in the series (which actually concerns the lack of a sense, as Sally wakes up on page one unable to smell a thing) was a persnickety title, because truly, who wants to think about “smell” and “death” at the same time? So I was pleased when I came up with The Fragrance of Death, as the word “fragrance” both conveys smell in a pleasant way, as well as invoking the idea of food and cooking.

What's in a name?

Back in the early 1980s, I sang and played guitar in a new wave rock n’ roll band called Enigma, and one of the songs I wrote for the band was called “Jet Black,” about a gal named Sally (inspired by Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”) and her shiny black guitar. Many years later, when casting about for what to call the fourth-generation Italian amateur sleuth in my murder mystery, I decided it would be fun to use the same name—partly because it meant I could have her named after her grandfather, Salvatore.

But then I needed to come up with a last name for the restaurant-owning family, whose fishermen ancestors arrived from Liguria in the late nineteenth century. Researching surnames from that area of northern coastal Italy, I spotted “Solari” amongst the list. I loved how it evoked the word “solo,” as in someone working on her own against the odds. (There’s a reason other fictional characters have been called Napoleon Solo and Han Solo.) And I was also pleased that the name would be a nod to a local treasure, Mary Solari, who’s been a generous patron of the arts in Santa Cruz over many years.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There’s actually quite a bit of me in Sally. Most obviously, we both have a passion for food and cooking. In addition, we’re both recreational cyclists and share the love of dogs, opera and Elvis Costello, the Giants baseball team, and single-barrel bourbons. And like my protagonist, I too can be a bit snarky at times.

But Sally is far braver than I—perhaps even too risky. I’d never have the nerve to investigate an actual murder. (Then again, I’d make for a pretty uninteresting sleuth, as well.) And I’d never dream of running a real-life restaurant; the work is far too stressful and exhausting, and takes up too much of your life. But make-believe running one in my books is loads of fun!

One of the best perks of being a writer, however, is that you’re provided the opportunity to give your characters all sorts of traits and possessions you don’t have, but might wish you did: hence, Sally’s tall, lanky build, her Italian heritage, and her cool, creamy-yellow ’57 T-Bird convertible.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Focusing on a different human sense in each of the books has been good fun, as it’s allowed me to introduce into the series various of my passions in addition to food and cooking, including music (in book two, Sally joins a local chorus performing the glorious Mozart Requiem); and art (inspired by reading about the namesake of the restaurant she inherits, Gauguin, Sally takes up painting in book three).

In The Fragrance of Death, one of my primary inspirations was Santa Cruz, the beautiful coastal California town where the series is set, and the importance of agriculture to the community—in particular, the iconic artichoke. The action begins with the death of one of the contestants in the annual artichoke cook-off at the historic fisherman’s wharf, and continues as Sally investigates the owners of an artichoke farm up the coast from Santa Cruz. Artichokes have long been a favorite food of mine, so getting to make the noble thistle one of the focal points of this new book was a wonderful thing.
Visit Leslie Karst’s website.

Coffee with a Canine: Leslie Karst & Ziggy.

My Book, The Movie: The Fragrance of Death.

--Marshal Zeringue