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Q&A: Kate White
Cosmo's editor—now a two-time murder-mystery author—talks about writing, editing, and the art of the title.- June 6, 2003
Since becoming editor-in-chief of the venerable Cosmopolitan in 1998, she has ramped up Hearst's flagship to become the best-selling women's magazine in the world. Before taking the reins at Cosmo, she was editor-in-chief of the more staid Redbook, and she's worked at Glamour, Child, and Working Woman. But Kate White, a lifelong fan of Nancy Drew and all other things mysterious, has always had other things in mind. Her second mystery novel, A Body to Die For, was published last week, following quickly on the stiletto heels of her debut effort, If Looks Could Kill, a critical success that was the first pick of Kelly Ripa's Book Club. Proving the genre has moved beyond dense fogs on cobblestone streets, White's latest—which brings back her heroine, the true-crime reporter Bailey Weggins—is set in Berkshire spa, and it features not only a murder but even greater scares, like New Age music and essential oils. White spoke to mediabistro.com just the other day from her midtown Manhattan office, discussing pregnant pauses, killer titles, and mud wraps.
I've heard of mysteries set in camping grounds and old abbeys, but a spa?
To get an idea for the second one, sort of as I was winding down the first, I booked a facial and a massage. I thought, Maybe if I'm just really mellow, it will help open my mind to something. And literally as I was lying there waiting for the facial, I looked over on the tray where there were all these instruments, and I realized, God, you could kill somebody with one of those.
What's your method for plotting these? Do you work them out beforehand?
I knew for years I wanted to write mysteries, so one day I went over to The Mysterious Bookshop and bought eleven books on how to write a mystery. As I was leaving, I knew they were probably thinking, That poor loser wearing a business suit, she's not going to be able to pull this off. But one of the things that I've read in a couple of places is that you don't want to box yourself in by not knowing who the killer is. I do think there are probably people who don't know, but for the most part, I think it's better if you really plot it out. That also allows you to disguise the killer. You want to trick your reader into thinking someone else might have done it, maybe someone Bailey isn't even considering.
I know this will be a spoiler for people reading this interview, but I really had a moment when Danny [Bailey's mother figure] had that mud on her arms.
A friend of mine called me last night and said, "I'm nervous—I don't want Danny to be it, but there's just something about her smelling of sandalwood, I think that's going to come back." You try to do little suggestive things like that that make your reader say, OK, that's important, that right there. If you don't know where you're going, it's hard to lay those little seeds.
What I do for each book—I'm on the third one now—is just buy a little notebook that I keep in my tote bag. Not only do I have pages for each chapter as I plot them out, but I also ask myself a question each day, like, how would Bailey know that wasn't the right thing to choose at that moment? Then, during the course of the day, you'll see something and say, I'm going to work that in. Having it with me is also good, so if I'm sitting on an airplane—
Just like Bailey has her reporter's notebook.
Yes. You know, I hate composition books, but I didn't want to make her exactly like me. It's kind of an interesting exercise to make the person not like you and give her things you'd never do. And a friend of mine loves composition books, and I don't.
Did you have the titles for these banging around in your head before you'd written the actual books?
I got the titles fairly early, and I think that helped, I really do. Probably there's millions of books written that have a title that they got at the last minute, but I got If Looks Could Kill very early, then A Body to Die For, and the next one, which is at a wedding, is called, Here Comes The Corpse.
Speaking of that, can you tell us the setting of the next one? Does it take place at the wedding?
Well, the wedding has already happened, and Bailey was a bridesmaid. Two of the bridesmaids have died accidentally. She's just concerned—was it just a weird cluster, or is there something going on? So part of it is to go back over that ground again. There's lots of wedding stuff in there because she's going back to the place and dealing with the bride.
Does it feel different, writing fiction versus editing the magazine? Do you feel they come from the same part of yourself, or totally different places?
I would say two different places, although sometimes I'll hear something funny at Cosmo—there's a couple of funny things I put in the third book that people here said. And because Bailey's in her 30s and we talk to women in their 20s and 30s, I might use the same words that I might even put in a cover line. But I think Bailey's definitely got a different attitude: It is a different voice than Cosmo, much more wisecracking and sarcastic. I could have made an attempt to write some romance or something, but for me, I think I enjoy the edgier thing myself. It was a nice way to do it when it's not something I would do on the job.
There's a lot of back-and-forth in the book with officers taking notes and then Bailey taking notes. Do you feel there is a natural affinity between the detective and the reporter?
There's that line in All The King's Men, this updated version, where Jack opens that envelope because "the end of man is to know." But it's the idea of trying to figure out the truth and solve the mystery. Part of me always wanted to be a writer and reporter, but as you know, if you're writing and you're at a magazine, you hit a point where you can't go higher on the masthead. I actually did some reporting pieces when I was at Glamour, and one of the stories that I loved doing was where I went undercover to a modeling agency. It was one of those moments where you realize, Wow, I'm finding out some information about how they do business here, and it's not kosher. Maybe, in the end, the piece I did kept certain girls from going to modeling schools and getting ripped off—not that all modeling schools are bad, but the ones that tell you when you're 5'1" that you're going to be the next Giselle.
Bailey is sometimes a little unscrupulous—I shouldn't say that—creative in her methods of getting information. Have you ever used "creative" methods to get info for your own stories?
I just tried to put myself in Bailey's shoes and say, What if I needed to get this, and there was no way to get it by being totally straight. What little white lie would I tell?
I particularly loved the creation of the Connecticut Teacher's Association magazine, because it sounds so real.
I think Bailey also often realizes that just being straightforward is going to do it, too. One of the things you discover working in magazines is that people want to talk about themselves. One of the reporters I asked about eliciting information also pointed out that people are not as hard to get to open up as you would think.
It's funny you say that, because I've heard detectives saying the problem with confessions usually isn't getting them, it's having enough tape to record the whole thing.
A very famous reporter I interviewed the other day said the trick is mostly just to seem somewhat empathetic. Ron Rosenbaum told me a great thing, too—he said he'd actually learned this from Helen Gurley Brown [founding editor of Cosmo]—the "pregnant pause." You just wait, and all of a sudden they rush to fill it.
There've been a lot of thinly veiled tell-alls by magazine staffers lately. What do you think of the trend?
Since I didn't know it was going to be a trend, I was glad I got in there early in the game so it didn't seem like, Oh, one more book like that. I read The Devil Wears Prada—or, I skimmed it—and there was that Kate Hudson movie that was totally based on Cosmo. They even used a bunch of our cover lines.
How do you feel when you find yourself lifted into a fictional atmosphere by someone other than yourself?
For Cosmo, it's great: We're going to be in Legally Blonde II and Charlie's Angels this year. We're losing our icon status if that's not happening all the time, so I'm glad that it is happening all the time.
What are you reading right now?
Well, I just read Shutter Island—I liked it, though it's not a classic mystery. I'm reading Atonement—I'm a little behind reading that; I lost my hardcover the day I started. I'm also reading a new mystery by a woman, called The Bleak Midwinter. A lot of times, I'm so addicted, I'm just shoveling then down. I'll probably start the new Michael Connelly this weekend.
Last question. In your research, did you find any favorite spas or favorite treatments to recommend?
Well, first of all, I love the hot stone. There's something really so intriguing and almost erotic about it. As for favorite spas, I have to say, the one that opened up near my home on Third Avenue, Ajune. I stop in sometimes on my way home, and the beauty is that it's not going out of my way. I used to think my family didn't know, but my hair's real greasy when I come home, so they're like, "Busted!"
Lizzie Skurnick, a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com, is a writer living in Baltimore. A Body to Die For is published by Warner Books and available at Amazon.com.
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