Playwright Turned Novelist Elena Hartwell | Author Interview

On April 1, 2018, Camel Press will release Three Strikes, You’re Dead by Elena Hartwell, the third book in the Eddie Shoes Mystery series, set inWashington State. Private investigator Eddie Shoes heads to a resort outside Leavenworth, Washington, for a mother-daughter getaway weekend. Eddie’s mother, Chava, wants to celebrate her new job at a casino by footing the bill for the two of them, and who is Eddie to say no?

On the first morning, Eddie goes on an easy solo hike, and a few hours later, stumbles upon a makeshift campsite and a gravely injured man. A forest fire breaks out and she struggles to save him before the flames overcome them both. The man hands her a valuable rosary and tells her his daughter is missing and begs for her help. He dies before he can tell her more information. Is Eddie now working for a dead man? Barely escaping the fire, Eddie wakes in the hospital to find both her parents have arrived on the scene. Will Eddie’s card-counting mother and mob-connected father help or hinder the investigation? The police search in vain for a body. How will Eddie find the missing girl with only Eddie’s memory of the man’s face and a photo of his daughter to go on? Says Hartwell, “In book three, I wanted to explore the other side of Eddie’s family history. Readers often ask about her father, Eduardo, so I decided to give him a little more time in the spotlight. This story also expands on my interest in the experiences of people who come to this country to build new lives, both legally and illegally. Of course, I couldn’t leave Chava out, so she’s in there too. A triangle is always more interesting than a duo. I hope readers enjoy the twists in the plot and seeing the relationships evolve as much as I did.”

About The Author

Elena Hartwell’s writing career began in the theater, where she also worked as a director, designer, producer, and educator. Productions of her scripts have been performed around the U.S. and abroad. She lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband. For more information go to


Exclusive Author Q&A


Q – How did the idea of the third book come around? Did you know what you wanted to do since book one?

I decided I wanted Eddie and Chava to travel for the third book while I was finishing book two. Bellingham, Washington, statistically has one murder a year, and the books are only a couple months apart, so I didn’t want the bodies piling up like Cabot Cove on a busy weekend.
Sending them on vacation felt like a good way to have them stumble over a body in a different jurisdiction. The events were a surprise, but I had known since the first book that I would continue exploring the relationships between Eddie, Chava, and Eduardo. It was a lot of fun to get to include Eddie’s friend Debbie Buse and, of course, Franklin, in the action, despite the fact it’s set out of town.
Q – Which character do you think is most like you?

This is tricky because Eddie and Chava are both a lot like me, but at different times in my life. The funny part to me is that Chava, who is the mom, is more like I was a younger person, and Eddie, despite being younger, is more like me now. I was a bit of a wild child as a teenager (stop laughing at the understatement, Mom), which is closer to Chava’s persona.
I think all characters share aspects of a writer’s personality. Especially the characters who feel like real people. When a character feels flat to me, I often think that’s because the writer didn’t incorporate anything of themselves in the writing. This includes the “bad guys,” because even people who do bad things have complex internal landscapes. At minimum, it’s how we understand other people, which in some sense, is a reflection of us. For example, I would never kill another person … but if I did …
Q – What made you decide to start writing mysteries?

I worked as a playwright for a lot of years, but mystery was always the genre I read. Mysteries don’t work particularly well onstage. They make for great TV and movies, but it’s tricky to put convincing mysteries onstage unless it’s an old-fashioned, locked room murder. It can be done, but it wasn’t what I wrote for the stage.
I also always knew I wanted to be a novelist. Because it’s the genre I read the most, it was what I wanted to write. I’m not sure why I didn’t start writing novels earlier in my career. I was so focused on the stage—I worked as a director, designer,
and educator—it took up all my time.
But, I think I had the belief in the back of my mind I wasn’t capable of writing an entire novel. I went to graduate school and wrote a dissertation for my PhD, which is book length, so I think that might have given me the proof I needed that I can write something of that magnitude. Then I worked in theater a few more years until I finally woke up one day and thought, if not now, when? I wrote a few early books, my fourth was published, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q – What is the biggest difference between writing plays and novels?

Volume! A play is typically two hours of stage time. That’s in the neighborhood of 120 pages. And that’s not very many words on the page either. A novel, on the other hand, runs 65-85 thousand words, or 300, densely written pages.
With a play, it’s all about dialogue. There are actions, of course, but the majority of the story is told through what people say. Novels include the internal state of the characters and descriptions of locations. With plays, the actor finds the internal state and shows it to the audience. In the theater, the set designer and the lighting designer and the sound designer create the phyiscal aspects based on the script. One of the hardest things for me to learn making the shift was how to write solid descriptions.
I had an editor tell me once, years ago, “I’ve never seen this before. You write great atmosphere, but I don’t know what anything looks like.” That has stayed with me, so when I get compliments on descriptions of place in my novels, that’s especially meaningful to me.
Q – What has been your overall influence in telling Eddie’s story since book one?

This is a great question. I’m influenced by the era I grew up in. The 70s and 80s produced a generation like no other (I know, that’s true for every generation). But we were the last group that didn’t have computers. We could play outside without helicopter parents. We weren’t scheduled for every hour of the day.
Our television detectives were low-key, without the speed and degree of violence we see today. James Rockford was just as likely to talk his way out of a situation than he was to go in somewhere with guns blazing. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is still back in the years when I came of age. School shootings were unheard of. Meth and opioids weren’t an epidemic yet.
Eddie is a bit of a throwback. She doesn’t love the latest and greatest gadget. She’s not someone who wants to spend her time on social media. She likes a simple life. Her mom, her dog, her friends, in person.
To me, despite the fact I have to deal with 21st Century technology in the books, she’s an echo of simpler times. But she also deals with very current social issues, so she’s the culmination of the world I grew up in and the world I live in now.
Q – What is your go to music playlist and snacks when you’re getting in the zone to write?

I need quiet – so there’s no music, but oh the snacks, the snacks … so important! First off there’s coffee. I have my coffee—cream, no sugar—before anything else. Then there’s popcorn. I love to snack on popcorn. We don’t currently have a microwave (remember that Luddite thing I mentioned?) so I often get SkinnyPop or Smartfood (love the white cheddar!). I also like a little bit of chocolate. I lean toward dark chocolate, but this time of year I’m all about the Cadbury mini-eggs.
Q – What was the biggest challenge of writing a mother/daughter duo in a mystery novel.

This was actually pure joy for me. I love the dynamic between the two of them. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by the Golden Girls, short funny mom, tall, pragmatic daughter, but it’s also just a delight to put not one, but two strong women forward. My mom and I have a great relationship, so I have a wonderful model of the good parts of that dynamic. The arguments are all made up!
What is more of a challenge, albeit an interesting one, is that Eddie has a Latino father and a Jewish mother, so I have a lot of research to do.
First off, her mother Chava is currently investigating their Jewish heritage. So I get to do that right alongside her. I’ve learned about certain holidays and foods. It also forced me to really think about Chava’s family history. Her father survived the camps in Nazi Germany, and came to the US. Chava’s mother was Ashkenazi, her father Sephardic. All that background was fascinating for me. Eduardo’s backstory has not been revealed with as much depth, but I’ve got research going there too. Trying to get details right about different cultures is challenging because you want to honor them by getting them correct.
Q – What is your earliest memory of art?

A production of A Christmas Carol at a local theater when I was a kid. I’d been exposed to art a lot before that, museums, literature, dance, but that production stands out to me as the first time I was both wowed by an artistic experience and aware of how much it stayed with me. I had to be older to realize some of the other things I already loved, music, books, were art.
Q – A quote or statement you try to live by?

“Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them” – It’s a line from the song “These Days” by Jackson Browne. What it means to me is two-fold. First, we all make mistakes in life, things that haunt us, that’s part of the human experience. Second, we don’t always have to jump on other people about their mistakes. We can take a step back and see if they are making a change in their life. It’s not our responsibility to “fix” people. We can help if asked, or call a person out on something if they are behaving badly, but we shouldn’t assume other people aren’t aware of their own faults or need us to remind them.
Q – If your book were to be picked up for TV or a film, who would you cast to be Eddie Shoes?

This is such a challenging question! She has the humor (and height) of Allison Janney, but she’s half Latina and in her thirties. It would be important to me that she was played by a person with Eddie’s ethnic background. Stephanie Beatriz might be great, but she’s only 5’7. They would have to cast someone really short to play Chava! I’m totally open to suggestions … Hollywood? Is that you calling?


Check out her books at

One response to “Playwright Turned Novelist Elena Hartwell | Author Interview”

  1. Great interview, I'm totally enjoying reading Three Strikes You're Dead. Love your books, hoping you are already working on book 4?

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