The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned at a young age, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California.
Originally from Southern California, Leslie moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs) and after graduation, parlayed her degree in English literature into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock and roll band. Exciting though this life was, she eventually decided she was ready for a “real” job, and ended up at Stanford Law School.
For the next twenty years Leslie worked as the research and appellate attorney for Santa Cruz’s largest civil law firm. During this time, she rediscovered a passion for food and cooking, and so once more returned to school to earn a degree in culinary arts.
Now retired from the law, she spends her time cooking, gardening, cycling, singing alto in her local community chorus, reading, and of course writing. Leslie and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai‘i.
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Tell us about your book! What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
Sally Solari is a fourth-generation Italian American, part of the community of fishermen who first emigrated to Santa Cruz, California back in the 1890s. Her dad runs an Italian seafood restaurant called Solari’s, but Sally has recently found herself caught between two different cultures: that of the traditional, old-school restaurants like her father’s out on the Santa Cruz wharf, and that of the recently-arrived hipsters, whose trendy food movement has now descended full-force upon the surprised old-timers.
In this most recent book in the series, A Measure of Murder, Sally is juggling work at Solari’s along with managing Gauguin, the upscale restaurant she’s just inherited from her aunt. Complicating this already hectic schedule, she joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard—and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident. Sucked into investigating, Sally’s already crazy-busy life heats up like a cast iron skillet set over an open flame.
Although the primary focus of the the Sally Solari mysteries is on food and cooking, there’s a secondary theme to each of the books in the series, as well: one of the five senses. The first, Dying for a Taste, concerned the sense of taste, and A Measure of Murder involves the sense of hearing—more specifically, music.
Music has long been one of my passions. I studied clarinet as a youngster, later fronted and wrote the songs for two different bands, and for the past seventeen years have sung alto in my local community chorus. So when it came time to plot the story about the sense of hearing, there was no question but that it should focus on music.
As with Sally, one of my favorite compositions is the sublime Mozart Requiem. But in addition, the piece is perfect for a mystery novel, as the Requiem itself is surrounded by secrets and mystery: who commissioned it, who completed it after Mozart died, which parts were composed by whom. So, truly, how could I resist?
Tell us about your publishing process. What was it like? Did you go indie or the traditional way?
A Measure of Murder—as with the first Sally Solari mystery, Dying for a Taste—is traditionally published by Crooked Lane Books, a crime imprint out of New York City. From the start, I knew I wanted to find a traditional or small press publisher for the series, so that I could focus on writing and promotion, and not also have to deal with the nuts and bolts of the production and distributing the books themselves.
After two years of querying, I was lucky enough to find a literary agent for the first book in the series, who was eventually able to land me a multi-book deal with Crooked Lane. After signing the contract, it took about a year for the book to be released, during which time I worked on edits, and then the book went into production—i.e., the cover design, copy edits, design, and printing.
How did you choose the title for your book? Did it come to you right away, before you started writing the story, or did it come later?
My working title for the manuscript as I was writing it was Listen to the Murder, but I knew this would have to change, as both my publisher and I wanted something that conveyed not only a murder mystery, but also both the cooking and musical aspects of the story. After much brain-storming on my part, as well as consulting culinary and music dictionaries for inspiration, I hit on the idea of using the word “measure,” since it has both a cooking and a musical connotation. Once I got to this point, the eventual title—A Measure of Murder—came to me quickly.
Tell us about the cover design process. Did you have a basic idea of what your book cover would be like?
Before starting on the cover, Crooked Lane asked if I had any conceptual ideas, and I suggested a view from a restaurant kitchen out to a grove of redwood trees (for which Santa Cruz is famed), as well as something such as a stack of sheet music on the counter to let the reader know that the story concerned music as well as cooking. But until I saw the final artwork, I had no idea what it would end up looking like.
Who is your cover designer and how did you find him/her?
Crooked Lane has a terrific cover artist whom they’ve used for both of my books so far, named Hiro Kimura. I had no part in choosing him, but am thrilled to have him as my designer.
How was your experience working with the designer?
I don’t work directly with Hiro Kimura, but as I noted above, Crooked Lane has been great about letting me provide input about my covers (something traditional publishers are not obligated to do with their authors). And I have to say that what Hiro came up with was far more beautiful and exciting than anything I had imagined. (This is why he’s the artist and I stick with the writing.) I was ecstatic when I first saw the artwork. The combination of the flames jumping from the skillet and the super-saturated colors truly bring the cover to life.
What has been the readers’ response to your cover?
Very positive. I’ve had many readers tell me they first homed in on the book because of its exciting cover.
Since my cover designer was assigned to me by Crooked Lane Books, I can’t provide any advice based on how I found mine. But I will say that if I were looking to hire my own designer, I’d examine lots of other book covers, looking for ones that spoke to me and felt stylistically like what would work for my genre, and then I’d contact those designers to see if they did freelance work.
Anything else you’d like to say about your book?
When it came time to design the cover for my first Sally Solari mystery, Dying for a Taste, I was quite nervous about not having absolute control over the artwork, and worried that it might end up misrepresenting my book. It can be a scary thing, letting go. But now, after two books, I’ve realized that the professionals (in this case, the folks at Crooked Lane Books) know far better than I what works to sell books. And I am exceedingly happy with the covers they’ve provided for my stories. Can’t wait to see what Hiro comes up with for number three!