Spring 2012 is proving to be a sunrise season for Tina Whittle. Just as the second of her Tai Randolph mysteries, “Darker Than Any Shadow,” was released by Poisoned Pen Press earlier this month, the first, “The Dangerous Edge of Things” garnered her a Georgia Author of the Year nomination.
Nominated in the First Novel category, the former Georgia Southern University writing instructor will have to wait until June 16 to find out whether she wins. That’s when the Georgia Writers Association holds its award ceremony at Kennesaw State University. Meanwhile, “Darker Than Any Shadow” is available nationwide, and Whittle is scheduled for a signing at Books-A-Million in Statesboro, 1-3 p.m. Saturday, March 24.
She recently answered questions over coffee about the new book and her writing life.
Herald: What can we say about Tai Randolph?
Whittle: She’s firmly in the tradition of amateur sleuths, of people who don’t come from a cop background or a private investigator background or a federal agent background, but who nonetheless find themselves irresistibly drawn to poking and prodding at other people’s business, especially where crimes are concerned.
Herald: Would she remind people of some other sleuths in the tradition?
Whittle: She’s in the camp of detectives like Miss Marple, who Agatha Christie recognized would be able to solve crimes in a way that the police wouldn’t because she seems harmless. She seems like someone that who wouldn’t be able to ask the penetrating kind of questions that she did.
(But as Whittle notes, she doesn’t write “cozies.” It’s hard to imagine Miss Marple attending a spoken-word poetry slam in Atlanta with a hot boyfriend like Trey, a corporate security agent with a mental hair trigger. That’s Tai’s situation going into “Darker Than Any Shadow.”)
Herald: What about Trey – does he have a disability, or a super power?
Whittle: He was a SWAT officer with the Atlanta Police Department in his past. But when we meet him he is still recovering from the effects of a really traumatic car accident that has damaged his frontal lobes, which – frontal lobe damage gives you some inability to connect; some peripheral comprehension is lacking.
But what it also did in his case is enhanced his sensitivity to micro-emotive expressions. So he is much more capable than your average individual of telling whether people are lying.
Herald: As “Darker,” opens, the tension is intense, but instead of some underworld conclave we find ourselves at a poetry slam. Do you mean to create a dissonance?
Whittle: I think “dissonance” is a good word between people’s ideas of what poets are like and what competitive performance poets are like. These are cutthroat people. They are ego-driven, almost more like actors and actresses than the idea of a poet as an introvert sitting at home scribbling about birds and clouds. These people are cutting-edge and feed off of audiences and attention and energy and the stage. They’re high-energy people and very, very competitive.
One of my best friends is a spoken-word poet. He at one time, when he was competing professionally, was ranked 12th in the world. He was on Def Poetry Jam on HBO, and he was living that life for a while and I got to be on the periphery of it and look in a little bit, and all I remember thinking is, this would make a great setting for a murder mystery.
Herald: Would you name your poet friend?
Whittle: (As she points out, she already has. Her new book contains an epigraph quoting Lawrence Green Jr., known to the spoken poetry world as Basiknowledge.)
Herald: Tai Randolph owns a gun shop in, of all places, Kennesaw. Do you know a woman who owns a gun shop in real life?
Whittle: Yes, Teri Lowery (whose shop is in the Savannah area). She is my go-to research resource for what it is to own a shop, to deal with the paperwork, to go through an ATF audit, to deal with your different customer bases. (But Whittle notes that all of her characters are fictional, and none is based on Green or Lowery.)
Herald: What other kinds of research do you do for your books?
Whittle: I do tons of reading – on neuroscience, on cognitive psychology. Trey is very interested in researching his disability and triumphing over it. He stays on the cutting edge, so therefore I have to stay on the cutting edge. … I shoot a lot so I’ll know what it is to carry a gun. I go to Atlanta and drive around and get lost so I’ll know what that feels like. … I go to a Ferrari dealership and sit in the new cars. The manager there is a fan, so he lets me come and crank things up and listen to the engines.
Herald: This is a trilogy, right? What can readers expect of the third book, and when?
Whittle: The third is currently living in my computer. My editor and I are going back and forth about it right now. We’re looking at summer 2013, but that’s a very tentative guess. …
What I’m trying to get to in Book 3 is, it seems as if wherever this woman goes, death and mayhem follow. … So by Book 3, she’s seriously resisting getting involved in anything that’s going to cause any chaos in her life … but people bring her problems now that they would like some help with off-the-books.
Herald: What have you done besides write fiction?
Whittle: I was a high school English teacher. I was a newspaper editor. I was a professional Girl Scout. I was a college composition instructor, and I still am a tarot reader, part-time. (Then her cell phone rang. It was Whittle’s daughter. Add parenting to the list.)
Herald: What else should we know about your life?
Whittle: My life is very boring. I guess that’s why I write murder mysteries too, because their lives are much more interesting and glamorous.
Herald: But here are some other things we learned. She lives in Statesboro with her husband James and their daughter Kaley. They share their homestead with three Rhode Island Red chickens and a “neurotic” Maltese dog and participate in a program to trap, neuter and release stray cats.
And “The Dangerous Edge of Things” was not Whittle’s first nationally published mystery. That was “A Hair-Raising Dilemma,” a story of less than 250 words that won first prize in a contest for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine when she was in 12th grade at Bleckley County High School in Cochran.
A “true blue” Georgia Southern product, Whittle earned both her bachelor’s degree in English education and her master’s in English there. After trying those other jobs she mentioned, she taught composition at GSU for 12 years before giving it up in 2006 to spend more time on parenting and writing.