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.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

In this second book in the Sally Solari mystery series, A Measure of Murder, Sally is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. 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 my series focuses on food, cooking, and restaurants, there’s a secondary theme to each of the books: one of the human senses. Dying for a Taste concerns (obviously) the sense of taste, and A Measure of Murder delves into 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? 

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

Well, I certainly haven’t done anything like fighting in the Spanish civil war or running down a narrow street chased by dozens of angry bulls, as Papa Hemmingway famously did in preparation for his novels. But I do base my books on actual experiences as opposed to daydreams and fantasies. It’s just that when you write culinary mysteries, those experiences tend to be a bit more tame than his (assuming, of course, you don’t experience the murder aspect of the books).

In my case, I have worked in restaurants—both front and back of the house—and also used to be a lawyer, as my sleuth Sally was before being sucked back into working at her family’s restaurant, Solari’s. And the themes of my books—the culture clash between the traditional Italian restaurant owners and the food revolution that has now descended on the surprised old timers, as well as the conflict this creates within Sally’s family, are based on my experiences watching these sorts of dramas unfold in my town.

In addition, the inner workings of the chorus in A Measure of Murder—the rehearsals, and petty jealousies and competitiveness that can occur within such groups—are based on my many years as a choral singer.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

It took over two years to write the first draft of the book, and then another three to re-write it. I was fortunate enough to have some insightful beta readers who critiqued the early version and helped me see where it needed reworking, but even after these revisions the manuscript was still “not quite there,” according to passes I continued to receive from literary agents.

After over eighty rejections I was starting to have serious doubts—about myself as a writer as well as the book—but decided I’d give it one last shot by hiring a developmental editor. I needed someone who could not only help improve the m.s., but who could also be objective, and let me know if it was worth continuing to send out.

After this rewrite, I forged on with my search and within about month I finally got “that phone call” from a literary agent, who steered me through further revisions before pitching the book to publishers. It took about nine months of edits, pitches, and then some further edits, but I ultimately landed my deal with Crooked Lane Books.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

The advice you always hear about writing is to completely finish your first draft before you start editing, but I simply can’t work that way. Every day when I sit down to write, I reread what I did the day before—partly to remember where I left off, but also to revise and refine the previous day’s work. This system seems to work for me, so I’m going to continue ignoring that advice.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos. How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

Indeed we can have fragile egos, as it’s a terrifying experience, putting your creative self out there for all the world to critique. And any author who claims to ignore negative reviews is probably lying (unless they truly don’t ever read them). But I do my best to not let them get me down. After all, at least the person read the book. And I think receiving a few bad reviews—as long as there aren’t too many—might even have a benefit, as it shows that it’s not just your friends who are writing them.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

As I noted above, I sent out close to one hundred queries before finally landing an agent. It’s key for unpublished authors to realize that rejections are the norm in the publishing business. Literary agents receive dozens—if not hundreds—of queries every single day, and most only represent between twenty and thirty authors at a given time. So not only does your book need to be well-written and compelling, but it needs to jump out as special to that particular agent (or acquiring editor). In other words, although getting traditionally published takes an enormous amount of hard work, it also takes a certain amount of luck—for your manuscript to land on that one agent’s desk at the particular time that the agent is looking for something just like your book.So my advice is this: never give up and never stop believing in yourself as a writer. As the fabulous developmental editor, Kristen Weber, said to me when I became discouraged after receiving so many passes on the manuscript that ultimately landed me my contract with Crooked Lane Books, “You can get hundreds of rejections, and many writers do. But remember: It only takes one yes.”

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

My author website is: http://www.lesliekarstauthor.com/

And I can also be found on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/lesliekarstauthor

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

Book three in the Sally Solari mystery series, Death al Fresco, will be released in early 2018. Inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, for whom Sally’s restaurant is named, she convinces her ex-boyfriend/best pal Eric to enroll in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when her dog, Buster, sniffs out a body entangled in a pile of kelp on the beach.

This next book focuses on the Italian fishing community in Santa Cruz, including the food and cooking favored by the “original sixty families” who emigrated there from Liguria in the late 1800s.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the tremendous ego-boost that comes with being a published author. After all those years of hard work—writing and revising the manuscript, querying agents and finding a publisher, then editing and polishing the text until it’s as good as it possibly can be—it’s exceedingly gratifying to finally hold a copy of the printed book in your hands.

But this rush, euphoric though it is, can dissipate quickly. So for me, by far the most gratifying aspect of the writer’s life—at least over the long term—has been the relationships I’ve established with other writers. Mystery authors are the most generous, helpful, warm, and supportive group of people I’ve ever encountered in my life, and the friends and colleagues I’ve made over the years at conferences and conventions, as well as online through organizations such as Sisters in Crime and the Guppies, have been invaluable.

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