Between the Pages Past
By Susan McBride

Interview with Barbara Seranella
Review: Unfinished Business

An Interview with Barbara Seranella
By Susan McBride
September 2001

Barbara Seranella is not your ordinary mystery author. Heck, she's not ordinary, period. She's a woman who gives new meaning to the phrase "write what you know," because she's experienced more in her life than most of us will. A California native, Barbara admits to restlessness in her youth that resulted in her running away from home as a teen. After involvement in a commune and with a motorcycle gang, she took up a job as an auto mechanic and worked on cars of the rich and famous in the posh LA suburbs of Sherman Oaks and Brentwood for nearly twenty years. Her retirement gave her a chance to scratch the itch to write that had been bubbling beneath the surface since she was a kid. And along came Miranda "Munch" Mancini, mechanic and amateur sleuth, featured first in NO HUMAN INVOLVED and then in NO OFFENSE INTENDED and UNWANTED COMPANY.

In UNFINISHED BUSINESS, the newest in the series-an LA Times Bestseller and a July/August BookSense 76 pick-Seranella delves into the murder of a woman from Pacific Palisades that may or may not be connected to a local rape. Both of the victims were customers of the auto repair shop where Munch works. I wondered what it was like for Seranella to write about someone with an equally colorful past.


Susan McBride: Does having a character like Munch Mancini allow you to look back at your own experiences and "help" her through them?

Barbara Seranella: Yes, especially in dealing with issues of romance and how Munch feels toward men. But I've also revisited some other behavior, such as when I had a foster son at 22 who was 11. The best I could do at the time was not as wonderful as I would have liked to have been. At first I was all gung ho with him, helping with homework, going to his school. Then I had romantic interests that relegated him to second place and you shouldn't do that with a kid. Solo was also the product of a black, convict dad. His mom was my dope connection. I got sober a year before the mom and wanted to help her get in the program so I offered to take the kid while she entered a live-in rehab. I ended up having th.e boy for four years, well into puberty. He was in my first wedding and moved with me after my first divorce. Anyhow, there are some regrets there. I wish I had done a better job, been there for him more.

Also, there were many customers when I was in Brentwood who used to say they wished they knew what I knew (they meant about cars). And I took that to mean they wanted to trade places with me. I'm talking about stay at home mothers in stationwagons with husbands who worked and nice homes. How naive I was to misinterpret what they were saying. I loved working on cars and believed they envied me. I used to think the same thing when I was on the back of a Harley with a skungy biker.


Susan: What do you admire most about Munch?

Barbara: I like her determination to keep trying. To dust herself off after a fall and remain optimistic. I like her humor and how she cuts to the truth and doesn't take any shit.


Susan: When you worked as a mechanic in LA, did you run across customers with stories that you knew were worth retelling? Were you taking mental notes along the way?

Barbara: Mostly I was just trying to keep everybody happy, the customers, my boss. The writing I did then was either journal stuff or poetry. I used to write small pieces for Reader's Digest, hoping to sell them to the "Day in the Work Life" column, but none of those were ever picked up.


Susan: When did it occur to you that you wanted to write?

Barbara: I wanted to be a writer when I was a little girl. It was my first career choice. I learned early that there was no money in it and that you needed some life experience to write about. Then I made a serious detour at 14, running away, dropping out, taking drugs, and I was no longer in charge of any of my life decisions. I always hoped to get back to the dream and when I met Ron Seranella, he offered me a way. I quit my job as a mechanic and threw myself into learning the writing craft and writing.


Susan: When you're diving into a new book, where do you start? With the crime and the victim? With the killer?

Barbara: For me, the most important aspect is premise. Why is Munch involved in this situation? It has to be organic, not feel contrived. It would be so much easier if I was writing about Mace St. John as my primary character since he's a homicide cop. I try to have a body on the floor as soon as possible. Who the killer is is not necessarily clear to me up front, and if it is, their identity usually changes by the end of the story. In this latest book I've been working on, I've focused more on the victim. I've even written a few scenes showing her alive, ten years earlier, and using and abusing with Munch. So I'm also showing more of Munch before she got sober.


Susan: What part of the process of writing a novel is most difficult for you? What's the best part?

Barbara: Writing new scenes and writing new scenes. Part of me is paralyzed by all the editors in my head, stopping me before I get going with all their clamoring. Is Munch showcased enough? Is she tough enough? Is she too tough? Am I going to disappoint some reader? Lose others? Blah, blah, blah.

Then I shut them out and write anyway. I follow my own advice that you need to have something on the page to work with. You can't edit blank pages. So then I write a new scene and in the writing discover something new and wonderful about my characters. They say interesting things, reveal secrets, tear at my heart.


Susan: What types of mysteries are you drawn to as a reader? And why?

Barbara: I'll tell you some authors I read and why. I love the depth of Elizabeth George's characters as well as Elizabeth Peters. I follow their lives from book to book, though I do resent it when the books are overly long. I like Robert Crais's books. They keep me turning the pages and I always feel that the author has complete control of his subject matter and plot. I admire the depth of his research. I also admire Elizabeth George's command of the language, how she knows the right word for everything. I loved the Harry Potter books. That woman deserves her success. I like Sci-fi occasionally, especially the humor of Connie Willis. Mostly, I want to really feel like I know the character and am given access to their most private thoughts, even the ugly ones. I don't like contrivances. I see them a mile off and they turn me off.


Susan: What are you working on now?

Barbara: I answered this briefly already. I'm only a hundred pages in and the story is still evolving. I started out by having two murder victims. A woman and an eight-year-old girl. Then I realized I couldn't deal emotionally with writing about a dead kid, so I changed that to the dead woman embracing a lifelike baby doll. Now I need to learn what that means. I like to sprinkle clues in the beginning and then figure out what they mean.


Susan: Any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?

Barbara: Read a lot. Read good books. Read Stephen King's ON WRITING. Take classes, learn the craft. Join a critique group. Write your book, your stories, and learn from your mistakes. Be patient. Love what you're doing or get out.


Susan: What's your favorite message from a fan?

Barbara: I was recently in Sacramento and a teenage boy brought me a paperback of NO HUMAN INVOLVED to sign. He said he was from Utah and that all his friends were reading me and that he wanted to start from the beginning.

Another time, at the Bouchercon in Denver, a man came up to me and said NO HUMAN INVOLVED was the best book he ever read and told me the line that really struck him. Munch is invited to coffee with a man and she refuses, telling him she's on her period.

Another time, I was at the UCLA book fair and a woman walking by shouted out that she rereads NO HUMAN INVOLVED for the line where Munch is told that out of 35 addicts, only two will stay sober, and she wonders who the other one will be. That brought tears to my eyes because 22 years ago, this was exactly what I thought.


Susan: How can readers reach you?

Barbara: They can e-mail me at


Unfinished Business by Barbara Seranella
Reviewed by Susan McBride
A Munch Mancini Crime Novel
Scribner - May 2001
ISBN: 0743212665 - Hardcover
Suspense / Thriller

 Buy a Copy

"Munch" Mancini, auto mechanic turned amateur sleuth, takes another stab at solving a murder in Barbara Seranella's latest, UNFINISHED BUSINESS.  A former wild child with a past that would've killed a weaker woman, Munch is feeling pretty good about life.  She's doing well working at the auto shop in Brentwood where LA's rich and famous bring their fancy cars for service and she's chauffeuring in her limo on the side.  She's also adopted the daughter of a former lover, and little Asia has turned Munch into "Mommy," a title she finds she likes.

Then a customer turns up dead, and Munch takes it personally.  Diane Bergman had hired her to chauffeur drunken guests home from a charity party the night before, so she's stunned when she hears the news.  To make matters worse, she learns another customer had been brutally raped but had lived to tell the details, many of which are eerily similar to Diane's case.  When Munch comes out from under the hood and starts to snoop, things get downright dangerous.

Seranella's UNFINISHED BUSINESS is a book that will have readers rushing to turn the pages.  Munch Mancini is as high octane a mystery protagonist as you'll find in the genre.  A fast-paced, dare-you-to-put-it-down summer read.

NOTE: Barbara will be appearing at Bouchercon and at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in November.


2001 Past Columns - Susan McBride


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