Between the Pages Past
By Susan McBride
Interview with Denise Swanson
Review of Murder of a Sleeping Beauty

An Interview with Denise Swanson
By Susan McBride
April 2002

Denise Swanson keeps a tight schedule. In addition to her "day job" as a school psychologist, she writes the popular Scumble River Mystery Series with a new book released every nine months. It all started several years ago with the debut of Skye Denison, amateur sleuth and rural Illinois school psychologist in MURDER OF A SMALL-TOWN HONEY, which copped a coveted Agatha Award nomination for Best First Mystery and was an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association best-selling paperback. The second, MURDER OF A SWEET OLD LADY, was recently nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark Award. Right on cue, the third, MURDER OF A SLEEPING BEAUTY, will hit bookshelves in April. Its theme of beauty and what many will go through to attain it is a subject I found particularly intriguing.


Susan McBride: Tell us a little about MURDER OF A SLEEPING BEAUTY and where the idea of writing about beauty pageants came from.

Denise Swanson: MURDER OF A SLEEPING BEAUTY was conceived when a girl I was counseling started talking to me about competitive ice-skating. She complained that the mothers were more bloodthirsty than the other girls. This got me interested in the mother-daughter relationship and how it relates to teenage girls' body image. I watched several documentaries and read some books on child and teen beauty pageants. I found the phenomenon both funny and scary so I thought it would be interesting to use the pageants as a backdrop to a murder investigation. In MURDER OF A SLEEPING BEAUTY, Skye finds herself involved in the teen queen world of beauty pageants, cheerleaders, and the popular crowd.

SM: As a school psychologist yourself--like protagonist Skye Denison--have you noticed an increase in kids with eating disorders? Do you think the proliferation of twiggy models and flat bellies in the media has increased the problem?

DS: In my eighteen years of being a school psychologist, eating disorders have gone from a rarity to a common problem. It is almost routine now to have adult staff watching in the lunchroom to make sure kids are really eating. I'd say a good twenty percent of the girls in junior high and high school have or are heading toward an eating disorder. And the sad thing is that many of the moms think this is just fine, as long as the girls remain pretty and popular.

The media is definitely to blame for the increase in this problem. Look at the clothes the models and stars wear. They are skintight, show most of the abdomen and hips, and are cut incredibly low.

SM: Skye is obviously someone very comfortable in her own skin. Do you think your readers appreciate having a character they can identify with who isn't tall, thin, blond and rich?

DS: It was my intent in creating Skye that she be a realistic thirty year old--someone who is attractive, but not a size six and someone who has a good profession, but hasn't necessarily made a lot of money from it. I had one reader tell me she found it unrealistic that a woman of Skye's "size" would have men attracted to her. I found this both infuriating and sad. I've been plus-size my whole life and have always had boyfriends. I think the reason for that is because I don't allow myself to think negatively about myself. I use the same principal with Skye. If she feels attractive and acts like she is attractive, she will be treated as an attractive woman and have men ask her out.

SM: This is the third in the Scumble River Mystery Series, and I know you've already completed #4. What kind of schedule do you work out so you can fit in writing a new book for publication every nine months in addition to your school psych job?

DS: My current schedule is Tue/Wed/Thur I work as a school psychologist in a suburban junior high school. Fri/Sat/Sun/Mon I write. On my writing days I start at 8 AM and write until about 1 PM. Then I take a break, run errands, get lunch, etc. In the afternoon I take care of e-mail, phone calls, and other correspondence. In the evenings I do promotional related activities.

SM: Do you find that, the further you get into your series, the tougher it is to come up with fresh ideas and fresh dialogue? Do you ever feel like, "Hmmm, I've said this before, haven't I?"

DS: It is tough to keep things fresh. I often go back and re-read parts of my first books to make sure I'm saying things differently than I did before. Plus, I have a pretty tough editor who keeps me in line.

SM: You've also had several stories published in anthologies, one for Signet's AND THE DYING IS EASY and one for the Omaha Public Library's new MAYHEM IN THE MIDLANDS collection. Tell us a bit about those and the difference you find in writing shorts vs. novels.

DS:"Not a Monster of aChance" is in AND THE DYING IS EASY. It is a Scumble River story featuring Skye Denison. It is set during her summer vacation. She has taken a job as a lifeguard to supplement her income and a drowning victim disappears. What happened to the woman? Is she a victim of the Scumble River Monster?

"A Finger in Every Lie" is in the MAYHEM IN THE MIDLANDS anthology. It features a new set of characters and is set in an adult living community. I'm hoping to see if there is any interest in these characters. If there is I may try to write a full-length book about them

The main difference for me in writing short stories vs. novels is that a short story has to come to me as a whole, while the novel comes to me in bits and pieces.

SM: What do you find most enjoyable about being a published author? What do you like the least?

DS: It's wonderful knowing that what I'm writing is going to appear in print. When I first started writing, I really never thought I'd see my words in a book.

Because I have such thin skin, I have a lot of difficulties with bad reviews. So far, I've been extremely lucky and the professional reviewers have all been very flattering about my books, but some of the people that post on Amazon are brutal and I find myself upset for days after one of those attacks. But this is part of the business and I'm trying to grow a thicker skin.

SM: What's ahead for Denise Swanson? Any new projects up your sleeve?

DS: I just turned in book 4 to my editor and thus have some time until she gets back to me with revisions so I've decided to write a proposal for a romantic comedy. I also need to write the proposal for book 5 in the Scumble River series, but a need a little time to recharge before I start that.

SM: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would that be?

DS: It's not how good you are. It's how bad you want it.

SM: How can readers reach you?

DS: The best way to reach me is via e-mail through my website:


By Denise Swanson
Signet - April 2002
ISBN: 0451205480 - Mass Market Paperback
Mystery / Amateur Sleuth / Cozy

Reviewed by Nancy Mehl for
Buy a Copy

Skye Denison, school psychologist at Scumble River High School, stumbles across the girl who is playing the lead role in the spring musical, Sleeping Beauty. The problem is that Sleeping Beauty won't wake up. Not even Prince Charming can save this princess. Her slumber is permanent. The question is; who gave Sleeping Beauty poison this time? Skye delves into an investigation on her own since her once romantic relationship with the chief of police, Wally Boyd, is a thing of the past. Skye learns that the dead girl, Lorelei Ingels, was entrenched in the world of beauty pageants. Could someone be jealous of her success? Or could there be another reason?

Skye is stonewalled by parents and students alike as she tries to find out who Lorelei really was. She appears to have been a popular student, but sometimes popularity comes with a price. Skye must find out if the price in this case was murder.

MURDER OF A SLEEPING BEAUTY is an enjoyable mystery. It moves along nicely and holds a reader's interest. It is well-plotted and well-written. I particularly like that the protagonist is "full-figured" and easy to relate to.

Denise Swanson has a winning series here. Scumble River is a place I'll visit again and again.

Nancy Mehl is the author of Graven Images.

2002 Past Columns - Dennis Collins

2002 Past Columns - Susan McBride

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