Martha Randolph Carr: Finding Mystery and Suspense in the History of Politics

Martha CarrMartha Randolph Carr is the author of 4 books including The Sitting Sisters, A Place Called Home, The Keeper and The List — the first in her Wallis Jones political thriller series. She is also a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson.

A professional copywriter and editor, she has written a weekly, nationally-syndicated column on politics and life that has run on such political hotspots as The Moderate Voice.com and Politicus.com.

Her work has run regularly in such venerable publications as The Washington Post,The New York Times, USA Today,  The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.

Martha Carr Interview

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Books by Martha Carr

Books by Martha Carr

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Martha Carr Transcript

Tim Knox: Hi everyone. Martha Carr is my guest today. Martha is the great-great-great-great-niece – I think I got all the greats in there – of Thomas Jefferson. She is also the author of the four books including The List, which is her first in her Wallis Jones political thriller series. Martha works as a professional copywriter, an editor. She’s written nationally syndicated columns on politics and life, and just an all-around wonderful person to interview.

Martha talks a lot about being inspired to write, how she comes up with her ideas. She is a woman who is very, very successful in the political thriller series so it’s a really great interview. I enjoyed talking to Martha. She talks a lot about the process, how she got her first job. This was so interesting. She wanted to be a newspaper reporter so with her baby in the buggy she just walked into the office of the editor and said, “Hey, I’m here to write,” and that’s how it all began.

Now some 27 years later Martha is a very accomplished author as well as a syndicated columnist. So you’re going to enjoy this a lot. You’re going to learn a lot. My interview with Martha Carr on today’s Interviewing Authors.

Tim Knox: Martha, welcome to the program.

Martha Carr: Thank you. I’m glad to here.

Tim Knox: So nice having you here. We’ve already had our pre-call and determined that we may be long lost cousins; that’s nice.

Martha Carr: That is nice and not all that uncommon in the South.

Tim Knox: Exactly right. Before we get started talking about your work let’s get a little biography of you.

Martha Carr: Okay, so my full name is Martha Randolph Carr and on my father’s side I’m the great-great-great-great niece of Thomas Jefferson. I was named for his sister, Martha Carr, and I grew up knowing how I was related for 200 years back. On my mother’s side though, her people are from Louisiana and Arkansas. So it was an interesting combination of chicken farmers and former president of the United States.

Tim Knox: You have quite the diverse background.

Martha Carr: It’s a very healthy kind of humbling reminder.

Tim Knox: Exactly. As we Southerners are – we’ve talked about this – we just travel and pollinate and build families everywhere we go. I think it’s very interesting that you are Jefferson’s… how many nieces removed are you?

Martha Carr: I’m only four and that’s interesting. It should be eight but the men on that side married consistently so late that there are only half the generations between me and Jefferson than there should be. It’s not that long ago in terms of that.

Tim Knox: Well let’s talk a little about your background as a writer because you’ve written four books now. We’re going to talk today about The List, which is your latest and it sounds like something that I definitely have to read. How long have you been a writer? Have you always been a writer even when you were young?

Martha Carr:  Yes, we didn’t have much money when I was a child and when I was five years old my father took us all into the Philadelphia library and I had never been in a library before. It was immense and held a lot of presence and I could not believe that you were allowed to pick out all the books you could carry and read them and bring them back and get more. Considering that we didn’t really have a lot that just seemed amazing to me. A book also showed me that there are so many different ways to be and it made it possible to dream. I just wanted to be able to tell stories as well.

Tim Knox: Do you remember the first thing that you wrote?

Martha Carr: I do because I was a newly… the first thing that I wrote that was published; I was a newly single mother and my son was an infant in a stroller and I walked into the Richmond News Leader business department and I told them I wanted to be a writer, which is ridiculous to think that they would listen but I must have been pretty impressive or persuasive because they gave me something to do. I don’t think they thought I’d come back but I kept coming back and I would read the books they recommended and I would take all of their advice. I just wanted so badly to do it that they grew to want to work with me and suddenly I was like this student and all the reporters and editors became my teachers.

So the first thing I wrote was on how to get the job you’ve always wanted and I don’t think it was that good, however they put it in the center of the newspaper with a color drawing behind it like it was the greatest thing you ever read. It was so sweet and I was surprised no one was fired over it. It was so kind to do to somebody who was trying.

Tim Knox: You didn’t have any prior experience. You just walked in and said, “Hey I want to write something.”

Martha Carr: That’s right and I’m pushing an infant in a stroller.

Tim Knox: So basically they looked at you. Here’s this young lady pushing an infant in a stroller who wants to write something. Let’s give her something just to get her out of here.

Martha Carr: Yes, that’s exactly what they did and they gave me a list of books to read and said to come back when I’ve read them, and I did. I can still see the startled look on the editor’s face because not only had I read it, I had notes in them. Over time they came to understand that I actually meant what I said so they grew to love it as well. They taught me so much.

Tim Knox: Do you happen to still have that first story? Did you cut that out of the paper?

Martha Carr: I do. I have several copies of it, if not just for the huge, color hand-drawing.

Tim Knox: Once you started working there of course you honed your skills. When did you start thinking about writing a book?

Martha Carr: So then after the News Leader I became a stringer for the Washington Post. You go through three sets of editors and they ask you so many questions and from such great angles that you become better and better and better. Because of that experience I decided to take on writing a book. I’ve always been drawn to thrillers.

I just had this idea. They had discovered a serial killer and they were interviewing the neighbors and they were saying to the neighbors, why didn’t you know he was doing these things? They had that deer in the headlights look of yes we knew this about him and we knew that but who would think killer? This is pre-internet so you’re not getting a 24 hour news cycle yet. I just thought what if you did know something and you didn’t say anything? Are you as guilty? So that was the start of this idea of a thriller.

I wrote the book – it’s called Wired – hoping people would just like it and it took off. It was an amazing experience to see something I wrote have more of an effect on people than I thought it would.

Tim Knox: That’s a great story. They always say, “Well he was a quiet young man. We ignored the smell but he was a quiet young man.” What year did you publish Wired?

Martha Carr: It came out in 1993 so it was a while ago.

Tim Knox: Pre-internet almost.

Martha Carr: It was the dawn of the internet. It was the dawn of computers and I had a Dot Matrix printer and I had a Macintosh when they were called that. It had no internal hard drive.

Tim Knox: I remember those. After you wrote the book how did you go about getting it published? Did you get an agent?

Martha Carr: No I didn’t know any better and I mailed it, because you had to mail things, to publisher after publisher until someone said yes. It took a while. I mean I had so many rejection letters. Some of them forgot to put my name on the rejection letter. My initials are M. R. Carr so I got a lot of ‘Mr. Carr’. I just kept going and eventually a small house that no longer exists said yes and then Library Journal gave it just this amazing review and the book took off from there.

Tim Knox: That’s really what got you noticed and got you started.

Martha Carr: That’s right.

Tim Knox: What was the second book?

Martha Carr: The second book was The Sitting Sisters. It was Southern fiction and I was kind of playing around with different genres for a while there just to see if I could and the third book was A Place to Call Home about the reemergence of U.S. orphanages. I lived on orphanages for two years in the states; I didn’t even know they still existed and they do. That was an amazing experience.

Then I finally said that I need to focus. I need to have a singleness of purpose and I really need to start writing what I want and with a message. That’s how this series came about, the Wallis Jones series, and that’s the thrillers I write now.

Tim Knox: That’s one thing I found so interesting about you as I was doing my research. The first three books were in totally different genres. Let’s talk about the Wallis Jones series. Talk about that.

Martha Carr: So The Keeper came out last Sunday. That’s the second book and it was on my late mother’s birthday and she’s the inspiration behind the Jones because her maiden name was Jones. In the first book, The List, you meet Wallis Jones who is a family court attorney in Richmond, Virginia which is where I’m really from. She has a happy marriage and a son who’s 11. She’s from Richmond and she has this entire life mapped out but suddenly people are seeking her out and telling her something is going on and you need to help.

She thinks of these people at first as just being really dramatic but she starts to understand that there is a conspiracy that’s been going on behind her all this time. I took that premise from the idea of old boy networks, which exist and are thriving. That could be called its own type of conspiracy because it’s a group of people that get together and decide what they’re going to do. So I just took that and made it much bigger and I thought what if the idea of Republican and Democrats was only to distract the masses and there was actually two other powers behind them that were making the decisions that crossed all those lines? What if you couldn’t see it and you were just doing your thing all day long and unaware of it?

And if you got the chance to be a part of one side or the other and they promised you the good life, would you have the faith to say no if it cost you too much of your integrity and especially if your children are involved? I watched a lot of parents. They put their children into so many classes that their time is all eaten up and it’s as if they don’t believe the child will be okay. So what if you got offered private school and a line to a corporate job for your child in exchange for a sort of obedience to staying in the track and doing what we want. It’s not openly wrong; it’s just kind of dusting the side. Could you say no?

Tim Knox: It’s almost a, would you sell your soul to the devil?

Martha Carr: Exactly and I didn’t want to go so far that it would be an easy no. I wanted to keep it where you really might struggle with what you would think was right. I also put faith in there because what Wallis gets confronted with is this idea that she’s not going to be able to fix this one and she’s been a doer and a fixer and this isn’t going to solve itself. It’s too large. She’s too enmeshed and she doesn’t know everything and people are dying around her. So she needs to find peace again. How is she going to do that? She starts to inch by inch, through the series, rediscover her faith. She has a husband who by the way the female readers love. I get emails all the time – please don’t kill Norman. She has to come to grips with how do you keep a happy marriage when you find out your spouse knew more than you did. He has his reasons. So I just wanted to explore this idea of is it possible to be happy in the middle of something that’s complicated and dark.

Tim Knox: The List and The Keeper, these are really political thrillers which is different from your original books. What attracted you to this genre, especially the political side of it?

Martha Carr: So I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia outside of D.C. and my very first job in the world was selling tourist books in the White House. I grew up around the idea of politics and negotiation. You get some of this but you don’t get that. After I was a stringer for the Washington Post I became a columnist and I became a political columnist for the Cagle syndicate. My take on things has always been to try to find that middle ground because in my era of growing up in the D.C. area people negotiated more. They weren’t so polarized and the idea of compromise was an honor and people were respected for being able to find that middle place.

I feel the same way as faith as well. Faith should be something we can all talk about without pointing our finger. I wanted to bring those two ideas back, that you can talk about what matters to you and you don’t have to make the other person agree with you first of all. And you can listen with the idea that your mind could be changed without losing your integrity.

Tim Knox: You make a great comparison there. With politics as well as religion there’s the good and the evil, the light and the dark. There’s the followers. They really do parallel each other to a great deal don’t they?

Martha Carr: Right, they absolutely do and those things are moving targets. What I might think is the right thing to do today may not be the right thing to do tomorrow. I’m going to have to keep asking myself those questions and in order to really have a good life I’m going to have to swim out into the deep waters where I’m not always sure of what I’m doing. For me personally, that’s where faith plays a part. I ask myself what am I supposed to be doing right now? Can I just do that and let go of the outcome? That’s what Wallis is learning to do.

Then I did bring into it the idea of lineage because that’s what I grew up with. Wallis discovers she is part of an old family line that is enmeshed in this conspiracy. So she has blood in this fight. She also has a side of her family that’s not exactly like I do. Being a Jefferson descendent was a big deal when I was growing up. Our family reunions are at Monticello. There are plenty of people who feel like there should be something that we live up to and I agree as long as what you’re living up to are the ideals and not just trying to burnish a 250 year old memory.

Tim Knox: And that’s what I was going to ask you was how much of your family’s history did you call on? How much came to play? I’m sure there the mysteries and that sort of thing going back, especially with someone like Jefferson. How much of that came into play?

Martha Carr: A lot of that came into play because Wallis is going to have to ask herself over and over again and then as he grows up in the series, her son, they’re going to have to ask themselves how much do I owe to family and how much do I just need to stand on the ideals of this family and do what’s right even if no one agrees with me? Can I run my own race? Can I be true to my faith? Can I do what I believe is right? That’s not always an easy question at all.

Tim Knox: Right, especially when you have so many players in the game.

Martha Carr: That’s right and it’s a thriller so people are dying, sometimes rather creatively. Then the other element that I wanted to bring in is if you really disagree with somebody can you pause for a moment, turn around and listen again? Don’t march off. Be hurt if you want to but listen. I wanted to keep bringing that element back because I think that’s often missing. People are very polarized.

Then another thing, normally in thrillers these days you see the Catholic Church a lot because they’re big and mysterious. I thought it’d be fun to use the Episcopal Church because I grew up on the grounds of an Episcopal seminary. My late father was an Episcopal minister and they are involved in politics quite frequently. The church, St. Johns that you see lots of U.S. presidents go to happens to be Episcopalian and I just thought it’d be fun to make them an underground. I did it with their blessing and they thought it was fun. So I created an Episcopalian underground that runs through the series and it opens the entire series with Episcopalian bishops trying to do the right thing.

Tim Knox: Interesting. Your characters are very strong, especially Wallis. Is she based any part on you?

Martha Carr: You know you end up writing about yourself whether you want to or not but Wallis started out being based on a friend of mine who is a family court attorney in Richmond. I admired her so much because she was always calm and peaceful even if someone was yelling right in her face. She would just wait patiently and then calmly answer them. Her nickname was The Black Widow, which she did not like because she regularly would route the male lawyers in court.

So I started with my friend Vera who lives in Richmond as the starting point and overtime I find that I work things out. The Keeper, Ned has grown to be a ‘tween. I was a single mother. I have a son, Louie, who’s great but being a single mother of a ‘tween is hard. So a lot of that comes into play in The Keeper.

Tim Knox: Right, now The Keeper is the second book in this series. At what point did you decide that this was going to be a series?

Martha Carr: Right from the beginning I knew I wanted it to be a series. I knew I had a long story to tell and that I wanted to really explore the idea of faith and family and doing the right thing and what’s the cost and I also wanted it to be a moving target. I don’t think it’s like you can put a stamp on it and say this is what’s right; you should do this all the time. Faith means I don’t know and I’m going to do my best.

Tim Knox: This really is an ongoing storyline. Are there life events that have shaped the story going forward?

Martha Carr: Do you mean in the future books?

Tim Knox: Well in what you’ve written so far and what’s to come.

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Martha Carr: Absolutely life events have shaped things. I was diagnosed with terminal cancer five years ago and told I had only a year left and that was an absolute truth. For some reason I went into remission and it disappeared and they couldn’t find it and they couldn’t explain it and they studied it at Northwestern. So having to really deal with the idea that this is the end and that I would be meeting God in a much closer way got me to really become centered and it’s never completely left me. So I worry less about what others think about what I’m doing and I try to just ask myself two questions – what do you want to be doing and what’s the next thing you ought to be doing – and mix those two. That’s how I came to do thrillers mixed with politics and faith.

Tim Knox: I find that so interesting because you were literally faced to death and you survived but it changed your outlook.

Martha Carr: Completely changed my outlook. I grew more and more peaceful and I find that’s my reset now.

Tim Knox: That’s so interesting. Do you have any plans to write about that?

Martha Carr: I wrote a lot of columns as it was going on. I wrote about prayer and I wrote about what that was like while it was going on and I don’t have any plans to write about that but I know it’s coming out through the series. Wallis is faced with some very dark and deadly things and instead of running or picking up the gun or whatever a thriller might do, she’s actually trying to use her faith and yet it’s still a fast paced thriller that even Kirkus Reviews liked. So I just think there’s a place for this and so I made a conscious decision.

As you said I did three different genres at first, which is annoying to agents by the way. So when I chose to do the series I made a conscious choice that I was going to have a singleness of purpose. It would be this series and I would take everything that I believe and somehow talk about it in this series. I always pulled my punches on faith before in the national column I wrote and I just decided that I don’t need to do that. Maybe this is what others want to have a conversation about as well so why don’t I just tell the truth as I see it and we’ll see what happens.

Tim Knox: Right. Did you find yourself kind of walking a fine line though? Were there times where you wanted to, as they say, get preachy or did you have to really reel yourself in at times? How was that?

Martha Carr: No I find that if you start with the characters and you write down everything about the characters, including what they like to eat and where they like to go and everything you can about them then you won’t get preachy because you’ll stay true to who they are.

Tim Knox: Good point, good point. What is Wallis’s favorite food?

Martha Carr: Wallis actually, and you find this early in The List, Wallis is not a good cook at all and she married this wonderful guy who cooks. So Wallis’s favorite food is whatever Norman is making.

Tim Knox: That’s why the women don’t want Norman killed off. He’s a perfectly trained househusband.

Martha Carr: He is, yeah, and he thinks and he’s kind and he’s got a job. I think I wrote my ideal man.

Tim Knox: There you go. Where do you see this series going now?

Martha Carr: So the next book in the series is called The Circle and for people who’ve read The List, they’ll know exactly why it’s called The Circle. What I want to investigate in third book is what happens when what many might perceive as the good guys, what happens when they do actually grab the power after hundreds of years? Is it like they thought or does it get tougher than they expected? Do they make the same kinds of decisions that skirt morale to your integrity? Being in power is not as easy as it looks.

Tim Knox: Exactly and what’s the old thing – power corrupts?

Martha Carr: Money corrupts, power corrupts, absolutely.

Tim Knox: Yeah, yeah. Well The Keeper just came out this week. Is that right?

Martha Carr: That’s right. It came out in celebration of my late mother’s birthday. Her name was Lanteen Jones-Carr and she was a feisty woman. She was very proud of all of us so the Jones in the Wallis Jones is in honor of her.

Tim Knox: I think it’s so interesting. I talk to so many authors, myself included, who have written books to honor our mothers. I wrote a book as an 87th birthday present for my mother. I think she’s the only person who’s read it but that’s okay. Before we go let’s talk a little about your process of writing. You not only are a novelist but you also write a column. You’re always busy. When you writing a book what is your process? Do you have a set time that you write every day? Do you have to hit a number of words? What is your process?

Martha Carr: So I start with knowing the ending of the book because in particular with a thriller you have to be the driver. You have to know the destination so everything goes there so that whatever clues you’re dropping, everything gently leads there so the reader doesn’t feel tricked or like they were hit over the head. The beginning I always find the most difficult because I want to pull you in quickly and I want it to make sense so I write three pages a day double spaced and I craft that beginning and I do an outline that has more detail that stays at least three or four chapters ahead of me. I just keep taking notes so that eventually it all weaves together.

Unlike other novels, a thriller has to weave itself together and when you do a political thriller that has a conspiracy you really have to keep track of where people are so that it happens naturally and so that the reader feels like well of course that happened.

Tim Knox: That’s such great advice. You have to predict things that are going to happen two, three books down the road.

Martha Carr: You have to keep in mind, yes. I know exactly how the entire series is going to go and I know the ending. So yes, you do have to keep that in mind. By the way, I have a consultant that I talk to as well. You’ll notice in The List and in The Keeper there’s a lot of really good technical spy jargon and clever, clever things to manipulate the system that are actual that you could do. I wanted to make it so that a reader could feel like I could do that. That comes from some very, very helpful consultants who operate behind the scenes who I knew from the D.C. area who would probably prefer I not mention their names.

Tim Knox: Or they’ll have to kill you and that wouldn’t be good.

Martha Carr: Exactly.

Tim Knox: Last question – I always end with this. Our audience for this show primarily are authors across all genres, all sales levels, but a lot of them are authors who are trying to get that first book out there or just trying to get that first book written. Give us your best advice to these authors. What is it they should do or not do along the way?

Martha Carr: So I found the most helpful thing was to create a small writers group of no more than five people that I respected their work, even if it really wasn’t similar to mine, and we got together once a month and we would send each other the latest chapter and you have to send it at least a week in advance. The rule was you couldn’t talk about whether or not you so-called liked it but whether or not it made sense and it flowed, whether or not you made some leaps of logic. So I created a nourishing environment where I also had accountability because I knew I had to send something to somebody.

Then the other thing is these days you can self-publish so easily and do a good job of it that if you have a book that’s getting excitement from your friends and your writers group really likes, you should keep moving forward. The best advice I can give you, which is exactly what the entire Wallis Jones series is about, is run your own race. In the end you’re the one who’s going to have to be able to ask yourself if you get met with the idea that you only have a year left to live – could I be happy with what I’ve already done? Am I happy? Do I feel like I was at least on the road to where I wanted to go? If you can do that then you’ve got it all.

Tim Knox: Such great advice. What are you working on now? What’s coming up next? Are you working on the next book in the series?

Martha Carr: I’m working on the next book in the series, The Circle, and I’m very excited about it. Each book takes a turn in a different direction so I get the chance to explore a different idea and watch these characters grow. I’m very excited about that. I am pitching a column about the writer’s life, mixing faith into writing so I’m waiting to hear. That might turn into a national column as well. I have a blog at WallisJones.com where I already do talk about the writing life and the series and faith.

Tim Knox: Super. Martha Carr, the author of The List, The Keeper out this week and The Circle soon to come. You mentioned your blog. Tell us what’s your website? Where can we find more information about you and your work?

Martha Carr: Okay you can find more about the series at WallisJonesSeries.com and there is a new blog post every Monday and I talk about faith and how to be calm in the middle of a chaotic life and how that ties to the series and I welcome anybody who wants to comment and write in and we can start a dialogue and put that into the blog as well.

Tim Knox: Very good. That baby that was in that buggy that you pushed into that newspaper office. How old is he now?

Martha Carr: He is 27 years old and I tell him all the time he’s a better writer than I am but he doesn’t listen. Yeah, he’s a great human being. He thinks for himself and he’s very compassionate and balanced. His name is Louie and that turned out alright and he went on a lot of interviews with me when he was small.

Tim Knox: That’s so funny. Martha Carr, this has been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed this immensely. Do keep up posted. Let’s get you back on the next time. When do you think The Circle will be out?

Martha Carr: The Circle should be out at the end of the year.

Tim Knox: Okay, would you come back on and talk about it?

Martha Carr: Absolutely and I thank you Tim for having me on. I greatly appreciate it. This has been really a lot of fun.

Tim Knox: It’s a pleasure. We’ll also put up links to your website and blog and we will talk to you very soon.

Tim Knox: Alright, thank you very much.

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