Toilet Cleaner to Ninja: My Interview with Mystery Author EM Kaplan


I hope you read last week’s blog post. It was one of my all-time favorites, mainly because my contribution was mostly limited to copy and paste. I excel at both of those. Anyway, if you missed it, I suggest you take a step back before we move forward. Indie author EM Kaplan was kind enough to share the first chapter from Dim Sum, Dead Some, her latest novel. Click here to read it.

EM KaplanKaplan has been, among other things, “a Girl Scout, trombonist, toilet-cleaner, beginner ninja, and subversive marketeer.” She now writes snarky Josie Tucker mysteries. She’s also written Unmasked, the first book in a new fantasy series. We met on Twitter and she agreed to take some time to talk to me about her writing craft, her struggles as a self published author, and a few other things Here’s what she had to say. .


Q: For starters, what exactly is a beginner ninja?

 A: Beginner ninja means I earned only three stripes on my belt before I stopped taking karate. My instructor was this bull-necked guy named Vinny with beady eyes and a testosterone problem. I got some major bruises in that dojo, which is not a good thing. I’m probably more of a tai chi person anyway…


Q:  You describe your novels as “snarky, un-cozy, un-culinary” mysteries.  What does that mean? 

A: Snarky is that special brand of humor somewhere between sarcastic and irritated. It can be very cutting and very snide. Because Josie is petite, non-threatening, and…well, cute, no one realizes she’s a major grouch. 

Cozy mysteries are polite, traditional mysteries–think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, gathering the suspects for tea in the parlor. Cozy mysteries do not include any violence or romantic spice, unlike mine.  So, un-cozy.

Culinary mysteries are typically food-based. Chocolates. Cupcake shops. Chefs. Many of them include theme-based recipes between the chapters. Although Josie is a food critic, she can’t eat. Her stomach is constantly messed up due to anxiety, allergies, and other factors. So, un-culinary.


Q:  What sort of person is Josie Tucker?

A: She’s a reformed juvenile delinquent. When Josie is little, her mother, a restaurant owner, starts exhibiting signs of dementia. But the time Josie is in high school, her mother becomes institutionalized. Not long after Josie turns 16, her father dies of a heart attack, so she’s in essence orphaned. After that, Josie goes to Arizona to live with her great aunt and uncle. So, she has a past full of bumps and bruises, but somehow she manages to get herself back on track.


Q:  What would you say is the hardest job for a self-published author? 

A: Without a doubt, marketing. It’s hard enough for an introvert (as most writers are) to put thoughts and ideas out into public for people to consume, to buy as a product. Then, on top of that, you have to sell it yourself–even if you might not believe your book is the best thing since the 84 pack of Ginsu knives sold in the traveling Ginsu briefcase. Interviews, chatting with people at conferences and fairs, Tweeting, posting, blogging…it’s crazy and exhausting. I’m not saying signing with a publisher eliminates all or any of that. But there’s a massive learning curve for the indie author.


Q:  Who or what are the biggest inspirations behind your protagonist and/or your writing in general? 

A:  I can say, without hesitation, that I collect data about every person that I meet. I don’t mean that I have a secret trove of notebooks in which I’ve recorded what you’re eating for lunch, but I am mentally cataloging tics and personality traits, even physical characteristics of most of the people I meet. My father was a U.S. spy a long time ago. I picked up on his powers of observation, but somehow, translated it into creating written portraits of people instead of…playing cloak and dagger or whatever.


Q:  Do you and Josie have anything in common? 

A: We have a few shared traits. Josie’s half Thai. I’m half Chinese, born to overseas military parents who were stationed in Thailand. I also grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where Josie spent some of her formative years, and I shared with her the frequent experience of native Spanish speakers cussing me out for not speaking Spanish well. During grad school at the U of AZ, I was a courier for a while, delivering exams and confidential papers to various departments, people frequently stopped to ask me for directions in Spanish. Honestly, I have a hard enough time distinguishing my izquierda from my derecha on a normal day…


Q:  Did you spend any time querying literary agents or making other attempts to sign on with a traditional publisher?  If so, what was that experience like for you and why the decision to self publish? 

A: I wrote The Bride Wore Dead before my son was born. He was 11 when I decided to self-publish. I spent all the years between trying to find an agent. I might be the world’s worst query letter writer. Yes…I think I might be. I bought and read the books on the publishing market. I visited the Query Shark blog religiously. I spent my monthly, self-imposed budget on postage. Checking the mail box became a real downer of an experience. You know it’s bad when you’re happy to get a bill instead. But during that decade or so, self-publishing evolved in a big way, like from amoeba to primate in a single decade. I like the autonomy. I like having my own rules and knowing that success or failure depends solely on my effort. Okay, that sounded a little like Josie.


Q:  Are you more likely to base a character on a specific personality trait, tic or behavior you’ve observed, or come up with a basic character sketch first and then refine it with those details?  

A: First I have a plot need, as in “I need a reason for this to happen.” I fill that in with a wire frame, a mock up, an outline of a person. Then I think, Wow, I can really picture a character like So-and-so doing that. So, I grab something I remember and mix it up with whatever else I can think of. Then I add the details. Granted, most of this is worked out with me staring off into space. It’s not very scientific. Or maybe it is. I could do worse than try to emulate someone like Richard Feynman, who made some outrageous leaps and comparisons in his theories but somehow came out with magic.


Q:  What would you say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses as a writer? 

A: This is going to sound like a Miss America acceptance speech, but I think weaknesses are strengths. Think about it this way…maybe you get perfect 10s on the uneven bars, but you screw the pooch every time on the balance beam. Maybe you slipped and hit the back of your neck when you were ten and still have the jitters–true story–and for whatever reason, you can’t follow through on the balance beam. You stink at the balance beam. The balance beam hates you. However, you can’t improve on the uneven bars. You’re already at 10, and unlike This is Spinal Tap, there’s no level 11. You realized then, that the balance beam is untapped potential. Realizing that potential converts a weakness into a strength. Acknowledging my weaknesses as a writer–I will never win a spelling bee–and working on them makes me a stronger writer. “SHE CAN BE TAUGHT!” And that is my answer. I would also like world peace.


Q:  How would you describe your writing technique?  Are you an outliner, a discovery writer, or do you fall somewhere in between? 

A: I’m a satori kind of writer. That’s a Zen term for a sudden burst of comprehension. I don’t mean in terms of the universe, but in terms of plot, character, and story. Shazaam! Moment of clarity. But while I’m waiting for the brainstorm, I’d most likely fit into the discovery category. And if I’m stuck, I jot down a rough outline. If I’m really stuck, I become a tidier, a desk-neatener.


Q:  What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as an indie author? 

A: You’re not only a writer, you’re a small business owner. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this one.


Q:  You mentioned the difficulties many indie authors have in marketing/ selling themselves or their work.  Of the various strategies you’ve employed, which would you say have been the most successful?   

A: Twitter has been really good. I’ve made a lot of contacts and met some great people. Three marriage proposals and an offer of passage to Kuwait. So, bonus there. Although, I don’t think they wanted my husband and kids. Kidding aside, indie writers on Twitter, in particular, are tremendously supportive of each other. I’ve reached many more people using Twitter than any other method.


Q:  What is the most interesting thing about you that I haven’t already asked about?  

A: When I was a toddler and we were still living in Thailand, a Thai woman we knew threatened to kidnap me. My parents heard she’d been telling people around town that she was going to take me. She’d been helping to take care of me since birth, so I loved her and I would have gone with her. My parents, at that point, hurried up their plans to move back to the U.S. If not for that local gossip mill, I might have had a very different life.

Visit EM Kaplan on Twitter, Facebook, or at And click here to subscribe to her free newsletter.


If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or my Turn the Page book reviews blog. You can also visit, or find me on Facebook, and on Twitter @Micsova. Please pick up a copy of A SHOT AT REDEMPTION, my debut mystery novel.  

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