Elizabeth Mundy talks about her new novel, A Clean Canvas, getting published, and her plans for the future.
1. Can you tell us more about your novel, A Clean Canvas?
A Clean Canvas is the second book in my Lena Szarka mystery series and is about a Hungarian working in London who cleans people’s houses and learns their dirty secrets.
This time she dusts off her detective skills when a painting is stolen from a commercial gallery she cleans with her cousin Sarika. When Sarika goes missing too, accusations start to fly and together with handsome PC Cartwright, Lena tries to track down the painting to clear Sarika’s name.
The Irish Independent described it as ‘a deliciously light and witty souffle of a book’ and it’s the most light-hearted of my novels so far. It was great fun to write.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
I got the idea for a cleaner who could be a detective the first time I visited the flat of my, until then, rather promising new boyfriend. He seemed lovely: funny, successful and very sweet. Then I saw his flat.
There were half-eaten, mouldy pieces of toast under his bed and cold cups of tea used as ashtrays littering the living room. I don’t think he’d ever done a load of laundry. Dirty boxers and filthy socks were piled high on the bathroom floor – I had to clamber over them to use the toilet.
He was embarrassed at my horror and hired a cleaner the next day. It struck me that this employee, who he’d hardly ever meet, would know more about his private life than any of his colleagues. The cleaner would be the one to uncover his dirty secrets. That’s when I decided a cleaner would be a great, if unconventional, detective.
In the end, it worked out very well. The cleaner not only inspired my novels, she also made that relationship feasible. I ended up marrying that boyfriend and now we’ve got two very messy children.
3. What comes to you first – the setting, the characters or some aspect of the story?
For the series, it was definitely the lead character Lena. I knew I wanted a cleaner as a detective as she’d have such intimate access to her clients’ secrets. I made her Hungarian after my own grandmother, and it also give scope to explore the prejudices she faces as an immigrant cleaning rich people’s homes. She’s strong and feisty and doesn’t take any crap from anyone. I love her for that.
4. How long did it take to write the novel and how many drafts did you write?
My first novel In Strangers’ Houses took me about three years to write, probably about six drafts and I worked full time too. My publisher gave me a year to write the second, and I was still working full time and also pregnant. Luckily I was able to deliver the manuscript a few days before the baby!
I find writing the first draft stressful and get it written as quickly as I can – having blank pages in front of you is always daunting. But then I come back in the edit to round my characters, add description and fill in any plot holes. A Clean Canvas was done in about three drafts.
5. What do you do to relax after a long writing day?
I like to reward myself with a nice glass of wine or three.
6. Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
I never thought I’d get published – I wrote the first book because I really enjoyed writing. I was part of a lovely writing group run by Philippa Pride (AKA The Book Doctor), who is also Stephen King’s UK editor. She encouraged me to send the manuscript to agents, and I was thrilled to get an offer of representation pretty quickly. We had a nervous wait over the summer to see if any publishers would take it on and I was lucky enough to get an offer from Constable. They also publish MC Beaton (who writes the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series) and are fantastic at establishing new crimes series.
7. Do you have a day job as well?
I’m a marketing director at an investment firm, but I’m on maternity leave with my second baby at the moment. I started to write my third novel A Messy Affair with my first baby cuddled on my chest, and finished the edits with my second baby kicking from inside my belly. It was much harder writing with a baby than while I was working full time!
8. What authors have inspired you in your writing journey?
Alexander Mccall Smith’s books are inspirational for me. I hadn’t read any detective fiction before that had so much warmth – it can sometimes be such a cold genre. The books make me laugh out loud and I love how much affection McCall Smith clearly has for his characters: Mma Makutsi in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency is my absolute favourite, especially when her shoes give her advice. Although the Lena Szarka Mysteries have a grittier edge to them, I write them with a warm tone and try to keep an under-current of humour running throughout.
9. Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the future?
My third novel in the Lena Szarka series is called A Messy Affair and will be published in January 2020. This time my detective Lena is forced to brush up on her detective skills when the reality TV star her cousin Sarika is dating turns up dead. It will be the raciest one to date – I think because i was writing it while looking after a baby and singing endless renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!
Crime always leaves a stain…
Lena Szarka, a Hungarian cleaner, dusts off her detective skills when a masterpiece is stolen from a gallery she cleans with her cousin Sarika. When Sarika goes missing too, accusations start to fly.
Convinced her cousin is innocent, Lena sweeps her way through the secrets of the London art scene. But with the evidence against Sarika mounting and the police on her trail, Lena needs to track down the missing painting if she is to clear her cousin.
Embroiling herself in the sketchy world of thwarted talents, unpaid debts and elegant fraudsters, Lena finds that there’s more to this gallery than meets the eye.
Elizabeth Mundy’s grandmother was a Hungarian immigrant to America who raised five children on a chicken farm in Indiana. An English Literature graduate from Edinburgh University, Elizabeth is a marketing director for an investment firm and lives in London with her messy husband and two young children. A Clean Canvas is the second book in the Lena Szarka mystery series about a Hungarian cleaner who turns detective.