An Interview with Lisa Fernow, Author of Dead on Her Feet

What inspired you to write Dead on Her Feet?

Q. You’re a marketing consultant by day, and Dead on Her Feet is your debut novel. Was there a memorable moment where you decided that you just had to start writing; that you couldn’t keep the book inside your head any longer? What inspired you to write Dead on Her Feet, specifically?

A. I’ve wanted to be a mystery writer ever since the third grade, but put that dream aside to pursue a marketing career with PepsiCo and Time Warner. While on a business trip to Argentina I saw some tango dancers in San Telmo and realized I just had, had, had to learn this dance. So I went back to Atlanta, where I was living at the time, and started taking lessons with Rick and Lynda Wilson, and going to dances. At one of these milongas a woman, who shall remain forever nameless, “stole” one of my favorite dance partners right out from under me. I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if she died ;-)? And the idea for Dead on Her Feet was born. I moved to Seattle, started a marketing consulting practice, and started writing.

What is your favorite mystery book or series?

Q. You’ve said that one of your favorite mystery authors is Ngaio Marsh. Did her writing inspire or influence any part of Dead on Her Feet? What’s your favorite mystery book or series?

A. Ngaio Marsh is my all time favorite mystery author, and I love re-reading her series. She was one of the great golden age mystery writers, but what her readers might not know is that she was also a doyenne of the theatre. She set many of her books in the theatre world, which I greatly enjoyed, as I’d been an English and Theatre major at Cornell. I wanted to use tango in my books the way she used theatre in hers, and pay homage to some of the conventions of the golden age era: the locked room mystery, the pairing of an amateur sleuth with a professional, and the use of character profiles and floor plans of the murder scene being a few examples. If I have succeeded at following in her tradition in any small way, I’ll be thrilled.

How long have you been dancing?

Q. You have a background in Argentine tango, and it really shows through in your writing. How long have you been dancing, and how important was it for you to accurately portray the art of tango in Dead on Her Feet?

A. I started dancing tango in 1996, and studied with some amazing masters: Cacho Dante, Susanna Miller and Brigitta Winkler being some of the most well known. I was starved for material about tango – what it looked like, how to learn it, how to behave – so I could get out on the floor and be accepted in the community. I watched Carlos Saura’s Tango, Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, and Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango, scouring these movies for cues. However, most of what you see in film is performance tango which is meant to be enjoyed by the viewer. Social tango is completely different. It doesn’t look like much but it feels amazing and is really addictive. People arrange their lives to be able to dance tango socially. I wanted to show more of this aspect of the dance, and I hope I have done it justice. Everyone who dances tango will have a different opinion on this!

How much research did you have to do?

Q. How much research did you have to do for writing the book? What was the most interesting fact you discovered or surprising story you experienced while researching?

A. I researched the book, off and on, for about ten years, if you can believe it. This is while I was writing, and rewriting, the various drafts of the book.

The most surprising story came as I was researching the back-stories for my characters. Professor Bobby Glass is a new dancer with bad eyesight, no rhythm, and no confidence. Contrast him with Eduardo Sanchez Jaury, an Argentine milonguero who has been dancing his entire life. When it comes to tango they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In the back of my mind I always hoped Bobby and Eduardo would become friends. As I started to build out their histories I decided that one of the professor’s hobbies, since he’s a geologist, would be to help track down and authenticate gems the Nazis stole from the Jews in WWII. Don’t ask me where that idea came from. Meanwhile I decided Eduardo needed a dark past, and made him a Montonero, a member of an Argentine leftist group that carried out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations against the government.

As I continued to research their fictitious histories, I discovered that while the former Argentine President Juan Peron was in power he had protected the Nazis and turned on the Montoneros he’d once supported. So Bobby and Eduardo, both hating Peron, had a reason to become great friends.

Was there any particular character that was the most fun to write?

Q. Even though all of the suspects are united by their love of tango, that seems to be the only thing they have in common. I love each character’s unique personality and quirks; it was so fun to follow their antics as the mystery unfolds. Was there any particular character that was the most fun to write?

A. I have a soft spot for Bobby Glass. He’s such a bad dancer but tries so hard.

Can we expect to see more flirtation between Antonia and Morrow in future books?

Q. Antonia and Morrow have a bit of a flirtation going on. Can we expect to see more of that in future books? Maybe even a romance?

A. Flirtation? What flirtation?

Did you discover any surprises when you were writing?

Q. Did you uncover any other surprises while you were writing? Anything that didn’t end up how you’d expect?

A. I originally intended the book to be light, like an Agatha Christie mystery. But whenever tango is involved you can’t help but go deeper. So the book turned out to be a little more visceral and intense than I expected. The dance requires it, really.

Any tips on where people can start learning tango?

Q. After I read Dead on Her Feet, I wanted to go out and start learning to dance tango myself! Any tips on breaking into tango or where people can start learning the dance?

A. Yes! If you live anywhere near a city, there is almost certainly a tango community. Google will get you started, and I’ll be posting about some of my favorite teachers on my website. Best advice? Go in with the expectation that learning tango is a life long pursuit, like golf. You’ll get out of it what you invest.

You've bowled with Michael Jordan and got sweat on by Cindy Crawford?

Q. I heard you’ve bowled with Michael Jordan and got sweat on by Cindy Crawford. Tell me the full story behind those!

A. Both Michael and Cindy are true class acts, I have to say.

I was working for Frito-Lay in the Chicago office and we were hosting a sales event at a bowling alley. The idea was to give our best retailer customers the opportunity to bowl with the Chicago Bulls, who were at the height of their fame. Everyone was in a high fever, clearly thrilled to be there. Me, I know nothing about basketball. I’m just there to help. I notice this one player bowling gutter balls so, being a smart ass, I say to him, “You can’t bowl worth shit can you?” and he says, “Nope,” grinning this huge smile, and I realize I have just messed with Michael Jordan.

A few years later when I was at Pepsi Cola International we hosted a big marketing conference in Bermuda. Everyone at the meeting gets to have his picture taken with Cindy Crawford. There must be two hundred guys lining up to slip their arms around this supermodel’s waist. The heat’s in the high 90’s. By the time it’s my turn I’m drenched in sweat. I can’t touch this lovely person. I’ll damage her. But Cindy smiles as if to say, No problem, I’m used to this, and throws her arm around me. My mom still has the photo on her piano.

When is the next book coming out?

Q. Do you know when the next book’s coming out? Is there any hint or spoiler you can tell us about the story? Please?

A. The next book is expected out sometime in 2015, depending on how fast I write!!! I can tell you it’s set in Seattle, and Antonia will run into someone she’s not sure she ever wants to see again.

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