Monday, March 1, 2010

Interview with tea-shop mystery author Laura Childs

I read all the Agatha Christie mysteries when I was young, but I somehow didn't get hooked on the whole mystery genre. A few years ago, with the help of a cup of tea, I found my way back in. Laura Childs writes a series of mystery novels set in a Charleston tea shop — the sleuth is the shop's affable owner, Theodosia Browning — and aside from the accumulation of dead bodies in the neighborhood the stories are each delightful romps. We get a murder in the first chapter, an apprehension in the final chapter, and a lot of lingering in the tea shop, discussing tea and humid Southern atmosphere in between.

The 11th in the series is published Tuesday, The Teaberry Strangler. I caught up with Childs (real name: Gerry Schmitt) this weekend; here's part of our conversation about tea:

Q. What was your road into tea?
A. My husband teaches Chinese and Japanese art history, and once I married him in 1985 I started traveling in Asia with him. In Taiwan, in Japan, I really got into tea. It's hard not to. I started buying more of it and loved it. I still don't know much about it.

Q. After all these years?
A. Well, every time I learn something new about tea, I realize there's still so much I don't know. It's like turning a corner and realizing there's still so much further to go.

Q. But you've found a fun vehicle to travel in, and pass along what you know to others.
A. I hope so. It's gratifying to receive hundreds of emails a month in which people say, "I only drank Lipton, and your books have inspired me to buy tea laves and try more kinds of tea."

Q. In those travels, as you began to discover tea, was there a tea moment — one ah-ha experience that set you on this path?
A. Actually, there was. We were traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a bullet train on Christmas Day, and we went by a tea plantation. It was absolutely stunning. This beautiful, green terraced garden went right up the side of the mountain, and in the background was Mt. Fuji. I was reading a book and my husband said, "Look up, dear." I gasped, and I wanted to run out and taste the tea being grown right there in this heavenly garden. My husband said, "Merry Christmas!"

Q. And did Japanese green teas become your favorites?
A. I really do like the kind of toasty flavor of Bancha.

Q. It seems like you began the tea-shop series (about nine years ago) at just the right time. Were you aware of the rising market for tea and expanding interest in it here, or did you just get lucky?
A. The tea-shop mystery series is still the most successful, wildly. For some reason, I hit this tsunami wave of interest in tea. At the time I started, tea shops were starting to pop up like mushrooms all over the country. The whole tea thing really took off. It's now what coffee was in the ’90s. Even Starbucks and Caribou have gone into tea seriously. ... I was lucky to hit the trend as it was growing, and it's probably still growing.

I'll be writing more about Childs' tea mystery series — she also writes a line of scrapbooking mysteries, and a new line centered around a Midwestern cafe — later for the Sun-Times. The Teaberry Strangler is out this week, and it's another fun read.

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