Today I have Canadian author M.H. Callway, known to her friends as Madeleine, with me on Moving Target. Madeleine has just released Snake Oil and Other Tales, her second collection of previously published short crime fiction. These dark tales are filled with strange guardians, mysterious bakeries, faithful dogs and, yes, the slithery reptiles that strike fear in even the toughest guy's heart. Many were finalists for Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence. They include traditional mysteries, thrillers, speculative fiction and even horror. What unites them are characters who are struggling for justice—or their own warped perception of it.
MOVING TARGET: Snake Oil and Other Tales is your second collection of short fiction. All 10 stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. What inspired you to assemble them into a separate collection?
MADELEINE: First of all, thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be back again.
Why put 10 stories and novellas together as a book? The idea was sparked by a Crime Writers of Canada interview with Erik De Souza. Erik asked why I consistently wrote shorter fiction rather than continuing as a novelist. Great question! When I looked at my recently published works, I realized that, combined, they made up a good-sized book in terms of word count. Together with my thriller, Windigo Fire, and my first story collection, Glow Grass and Other Tales, that makes one book every three years.
Another reason is more personal. My stories and novellas have appeared in many different anthologies and magazines; sadly, some of these publications have closed. I wanted my readers to have access to several works in one volume, and not have to go searching for them. This way, too, my family and my grandkids will know that I’ve had a productive retirement.
MOVING TARGET: Your first collection, Glow Grass and Other Tales, came out in 2016. Clearly the reaction to the collection was positive, because you are releasing a second collection. Tell us about the reaction to Glow Grass.
MADELEINE: It’s difficult to get a collection of short stories reviewed in established media unless you’re as famous a writer as Peter Robinson. That’s where social media proves invaluable. I owe a big thank you to influencers like you, Joanne Guidoccio, Judy Penz Sheluk and June Lorraine Roberts, who’ve generously promoted fellow authors.
And, yes, I did get a lot of positive feedback about Glow Grass from readers, mostly through word of mouth. A copy of the collection was even given out as a prize at a Left Coast Crime conference!
MOVING TARGET: What did you learn from the story selection and production process for Glow Grass that you were able to apply to Snake Oil?
MADELEINE: Working with Carrick Publishing is always a pleasure. Together, we have put out eight books: the five Mesdames of Mayhem anthologies, Snake Oil, Glow Grass and the e-book version of Windigo Fire. All this experience made assembling Snake Oil straightforward.
My job is to make things flow as smoothly as possible for publisher, Donna Carrick. I catch most copy editing and formatting glitches, but I’m not perfect. Together, with our two pairs of eyes, we pretty much are!
MOVING TARGET: Is there an encompassing theme to the stories in Snake Oil? If so, is it similar to the theme of the Glow Grass collection?
MADELEINE: Great question! Pulling together and re-reading these stories, in some cases years after their initial publication, was thought-provoking. And it allowed me to discern the overarching themes in my work: the struggle of the individual against an overwhelming external threat and the lack of support from society and the judicial system. That’s why, in both Snake Oil and Glow Grass, characters take the law into their own hands. Nobody else, including the police, is there to help them.
Perhaps that’s why my noir stories in the Snake Oil collection are really dark. To my surprise, a couple of them crossed over into the horror genre. I don’t read horror and shy away from most horror movies, but it appears that I share the same dark vision as authors in the horror genre!
MOVING TARGET: Is there an arc that the 10 Snake Oil stories follow?
MADELEINE: The order of stories in an anthology should entice the reader. It’s best to put a strong, accessible tale in the first spot to draw people in, and “Must Love Dogs,” a black comedy, takes the first place in the Snake Oil collection. I like the last story to be upbeat and thought-provoking to leave readers feeling happy and hopeful. I ended the collection with “The Seeker,” a thriller tale featuring a tough, resilient older woman.
For the middle stories, the key is to alternate between short and long, and noir and light-hearted. Too many long tales, or stories of the same kind and tone, can leave the reader feeling overwhelmed.
MOVING TARGET: The title of the “Snake Oil” story does double duty as part of the title of your second collection. What is significant about this story you are highlighting?
MADELEINE: I chose Snake Oil and Other Tales as the title of the collection because it helps set its overall dark tone. We are crime writers after all! And the “Snake Oil” story speaks to the deviousness of the criminal mind. I also think that “Snake Oil” may be my best work. I was delighted when it was a runner-up for the CWC’s Best Novella Award.
MOVING TARGET: What do you need to consider in creating a cover for a short story collection?
MADELEINE: The most important thing I learned is that a professional book cover artist is invaluable. Sara Carrick has designed all the Mesdames’ anthology covers, as well as our logo and website banner. Her artistic vision is remarkable. I simply gave Sara a short outline of each story, and she came up with this arresting cover for Snake Oil and Other Tales. Readers love it—and so do I!
For Glow Grass, I wanted to use a photograph I took of our cottage in rural Ontario. One year, the poplar trees produced so much pollen that it looked like a snowfall. Very eerie, but my photograph didn’t really capture the spookiness. Sara created a great cover image, and I learned that, for future covers, it’s best to leave things entirely to her.
MOVING TARGET: You are well-known as a noir fiction writer, and you’ve recently ventured into the horror genre. What makes you walk on fiction’s dark side?
MADELEINE: I guess I have a bleak vision of the world, which no doubt comes from spending my entire career in the male-dominated professions of science, gold mining and IT consulting. Seriously though, it’s difficult not to have a dark view, given what’s happening in the world today.
The fact that readers might consider me a horror writer surprises me. I know people are afraid of snakes (I’m not), but it turns out that even some tough-looking bros are phobic about them. Some readers cannot finish my novella, Snake Oil, for that reason. Recently, however, I’ve returned to the lighter side of noir, with the dark comedies, “Must Love Dogs—or You’re Gone” and Amdur’s Ghost. A writer friend invited me to join her at the Malice Domestic conference. Maybe I’ll follow her steps and turn to cozy noir!
MOVING TARGET: Thank you, Madeleine! What a great idea you came up with—releasing your previously published tales in a separate collection.
Many of Madeleine’s stories and novellas have won or been short-listed for major awards, including the Bony Pete, the Derringer and the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence. In 2023, her work was nominated in two CWC categories (Best Short Story and Best Novella), the first double nomination for a Canadian crime writer since the late Peter Robinson garnered that honour.
Madeleine’s 2014 novel, Windigo Fire (Seraphim Editions), was a finalist for the 2015 CWC Award for Best First Novel, and was a Huffington Post “Book for Book Clubs” selection. Under different titles, it was a runner-up for Britain’s Debut Dagger Award and Crime Writers of Canada’s Best Unpublished Manuscript Award.
So it’s not surprising that Margaret Cannon, the Globe and Mail’s crime fiction reviewer, has called M.H. Callway “a writer to watch.”
In 2013, Madeleine co-founded the Mesdames and Messieurs of Mayhem collective, with Donna Carrick, author and head of Carrick Publishing. Today the Mesdames number 25 crime writers, publishers, editors, filmmakers and bookstore owners. The Mesdames are the subject of the CBC documentary, The Mesdames of Mayhem, available for viewing on GEM and YouTube.
Connect with Madeleine at https://mhcallway.com