published Monday, April 7th, 2014

Murder she writes: Mystery novelist Mignon Ballard says the South is her inspiration

Mystery author Mignon Ballard celebrates the release of her 20th novel, "Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble," at her home in Calhoun, Ga.
Mystery author Mignon Ballard celebrates the release of her 20th novel, "Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble," at her home in Calhoun, Ga.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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    A collection of novels by mystery author Mignon Ballard is seen on a shelf in her home in Calhoun, Ga.
    Photo by Todd South.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

1978: “Aunt Matilda’s Ghost”

1986: “Raven Rock”

1987: “Cry at Dusk”

1989: “Deadly Promise”

1991: “The Widow’s Woods”

1992: “Final Curtain”

1993: “Minerva Cries Murder”

1999: “Angel at Troublesome Creek”

2000: “An Angel to Die For”

2001: “The War in Sallie’s Station”

2002: “Shadow of an Angel”

2003: “The Angel Whispered Danger”

2005: “Too Late for Angels”

2006: “The Angel and The Jabberwocky Murders”

2007: “The Christmas Cottage”

2008: “Hark! The Herald Angel Screamed”

2010: “Miss Dimple Disappears”

2011: “Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause”

2013: “Miss Dimple Suspects”

2014: “Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble”

CALHOUN, GA. — To Mignon Ballard, a conversation without a story or two must seem as bland as a piece of boiled chicken.

A career author of mystery novels steeped in Southern swelter, Ballard has a tendency to veer off onto narrative tangents, delivered in a cheerful drawl, as if her blood is thick with the yarns she’s compelled to spin.

Ask about the Baptist church across the street from her brick bungalow and she’ll slip in an account of narrowly escaping a childhood brush with death while riding an out-of-control bicycle down a nearby hill. Bring up her origins as a writer and she’ll reminisce about a letter she sent to Adolf Hitler in second grade, expressing her hatred for the dictator and her firm belief in his inevitable defeat. Der Führer, she confides, declined to reply, but her older sister burst into tears at the thought that he would respond with munitions instead of words.

Ballard is fully conscious of her tendency to tell tales. Writing and storytelling, she says, aren’t just her job; they define her.

“It’s my blood. It’s my life blood,” the 79-year-old earnestly explains. “It gives me meaning.”’

On Feb. 4, Ballard celebrated the release of her 20th novel, “Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble.” The book is her fourth to feature Dimple Kirkpatrick, a North Georgian school teacher with a penchant for sniffing out mischief.

As with most of her writing, “A Peck of Trouble” is rife with vivid imagery of a gentler South during the years when World War II dominated all facets of life. The novel opens with the residents of Elderberry, Ga., a fictional town based on the Calhoun of Ballard’s youth, sweating in the summer heat when an 18-year-old girl mysteriously disappears. Cue Miss Dimple.

“A Peck of Trouble” reached the No. 13 spot on Publisher’s Alley’s best-selling mysteries list, not quite meeting the high-water mark set by her most acclaimed release, 2011’s “Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause,” which was the third best-selling mystery on the site.

Four novels in, Ballard says she feels as if she knows her sleuthy pedagogue, but the character wasn’t based on anyone specific. The closest thing to a real-life parallel, she says, was her fourth-grade teacher, who she loved for her even-handed instruction and because her son, a pilot, used to the delight the students by buzzing the school.

When Ballard speaks about Miss Dimple, it’s with the kind of glowing praise one might heap on a friend rather than a fictional character.

“She cares about people, which is why she makes such a good detective,” she says. “She wants to get to the bottom of what is going on and make everything right. In this book, her friend Virginia says, ‘You can’t make everything right’ and she responds, ‘But I can try.’”

DIXIE’S AGATHA CHRISTIE

During a recent visit to her home, a trio of crisp-covered copies of “A Peck of Trouble” are piled haphazardly on a quilt-topped twin bed in her guest room. On the top shelf of a blue bookcase against the far wall, the rest of her novels are arranged in chronological order.

She pulls out a copy of 1986’s “Raven Rock.” The novel, she says, was not only her first for adults but the only one translated into another language.

Spanish?

“No. Danish,” she laughs. “I have no clue why. The only thing I can read in it is my name.”

Just off the kitchen, a massive wooden desk is stuffed into a breakfast nook with only inches of clearance to either side. Her father once used it while serving as commander of Calhoun’s home guard during WWII, and it’s where she has written all her novels, beginning in 1978 with “Aunt Matilda’s Ghost.”

From a wall to the left of her desktop computer — she upgraded from a Smith Corona typewriter many books ago — Ballard unhooks a framed piece of paper. It’s an advertisement from Dodd Mead, her former publisher.

“Twenty who keep America in suspense …” a bolded statement reads above an alphabetical list of 20 authors. Ballard’s name is second. Two rows below her is Agatha Christie.

“I was so excited over that,” she says. “So I had it framed.”

Growing up, Ballard learned to love mysteries as a voracious reader of detective serials such as Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Judy Bolton. Eventually, she graduated to Christie’s books, whose recurring heroine, Miss Marple, was an inspiration for Miss Dimple.

“I love England and all the little villages where the murder mysteries took place with Miss Marple,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I have mysteries set in little Southern towns?’”

GROWING UP

Ballard’s first published work, “Aunt Matilda’s Ghost,” was a children’s novel about a murder mystery in a haunted house. After years of publishers politely refusing her manuscripts, one in Nashville agreed to buy “Aunt Matilda.” When Ballard received her first copy, she placed it in the child’s seat of a shopping cart and paraded it around the local A&P grocery store.

“I’d see people and go, ‘Look! Look!’” she recalls, laughing.

However, writing for children proved trickier than expected. Ballard says she received so many form letter rejections that the phrase “does not suit our needs” became a family in-joke when confronted with an unwanted dish at the dinner table.

So, after building up a stack of unsold drafts of children’s novels, she decided to write exclusively for adults.

In 1986, another manuscript showed promise. A publisher in New York expressed interest in “Raven Rock,” and desperate for a second success, Ballard prayed for divine intervention on her behalf. In return, she promised to give up cigarettes, a habit she picked up in college while attending the University of Chattanooga and later the University of Georgia.

“When [the publisher] called and said they were accepting the manuscript, I [prayed again and] asked, ‘Can I have a week?’” she laughs. “Then I smoked like a factory.”

Each subsequent success was a struggle, she says. She continued to receive rejection slips, but every time she sold a new novel, she’d signal the neighborhood by raising the American flag outside the house.

GOING HOME

Like many authors, Ballard says she writes what she knows. Her novels, especially the Miss Dimple series, are packed with details that draw on her memories of growing up in a small town during wartime.

The Manhattan offices of publisher St. Martin’s Press are hundreds of miles and decades separated from the setting of the Elderberry novels. But Ballard’s descriptive flair helps makes that distance seem much smaller, says Hope Dellon, her longtime editor at Minotaur Books, the mystery novel branch at St. Martin’s.

“She has a terrific sense of place and how people treat each other,” Dellon says. “She shows people behaving beautifully, except for one or two villains. It’s really heart-warming without being syrupy or cloying. It just feels like the best of America — sincerely.”

Despite her nostalgia for her childhood home, Ballard acknowledges that Calhoun was hardly untouched by the decades when she was away. The city is bigger now, and she doesn’t know all her neighbors any more. Many of the broad-limbed oaks that used to line her street have been cut down.

The house she grew up in is still mostly intact, she says, down to the nails in the mantle where she and her sister hung their Christmas stocking, but a previous owner moved it across the street. A CVS Pharmacy now sits on the original lot.

Despite the changes to her birthplace, Ballard likes to say Thomas Wolfe was half wrong about not being able to go home again. When she returned to Calhoun last year after living for 40 years in Fort Mill, S.C., she ended up not just in the same city but practically the same street on which she grew up.

Ballard moved back to be closer to her two daughters in Atlanta after her husband, Gene Ballard, died in January 2013. She says writing has been a balm to her, especially after the loss of her husband. She is finding creative inspiration and a melancholy kind of solace from being back in her hometown, where plenty has changed from what she remembers but nothing is truly new.

“I’ve got roots here, and I think roots are important,” she says. “I love the town I set my books in, even though there are mysteries going on, and you have to look over your shoulder and not everything is hunky-dory.”

Ballard says she feels like the row of novels proudly displayed in her guest room and readers’ comments on her website attest to her legacy being more than just words on a page. Hopefully, she says, she’s helped spice things up a bit.

“I feel like, when my time comes to go, I will have left behind something positive,” she says, smiling mischievously, “even though I kill people.”

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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