Two Billings natives who already had successful careers when they decided to take up mystery writing will be making a joint appearance in their hometown this weekend.
Budewitz, a lawyer who lives near Bigfork, is promoting her fourth mystery novel and has already won two Agatha Awards (named for mystery doyenne Agatha Christie)—one for fiction and one for nonfiction, making her the only person to have won Agathas in both categories.
Weber, who owns a yoga studio in Seattle, got the writing bug a bit more recently than Budewitz, but she is making up for lost time. She is out promoting her second mystery novel and has already finished a third, and she is negotiating a contract for three more.
“It’s sort of frightening how easy it is for me to come up with ways to kill people,” Weber said.
Budewitz and Weber met a few years ago at Malice Domestic, an annual mystery convention in Washington, D.C., at which the Agatha Awards are bestowed. After a publicist set up their joint appearance in Billings, the two met up again last weekend at Left Coast Crime, another mystery convention, this one in Portland.
That’s where they decided to interview each other during the Barnes and Noble event. Weber confessed to being excited and nervous, never having interviewed anyone before.
Both writers have fond memories of growing up in Billings, but both left for college at 18 and have lived elsewhere since then. Budewitz is a 1977 graduate of Billings Central High School who attended Seattle University and then earned a law degree from Notre Dame.
She has been reading mysteries since she was a 6-year-old, starting with the adventures of the Happy Hollisters and later moving on to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and then, she said, “to Agatha Christie herself.”
She practiced law in Seattle for several years before returning to Montana, and she has worked for a small firm in Polson for 22 years. In addition to reading, she listened to a lot of books on tape while driving around the state as part of her job. She used to stop in at the Missoula Public Library to stock up, and the library happened to have a large collection of mysteries on tape. Some of her favorites were Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Ellis Peters and Tony Hillerman.
Hillerman, whose mysteries are set on the Navajo Reservation, taught her that “mysteries could be set anywhere.” Her first several novels, still unpublished, were set on the Flathead Reservation.
Other influences were Margaret Scherf, a Montana mystery writer in the 1940s and ’50s, and Ivan Doig and Mildred Walker, whose works did so much to establish Montana as a setting for serious literature.
“I am a very ‘place’ writer,” Budewitz said. “My books are very dependent on their setting. I believe that comes from growing up in a place where landscape is so key.”
When she was a child, she said, her family spent a lot of time in the mountains and fishing on rivers. And her father was a traveling salesman who went all over the state. His daughter carefully tracked his travels and listened to his stories.
“I felt like the whole state was my home,” she said.
In addition to her unpublished novels, Budewitz had published a handful of mystery short stories and was involved, live and online, in several writing groups. Once other writers learned of her background in law, they started asking her all sorts of technical questions for use in their stories.
She said they wanted to know about courtroom practices, how to obtain a search warrant and “who is Miranda and why are we always warning her?” That would eventually lead to her first Agatha-winning work: “Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure.”
In addition to bringing in an award and putting her name in front of a lot of mystery writers, Budewitz said, that book made her realize “I wasn’t through writing my own stories.”
But when she turned to writing novels again, she decided to try “light-hearted mysteries.” Her unpublished works were darker and bloodier “and they didn’t have as much food,” she said.
Her first three published books were part of “A Food Lovers Village Mystery” series, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, based loosely on Bigfork. The heroine of the series, Erin Murphy, runs a gourmet food market and solves crimes on the side, meaning the books are full of suspense and recipes. The first book in that series, “Death Al Dente,” won her an Agatha for best first novel.
She is now promoting “Assault and Pepper,” the first book in a new “Seattle Spice Shop” series, featuring a foodie/sleuth by the name of Pepper Reece.
Weber’s books are also set in Seattle, where she has lived for 30 years. She grew up on a dairy farm just west of Billings, attended Elysian School and graduated from West High in 1982. Her decision to take up novel writing was no less surprising than some of her earlier career moves.
She earned a chemical engineering degree from the University of Washington and worked for Weyerhauser as a research engineer for several years before deciding she liked people more than processes. That sent her back to school to earn a master’s in business leadership, and eventually to a job in senior management with Microsoft.
After being in a bad car wreck and being unable even to turn her head for seven years, she took up yoga—“one of those things until I started doing I thought was really weird.”
Yoga not only restored her to good health, it changed her life, and in 2000 she quit Microsoft and opened Whole Life Yoga in Seattle the following year. She started writing, she said, because the two main characters—yoga instructor Kate and her faithful dog Bella—popped into her head and essentially demanded to be written about.
Mysteries were a natural for Weber. She started reading even before she started school, she said, and her habits were eclectic and voracious. In fact, she said, she was somewhat overweight as a child, and a doctor once told her mother it might help if her daughter were to read less and get outside more.
Like Budewitz, she remembers reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, and then as a teen she grew even more interested in mystery, suspense and courtroom dramas.
So, when Kate and Bella came into her head, the “Downward Dog Mystery” series was soon born. Her first book, “Murder Strikes a Pose,” was published in 2014 and has been nominated for an Agatha Award for best first novel. Her new book is “A Killer Retreat,” in which Kate becomes the No. 1 suspect in a murder while teaching yoga classes at a vegan resort.
Bella is based on Tasha, the real-life German shepherd that Weber and her husband have had since she was a puppy. They didn’t know it when she came into their lives, but Tasha, like Bella, is a special-needs dog with auto-immune disease. She is also reactive, which means she acts aggressively as a way of dealing with frightening situations.
“I liken Tasha to having a child with autism,” Weber said. She needs a controlled, low-stress environment and lots of tender care.
“I still love this creature,” she said. “She has done so much to make me a better person.”
With the third book in her Downward Dog series already written, Weber is now planning another series set on the island of Maui, where the main character would be a woman “who can’t do anything remotely domestic” and takes over a smoothie shop. Still another series in her head would be set on Orcas Island off the Washington coast and would involve secondary characters from the Downward Dog series.
“What I’m doing is not sustainable,” Weber said with a laugh, “What I’m doing now is working all the time. Something’s eventually going to have to give, but I’m not sure what it is yet.”
That she is able to do as much as she has already done is partly the result of having attended Elysian School, she said.
Children there were expected to excel, she said, so by the time she got to West High, “I already had that baseline and that confidence.”
“I’m relatively intelligent,” she said, “but the truth is I had a leg up on other people because I had so much specialized attention because the school was so small.”