She writes tough-minded suspense novels, many set on the mean streets of Santa Barbara. She’s immensely popular-recently her books topped Amazon’s best-seller list for thrillers in both England and Canada. All the same, chances are excellent you’ve never heard of Meg Gardiner.
“When I got my first literary agent in London, he assumed we would have no trouble finding an American publisher, with the books set in California, and it would be a little thornier finding an English publisher,” said Gardiner, who spoke on the phone from her home in south London. “It turned out the opposite was true.” At the time, no American publishing house was interested in another lady gumshoe set in sunny SoCal.
But the serendipity that got her an English publisher also brought Gardiner her big break. “Stephen King has the same British publisher, and they used to send him boxes of their books,” she explained. “One time when he had a London flight to catch he needed a book to read. He told me later mine had ‘nice, big, comfortable print.’ Honest to God.” King loved Gardiner. He read everything she’d written, wrote to her publisher, blogged about her on his Web site, and, best of all, did a column on her for Entertainment Weekly.
“Suddenly, the American publishers who hadn’t been interested in me were calling,” she said.
Next week, Penguin is bringing out her brand new novel, The Dirty Secrets Club, in the States. Each of her previous five titles “debut” in paperback here once a month through the summer.
Even if you don’t know Gardiner for her rattling good (and sometimes graphically frightening) novels, you might have met her growing up here. She is the daughter of Sally and Frank Gardiner, the late, beloved UCSB English professor and Medievalist. The Gardiners moved here in 1965, and Meg believed even then that she was born to write. “I used to draw picture stories,” she said. “I was obviously in a home where books and reading and writing mattered.” Gardiner attended Dos Pueblos High School and worked on the Charger, the school paper, but her father urged caution to his budding writer. “He said I could write novels after college and be another novelist who waits on tables or I could become a lawyer who writes novels.” She heeded his warning, but left the law behind when her children were born and began writing. “I decided I didn’t want to argue for a living,” she said.
Only two of Gardiner’s books have been regularly available at Chaucer’s Books, where she will speak and sign on June 17. Of all her books, Cross Cut is the most Santa Barbaran, though it shuttles around. In it Gardiner employs her series character Evan Delaney, a savvy freelance journalist whose family connection to secret military ops brings her up against a clinical serial murderer. It’s tough, vernacular, and topically hip, though Gardiner decided to soften some of the more gruesome details for the American market. “It’s surprising what effect you can get by removing four or five adjectives,” she laughed. Her god is Elmore Leonard, though she admires the work of James Lee Burke and other tough-guy writers. Of course, her relationship with Sue Grafton is frequently broached, since Grafton’s heroine Kinsey Milhone is another tough but sensitive sleuth wandering the fictional hereabouts. Gardiner, however, is much more pulse-quickening and violent.
Is she worried about sharing the turf? “Oh yeah, we’re going to have a cage fight,” said Gardiner. “Actually, I just met her in London and she was very kind to me.”
Currently living with her family in London, where it is “puking down rain,” Gardiner can’t wait to return this month. Her daughter is graduating from Stanford, too. She’s looking forward to eating Super Rica and Jerry’s Pollo Fino, and, of course, seeing her mother. “Santa Barbara, I love it,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and it’s eccentric enough that I can imagine almost anything crazy going on there.”
Meg Gardiner will sign copies of The Dirty Secrets Club at Chaucer’s Books on Tuesday, June 17, at 7 p.m. For more information call 682-6787 or visit meggardiner.com.