As part of a special CBS.com series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews Eleanor Taylor Bland.
Eleanor Taylor Bland already had enough to do as a mother and grandmother, and as a full-time cost accountant for a Chicago pharmaceuticals company. But 10 years ago, she decided to add another career:
MASON: What are some of your favorite ways of killing people?
BLAND: Actually, my preference is poison.
BLAND: But I love poison. Poison, to a writer, is like going out into a field of flowers. Which one will I pick?
She's written six novels now, littering the landscape of Waukegan, Illinois with her victims:
BLAND: (by a ravine) Don't you think this is a great place to find a body? Just roll 'em right down there. Yes, we found a body here. Right there. Right where that patch of grass - that's where we put him. Bless his heart. He was a good person overall.
Bland created Marti MacAlister, a cop and a mom, and one of crime fiction's first black female detectives.
BLAND: You know, I didn't want any magic there. I wanted her to be very ordinary. Because I know some very extraordinary, heroic, brave, ordinary women who just in the process of getting up every day and doing what they do, are heroes.
MASON: She's black but...
BLAND: Uh, huh.
MASON: ...these books aren't really about race.
BLAND: No, no...it's me as much as anything else; I don't think that way. I don't live that way. I don't see the world that way. So I don't write that way.
Born in Boston, Eleanor Taylor was the child of a white German housewife and a black taxi driver:
BLAND: They never taught me race or color. When I was 7, I thought I was German. I was German descent, Irish descent, Scots. I know a lot of people who are very conscious of that, and I still don't have that consciousness. I never have that discomfort level. I always tell people, I don't know my - I don't have a place, so I think I belong everywhere.
She was 14 when, after her father did, she eloped with a sailor, Walter Bland. They raised two children while travelling all over the country - until Eleanor made Waukegan her last stop:
MASON: You came here in '72. And you stayed!
MASON: And you surprised yourself.
BLAND: Yes! (laughs)
MASON: Why'd you stay?
BLAND: I don't know; it's very strange how a place... How does a place become home? This is just home now.
Half way between Chicago and Milwaukee, this city on the shores of Lake Michigan has seen better days. But for Eleanor it still has life:
BLAND: (on corner) It's like a little mini melting pot. I can write about anything I want to - any ethnic group - anything I want to, I can pretty well find here. It's very interesting for a small town.
Bland takes her characters right off Waukegan's streets but she's determined to put something back. So, she's a friend to a shelter for homeless mothers and their children and to a treatment center for sexually abused kids:
BLAND: I need to go there, you know. I need to see that so that I can write about the other side. I can't explain it. I have a couple of notions in my head. One is that you give back to family, community, to whoever. But you give back. When you receive, you give back. But the other notion, too, is that I can't write about these things and not be involved in them. There's something, to me, that's dishonest about that.
In See No Evil, Bland imagines a stalker on Marti MacAlister's trail:
BLAND: (reading from See No Evil) At first, his plan was much simpler: just grab her, slit her throat, and have done with it. But now, watching them, walking in that space where they lived, touching the clothing that they wore, tasting the food that they ate, petting their dog, being able to come and go in their lives just as he pleased...now he was truly invisible. He could kill whomever he wanted to, any way that he wanted to, and he wanted to kill them all.
The accountant had to learn about killing, of course. But she's been taking lessons, unafraid to ask law enforcement official about guns, for example.
BLAND: I like accuracy when I'm working. I guess it's the cost accountant in me. So, I don't care if the reader understands the mechanics. But I want it mechanically to be possible.
Even a visit to Waukegan's symphony gave the writer an idea for an untimely end:
BLAND: So, I decided I would kill the second flute. And so I called John Rohrbach at the coroner's office and I said, 'I want to kill somebody with a flute. Can I just take the mouthpiece off and stab him?'
Eleanor found a way - and made sure an orchestra member was not the murderer:
BLAND: I love the symphony and I didn't want to make them look real bad. So I didn't want to really have this, you know, serial killer running amok or anything.
MASON: With a flute. (laughs)
BLAND: Right, with a flute. (laughs)
Even after her success, Bland still has to fit her writing in around her amily and her job:
BLAND: I write all weekend. But see, I'm a sit-down, get-up person. So I write for awhile, I go throw in a load of clothes, I go back and I write. So I'm up and down, up and down.
It's a challenge, but this is a woman who survived a scare from cancer in 1972:
BLAND: I take all of this as God's time nowÂ…I figure everything else is God's time.
And making it all work is a little like conducting an orchestra. Eleanor Taylor Bland would admit she needs a little practice with the baton, but she's made herself a maestro of mystery.
By Anthony Mason
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed