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Professor Cynthia Kuhn with two of her novels.

Look whodunit

English Professor Cynthia Kuhn won an Agatha Award this year for her first mystery novel, ‘The Semester of our Discontent.’

June 5, 2017

By Nathan Solheim

MSU Denver English Professor Cynthia Kuhn recently was awarded an Agatha Award in the Best First Novel category for her debut tome, “The Semester of Our Discontent,” published in 2016.

Agatha Awards annually recognize the best works in the “cozy” subgenre of mysteries, which means the stories are usually light hearted or humorous, set in a small town or village, often feature an amateur detective, and tend not to depict graphic violence or sex.

We caught up with Kuhn to find out what the “sleuth-sayer” has been up to since her achievement was announced in late April.

What was your reaction to winning the “Best First Novel” category?

Complete shock. The other nominated books are all so wonderful, and I was sure it would be going to one of them. It took a long time to sink in that it had actually happened. Very grateful to everyone who supported it.

Did anything come about because of your win? If so, what?

Soon afterwards, the series was extended by three more books, though that may have been previously planned. Thrilled, in either case.

What do readers tell you they enjoy about your stories?

They tell me that they like the characters, the glimpses inside academia, and the humor.

Your detective is an English professor at a University. So are you. How has your time at MSU Denver informed your writing?

For the series, I intentionally created a university that is the opposite: MSU Denver is large, public and urban while Stonedale University is small, private and located in a tiny college town. I wanted to be clear that I’m not writing about MSU Denver. That said, my time here—and at the other schools where I have taught—informs the possibilities, the range of situations or expectations a professor might encounter in academia, generally speaking.

If you had to compare Lila Maclean to another literary sleuth or character, who would it be and why?

This is such a difficult question! Perhaps Karen Pelletier (Joanne Dobson’s professor-sleuth) with a dash of Bridget Jones. Lila is curious and bright, but she does get herself into situations.

What writing tip do you find yourself giving most often to your students?

It’s a tie between “Read your work aloud” and “Go back and rewrite the beginning after you know where you ended up.”

How do you approach writing a novel? What’s your process?

I think about it until I have a sense of the story, then I jot down a bare-bones outline (though I inevitably veer away from it at some point). I write the first draft quickly, to allow the story to take on its own momentum, then I revise the manuscript many times. Next, it goes to readers and the publisher, who

provide feedback, prompting more deep revision.

What kind of update can you give us on your third novel?

I'm writing it right now—Lila is caught up in a new mystery at Stonedale. (It’s a very mysterious place.)

What was it like when your first perfect stranger asked you to sign a copy of your work?

Very exciting and a bit surreal!

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