Author interview – Linda Legters

Website Pic1-2Linda Legters’ debut novel, Connected Underneath, is unusual in several respects. Its chief protagonist, Persephone, is a confused teenager whose life becomes even more complicated when her tattooing habit, which she pays for with sex, gets in the way of her love for her best friend, Krista. Meanwhile, Celeste, a wheelchair-bound young woman who lives nearby, is watching and meddling in other people’s lives. I’ve not read a novel like it, and although the writing was a little tricky because of its unusual style, it seems to suit the novel perfectly, as the characters collide with one another like pinballs. The book is available as an eBook right now, and as a paperback on April 2nd. (Just so you know, I know Linda and she gave me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.)

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GC: You’ve picked an unusual set of characters and story-lines in Connected Underneath. Was it the characters or their situations that developed first for you?

LL: The characters, definitely the characters. Celeste, for example, grew out of a childhood memory of a neighbor, and aspects of Persephone’s character come from the many wonderful and interesting but sometimes troubled students I have worked with while teaching at Norwalk Community College.

GC: Would you say that the overall tone of the book is dark?

LL: It certainly has some shadows, but there is also hope, hope that we can be more self-aware, more honest, and, well, more connected. The title of the book comes from the first line of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Islands,” which chides us in our thinking that we stand alone.

GC: How important is the location, a decaying upstate town, to the novel? Could the story have worked in a more upmarket place?

LL: I don’t think so. I didn’t want readers thinking about upscale solutions, such as therapy. Also, the fictional town, Madena, has been left behind by ‘progress,’ and yet maintains its struggle to survive and even move forward. At the beginning of Connected Underneath, the characters are isolated, and this parallels the ways the town is isolated, even though only a short train ride away from big cities. At the end of the story, Madena comes together, as do most of the main characters.

GC: Did you feel the changing points of view were a risky way to tell the story?

LL: In fact it’s always Celeste’s point of view, even as she describes others’ experiences. At first her information comes from what she witnesses or thinks she witnesses from the safety of her kitchen. Later, as her circles of contact widen, and her connection to the truth is on firmer ground, the story she tells becomes more and more accurate. In terms of the ending – which I won’t give away – we often imagine what moments like this must have been like for someone, and our imaginations can run wild in the way Celeste’s does.

GC: Your book is published by Lethe Press, a publishing company that specializes in books across the gender spectrum. The gay theme in the book is relatively minor, so would you describe this as a gay novel?

LL: I’m delighted Lethe Press welcomed my novel to their list, but, no, I don’t see this as a gay novel. Members of the LGBT community are part of the fabric of our lives, just as Persephone is part of Madena’s. A good friend, Dan Jaffe, who is also published by Lethe, and who first read this manuscript, appreciated the way it was not ‘one more’ coming out story, but instead showed Persephone in the throes of all-too-common teenage problems, of which her sexuality is only a part. Connected Underneath is also about parenthood, particularly single-parenthood, and about coming to terms with family dynamics, in all of its dimensions.

Thank you so much for chatting with me!
You can connect with Linda via Facebook, Twitter, and on her website.

 

 

 

Author Interview – Barbara W Klein

To paraphrase the Bard, some people are born writers, some become writers, and others have writing thrust upon them. I suspect today’s author, Barbara W. Klein, falls into the last category, since it was her family that persuaded her to write this book. It bears the unusual title of a glub glub and a shake shake, and is both a family recipe book and a family project, insofar as her editor is her daughter and my friend, editor and published author, Lisa Winkler. Lisa’s sister, Madeline Taylor  illustrated it. Not only does this book form a collection of recipes, but the stories behind them pass on the kind of family history that can fast be forgotten in these ephemeral times. Of course, I had a few questions for Barbara.

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GC: First of all, how did the title come about?
BWK: The title came about while I was describing a recipe to Lisa, she’d ask me how much of a certain ingredient was needed. One time I said, a ‘glub, glub,’ referring to honey. I’ve heard this expression before and it means an unmeasured amount, to taste. With honey, you turn the bottle over and it’s a ‘glub glub!’ A ‘shake shake’ is similar with spices. You shake a little over meats to taste.

GC: Clearly this book is a family effort. How did you work out who did what?
BWK:It was easy. Madeline is a great artist and has been drawing her whole life. Lisa compiled the recipes and prepared the manuscript for the book designer. All my children and grandchildren suggested recipes for the book.

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GC: The recipes come from several different cultures and countries. Can you give us a few examples?
BWK: Couscous is from Tunisia, adapted from our time serving there in the Peace Corps. There are many Jewish recipes that were made by my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law and I perfected them over the years. Lisa brought back the Anzac cookie recipe from Australia when she was an AFS student there.

GC: Who actually prepared the book for publishing? Did the illustrations make it more complicated?
BWK: Lisa’s book designer, Solveig Marina Bang, designed the book with input from all of us. She presented several cover and color options. The illustrations were easy to include in the pdf.

GC: If you could pick two recipes that are your family’s favorites, which would they be, and why?
BWK: That’s a hard question because everyone has their own favorites. If I have to pick two, I’ll say pot roast and matzo brei. But all my pies are top contenders, too.
GC: What was the most fun about doing this project?
BWK: Just remembering how the family got together and helped making meals.

 

 

Author interview: Kate Manning

_DSC5087ccccKate Manning’s second novel, My Notorious Life, was six years in the making, and it was worth the wait, so far as I’m concerned. It’s the story of Axie Muldoon, an orphaned child from the streets of 1870’s New York, who makes good, in one sense, only to find that there’s a man determined to bring her down. It sounds like the stuff of all great fiction, but in fact the character is based on Ann Lohman, a 19th century midwife and abortionist. If this makes Axie sound somewhat unsympathetic, it’s a testament to Kate Manning’s skill that I found myself rooting for her all the way. Her motives are pure – she wants to help women. Becoming rich happens to be the result of the natural remedies she sells, ones that might cause a miscarriage if the patient wants them to. Clearly a lot of research went into the book, yet I never felt I was being lectured. Apart from the feeling that I was stepping in and out of Victorian New York each time I picked up the book, it was exciting, too, and I wanted to know more about what went into it.

PS This interview is longer than my usual ones, but Kate’s answers are well worth reading!

GC: You’ve drawn a marvelous picture of late 19th century New York. How much of the descriptions you write come from old photos, and how much from your imagination? GirlBaby350
KM: The photos of Jacob Riis, from his classic work How the Other Half Lives inspired me to write about that era. But it was also the city itself, the parts that are ever unchanged (smells and smoke, energy and grit), that fed the story. Books and newspapers of the 19th century, and the vivid first-hand descriptions of people who lived then, really helped me imagine it – the voice of those times was so dramatic (murder! mayhem! saints! sinners!) so overwrought, full of lovely arcane language. It’s always the very specific detail that makes something come alive, the more precise the better. Reading old medical textbooks and trial transcripts helped. The Diaries of Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society and the orphan train movement (he’s a character in the novel) gave me a sense of Victorian attitudes toward medicine and women, children and charity that also deeply informed the book’s tone and outline. get-attachment-4.aspx
GC: Axie is an unusual character with a very distinctive voice. Was it hard to transition her speech patterns from street urchin to successful (if nouveau riche) businesswoman?
KM: The New York vernacular has a distinct cadence, as does Irish-English. I’ve been immersed in both these dialects for a long time, and so I heard Axie’s voice as a combination of these rhythms. I knew that as a street child, she’d not’ve been very well educated, but that as a striver, she’d want to “speak like the upper crust,” as Charlie counsels her. And so she tries to do that. It made sense to me that as she grew up her speech would improve. It was really fun to write in the voice of an irreverent character who broke the rules. A great help was a little dictionary compiled in 1859 by the New York City police chief, George Matsell, called The Secret Language of Crime, A Rogue’s Lexicon.
GC: You mention in an interview printed in the paperback edition that one of the book’s problems that you find almost unchanged in modern New York is the number of homeless children. Which other social issues do you think cause problems today?
KM: The parallels between our times and the Victorian age fascinate me – because we believe ourselves to be so enlightened, philanthropic and egalitarian. In the1850s there were 30,000 homeless children living on the streets of New York, most of them out in the open. Today there are still some 35,000 homeless kids in the city, and while it’s true that they mostly live in shelters, their situation is often quite as dire as the ones Jacob Riis chronicled in How the Other Half Lives. The gulf between insanely rich people, and the destitute is as wide now, in 2015, as it was during the Gilded Age, if not wider. The greed is obscene, really. The other strong and frightening echo between our own times and the late 1800s is this increasing and relentless erosion of women’s reproductive rights. I did not write My Notorious Life as some kind of object lesson, but as a rollicking story of Axie’s search for family, the mercy and kindness she shows to the women who come to her for help, her strength in standing up to zealotry, her respect for the complexities of women’s lives, for their choices – and lack of choice. This was an era when the birth rate was seven live births per woman. Women died in childbirth at very high rates, and abortion was the main method of birth control. I wrote a NY Times op-ed about this history. But the current attacks on women’s autonomy, the demonizing of abortion care providers – is the the same kind of harassment that happened to midwives in the 1870’s. “Anti-vice” crusaders succeeded in abolishing all birth control and abortion for our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. Now, lack of access to good reproductive health is causing dire problems for women – especially poor ones – same as it did in 1878.
GC: The Orphan Trains seems to have come to the forefront fairly recently, with the publication of a novel, a program on PBS and new information coming to light from the Children’s Aid Society itself. Did you intend to include that in the novel from the start, or was it something you found in your research that prompted you to make them part of the plot?
KM: The book started out – in 2005 – as a story about the orphan trains. I’d long been fascinated by this little-known chapter in our past. Then, in the course of my writing and research about that era, I came across a character that just bowled me over–I could not believe I’d never heard of her, given her notoriety during her lifetime. Ann Lohman, AKA Madame Restell, was known as the “wickedest woman in New York.” She was a “females’ physician” who delivered babies, gave out birth control information and devices, placed infants for adoption, and also performed abortions. She grew rich selling medicines, was publicly shamed, often arrested, and ultimately brought down by religious zealot Anthony Comstock. I was immediately drawn to the astonishing details of her dramatic, sweeping story, and it made sense to me that my scrappy orphan train rider, Axie Muldoon, the story’s heroine, would grow up to be someone like Lohman. I borrowed certain parts of Lohman’s story for Axie. A faked suicide provided the perfect plot device, and the novel really took off after that. Funny thing: just as My Notorious Life was about to be published, I heard an author on the radio about her new book “Orphan Train.” I admit that I cursed this coincidence quite loudly–because I felt proprietary about this material, and thought “nobody else has heard of this chapter in history…” Since then, however, I have become friends with that very generous and bestselling author, Christina Baker Kline—whom I adore–and we’ve done quite a few events together talking about our shared interest in this fascinating time.
GC: I found the book more and more gripping as I started to get near the end. Any chance of a sequel? If not, what else is on your mind?
KM: There’s always that impulse to tie off loose ends, so, in doing just that, I seem to have written myself out of a sequel! At least for now. But I don’t lack for book ideas. Always on my mind is the drama that goes along with the wide gulf between haves and have-nots, and how that feels, especially to the have-nots. In any story set in our country, this concern necessarily involves a hard conversation about race. In my first novel, the psychological ‘thriller,’ Whitegirl, I was circling around ideas about whiteness and celebrity culture and unexamined ideas about the past, in the wake of the OJ Simpson trial. Times have changed somewhat since the 90’s—but I think we white Americans have a long way to go, to understand our history, the grim impact and long tentacles of slavery. So I have about three other books fully formed in my head that I’m trying to get out onto the page. This is always rough going. One of them is set in the early 1900s, a time of great labor unrest, financial panic, looming war, and changing ideas in the evolving idea of what it means to be American, a woman, a human creature. I hope I can pull of the ambitious idea of it, but each story is its own world, and presents a new challenge. Wish me luck! And thanks so much for the enthusiasm and the wonderful blog. It’s a privilege to answer your interesting questions.

You can connect with Kate on her website, Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter

Author Interview: Alan Beechey

Beechey-cover-photo-192x276Like me, Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London, not far from where I lived, as it happens. He lives in the US now, and I met him at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, where he was giving a talk on how to write crime novels. I wanted to read one of his books immediately, because he made me laugh. I know you’re thinking it’s all about that British sense of humor, but I think you’ll find his mysteries, which take place in London, refreshing and a bit off-beat. Being a person who likes to start a series at the beginning, I read his first book, An Embarrassment of Corpses, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve got the next two sitting on my electronic To Be Read pile.
And if you want a taste of his sense of humor, you could do worse than check out his blog.

GC: When did you start writing novels, and what made you choose crime as your genre?An-Embarassment-of-Corpses-177x276
AB: I dedicated my most recent book, This Private Plot, to my late parents, and I note there that my mother started it all by giving me The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot whodunit) when I was twelve. I reconnected with the world of crime as a college student  when I read P.D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, having heard it reviewed on the BBC. And after a couple of misguided attempts at get-rich-quick screenplays with friends, I switched my mystery-reading habit to a mystery-writing habit when I settled down to write my first novel, A Nasty Little Murder. Never heard of it? It’s crap, and it was rightly never published, despite being shunted around several British publishing houses. But it taught me what voice not to use.
GC: Do your fans love your books more for your characters and plot, or for your sense of humor?
AB: From the letters and emails I get, it’s clearly the characters, which is the way it should be. Plot and humor should flow from characters and their situations – or at least look like they do by the time you’re finished. Although I am pleased when readers note that there is, in fact, a plot, and I hope a good one. I’m writing a mystery, not a soap opera.

GC: How did you come up with the extraordinary names of your characters?

AB: I found several of them in the old four-volume London telephone directory. “Strongitharm” – presumably a contraction of “Strong in the arm” – which is the name of one of my lead characters, came from those. Ever since I was young, I’ve kept notes of good names, or words that aren’t typically names but could be – belfry, welkin, moldwarp, mormal.  The last review of This Private Plot that I posted on my blog was by the magnificently named Sue Millinocket. That’s going on the list. There are also a few bad jokes shoved in (Mark Sandys-Penza? Hoo, Watt and Eidenau? I mean, come on), including a particularly filthy one in the name of the company Oliver works for in the first book. Nobody’s noticed so far. (GC: Must go back and look…)

GC: Of all the characters in all the novels, which is your favorite?
AB: Effie. They’re called the “Oliver Swithin” mysteries, but she’s almost the co-hero. Effie Strongitharm is Oliver’s girlfriend, but also a Scotland Yard detective sergeant, who works for Oliver’s uncle. I work harder on Effie, because it’s a challenge for a male writer to create a convincing female character, especially a woman working in a sexist, male-dominated environment like the police. Her appearance, especially her unruly hair, is based on that of a much-loved girlfriend from my teenage years (who tolerates her fictional incarnation), but her character is every woman I’ve ever loved, and her insecurities are probably mine.

This-Private-Plot-cover-178x276GC: How much promotion did you have to do once your books were published? And what’s the most effective way to promote a book, in your view?
AB: How much did I do? Not enough. It’s never enough, these days. I have a blog, I contribute to other people’s blogs, I do signings and readings . . . Still not enough. I think I’m destined to be a boutique. Maybe it’s enough to have a few devoted fans. One of them even tattooed my initials on her back. (If you’re reading this, hi Rebecca!)

GC: What’s in the works? More of our hero, Oliver Swithin?
AB: I’ve started the next Oliver Swithin novel. I’ve also had a non-Swithinian short story published, one that started out as a romance, but inevitably became a mystery. But the past year has thrown up a few distractions, some good, some bad, so I don’t currently have a good chunk of writing time on my schedule. This will, of course, all change as soon as someone offers me a couple of million for the screen rights to An Embarrassment of Corpses, or the BBC decide the Swithin series is a worthy successor to “Lewis” or “Midsomer Murders.”

You can connect with Alan on Facebook, Goodreads, via his blog or through his publishers, Poisoned Pen Press

Author Interview: Nora Raleigh Baskin

280493I met Nora Raleigh Baskin at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference in August and was interested to find that she was a prolific writer of middle grade novels, who’s been writing since she was in 5th grade. I read YA novels from time to time, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from a middle grade one. So I read her latest book Ruby on the Outside, because it dealt with a topic I hadn’t seen covered anywhere else in children’s books. It’s about a girl whose mother is in prison for life, convicted of being an accessory to murder. There are many questions about truth and lies, friendship and family, as well as some spot-on characterizations of 11 year-old girls. Apart from being a page-turner, it offers the reader hope that he/she doesn’t have to stay ‘on the outside.’ After reading the book I had some questions for her.

GC: Ruby on the Outside is your 12th novel for middle graders. This is a relatively new genre in terms of marketing. Why did you choose to write for this age group?
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NRB: I’m not sure how new this genre is. I think the YA spin-off is the one that marketers have really jumped all over. Middle grade is what we used to just call Children’s books. It’s what most of us remember from school, Nancy Drew, E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time. In fact, as a writer I feel that these publisher/library imposed categories are very limiting but that’s a whole other topic of conversation. I write for all ages. I write for myself. I write the stories I needed to tell and when I told that story (my first book in 2001) in a 6th grader’s voice it worked best. And so that’s where I mostly stayed.

GC: Your books are often about outsiders. Is there some particular reason why you find these characters interesting?

NRB: I have a strong feeling that all writers, to one degree or another, at one time in their life, or still, feel like outsiders and so have become observers. Writers are viewers, watching and listening and analyzing the world as they see it, and as they want others to see it. For me, it began when I was three and a half and my mother committed suicide but the truth was kept from me for many years. This disconnect between what I had witnessed as a child and what I was being told created an “I-don’t-belong” sensibility. From a very early age I became a “truth-seeker” and that is what I do in my writing to this day.

GC: What’s the most fun thing about being a middle grade author?

NRB: Interesting question. Being a writer is a great profession but writing for children is an added responsibility, at least I believe so. I’m not sure if that qualifies as fun, but is it what makes being a middle grade author important. Just like middle school teachers, who can play very important roles in a child’s life (more so than any other age in many ways), I care about what I write and how it is going to be read by children. I feel deeply that I need to write stories that are realistic and do not offer false hope, but do offer hope. And that present characters of strength, acceptance, and resiliency.
GC: Do you get direct feedback from fans about your books? And do they comment on your amazing ability to capture a young person’s voice?

51Q7daYMuQLNRB: With the internet, Twitter, and FB I get more feedback than I’ve ever gotten. I’ve gotten requests from students doing book reports, complaints from parents about some minor (I mean, teeny tiny) bad word in my basketball book (Have you ever BEEN on a basketball court???) but mostly I get wonderful, validating, and affirming letters from students, teachers, and parents. In particular I hear from many people about my book, Anything But Typical which told the story of a 12 year-old autistic boy from the first person POV. Books move people, make them think, and feel, and care. There is nothing more meaningful than finding out that I’ve achieved that.

GC: What’s up next?

NRB: My next book is being published in August 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It’s titled: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story, and tells the story of four children across the United States in the 24 hours before 9/11. It is not a depressing or scary story, but again, hopeful.
Other than writing, I’ve lately found myself drawn to teaching. I enjoy very much talking to writers about writing, and helping new writers figure out their creative paths. I have been teaching for years through Gotham Writers Workshops and various conferences around the country and I’ve decided to start offering my own workshops and manuscripts critiquing. I’ve made a new website just for this new teaching venture: LightOnWriting.com. I do hope people will find the site and take an interest. The first workshop,Trade Secrets: Writing for Children & Young Adults, is scheduled for Saturday, November 21, 2015, 10-4 in Norwalk, CT.

You can connect with Nora on Google +Twitter and Facebook.

Clothes in Books

I ran across an unusual blog the other day. Written by Moira Redmond, a British journalist, it focusses entirely, as its name suggests, on clothes in books, and their importance (or not) to the story being told. I find this interesting, because when I write, I’m never sure how much description of clothing to include. I don’t want it to be distracting, and yet clothing can say so much about a character. Her blog, which she publishes daily, covers all sorts of books, giving an excerpt, a found photo, and Moira’s comments on it. I haven’t read them all, but many are from books written in the 20th century. I wonder whether people were more interested in clothes then?

Here’s one she wrote for mother’s day, with an extract taken from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. And this is the photo she chose to go with it…

I capture the Castle

Naturally I had to find out what was going on!

You can also follow her at ClothesinBooks on Twitter.

50 best literary gifts for readers & writers

Just in time for late gift buyers, my internet friend Piotr Kowalczyk over at eBookfriendly has come up with a list of unusual gifts for people on your list who either read or write. There are a few of them on the poster below, and you can see the whole list http://ebookfriendly.com/best-literary-gifts/:

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Author Interview: Marta McDowell

indexI’m English, so naturally I love books, and I love gardening (although I must admit that my gardening is of the if-it-lives-it-lives variety). Still, I pore over gardening catalogues in between reading other books, so I was particularly pleased recently when I had the chance to meet Marta McDowell. She’s the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a beautiful and fascinating look at Beatrix Potter and the gardens she created and featured in her books.

I sort of knew that Peter Rabbit lived in a real garden, but I didn’t know about Miss Potter’s tremendous talent for drawing or much about her private life at all. So I have found this book absorbing, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea when I’m taking a break from my computer. In addition to the biographical element, the photographs and illustrations are lovely, and the list of plants she grew helps me dream of improving my own humble plot. The book would make a great gift for a gardening friend – perhaps accompanied by a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Marta McDowell was kind enough to let me interview her for this blog:

GC: Your previous book was Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. What gave you the idea of writing about famous writers’ gardens?

MM: I had a eureka moment on a chance visit to The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1990s.  As a student I’d found the poetry of Emily Dickinson  difficult. At The Homestead that afternoon I discovered that Dickinson had been an enthusiastic gardener. It was a tiny common thread — I was recently bitten by the gardening bug — and became a personal entrée into her life and work.

After that I was on the lookout for writers who garden. The pen and the trowel as I like to say.

GC: When did you first become interested in Beatrix Potter?Beatrix Potter Cover CMYK

MM: At an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 1988.  It was a spectacular show that explored her biography and work:  the Tales, her art including botanicals, and her life as a Lake District farmer and preservationist.  I visited her home, Hill Top Farm, in 1997.  Then I got distracted by Emily Dickinson and didn’t come back to Miss Potter until 2007 when Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature came out.

GC: You’re a horticulturist. Was it Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations that first interested you, or the woman herself?

MM: The woman.  Beatrix Potter was a person of grit.  She reinvented herself several times, and classed herself with “people who never grow up.”  I understand that.  And the more I learned about her gardening and personal style the better I liked her.  She was relaxed about her manner of dress, direct in her conversations, loyal in her correspondence, regular in her work habits.  She described her garden as survival of the fittest (evolution was relatively new in her lifetime — equivalent to DNA in ours).  Just ask my plants — mine is the same.

GC: How did you go about researching the book?

MM: There are many excellent archives with Potter material. The largest is with the Victoria & Albert in London, but I also spent time in the National Trust archives and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside in the Lake District. I worked at the Morgan Library’s Reading Room, at Princeton University and at Connecticut College. I was also able to find material online. F. W. Warne’s image database was a key resource. And I hired a photographer, Dayve Ward, in the Lake District.

GC: She seems to have been quite a private person. How easy was it to find the information you needed?

MM: I was blessed with researching a person who became famous in her lifetime and wrote engaging letters.  So while, before she died, Beatrix Potter Heelis burned her correspondence, most people who received letters from her seem to have saved them.

When she was a teenager, she kept a journal, (in code!), that was painstakingly translated by an early scholar of Beatrix Potter. Because her father was a photographer, there are many pictures of the people and places (and plants) important to her life.

There are wonderful biographies and studies of Beatrix Potter, many fostered by the active and engaging Beatrix Potter Society. The members of the Society couldn’t have been more generous. They helped with material, ideas, reading drafts, making suggestions — I’m still amazed.

GC: What was your favorite part of writing the book?

MM: For me, I loved to step through Beatrix Potter’s garden with her, to try to see it through her eyes — what was growing, her favorite plant (snowdrops!), the work that needed to be done in the beds and borders — and how she honored her garden by including it in her letters, her illustrations and her writing. My best day of the research was one November morning when I got to work in her garden at Hill Top alongside the National Trust horticulturist, Pete Tasker. We were cutting back the perennials. Heaven.

You can connect with Marta on Twitter

Author Interview: Catriona McPherson

CMcPI’ve recently been enjoying the books of Scottish author Catriona McPherson . Her first series was the Dandy Gilver mysteries, featuring an aristocratic lady sleuth in Scotland and the books take place after the First World War. Unlike Charles Todd (author of the Ian Routledge mystery novels) and Jacqueline Winspear (The Maisie Dobbs novels) which are set in the same era, McPherson’s heroine moves easily among the upper classes, and sometimes among the people below stairs. She’s helped in her detecting by a handsome young man called Alec…and occasionally hindered  by her husband, Hugh. It’s the tone of these books that sets them apart from the others. There’s a lightness to the prose like that of P.G. Wodehouse, and a self awareness in the heroine that makes her very credible and likeable.

Catriona’s last book, As She Left It, is set in 2010 and has us in a working class area of the North of England. The plot concerns the disappearance of a child ten years before, and the determination of the young  protagonist, newly-orphaned  20-something Opal, to find out what happened back then, as well as unraveling several other mysteries in her own life along the way. This was, in fact, the first of Catriona’s books that I read, and I loved it. It was proof that a Scottish writer doesn’t have to stick with a Scottish backdrop; the characters, language and plotting had me utterly convinced. This is one of the few mysteries I would read again, just for the pleasure of the writing. (see my Goodreads review here)

I contacted Catriona to ask her a few questions about her work.

GC: On checking out your bio, I found that you had a strong background in academia. What made you switch to writing mystery novels?

I did an MA and then a PhD and worked as a university lecturer for five years.  In that sense, you’re dead right.  But the thing is, I was a hopeless and miserable academic.  I loved my subject – linguistics- and loved teaching the students, but it wasn’t my world.  My PhD supervisor and good friend, Ronnie Cann, always said my thesis was as close as you could get to a science fiction novel and still be awarded a degree for it.

I had always wanted to write stories.  But for one, I thought working-class kids from small Scottish towns didn’t burst out and become writers.  And for two, when I told a careers adviser I wanted to write (I was fourteen), she scoffed and told me not to be so daft.  I was a clever girl, she said. I should stay on a school and make something of my life.  So I stayed on at school until I was thirty five.  What a chump.   

Moaning to a friend one night about how much I hated my job but how stuck I was (first in my family to go to university, parents so proud, all that) I tried to prove I had no options by passing on that careers adviser’s scorn.  “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is write stories.’ I said.  ‘And since that’s daft, I’m stuffed.’

She didn’t even have to say anything.  She just looked at me.  The light bulb came on.  I resigned and started writing.  But seriously, what a chump.

GC: How did the character of detective Dandy Gilver come to you? dandy

CMcP: She arrived fully formed the day I started planning to write a crime novel.  I had to decide where she lived, what she was called and who her friends and family were, but Dandy herself just turned up. Where from?  The answer to Q.1 tells you she’s not me, right?  she’s posh, English, dark-haired and a dog-lover.  I’m unposh, Scottish, “blonde” and  – here’s the clincher – a cat-lover.  On the other hand, one of my favourite descriptions of Dandy comes from a Guardian review “brisk, baffled, kindly, heroic and – above all – very funny.” I’ll admit to brisk and baffled, and I aspire to the rest, so maybe she’s sort of me.  We’re both tenaciously logical and passionate about truth and justice too.  That helps no end with solving cases and with plotting novels.

GC: I would say that the Scottish settings of the Dandy Gilver novels add a great deal to the reader’s enjoyment of them. What made you switch to the North of England? Is that an area you know well?

Thank you!  It’s always a juggling act.  I want the books to be rich in setting, without that horrible info dump.  You know – “I’ve spent months finding this out so you’re damn well going to read about it.” 

The reason As She Left It is set in Leeds?  The University of Leeds was where I worked for those five unhappy years and I adore Yorkshire people.  Still miss being called “love” by strangers.   And the real-life incident that set the story going happened in Leeds: I met that little old lady, in her apron and slippers, looking for the party, and took her home. I should say, even though Opal’s house in the book is my friend Diane’s real house in Leeds, none of that stuff happened there.  But the bed’s real.  

GC: Opal, the main character (among several other memorable ones) in As She Left It  is a world away from Dandy. What is your favorite thing about her?

CMcP: I love Opal!   She has had a tough life so far but she’s not hardened by it or broken.  She’s got her tender spots – places she doesn’t go – but she’s fierce and brave and she cares about the people around her.  Also, I love her haplessness.   She’s like an anti-diplomat, charging in with the best of intentions and getting thing calamitously wrong.  But what a good heart.  It was very refreshing writing a character who’s never careful.

GC: I know you have a new novel coming out next week. Could you tell us something about it?

CMcP: Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses is coming out in the US on the 19th of November.  It appeared in the UK last year.  In it, Dandy is undercover as an English mistress in a girls’ boarding school in Portpatrick, where teachers are vanishing (five) and bodies are piling up (four).  That mismatch is what makes the number of corpses bothersome.

And I’ve just finished the edit of Dandy Gilver and the Reek of Red Herrings (trouble and strife in an Aberdeenshire fishing village) which is slated for June 2014 publication in the UK.

day she diedThere’s also the second in the modern stand-alone strand.  A follow-up to As She Left It, although not a sequel.  That one, The Day She Died, will be out in May 2014. It’s the story of Jessie Constable – a survivor – whose careful little life gets turned inside out and upside down by a sudden death and the appearance of a stranger.  I love Jessie just as much as I did Opal and there’s a gallery of secondary characters – toddlers to elderly Irish priests – that are now my friends for life.

GC: Will these be available in all formats?

CmCP: The Dandy books appear in the most traditional way: hardback followed six months later by paperback and (these days) eBook.  The stand-alones come out as trade paperback and eBook simultaneously.

GC: Now that you’re living in California, do you have any plans for a book set there?

Hm, it took me ten years after leaving Leeds to set a book there, so California might not figure very soon.  There is an idea for a mid-twentieth-century suspense thriller (possibly a series) but it’s the faintest whiff at the moment.  Like smoke from a distant bonfire. One thing I think I can guarantee is that Dandy Gilver will never get in a wagon and roll west.  At most, she might take a luxury liner to New York (how I’d love to do that research!) but I think Inspector Morse should stay in Oxford, Miss Marple belongs in St Mary Mead and Dandy Gilver should be tramping about rural Scotland in the plotching* rain.

GC: * I have to admit I didn’t know the word plotching, so I asked Catriona what kind of rain this was and here’s her answer: heavy, windless, downpour, plopping off leaftips and drumming on roofs! The Scots have a word for everything!

 

Hercule Poirot rides again…with Jeeves and Wooster

HPI read today on the BBC website that Sophie Hannah (poet and author of the Zailer and Waterhouse mystery series) has been commissioned by the author’s grandson to write a new crime novel based on Agatha Christie’s immortal (it seems) sleuth Hercule Poirot, probably best known from the television series starring David Suchet. From the comments I’ve read on the BBC’s website, reactions are mixed, and I suppose mine are too. On the one hand, it seems a shame to let the character disappear, but if the new novel doesn’t read like Agatha Christie, will it be as good? Conversely, would it be better not to attempt Christie’s style but simply use her character? Clearly the plot will have to be set in the past – there’s no way Poirot could be expected to grapple with the modern world.

A few months ago, Sebastian Faulks, (author of Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and Jeevesmany other literary novels) was commissioned by the Wodehouse estate to write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel in the style of their original author P.G. Wodehouse. Faulks has already written a hugely successful James Bond novel, Devil May Care, so this isn’t his first attempt at writing in a style other than his own. Wodehouse seems easy to copy, but in fact, his erudition and incredible knowledge of poetry, the classics and the Bible, which he uses in many a throwaway line, will no doubt render the job difficult. But I think I will give the new book, due in November, a try because I adore Wodehouse so much that any new offering is welcome. But if it doesn’t satisfy within the first chapter, I will have to abandon it. Here’s what Evelyn Waugh had to say about PGW: “Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” Exactly. So I can’t have my memories of Wodehouse’s world sullied by an inferior copy.