As a lover of historical fiction and of mystery novels, I was intrigued when Thoreau at Devil’s Perch came to my attention, because it hit two of my buttons at once. It begins as Dr. Adam Walker meets Thoreau one day just as the latter has discovered the body of a young black man in the woods. Using Thoreau’s encyclopedic knowledge and with the assistance of his cousin, Julia Bell, Adam seeks to prove that the young man’s death was not an accident and to find the person responsible. Great stuff!
The fact that the book was written by B.B. Oak, who turn out to be a husband and wife team, Ben and Beth Oak, made sense, since the story is told from Adam’s and then Julia’s point of view in alternating chapters.
I’m always interested in people who create collaboratively. There are many very successful novelists whose work is written “with” someone else (like James Patterson) and other cases where a child takes over from an ailing parent after collaborating on a couple of books (Dick and Felix Francis). And there’s Charles Todd, a mother and son collaboration. The results can be excellent, but I sometimes wonder how it actually works, day to day. So I decided to ask B.B. Oak (both of them…).
GC: I understand that you met at BU and discovered each other and a fascination with Henry David Thoreau. A fascination is one thing, a murder mystery with him as one of the main characters is something else. What put the idea in your head, and whose idea was it?
Ben – It hit us like a bolt of lightning.
Ben – Both. But to answer Gabi’s question, the idea of having Thoreau as our crime-solver seemed to come out of the blue.
Beth – But of course nothing really does. It was more like all our past experiences and knowledge and interests meshed. We’d been talking about writing a mystery together for a while. But we weren’t interested in writing about modern forensics, so we decided it should be a historical mystery featuring a fictional character who was a master of observation and deduction à la Sherlock Holmes.
Ben – And then one fine spring day, as we gazed across Walden Pond, I remarked how Thoreau, with his acute analytical skills as a naturalist and professional surveyor, would have made a great detective.
Beth – It was in the fall, not the spring. And maybe I was the one who made that remark.
Ben – You will allow at least that we were at Walden Pond?
Beth – For sure. And I don’t actually recall who initially suggested the idea. it just seemed so obvious, once we started talking about it, that Thoreau had all the qualities needed to be a good sleuth. His friends would have
Ben –And he was a loner with his own code of honor, like so many great detectives in literature, from Holmes to Marlowe to Spenser to Reacher. After all, Thoreau was the one who coined the phrase ‘marching to your own drummer’.
GC: Can you tell us something about the way you work? Who does what?
Ben – The first thing we do when we start a book – and we’re writing our third book now – is plot it together. This is the fun part because we keep things free and easy, tossing out ideas, no matter how ridiculous, and letting them lead us wherever they may.
Beth – Of course sometimes they lead us down a dead end and we have to turn around and get back on the right track. But better for that to happen in the early planning stages than half-way through the book.
Ben – Once we start writing, we work from the same story outline so we’re both going in the same direction when we write separate scenes. But we keep the outline sketchy to leave room for creativity.
Beth – Which gives Ben the opportunity to head off in another direction entirely! Sometimes that works out great.
Ben – And when it doesn’t, Beth makes sure to let me know.
Ben – We both like doing the research for our books. In fact, we like every part of the process.
Beth – Even the disagreements
Have you ever had a serious disagreement about the novel as you were writing it?
Ben – Not often.
Beth – All the time!
Ben – Depends on how you define serious. We’ve never had a situation where one of us said, if the other doesn’t buy this idea, the books isn’t going forward.
Beth – That’s not to say we don’t have animated, and occasionally heated discussions. But that’s a good thing because our strong feelings give our books energy. And for the most part, it’s great to have a writing partner. Two heads really are better than one when devising an intricate murder mystery plot.
Ben – And we each have different strengths to add to the writing. Beth is better at dialogue and emotional scenes and I prefer writing action and descriptive scenes.
GC: Does Beth write Julia’s journal and Ben Adam’s?
Ben – Yes.
Beth – Well, that’s the simple answer anyway. But then I revise Adam’s journal and Ben revises Julia’s. The work goes back and forth during each draft.
GC: Does this experience encourage or discourage you from writing a sequel?
Ben – Our second book, Thoreau on Wolf Hill, is already written and will be released Nov. 2014.
Beth – And like our first, Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, it’s more than a murder mystery, with a love story and mystical overtones running through it.
Ben – In our second book we return to the fictional town of Plumford (right next door to Concord) in the middle of a consumption epidemic that has given rise to long-buried vampire superstitions. We based the story on incidents that actually took place in New England in the 1800s. Thoreau even mentioned one in his journal. In our fictional account, a vampire is thought to be responsible for several ghoulish deaths and Thoreau, Adam and Julia set out to quell the rising fear in town, which may lead to violence against innocent people.
Beth – Our third book, Thoreau in Phantom’s Bog, is still in the outline stage. It’s about the Underground Railroad, in which Thoreau and his family were very active participants. The research is fascinating!