By Deborah Straw
[Ed Note: I read Poison Apples (St. Martins's Minotaur hc), the newest in the Ruth Willmarth series, and enjoyed it very much. Ruth is a down-to-earth, very human and likeable woman. I would rate it as two shades off cozy, quite intense at times. Well written with an incredible sense of place, an excellent plot with lots of red herrings, an absorbing story after a slow country start, and a very exciting ending. Good stuff. I'll have to go get the first two: Harvest of Bones (St. Martin's Trade pb) and Mad Season (St. Martin's Minotaur hc).]
When did you start writing mysteries?
Inspired by Nancy Drew, I wrote my first mystery in 4th grade, about the kidnapping of a particularly obnoxious older brother. My mother read it, horrified, and threw it out. I never read or wrote another mystery until years later in 1993 when I found a newspaper piece about a pair of Vermont dairy farmers who never banked their money and were assaulted one night and left for dead. The police caught the assailants because the money they were throwing about in bars and gas stations reeked of barn! Thus my first mystery, Mad Season, was born, and published by St. Martin's Press in 1996.
Where did you get the idea for the character of Ruth Willmarth?
I turned the real life farmers into a husband and wife farm team and had the wife die from the assault. But I had to have a sleuth, and who better than the woman next door, who would also be a farmer? She would be a 40ish single mother of three because her husband has run off with an actress from a local film, shot in her town. Her young son is teased in school because he has manure on his shoes after morning chores, and now her neighbor is dead. She is angry and gets involved. Ruth is an entirely fictional character, but has something of myself and my own two daughters in her as well. She is much gutsier than I am! I don't know how she ever survived the kidnapping of her young son in Mad Season - I died a hundred deaths with her. I might add that I chose an amateur sleuth rather than, for example, a PI, because the amateur is like the author herself: fumbling, bumbling, trying to find out whodunit and why. Isn't this really why we write? To restore order out of the chaos of our lives? It's why we read, too…
If one of your books were made into a movie, who would you want to play Ruth?
Egad, I don't know. Maybe somebody like Meryl Streep? Or Glenn Close? No one too gorgeous or Hollywoodish.
Do you live near or on a farm in Vermont? If not, how do you know so much about farming and cows?
I have farmer friends and relatives and have spent hours hanging out with cows: watching a birth, reading about diseases, freshenings, simply smelling the barns, listening to barn noises. Dairy farming is such an earthy, elemental kind of occupation; Ruth identifies with her cows, names them after famous women; she too has suckled children. When her cows are slashed in Poison Apples she feels the pain. She is deep down angry! (Those slashed cows stem from a newspaper article I read - a disgruntled hired man knifing a cow in the belly.) I subscribe to Hoard's Dairyman, have read books and books on cows and farming. When my New York City copyeditor told my editor that cows only freshen in spring, and my frantic editor called to say I'd have to rewrite the beginning of Harvest of Bones and thereby postpone the book's publication, I panicked - and then laughed. Cows, like people, give birth any month of the year. And farmers spread out the births over the seasons.
How much research do you do for each of your mysteries? It seems, in Poison Apples, that you've done lots of research about Jamaican culture and about apple culture.
An enormous amount of research goes into each book--it's hard to know when to stop! Research often determines plot and affects characterization, even setting. I research through interviews, books, librarians, internet, and direct exposure. For Poison Apples I talked with Jamaican apple pickers, listened to them singing gospel tunes in the trees. One Rastafarian picker, in particular, inspired a character in the novel. The interviews engendered more research into the Rastafarian religion, into reggae music, into Jamaican foods and funerals. I read books on apples - apples are so archetypal - look at the Adam and Eve legend, Helen of Troy, Snow White's wicked stepmother! I interviewed orchardists, watched apples being sprayed, and on the internet got into a conversation with an aerial sprayer who sent me more than I needed to know about maggots and web worms. Of course personal experience comes into play like the Fresh Air child we had at our Vermont house who was bored to tears with our rural landscape and organic food. Where were the roller coasters? Why did we have those ugly cows loafing about in our fields? This child pushed her way into the novel, creating mischief, but ultimately, inadvertently, helping to discover the murderer.
Was the damage to the apple trees based on a real incident?
Yes, Poison Apples stemmed from an incident down in Putney, Vermont, where someone sprayed Roundup on a large orchard and destroyed a third of it. The book evolved from this catastrophe. The situation becomes more poignant because the orchardists in the novel have moved to Vermont after the death of their 18-year-old daughter hoping to find peace. Instead they find malice and more deaths.
Is writing a mystery fun?
Oh yes, one can write about almost anything in a mystery, and it is fun to be able to be in control (more or less) of one's characters and to solve a mystery on paper, if not in reality. Where else, except on the stage, perhaps, can one live so many lives and all at once? The very act of writing is a mystery! Thoughts and words come up out of the deep well of the imagination that one never knew were there. The process of writing brings them up.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you outline first or do you just jump in and see where it takes you?
Many mystery writers outline the book ahead but I can't seem to do this. In order to send my editor a synopsis of my fourth mystery, I had to write the whole book! I find that a book tells me what it's really about as I write, and the characters constantly surprise me. Of course you can't let them take over entirely, you have to maintain some kind of control. But I do believe that a writer should stay open and ignorant. Let the plot come out of a character (his or her flaw or bad luck), and in an organic way. I tend to think in scenes, seeing the characters as if on a stage: their gestures, actions, the way they use their props. One scene leads to the next and the characters take it there. Writing in scenes makes writing a novel less daunting! And I do make notes for the scenes that follow. There are drawbacks to this method: one must go back and replant clues and sometimes trash entire scenes - scenes you've written lovingly! I write from several points of view in order to deepen characterization, and this can lead to subplots that distract from the main plot. But Dickens did it, and though I'm no Dickens, I love to try. And I do make the subplots connect to the main plot.
What are your plans for this next mystery? What is its name, and when will it be released? Is it set in rural Vermont?
It's tentatively called Stolen Honey. It involves Abenaki Indians, beekeepers, and the thirties eugenic project whereby so called "degenerates", mostly Indians and poor French Canadians were sterilized. It takes place in the present, though. It is currently under contract to St. Martin's, and due out in 2001. My Ruth Willmarth is again at the heart of the book.
How many more mystery novels will be in this series? Who determines that, you or your publisher?
Who knows? I might try a second series with another sleuth who is not a dairy farmer. So much depends on my publisher, my editor, my readers (will they want more?) and my psyche. I write in other genres as well, and ideas are teeming in my head.
You've written five other books - poetry and nonfiction. Which genre do you prefer, if any? Do you see any similarities in subject matter and/or themes within all three types of writing?
I'm a published poet and short story writer as well; I've had a young adult novel published, a mainstream novel and two non fiction books. I constantly recycle characters from fiction and non-fiction into poems and back again. One of my poems is about the birth of a cow: "Her waters break/in a rush that brightens the air/an ivory hoof kicks toward breath." My poems tend to be narrative; like novels, they tell a story, come to climax, a moment of epiphany.
I love moving from one genre to another!
How long does it usually take you to write your mysteries?
Mad Season took three years as I was going through a divorce and for a time couldn't write anything longer than a poem. Harvest of Bones took two years and Poison Apples eighteen months. I couldn't do a book every year! I need dream time about the novel.
What is your daily writing schedule?
I write 3 to 4 hours every morning; afternoons I do research, interviews, book promotion; evenings I revise. I had been teaching in a small college but gave it up when the writing and promotion became too demanding.
When in the process do you decide on the title?
Always a working title to begin with, and then I fuss and fuss until I find the right one. My editor has always gone along with my titles, so I've been lucky.
Do you belong to mystery writers' groups? Do you go to conferences? If so, are these activities useful?
My two daughters are my best readers. They're not mystery fans, but they do keep me on track as far as characterization and motivation are concerned. Otherwise I've no writing group to bounce ideas against. But the Sisters in Crime-New England have been enormously supportive, in particular the speaker's bureau. I appear on panels in libraries and bookstores, and feedback from the audience is always helpful. Mystery conferences such as Bouchercon and Malice Domestic are also great. The fans give it to me straight! Although these conferences are huge and can be daunting, I find both authors and fans friendly and convivial.
Are mystery writers strange, even mysterious?
No, they're just ordinary folks like me, consumed by this writing bug. But we "suffer a sea change," and our words turn into pearls - a mysterious process!
You've said that this is the second Golden Age for women mystery writers. Why do you think this is so?
Well, we women mystery writers have come into our own. We're still not reviewed as often as men, but we're working on this through organizations like Sisters in Crime and magazines like Mysterious Women. Our sleuths are smart, strong-minded, resourceful women. I'm proud of them!
Who are your favorite women authors?
Ruth Rendell and her British mysteries; Elizabeth George, who writes from multiple viewpoints as I do; Jane Langton, a New England author who combines humor and in depth characterization. I love her quirky characters! And I adore Dorothy Sayers for her humor, elegant writing style, overall erudition and imagination.
Any advice you have for an aspiring mystery writer?
Read other writers and then write, write, write. Look for the source of inspiration in your own experience and memory, rather than in movies or TV where you run the risk of creating generic, secondhand characters. Try for a fresh voice, an unusual sleuth, an original situation. Above all, have faith in your work and persevere! I'd love to answer any of your questions if you e-mail me. My web site is www.nancymeanswright.com. Also visit Nancy Means Wright's web page!
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