Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Interview: Mystery Doyen Carolyn Haines and the Secrets of R.B. Chesterton

Carolyn Haines, wildly prolific author of over 70 (!) books, has been on my radar screen for a long, long time. But I've just gotten to know her a little better, and I want to introduce her to you, too.

Carolyn writes and lives way down in Alabama, and while I think she would laugh heartily at my characterizing her as a plucky southern belle, I think it's safe to say she's a very busy southern belle: She writes at least two books a year, teaches writing at a university, runs the Good Fortune Farm Refuge for animals, travels frequently to meet with fans and friends, and, as if that weren't enough, she organizes Daddy's Girls' Weekend, a reader and writer's conference in Mobile, Alabama. (She's even put together a cookbook to raise funds for the animal refuge. I'll put a link here just as soon as it's available.)

Most readers will recognize Carolyn from her popular Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries. (BOOTY BONES, #14, will be out in May.) But last year Carolyn took on the pseudonym R. B Chesterton, and steered her imagination to the darker side of mystery and suspense--dare I even say the word horror? Why, yes, I do.

Her first Chesterton novel, THE DARKLING, appealed immediately to my own dark little heart. It's a true Southern gothic, with a storied old house, an abandoned hotel, an energetic young governess, and someone or something lurking out in the nasty old woods. And death. There's plenty of that, too.

THE SEEKER, Carolyn's second horror novel, is just out this month. The setting is far distant from the South: Walden Pond in Massachusetts. When Aine, a young graduate student with a troubled past, finds herself in possession of her great-great-great aunt's diary, she prepares to upset everything the world thinks it knows about Henry David Thoreau. She has proof that Thoreau was not alone at Walden Pond--her ancestor Bonnie was there as his confidante, companion, and lover. But the project is fraught with bizarre, ghostly events. Someone is stalking Aine in truly chilling ways. And when local residents begin to die, she's both a suspect and the ultimate target.

Because I am generally plucky and always want to know more about everything, when I was finished reading THE SEEKER I pestered Carolyn with some questions about it. And because she is a friendly, polite, and tolerant person, she kindly answered them.

Welcome, Carolyn!

I love how The Seeker has firm geographic roots...From Ireland to Rhode Island to Eastern Kentucky to Concord, Massachusetts. There's a sense of the Cahill curse spreading from the old world to the new. Given that the US is such a young country, how is possible, do you think, that we very quickly developed such an incredibly rich tradition of dark tales and legends?

I think a lot of it has to do with the people who settled America--so many were hardship cases. And many were persecuted for religious beliefs, which can often lead to dark places. If you believe in good, then you must believe in evil. Then there's the whole genocide of the Native Americans, which is pretty dark. My heritage is mutt, with a lot of Swedish and Scot and Irish. There's such a love of story and the oral tradition associated with the Irish. And Aine Cahill, my protagonist, is of course, Irish. I also think that most people love spooky tales. There's a real delight in being a little bit scared while in a safe armchair with a fire burning bright. The exercise of the dark imagination is very healthy--or at least I think so.

Just recently I read a list of things writers should avoid writing about, and high on the list was academics. Yet you're able to keep Aine, a graduate student, vibrant and compelling all the way through the book. She does engage in a lot of research. Was it hard not to follow her down research rabbit holes, bringing the reader along?

I've heard this all my writing life. Don't write about academics or writers. And I could have constructed the story so that Aine was a writer, digging into the past. But the character had to have a compelling reason to move to Walden Pond and also to dig and dig and dig into the journal. I grew up in a family where education was the ticket to a better life. And I truly believe that. So Granny Siobhan will save Aine through education. She will move her into a life and world where superstitions and dark possibilities are held at bay with knowledge and logic. But that doesn't work, of course. Analytical skills never trump spiritual concerns. A balanced person uses both.

Like so many real people, most of the characters in The Seeker are ruled by fears, superstitions, and accusations from the past. Only Granny Siobhan (and perhaps the enthusiastic Patrick) seems to be determined to move forward. Aine gives all appearances of having shaken the Kentucky dust from her feet, but in truth she struggles with it with every thought. Why can't she and the other characters--I'm thinking of Joe and perhaps the ghost as well-- let go?

The past informs our present and future. I don't know anyone who truly gets over her past. We cope. We manage. We seek the sunshine. But we are the product of our experiences. I'm working on a new book now, tentatively  called THE CONFOUNDED , about a man who is shot in the head and loses his memory. So he has the opportunity to begin life completely unhindered by anything he's done or experienced or thought. That idea fascinates me. Aine is just the opposite, as you note. Her links to the past, emotional and genetic (as proposed in the book), bind her to the deeds of her forefathers. Belief systems define us, in all ways. If you believe the world is a place of opportunity, then you seek opportunity in even the most trying circumstances. Aine is raised in superstition and fear, and though she struggles to leave it behind, ultimately it is exactly what defines her.

Creepy toys play a roll in both The Darkling and The Seeker. But in The Seeker, its the dolls that are macabre and over-the-top, and you start with Barbie, queen of them all. What's your relationship with dolls like, and why do they make such delicious horror novel fare?

When I was a child growing up in a big house with fireplaces in every room and a hallway so long and dark it terrified me, I would wake up and think my dolls were watching me. Remember the dolls with blue eyes that you would lay down and their eyes would close. Pick them up and the eyes would pop open.Too creepy for words.  I never really played with dolls. I had an older brother, and we played baseball and hide-and-go-seek, and built forts in the woods. I had an outdoors childhood. The dolls creeped me out. I had a few as Christmas gifts from aunts (aho perhaps thought a bit of domestication might be good for me) but I would stuff them under the bed where I couldn't see them--and they couldn't see me! I grew up on Boris Karloff's THRILLER show and others like that. THE TWILIGHT ZONE. My mother and grandmother told scary stories. In THE DARKLING, James Whitcomb Riley's poem, "Little Orphant Annie" plays a role. That poem terrorized me. We'd beg Grandma to tell it and then squeal and hide under the covers with her. Delicious! My house was haunted, too. Every Halloween my mother had big parties for all the kids and we'd tell ghost stories and hunt for the ghost, who allegedly had money hidden in the house. Fun when friends were all around. Not so much fun going down that long hallway (with an attic fan that groaned in the summer) late at night when everyone else was asleep. These are good memories for me. I suppose that says something about my mental health, but I do know that such fare kicked my imagination into high gear. It's the best tool I have as a writer.

The ghost in The Seeker (I won't spill the name!) can appear anywhere, can change its appearance, and even ostensibly manipulate objects and its surroundings. Do you set up rules for your supernatural world and supernatural characters? Are there ever things they aren't allowed to do?

Not in THE SEEKER. I wrote that book in something of a trance (I know that sounds so hokey) but I totally trusted the story and let it lead me. I write a humorous mystery series, The Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries, that also has a ghost, Jitty. There are very specific rules for Jitty. She can never, ever help solve the mystery. She is Sarah Booth's subconscious,for the most part. Her role in the story relates to helping Sarah Booth deal with the losses of her past and her relationships with others. (Faulkner said it best. "The past is never dead. It's not even past.") I think Southerns have an acute affinity with the past. Some say because we were a conquered nation. Perhaps. But I tend to think that it's because the South has been an agricultural society for so long. The bond to the land is one that ties a person to seasons and the long stretch of time. Land is something many people cling to and pass down for generations. The current idea of a house as a thing to flip and turn to profit--and then do it again--is so alien to me. To me, a house is a place of memory and experience. But I am old-fashioned that way. And I think the scary books I write are the same--that kind of Gothic chill that is so different from the blood and gore of some contemporary horror. In all of my books, if there is a ghost, it resonates historically and geographically. A ghost is almost the physical manifestation of the past.

Did the historical Thoreau even have a dog to keep him company at Walden Pond? Could you last a couple months there yourself without lots of critters as companions?

I don't think Thoreau had a dog. I'm a long way from being a Thoreau scholar, but I believe he was a solitary and lonely man. He did go home for lunch a lot during his time at Walden Pond, so he had his family and his friend, Emerson. I couldn't live without my animals. They are my family--as aggravating and hairy as they are. It's so funny, though. When writing THE DARKLING and THE SEEKER, I managed to scare myself so badly I had to call my neighbors to come and check the closets in the house and do a walk-around--then have a drink with me until my nerves settled. My imagination is both my greatest asset and worst enemy at times.

Your R. B. Chesterton novels are dark and full of supernatural suspense. What's it like to shift gears between writing them and your lighter mysteries, the Sarah Booth Delaney novels?

I love writing both. They allow me to exercise two different sides of my personality. I love scary things, but I also love to laugh. And I am something of a notorious smart-ass. So I get to indulge that in the Sarah Booth books, and I also get to explore the character quirks and witty (I hope) repartee of the Bones cast. I often write both types of books at once, but I have learned to write the scary stuff in the daytime and leave the evenings for the fun Bones stories.

What are you working on right now, and what's coming out next?

THE DARKLING will be out in trade paperback April 15. I have a short story with the Bones characters, SHORTY BONES, which will go on sale April 9, and BOOTY BONES, the 14th book in that series, will be out May 21. So I'm working on the next dark story, THE CONFOUNDED, and also a synopsis for the next Bones--BONE TO BE WILD. I will be on sabbatical from my teaching job at the university next year, and I intend to write, write, write!

Carolyn Haines was the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the 2011 RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Amateur Sleuth. She is the author of more than sixty books in a number of genres. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of South Alabama where she teaches fiction writing.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Writing Life: Listening for the Story

I'm so glad nature knows what it's doing.

Here we are at the end of March, and spring, whether winter likes it or not, is finally here. Not so as you could tell by the thermometer, but the signs are all around. The branches of my rose bushes are tipped in red, the iris and tiger lilies are pushing up through their thin blanket of fallen leaves, and the peepers are singing in the woods. The peepers started the day I returned from a quick trip to Indianapolis to visit the wonderful librarians attending the Public Library Association conference. It was a fabulous welcome home.

Traveling to places to talk about books is a world away from writing them. I write in my house, or at the library or my #Paneraoffice, and I'm incredibly boring to watch while I'm doing it. (Though you might be amused to see how many times an hour I get up to grab a handful of goldfish crackers or chocolate chips, or to make a cup of herbal tea.) There are only two (sometimes three) people with whom I share details of a book while I'm in the midst of writing it. Not because I'm worried that someone won't like the idea, or will steal it. But because a novel is just a selection of possibilities arranged in a particular order at a given time. It's the selecting that's hard, and it has to be done just right, or there's no story at all. Only a string of clumsy or lovely or puzzling vignettes. Until they've been woven into a cohesive order, there isn't much to share that would make any sense.

Here's the funny thing: I've written six novels, and every time I begin a new one, I forget exactly how I wrote the preceding one. I approach each new story--or possibility of a story--with a deep sense of wonder. As in, "Huh. I wonder what the hell is going to happen next." If I sit down to it something is sure to be there. And more somethings will follow. I just have to be patient.

The novel I'm working on now has the voice of a woman--a quite distinctive voice. I've written stories in first person, but never an entire novel. It's unfamiliar territory, exciting and intimidating at the same time. Her words are mostly whispers now, but I am hearing more every day. I believe what she's saying and trust she knows the whole story.

I envy nature. I trust nature. It's programmed to push through the leaves and weather and even rocks or water. It has a cycle of birth and growth and death and rebirth. It doesn't have to fill in the blanks or make stuff up--"Hey, today I woke up with an extra wing. What in the heck do I do with it?" Or, "Where did I put my stamen-thingy? Am I actually supposed to have one of those?" No. All is elegance with nature. Sometimes the elegance is untidy, and there are the occasional mutations, but nature is generally predictable. While I'd hate to be overly predictable--especially in my work--I am truly grateful for the predictability around me.

So, welcome spring. Please stay a while, and let me find strength and wonder in you.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Being Present

Growth is messy.

I uploaded this photo of our ravine without taking a really good look at it. I was fixated on the late afternoon sun peeking over the hill and treetops, and thinking "light! life!" *cue angelic chorus* But seeing the whole image, I'm reminded that there's much more going on here. Buttressing the trees is an enormous amount of undergrowth. It's a 40-foot-deep ravine, full of rock shelves and dirt. The bushes and plants lining it are either completely dead or struggling for life and light. Among them live snakes and rabbits and probably coyotes. Turtles, toads, and spiders. Ferns and flowers. And a lot of prickly plants that keep me from getting anywhere close to the heart of the ravine. It's a living, breathing metaphor.

But metaphors are by definition profound, yes? They carry weight. And seriousness.

I did actually come here to be serious today. It's the end of 2013, and a girl's thoughts turn to the oncoming year. Oncoming. Like a freight train with a big, brilliant light bearing down on me like an out-of-control fireball. (Do I sound anxious? Maybe a little. I've tried to make anxiety my friend, but it hasn't worked so well. I'm working on just accepting it as a badly-gagged, handcuffed-to-me companion.)

I have so much to look forward to this year. My daughter has graduated from college and is, she hopes, headed for grad school. My son will move on to high school. The farther they move ahead, the less I will need to fret about the details of their lives. (They hope so, anyway!)  BLISS HOUSE, my next novel, will be published in June. My Sweet Husband has hinted at exciting new projects. With some luck, the perennials will bloom again in the garden. Every day that I wake up alive will be--like a sacrament--an outward sign of God's grace.

This year, as I thought about how I want to frame my thoughts about the coming year--a resolution, if you will--I read Laura Lippman's compelling essay about her one-word resolution for 2014. (Link below.) In the past I've distilled my resolutions into a sentence or two. As fond as I am of lists, I have a short attention span and can't deal with too many boxes to check off. Coming up with just one word has been a challenge, but I like the simplicity of the idea.

Perhaps it's an age thing, but I really do see the future coming at me at a furious pace. I think about it all the time. I find myself counting years and the things I might stuff into them. How many books can I write before I die? If I have grandchildren at all, will I be too old to enjoy them? What if Venice sinks before I can get there? Will I really never travel in a first class cabin on a trans-Atlantic liner? Will I really never become a voice actor or an architect? What if I die and my office is still a disaster and how will anyone find anything? All my life I've imagined that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way--What if I've been wrong all this time? Will I have a chance to get it all right?

Anyone who has ever sat alone in a room with a therapist knows that this kind of projection is a direct route to disaster. It's fine to have a bucket list--but it has to be a list. Not a guilt-heavy scuttle full of anticipatory regret. Anticipation is the thing, isn't it? The dangerous thing that comes in both positive and negative flavors. But anticipation of any sort overlooks one really important detail: the present.

It's a lesson I have to learn over and over again. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself. It's an old axiom, but so relevant. The passage of time is unrelenting. Age is unrelenting. But the present is always, always with us.

How many times have I betrayed the present? Worried about my next book contract or story instead of focusing on the page in front of me? Looked surreptitiously at my phone while my son was telling me a joke or one of his famous random factoids? Missed a transcendent moment in a film because I prefer to multitask with a puzzle or my needlepoint? Do my hands always have to be busy? What does that accomplish? I'm wont to shy away from intensity. I can't sit still for it. As I child I was called sensitive, and cried so readily at books and films that I was accused often of having crocodile tears. (Don't get me started on dog movies.) I'm suspicious of things that bring me too much joy or too much pain. It feels unbearable sometimes. But if I continue this way, what will be the end result of living without intensity? What will I miss?

The child will grow and leave. The garden will die away, and I may not see it again. Can we live and grow without the fullness of experience? Yes, of course we can. But is it as good as letting ourselves be immersed in our own lives, or reaching for the limits of our experiences, testing the boundaries of joy, or even pain? I don't think it is.

A couple of years ago, one of my resolutions was to do only one thing at a time. This year is not so different. Still, there's an urgency that wasn't there before. It's not just a question of reining in my attention disorder, but of filling my life with, well, life. Not stuff, not travels, not particular experiences--those things may come, of course. But I want to be ready for whatever it is that shows up right in front of me. I want to live it one taste, one touch, one scent, one tear or giggle at a time. I choose to be present.

New Year: Same life, better-lived.


(Link to Laura Lippman's excellent essay on her one-word resolution, which I found terribly inspiring.)