Friday, March 9, 2018

Interview with Author Leslie Wheeler by Jacqueline Seewald

Question: What is the title and genre of your novel?  Why did you select them?

Answer: The title of my novel is Rattlesnake Hill; the genre is mystery/suspense. I chose the title Rattlesnake Hill, because much of the important action takes place on a hill with that name in the fictional town of New Nottingham, in the Berkshires. I chose the genre of mystery/suspense, because the book contains a mix of both. While there are mysteries to solved in the novel, it does not have the structure of a traditional mystery in that a crime occurs in the beginning and is solved by the end. In Rattlesnake Hill, the crimes are in the distant and more recent past: one murder occurred over a hundred years ago, and the other five years previously. When my main character begins her quest, it relates to another mystery connected to a missing piece of family history; she has no idea that in the process she’ll discover these two murders, or that the more questions she asks, the more she’ll risk becoming a victim herself. So, the story is more that of a woman in danger (“fem jep”) that about solving a crime.

Question:   What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: Rattlesnake Hill was inspired by my deep love for the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, where I’ve lived for many years, first full-time, now part-time. I call the book my “dark valentine” to the area. Like the novelist, Edith Wharton, I’m enchanted by the beauty of the landscape, but am also aware of the region’s dark side in the grim lives of some of the locals. One story, in particular, about a love triangle turned deadly haunted me, until I knew I had to write about it, especially because I knew some of the people involved.

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and/or hero of your novel?

Answer:  My heroine, Kathryn Stinson, is a curator of prints and photographs at a small private library in Boston. Although not a New Englander by birth or upbringing—she was born and raised in Southern California—her ancestors lived in the small New England hamlet of New Nottingham--and that’s where she goes to solve an old family mystery.

A woman in her early thirties, she’s described by her boyfriend as “pretty without trying to be”: she doesn’t wear make-up and keeps her long, light brown hair pulled back from her face in a pony tail. Although not aggressive by nature, once she sets her mind to something, she doesn’t give up easily. An unhappy childhood with a seriously depressed mother, and a grandmother with a gloomy outlook on life have made her wary of other people, especially men, and she has yet to experience real passion.

Ruggedly handsome, athletic, and charming (when he wants to be), the hero, Earl Barker is the “golden boy” offshoot of an otherwise disreputable local family, known for their hot tempers, said to stem from the rattlesnake blood in their veins. In his early forties, he’s divorced from his wife, who was his high-school sweetheart, and with whom he had three sons. An excavator by trade, he cleared the land and built a pond for a couple from New York City, and he and the wife had an affair. She was murdered five years ago, under mysterious circumstances, and Earl still mourns her. When Kathryn Stinson rents the very house his dead lover once occupied, Earl resents her presence and wants her gone.

Question:   Can you tell us about some of your other published novels or work?

Three books in my Miranda Lewis Living History Mystery series have been published: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. I call these books “living history” mysteries, because they’re set in the present-day at historical sites, which enables me to weave in a lot of history. Murder at Plimoth Plantation takes place at the re-created Pilgrim village in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where first-person interpreters portray the seventeenth-century residents. Murder at Gettysburg is set at an annual reenactment of the famous battle, while Murder at Spouters Point takes place at a fictionalized Mystic Seaport and a fictionalized Foxwoods, the Native-owned casino that’s nearby. An important theme in Murder at Plimoth Plantation and Murder at Spouters Point is the often troubled relationship between white people and Native Americans, past and present. With its focus on Confederate reenactors, Murder at Gettysburg explores the ways in which some people in this country are still fighting the Civil War.

Question:   What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the sequel to Rattlesnake Hill, tentatively titled Shuntoll Road. It picks up the story where Rattlesnake leaves off, with my main character and her romantic partner trying to rebuild their relationship that was almost destroyed in the first book. It’s June, a beautiful month in the Berkshires, and Kathryn and Earl Barker look forward to spending some relaxed, quality time together. But the sale of the house on Rattlesnake Hill that Kathryn has been renting to an unsavory real estate developer from New York not only puts the kibosh on those plans but creates conflict between the couple. For excavator Earl, the proposed development means much-needed work, while for Kathryn it means the destruction of land she’s come to love and wants to protect.

Question:   What made you start writing?

Answer:  Ever since I was a young child, I enjoyed making up stories that I’d either tell or sing. The next logical step was to write them down, and I’ve been doing that since grade school, though none were published until much later in my life.

Question:   What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

The best advice I can offer is summed up in three words: Don’t give up! But before I launch into my pep talk, give yourself a big pat on the back for starting to write a novel. Many people never get beyond a wistful, “I wish I could write novels like you. How do you do it?” But when you tell them that it’s not always fun or sexy, and can involve many hours sitting at the computer, sometimes writing, sometimes simply staring at a blank screen, they lose interest. That’s why you deserve kudos for getting beyond that point and committing yourself to writing a novel. But having made that commitment, you’ve got to work hard to maintain it through times of discouragement and even despair.

Think of novel writing as a journey, where you must reach your destination no matter what. Don’t give up despite critics who’ll pick at your writing until there’s nothing left but a skeleton. Don’t give up when you reach a crossroads and aren’t sure which road to take. Take a chance, try one, and if it doesn’t work out, try another. Don’t give up when a seemingly enormous roadblock brings you to screeching halt. Leave your vehicle and do something else: go for a walk, take a shower, cook a meal, and you’ll be surprised at how soon the road clears and you can continue your journey. Don’t give up despite characters who insinuate themselves into your story at the last minute. Hear them out and if they make a good case for being in your book, let them stay, even though it means a lot of backfilling. Ignore the doomsayers who tell you agents and editors aren’t interested in your kind of novel. Ignore the people who want you to follow their own maps for your journey. It’s your book after all, and you should stay true to your vision. The only time you should consider changes is if two people, whose opinions you trust, give you the same advice.

And if your first novel isn’t picked up, write another, and yet another. In other words, don’t put all your apples in one basket. I’ve known writers whose second and fifth books have been picked up for publication. Cheer yourself up with stories of famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald who papered the walls of entire rooms with rejection letters before getting an acceptance. Try not to envy those lucky few who do get to “yes” right away. And know that you’re not alone if it takes you a lot of “no’s” to get to “yes.”

Question:  Where and when will readers be able to obtain your novel?

Rattlesnake Hill is available right now. Bookstores in the Boston area that carry it are Porter Square Books (where I’m having my launch party on March 15) and the New England Mobile Book Store. Or you can order it at your local bookstore. As a last resort, because I think it’s important to support the indies, you can find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Leslie, thanks so much for being our guest today.

Note: Leslie is available to answer questions and offer responses to comments.


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

How Interesting, Leslie!
Great interview Ladies
Good luck and God's blessings with your books (love that cover!).

Susan Oleksiw said...

Good interview, Leslie. I enjoyed the pace and complexity of your novel as well as the close attention to the world of the Berkshires.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks, Pamela. I thought it was a good interview also. Having done a few already, I appreciated the fact that Jacqueline asked different questions, and good ones too! I especially liked the question about advice to those currently writing novels, because it's a subject I've thought about a lot over the years, especially since I'm an authors for whom it took a lot of "no's" to get to yes, and I wouldn't have written and published the books I have without encouragement from others. I also liked the question about describing my protagonist, because that's another question I hadn't gotten before.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks,Susan,I appreciate your comment, because as you know, I value your opinion very much. I think it helped that I wrote about a world I know very well in getting the details right about the Berkshires. I also think it helped that I spent a lot of time writing the book, and with each pass, it became more complex, especially when I shifted from first person to third person, which enabled me to get into more than one character's head. As for pacing, I'm fortunate that I'm in a writing group that stresses this in their critiques, as I can get rather wordy at times.

Brenda Hill said...

Enjoyed the interview, Leslie, and I absolutely LOVE your title. Best of luck with your new publisher. That gives us all hope.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Fascinating interview. I was intrigued by the title; I should know better, but somehow I thought we Westerners had rattlesnakes all to ourselves. The story sounds complex and compelling.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks, Brenda. You will be interested to know that the members of my critique group vetoed the title Rattlesnake Hill on the grounds that people would think it was set in the West, where there are rattlesnakes, but not in the East. I who knew differently kept the title, though with the addition of a subtitle of "A Berkshire Hilltown Mystery," which may have helped. They also don't like the title of the sequel, Shuntoll Road, which to me is very New Englandy, but they don't get what it refers to.
Do you? Will be interested to know. Also, like to hear from Non-Newglanders as well as New Englanders. In fact, don't know which you are.
Thanks again! Titles are so important.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks for your comment, Kathy. I actually grew up in the West, and didn't know about the timber rattlesnakes in the East, which are now an endangered species in Massachusetts, where I now live. They were more plentiful in earlier times, and I found references to them in histories of the area, but also in recent newspapers, which have carried articles about protecting and preserving them, to some people's dismay.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks so much for having me on AuthorExpressions, Jacqueline. I enjoyed people's thoughtful comments, and had fun answering them. Signing off now as it's nearly 11 PM EST, though I'll check in tomorrow in case more come in from the night owls among your followers. Thanks again!


Susan Coryell said...

What a nice interview! I learned a lot about you and your writing. I relate on several points. I, too, have written a series with a contemporary setting and a history background. I LOVE the research involved and often do not know when to stop. Also, I am a snake-a-phobe and the title alone runs chills up my spine. His ancestors have rattlesnake blood? Really? I'd have to read this with all lights on!
Best wishes for continued success.

Bonnie Tharp said...

Great interview and now I have more wonderful books on my to be read list. Thank you!