It is with great pleasure that I introduce this week's featured author on Scene of the Crime-- Donis Casey. She is one of my go-to writers when I'm asked about historical mysteries. Her Alafair Tucker series is set at the turn of the twentieth century in rural Oklahoma.
I have to admit that the very first thing that made me take her first book off the shelf was the title: The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Followed soon after by Hornswoggled and The Drop Edge of Yonder, the titles speak my own rural language, and they feature one very strong farm woman, Alafair Tucker, who has a hard-working husband and a passel of children to care for. To her credit, she's doing an excellent job raising her children, and enough of them are old enough to take care of the others when she has to solve a mystery or two.
All my grandparents were farm people. My Grandma Brookshier was almost four feet eight, and whenever anyone out in the country needed doctoring or help delivering a baby, the first words spoken were, "Go get Katie." Katie Brookshier lived from the age of covered wagons to space exploration, and whenever I begin to read Alafair's latest adventure, I always have a picture of my own great-grandmother in my mind's eye. I also look at the family recipes included in the back of each book and wonder if Katie would approve. (Katie's recipes were closely guarded secrets.)
As you can see, I have a strong connection to this series, so I'd best be quiet now and let Donis do the talking!
Thanks for inviting me, Cathy. Your timing is perfect, since my latest novel, Crying Blood, just came off the presses. The past couple of years have been, let us say, challenging for me, and I don’t mind telling you that there were moments when I wondered if this book would ever see the light of day. But I managed to persevere, and in spite of all the fits and stops and starts, here we are. Crying Blood is the 5th installment in my Alafair Tucker Mystery series.
My sleuth, Alafair, lives with her husband and their ten children on a prosperous farm in eastern Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. When I began this series, my premise was that in each book, a different one of Alafair's lively brood would somehow manage to get him- or herself- entangled in a murder investigation. (Having them live in the Wild West makes that easier than it sounds.) Alafair, being the kind of woman who is always up in her children's business, never fails to come to the offspring's rescue, whether the child wants her to or not. Crying Blood departs somewhat from that pattern, for it deals with Alafair's husband, Shaw.
It’s the fall of 1915, and Shaw, his brother James, and their sons are on their annual quail-hunting trip. This year they’re camping on a piece of abandoned land their stepfather owns in southeastern Oklahoma. Shaw is feeling a little melancholy. The men’s yearly outing always reminds him of the wonderful hunting trips Shaw and his brothers took with their own late father, who died when Shaw was eight. Shaw’s a bit sad this year, too, because his own children are beginning to grow up and leave home, and he’s feeling the passage of time and perhaps dealing with some of the ghosts on his past. But when his dog turns up a shallow grave and evidence of a long ago dastardly deed, Shaw finds himself faced with what seems to be the very real ghost of a murdered Indian who is looking for justice, or as the Muskogee Creeks say, he’s crying blood.
It's probably a good thing that Shaw is at the heart of the action in this book, since we wouldn't want the Tucker children looked upon as bad luck in the community! I certainly can't wait to read Crying Blood, and if any of you are in the mood for a wonderfully written historical mystery series with a strong farm woman at its heart, please try this series!
I feel the urge to blather again, so let's get to the interview!
What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?
The first series of books I remember being obsessed with was Lucy Fitch Perkins' Twins books, especially The Chinese Twins. These children's books were written in the teens, twenties, and thirties, but they were subversively feminist. Each book featured a set of boy/girl twins, and often the girl was pluckier and smarter than the boy, but was denied his opportunities. I read them in the fifties. They very much struck a chord in me. (I wonder if Lucy Fitch Perkins is more responsible for the '60s feminist movement than anyone realizes.) I was also obsessed with P.C. Wren's Beau Geste when I was about fourteen. The idea of someone sacrificing himself for honor and for the sake of another seemed so romantic to me. Not to mention all those manly men in the French Foreign Legion.
The book that made me want to write mysteries was the first Brother Cadfael mystery, One Corpse Too Many, by Ellis Peters. The Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Peters’ voice evokes the times and the place with the language she uses. The character of Cadfael himself captured me. That series contains everything I love about historical novels, as well as a clever, thought-provoking, always surprising mystery in every installment.
Outside of your writing and all associated commitments, what do you like to do in your free time?
I like to read, of course. What writer worth her salt doesn't? I also love word puzzles, crosswords, acrostics, even Sudoku number puzzles, to the point that sometimes I wonder if I'm not a little bit autistic. I might as well admit, as well, that one of my great pleasures is doing nothing. Nothing pleases me like wandering around outside and listening to the birdies or through the mall window-shopping. I'm a foodie, too. I'm very interested in recipes, cooking, even food as medicine, which anyone who reads my books will instantly realize. This is why I'm a regular contributor to the mystery novel/foodies blog Fatal Foodies.
All of my books contain at the end a section of recipes for some of the dishes mentioned in the story. Here's a really easy one from my latest book, Crying Blood. It's called "bear soup." How it came to be called bear soup is a mystery, for it has nothing whatsoever to do with bears. Maybe this is what Goldilocks found sitting on the table when she perpetrated her B&E at the home of the three bears.
For each individual serving, finely chop a slice of onion and add it to to 1 1/2 cups of milk. Cook the milk and onion together in a saucepan over low heat until the milk is simmering and the onion becomes transparent. Crumble a large piece of leftover cornbread into a bowl and pour the hot milk and onion mixture over it. Salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy.
If I were to visit your hometown, where would you recommend that I go? (I like seeing and doing things that aren't in all the guide books.)
Depends on which hometown you're talking about. I was born and raised in Tulsa, OK, in the suburbs on the east side. I moved away from Tulsa many years ago, and though I have many relatives and friends who still live there, I don't know the town like I used to. In fact, I dare say the town I grew up in no longer exists. Here's one place from my youth that still exists, though, that would give you a real Oklahoma experience - Goldie's Restaurant, which my parents both loved. Order an open-faced cheeseburger as big as your head and a side of fries, all (fries, too) slathered in cream gravy. Afterwards, you can experience the excellent care at the cardiac unit of St. Francis Hospital.
The town of Boynton that I write about in my books is where my grandparents lived, and where both my parents grew up. It;s still there, but just barely. It bears no resemblance any more to the lively place it was in the teens. In fact, most of the downtown area is torn down. But there is a historical museum in the converted Dairy Queen just north of town, where you can see all kinds of wonderful pictures and artifacts from Boynton's colorful past - including what it looked like during the era when Alafair and her family lived there.
You have total control over casting a movie based on your life. Which actor would you cast as you?
Gwyneth Paltrow for the young me and Helen Mirren for the older me. I don't bear the slightest resemblance to either woman, but I dare say nobody but my relatives would know the difference. We can dream, can't we?
Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?
I'm extremely partial to Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache. I also enjoy Carolyn Hart's Bailey Ruth Raeburn, Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie, and Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott. And of course Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael. I'm sorry there won't be any more adventures he and I can take together.
Before your very first published mystery, what else had you written (short stories, articles, unpublished manuscripts)?
I started writing short stories when I was very small. The first story I remember writing was about a girl who turned into a cat. Short stories were my form of choice for most of my life, though I never tried to have any of them published. I have a trunk full of short stories dating from the early 1960s. I wrote a long "literary" novel when I was in my mid-twenties, rewrote it in my 30s, and actually had a literary agent who shopped it around for me for quite a while, but never sold it. My only published writings before The Old Buzzard Had It Coming were professional articles on U.S. Government publication. In 1984 I did contribute a chapter to a book on tax publications. I'm sure you remember It was riveting.
What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore? How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published?
The first time I saw my book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, on the shelf, I felt a rumble of pleasure in my chest, like a cat's purr. As for the knowledge that I was actually getting published, I don't know how Dr. Freud would interpret my reaction. The truth is I didn't feel much of anything. I hardly believed it. Like many authors, it took me many years to write the book that was meant to be published, and when you live through rejection after rejection, you tend to become numb. I expect part of my lack of joy had to do with the fact that my mother, who had very much served as my resource for life on a sustenance farm, died five months before the book was issued.
As the pub date for my first book neared, I grew more and more panic-stricken. I couldn't explain exactly why, since this was something I had been anticipating and working at for so long. You're supposed to be overjoyed, right?. But then a friend of mine gave me a perfect explanation. She said that a week before her first child was due, she sat up in bed in a sweaty panic and cried, "This is going to change my life forever. I can't do this! But you know what? It's too damn late to change your mind, so you might as well enjoy it." I doubt if she'd give her kid back, now, any more than I'd give back my books.
|Boynton Book Signing|
I don't know if you've seen it, but I love Parnell Hall's video about book signings. What is the most unusual experience you've had at a book signing or author event?
I have seen the video, and I love it as well. I've had more than my share of lonely book signings, too. The most unusual, and wonderful, experience I've had to date was in 2006 when I was touring Oklahoma with my second Alafair Tucker book, Hornswoggled. I had arranged to do a talk and signing at the aforementioned Boynton Historical Society at the very end of a long driving tour. We drove into Boynton from Okmulgee that morning in a driving rain. The Historical Society building is in a converted Dairy Queen and is about 400 square feet, if that, and by 2006, the busy town of Boynton that I write about in my books had dwindled to less than 200 people, so I wasn't expecting a big turn-out, to say the least. Imagine our surprise when we couldn't find a place to park. I think half the town was there, as well as dozens of people from all over the county. People were packed into that little space so tight you could hardly breathe. And talk about an enthusiastic audience. I sold every book I had left and could have sold more. I'm guessing that I'm the only person in the history of the world who ever wrote a novel set in Boynton, and the natives wanted to read it.
The way some people talk, the only way to read now or in the future is with some sort of electronic device, like my husband's Nook. What is your opinion of eBooks, and how will they affect you as a published author?
The common wisdom among authors seems to be that publishing and publicizing through electronic media is fast becoming the way to go, and we’d all better jump on board the bandwagon or be left in the dust. I have a strange, niggling feeling that this is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I have never bought a book online. If I’m going to buy a book, I order it from one of my local independent book stores. I’m not at all against electronic reading devices, and probably will have one some day, for it seems to me that they might be very good for travel. But if given a choice, I’d rather have a physical book to read, and I don't think I'm that unusual. Sisters in Crime has recently issued a major research report entitled “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age.” The purpose of the survey is to provide an up-to-date picture of the reading and purchasing habits of mystery readers in the U.S. What the data shows is that things have not yet changed as much as we may imagine. More mysteries are bought through stores than online, and personal recommendations “are the major driver of reading choices.” Even younger mystery readers, who are more familiar with e-readers and use them more than older readers, say they prefer to read physical books. It seems to me that what we as authors should learn from this is to know our audience and create our marketing strategies to suit.
Donis, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking time from your busy schedule for indulging me with this interview. I feel that I know you much better, and I have an idea that my readers do, too. I wish you every success with Crying Blood!
Don't forget to stop by next Monday when my guest on Scene of the Crime will be Leighton Gage!