Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Donis Casey

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Donis Casey
with Donis Casey

We are delighted to welcome novelist Donis Casey to Omnimystery News today.

Donis is the author of the Alafair Tucker mysteries set in Oklahoma in the 1910s, the seventh and most recent of which is Hell with the Lid Blown Off (Poisoned Pen Press; June 2014 hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook and ebook formats).

We recently had the chance to catch up with Donis to talk about her books.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us how the Alafair Tucker series came about.

Donis Casey
Photo provided courtesy of
Donis Casey

Donis Casey: I actually had a story arc in mind when I began this series. My plan was to write ten books, spanning a period of ten to fifteen years, with each book featuring a different one of Alafair's newly grown children. I'm essentially writing a family saga, telling the story of an important period in this woman's life as she raises her children and tries to get them successfully launched into their lives. One or two of the later books have departed from the scheme. For instance, the fifth book, Crying Blood, revolves around Alafair's husband, Shaw. But I'm still aiming for the same end.

As far as my main character, Alafair, goes, she has evolved over time, and not necessarily in the way I might have planned for her. The British novelist Graham Greene said a lot of pithy things about writing, but one quote truly resonates with me: The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn't thought about. At that moment he's alive and you leave it to him. Greene spoke the truth when he said that. And it goes double for the recurring characters in a long-running series. I first put Alafair Tucker on the page but it didn't take long for her to stand up and walk away, and I've been following where she leads ever since. In the universe that she and I both inhabit, she lives her life the way she sees fit, and I am no more than her chronicler.

In the earliest novels, Alafair was only vaguely interested in the events of the time. To a farm wife in the middlest of the middle of the United States in 1914, the war in Europe seemed as far away as the moon. But now, I'm getting to a time period where the affairs of the mighty are intervening on her world whether she likes it or not.

For the first time in my fiction writing career, I created a character who isn't hip or svelte or rich or independent or even particularly young. Or male. She goes against all conventional wisdom. Yet I had immediate success with Alafair's first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Why it couldn't have happened when I was young and thin and beautiful I don't know, but we come to our authentic place in our own time, I guess.

OMN: Into which mystery genre would you place the books?

DC: My books would be categorized as historical mysteries, or traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth. I don't like being categorized. Call a book a "traditional mystery" and readers automatically think "women's lit". And not in a good way.

Of course, the whole idea of genre is a false construct. There are going to be genre elements in even the most literary of literary novels — mystery, romance, horror, fantasy. And, there will be romance in mysteries, and mystery in fantasy novels.

The big question is, is it good? Well written is well written, because there are badly written literary novels and spectacularly written crime novels. (Mystic River, What the Dead Know) No matter how many mystery novel conventions you use, it has to be as well written as any other sort of fiction.

These big chain bookstores have really furthered the "genre" concept. It makes it easier for them to categorize a book, even though one mystery may resemble another like a fish resembles a hat.

In my humble opinion, the Alafair Tucker series is unlike most traditional mysteries being published today. It is set during the pre-World War I, an era that is becoming increasingly popular with readers of historicals, but it takes place in eastern Oklahoma and is about a 40ish farm wife with ten children. Possibly the least-hip idea for a protagonist and setting ever thought of. But I don't care. I'm tired of urban cool. I want to write about the people who are really important. The people who create the world, the mothers and fathers and quiet providers of homes and food and education and civilization itself. That's the hard stuff, my dears. That's the stuff of heros. Transformers and cage fighters and gun-toters, spies and drag-racers, femmes fatale, that's just fluff. Ego-stroking fantasy. I want to write about air, water, and earth. The basics, and the people who are brave enough and strong enough to muscle through.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the books?

DC: Everyone in Alafair's family is based on someone I have known, and many of the situations my characters find themselves in are based on real events. And not necessarily known historical events, but small human events that happened to someone in my family or in my husband's family.

For instance, the murder in The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on an actual incident that happened to one of my great-great-grandfathers during the Civil War. He and several other men from his town in northern Arkansas were returning home on leave from the army, when they stopped on the road just outside of town to rob a bee hive. While they were involved, they were bushwhacked — by Red Legs, the tale goes. All of them were killed. My ancestor's ten year old son found them and alerted his mother and the other wives as the sun went down. The women sat with their men's bodies all night to keep the critters away, and the next morning buried them where they fell.

For Hell With the Lid Blown Off, I used some incidents from my sister's experience in the Joplin tornado and some very strange tornado experiences from other relatives and even some pretty odd ones of my own. I got chills when I heard several of the Moore tornado survivors relate experiences very similar to ones that I had just written about. But it's impossible to exaggerate reality when it comes to what a big tornado can do.

My central character, Alafair, could not be less like me. And yet she obviously is me to some extent, since she lives in my head. I consciously created Alafair out of pieces of some of the women in my past whom I loved, but didn't fully appreciate. She is funny, reflective, wise to ways of the world and the ways of kids, and a bit sad because of the losses in her life, like my own mother was. She's the center of her family, loving and giving to a fault, adored by her children, and a legendary cook, like my late mother-in-law. With the best of motives, she's all up in your business and can drive you crazy, too, like a relative of mine who shall remain nameless, lest she recognize herself (though she won't. They never do.)

Am I wish-fulfilling? I don't have the slightest desire to romanticize her lifestyle. It was tough. Alafair lives the life I never did, or never could. I couldn't abide it. However, it seems I imbue her with all the virtues and strengths I do not have. She knows what she knows and takes action. Then once she has, she doesn't second-guess herself. I agonize over every decision and sometimes take no action at all. She's kind and tolerant of human weakness. She takes care of everyone. She's patient with the follies of others. Me: not so much. She's a moderately well-adjusted mother of children, who doesn't worry about her own shortcomings nor her place in the world, instead of what I am, which we won't go into.

Every time I finish an Alafair Tucker novel I do find myself wondering what Dr. Freud would say about the story. Alafair is always much more successful at confronting her fears than I am. And she is never afraid to fail. She sticks herself out there.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

DC: I frankly don't know how I do it. I'm not very disciplined. I suppose I'm more of a spasmodic writer. I don't outline before I begin. Ideas come to me from the oddest places — from something I've read, or some off-hand comment someone says within earshot of me. Once or twice from a dream I've had. In any event, the idea gets in my head one way or another and wiggles around in there for a while. Eventually it begins to take shape and I think, "That might make a good story." Then I do research. I choose a narrow time period, such as April of 1917, and start reading the April 1917 newspapers from anywhere in eastern Oklahoma to see what was going on in the world and what Oklahomans were thinking about it. This usually adds layers of story to my basic idea. Then I ponder some more, make a few notes, and then start writing.

When I begin, I usually know where I want the story to go. It never ends up there. Where it does end up is as big a surprise to me as to anyone. It's usually better than I had planned, so thus far I have no reason to complain. It takes a great act of will for me to get started, but once I'm on a roll, I can really knock it out. I've had seven mysteries published, now, and every one came about in it's own unique way. Some were written in the most disciplined fashion and some grew like Topsy, in fits and starts,, and yet turned out well almost on their own. Hell With the Lid Blown Off is actually one half of a very long book I wrote several years ago. The other half is growing into Alafair book eight right now.

Most of the time, I write in the afternoons. I long ago developed the habit of doing my chores and errands in the morning, before the Arizona heat is at its worst. I routinely take a break at about 3:00 for 15 or 20 minutes, to eat an apple, stretch, and maybe read something that has nothing to do with anything. When I am on a deadline, I do set myself a goal of at least 1000 words a day — about three pages. I often can do more. Then again, sometimes eking out 1000 words is torture.

Writing a book is sort of like having a baby, I suppose. I'm so happy to have it in my hands when it's done that I tend to forget how painful it was to write. The first draft is always difficult. It's hard to figure out how to dole out the clues in a way that makes sense, plays fair with the reader, and yet doesn't reveal too much. Even more difficult than that is figuring out how Alafair is going to figure it out! She has to come up with the answer in a logical and believable way. Sometimes I just want to make her psychic and have done with it!

I never set out to deliver a message. I actually attempt to be existential when I write, and report the plain facts of the situation, the setting, the story, and the characters' reactions to them. However, after I finish writing a book, it's full of messages and meaning, whether I meant to put it in there or not. No matter what you think you're saying when you write a novel, it isn't you who puts the message in the book, I think. The reader puts it there. I'm frequently amazed by what readers see in my books. It's good for a writer to keep in mind that once her work is out of her hands, the story isn't hers any more, it's the reader's.

OMN: You mentioned researching your story. How do you go about checking the plot points of your books?

DC: Many of the details of Alafair's life on the farm, such as using kerosene-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, come from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband's (the less savory ones, he points out). However … being as I have no children, have never lived on a farm, never cooked on a wood stove, washed in a iron tub, or sewed on a treadle sewing machine, much less shoed a horse, I do tremendous amounts of research so that I'll know what I'm talking about.

But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page. I'm not writing a history book, I'm trying to create a world, and it's amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to your story. For each book I write, I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it. Much of my research may not be used, for as a book advances some of the ideas I started out with fall by the wayside. Even so, when the book is finally done I will have added quite a bit to the huge amount of arcane knowledge rattling around in my head.

I spend so much time learning everything I can about the times, lives, and mores of my characters, yet I know I'm not going to write about most of it. That is because my own familiarity with the era I'm writing about is going to show without my having to make a big deal of it. The characters are going to move naturally through their world without thinking about it, just like we do in our own world.

OMN: Suppose the Alafair Tucker mysteries were to be adapted for television or film, and you were consulted on who might play her role, what you say?

DC: I made a point of not physically describing my main character, Alafair, except in generalities, even though I have a clear picture of her in my head. After seven books, a few details about her appearance have slipped out. She has dark hair that she can't do anything with. She has dark eyes and a sun-browned complexion. She's middle-sized. I didn't create Alafair or any of the other characters with actors in mind. Alafair and her family are all based on friends or relatives of mine, living and dead.

But that doesn't keep readers from casting my movie for me. One fan of the series suggested to me that Alafair should be played by Kathy Bates. Not two weeks later, another woman thought Joan Allen would be a good Alafair. That certainly runs the gamut of physical types. I'd be thrilled to have either of these actresses play Alafair. However, not to put too fine a point on it, they're both too old. Sandra Bullock is closer to Alafair's age, though considering that Alafair is a farm wife with many kids, Sandy would have to be deglamorized quite a bit. Of course, if Meryl Streep would agree to the part, that would suit me just fine, no matter how old she is.

OMN: Have any specific authors or books influenced how and what you write today?

DC: Though my Alafair series couldn't be more different when it comes to time, place, and language, it is blatantly patterned after Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books. Just like Peters' series, I wanted mine to be centered around a warm-hearted sleuth with a lot of insight into human nature. I wanted to have a very strong sense of place and time in my books, which is something that particularly impressed me about Peters' books. I'm also very much influenced by Mark Twain's use of language.

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While researching her own genealogy, Donis Casey discovered so many ripping tales of settlers, soldiers, cowboys and Indians, murder, dastardly deeds, and general mayhem that she said to herself, "Donis, you have enough material here for ten books." Thus was born a series set in Oklahoma in the booming 1910s, featuring Alafair Tucker, the sleuthing mother of ten children. She has twice won the Arizona Book Award and has been a finalist for the Willa Award and a five-time finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at DonisCasey.com or find her on Facebook.

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Hell with the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey

Hell with the Lid Blown Off
Donis Casey
An Alafair Tucker Mystery

In the summer of 1916, a big twister cuts a swath of destruction around Boynton, Oklahoma. Alafair Tucker's family and neighbors are not spared the ruin and grief spread by the storm. But no one is going to mourn for dead Jubal Beldon, who'd made it his business to know the ugly secrets of everyone in town. It never mattered if Jubal's insinuations were true or not since in a small town like Boynton, rumor could be as ruinous as fact. Then Mr. Lee, the undertaker, does his grim duty for the storm victims and discovers that even in death, troublemaker Jubal isn't going to leave his neighbors in peace.

Jubal was already dead when the tornado carried his body to the middle of a fallow field. Had he died in an accident or had he been murdered by someone whose secret he had threatened to expose? Dozens of people would have been happy to do the deed, some of them members of Jubal's own family like his angry, disinherited brothers. As Sheriff Scott Tucker and his deputy Trenton Calder look into Jubal's demise, it begins to look like the prime suspect may be someone very dear to the widow Beckie MacKenzie, the beloved music teacher and mentor of Alafair's daughter Ruth. Ruth fears that the secrets exposed by the investigation are going to cause more damage to Beckie's life than the tornado. Alafair, coping with injuries to her own, still has time for suspicions about how Jubal Beldon came to die. What if the truth of it hits very close to home?

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2 comments:

  1. What a very erudite interview, Donis! I really enjoyed hearing about your experiences writing the series. Lakota

    ReplyDelete

 

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