Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Conversation with Mystery Author Sherry Knowlton

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Sherry Knowlton

We are delighted to welcome author Sherry Knowlton to Omnimystery News today.

Sherry's second mystery to feature attorney Alexa Williams is Dead of Summer (Sunbury Press; July 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to catch up with her to talk more about the series.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to Alexa Williams. What is it about her that appeals to you as a writer?

Sherry Knowlton
Photo provided courtesy of
Sherry Knowlton

Sherry Knowlton: A young lawyer named Alexa Williams is the protagonist of my books, Dead of Autumn and Dead of Summer. She has returned from New York City to small-town living in her hometown of Carlisle, PA and joined her family's law practice. After years on the fast track at a big city law firm, she's looking for a more peaceful, less stressful life. She and her English mastiff live in cabin in the forest.

However, that calm life seems to elude Alexa. In the first book, she finds a dead body on a hike in the forest that puts her on the wrong side of an extremist anti-abortion group. As the second book opens, she's still struggling with some of the violence she encountered in the initial novel and the actions she was forced to take to save her own life. So, the last thing she's looking for is another mystery. But, Dead of Summer involves Alexa in a series of events even darker than the first book.

I chose a female protagonist to explore how a smart, savvy woman in her late twenties can come to realize her own power and strength. She is at that age where she's exploring romantic relationships. She has two BFF's who figure prominently in the books. And, she's close to her family. All of these influences in her life help create depth for the character of Alexa and ratchet up the suspense as each mystery unfolds.

I chose the law as a profession for Alexa because it's a white-collar job that gives her considerable flexibility, a recognizable profession, and a certain stature in the community. I wanted my heroine to be smart, articulate, and committed.

And of course, since Alexa is beginning her adventures at a young age, the series has many years in its future.

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

SK: People have said that they see a little of me in Alexa Williams, my protagonist. I disagree. I haven't written Alexa as a younger, more attractive version of myself. Both Alexa and my plots come primarily from my imagination. However, the themes of my books do reflect some of my own experiences and philosophy of life.

Some of the themes in the book are clearly influenced by my career. In the early days of my Pennsylvania state government work, I was responsible for Rape Crisis, Domestic Violence and Family Planning programs — some of the subjects in my first novel, Dead of Autumn. At an earlier time in my career, I worked with programs for abused and neglected children, a topic that figures largely in Dead of Summer.

Setting plays a huge part in my novels with my home, Cumberland County in South-central Pennsylvania as the backdrop for the series. I've been to Tanzania and Kenya, where some chapters of the second book take place. And, some of the Thai references in Dead of Summer blossomed on a trip to Myanmar and Thailand.

In Dead of Autumn, I used local history as a key part of the story, including references to the Underground Railroad and a fictionalized account of the sensational Depression-era Babes in the Woods child murder. I reached back into my own history from the Woodstock Festival in 1969 to fuel a subplot for Dead of Summer.

OMN: You mentioned that setting plays a significant role in your books. How true are you to the setting?

SK: I've lived in this area my entire life so I have a pretty good knowledge of the geography and culture. Understanding that everyone's experience, even living in the same area, can vary; I've tried to capture a real sense of place in my books. But, the actual locations where the plot unfolds can be a mix of real and invented.

For example, much of Dead of Autumn takes place in three settings: the Michaux State Forest, a Family Planning clinic in Carlisle PA, and a lodge in nearby Perry County. A Depression-era sub-plot takes a family on a road trip through Pennsylvania. The road trip is based on the historical record, so nearly all the places mentioned in that story are real. But, the contemporary suspense story is a mix of fact and fiction when it comes to setting. The Michaux State Forest exists and most of the places mentioned in that context are real. However, there is no clinic that provides abortion in the borough of Carlisle. And, the lodge in Perry County is based on a lodge that my family used to visit. But, a church didn't own it — and it wasn't in Perry County.

Similarly, Dead of Summer, features a company that provides homes for foster children and delinquent youth. The company's facilities are described in great detail but are not based on any actual entity. Other locations in the book such as Dickinson College and the Carlisle Theater are real.

I believe that grounding my main characters in a particular region helps frame their background and shape their actions. However, writing fiction involves inventing locations and events that help propel the story. Taking liberties with geography and creating places out of thin air — those are essential tools for an author.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read as a child? And have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

SK: Countless authors have influenced me. When I was a kid, I loved the way that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys solved mysteries. My love of travel was fostered by reading Mary Stewart's The Moonspinners, Dr. Zhivago, Robert Ruark's books based in Africa, James Michener … I could go on and on. As an English major in college, I've read most of the classics. I did independent studies on three of my favorite classic authors: Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence — a fairly diverse trio.

I think my love of suspense and "detective stories" is a direct result of two things. As a child, I would bicycle to the library every week. I often found my grandfather in the mystery section. That introduction to mystery and suspense led me to read every Travis McGee novel ever written by John D. MacDonald. I still love Travis McGee. I'm in the midst of rereading the series.

I recently had the opportunity to be recognized as a Debut Author at the International Thriller Writers conference, Thrillerfest, in New York City. It was truly a thrill to speak briefly at a conference where some of my favorite contemporary authors headlined the agenda: Greg Iles, Lee Childs, Scott Turow, Nelson DeMille, Sandra Brown, and many others. They all continue to influence my work as well.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

SK: My husband and I are avid travelers. We spent months traveling the United States in our hippie van after college, and we've never really stopped exploring new places. In Dead of Summer, I sent Alexa on an African safari and hope to incorporate more exotic places into future books in the series. It's impossible to truly pick just five of anything, but here's my shot at my Top Five Foreign Travel Experiences. I'm limiting it to foreign experiences because the United States has so many wonderful places to visit and things to do.

• An African safari. Seeing wild animals up close in their natural habitat is an amazing experience. Leopards are my favorite animals, but there are so many others.
• Riding an elephant. I've ridden elephants in Laos, Nepal and India. Coming face to face with a leopard in Nepal and a tiger in India while sitting in a platform on an elephant's back is a wild experience. But, my favorite experience was in the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, where I learned to be a mahout and ride an elephant on my own. You have to perch on the elephant's neck and guide him with your feet on his ears.
• An Amazon River cruise. We took a small boat up the Amazon and into some of its tributaries. The Amazon Rainforest is vast, and each day of our trip we travelled further and further away from civilization. Fishing for piranha was just a bonus!
• Hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria. Wandering through the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria is a wonderful way to spend a few weeks. Checking out the old buildings, sitting at an outdoor restaurant, just taking in the vibe. I could go back every year.
• Swimming with manta rays. We chartered a sailboat in French Polynesia and visited six islands. In Bora Bora's lagoon, we went snorkeling with manta rays. When the first huge, gentle creature swooped up from the depths, it was an unforgettable experience.

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Sherry Knowlton was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Now retired from executive positions in the health insurance industry, Sherry runs her own consulting business. When not traveling around the globe, Sherry lives with her husband in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, where her novels are set.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at SherryKnowlton.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dead of Summer by Sherry Knowlton

Dead of Summer by Sherry Knowlton

An Alexa Williams Mystery

Publisher: Sunbury Press

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)

With help from friends, family, and her yoga practice, Alexa Williams is finally starting to recover from last autumn's trauma of finding a dead body and the violence that ensued. The young attorney can't believe that her summer has begun with the discovery of another body. This time, the dead woman was famous for her worldwide campaign against sex trafficking. The murder hits close to home: the late activist was a friend and mentor to Alexa's best friend, Melissa.

While the town mourns, Alexa stumbles into a burglary at Melissa's home, barely escaping serious harm. A client asks for help in convincing the police that her foster child is not a runaway, and Alexa learns that other local girls have gone missing. Drawn into the fight to save lost and exploited children, Alexa discovers a community of child activists. A local philanthropist wants Alexa to join his foster care empire. A sexy social worker and a hip college professor want a more personal connection with Alexa, but she is also drawn to the police detective leading the murder investigation.

Searching for answers, Alexa becomes entangled in a web of deception and danger that puts both her heart and her life at risk. By the time she discovers that the key to the present lies in the halcyon days of peace and music, it may be too late.

Dead of Summer by Sherry Knowlton

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