Sunday, 16 October 2022

 

"My intention is for Evelyn’s readers to have fun when they pick up one of her books."

S.K. Golden’s first novel, The Socialite’s Guide to Murder, is a fun, smart read set inside the confines of the (fictional) Pinnacle Hotel in New York City in the '50s. Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy, has suffered from agoraphobia ever since finding her mother murdered in an alleyway 15 years ago. She now lives out her days entirely within the walls of her family's hotel, the Pinnacle. That world includes Evelyn's best friend and actor Henry Fox, colorful guests, resourceful employees, and luckily (or unluckily) a murder for her to solve.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: How did you think of setting this inside a hotel? (I’m a hotel brat myself and really enjoyed the setting.)

S.K. Golden: The entire plot and setting came together when I combined a couple different ideas I’d been brainstorming. The main one was Eloise at the Plaza all grown up and solving mysteries. Also, probably, some of it is wish fulfillment. I’m a mom. So the idea of there being a place where I don’t have to cook or clean is the stuff dreams are made of.

Why 1958?

Well, Eloise is set in the '50s. Beyond that, for shallow reasons, I didn’t want cell phones or CCTV. And then the fashion. I love the clothes. The time period got deeper for me as I researched and began writing about it. This is a cozy, of course, and my main goal is for anyone who reads the book to have a fun time. But there are some things about the '50s that I can sort of hold up a mirror about as a reflection of things going on in our time.

Such as?

Homosexuality was illegal. There were separate water fountains you could drink out of based on the color of your skin. While things are better today than they were in the late '50s, there is still a ways to go. This isn't a book about social issues, but I do try my best to keep these things in mind when writing about Evelyn and her friends.

I know this is your first published book, but is it the first book you’ve written? What path did you take to publication?

No, this was not the first book I wrote. I started writing when I was 10. Pokémon fan fiction, actually. I wrote it with a friend. We’d each write a page in a notebook, pass it back and forth, continue on whatever the one wrote. I spent a lot of free time growing up writing fan fiction.

I took creative writing classes in college and enjoyed those immensely, except for when I signed up for a poetry class. I am terrible at poetry. That was horribly embarrassing. And there were some amazing poets in that class! And I’d just sit there, sweating, waiting for my turn to read the absolute sludge I’d written. But I liked the professor, so I stuck it out. I didn’t start on original stories until my mid-twenties, and I had no idea how to plot a story, really. Not a full novel.

I wrote slice of life stuff. Characters bantering. But to tell a complete original story from start to finish took a lot of learning on my part. Reading craft books and picking up novels and reading them like I was studying them. I wrote a crime caper after the twins were born. I started drafting that about six years ago. It took me a long time to finish. I queried it and signed with my agent and we went out on submission and it didn’t sell. During that time, I’d completed a book about aliens, but decided I wanted to focus on mysteries. Once we made the decision to shelve the crime caper, we sent Evelyn out to editors, and I’m so happy she found a home at Crooked Lane.

I think of this as a cozy, and like all good cozies, it’s driven by character. As the book proceeds, Evelyn becomes a deeper and more interesting character. I was interested by her ability to find lost things. Can you talk about developing her?

I started with a lot of daydreaming. And then I opened a blank document and spent some time just writing Evelyn in her voice without a goal in mind, just trying to figure out how she would think, how she would talk. Knowing her backstory helps that a lot, how her parents raised her—or, how they didn’t. But even as I drafted Book One, I got to know her more. She became her own person in my mind. (Hopefully that doesn’t make me sound like too big of a weirdo.) I just turned in Book Two, and I feel I know her even better now.

Was agoraphobia or post-traumatic stress disorder recognized in 1958?

Agoraphobia was recognized in the time period. PTSD, not so much. They did recognize “shell-shock” however, in soldiers returning from war. I am very lucky to have a friend who is both an author and has a PhD in psychology. She read a very early draft and took a red pen to quite a bit of it. I do take some liberties, because as someone who has generalized anxiety disorder, I’ve found a few things that do help with anxiety, and I wanted to include them even if they aren’t exactly what an analyst of the time would’ve been suggesting.

How did you manage to maintain a fairly light tone while integrating some more serious psychological aspects into your story?

My intention was for Evelyn’s readers to have fun when they pick up one of her books. In my very early planning stages of this book, we had an emergency. Everything is fine and I won’t go into details, but I found myself alone in a hospital waiting room with nothing but my purse. I happened to have a book in my purse; one of the Parker books by Donald Westlake (under penname Richard Stark). I’d read a lot of Parker books by then. I knew him as a character. I knew he was going to take a job heisting something, that another criminal would double-cross him, and that Parker would come out in the end alive and slightly richer. Having that book with me was a comforting thing in a very trying time. I wanted Evelyn to be able to provide that for someone, too. A friend when you’re lonely. Something entertaining after a long day. A bit of fun, wherever you are, because we all deserve that.

I like the different tensions you’ve set up between the characters. Who will return in Book Two? Is there a character arc you have in mind for Evelyn?

Thank you! There are a lot of the same characters coming back for Book Two. Mac [Evelyn's romantic interest], of course, and Poppy. The manager, Mr. Sharpe. Henry, too. And Detective Hodgson. He plays a big role in Book Two.

Who has influenced you as a writer? Was there a transformational read for you that set you on the path to being a writer?

The first influence that comes to mind is, of course, Agatha Christie. There’s a comic book writer, Gail Simone, and she’s been my hero since I was a teenager. Other writers that have had the biggest impact on my life are Jane Austen and Donald Westlake.

As for a transformational read, whew, that’s a good question. That all goes back to childhood. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons was the first book I can remember ordering from a Scholastic flyer. It’s also the first book I ever read cover to cover by myself that didn’t have pictures. My mom read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me and I remember being so nervous for Aslan as a kindergartener.

My father made sure I read The Hobbit when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and then I tore through the Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years later in a single week once the hobbits finally made it out of the Shire. Reading about the hobbits getting out of the Shire took a full week on its own. And I took out every Nancy Drew book I could from our local library, sometimes more than once. Sometimes more than twice. One Nancy Drew book, I can’t remember which one, but there was someone standing outside her window at night and that scared me so much I threw the book across the room. I didn’t dare peak out a window at night again for at least a decade.

What makes you happy or excited when you sit down to write? What’s difficult about it?

I love drafting. Specifically, when I get into a groove and I can type what is playing out in my head. It’s like I’m transcribing a movie. That’s the best, the stuff I live for. It isn’t me typing anymore. I’m not even part of the equation. I’ve lost myself to the writing. The hardest thing is when it’s not flowing, when I’m aware of every single word I’m choosing to write, when I’m worried I’ve overused a particular phrase too many times or not enough times. But you have to push through that to get back into a groove and find the joy again. Bit of a scam, that.

Finally, what’s next for you? Another Pinnacle Hotel book (I hope?)

Yes, another Pinnacle Hotel book! I turned in book two at the end of September, so we’ll be working on those edits here soon. I’ve seen some cover art, too, and it’s incredible!

S.K. Golden is the author of the cozy mystery The Socialite’s Guide to Murder. Born and raised in the Florida Keys, she married a commercial fisherman. The two of them still live on the islands with their five kids (one boy, four girls—including identical twins!), two cats, and a corgi named Goku. Sarah graduated from Saint Leo University with a bachelor’s degree in human services and administration and has put it to good use approximately zero times. She’s worked as a bank teller, a pharmacy technician, and an executive assistant at her father’s church. Sarah is delighted to be doing none of those things now. She can be reached on twitter @skgoldenwrites.

S.K. Golden Brings Style and Substance to "The Socialite's Guide to Murder"
Robin Agnew
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Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Susan Elia MacNeal

New York Times bestselling author Susan Elia MacNeal is is best known for her Maggie Hope mysteries set during WWII and featuring her remarkable female code-breaker/British operative. (2021's The Hollywood Spy, comes out in paperback this month.) But with Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, a historical thriller set in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and based on real-life events, MacNeal offers mystery readers her first standalone.

The main characters, Veronica and Violet Grace, are an ordinary German American mother and daughter who daringly go undercover to investigate the “California Reich,” a group of Nazis active in the United States. I was lucky enough to review it for Mystery Scene and was captivated by the strong female characters, historical setting, and still-timely themes.

Jean Gazis for Mystery Scene: What was your jumping off point? What drew you originally to the mystery genre, to focusing on the WWII era, and in turn, to this particular story?

Susan Elia MacNeal: True stories—and both involve the Muppets! Bear (really!) with me, my husband was starring as Bear in the Disney Channel’s show Bear in the Big Blue House and was asked to promote the show in the UK for two months. I tagged along and went to the Churchill War Rooms—the catalyst for writing Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and completely changing my life!

Then a few years ago the husband was performing as Sweetums for The Muppets Take the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and he picked up a copy of Steven J. Ross’ non-fiction Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America for me at the airport bookstore. I’d never heard about the Nazi movement in Southern California, and The Hollywood Spy was inspired by revelations from this book.

But even as I was writing, I was further intrigued by the true story of a mother and daughter, named Sylvia and Grace Comfort, who made incredible sacrifices to go undercover in American Nazi organizations in Southern California. (Veronica actually has a tiny scene in Hollywood Spy!) These are the two women who inspired my first standalone, Mother Daughter Traitor Spy.

Susan Elia MacNeal Mother, Daughter, Traitor, SpyThis story illuminates an aspect of the United States WWII history that deserves to be more widely known and is still sadly relevant today—patriotism for a diverse, democratic United States versus patriotism for a white, Christian, authoritarian America. How much did you know about the American Nazi movement before writing this book, and how did you approach your research for it?

I knew very little and the little I did know was about Nazis and American Nazis in New York City (and mostly from fiction, namely the film The House on 92nd Street). But I did see Marshall Curry’s Academy Award-nominated documentary short film, A Night at the Garden, edited from archival footage from 1939, when 20,000 Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism—an event largely forgotten from American history.

When I started my research, I went directly to the primary source material Ross used, the extensive Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee archives files held at California State University at Northridge. Because of COVID, I worked closely with one of the librarians (a true hero) who photographed, literally, multiple boxes of old letters, memos, notes, and ephemera so I could learn more about Sylvia and Grace Comfort’s experiences, often in their own words.

Veronica aspires to be a writer who makes a difference, idolizes journalist Martha Gellhorn, and keeps a book of observations that she might use in her own future writing. Are there particular writers whom you admire in the same way? What was it like to write about an aspiring writer from the point of view of a successful one?

I’d read Janet Somerville’s wonderful book on the letters of Martha Gellhorn, Yours, for Probably Always, and it definitely inspired me to write a journalist character. Hearing Gellhorn’s voice in her letters was certainly a jumping-off point for me. And I do admire her, just as much as my character Veronica does. Veronica’s a journalist and I’m a novelist, so it’s two very different kinds of writing, but I vividly remember being an aspiring writer and tried to impart Veronica’s journey with some of that passion.

Vi and Veronica certainly don’t set out to do anything heroic. Like many real-life heroes, they begin by simply doing what they feel is right. Do you think true heroes are always just ordinary people doing what they believe they must?

Heroes are real people who take a stand in difficult and dangerous times. I think heroes can be world leaders and royalty, for sure, but I’m personally more interested in so-called “ordinary people” who chose to act in heroic ways. (Although they don’t always see what they’re doing in that light.)

Why did you give Violet a suffragist background that Veronica was unaware of? Do you think participating in movements like women’s suffrage is one of the ways that people who aren’t considered historic figures actually do change history?

I was listening to the wonderful podcast She Votes! hosted by Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr when I was doing research. When figuring out Violet’s birth year, I realized she was the perfect generation to be a young suffragist. And once I figured out that backstory detail, everything clicked for me in terms of knowing Violet and what would give her the strength to go undercover.

One difference between this book and your Maggie Hope mysteries is that in this one, most of the characters are based on real people, but the significant historical figures who are mentioned, such as Charles Lindbergh and FDR, never actually appear in the story the way they do in the series. Why did you make that choice?

Ah, you noticed! Yes, because Veronica and Violet Grace are based on the real-life women Sylvia and Grace Comfort, I wanted to stick close to their actual story. They wouldn’t have had any access to President Roosevelt or Charles Lindbergh or anyone like that. And they are also unmarried women who were short on money—so they don’t go to the glamorous restaurants and dance clubs Maggie and her friends go to.

It felt like painting with a different color palette. I really wanted to show how these women would take the Red Car and grab a sandwich at the Automat and worry about their finances, because that’s how I picture the Comforts living. (There’s actually a nod to the cameos in Maggie’s world when Veronica and Vi go out to dinner in Santa Monica and see Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable’s stunt doubles from Gone With the Wind. Apparently, they really did get married after the film and moved to Santa Monica. But Veronica and Vi run into the doubles, not the real celebrities.)

The two women seem to take opposite paths in their own growth, Vi becoming bolder and more decisive, Veronica reining in her passionate impulses. Their relationship also changes as they begin to see each other in a new light, for example when Veronica realizes—to her surprise—that her mother is really good at playing her undercover role. Do you plan your character arcs in detail, or do they evolve as you write?

I definitely wanted Veronica and Violet to be foils for each other. When we meet Veronica, she’s all youthful energy, flash, and ambition, while her mother is more of a (sorry) shy Violet facing an empty nest and a mid-life crisis. Both women go on personal journeys. One of the things that was fun for me was writing Vi, who’s just turned 50—a heroine with hot flashes!

Murphy Ranch by Chris Gold
The Murphy Ranch is a ranch built in Rustic Canyon, Los Angeles in the 1930s by Winona and Norman Stephens who were sympathizers of the antisemitic, white supremacist Silver Legion of America. Designed as a base for Nazi activities in the United States. it was intended to be capable of being self-sustaining for long periods. The compound had a water storage tank, a fuel tank, a bomb shelter, and various outbuildings and bunkers. (Photo by Chris Gold)

Did you visit the Murphy Ranch before or after writing that part of the story? What was it like visiting the spot where such dramatic events took place, both in history and in your book?

Because of COVID and travel restrictions, I visited the Murphy Ranch after I wrote the scenes, more or less when the book was done. It’s an eerie place, despite the natural beauty surrounding it. After spending some time there, looking around and feeling the atmosphere, my hiking friend and I were relieved to leave and get away from it. I think it’s especially unnerving to visit in 2022, when white nationalism is again on the rise.

Why did you feel it was important to include such detailed historical notes and references at the end of the book?

I’m a bit of a history geek and I always want people to know where I found things, so if they’re like me, and want to know more, they know where to go. I also really like to give sources for things I mention, as so many of my plot points might seem far-fetched and over-the-top. But they’re rooted in actual facts! Truth really is stranger than fiction. With this book especially, I wanted to note all the sources and the process, because I don’t think most people are familiar with Nazis in Los Angeles before and during World War II, and I definitely wanted to show that it’s all based on real people and facts.

I’m sure many readers would enjoy spending more time with the book’s characters, who have such compelling personal journeys. Do you think you might write about them again, or would that stray too far from the actual history?

We really don’t know much about what the Comforts did after they worked as spies. There’s nothing (as far as I can tell, and I’ve done serious research!) on Grace Comfort, the inspiration for Violet. Sylvia, the inspiration for Veronica, eventually went to Washington and became a secretary for a politician.

But as for Veronica and Violet, you never know. Just as Veronica made a cameo in The Hollywood Spy, I’m hoping maybe she and Maggie Hope can meet again in a future novel—perhaps as Veronica covers the D-Day invasion alongside her heroine Martha Gellhorn?

Susan Elia MacNeal The Hollywood SpyWhat are you working on now? What can readers of Mother Daughter Traitor Spy and the Maggie Hope series look forward to next (besides the paperback debut of The Hollywood Spy)?

Now I’m back to Maggie Hope and her friends—Maggie’s newest adventure will find her in Madrid alongside Coco Chanel, who’s working as a Nazi agent. This is also rooted in fact (see Hal Vaughn’s Sleeping With the Enemy), so expect a thrilling ride and then plenty of end notes to let you know what’s real!

 

Susan Elia MacNeal on Her First Standalone "Mother Daughter Traitor Spy"
Jean Gazis
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Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Vanessa Riley "There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [A person] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [they would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period."

Vanessa Riley’s Murder in Westminster is the first in a new series set in Regency London. The central character, Lady Abigail Worthing, is a smart, headstrong, woman married to a high-level naval officer and like many heroines before her seems uninterested in following all of society's rules. Unlike many before her, though, she's also a mixed-race Black woman. Fans of the genre will find much to enjoy in Riley's well-constructed mystery and its sparkling main character. Murder in Westminster is not only a standout, but a really fun read.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved that you made the main character Black. Just that one twist in perspective brings so much richness to the story and such a different way of seeing the world. Seems obvious and simple, but sometimes those things are the hardest. Can you talk about creating Abigail?

Vanessa Riley: Creating Abigail was so much fun. Having a Black character run toward the danger instead of away is liberating and very different from what I would do in real life. I'd be out of there. But Abigail takes her fears of being misunderstood or even scapegoated with her, heading to the danger in ways I think the audience will enjoy. They will go along with her on the adventure.

You've written historical fiction and romance before, but this is also a true mystery. Are you a fan of historical mystery fiction?

I am a big mystery fan, and I adore Sherry Thomas and Deanna Raybourn. They bring fun and danger and history to every page. Yet I also love Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries. The way we get to do life with Mosley's characters while a mystery is being solved offers readers a version of the world that's unexpected. This is what I want to do with Lady Worthing—deliver the unexpected while learning about London through her brown eyes.

How much research did you have to do? And what was the most surprising thing you discovered?

I do an incredible amount of research for every book. With this series, I did a deep dive into abolition politics. I found it fascinating that when Haiti became free in 1806, all the abolition movements around the world stopped. The legends of progressive fights like [William] Wilberforce were stumped. They didn't know how to get things going again. Dropping Abigail into the middle of this perfect storm is a history lover's delight.

I thought it was interesting that Abigail has second sight. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Both Scots and Jamaicans are known to have second sight, the ability to know things about the future. It's a complication that may or may not become important as we learn more about her.

How common would Abigail's type of marriage to an officer be in this time period? I saw some Facebook chatter recently that Jane Austen would never have encountered a Black person, but that’s obviously not true. What is the history of Black people in England and London at the time?

There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [You] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [you would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period. Yes, fiction loves for readers to believe there were 10,000 hot dukes running rampant in London. Alas, there were only 28, and just two were hot.

Fiction is fiction for a reason. We want to be entertained. We want costume accuracy, but we should also allow room for everyone to be entertained and included in the fantasy. Mix-race couplings were common in the West Indies. Mix-race and Black children were sent to schools in England, Ireland, and Scotland for education.

A wealthy planter's daughter, the mulatto Miss Lambe, the wealthiest woman in Jane Austen's Sanditon, was sought after for marriage. Since Austen's father had friends who owned plantations in the Caribbean, I'm sure she saw 'Miss Lambe' in church and social outings. Austen often wrote about real people. Yes, there was a Mr. Darcy. I'm fairly certain Miss Lambe was someone she met.

I also wondered about all the time Abigail spends alone since her husband is off at sea, and how that will affect their dynamic. Will he be making any appearances in future books?

Abigail married young but did so, seizing an opportunity to advance herself and save her family. She didn't realize it would cost her so much, but she has a dedicated staff, an adoring cousin, and childhood friends to keep her from being lonely. James Monroe, Lord Worthing, will make appearances as the series progresses. We will have to keep reading to see if he is a good guy, a villain, or something in between.

I love your prose style. It’s really lovely. What literary influences or specific books have affected your writing?

Austen's wit is something I strive for in writing. Maya Angelou has rhythm in her lyrics. I adore this. Octavia Butler brings drama and the unexpected. Danielle Steele is the queen of family sagas. I want the Lady Worthing series to give all of this to the readers.

Do you have a story arc in mind for Abigail as the series progresses?

Yes. The first book is the series promise. As we journey with Abigail, we'll watch her find herself and learn how to best use her privilege and her gifts. We'll get answers about her husband, family, and friends. She will have to deal with harsh truths and big failings. How do you control a gift like second sight when it drove your mother crazy? How do you deal with loving the wrong man? How do you keep going when the politics of the day are against you because you're a woman and Black?

Finally, what’s next, another mystery? Or a straight historical novel? I hope this is a long series!

I'm revising the next historical fiction. It's about the life of a forgotten queen. Also, I'm drafting the next murder mystery, Murder in Drury Lane. I want the Lady Worthing Mysteries to be a long series, like 30 books.

Fascinated by the Regency and early Victorian eras, Vanessa Riley made time for renaissance fairs, and period novels and films while obtaining her PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Specialty RWA Chapters: The Beaumonde, and the Georgia Chapters, as well as the Historical Novel Society. Vanessa also juggles her military hubby, mothering a teen, and speaking at women's events.

Vanessa Riley on Writing a Black Woman in Regency England
Robin Agnew
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