Friday, May 14, 2010
Q and A with Kathryn Wall Author of CANAAN’S GATE
I began the first book in the series, In For a Penny, as part of a writing course I was taking back in the late nineties. I’ve been a mystery buff since my teenaged years, so the choice of genre was easy. I created a main character in Bay Tanner who was old enough (38) to have had some life experience but young enough to have the physical and emotional stamina to carry a series of several books as well as allow for growth over the passage of time.
All the books are set in and around Hilton Head Island, SC, where my husband and I retired in 1994. I think they’re best classified as traditional mysteries with a strong female protagonist. Bay is a former accountant (like me), widowed prior to the opening of the first book when she witnesses her husband’s murder. She comes to investigating as an amateur when her financial expertise is called upon by an old family friend. From there, she finds she has a taste for detecting, primarily because of the puzzle-solving nature of the business, and eventually teams with her father in opening a small inquiry agency. The fact that she sometimes finds herself in personal jeopardy is one of the issues she struggles with because she doesn’t see herself as a brave person. She is, however, highly moral, with a strong intolerance for injustice and cruelty.
There is also a core cast of supporting players: Bay’s father, retired invalid Judge Talbot Simpson; Lavinia Smalls, the black woman with a mysterious past who has all but raised Bay; Red Tanner, her sheriff’s deputy brother-in-law; and Dolores Santiago, who first comes to help Bay recover from the injuries she suffered during the attack on her husband and stays to be both housekeeper and trusted friend.
There is some mild profanity, but the sex and violence are most frequently found off-page. I promised my mother that I’d only use the swear words I learned from her and that I wouldn’t write anything that would embarrass her in front of her friends.
What attracted you to mysteries?
Probably the same things that attracted me to accounting: the solving of the puzzle. Believe it or not, my former profession is as much about applied logic and reasoning as it is about numbers. The difference is that, in accounting, there’s always a right answer. Put in the right numbers in the right sequence and combination, and you’ll always come up with the correct result. People, on the other hand, are much messier and harder to control. That’s the part of the process that keeps me writing.
What's the latest installment about?
Since this is the tenth book in the series, it’s hard to give a synopsis that doesn’t give away many of the things that have happened in prior installments. But I’ll give it a shot. Canaan’s Gate is basically about greed and desperation and divided loyalties. Established in the inquiry business, Bay and her partner Erik Whiteside (first introduced in the second book, And Not a Penny More) are hired by a mousy bank employee who believes one of her coworkers is involved in scamming the elderly and very wealthy Castlemains, who live in one of Hilton Head’s most exclusive enclaves, and that he may be in league with the couple’s flamboyant caregiver. Before they can even begin their investigation, Bay and Erik are stunned to hear that one of the old folks has died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Bay’s never been a big fan of coincidence, but she has nothing to prove it wasn’t a natural death. Then their client disappears, and the whole case is thrown into confusion by the appearance of the couple’s grandson, a charming and arrogant D.C. lobbyist, who seems intent on injecting himself into the investigation. Throughout the novel, Bay struggles against the feeling that she might have made some costly mistakes, both personally and professionally.
What's the biggest challenge in writing a series?
Backstory. It’s a constant worry about how much of the past to reveal in each new book. Thanks to a reprint house, I’ve been able to keep all the previous nine novels in print, so I’m especially wary of giving away too much. On the other hand, I think it’s vital to keep fresh readers in the loop, especially about the relationships of the characters to each other. I do my best to drop a few hints about major events that have occurred in earlier installments without spoiling someone’s enjoyment if they decide to go back and catch up. It’s a real high-wire act, and I’m not sure I always manage to pull it off.
Who are your literary influences?
This is really a wide open question. I read voraciously, and I read in the genre. I know a lot of authors think that’s a no-no, especially when you’re in the throes of a manuscript yourself. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t read the kinds of books that I’ve loved all my life. Of course I began with Nancy Drew, moved on to Agatha Christie, and then the gothics: Dorothy Eden, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt. I was blown away by Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children as well as by the early Sue Graftons and Patricia Cornwells. Right now I’m into historicals—CJ Sansom, et al. I also love John Sanford and Anne Perry and Preston & Child and Jeffrey Deaver—I guess my reading preferences are pretty eclectic within the genre. I’m also a sucker for wonderful Southern stories, especially To Kill a Mockingbird, which I reread every year.
You live in Hilton Head. What's it like to live in a vacation spot all year long?
Most of the time it’s heaven. What’s not to love about being surrounded by world-class beaches, fabulous restaurants, and a climate that calls 50 degrees winter? There’s no denying it gets hectic in the summer, when hordes of tourists descend on us. But most of us began as visitors, so we try to have patience. One thing you do learn is to adjust your own lifestyle to accommodate such a huge influx of people. We go out to eat earlier, try to plan our shopping for the times when most tourists are at the beach, and certainly pay more attention when we’re out on the roads. Oh, and always avoid going off-island on Saturday morning or coming back on Saturday afternoon. It’s called turnaround day, and we tend to hibernate until Sunday morning..
It’s been a wonderful decision to set the Bay Tanner mysteries here because folks seem to enjoy reading about places in the books that they’ve visited while on the island. I get lots of e-mails from people who come on a regular basis and always look for my new book as part of their trip. It’s been a good business decision as well as just a wonderful place to be retired.
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We live close to you in Bluffton, and love reading local fiction like yours. We're working to get our first novel (a work of young adult literature) published, and appreciate the tips. Great interview!
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