A few weeks ago, the novelist and musician James McBride was interviewed on the PBS Newshour, talking about his work and the release of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, an alternative history of the grandmother he never knew. It’s a terrific interview, not long, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
“I don’t mind failing. Writers, most of what we do fails. And that’s the lesson writing teaches you. I tell young writing students all the time, fail and fail better.”
On giving his grandmother a better life than the one she had, on the page: “Fiction is magical that way. Fiction allows your dreams to come true.”
Friends, I am thrilled to celebrate the 10th birthday of Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery and winner of the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, by presenting a special edition of An Unholy Death, the historical novella prequel.
An Unholy Death originally appeared in Carried to the Grave and Other Stories, the 6th Food Lovers’ Village mystery, so if you have a copy of Carried, you’ve already got this story. It’s available in paperback and ebook, for all e-readers.
(To tell the truth, the novella actually released on Tuesday, August 29, but I was so focused on finishing the 8th Spice Shop mystery, To Err is Cumin, by my September 1 deadline that I waited to let you know. The manuscript went in this morning!)
As the cover copy says: It’s 1910 and newly married Kate Murphy arrives in Jewel Bay, Montana, with her husband Paddy, proprietor of Murphy’s Mercantile, intent on building their life together in this unfamiliar place. The conditions are rough—as are some of their clientele—and get even rougher when Kate discovers the dead body of the widowed local preacher. She’s determined to keep his young daughter safe, but the task takes all the courage Kate can summon as she faces the first of many mysteries unfolding in her new home . . .
I’ve always been fascinated by Montana history and when my husband was asked to write and perform the music for a documentary, Bigfork: A Montana Story, on the history of the model for Jewel Bay, I decided to explore that history on the page. What would this rough Montana town have looked like to a new bride, fresh from Baraboo, Wisconsin? How would she have adapted? What conflicts would she walk into? What skills would she bring? Turns out her great-granddaughter Erin’s talent for sleuthing may be inherited . . .
Like Kate, my own great-grandmother grew up in Baraboo as one of four sisters in an Irish family. I borrowed their names, ancestry, and hometown, but the rest is fiction.
Readers often ask about the titles and covers. Choosing a title can be a challenge. I wrote this novella without a title, not for lack of trying. A friend reminded me that good titles often come from the language in the book. Nothing worked, until I remembered that I could add a phrase for just that purpose. That led to this, at about the midpoint, during the funeral of the minister Kate found dead in the church just days earlier.
In the front pew, Grace sitting straight-backed between her and Paddy, Kate tried to focus on the minister’s words. Tried to forget that he stood on the very spot where she had found Reverend Haugen on what the minister called “that unholy day.”
Perfect, I think. In the documentary, I spotted a picture of the church and school in about 1906. The cover artist stylized the image, creating a curved, narrow lane between them and adding trees and wildflowers. I love it.
But what makes the cover truly stand out, I think, are the mountains behind the town, done in the grand landscape traditions of the late 19th century painters Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who focused on the Rocky Mountains. Moran is best known for images of Yellowstone, Bierstadt of Yosemite, but their style translates beautifully to this area, on the edge of Glacier National Park.
I hope you enjoy the trip back in time with me. If An Unholy Death is your first visit to the Food Lovers’ Village, I hope you’ll make a return visit with the five novels. And remember, my gift to you as a newsletter subscriber is a Village short story, “The Picture of Guilt,” in which our modern heroine, Erin Murphy, and her husband Adam make an unexpected discovery while hiking and picking huckleberries in those very mountains. Sign up on my newsletter and follow the links in the Welcome letter. (I’m having a hard time updating it to mention the latest books and this short story, but the links all work!)
I loved Clark & Division, set in the Japanese community in Chicago during WW II and focused on a California family just released from the camps who cannot return home. When they arrive, hoping to connect with the older daughter released earlier, they discover that she’s dead — and they mystery begins.
Spice Shop readers tell me they love spotting names of books and authors they recognize and finding potential new reads on Pepper’s bookshelves, both in her loft and in the shop. Pepper and Kristen, who handles most of the Spice Shop’s book buying, love creating seasonal book displays.
For the Lunar New Year, they’ve set out several foodie cozies with an Asian theme: Vivian Chien’s noodle shop mysteries, Jennifer Chow’s LA Night Market series, and Mia Manamsala’s Tita Rosie’s Kitchen mysteries, set in a family-run Filipino restaurant. I have read and enjoyed them all. I’ll confess that I’m the customer who told them about The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, a fascinating novel about an American food reporter who meets a Chinese-American chef in China, a man determined to keep alive an intricate, formal style of Chinese cooking far beyond what most of us can imagine.
Pepper forges a working relationship with the owner of the new cheese shop in the Market, Say Cheese!, and seals it by giving her copies of For Cheddar or Worse by Avery Aames and Cheddar Off Dead by Korina Moss, both mysteries set in cheese shops. Food puns rule.
The staff steered customers planning a trip to France to cookbooks by two American food writers who focus on French food, David Liebovitz and Dorie Greenspan, along with a shop favorite, The French Country Table: Simple recipes for bistro classics, by Laura Washburn. Not coincidentally, all are favorites in our home.
The book Lena insists Pepper read is The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, set in Seattle’s Chinatown during World War II and the present day.
I discovered some terrific resources in my research, mentioned in the acknowledgments: Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels, by Marie Rose Wong, Ph.D., an account not just of the CID’s residential hotels but of the economic, political, and social forces that shaped it. Two books provided helpful personal accounts, photographs, and historical research: Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle by David Takami, and Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans: The First 100 Years by Ron Chew and Cassie Chin.
I was totally absorbed by the memoir Long Way Home: Journeys of a Chinese Montanan by Flora Wong and Tom Decker. The experience of American-born Flora, whose daughter is a friend of ours, in returning to China as a small child in the 1930s, enduring tremendous hardship on a small family farm, then returning to the US in the late 1940s through an arranged marriage was heart-wrenching, and helped me understand more about the hardships of life in China and the tug that many immigrants felt, even after making the difficult decision to leave.
Another interesting reference, though one I barely dipped into, is Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace, Tamara Venit-Shelton, Ph.D. And while not part of my research, some readers may be intrigued by The Middle Kingdom Under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana by Mark T. Johnson. Both Professor Venit-Shelton and Professor Johnson speak widely about their research, and videos of their talks are available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet.
Finally, I always learn something interesting from Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City by David B. Williams.
Check out Pepper’s Bookshelf from Peppermint Barked. Here’s what Pepper was reading in The Solace of Bay Leaves and Chai Another Day, along with Parts One and Two of Pepper’s Bookshelf, dishing on her discoveries in the first three books of the series, Assault and Pepper, Guilty as Cinnamon, and Killing Thyme.
I’ve just finished Book Eight as I write this, and I can tell you, the reading fun continues!
I occasionally get a note from a reader who tells me that my books kept her company in a difficult time, or that something I wrote triggered a new insight. Those are moments of pure magic.
“You never know how your creative work leads to small but meaningful decisions in other people’s lives. To actions they take, or a gateway that opens up to them through your words.” – Dan Blank, “Art Lasts,” Creative Shift newsletter
A bargain cruise — and such fun! Murder at Sea: A Destination Murders Short Story collection is only 99 cents for Kindle through Aug 21. Eight short cozy mysteries and eight fabulous trips — no shoes required. Pepper Reese from my Spice Shop series makes her first short story appearance in “Seafood Rub,” when she and Nate take a long weekend getaway to the San Juan Islands, only to discover that trouble took the same ferry…
Isn’t that a darling cover? If you love short cozies, take a look at the earlier entries in the series: Murder in the Mountains, including my Food Lovers’ Village short mystery “The Picture of Guilt,” and Murder at the Beach!
How often have you written something and realized later that you were working out a personal problem on the page? Or sniffled through the day’s work, then discovered that the pain you felt that morning had eased? Our characters’ troubles may be very different from our own, but the process helps us and creates a deeper experience for the reader.
“Q: How does writing help an individual cope with life’s setbacks? A. It’s been my experience that as writers we tend to process life events (positive and negative) through story. It’s often on a subconscious level, hovering below the surface of our thoughts and then woven into the fabric of our stories. And it helps. This is how our brains are wired to process life. By creating story we can deal with the unexpected curve balls life hurls our way.”
“What advice do you have for beginning and early-stage writers? I know the frustration which never goes away. You want so much to sit down and get it right. You have to learn to tolerate that frustration. You have to be patient and just keep writing. You’re only going to learn it by doing it and by reading. You read and you write, and you read and you write. That’s the hard part for beginning writers: having to accept that it may be a very long process. Also you have to be willing to expose yourself – to put your true emotions in your work, or it will be flat. It really won’t be something people want to read or find any comfort in reading because it won’t be conveying to them some aspect of the human condition that they’ve experienced but don’t know they’ve experienced until they read it, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve felt that.’”
Time for the annual Bigfork Festival of the Arts, in the heart of the Village of Bigfork, Sat and Sun, Aug 5-6, from 9:00 am to 4:30. Find me on the east side of Electric Avenue, our main street, just south of FOR Fine Art Gallery. I’ll be signing and selling all my books, just for you.
Music, food, and art and craft of all kinds will fill the streets you know on the page as Jewel Bay.