Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mystery Writer Lea Wait on Adoption, Writing in Two Genres, and Marriage to the Right Man at Long Last

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Hi, Lea—thanks for chatting with me. Your adult mysteries are about the world of antiques, which has been much discussed on DorothyL lately. Did you get much of your early antiques training from your grandmother?
I didn’t think of it as training; I thought of it as life! I learned a lot from observation. My grandmother was an antique doll and toy dealer. She took me to flea markets, auctions, antique shops, and antique shows. Everywhere, I looked and listened and learned. As a teenager I collected old postcards and political memorabilia, and my grandmother helped me buy some end-of-the-day glass baskets, which I still have. She also told me what toys I SHOULD collect – paper dolls and figures of current movie stars and television programs. I wish I’d invested more in what she said would grow in value!

Your biography says that your grandmother encouraged you to read Shakespeare aloud to her. Do you have a favorite passage? Or did you hate Shakespeare?
I love the melodrama of Hamlet! I introduced my children to Shakespeare, too, taking them to a Shakespearean Festival each summer in New Jersey, where we lived, and encouraging them to read each play first. My daughter Elizabeth had only been in the United States 8 months when she first saw The Taming of the Shrew. She called it “The Story of the Two Angry Sisters.” She got it!

As a young adult, you adopted four daughters from Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and India. Did you adopt them all at the same time? Were there difficulties with the process because you were a single mother? Was there a reason why you adopted four?
I adopted my children at different times, when I was 30, 32, 35, and 39; they were aged 4, 8, 9, and 10. I was one of the first to adopt after a 1976 change in immigration laws allowed single people to adopt, and, especially at the beginning, it was not easy. Because of that, I founded a support organization for single adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents to help them find sources that could help them, and be a support for the parents and their children later. I also advocated for single parent adoption and for adoption of older children. I realized in my mid-thirties that I had followed the example of Jo March in Little Men, having a big house filled with children who had no homes. But after four – I decided that was enough!

The pictures of your granddaughters are beautiful. How many grandchildren do you have?
I’m proud to say I have six – four girls and two boys – although I take no credit for them! Three of my daughters are married, and one is engaged, so there may be one or two more grandchildren in the future, but that won’t be my decision. I’m looking forward to the time when they can read my books for children. Coming soon!

Your books for children are all set in the 19th Century, while your adult mysteries are set in the present. Is there a reason for this distinction?
My books in each genre are very different. I’ve wanted to write a series of stories in which the setting was really the main character, and that idea turned into my books for children set in the 19th century Maine seaport of Wiscasset. They’re all stand-alones. The main characters are fictional, but the setting and all the people in the town are real. I’ve been thrilled at the reception STOPPING TO HOME, SEAWARD BORN, and WINTERING WELL, have received nationwide. (My next book for children, FINEST KIND, will be published in October.)

My adult mysteries, the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, are lighter than the books for children. My contemporary protagonist, Maggie Summer, is an antique print dealer who solves crimes. But Maggie and her prints also have roots in the 19th century, so my books really do have some similarities.

The Maine Sunday Telegram said that your mystery heroine, Maggie Summer, “may yet become a new Miss Marple for a new time.” Do your fans respond positively to the “gentility” of Maggie Summer?
Maggie is a very sane 38-year-old woman who thinks logically. She calls 911 when necessary, asks more questions than perhaps she should, and is constantly balancing two careers (she is a college professor as well as an antique print dealer) and her desire to be a mother with her love for a man who does not want children. She isn’t as idiosyncratic as many mystery protagonists – although she does drink Diet Pepsi for breakfast! – but many readers have told me they can identify with her. To have a reviewer compare her to Miss Marple is a great complement!

You wrote that “October 28, 2003 I married Bob Thomas -- only 12,994 days after we'd met. The best things in life sometimes take time.” Why so hasty with the marriage? :)
Bob and I met when we were in our early twenties. There was an attraction, and we became close friends, but he was married. Then I got married, and he was separated. He was the photographer at my wedding! After that the relationship was on and off, depending on the year. We loved each other, but we had conflicting goals. One of the main problems was that I wanted children (yes, like Maggie!) and Bob did not. He got to know all of my children but did not want the responsibility of fatherhood. When my girls were in high school, and emotions and hormones were high, I told him that my family and I were a package deal: if he didn’t want the whole package he should leave. And he did. Ten years later, when life had changed, I was the one to get in touch with him. My girls were grown, and I was caring for my mother. Bob and I had both changed. I was more assertive than I had been; he was more relaxed. He had cared for his mother in her last illness, married, and then cared for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after their wedding. We e-mailed back and forth for about 9 months, and when we met again we knew it was finally the right time for us. Bob has always been supportive of my writing. Now he does the cooking and errands and frees me up to work, while also taking over more than half of our antiques business, including our website, http://www.mahantiques.com, and working on his photography. Our time has finally come, and we’re very happy!

You and Bob seem to tour extensively for the books. Do you set up your own tour schedule?
Yes, although last year I did hire a publicist to help, and made over 110 appearances. (We also travel to about a dozen antiques shows each year, where I sell my books as well as our prints.) It’s very important for a new writer to get their name out so people recognize it. This year I’m hoping to stay home more, and do more writing. I’m planning to attend several book fairs and festivals in the next year. That’s a great way to meet a lot of people in a short period of time.

You also visit many schools. What sort of presentation do you give to young people?
I love visiting schools! Students are so eager to find out how I became a writer, and how books are written and published. I usually talk about my life as a writer of corporate nonfiction, and then fiction, and about the process of writing. Often I bring “show and tell” items like a manuscript, with my editors’ comments or the 19th century print that inspired SEAWRD BORN or the 19th century dictionaries I used to ensure I’m using words appropriately for the period or the medical illustrations that helped me write about an amputation done in 1819. I also talk about the process of research – it’s more than just searching on the computer! Kids ask wonderfully honest question on all subjects. (“What did you have for breakfast to make you smart? How much money do you make? What are your children’s names? Do you know Stephen King?”) I love working with them.

At New York University you earned an MA and a DWD. What’s a DWD?
A DWD is a doctorate without a dissertation. I completed all my requirements for a PHD, but I was in strategic planning at AT&T, the Bell System was breaking up, and I had three children. I never completed my dissertation.

You once worked in public relations. How handy for an author to have P.R. experience! Do you find it helps you with marketing your books?
All experience helps, and I do know how to write a press release and understand the need for sound bites in radio and TV interviews! But those skills can be learned. I think my background does make me more conscious of the need for people to recognize my name, in order for them to want to buy and read my books.

What are you writing now? How much of the day do you spend writing?
In the past I’ve divided my time between antiques, research for my books, writing, and marketing. For the most part, those activities were separate, and each involved 8-10 hours a day when I was focused on them. I’m now at a point when I’ve done a lot of research, and need to do a lot of writing. Unfortunately, I’ve had a frustrating summer. In early June I shattered my wrist, and, instead of writing, I was taking pain pills, having surgery, and doing physical therapy. I still have a way to go before all is normal. I’m working on something new – an historical mystery set in 1865 New York State, for adults. I also have a Shadows mystery in the wings, and ideas for two children’s books. My challenge for the rest of the year will be healing my wrist, writing at least one or two of those books, and fitting in 7 antiques shows in 5 states, and marketing for FINEST KIND, which will be out in October. A busy time, for sure!

Do you have specific writing goals?
My fantasy is to some day win an Agatha or Edgar and a Newberry! (SHADOWS AT THE FAIR missed being awarded a “best first mystery” Agatha by one vote!) We all have dreams! In the meantime, my goal is to write the best possible books I can, and to get them out the door and into the hands of readers. On a given writing day, having done research and planning first, I write about ten pages. Sometimes I can write up to 20 or 25, but that’s under extreme deadlines!

Do any of your children share your love for antiques? (Or for writing?)
My children are their own selves, as they should be. One of them has decorated her home with a combination of antiques and contemporary items. The others aren’t interested in antiques now. One daughter is a public relations professional, so she writes every day. Another is a photographer. I’m enjoying watching them as adults, as they develop their own interests.

You sound like a great Mom. Thanks for chatting with me, Lea!
Thank YOU! It was fun!

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