Hi, Susan! Thanks for chatting with me.
You are a writer who seems to have followed her heart into all sorts of writing. Your popular mystery series featuring China Bayles and Robin Paige have brought you great acclaim and made you a best-selling author.
Your newest series features as its protagonist the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. Why did you want to write about Potter? How did you happen to conceive of The Cottage Tales, as your series is called?
I learned to read with Beatrix Potter. My mother read her little books aloud to me so often that I memorized them, and then “read” them to myself. (Who knows what kind of influence that had on my writing style!) I didn’t know much about her, though, until my husband Bill suggested that we use her as a character in the second book of our Robin Paige series, Death at Gallows Green, which is set in 1896. I began doing the research, and simply fell in love with her, and with the place she created in the Lake District. We visited there, and I knew I had to write about it, and about her. And since I’m a mystery writer, I naturally thought of writing mysteries—British cottage/village mysteries. Natalee Rosenstein, my Berkley editor, was encouraging, and we took it from there.
The series is lauded as one for “adult and young adult readers.” Was this something you thought about when writing the books?
I think about it often, and try to design and craft the books so that they are appealing to younger readers. I’ve created some younger characters, both girls and boys, and although the animals weren’t created specifically for young readers (grownups like talking animals, too!), I think the animal plots appeal to youngsters. The books are being read by homeschoolers (I know, because I get email from them!), in part because a teacher/mom/dad can build a unit around them, focusing on the setting, on Beatrix’s life, on the history of the time, and so on. And I love it when I hear from a family—mom, dad, kids—reading the books aloud together.
In your first book, according to your website, Potter “gradually moves away from her London life as a dutiful Victorian-age daughter, and into an independent life that offers new hopes, new love, and the possibility of self-determination.” Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a woman in 1905 England?
Bill and I were writing the Robin Paige books at the time I began the Cottage Tales. The Paige series is set from 1895-1903, and features quite a number of women, both fictional and real. So quite a lot of the background research had been done, and I’d already begun to feel rather like a woman of 1905 myself! When I’d finished the first book, I learned that Linda Lear was writing a new biography of Potter. We connected via email and became close friends. Linda was good enough to share her research with me, and I read the manuscript of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature as it developed. So I was living with Beatrix in a variety of ways.
Booklist calls your first cottage tale, The Tale of Hill Top Farm,
“perfectly charming,” and many other noted reviewers had similar responses. Have you always gotten good reviews?
Print reviews, yes. PW gave the second book, The Tale of Holly How, a starred review. But when you read the Amazon reader “reviews,” you’ll see that there are people who don’t like talking animals, on principle. And there are people who would like a more intense mystery and stronger dramatic action. I’m delighted to say that they appear to be in the minority. I hear every day from people who remember Beatrix fondly from their own childhood reading and who are pleased to be able to read a “charming” book that gives them a pleasant introduction to a world in which life was slower, quieter, and (from our perspective, anyway), much simpler.
You write the Robin Paige mysteries with your husband, Bill Albert. How did you decide that you would collaborate?
Big smile here. Actually, we figured that out when we were still dating (this was in 1986). I was writing one of the “new” Nancy Drew mysteries, and asked him for some plot advice. He told me what I needed to know, and I thought, “Hey, this is the guy for me!” We collaborated on over 60 young adult novels, from 1986-1992, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. (There’s a list on our website). After I started the China Bayles series (on my own, although he reads every book and gives me valuable feedback and suggestions), we wanted to continue to write together, and chose England in the Victorian/Edwardian period because both of us loved the time/setting.
Neat! What a great way to stay in touch with your spouse. :)
Back to the Cottage Tales for a moment. In these stories, the reader is given insight into both the animal and the human world. When the animals “speak” to each other, it is written in italics. Did this ever become difficult, merging these animal dialogues with the human ones?
It’s a kind of crazy thing, but in these books, I can think through the animals more easily than I can through the people. I wouldn’t have predicted this when I started the books, but what did I know? I had never done anything like this before. I was helped by going back and rereading Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, which became something like benchmarks for me. I was aiming for that kind of tone, that kind of native naturalism. And of course, Bill and I talk to and with our own cats, dogs, chickens, cows, etc. (don’t you?), so it feels very good to me.
I do, but I'm afraid I'm often saying "You naughty dog! I can't believe you did that! :)
You grew up in Illinois and now live in Texas. What difficulties did that present when you wanted to set a book in England, especially when that book was partly based on true events?
I grew up reading Dickens and Thackeray and Jane Austen and have always loved Victorian English—-so the language of the period comes pretty easily. We’ve traveled extensively in England, and have a very large library, so setting hasn’t been as much of a problem as it might seem. But I’m writing about the past, which is (all by itself) a whole other country. A lot of my research is necessarily done in books. I use primary material when I can (books, newspapers written at the time); I use secondary materials when that’s all I can find. Until the Internet came along, my biggest challenge was finding the library that held a particular book I needed. Now, the Internet makes historical/foreign research much, much easier.
The Magical Web. All of your books fit into the “cozy” category. Have you ever aspired to write something edgier?
Not really. I feel that we live on the edge as it is, given the uncertainties and challenges of our real lives: wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, political storms. And there’s already enough torqued-up fiction out there to satisfy readers who want something that’s harder-core. I’ll keep on writing what I like to read, which is easier on the heart, a little closer to the spirit.
Your cottage tales contain maps, a cast of characters (as in a drama), a glossary of terms like “betimes” and “nawt,” and recipes that relate to the story. When did you decide to incorporate all of these neat details? Did you conceive of all of these extras when you wrote the first book?
The extras were all part of the original design of the series (which, maybe we should mention, is a limited series: eight books, spanning the years 1905-1913). I love maps, and since the village is real (and many readers have visited there) I coveted them. I use the recipes to give readers a glimpse into the history of that particular regional cookery. The glossary is necessary, if I’m going to use dialect—although I don’t use as much as I’d like because it’s too confusing to the eye. The historical note is really important, since it gives the actual background against which the fiction is created.
Did you aspire to be a writer as a child?
Yes, I did. I wrote my first “novel” at nine, sold my first short story at 19, to a magazine called Jack and Jill. Wrote lots of poetry, too.
Your website is quite elaborate. Do you maintain it yourself?
I have a wonderful webmistress who maintains the sites (there are now actually three). But I’ve designed (and re-re-re-designed) them. They are a work in progress!
Susan, you’ve written, by my count, 35 books. When do you find the time to write, and what inspires you?
Actually, that’s just the work since 1992, when China Bayles solved her first case. There were 60+ kids’ books before then (1984-1992) and my academic writing before that (5 or 6 books, lots of articles, etc). I’m the original “woman who spilled words all over her life.” I am privileged (and oh! how lucky I feel about that!) to be able to write full time, and prefer to write without a break (no weekends off) when I’m working on a project. Life inspires me, and this wild, wonderful world in which we live it. I read something, see something on TV, and imagine it as a piece of a book.
I admire the fact that your life has taken many turns as you explored your interests. I’m especially interested by the part of your bio that says, after earning a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley, you taught and held administrative positions at the university level for fifteen years, at which point you quit, because you were “fed up with academic politics.”
Good for you! Was there a “last straw” sort of moment? Had you already started writing at this time?
Oh, wow, yes. Too many last-straw moments, mostly having to do with faculty politics. I think the thing that tipped it, though, was the realization, one Monday morning, that I had put in a 60-hour week the week before, all on university stuff, and that the coming week promised more of the same, and the week after that and the week after that. There had to be a better way! I began thinking about what I might do if I weren’t at the university, and consciously made the decision to try writing YA novels. I hit with my first effort, wrote several more (writing evenings and weekends). Buoyed by that, I turned in my resignation. I have never regretted it, not one single moment.
I'm reminded of a Johnny Paycheck song . . . :)
Your bio says that “Susan and Bill live on 32 acres in the Texas hill country, 60 miles northwest of Austin, with two black Labradors named Zach and Lady, a matching black cat named Shadow, and an ever-changing assortment of ducks and geese who flock together under the watchful eye of Major Gander, a Toulouse goose of outstanding merit.” This sounds idyllic. Is it?
Well, we’ve had a heckuva lot of rain this summer, the road’s a wreck, the garden’s a mess, we can’t do the mowing because it’s too wet, and yesterday’s high temperature was 99. (Life in the country is a great deal of work—-if you want somebody else to take care of the potholes, you probably want to stay in town). Other than that, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m writing a book about it, in fact. It’ll be out from the University of Texas Press in 2009.
You are a dynamo! How can your readers find out more about you and your newest mystery series?
That’s easy! Go to www.mysterypartners.com and sign up for our eletter. While you’re there, sign up for China’s herbal eletter, too. Sorry—Beatrix doesn’t have one. :)
Thanks for chatting, Susan.
You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it!