Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sheila Connolly on Renovating Houses, Pruning Apples, and Searching for Ancestors

Thanks for agreeing to chat on the blog, Sheila!

On your website is a picture of you at twenty-one: you had selected it to be on a book jacket when you became a writer. Did you publish anything in your twenties? At what point did you begin to envision yourself as a writer?

I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember, and probably before, but I never planned to be a writer. I didn’t even try, except for one meager effort when I was stuck in a boring job with spare time and a memory typewriter (yup, that’s how long ago that was). I got about two pages into a medieval mystery and realized I had no plot, just an interesting first scene and a body, and that was the end of that.

Your book One Bad Apple, came out this month from Berkley Prime Crime. In it a woman takes on a “crumbling colonial house and an orchard,” which become the backdrop of the mystery. Is the setting based on personal experience?

In more ways than one. My husband and I spent fifteen years working on an abused Victorian, and I don’t think there was any part of the house that we didn’t repair or restore. Our current Victorian is less needy, but there’s always something going wrong. I’ve never worked on a colonial, but the house in One Bad Apple is very real-—it was built by my seventh great-grandfather, in western Massachusetts, and I’ve been able to stay there more than once. The house remained in the family for over two hundred years, and somehow that suggested to me a way to link a sense of belonging in a community, and the changes that any community must make if it’s going to survive.


My brother owned an orchard for years, until he and his wife both developed back problems from the endless pruning. Do you discuss some of the realities of orchard life in One Bad Apple?

Absolutely. Apples trees require a lot of work. In fact, in the second book of the series, Rotten to the Core (July 2009), I tackle the question of organic purity vs. chemical spraying. Consumers want perfect, large, shiny apples, but you don’t get that in nature.

Good point. You have a second mystery coming out in March, but you write that series as Sarah Atwell. How did you happen to become two people at Berkley?

I’ve been writing since 2001, and submitting to a lot of agents. Naturally Jacky Sach of BookEnds was on the list. With the last submission I sent, the SASE came back empty, so I contacted her and more or less said, “I know it’s a rejection, but . . . ”

It was, but she remembered the submission, liked my voice, and asked if I’d like to try writing for Berkley, with an outline that they provided. Major agent, major publisher—-I wasn’t about to say no. I put together three chapters and everybody loved it, and Sarah Atwell was born (I chose the name). However, I was arrogant enough to tell Jacky that I could handle writing two series at a time, so we dusted off that original submission, changed a few things around, and sold it to the same editor, under my name. I was naive enough not to realize that this was extraordinary.

To put it mildly! Good for you. Your books seem to have a romantic thread. I was also impressed that your bio introduces your husband as “my first and only husband.” That’s very sweet. How did you and your husband meet?

Many, many years ago . . . Actually it was in Cambridge. I was in graduate school, and he was sharing a house with two of my classmates, plus the spouse of one of them. They used to give great parties. We married in 1976, and have lived in North Carolina, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

And I’m glad you noticed the romantic thread. When I started writing I aimed for romantic suspense, but apparently that’s not my voice. But it’s fun throwing in a little love interest in a traditional mystery. I like my heroines to be independent and self-sufficient, but hey, they’re human. With Seth in One Bad Apple, I was being a little tongue in cheek—a plumber hero? But he’s a lot more, and he’s a great guy (no, he’s not based on my husband, or anyone else I know).


You’ve had many careers, including as “an art historian (medieval architecture), an investment banker in San Francisco and Philadelphia, a non-profit fundraiser, and a professional genealogist.” Does all of this experience come in handy in the writing of mysteries? Which career was your favorite?

Art history was my first love, but I had the misfortune of getting into it at a time when nobody was hiring. I was thrilled that I could finally sneak in a little of it into the second Glassblowing book, Pane of Death, in which my heroine Em gets a commission to help work with a fabulous collection of historic stained glass.

I think genealogy is genetic—you either have the gene or you don’t (my sister doesn’t), and if you do, you’re into it for life. Genealogy is great training for mystery writing, because most of the time you have very limited evidence from which to construct the whole picture/family. Sometimes you find yourself looking at things from unexpected angles (I’ve found one ancestor who had a dog license in 1798). Non-profit fundraising prepares you (a) for rejection, (b) for endless submissions, and (c) probably most important, for assembling information on unfamiliar subjects and presenting it in a coherent way that others can understand (so they’ll give you money!).

As a professional genealogist, do you recommend one method of finding family information over others? I’ve seen many genealogy websites, but they’re so expensive!


The first and most important thing you can do is to write down everything you know or think you know about your family, and to ask anyone living for what they remember (and label your photographs!). Often memories get jumbled or inflated, but there’s usually some truth buried in them.

The last decade has seen an explosion of information posted on the Internet (for example, U.S. census records), so it’s much easier than it used to be to find data. But there’s also a lot of misinformation out there too: someone will make a “discovery” and it will be repeated on endless loops or sites as true, even if it gets disproven later. Take everything with a grain of salt, and try to find more than one source. If you like to take vacations with a purpose, travel to the places your ancestors came from, check out local libraries and historical societies and cemeteries, and just talk to the local historians—-you’d be amazed what you learn.

You say you can fix just about anything around an old house. Say, would you like to come to my old house for some dinner? :)

Any time (um, where are you?). I love to cook, I love to eat. I collect old bakeware at flea markets and yard sales, and actually use some of the pieces. I can’t stop collecting cookbooks, although I have to admit that at least a third of them are cookie cookbooks.

Oh, you are a woman after my own heart. I'm in Chicago, Sheila--I'll send you the address. :)

You live in Massachusetts. Have you always lived there? What’s your favorite thing about it?


I went to college in Massachusetts because I had this romantic idea about New England, but I’m still in love with it. Then I got married, and we moved around a lot, and it took thirty years to work our way back to Massachusetts, but here we are. What I like best is all the dead relatives. I know, that sounds creepy, but I love the sense of connection with the past. I can’t pass an old cemetery without running into a relative or twelve, and it feels like saying hello to old friends, because I know who they are, and where they came from, and where their descendants ended up. I have a lot of family here.

What are you writing now?


Just finished the draft of The Glassblowing Series, Book 3 (of a three-book contract), and have to start a full edit of the Orchard Series, Book 2 aka Rotten to the Core (likewise a three-book contract). Then I’ll have the edit of Glassblowing Book 3, and, oh yes, I have to write Orchard Book 3. And hope that both will find enough readers to be renewed. I also have quite a few earlier manuscripts, both series and stand-alones, that I’d like to dust off and take a look at, if I ever have the time.

Wow. Do you read mysteries? What’s the current book at your bedside?
Of course. My TBR pile is over two feet high and very mixed, and I’m often reading more than one book at a time. This minute it’s Rochelle Krich and Laurie King, but I read fast so that will change. I try to read all the new authors at Berkley Prime Crime, and books that are recommended by people I know. I’m thrilled to have found outstanding writers unfamiliar to me until recently.

As an art historian, who would you say is an under-appreciated artist? What should we know about her or him?


Contemporary? Ha! I started as a medievalist, and never looked past 1900. But I think Andrew Wyeth has always gotten a bad rap for being kitschy and simplistic. I disagree, because I’ve always found his paintings evocative. The Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, is probably the single museum I have visited most, in this country or any other. And, yes, the man is still alive and painting (would you believe I wrote him a fan letter when I was sixteen—and he answered it?).

That's wonderful! What a treasure. Did you ever read The Heidi Chronicles, the play by Wendy Wasserstein about an art historian?

I don’t think so, but I loved her Uncommon Women and Others because it captured my college experience. Actually I find art historians rather effete and self-absorbed these days. Maybe they always were. I can still talk the talk if you stick me in front of a painting in a museum.

What are Sheila Connolly and Sarah Atwell planning for the rest of 2008?
Writing, of course. Editing. Promoting (that part they don’t tell you about when you’re trying to find an agent and/or an editor). I’m going to Bouchercon for the first time this year, and New England CrimeBake. If I won the lottery I’d take off for a couple of weeks in Ireland.

Thanks so much for talking with me.

Thank you for inviting me. Great questions!

2 comments:

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Interesting and thoughtful questions..and terrific answers! I'll never figure out how Sheila juggles it all...and succeeds so brilliantly! Great post.

see you both soon..

Julia Buckley said...

Thank you, Hank!

Yes, maintaining two series does not seem to be a task for the faint hearted. :)