Sunday, July 09, 2006

INTERVIEW: Vicki Lane and the Elizabeth Goodweather Mysteries

Vicki Lane escaped crowded Florida and found peace--and literary inspiration--in the wild North Carolina mountains. Let's chat with her about this place and her literary creation, Elizabeth Goodweather.

You were once a Florida teacher, but in 1975 you moved to the mountains of North Carolina and, as your website tells me, learned “to milk cows, churn butter, plow with mules, butcher pigs, raise tobacco and beef cattle, as well as the hundreds of other minutiae of a farm life that had changed little in a hundred years.”

So my first question, Vicki. Slaughtering pigs: is it as horrible as I imagine?

Not really. My husband would kill the hog very quickly with a bullet to the brain. That was the hardest part. After the pig was dead, which was pretty immediate, it was just a matter of disassembly. Very messy, to be sure, but fascinating, pulling all those insides out and seeing how exquisitely the inner workings are arranged. Pig-killing’s a two day job, best done in freezing weather. The first day the pig is cut into large sections – hams, shoulders, sides -- and left to chill or even half-freeze in the barn. The next day the action moves to the kitchen: cutting the pieces into slices and chops and cubes and ribs, grinding odd bits into sausage, and wrapping it all for the freezer.

We no longer raise pigs, mainly because we no longer keep a milk cow. The pigs were fed partially on the excess milk and buttermilk – without the cow it’s not cost-effective.

You and Betty Webb have this in common: you have chickens that lay blue eggs. Is this an unusual coincidence?
I think that quite a few people who keep a family flock of chickens have a few Aurucanas just because the eggs are so pretty. And the fact that Martha Stewart has a flock and based a line of paints on the lovely soft pastels of the eggs probably didn’t hurt.

You talk about “falling in love” with the mountains of North Carolina, even though it was a rough place and you had a little baby when you moved there. What was it that captured your imagination and your heart?
We left behind the suburban sprawl, the heat, the crowded highways, and the diminishing water table of Florida to step into the cool green world of the mountains, where traffic was so sparse that you’d often see two pick-ups stopped in the middle of the road, the drivers having a leisurely chat. The farm we bought has twenty-some springs that supply the best-tasting water in the world. And the people! It was another culture – at first we could hardly understand the language. But our neighbors were friendly, generous, helpful, and quietly amused at our attempts to learn the skills they’d had since childhood. They were so incredibly interesting to me that they keep showing up in my books.

Let’s talk about your mystery novels and your heroine, Elizabeth Goodweather. First, how did you arrive at her name? It sounds Native American.
I think it’s English--at least, in my mind it is, not that it matters. I liked the sound of it and it hints (again in my mind) at Elizabeth’s generally optimistic and open-minded nature. I chose Elizabeth because it’s a name with so many nicknames. Elizabeth’s husband called her Liz, her neighbors call her Lizzie Beth, etc.

Does Elizabeth Goodweather feel the same way about that mountain scenery as you do?
Oh, yes indeed. And my editor encourages me to describe in detail so I do. It’s easy, when all I have to do is look out the window – Elizabeth’s farm is based on our farm, though she has fewer weeds.

Why did you choose mystery over some other genre?
I chose to write mystery because it was a genre I had read for years and I liked the idea that it gave me something of a structure: someone dies; now we have to find out who done it. I also thought that as a total newcomer, I might have a better chance in interesting an agent (and a publisher) in a potential series rather than a standalone.

Tell us about Signs in the Blood and Art’s Blood. Is blood a recurring theme in the books?
I’ve been surprised at how many people seem to think my books must be gory -- they’re not, though bad things do happen. I’ll be getting away from the b-word in book three. That one is tentatively titled Old Wounds.

Signs in the Blood has a great deal to do with the Signs-Following Holiness churches – the folks who handle poisonous snakes or drink poison as a part of the church service. When I was reading about these churches, I came across that phrase ‘signs in the blood’ and jotted it down, thinking it sounded like a good title for a murder mystery. Unfortunately, I can’t remember and have been unable to find out what it means.

Art’s Blood was just a working title, a lame little pun since the book has to do with art. But my editor liked it and I couldn’t come up with an alternative.

The Elizabeth Goodweather series centers around a fifty-something widow who runs a farm specializing in herbs and edible and dried flowers. The Appalachian setting is very important – these are definitely regional mysteries. And though there’s a lot about food and gardens and even quilts, these are not cozies. They are dark-edged psychological suspense and sometimes bad things happen to good people. In each book there is an intertwined sub-plot that takes place in the past – 1901 in the first book, 1934 in the second. And in every book I’m trying to celebrate the Appalachian culture as I have seen it. There are so many great stories in these mountains.

Like my mother, you are a quilter. Mom can’t go too long without starting a new quilt; it’s almost an addiction. Do you feel that way? Are you working on a quilt now, or does your writing take all your time?
Yep, as I was finishing up book three, I was visualizing the quilt I wanted to start. I don’t make as many quilts now but I am in the planning stages of one at the moment. The writing takes a lot of my time--and there’s the garden too that demands a lot of attention.

Your first book was about quilting. How did this come about?

In the rural mountain area where I live there are quite a few other transplants, back-to-the-land hippies, or whatever you want to call us. About thirty years ago we began to make baby quilts, wedding quilts, friendship quilts etc. for each other. The quilts were always group efforts and always were kept a secret from the recipient(s) till the big presentation potluck party. After about 25 years of this we had made almost fifty quilts and we got them all together for a show at the Folk Art Center in Asheville. It was pretty impressive and various people said there should be a book about the quilts.

A friend and I decided to try. We outlined our plan for the book, wrote the first few chapters, and showed it to another friend, who just happened to own Lark Books – a well-known publisher of craft books. “This is better than I thought it would be,” he said and ended up selling the proposal to Crafters Choice Book Club. It’s actually quite gorgeous and is still in print: Community Quilts by Karol Kavaya and Vicki Skemp (my married name).

What are your current writing projects?

I’ve just sent my editor the manuscript for book three, Old Wounds. As soon as she tells me what’s wrong with it and I fix it to our mutual satisfaction, it’s on to book four in the series. My contract says book four’s due next June. And that’ll pretty much keep me occupied. I don’t know how people write more than one book a year.

How can people find out more about the Elizabeth Goodweather books?

Visit my website or your local library or bookstore.

<I saw on your website that you and I, too, have something in common: we like reading P.G. Wodehouse. Do you have a favorite Wodehouse character or book?
Oh my goodness, how can one choose? I could be greedy and say my favorite book is The World of Jeeves which contains most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. And Jeeves is probably my favorite character. But then there’s Ukridge, who always gives a false name “purely a business precaution, laddie.” And the Earl of Emsworth and his pig the Duchess of Blandings, and Aunt Dahlia---they’re my favorites too.

Will your fans see you at Bouchercon?
Absolutely! I’m looking forward to it!

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