Today’s guest author is Susan Van Kirk. The five words she uses to describe her writing are personal, funny, suspenseful, cozy/traditional, and engaging. She describes herself as practical, persistent, reader, overachiever, and history-lover. (Ed. note: I had to hyphenate history lover meet the five-word criteria and somehow come to the conclusion that cozy/traditional is one word. I’m thinking that although Susan was a schoolteacher for many years, perhaps it wasn’t math? J) Let’s find out more about her.
You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?
This is a tough, tough question because I can only have four. [Really, Jim? Only four?] Sigh. I was a high school teacher of American Literature, so two of my guests would come from that period of my life and the other two would be personal.
First would be Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). A resident of Massachusetts Bay Colony, she had a strong faith in God and love of her family. This included eight children (No kidding—she defied the high childbirth death percentages eight times.) And yet, despite the weariness of those long days without the luxuries we know, she wrote poetry, probably at night by the light of a candle. I admire her so much that I would love to share a meal with her.
Second would be Henry David Thoreau. He might not be a huge talker unless we got into a discussion of politics and moral values. I admire his Yankee stubbornness, his love of nature, and his confidence in what he believed to be right. It’s takes a lot of courage to stand against unjust laws, and I’d like to ask him about that. [Though I’m from the Midwest, I obviously love New England.]
My third guest would be my own mother. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I would like to talk with her because she died when I was only twenty-six, and she never got to see her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. I’d like to fill her in on how they have turned out. I know she would be proud of them.
Finally, the fourth guest is all about the restaurant. I’m not a huge world traveler, but my older son took me to Rome in 2011, and there we had the best meal I have ever had in my life. So this time I would take my son back, and we would eat at a lovely family-owned place, Ristorante Giovanni. What a treat that would be to return and taste that scrumptious food with all of these interesting guests.
[I love that answer, except for the fact Susan will apparently be waiting the table since she has already seated four people!]
Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?
My most productive venue is my home office. I call it “the office that Cliffs Notes built” because I wrote CNs a few times and, sadly, made so much more money than I did as a public school teacher. It funded my office addition. In the summer I can watch the day lilies in my garden and in the winter look out at the snow from my warm office with a cup of hot tea. It’s my most productive place because it’s away from the street, at the back of my house, and it’s very quiet. Occasionally, the neighbor’s children play in their fenced-in yard and it is pleasant to hear their laughter, reminding me of my own children. In this office, I have my laptop, printer, reference books, and a huge bulletin board that takes up a very long wall.
What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?
I used to be a morning person. No more. In fact, I wrote a blog about that here
Since I retired from teaching, I now have long, slow mornings and generally write after lunch. I accomplish various errands and social media early, and then I’m ready to write without concern.
How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?
My reading depends on the month and my deadlines. I read anywhere from three to six books a month. However, last month it took me a week to polish off Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree at 803 pages [and I did little else.] I often read mysteries whether I’m writing or not. My own books are marketed as cozies, but as they progress they are moving toward a traditional feel.
I love Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series and Charles Finch’s Charles Lenox series, the latest of which is The Laws of Murder. Besides mysteries, I love to read historical fiction, and recently I read Anne Perry’s five books about WWI, The Invention of Wings, and Dead Wake. Obviously, I need to find a way to combine mystery and history.
What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?
Themes in my mysteries: The strength of women and their relationships and support of each other; the comfort of living in a small town with its eccentric characters; the importance of having values you believe in and follow despite the opposition of others; and overcoming the past and its regrets.
How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?
My published book, Three May Keep a Secret, came from an event in my past. Years ago, a friend of mine was killed in a college fire. My main character, Grace Kimball, is a survivor of such a fire, but it has haunted her because her roommates died. In my first mystery, she must overcome her fears to save her life. The sequel, Marry in Haste, comes out next year, and more traditional than cozy, it tackles the psychological effects of domestic abuse—both in the present and in the late 1800s. I’ve witnessed domestic abuse with people I know and love, and I wanted to research it to understand it better. The 19th century part of the plot is influenced by my love of history.
What motivates your protagonist (if not a series, then use the protagonist of your most recent novel)? What influenced who they are today?
Grace Kimball is motivated by all the themes listed above. She just retired from teaching, but feels a strong loyalty to her former students and colleagues. In Three May Keep a Secret, a former colleague is murdered, and Grace finds herself in the middle of the murder investigation. In Marry in Haste, a former student is accused of murdering her abusive husband and Grace does not believe she could have done this.
Grace is a curious blend of two seemingly opposite qualities. She is a strong and forceful woman because she has endured the early death of her husband and raising three children on her own. On the other hand, she is also very naïve. She believes and looks for the best in others. That’s the only way she could have been an effective teacher. But she is often disappointed, and usually ends up in a bad situation because of this second quality. Much of the humor in my series comes from Grace’s encounters with former students in her town. The reader gets to hear what Grace remembers about their crazy adolescent years.
[Ever wonder what your former teachers think about when they encounter you?]
What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?
Most recently, someone told me to go to Malice Domestic. (I’d already had the good advice to join SinC and the Guppies group [Ed. note: Sisters in Crime and a chapter of SinC].) I really enjoyed MD, met a lot of authors I admire, learned a great deal about the business of writing, interviewed the wonderful Hallie Ephron [that interview will appear in the July newsletter, First Draft], and I plan to go again. This was great advice, and it came from my freelance editor, Lourdes Venard.
For more information about Susan and her books, check out her website at www.susanvankirk.com, catch me on my Facebook Author’s Page https://www.facebook.com/SusanVanKirkAuthor, on GoodReads, Pinterest (The Endurance Mysteries), and on Twitter https://twitter.com/susan_vankirk
Here's a quick blurb for Three May Keep a Secret
Grace Kimball, recently retired teacher in the small town of Endurance, Illinois, is haunted by a dark, past event, an experience so terrifying she has never been able to put it behind her.
When shoddy journalist, Brenda Norris, is murdered in a suspicious fire, Grace is hired by the newspaper editor, Jeff Maitlin, to fill in for Brenda, researching the town’s history. Unfortunately, that past hides dark secrets. When yet a second murder occurs, Grace’s friend, T.J. Sweeney, a homicide detective, races against time to find a killer. Even Grace’s life will be threatened by her worst nightmare.
Against a backdrop of the town’s 175th founder’s celebration, Grace and Jeff find an undeniable attraction for each other. But can she trust this mystery man with no past?