Alice Boatwright Interview: “I have loved mysteries ever since a librarian handed me a Happy Hollisters adventure”

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On Halloween weekend I catch up with mystery writer Alice Boatwright to learn more about her work and the extensive inspiration behind it.  

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards mystery novels?

I have always been drawn to clean prose with good, insight-provoking metaphors and wit, rather than jokes. Although I admire more complex and experimental styles (James Joyce, William H. Gass, and Mario Vargas Llosa come to mind), this is not “me.” I loved “the Russians” when I growing up, but I never aspired to be Dostoyevsky. Willa Cather would be nice. Other writers who influenced me early on were Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and I do think E.B. White’s Elements of Style is the only writing book that is essential. Master that, and you know everything. I am still working on it.

I have loved mysteries ever since a librarian handed me a Happy Hollisters adventure when I was about eight years old; and there is something irresistible about the idea of trying to write the kind of books you enjoy so much.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing professionally? 

My father was a musician and college professor, who began writing his first textbook when I was very young. I loved to go to sleep listening to the sound of his typewriter (an old Underwood that I still have). When this book was published, and he put the publisher’s special boxed edition on our mantel, I announced that he was not going to the only one in the family to publish a book. I began writing stories right away and studied writing all through college. I also have an MFA from Columbia.

Writing professionally turned out to mean something different than what I first imagined: a tenure-track teaching job and the bestseller list, of course. I have held a variety of jobs based on my writing skill, and I am very grateful for the amazing career I’ve had, which has taken me around the world. I have always written fiction too, but it is only recently that I have made an income from that.

Tell me about your books. How did you come to write them and what was the inspiration behind them?

My first book, Collateral Damage, had its origins in the thesis I wrote in graduate school. It slowly evolved into three linked novellas about the impact of the Vietnam War on those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. I grew up during this era, and the conflicts at home and abroad, the brave decisions, and tragedies of this war influenced me profoundly. I wanted to write this book “no matter what” – but it took a long time and finding a publisher was not easy. Eventually it came out, won an award, and has now been released in a new edition in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the war.

I turned to writing mysteries during the time I was seeking a publisher for Collateral Damage. Vietnam remains a difficult subject that many publishers would not touch, and I thought I ought to try writing a book on a subject people enjoyed reading about – murder! I also knew it would be fun for me to write. My husband and I are both long-time Anglophiles, as well as avid readers of English mysteries, so we used to make up plots as we explored the countryside. One of my ideas was to write about an American married to an English vicar, and I still have the notes I scribbled down about this. A few years later, we moved to a village in Oxfordshire – and I had the time and experience to develop that idea into the first Ellie Kent mystery, Under An English Heaven (Cozy Cat Press, 2014). The second book in the series, What Child Is This?, came out in 2017; and the third will be out in the coming year.

I am delighted to say that the Ellie Kent books have proven to be very popular. Ellie’s experiences as an incomer and her outsider perspective as an American – as well as the opportunities for a certain amount of nosiness as the vicar’s wife – give her reasons to get involved in solving crimes. The books also give me the chance to write about England, which I love, and explore questions such as the meaning of home, the value of faith, and the challenges of blended families. Under An English Heaven won the 2016 Mystery and Mayhem Grand Prize and the first two books have both been Amazon bestsellers, reaching #1 in the traditional detective mystery category.

I have also always written short stories – another form I love. This year I had the pleasure of collaborating with an artist friend on Sea, Sky, Islands, a chapbook of three stories set in the beautiful San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington. She provided the cover painting and interior illustrations, so it is really a very pretty little book. I love today’s freedom to create any kind of book you want. It’s so different from the age of “no”, when agents and publishers had the final say about what you could offer to readers.

When choosing books to read, what style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

I like books that have strong believable characters and whose stories – regardless of genre – are grounded in the real challenges of life. I like to be inspired by the writer’s fresh and skilful use of language as the medium for creating a world and experiences that entertain, inspire, and move me. There are many writers I admire, so I will just name a few recent ones – Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro, and Patrick Modiano. Amongst mystery writers, my go-to models are primarily from the Golden Age – Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie – but I love Georges Simenon and P.D. James too.

As a successful woman writer, what do you think the literary industry can do to provide more support for women looking to succeed?

Support for women writers begins with support for the idea that women and their ideas and experiences are as important and as autonomous as those of men. This requires a global effort to reverse centuries of tradition, law, and practice. Progress is variable, depending on where you are in the world. Of 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, 2/3 are women. So, the bottom line is education needs to be available to every girl and woman: these are potential writers and readers.

The next level of success is achieved if you actually write. The obstacles here are mainly in your own head. If you have a pencil and paper, you can write whatever you want. Making the time, having the interest and confidence to keep at it and develop your skills, believing in yourself: these are all challenges faced by every writer.

For training, if you have access to a library, you can educate yourself in every way from reading a wide variety of books to researching the business of writing and publishing. There are also many other options for learning from self-run writing groups and small workshops to degree programs. Today in the US, some 50% of graduate arts degrees are awarded to women. When I went to graduate school, there were 2 women and 13 men in my workshop.

I’m not sure the “industry” sees itself as responsible for cultivating women’s voices, but women demanding to read books by women certainly make a difference. From what I have read, men still predominantly prefer books by men (or are predominantly interested in the topics men tend to write about).

Sisters in Crime is an organization that was founded more than 30 years ago to address the disparity between men and women in getting published and reviewed, as well as bias in other areas, such as award programs and size of advances. Its programs supporting the professional development of women crime writers are well-respected, and it has been successful in raising these issues and documenting progress.

One indicator of success for women mystery writers is that the percentage of women on the NY Times bestseller list has risen from 15% in 1950 to 44% in 2010. But there are undoubtedly many challenges facing women writers as in other fields. The possibility of self-publishing has created new opportunities, but making a living from writing fiction is probably as hard as making a living from acting or painting or playing the violin.

If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

To be honest, I can’t imagine collaborating with anyone. The joy of writing fiction comes from being free to do whatever I want. It’s my show. I would be interested in being a fly-on-the-wall to watch Georges Simenon produce a beautifully written mystery in a weekend. Of course, he had a wife. That makes a difference.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?  

My primary focus is on finishing the third Ellie Kent mystery, which will come out in 2020. I also fiddle around with my stories and make notes when other book ideas come along.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward coming up?

My Puget Sound chapter of Sisters in Crime is very prolific, so I have a stack of books I am looking forward to reading by authors such as Marty Wingate, Candace Robb, Ingrid Thoft, Curt Colbert, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Jeffrey D. Briggs. It’s very special to follow the progress of writers you know, because you know both the book and all that went into making it happen.

Do You Have Any Final Words Of Advice?

If you want to be a writer, keep writing, no matter what, and never give up on a story you want to tell until you get it right and get it out!

Huge thanks to Alice for answering my questions, it’s been a pleasure to hear your thoughts. You can learn more about Alice’s work HERE.

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