June Trop Interview: “I thought writing a good mystery would be the greatest challenge”

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This week I speak to June Trop about her Miriam bat Isaac Series, especially her fifth and latest book, The Deadliest Thief. She gives me a guided tour of her work and shares an exclusive piece written in the style of her protagonist.

Please talk me through your background and how you got into writing.

A transplant from New Jersey, I’ve lived in New Paltz, New York in the mid-Hudson Valley for more than thirty years. I began my professional life as a science teacher in New Jersey and moved to New Paltz when I married Paul R. Zuckerman. I taught biology at the local high school before earning a doctorate in science education from Columbia University Teachers College. Then I served as a professor of science teacher education at the State University of New York before retiring to write professionally in 2007.

When taking a course on the historical development of concepts in chemistry, I encountered Maria Hebrea, the first-century alchemist who, living in Alexandria, became the legendary founder of Western alchemy and held her place for 1500 years as the most celebrated woman of the Western World. Years later I would model my protagonist, Miriam bat Isaac, on her.

How about your protagonist, can you tell me something about her?

Actually, Miriam is right here and will tell you about herself as long as you swear by Alethia to keep her work a secret:

Times are dangerous here in Roman Alexandria. I am an alchemist, and while the goal of our league is to perfect human life—to heal, extend, and rejuvenate it—we also focus on base metals like copper and iron, to perfect them as well into gold. But that’s where we can get into trouble, big trouble. The emperor is afraid that by synthesizing gold, we will undermine his currency and overthrow the empire. And so, the practice of alchemy, even the possession of an alchemical document, is punishable by the summum supplicium, the most extreme punishment. Like the vilest of criminals, any suspect is summarily crucified, left to hang outside the city gates to serve as an appalling warning to others. And so, when an alchemical document was stolen from my home, I began to practice sleuthing. Now don’t forget: You must swear to keep my alchemical work a secret.

I live in the Jewish Quarter of Alexandria, on the coast and farthest from the main necropolis. So, we inhale the scent of the sea instead of the stench of the embalming workshops. If it’s exceptionally hot or I’m carrying valuables, my bearers take me in a sedan chair to the agora, our central marketplace. Otherwise I walk to the heart of our city, this cloaca of gossip, our venue for seeing and being seen, for hearing and being heard. Approaching the plaza, I feel its vigor filter into my arteries as haranguing hawkers and hucksters, orators and priests, soothsayers and astrologers, tricksters and swindlers, magicians and conjurers, snake charmers and peddlers, wizards and sorcerers promise me a miracle for a price.

But I used to have another reason for going to the agora, and that was to see Judah. I can still dream my way to that first encounter with him, that unexpected ache when I walked into his shop. He raised his lids to look at me and then squared his shoulders with a slow, deep, almost guttural intake of breath and an even slower exhale. That sensation of his nearness, close enough for our air to mingle and for his hand to brush against mine, would ignite my private fantasies.

Tell me about your latest book.

So far, I have written five books in the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series, all with three-word titles beginning with “The Deadliest…”.

In my latest book, The Deadliest Thief (Black Opal Books, 2019), the only surviving accomplice in a jewel heist vows to kill Miriam and her occasional deputy, the itinerant potbellied dwarf, Nathaniel ben Ruben. At the same time, a kidnapper seizes Miriam’s closest friend, Phoebe, and threatens to butcher her piece by piece. Miriam suspects the events are connected, but can she find her friend before it’s too late?

When Did You Discover Your Love Of Mysteries?

I became addicted to mysteries when, as an eight-year-old girl, I borrowed my first Nancy Drew mystery from a classmate.  Of course, I wanted to be Nancy Drew or at least be a detective just like her. Search as I might though I could find no secret passages, whispering walls, or unclaimed treasures. The only thing I could do was read more mysteries. When I’d read all the Nancy Drews, I graduated to Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately, with our ever-expanding genre, I’ve never run out of great mysteries to read.

So, What Was It That Made You Decide To Write Your Own Mysteries?

Aside from my own love of mysteries, I thought writing a good mystery would be the greatest challenge. Readers should have access to all the clues to solve the puzzle but, at the same time, be unable to do so. And then, the solution must satisfy. That is, readers should see that the author was fair. And finally, justice should triumph. The writing doesn’t get more challenging than that!

How Did You Turn That Idea Into A Book?

One source for plot ideas is the stories I’ve read or heard about but with a “what if” twist that would suit my characters and setting. Of course, that’s just the beginning of a plot idea. I keep a journal of them. Most of the storylines reach a dead end, but some come alive.

When I’ve fixed on a plot, I make a list of all the scenes to get from the beginning to the end and record the conflict that must occur in each scene to move the story forward. Then I create a subplot or two and insert those scenes where I want to leave the reader hanging for a while. This framework is what I use to flesh out each chapter. And, as a new idea emerges along the way, I insert that idea into the relevant scene or string of scenes.

Of course, that gets you only the first draft. But you really can’t know, really know your story until you’ve finished that first draft. Then the editing begins.

What Are Your Favorite Mystery Books To Read?

I have three: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block. I love Doyle’s stories for their atmosphere; Christie’s for their twists; and Block’s for his character Matthew Scudder, the noir streets of New York, and his dialogue. Block makes the written word sound like the spoken word. To me, these three mysteries are like chocolate ice cream. I never get tired of them.

Why Will Readers Enjoy The Deadliest Thief?

My books have won various awards, which include praise for their riveting suspense, their authentic portrayal of life in Roman Alexandria, and for bringing the reader right there. The Deadliest Thief in particular is a puzzle filled with action, a startling twist, and an array of distinctive characters that support Miriam in her pursuit of justice against the thrust of time. Although fifth in the series, The Deadliest Thief, like all the others, stands alone. You can enjoy any of them at any time. So, let Miriam take you into the underbelly of her splendid city to help solve her most baffling case yet.

Do You Have Any Advice For Other Writers?

These precepts guide me. I hope they can bring encouragement to others.

  1. Avoid comparing yourself to other writers. You have your own distinct voice and stories to tell.
  2. Accept your failures and learn from them. In fact, if you’re not getting rejected some of the time, then you’re not taking the chances you need to improve your craft.
  3. Be grateful you have this opportunity to express yourself.

Do You Have Anything To Add?

I welcome visits and comments.

Readers can learn more about The Deadliest Thief and the other books in the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series and watch the book trailers for each story on my website. I also post a weekly blog about life in Roman Alexandria on Facebook. My books are available in bookstores and online platforms. Readers can easily find them on Amazon. Most of the book trailers are on Youtube here.

Thanks for your time June, it’s been great hearing your thoughts!

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