MLC: Do you remember the first mystery you ever read? If so, what was it, and what pulled you into it?
AUTHOR: The first mystery was a Nancy Drew, which one I don’t remember. I think it was the suspense, plus the scariness of the setting that pulled me in. I’ve always liked atmospheric settings. Castles, secret rooms, hidden staircases
-- they still speak to me if they’re done well. Who can forget Manderlay in
Rebecca? I’m a sucker for codes too.
I live in the country in northwestern Ohio, and it wasn’t until I was nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Alan Poe Award in 2001 that I realized that the woman who’d written the vast majority of the Nancy Drews, under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, had lived quite close to me for years and was still writing for the local paper at ninety-something. She was being given a special award by MWA, and I thought, “Geez, I had no idea! I wish I’d gotten to know her.” There was a locally made documentary on her, too, that I saw when I got home. I think she died not too long after that. She flew her own plane and had all kinds of other unexpected hobbies and didn’t seem to harbor any resentment for having made next to nothing on all those Nancy Drews.
MLC: When did you first decide you wanted to write a mystery, and what led you to that decision?
AUTHOR: The first mystery I wrote, after grinding out limp stories for years, was written in fifth grade as a play entitled,
The Mystery Of The White Buddha, because I had a really creative teacher who got us all writing. She then actually produced that play, which taught us all how plays got put on. Good teachers make a difference.
A more adult era answer to your question is that in 1973 I asked a university archivist I knew, who was a WWII generation type, what he did in the war -- and got a jive answer. “Materials evaluation.” Being the way I am, I pursued the matter tirelessly, and he eventually told me he’d been a behind the lines scout in Europe in WWII who’d worked for Army Intelligence. He’d never had his own “band of brothers" but had been sent to whatever army needed a Ranger trained scout at any given moment.
As we talked, I told him, “If I ever write a mystery series, you’re the character for me. A man of intellect, who’s a man of action. Someone who came back badly wounded and made an entirely different life for himself.”
I wrote two literary-ish novels that got serious attention from NY editors, but no contracts. And then I took the advice of Robert Giroux, one of the founders of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who was kind enough to write me a real letter after I submitted my first book (which, believe it or not, was a stream of consciousness blank verse monologue). He told me I was definitely a writer, with a real voice of my own, but I had to find a way to write about what I wanted to talk about to appeal to a commercial market. That literary fiction was a daily shrinking market and that publishers can’t print books just because they like them. There has to be a viable audience who likes what they publish. Which hadn’t yet occurred to Sally Wright. How’s that for incredibly dense?
That’s when I decided to write the first Ben Reese based on the character of the real life archivist/scout. I wanted to place the books in the early 1960s when a WWII soldier would be in his late 30s. I made him a widower, because my worst dream is that my husband will die before me, and watching Ben Reese go through it might be useful to others as well as myself. It also provides an opportunity for Ben to meet other women, which becomes more important as the books go on. I’d like to write a seventh Ben Reese, because I do have plans for Ben in that arena I’d like to see worked out.
An archivist in a university deals with pieces of history -- rare books, letters and diaries, paintings, sculptures, ancient coins, nature illustrations, jewelry, etc. -- real concrete examples of earlier ages and customs, and the minds and talents of the people who made them. It’s history in particular, rather than analysis and opinions regarding politics and warfare in earlier times and places.
The breadth of a generalist archivist’s knowledge is awe inspiring, and it provided an opportunity to have each book deal with different areas of history and art and science, and to place the books in different locations. Ben would have sabbaticals when he could travel to do his own work, and also work with donors in different settings on the materials they were donating, or needed his help with. I did not want to get stuck in one location, with one set of characters. I wanted to be free to give readers new experiences, new things to learn, new historical contexts to read about.
MLC: Do you write in any other genres? If so, which ones?
AUTHOR: Several biography articles have been published in national magazines. My only short story is on my Web site. An essay on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Nine Tailors was published in the anthology, Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers. Three essays on mystery writing have been published in Mystery Readers Journal.
MLC: Which comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
AUTHOR: Ben Reese came first, as I said before, which set up the whole series. Other than that there’s no overarching pattern. Except that questions usually set things in motion.
For the first book, Publish And Perish, with Ben in academia, I asked “What would cause someone to commit murder in a college?” The answer to that was ego and reputation, and it was a fun book to write.
Pride And Predator got started because I was standing on Holy Island off the coast of England with the ruins of a Benedictine Priory behind me, and a tiny castle in front of me a mile away with nothing but grass and sheep and sea birds in between. I asked myself, “How could you have someone here alone and murder him?” Half a second later I seemed to see a tall man in three piece tweeds walking alone toward the castle carrying a picnic basket. The book became the answer to that question. In my own small way, it’s a little like C.S. Lewis starting The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe because he’d had a picture in his mind of a fawn carrying a parcel standing under a streetlight. I can’t write without pictures in my head, and fortunately I have plenty.
All the artifacts that Ben touches have back stories, too, and the 1960s plots of the novels sometimes grow from those. Places often drive the stories, as I described with Pride And Predator. The plot of Pursuit And Persuasion came from a trip I made,too, this one to Burford, England, when our daughter was studying at Oxford and she and I were being tourists. In the floor of the Burford church I found a tombstone that read:
Here lieth the body of John Pryor, gent: who was murdered and found
hidden in the priory garden in this parish the 3rd d. of April anno
dominie 1697 and was buried the 6th day of the same month in the
67th year of his age.
Out Of The Ruins came from character and place. A friend told me about a wonderful woman who was bedridden with MS, and I spent a lot of time interviewing her, knowing I wanted to write about someone who dealt with a debilitating illness as well as she did.
I also knew already I wanted to write about Cumberland Island (the last privately owned Sea Island off the coast of Georgia) that belonged to the Carnegies and was being fought over by developers and the Federal Government, which was threatening to condemn the land and take it for the National Seashore. The Carnegie owners didn’t want thousands of people trampling over the last wild Georgia Sea Island, and the issue of private property rights seemed to be worth writing about. As it happened, the government took most of the island; the Carnegies got to keep some.
Watches Of The Night got started because I became interested in the scientific technical teams the Allies sent into German held territory during and after WWII to search for Nazi science. I realized I could have Ben Reese take that kind of team behind the German lines. That would give me a chance to do a few direct scenes from WWII and show how the real Ben Reese was wounded and saved, which is a story well worth telling. I’d also painted myself into a corner at the end of Ruins. I’d set up a very unexpected ending that meant I had to deal with it in the next book. I liked having to do that, too. The ending surprised me completely. And the question that drove the next book was, “What can I do with that?”
Code Of Silence got written because once I read about the real life Soviet Venona Code, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Venona only became a matter of public knowledge because two American historians working in the just opened KBG archives in Russia in 1991 found the KGB sides of 3000 encrypted messages to more than 300 Soviet spies in the US during the 30s and 40s. The historians wrote an article about it here that led the NSA to reveal what the US and Britain had decrypted of those messages, starting in 1946. The more I learned, the more I wanted to write about it, partly because of who some of those spies were, where they worked in the US government, and how decisions they made changed the world during, and after, WWII. The Venona decryptions alter a lot of commonly accepted perceptions about the Cold War.
I wrote Code Of Silence as a prequel to the whole Ben Reese series, showing the wife Ben had mourned in the previous books. I also brought back one of my favorite characters from Publish, too, which was fun for me.
Here lieth the body of John Pryor, gent: who was murdered and found hidden in the priory garden in this parish the 3rd d. of April anno dominie 1697 and was buried the 6th day of the same month in the 67th year of his age.
MLC: When you are all wrapped up in the story, do you feel like you could solve the crime, or maybe even solve all the world’s mysteries?
AUTHOR: I know I can’t solve the world’s mysteries. At the risk of taking on one of life’s great questions in a few short sentences, I would say that one of the great fallacies of the 20th century is that many were deluded into thinking
-- during the bloodiest hundred years in history -- that mankind is somehow perfectible and serious progress is being made.
I would argue that the lessons of history are very different. That human character can’t be counted on, and we aren’t perfectible here -- individuals, or society. That’s not to say that good doesn’t triumph over evil -- in the short term, and the long -- more effectively than we may sometimes think.
When I’m writing my novels I feel like I’m right in there with my characters, yes -- inside their heads and their souls. I probably mouth their words as I read the screen, and I bet my face changes expression depending on what’s going on. I sometimes catch a dog of ours watching me like I’m acting very peculiar while I type. But sometime in the late afternoon I get to go brush a horse (or ride if I’m lucky), or walk with a dog, or read a book, before I make dinner for my husband. I can live in parallel universes -- the fictional and the real. But then all writers do, which may be much of the appeal.
MLC: Do you write every day, or what kind of a schedule do you have? Do you write fulltime, or do you have a “day job”?
AUTHOR: I write full-time, five days a week. It ends up being more like seven days a week when I’m doing revisions for an editor.
MLC: Other than your writing, what do you enjoy doing? What is the most important thing to you in your day-to-day life?
AUTHOR: I love living in the country, having animals around us, being able to look out at sky and trees and space instead of buildings and crowds. I love traveling, and riding horses, and raising dogs. (Though my riding has been seriously curtailed. I got thrown and hurt in January, and I’m still trying to recover. I have friends with horses, fortunately, so I can go visit theirs if I give up my mare.) I like to cook and garden, and walk around the fields with a boxer running laps around me. I love to write and am very fortunate to be able to, without having a day job. I love having good friends who make me think about new things
-- friends we care about, who care about us, too, when we’re going through the difficult stuff we all face sometime.
Still, my husband and kids are the most important part of my day-to-day life, except for the faith we share, from our own particular angles, which puts the rest in perspective. The stress, the sickness, the dreaded duties, the others we have to care for get provided routinely, giving us what we need to grow up, which is even more than perspective.
MLC: Who are your favorite mystery authors? Do you try to emulate them in your own writing?
AUTHOR: I love the traditional English mystery writers
-- Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Marjery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, too, though she didn’t write typical mysteries.
Of those writing today, I most admire P.D. James. She’s a really fine writer whose way with language, setting and character is elegant and thought provoking. She writes stimulating novels that remain realistic mysteries. I much admire the book, The Meaning Of Night, too, which could be called a mystery, though it’s more a Victorian novel in the scope and span of its concerns.
I don’t try to write like any of them, except in the sense that I want to write a substantive novel that’s still very much a mystery. It has to be a book I would like myself if I were a disinterested reader. I suspect we all try to do that -- write what we really like. My novels are clearly a more realistic take on the earlier British tradition -- the tradition I like best -- rather than a gorier, grittier, grosser look at the horrors of modern urban life.
I have real respect for a lot of different types of writing. I read a lot of biography and non-fiction and history. I love the Dorothy Dunnett historical novels -- her Lymond Chronicles, and the Nicolo books. I’ve listened to lots of Patrick O’Brien novels in the car, and some of the Sharpe’s Rifles series. I’ve listened to three Michael Connelly books and enjoyed them. I loved Gilead. I still re-read Austen and Tolstoy and plenty of the other greats.
MLC: In your present book, is this part of a series, or is it a standalone book?
AUTHOR: All my published books are part of the Ben Reese series. The prequel, Code Of Silence, is the most recent.
MLC: If you are doing a series, do you see an end to it sometime, or do you plan to go on for several years with it?
AUTHOR: I’d really like to do one more Ben Reese, but I’m working on something else at the moment.
MLC: Do your characters ever drive you a bit crazy by going off in their own direction? If so, how do you rein them in, or do you just let them run off on their own?
AUTHOR: They don’t drive me crazy if they go off on their own. But then they typically don’t go too far off. They seem to stay within the confines of their own personalities and perceptions, though, as with all of us, surprises do happen. When they pull off something unexpected, it generally means they’ve had a good idea I should happily humor.
MLC: Do you pattern your sleuths after yourself or someone you know? If so, do you let that person know they were your “pattern”?
AUTHOR: As I said earlier, Ben Reese is based on a real life ex-WWII Ranger trained scout who was severely wounded in the war and went on to become an archivist.
Not only have I told him Ben’s patterned after him, he’s worked with me on all the books. He’s taught me a lot about archival work, and what it was like being a scout in Europe in WWII. He’d studiously avoided talking about the war, but after having done so with me, he tells me now it’s been good for him; it’s given him closure he wouldn’t have had otherwise, which makes me feel better about dragging him into it.
I have no real experience with fisticuffs, fortunately, and he’s helped me with every sort of physical confrontation, and much else as well. He always has ideas I wouldn’t have had.
Still, our kids would tell you Ben’s personality is much more like my husband’s than the real life archivist.
MLC: How long did it take you to get published? How many rejections did you have to suffer through first? Were you ever tempted to give up? What do you think made the difference when it was accepted?
AUTHOR: I’d had quite a few articles published, but it took me 17 years to get my first book in print. I wrote two non-mystery novels that have never been published and a non-fiction book that still ought to be. I need to do the revisions.
The number of rejections? Pretty much countless. I had promises of contracts that never materialized. I also did a month of revision on a novel I’d signed a contract for -- only to have the house decide not to publish fiction. They paid me for my time, however, so they did the right thing.
Was I ever tempted to give up? Not really. There was nothing else I wanted to do. I love to write and was intent on getting published. I felt like this was what I was intended to do, and I couldn’t let myself give up. Was I more frustrated and bummed-out than I can possibly express? Yes. Often.
The first Ben Reese was published because it got into the right hands at the right time. There is much we can’t control in life, and getting our books published is one of them -- if you don’t want to self-publish, which I really didn’t. We have to write the best book we know how to write and keep sending it out there. If it’s intended to happen, it will. If you’re really a writer, it will be published. Then a whole ‘nother set of obstacles that has to do with marketing arises, and you have to learn to deal with that.
There aren’t a lot of easy jobs in this world, and writing isn’t one of them. The fact that it is hard teaches us things we need to know. We need to want to write more than we want to get published. We need to care about the quality of what we do a lot more than fame or money.
MLC: Do you ever attend any conferences? If so, which ones?
AUTHOR: I typically go to Malice Domestic, Magna Cum Murder, Bouchercon (depending on where it is) and sometimes others. I often go to Mystery Lovers Festival in Pittsburgh as well.
MLC: Do you have to promote your own work, or does your publisher do that for you?
AUTHOR: When Joe Blades was my editor at Ballantine he understood the mystery market really well and did a lot to promote my books, which may have had something to do with
Pursuit And Persuasion becoming an Edgar Finalist. Ballantine got my books in the stores, which is invaluable, and would seem to be an obvious beginning to successful sales. Life is not always so clear-cut.
I generally have to do most of the marketing. Most writers do. Which came as a nasty surprise.
MLC: If you have to do marketing, what methods have worked the best for you?
AUTHOR: I wish I could say. That’s the trouble with doing your own marketing; number-based evaluations are hard to come by, except for what happens right in front of you. When you speak at a library you know how many books were sold.
I’ve hired two different PR firms in the past; one in NY, one elsewhere. They concentrated on different things. Was it better than having no PR firm? Yes.
Did it make a huge difference? Don’t know.
Niche marketing is worth pursuing; figuring out what special interest groups would be especially interested in what you’re writing and finding a way to reach them. With the Ben Reese books I’ve tried to reach archivists, in addition to the mystery market, concentrating, too, on code breaker/espionage types with Code Of Silence.
MLC: Do you have any idea how your book is selling?
AUTHOR: My first four books sold pretty well. Then my editors at both my trade paperback and mass market houses left those houses. Joe Blades retired altogether. The last two novels have been published by a British publisher. They specialize in libraries and on-line sales and don’t get books into bookstores, unless they’re special ordered, because they don’t want to deal with returns. They consequently publish a smaller print run. It’s harder to get reviewed in the big papers and magazines when you aren’t with a NY house, too, at least it seems so to me.
It’s also more difficult to do large numbers of signings in bookstores -- walk-in or scheduled -- the way you can when your books are already there. At least it’s certainly a much more time consuming process to talk the bookstores into buying the ones you lug in yourself.
As I understand it, the two new books are almost sold out. When they are, they’ll reprint based on orders.
MLC: What has been the best review you have gotten, and why?
AUTHOR: Over the years I’ve been very fortunate to have gotten good reviews from quite a few well-respected papers, magazines and journals. Perhaps the one that was the most in-depth and thought provoking came from an archivist writing for an archival journal in North Carolina. The impact on sales couldn’t have been great, but I enjoyed reading what she said because she knows what archivists do, and how they think, and appreciated the books.
Marilyn Stasio, the mystery reviewer at the New York Times Review of Books wrote: “There’s an art to the academic mystery, and Sally S. Wright has it pretty much mastered in her Ben Reese series.” That helped sell a few books.
MLC: Have you won any awards, either as an author or for your books? Please tell us about them.
AUTHOR: I was a Mystery Writers Of America Edgar Alan Poe Award Finalist in 2001 for Pursuit And Persuasion, as I mentioned before. I wrote about what being nominated was like in a disguised form in Watches Of The Night. I always feel strangely distanced in large groups of people, and all of us in the room were dancing on pins and needles, too, (which took varied and interesting forms), but it was a real honor I hadn’t expected, and a very interesting experience.
MLC: Is there any one certain thing that a reader has written to you that made you just want to jump up and shout “Yes!!!!”?
AUTHOR: There have been many times when someone has written to tell me they like a book that it’s meant a lot to me. There are things that are important to me that I want to say in my books, and when people write and say they have been moved by whatever that was, or that I made them think about something they hadn’t thought of, or they like Ben Reese or another character, or they really like the settings, it can’t help but make you feel more energized when you go back to work.
You’re pretty isolated, writing alone at home. What do you tell your family at the end of the day about what you did? “I wrestled with chapter 8 today.” That doesn’t mean much to anybody but you. The business side of writing can be a hassle, even though I feel very fortunate to be able to write to begin with. But when someone takes the time to say they appreciate what you’re doing, I, for one, am glad they did, especially if they like my favorite parts, which most people don’t notice.
MLC: What is your next project, and when will it be out?
AUTHOR: Having unexpectedly met an editor by an elevator, I’m working on a proposal for a book series she thinks I’m suited to write. We’ll see what comes of it.
MLC: If you could write anything at all, ignoring what editors and publishers say they want, what would it be?
AUTHOR: I’d write a novel, possibly two or three, about the trials and tribulations of an orphan, raised in an orphanage shortly after the turn of the 20th century, who wanted to be educated and start a business -- and did. He got himself through college in the Depression, married, worked all over the place, started a scientific business, and faced -- as his descendents do -- the stresses of a family business, which affects both the family and the business in strange and emotional ways. It’s an oft repeated saga of life in America that few novelists know much about. I was raised with a family business -- and I do intend to write about that sometime soon.
MLC: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring mystery authors?
AUTHOR: Write all the time. Don’t get paralyzed by putting it off. Care more about writing than getting published. Take the work seriously, but not yourself.
Dean Koontz said the seriously bit - and he’s entirely right.
MLC: Do you have any teasers for your readers and fans about the next book?
AUTHOR: If all goes well, horses and horse people in Lexington, Kentucky, will be a big part of the book. The back story will come from the in-fighting within the French Resistance during, and after, WWII.
MLC: If a genie suddenly appeared and said they would grant you just one wish for your books, what would you wish for?
AUTHOR: I’d like this new project to be accepted by the editor who’s interested, and have them give me enough money that I can go to France to do the research I need to do, and have them actually spend money promoting the book on a serious level when it’s done! Why? So somebody else can worry about marketing and I can stay home and write the next one, then show up where they tell me to and talk to whoever’s there.
MMLC: Please give us your website url and your email address where people can contact you.
MLC: Thank you so much for giving us a little glimpse into your books and your life. We look forward to a lot more books from you.