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Lowcountry Mysteries

 

An Interview with Kathryn R. Wall

 

by Joyce Dixon

 
 

In Bay Tanner, Kathryn Wall has created a character is so vivid and full of spirit that she stays in the reader's mind well after the book is closed.  Add to that her southern menagerie solving mysteries ranging from land schemes to Civil War treasure, and you have a mystery series with staying power.

That is something publishers recognized.  Wall self-published In for a Penny, the first Bay Tanner mystery.  Local sales were strong enough to attract the attention of Coastal Villages Press, which reissued book one of the series and published book two, And Not a Penny More.  St. Martin's Press is releasing Perdition House, book three of the series and will publish book four in 2004.   

Kathryn Wall was an accountant for twenty-five years in Ohio before retiring with her husband to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

 

You have only lived in the Lowcountry for almost a decade, yet you capture the locale like a native.  What characteristics of the Lowcountry stand out to you?

Since the first day I set foot in Beaufort County, South Carolina, I've been captivated by the natural beauty of the Lowcountry.  The word that springs immediately to mind is 'lush.'  My husband and I live on a tidal marsh bordering Broad Creek, and most days our backyard could qualify as a bird sanctuary.  Despite the development, there are still hundreds of pockets of tranquility such as ours to be found all over the area.  I come from the Midwest where the land can best be described as harsh a good part of the year.  To be surrounded by this green abundance almost constantly is truly a joy for us.  Perhaps I'm so attuned to it because I'm an outsider.

Your grasp of southern family dynamics is strong.  What makes the southern family structure unique? 

As an outside observer, I'd have to say the multigenerational nature of Southern families is what makes them unique.  It harkens back to a day when older relatives routinely made their homes with the younger folks.  Southern families seem to stay geographically closer than their Northern counterparts.  I also think the reverence paid to one's antecedents is more prevalent here.  While some may see this as simply the remnants of an antiquated and discredited system, I believe it represents the bedrock of the Southern family, and I have observed this phenomenon at all socio-economic levels.

One of the things that struck me whenever I visited the 'real' South, was the question I was asked upon being introduced to someone for the first time.  Up North, the first question is usually, "What do you do?"  Here, especially for a woman, it is more frequently, "Who were you?" or "Who are your people?"  I think that says a lot about our different priorities.

General Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina plays a part in Perdition House.  How strong are the feelings to that event in your area?  Did you travel the route for your research? 

Because Hilton Head Island, where I live, is comprised mostly of carpetbaggers like myself, there is no strong feeling about Sherman, although I did talk to a few locals who are still of the belief that old William Tecumseh was the Devil incarnate.  In other parts of the country, the consensus has been that his tactics, however reprehensible to some, contributed greatly toward shortening the Civil War and thus saving countless lives. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess.

My husband and I did a lot of traveling up and down the Savannah River trying to locate the spot where Sherman's troops crossed into South Carolina on their sweep toward Columbia.  We did eventually manage to find Sisters Ferry, where my reference books on Sherman place the event, but not without a lot of false turns and backtracking.  I suppose it's understandable that there isn't much in the way of commemoration of these events in SC and Georgia.  But we had a wonderful time exploring a part of the area we were unfamiliar with.  We also did a lot of research in the Upstate and in the Lake Hartwell area for other parts of the book.

In the three books, Bay Tanner transforms from a reclusive widow to an adventurous investigator.  She has also formed a motley crew for her team.  How did the idea of Bay starting a team rather than working alone transpire?  

One of the joys to me of writing and reading a series is watching the evolution of the principal characters, and I'm very pleased that you were able to detect Bay's transformation.  I didn't have a team in mind when I began In For a Penny.  But as the books evolved, I found I wanted her to reestablish her relationship with her father, and working together seemed like the right solution for them.  In addition, I have to admit to having become seriously enamored of the Erik Whiteside character, and I didn't want him to disappear at the conclusion of And Not a Penny More.  In appearance and temperament he's very like one of my nephews, so that was an added incentive to keep him around.  I also don't think it's believable for a lone investigator to possess all the skills needed in this new world of sophisticated technology.  By giving Erik computer expertise, coupled with the Judge's accumulated knowledge of the area and its people and Red Tanner's affiliation with local law enforcement, I figured I could cover all the bases.

In for a Penny deals with land development in Beaufort County, SC.  How overwhelmed are locals to the mass of development sites on the coastal islands?

My husband and I bought our first piece of property on Hilton Head in 1984 and visited regularly until 1994 when we moved here permanently.  The changes in those 19 years have been little short of phenomenal.  The collective feeling of those of us who are already here is that we should roll up the bridges and not let anyone else in!

A lot of effort has been made to keep the ambiance and character of the island intact, but it's an impossible task with the annual influx of tourists who require not only beds and food, but dozens of other services as well.  I think the best we can do is to continue to work hard at limiting the scope and sprawl of development.  But most of us recognize that we live in a highly desirable area and that growth and change are inevitable.

Where is the antebellum home on the cover of Perdition House?  Do you know its history?

I have no idea where the photograph or its subject came from.  The art department of St. Martin's Press chose the image, as well as the title for Perdition House.  It's one of the tradeoffs when you sign with a big New York publisher that all these decision are made by them.  I had a certain level of input, but the final call was theirs.

Each of your books has had an example of the elderly in danger or taken advantage of.  Is there an element of loneliness that puts them in peril or open to abuse?

I truly wasn't aware of this as a theme of my books, but now that you point it out, I realize you're absolutely right.  My own mother, who passed away at the age of 87, had been a widow for nearly forty years.  She was fiercely independent and lived alone up to the time of her death, so I don't really have any family-specific incidents that I drew upon.

But unfortunately abuse and neglect of the elderly is an unacknowledged problem in our society.  As life spans lengthen, I'm afraid the practice will only escalate.  I have a profound respect for the largely ignored wisdom of our elders, and I feel strongly about the obligation of all of us to protect the weaker among us, be they seniors, children, or animals.  I suppose it's inevitable that those feelings find their way into my characters and plots.

The Judge and Bay play a game using quotes.  Is this something you do?  Do you collect quotes? 

The quotation game is something my own father and I used to play.  He'd use a piece of cardboard, usually the ones that came back from the laundry with his dress shirts, and pencil in the start of a quotation.  He'd leave this propped up on my dresser when he left for work in the morning, and I was expected to find the answer by the time he got home.  I wasn't nearly as good at it as Bay is, but then she has me and the Internet to do the research for her!

Bay is a chain smoker and the discussion of her habit goes throughout the series.  In light of current anti-smoking trends, is Bay's love of a good drag due to:  A tribute to film noir private detectives?  Tobacco land blowing smoke at anti-smoking groups?  To show that Bay is not perfect and nicotine is the drug of choice?  Or did you have an overflowing ashtrays as you wrote and it naturally got into the novel?

Actually, C and D above.  When I began the series, I smoked. When I read, I get really aggravated with 'perfect' characters, so I wanted to be certain Bay had a believable flaw.  Since smoking was mine, I decided it was something I could do realistically.  I also knew I needed to quit, so I thought I could make that personal struggle Bay's as well.  She seems so in control of everything most of the time, I wanted her to have something over which she had none.  By book four we have both kicked the habit.

I've taken a lot of hits from people about her smoking.  I try to take it in stride and put it down to the climate of the times.  I frequently ask those who mention it, if I get any points because Bay doesn't drink, but I guess that's a whole other issue.  I hope I haven't glamorized smoking.  That certainly wasn't my intent.  But it is a fact of modern life, and so is people's aversion to it.

And Lord knows I've tried to get the Judge to give up his cigars, but so far he's still ignoring me!

Describe the support you have gotten from your local writing group and Sisters in Crime.

The Island Writers' Network, which I helped found about 3 1/2 years ago, has given me and all our other members tremendous support.  We meet twice a month.  We have speakers in the field, exchange publishing and marketing tips, and generally encourage each other at whatever level of the writing/publishing process we find ourselves.  We also sponsor an open-mike night each month where writers with work in progress can share excerpts and get feedback from those in attendance.

I also belong to a critique group, which has been operating for about 4 years now, although a couple of the members have changed.  There are now three of us, and we meet every other week to exchange 10-20 pages of our current project for editing and critiquing.  I strongly advise beginning writers to find such a group.  The input of other writers whom you admire and trust is one of the most valuable tools available.

As for national organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, I've found them to be most helpful in the macro areas of marketing and promotion.  There is no local chapter of either group close by, so most of my contact with them is on the Internet through their respective message boards and listservs, and through their monthly newsletters.  They provide an opportunity to network with writers and readers from all over the country from the comfort of your own desk.  As an example of the exposure they can offer an author, I'll be participating along with several other of my Sisters in Crime at the Southeastern Booksellers Association Trade Show on Jekyll Island, Georgia, this fall.  Without the entree of the national group, I'd never be able to afford this wonderful opportunity to meet those who actually sell my books. 

What has the experience of going from a small publisher to a New York house been like? 

The biggest difference has been the abdication of control over almost every phase of the process.  I self-pubbed the first edition of In For a Penny with iUniverse.com, then had the great good fortune to attract the interest of George Trask of Coastal Villages Press.  He reissued In For a Penny and also brought out its sequel, And Not a Penny More.  In both cases, I had tremendous input on all aspects of the titles, covers, marketing plans, etc.

With St. Martin's Press and Perdition House, they have an entire staff that does nothing but design covers.  Their sales and marketing departments have enormous influence on the selection of a cover image as well as a title.  Their goal is to maximize the opportunity to generate sales, and it's hard to argue with that!  Giving up control in these areas was difficult for an unregenerate obsessive-compulsive like me, but I realize that St. Martin's Press has been doing this successfully for a hundred years, so I have (almost) graciously deferred to their combined wisdom.

I've also had to adjust to doing business from a distance.  I have never met my editor or publicist in person.  Everything has been done either by phone or e-mail.  The experience has been universally positive, but I'm used to dealing with people face-to-face.  I hope one day to meet Linda McFall, my editor, and thank her in person for a wonderful opportunity she and St. Martin's have afforded me.

All in all, I'd have to say it's been a positive experience.  While each level I've been a part of -- self-publishing, small press, and major New York publisher -- has its plusses and minuses, each has taught me a great deal about this strange business, and each step was necessary to get me to the place I'm in right now.  I wouldn't trade any of it.

What can we expect in Bay’s next adventure?

Book number 4 (untitled as of this moment) is complete and in the editing process.  I have to submit it to St. Martin's Press by August 1.  If all goes according to plan, it should be released about this time in 2004.  The action of this installment revolves around Charleston and the small islands off the coast of Beaufort, and again involves a deadly incident from the past, although this one is more recent than the Civil War.  There are some surprising revelations about one of the principal characters, and a couple of old friends from previous books make an appearance.


Books by Kathryn R. Wall

 
 
Perdition House
A Bay Tanner Mystery
St. Martin Minotaur, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (354 pages)
ISBN: 0-312-31385-3

     Southern Scribe Review

 

 
And Not a Penny More
A Bay Tanner Mystery
Coastal Villages Press, 2002
Trade paper, $14.95 ( 307 pages)
ISBN: 1-882943-12-0

     Southern Scribe Review

 

 

 
In for a Penny
A Bay Tanner Mystery
Coastal Villages Press, 2001
Trade paper, $14.95 (285 pages)
ISBN: 1-882943-13-9

     Southern Scribe Review

 

 

Sites of Interest

Kathryn R. Wall web site

St. Martin's Minotaur

Coastal Villeges Press

Sherman's Revenge (the march through South Carolina)

 

© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved