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Donna Fletcher Crow

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Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

Fay Sampson

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Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick. http://www.faysampson.co.uk

Sally Wright Talks in Depth about Behind the Bonehouse

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ May 10, 2016

 Sally Wright's wonderful new novel Behind the Bonehouse launches today. In celebration of this publishing event I am privileged to share Sally's story with my readers. Such an in-depth interview is unusual for this very private author and such a lengthy post is unusual for this blog, but I believe you'll agree the content is worth it for its insight into a writer's life and to add extra meaning to your reading of this exceptional novel.

Building a Bonehouse

Right after I’d finished writing Breeding Ground in August 2013, and was about to begin a modest amount of promotional writing, my computer ate my files.

     I am a technological nitwit and any kerfuffle panics me, but I have a great IT guy who started out helping people like me, but now counts states, principalities and multinational businesses among his clients. He still comes to rescue me in the country, for coffee and quiet and an entertaining boxer dog, though that time he sent someone to cart off my hard drive and resurrect whatever files she could onto a new computer – which meant I couldn’t write blogs and do PR.

     Still, my husband and I were about to escape the Ohio heat for a week on a northern lake – and there I started fretting. It was beautiful, but it rained almost non-stop and that gave me entirely too much time to dwell on the unwelcome fact that I didn’t have the first idea for another book.

I spend most of my days writing, or revising, or doing character biographies (if I’m in the early stages of a new book), and like most writers, that’s what I like best. And since I’ve been walking around with a miraculously slow-growing metastatic-pancreatic-cancer, thinking about what I love has taken on a whole new appeal.

When you’re caught up with the people in your head and what you’re about to do to them you can’t worry about the real people you love, or whatever troubles you face. So the blankness in my brain after I’d finished the first Jo Grant mystery made me restless and uneasy, even on vacation. 

     When I was writing the Ben Reese books, before I started the Jo Grant mysteries, idea files cluttered my office. Ben had been a Ranger in WWII, who then worked as an archivist in a small private university in the early 1960s, where he identified and restored whatever donors had given his school for more than a hundred years: rare coins, ancient documents, letters, diaries, paintings and pots, tapestries and jewels from all over the world in almost every age. Today, archivists specialize. Then they couldn’t. And Ben Reese - and the real one I based him on - thrived on the variety.

     I took historical and fine art and archival magazines back then, but I especially remember one unexpected article in a Smithsonian about a dead letter post office that gave me the true-life premise behind part of Watches Of The Night. I never would’ve thought that a mailman, staring at a package marooned on a shelf behind him for years, one that had most of its label torn away, would end up being so curious and so determined to deliver it that he’d research the fragments left intact – the isolated letters in the city and the state, and what was left of the street name and the recipient – but he did, using his vacation, walking door to door in a distant town, after having narrowed the possibilities as well as Sherlock Holmes. He finally stood on a front porch and put that package into the hands of the person it had been sent to twenty years before.

So I imagined someone as dedicated as he, and then put something truly weird in the package, and mailed it from Europe during WWII to a grieving war widow, making sure it got lost enroute.

But the Jo Grant novels aren’t based on artifacts. They take place in the ‘60s like Ben’s books (and there’re still underpinnings from WWII, the OSS in Jo’s case), yet they’re set in the country outside Lexington, Kentucky where some of the world’s finest racehorses graze - surrounded by a whole lot more of their less accomplished relatives, and the incredibly broad- based rich-and-poor culture that thrives on Thoroughbred breeding.

They also come out of my long-time love of reading Dick Francis. It was his autobiography when I was thirty-five that made me finally learn to ride. My love of horses in general, and Kentucky in particular, made me come up with Jo Grant and her hands-on hard-working family and friends.

And there I was. Once I’d written Breeding Ground. Stuck without a clue about what to write next.

It helped that I really cared about the characters. They’re mostly involved in three horse related businesses, and I wanted to write about what they’d be up against after Breeding Ground: Jo Grant, an architect and co-owner of a broodmare care business with her Uncle Toss; her new husband, Alan Munro, a chemical engineer at an equine pharmaceutical business owned by an equine vet/pathologist; Spencer Franklin, Jo and Alan’s best friend, who worked for his dad, Booker Franklin, at a company that manufactures horse vans.

But where was the threat and the danger this time? Who was at risk and why? Who lived and who died and how would I hide what had really happened and lead experienced mystery readers strategically astray?

I lay in bed and stared out at the night – the lake straight ahead out the window, the moon shivering on the cold dark skin, fir trees swaying and shifting in the wind on both sides of the water – while my husband snored a contented sort of snore, and the logs in the big stone fireplace fell away to ash.

I kept running it through my mind - the emptiness and the lack of direction till I finally said, more or less silently, I don’t know where to start, Lord, so if you want me to write another book, you’ll have to give me an idea.

I fell asleep not too long thereafter, and when I woke the sun was up and the wind had dropped and the lake was smooth and shining. And then I found that my first coherent thoughts were memories of when my parents were still alive, and they were both driven, and dedicated, and endlessly fascinated by the crises and challenges and satisfying excitements of running their own business.

And, amazingly, the very first memory that actually surfaced in my sleep-addled brain turned out to be one that gave me the basis of a new Jo Grant.

My dad was a chemist (who, oddly enough, explained the science to Erle Stanley Gardner that enabled Gardner to write his Perry Mason mystery The Case Of The Drowning Duck, the artwork for which hangs on our bedroom wall). Dad was raised in an orphanage from 1912-’29, and he never would’ve imagined that he could go to college if it hadn’t been for a high school English teacher who helped him get a scholarship, his first winter coat, and a cut-down secondhand suit he could wear to college.

Dad started a business with my mom when I was four, when they couldn’t afford to rent a plant of their own and had to hire someone to manufacture Dad’s products. Unfortunately, when their signed contract was going back and forth in the mail this manufacturer removed several pages and substituted others that claimed my father had given him his formula in payment for manufacturing. This was before Xerox invented the first photocopier, and Dad hadn’t known to initial every page. So a lawyer who’d take stock instead of money had to be found, and a bank had to be persuaded to give them a loan my parents couldn’t begin to afford to buy back Dad’s invention.

But that’s not what I’ve used in the book. No. The trial they faced that I could fictionalize for Jo Grant happened fifteen years later. The psychology of it was fascinating - the self-seeking and the viciousness – and it could carry the plot – not with a business like my dad’s, but in the equine pharmaceutical firm where Alan directed the lab and the plant.

Almost as soon as I opened my eyes and saw my husband sitting by the fireplace answering business emails on his laptop, the storyline wandered into my head. I saw it as a gift from God, though I’m sure plenty of people wouldn’t. They’d see it as my unconscious mind giving me what I needed.

I also remembered watching John Updike on the Dick Cavett show in the mid-seventies, when he’d said that “The Great American Novel” will be about business. That entrepreneurs founded America - that ma and pa businesses are the driving force behind it today – and yet writers know nothing about them.

I’d been folding a stack of cloth diapers while Updike talked, and I’d thought, “Well, I know something about family business. I’ve glued labels on drums, cleaned glassware in the lab, and never eaten a dinner when we didn’t talk about the people and the problems and the opportunities and the delights of dealing with day-to-day business.

Which is not to say that there will be one Great American Novel, or that I’d be capable of writing it. But I can put my experience with business together with horses: with the broodmare business next door to our house; with riding my own horses for thirty years (till 2009 when the horse I shouldn’t have bought exploded underneath me, smashing my helmeted head against a wall and my body against the ground, doing enough damage that my D.O. told me now was the time to stop).

Which doesn’t mean I’ve gotten over my love of horses. I still dream about Max (the gelding I connected with most) several times a week, riding him usually, sometimes just talking to him in a paddock somewhere while I kiss his snoot. He was the one whose eye had to be removed (in real life, and in Watches Of The Night), who tried to do everything I asked, and took care of me too, the way I did him, for the seventeen years we worked at dressage. We ended each ride relaxing cross country, reins down on the buckle, watching the fields and the woods and the hawks skimming across the sky.

It was cancer that killed him at 32. I had no choice but to put him down. And the friend who owned the barn let me bury him right where he’d lived.

Writing about Jo’s horses and the ones born on her farm lets me live through it all again, and remember the people who’ve trained and ridden far better than I who taught me everything I know.

Behind The Bonehouse grew out of those memories, and a lot of other interests as well, and took me two years to write. Longer, now that I think about it because I had to do chemo. It’s a complicated tale, with lots of characters and tangled twists, and I really enjoyed writing it. The framework matters a lot with this novel, and I worked on the preface and the afterward more times than I can count.

They’re the context and the chorus too. And I hope that if you read Behind The Bonehouse it surprises you, and sticks in your heart, and comes back to you when you least expect it and makes you care about Jo and Alan and what they had to go through.

 

 

Sally Wright is the author of six novels in the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Alan Poe Award Finalist Ben Reese series, as well as the Jo Grant mysteries, Breeding Ground and Behind The Bonehouse, set in Woodford County, Kentucky.

 

Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Reader Comments:

Sally, thank you so much for sharing this with my readers. I know your legion of fans will appreciate knowing the background of this exquisitely written book.
-Donna, May 10, 2016

Thank you, Donna, for posting my very detailed comments on writing the novel. I always like hearing what's behind a novel someone else has written, and that spurred me on I'm afraid.

I hope your writing is going well. Your ability to keep multiple series going at once astounds me.
-sally wright, May 14, 2016

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