Sunday, January 18, 2009
Sunday Salon - Donis Casey at The Poisoned Pen
It was a nice crowd that showed up at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale for the book launch of Donis Casey's The Sky Took Him, the fourth Alafair Tucker mystery. And, few of them knew there would be pies - chocolate pie from a recipe from Casey's new book, and vinegar pie from her next one.
Barbara Peters, bookstore owner, and Casey's editor, held a free-ranging conversation with Casey, while they waited for the audience to gather. They discussed the name of an earlier book, Hornswoggled, and even library budget problems. Donis said it's a shame that libraries face budget cuts during times of bad economies, because people turn to their libraries, and library use goes up at times like this.
To start the discussion of The Sky Took Him, Peters mentioned that the book had received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Donis said she loves this book. She put so much effort into making it smooth, trying not to put in too much information. She had so much information she could have put into the book.
Alafair travels in this book. In the first three books in the series, Alafair lives in Boynton, in eastern Oklahoma. In this one, she takes the train to Enid, OK with her oldest daughter, Martha, and her youngest, Grace. Enid, in the northwestern part of the state, is a whole new world. It's still the Wild West, while the eastern part of the state was very southern. In 1894, Enid opened with a land run. By 1915, the timeframe of this book, it was a well-to-do town. Enid still celebrates Pioneers Day, but in 1915, it was called Founders Day, a celebration of the founding of the town twenty-two years earlier.
The Cherokee Strip was prairie, flat grasslands, owned by the Cherokee, who rented the land to cattle ranchers. The Cherokee finally sold the land to the United States. The strip, and the town, was opened up with a land run. People were allowed to go in ahead of time, and pick out land they would like to own. If they claimed it, they could own 160 sq. acres for a homestead. On, Sept. 16, 1894, at noon, people lined up on the starting line. When the gun was fired, they took off, on foot, horseback, and Conestoga wagon, trying to run to the land, and stake a claim, by driving a stake into the property. Then they would have to live on it for two years. There were some people who snuck in early, and, they were called Sooners. This is the background for The Sky Took Him.
At the beginning of the book, Alafair does her family duty, going to visit her sister whose husband is dying. Something that happened twenty-two years earlier, from the time of the land run, comes back to influence current events. Casey said she used descriptions of the Founders Day parade from the newspaper at the time, the Enid Daily Eagle. She said the descriptions were some of the things she had to leave out. Peters said that's why some authors use afterwords, for stuff they don't want to let go.
Casey said Enid was rich at the time, with cattle, land and an oil boom in the early 1900s. Alafair's niece's husband had sunk money into a wildcat oil well. Casey set it in the field where one of the largest oil strikes came in.
She said oil wells would get gummed up. To clear out the well, they would send a torpedo down, made from nitroglycerin. Men who specialized in this were called shooters. Often, they had one eye, or one hand. They received extra pay, and no one would insure them. Donis thought this would be an interesting way to kill someone. So, she did research, although she said with Homeland Security, she was worried about doing research on nitroglycerin and explosions from home. (She joked and said she did her research on the Tempe Public Library's computers - one more reason to be grateful for libraries.) She found an expert who recommended a book called Is There Nitroglycerin in This?, about explosions.
Barbara Peters mentioned that she was glad to see Alafair get out of town. Donis said when Hornswoggled came out Peters told her to be careful about having all her murders occur in a small town. She needed to avoid the "Cabot Cove syndrome".
Casey told the audience how she started The Sky Took Him. She and her husband went to Enid to visit his sister, and they went to a restaurant called Pastimes Restaurant, converted from an old laundry. On the walls, there were pictures of Enid from 1910. One street scene showed Klein's Department Store. While her husband and sister-in-law bickered over the check, Donis zoned out, and suddenly she could see Alafair and Martha walk into Klein's. She wondered what they were doing in Enid, and why they were shopping. The first scene she wrote was the shopping trip to Klein's.
Barbara Peters commented that Alafair needed a trip, because of the backbreaking work in her life. As the mother of ten, and a rancher's life, her life consisted of hard work, and meals. Casey agreed, saying that she thinks Alafair appreciated the break. When she first saw the guest room at her sister's, she was struck by the luxury and size of the room. But, she started to appreciate it.
An audience member mentioned Alice, one of Alafair's daughters, saying there had been trouble between Alice and her mother because Alice wanted to marry a rich man. Donis said that Alice had seen her mother's hard life, and she didn't want to marry a poor farmer. This caused a rift between the two in Hornswoggled. Casey hinted at a future book, saying Alice's story isn't over.
She also said there are certain themes she carries through all of the books. And, she said Alafair might take another trip, since she had mentioned in this book that her other sister lived in Tempe.
Peters, as her editor, cautioned Casey to watch her timeframe, saying she'd gone from 1908 to 1915 so far, and she didn't want to move too fast. However, after discussion, Casey said she could take the series up to World War II, with an aging Alafair. They agreed that a writer has to continue writing interesting stories that people enjoy.
The discussion ranged back to the work that Alafair did. An early book had a chapter about laundry for twelve people. In another book, Alafair was hanging clothes. They said soap making is coming back, so maybe she could discuss that. Casey mentioned butchering, and food preservation. She said her grandfather used to butcher one hog a year, and they used every bit of the hog. She mentioned future books set during WWI could deal with austerity, since there were meatless Mondays.
It's hard to pick and choose the historical facts to deal with, according to Casey, who said she isn't writing history books. Alafair is only concerned with the news that affects her personally. There's no TV, to bring the world closer. The draft only started in 1917, after the U.S. was in the war. And, one of her sons, Gee Dub, will be 21 then. At first they only took single men, 21-38, then the war expanded so they took anyone they could get. In this book, The Sky Took Him, Alafair and her sister mention the sinking of the Lusitania, and Alafair's German prospective son-in-law.
In many ways, the rural area in the earlier books, and the city of Enid in the present one is almost like having two centuries going on at the same time. Enid was a city, with indoor plumbing, electricity, and refrigeration. Peters said Alafair had to have been changed by the experience. Donis Casey said Martha had been changed by the experiences of Hornswoggled. Martha is a more modern woman than Alafair. She works, and she's interested in Women's Suffrage. A lot of the relationship between Martha and Alafair is similar to that between Donis and her own mother.
When Barbara said she would give extra points to anyone who guessed the ending, she said it's her business to read mysteries, and she had been surprised. Donis said she herself had been surprised by something in the ending.
Peters commented that one of the greatest joys of being an editor is the relationship with authors, and getting to help them. Casey responded that good editors are worth their weight in gold. Barbara said when one of the Poisoned Pen mysteries gets a bad review, she takes it personally. What did she miss? On the other hand, sometimes she edits it so much that she no longer cares.
Peters also said technology is the enemy of the mystery. Cell phones, GPS, and DNA make it difficult to write crime novels. One of the audience members said, on the other hand, it makes historic mysteries more appealing.
When she was asked about Alafair's name, Donis said it was her great-grandmother's name. All of the family names are taken from Donis' family. And, she showed us the cover of The Sky Took Him. The picture of the oil well is an actual well, taken from an Enid Historical Society picture. And, the picture of the girl? Donis Casey.
Donis Casey's website is www.doniscasey.com.
The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2009. ISBN 978-1-59058-571-9 (hardcover), 252p.