Friday, October 29, 2010

Mary Anna Evans at Poisoned Pen Bookstore

I will always owe Mary Anna Evans a debt of gratitude.  When I was Authors Chair of the Lee County Reading Festival, I had an author who had to back out for family reasons, and I needed a replacement author for two panels.  Mary Anna's first book, Artifacts, wasn't even published yet.  She only had an Advanced Reading Copy to bring along, but she agreed to appear on both panels.  She made her first appearance as an author on a panel sitting between Randy Wayne White and Jonathon King.  And, she was such a success that people told me afterwards they wanted me to let them know when Artifacts was out, because they loved the book.

Since much of the audience was made up of book club of retired librarians from Albuquerque, New Mexico the evening that Mary Anna Evans appeared at Poisoned Pen, Barbara Peters, owner of the store reminded everyone of the recognition that book went on to receive. Artifacts won the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Award for Mystery.  It was also named a Best Adult Mystery with YA Appeal by VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates). 

Mary Anna said her books have been popular in schools.  She was a little leery about writing Effigies, set in Mississippi, where she was from, because she didn't know if she'd be welcomed back.  But, she was met with open arms.  She was invited to speak on the Choctaw reservation about how to use her books in the schools, and the tribe bought copies of Effigies for every kid in the school.

Evans' latest book, Strangers, is the sixth in her series, and she's working on the seventh.  The books feature Faye Longchamp, an archaeologist.  In the first book, she's an aspiring archaeologist and an accidental sleuth.  The books are a blend of mystery, archaeology, romance and history.  Barbara Peters said think of Elizabeth Peters' Vicky Bliss books.

Mary Anna came up with the idea of her first book, Artifacts, while she was driving back and forth from Mississippi on 1-10.   She had the idea to write about an antebellum house on an island off the coast of Florida.  Evans' degrees are in engineering and physics, and she likes the architecture of old houses.  But, she had to decide who would live in that house.  She also had two problems with writing about that house.  First, Gone with the Wind had already been done.  Second, it wasn't politically correct to write about plantations.  But, Mary Anna solved that problem by making the owner a woman who descended from the slaves who built the house.  Then, she decided she should also be a descendant from the master's love affair.  So, how does she feel about the home?  Does she hate it?  Mary Anna decided she should be proud of it, since her ancestors built it. 

Then, there's the woman's internal conflict that never goes away.  How does she feel about herself?  She didn't inherit money to go with the house, so she'll always be house poor.  So, in the first book, Faye would dig for artifacts on her property, and sell them on the black market.  She felt that was OK, because they were hers.  But, then she crept onto land that wasn't hers, and dug for artifacts.  Sooner or later, she was bound to uncover a dead body on that state land. 

Up until Faye dug up that body, Evans didn't know if she was writing a mystery or an historical novel.  But, then she decided the body would be that of a woman who was killed forty years earlier.  So, the killer probably wasn't around, and might even be dead.  If Faye went to the police, and told them she found a body, and it wasn't on her property, she might lose everything for digging there, and the killer might never be found.  But, Faye wanted to find out who the woman was.  At that point, Mary Anna knew she was writing a mystery. 

In Artifacts, Faye Longchamp is a thirty-four-year-old college dropout who wants to be an archaeologist.  She's unmarried, but wants a child.  There's lots of room for character development with Faye.  Evans has aged her one year per book.  By the time of the latest book, Strangers, she now has a degree, is forty years old, married and eight months pregnant. 

When Strangers opens, Faye and her husband have started an archaeological consulting firm, just in time for the economy to tank.  So, they take a job doing cultural resources work in St. Augustine.  The city has strict archaeological protections for any construction project.  So, when the owners of a Bed & Breakfast want to build a swimming pool, they need an archaeological company to check out the land first.

When someone in the audience mentioned that Faye was forty and pregnant, Mary Anna said, her husband, Joe, is 6'6", and Faye if five foot.  Joe is sensitive to the size difference, and he realizes the danger she's in at a pregnancy at her age.  Evans deliberately made Faye eight months pregnant so she would be struggling to keep up at the job.  But, Faye's not the type to give in.  Others are worried, though, that they're putting her in danger.

Barbara mentioned that Faye's boyfriend, and eventual husband, had learning disabilities.  Evans said he came from a family that didn't value education, so they didn't care that he had trouble reading.  They were Indians in Florida. 

Then Barbara said, here in Arizona, we don't think about Indians in Florida.  We think of the books featuring them in New Mexico and Arizona, but not Florida.  That led to the discussion of cities themselves, and the discussion of oldest cities.  St. Augustine, founded in 1565, is the oldest European city in this country that has been continuously occupied.  Evans' books always have an historical backstory.  But, Strangers is set solely in one location, on the grounds of this house.

Evans uses different forms in each book to relate the historical backstory.  Artifacts used diaries, while oral histories were used in the second.  The third book used Choctaw folk tales, rooted in nature.  There's a reason to bring these historical elements to the stories, and they all tie together in the last scenes.  In Strangers,  it's the journal of a priest that is used.  He was present at the founding of St. Augustine.

Mary Anna said in the first month she reads and does research, trying to decide on the internal story.  She found online the English translation of the actual journal of the priest who was there in St. Augustine in 1865.  She doesn't like to mess with actual history, so she created two fictional priests, and one of them presents his viewpoint of the events surrounding the founding of the city.  Faye finds the journal of the priest while she's on this project. 

Mary Anna created a priest who was not prepared for the massacre at Matanzas.  The name Matanzas even means "slaughters."  But, where would a priest go when he wanted to leave?  He moved in with the Indians.  And, he actually presided over the end of the Timucua tribe in North America.  But, Father Domingo does get his revenge.

The book also covers the history of the previous owners of the house that became the Bed & Breakfast.  Those owners were wealthy members of society in the 1920s, and there was an unresolved murder on the property.  Faye's not paid to look into it, but she can't help herself.

Barbara Peters said Mary Anna Evans' books are layered.  They contain science, romance, mystery, the coming of age of Faye.  Her mysteries are fun.  And, Barbara said she reads so many mysteries, she enjoys it when an author plays with things, and changes them around.  For instance, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd contained an unreliable narrator.  Readers had always been able to trust the narrator.

With Faye's background, Evans is able to change the settings of the books.  The books have been set in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, back to Florida for book four and a Civil War reenactment.  Peters proclaimed that setting perfect for a murder, mentioning Peter Lovesey's Skeleton Hill and its reenactment of a British Civil War battle.  Book five in the Faye Longchamp series was set in New Orleans, and then Strangers is set in St. Augustine.  Floodgates, the book set in New Orleans, contained the memoirs of a man who worked as an engineer in the city in the 1800s.

Evans said she can just take Faye and Joe, and sometimes a few friends, and move them to a new site.  She's working on book seven right now.  It was going to be set in Key West, and she even had an artist's residency to work on the book when the oil spill happened in Louisiana.  And, she wondered how that would affect Key West.  But, Mary Anna has family in New Orleans, and she did environmental work there herself.  So, book seven will be set in Louisiana, dealing with the week between the oil explosion and the resulting spill.  Evans worked with the people affected, and knows the affect on their way of life.  And, she knows archaeological companies were called in to study the changes due to the oil spill.  It was a race against time, and a project like that could sink a small company that doesn't have the manpower.   The following book is planned to be set in Key West.

Mary Anna works with math and science teachers to use her books in the curriculum because she uses physics and geometry in her mysteries.  Her geometry teacher was an educational consultant, and she started working with teachers.  Now, Evans has written papers with a YA professor, Dr. Faith Wallace, and the two are writing a book, Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades.  She said she never thought her mysteries would lead to that. 

Evans and Peters were kicking around ideas for the next title since Mary Anna mentioned "Plunder."  She said that title works because pirates will be the backstory.  She said one result of the oil spill is that Jean Lafitte's lair is gone.  One book she used for research is called X Marks the Spot:  The Archaeology of Piracy.  It says one reason pirates left little trace is that they didn't want to leave traces.  They moved around a lot.

There are actually a couple meanings to the title Strangers.  The Europeans were the ultimate strangers when they came to St. Augustine.  And, when early tourists came to the city, they were called "strangers."  In fact, "stranger rooms" were built so homeowners could offer hospitality, but not take tourists into their actual home.  And, in the case of this book, there is the ghostly presence, strangers.

Mary Anna Evans' books are published by Poisoned Pen Press, and Peters recommended a few of their other authors to the visitors from Albuquerque.  Steven Havill's Posadas County mysteries are set in New Mexico.  They're a combination of village mystery and police procedural, set in a small border county.  Donis Casey writes of Oklahoma, and the books start in 1907.  Her first two titles are some of Peters' favorites, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and Hornswoggled.  Fred Ramsay, author of the Ike Schwartz books was there, so Barbara asked him to talk a little about his books.  When she mentioned he was a retired clergyman, he said all clergy are fascinated with crime.

Ramsay summarized his books as village procedurals.  They're set in Picketsville, Virginia, a town he made up in the Shenandoah Valley.  Ike Schwartz is the sheriff of the town.  He's also ex-CIA, and Jewish by birth.  The first book deals with an art heist, and what do you do with the art once you steal it.  Then they also include small town things.  Once in a while, Ike leaves town, as in Choker, when he went to the eastern shore.  Buffalo Room involves criminals who are dumb and dumber.  Stranger Room involved a double locked room, and Ramsay had to do research for that one.  He said he hates to do research.  He just wants to write the story.  In that book, there was a murder during the Civil War, and then a second one involving the same family and house in the twentieth century.  His most recent book in that series, Eye of the Virgin was about icons.  Ramsay wanted to write about them ever since he visited St. Petersburg.  Before turning the program over for Mary Anna Evans' book signing, Peters concluded by mentioning Ramsay's book Predators, set in Botswana, and his standalone, Impulse, the one she thinks is his best.

As always, it was a pleasure to spend time with Mary Anna Evans.  And, it's always a pleasure to spend an evening at The Poisoned Pen.

Mary Anna Evans' website is

Strangers by Mary Anna Evans. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2010. ISBN 9781590587423 (hardcover), 250p.


Anonymous said...

Such a lovely writeup, Lesa! Sounds like a wonderful event. Both Mary Anna Evans and Frederick Ramsay are on my list of authors to read. I'll get to them eventually. I do have the first Steven Havill book that I bought when we were in New Mexico in the summer and, of course, Donis Casey's books are among my very favorites ever.

I'm very intrigued with the Evans books and will get my hands on a copy of ARTIFACTS. I'm sure my library has it. Thanks so much, as always, for being our "reporter on the scene" at these events!

Lesa said...

Ah, Kay. So many books..., right? I totally understand. Steven Havill is going to be one of the honorees as LCC in March.

You have so much good Poisoned Pen Press reading ahead of you!

Margaret said...

Really enjoy Mary Anna's books. Nice summary of Faye and the books. Looking forward to reading "Strangers."
Margaret Franson

Lesa said...

Thank you, Margaret. And, I don't think you'll be disappointed in Strangers, if you've been reading the books.