Jim Hayman: Mystery readers know Lea Wait as (perhaps?) the alter ego of Maggie Summer, the protagonist of Lea’s 5-book Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series, the most recent of which is Shadows of a Down East Summer. Maggie has an antique print business, and so does Lea. So, we might as well start there. Lea — are you and Maggie really identical twins?
Lea: Not quite! To begin with, Maggie, who has long dark hair (I have short light hair) is younger and braver than I am. True, she’s an antique print dealer, and I’ve owned an antique print business since 1977. I do very few shows now; the antique business has soured in this economy — and l have books to write. I do still sell prints by appointment, though. Maggie, however, lives in a world where the economy is in better shape, and she’s still doing about a dozen shows every year, when she’s not teaching at a community college — something I’ve never done. She’s also been widowed. I, fortunately, have not. On the “in common” side — she lives in Somerset County, New Jersey, where I lived for many years, and we both drink Dry Sack sherry.
Jim: You mention living in New Jersey “for many years”. Since we’re on Maine Crime Writers, explain yourself, Lea! What were you doing in New Jersey?
Lea: I could take the 5th … but I won’t! I lived in Jersey at 2 times in my life. First, my father worked in New York City and commuted from there, so I graduated from high school in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. After earning my undergraduate degree at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I moved to Greenwich Village, worked in lower Manhattan — my office was across the street from the World Trade Center — and attended grduate school at New York University at night. When AT&T, the company I worked for, moved to New Jersey, I moved with them, to Bernardsville in Somerset County. During all those years I spent as much time as I could in our family home in Maine. I looked for a job in Maine, but I had children to support, and I ended up staying in Jersey until they were out of school.
Jim: Hey! You skipped the part of the story where you got married.
Lea: Nothing skipped, Jim! No wedding bells. While I was in my mid-twenties I knew my life wouldn’t be complete unless I was able to share it with one or more children; I wanted to be part of a child’s growing up; wanted to help them become the adult they wanted to be. I’d volunteered with older children who’d been abused and were healing, physically and emotionally, at the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City, and decided children like those were the ones who could most use my help. I was lucky to adopt four wonderful daughters who happened to have been born in 4 different Asian countries. Along the way I became very active in adoption advocacy — especially advocacy of single parent and older child adoption.
Jim: Wow! That sounds like a full life! So why — and how — did you make the transition from being a corporate manager and single adoptive parent and advocate in New Jersey to being a mystery writer in Maine?
Lea: It didn’t happen overnight. But I’d always wanted to write fiction, and in my 40s I decided it was time to start. At the same time I began to turn over the reins of adoption advocacy to newer faces. At first it was hard. Fiction was much more difficult for me than nonfiction. But I was stubborn. I was writing literary fiction, and had some short stories published, but I hadn’t managed to sustain a plot through an entire book until I had an idea for a mystery. I was still working for AT&T. And the 40 agents I sent it to all rejected it. But I didn’t have time to focus too much on that, because in 1998 I was offered a buy-out, and was thrilled hat I could finally do what I’d always wanted to: move to Maine.
Jim: And then the book sold?
Lea: Not exactly! The first thing I wrote in Maine was an historical novel for children. Stopping to Home is set in 1806 Wiscasset, Maine. If you have to categorize it, it’s literary fiction for the 8-12 year old crowd. I’d always wanted to write for children, and the book sold immediately to Simon & Schuster and got wonderful reviews. I thought I’d found my new career! Then, a couple of years later, when I was working on another historical for children, my editor and I were chatting and I told her about the mystery. She asked to see it, and sent it to an editor at Scribner. And … the rest, as they say, is history. I’ll admit I was slightly paniced when I realized I’d have to write two books a year instead of one … but when Shadows at the Fair, that first mystery, was nominated for a “best first mystery” Agatha, I was thrilled!
Jim: So now you write for both adults and children. And although your books for children are historicals and your Shadows mysteries are contempories, your mysteries still incorporate a great deal of history — information about prints, antiques, artists, houses, and, in your latest book, Shadows of a Down East Summer, you even include entries from a diary supposedly written in 1890. How much research do you have to do for each of your books?
Lea: Not as much for my mysteries as for my historicals, of course — but I actually have an entire room in my house devoted to books related to the 19th century, antiques, and Maine history. And that doesn’t begin to count my books related to prints and art, which are downstairs, in my library or in my husband’s studio. (Yes, I did get married, 8 years ago!) I grew up in the antique business, going to auctions and antique shows with my grandmother, living in old houses, and being aware of the importance (not just financial value) of physical possessions left to us from those who lived before. So the sensitivity is there. But when I’m writing it all down — describing Maggie’s home, for example, or the prints I have “catalog listings” for at the beginning of each Shadows chapter — I have to double check everything. Just because I can see something in my mind doesn’t mean my reader can see it in his or hers!
The diary of the young lady who posed for Winslow Homer was great fun to write — but required that I read everything I could about Prouts Neck, the area of Scarboro, Maine, where Winslow Homer lived in 1890, and about Homer himself during that summer. He rarely gave interviews, so most of the information was based on memoirs of those who knew him, and photographs of the area taken in 1890. Every book I write opens up new territory to research — and I love that!
Jim: What can we expect from you in the future, Lea?
Lea: An author can’t promise anything until contracts are signed, Jim; I’ve certainly learned that over the years! So I can promise another Shadows mystery. Maggie will be back in the 6th Shadows mystery in the fall of 2013. I have other books written and proposals out, for both adults and children, so other possibilities are in the wind that involve neither Maggie nor Wiscasset. But you, and my other readers, will just have to stay tuned to hear about those!
This is what I like about this MCW thing. Associating with interesting people.
Great interview, Jim and Lea. Proves what we so often tell beginning writers: you just can’t give up.