Kieran, like a couple of us here at MCW, you’re a lawyer in your day job, so can you tell us what drew you to mystery writing? Is it a life-long dream?
I’m happy to say I’ve been writing as my day job for a couple of years now and haven’t practiced law in about a decade. In hindsight, writing was something of a life long dream, it just took me a long time to realize it. I decided to write an historical mystery because that’s one of my favorite types of books to read. But the truth is that mystery writing wasn’t my original goal.
I first thought of writing a novel when I was in college after coming across some interesting events from colonial Maine history. I was convinced there was a long neglected story there that deserved to be told. The idea remained in the hypothetical stages for years as I went on to law school and a career. Since my day job didn’t provide much of a creative outlet, I returned to those historical subjects. I still didn’t want to be a “writer,” I just wanted to write that one specific story. Only after I spent years working on that first story, which is still gathering digital dust on my hard drive, did I realize that the act of writing had gotten into my veins and I felt compelled to keep going.
The Truth of All Things is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
The Truth of All Things is an historical mystery set in Portland Maine in the summer of 1892. A bizarre murder involving a mutilated victim who’s laid out in a pentagram and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork leaves Deputy Archie Lean baffled. He’s forced to seek help from a Perceval Grey, a brilliant, half Abenaki Indian criminalist and historian Helen Prescott. As the murders continue, the detectives realize the killer is being driven by a fascination with the occult and in particular a pattern hidden in the disturbing events of the Salem Witch trial two hundred years earlier.
You have two very distinct and different investigators in the book. Can you tell us about discovering their characters, and how you went about shaping them in the story? Do their names, Grey and Lean, have special significance?
The characters of Perceval Grey and Archie Lean and how they inhabit the story in relation to each other was an evolving process. At the outset I envisioned the story coming almost entirely from Lean’s point of view. As the book progressed, Grey forced his way forward to the point where I actually contemplated whether Lean was even necessary to the story. Of course he was necessary, as was Helen Prescott who also insisted on injecting herself further into the book. In the end, I think they all settled into place nicely and it’s the interactions among them that I enjoyed writing the most.
Grey’s name has some obvious connotations in terms of his attitudes and ancestry. He often views things in stark black-and-white terms but he also has a cloudy, ambiguous perspective on society’s rules and shortcomings. In addition, he’s of mixed parentage. His mother came from a blood-blood family while his father was an Abenaki Indian. As mentioned in the book, early puritan colonists had a severe distrust of Native Americans, whom they sometimes described as “black.” Testimony from the Salem witch trials includes descriptions of the devil or his servant as “the black man” and resembling a Native American. And of course Perceval is a nod toward the Arthurian legends of the knight seeking the mystery of the grail, failing or succeeding in his quest based on whether he asks the right questions. It seemed a perfect fit for this detective.
Lean was actually a family name on my wife’s side, although I misspelled it. And I added Archie for a first name because it struck me as having an old-fashioned and trustworthy ring to it. Only after writing the book did it strike me that both ‘arch’ and ‘lean’ can have meanings related to supporting a structure or a person. So maybe I’m subconsciously more clever than I thought.
Your story is a complicated plot set in one historical period (Portland, Maine in the 1890’s), which requires your characters to research the time of the Salem Witch Trials. This must have involved a great deal of research. Can you tell us why you chose these periods, and how complicated the research involved was?
I wanted to write a mystery with dark, occult overtones. Having already done research on colonial Maine for an earlier project, I’d learned of some little known links between Maine and the Salem trials. I liked the trials as an historical back story because most people have some familiarity, or at least spooky associations, with Salem. But not many readers would have an in-depth knowledge of all the weird details and elements of those tragic events. I chose 1892 since my original plot outline was tied to the anniversary of the 1692 witch trials, so I looked at the bicentennial year. That period had a lot of appeal in terms of the gothic feel of the age, being a period when gruesome murders (e.g., Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and H.H. Holmes at the Chicago World’s Fair) were coming into the public consciousness, the lack of forensic science, and also the strong interest in spiritualism and the occult that existed in the second half of the 19th century.
The amount of research required was pretty intense. I had to train myself to put research questions aside, for the moment, while I was writing. Otherwise I found it hard to get through even a couple of pages without getting sidetracked onto issues about whether a certain phrase was used in 1892, how did gas lighting work, what brands of cigarettes did people smoke, or how long did it take to travel somewhere by train.
You also have a kind of DaVinci Code religious theme running through the book, with forbidden books and secret codes. Another complex research task which our readers would love to hear about.
I’d say the inspiration for the black book in the novel owes itself to a few cryptic references in the real Salem witch trial transcripts along with the works of H.P. Lovecraft much more than Dan Brown. Although I did research the magical or hermetic societies of the 19th century and some of the more famous personalities,such as Aleister Crowley, this aspect of the book was more imagination than hard research. I created the framework of the riddle in the black book that Grey and Lean are trying to decipher with a few specific historical events in mind and then it really didn’t take much research to find other events that would fit into that framework and make the puzzle all fit together.
And on yet another research front, you are teaching your readers a lot about Portland in that period—it’s culture, it’s geography, and the ways in which Portland, and the whole country, is still recovering from the effects of the Civil War. Why Portland? Why this historical time period, and can you give us a feel for what this research task was like?
I set the novel in Portland, basically because it’s my hometown and I love the feel and atmosphere of the place. Its geography, a hilly sloping peninsula, crisscrossed by a maze of often crooked streets (still lined with paving stones in some spots) and its 19th century architecture allow for a wonderful gothic ambience. I touched on the selection and research of the 1890’s time period above. I think the post Civil War era was important as well. Maine sent more soldiers, per capita, than any other state in the Union. Everyone in Portland would have been touched by the losses of the war. So sounding those echoes felt right in the book. It fit into one of the underlying themes of the story, which is the difficulty in ever fully escaping the past. Whether it’s the scars of the Civil War, or the almost forgotten links between Portland and tragedy of the Salem witch trials, or the personal traumas of a character’s own history, the past plays a hand in forging present identity. Grey and Lean have to come to grips with that and uncover those lingering connections to reveal the mystery in The Truth of All Things.
You leave us at the end of the book with some characters: Lean, Grey, and Helen, who have become important to us as readers. Are we going to see them in a future book?
Yes, they will be back for another rousing and puzzling adventure in A Study in Revenge, which is due out from Crown Publishing in January, 2013.
What is your next book, and when will it burst upon the Maine reading scene?
“Burst” may be a rather generous term. Apart from the above mentioned sequel to The Truth of All Things, I am working on another book. Although it’s historically based with a suspicious death or two in it, it’s not a mystery. It seems to take place everywhere in the world except for Maine. I’ll leave the details sketchy for the moment since it’s actually a collaboration and still in the early stages. Hopefully there’ll be more to say about it in a month or two.
Readers of our blog are particularly interested in learning about some of our Maine favorites. So, do you have any special places and special restaurants, you could share with our readers?
There are so many great places to visit or dine in Portland that I feel guilty singling out just a couple, but I do have a particular fondness for the Front Room up on Munjoy Hill. Also, Bintliff’s does an amazing brunch.
It doesn’t seem like you have any free time, but when you’re not writing or practicing law, what else are you involved in?
Luckily for me, writing is my full time job. However, I do have two school age kids that I get on and off the bus each day and the time in between those events is often fleeting. Living in Maine, I try to take advantage of outdoor activities with family and friends. In general, given that time is limited, I don’t seek out many other structured extracurricular activities. Time spent doing other things is time not spent writing.
What is one question, about you as a writer, or about your work, that we haven’t asked, and you’d like to answer?
Truthfully, I can’t think of any aspect of my experience of writing that I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about. I’m happy to answer questions and am glad others might find the subject of me and my writing interesting, but I’m not sure I agree with them. After all, there’s a reason I’ve chosen to write fiction instead of a memoir.
Kieran Shields grew up in Portland, Maine. He graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of Maine School of Law. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and two children. The Truth of All Things is his first novel.
Great interview. I got the book for the Hartland library, feeling like it was going to be extremely popular and am suggesting it to a new patron as soon as it is checked back in. It is on my ‘read when the demand slows’ list.
Great interview! I can’t wait to read it.