Katherine, you’re currently out and about touring your 20th Faith Fairchild mystery, The Body in the Boudoir. This book is actually a “prequel” to the ones we’ve been reading all these years. Can you tell us a little bit about the story?
The 10th book in the series, The Body in the Big Apple was set in 1989 when Faith Sibley was just starting her catering firm in her native Manhattan. Over the years, readers have asked the “what next?” question that we writers ask ourselves all the time and The Body in the Boudoir is the result. It picks up exactly where the other book left off, January 1990. Faith has no intention of getting involved with anyone after an unhappy end to what she thought might be Mr. Right in the previous book. But then she meets Tom Fairchild at a wedding she’s catering. She doesn’t realize the New Englander is in town to perform the ceremony. He’s changed his clothes for the reception. Coup de Foudre and the book rollicks along a very bumpy path to the altar with subplots involving a young Italian student with a big secret working for Faith and Faith’s financial bigwig sister who is unaccountably losing clients. Manhattan is a major player in the story.
We’re in awe of your ability to keep coming up with new plots for these books. So please tell us, where did the idea for this particular story come from?
The readers, as I mentioned, but also because I’m fascinated with New York City, then and now. I grew up in northern New Jersey, a 30-minute bus ride from Port Authority and making the city Faith’s hometown from the start was important to me. The link between character and setting defines a book for me. As for the love story, which is essentially what Boudoir is, I thought it was time to provide the background for the rest of the series. It also seemed necessary to talk about the difficult decision she had to make that so many people do when plighting their troth—moving to a completely different place and giving up a career.
Sometimes we hear that authors get tired of their series characters. It seems like Faith’s character, and her relationship with her family and her friends, just gets richer and deeper with each book. What are your strategies for keeping the characters fresh?
Thank you for that. I think it’s true that as the books went on, I was able to explore each character, especially Faith, in greater depth. What I like about writing a series is that I have a kind of theatrical ensemble cast that appears in each book, but then I add cameo appearances by others. This adds fresh aspects to each book in introducing one-time appearances, but also expands our knowledge of the characters that appear in each book through their interactions with the walk-ons. I also use place, alternating the fictitious town of Aleford, Massachusetts with other locales—Sanpere Island, Maine for example—as a way to keep the series from getting stale.
Do your characters feel like old friends to you? Do you feel like you’re rejoining people you know well when you start a new book?
Absolutely. This is a perfect way to express it and not at all twee. They do feel like people I know and what’s more important, they seem real to my readers.
How do you handle the fact that some readers will be discovering Faith for the first time twenty books in, while others have been reading all along? How much of the backstory do you feel you have to include in a new book?
In a series, each book has to function as a stand alone, so yes, it’s extremely important to include the backstory. The challenge is to word it slightly differently in each. I always include the salient details—displaced Manhattan native, minister’s wife chafing at fishbowl existence, caterer, kids—in the first chapter.
I know that you, like many mystery authors, have a special affection for libraries and librarians. Why is that? What role have libraries played in your life or your writing that makes them so special?
I dedicated The Body in the Sleigh (set in Maine) to librarians in general and some specific ones, starting with the first—Ruth Rockwood—at the library in my hometown. Every week my mother took us to the library to check out books. I’ve gravitated towards libraries ever since and became especially aware of the unique access we have to books and information when I was living in France. Librarians there acted as gatekeepers, not matchmakers. I have tremendous admiration for the role librarians play in guarding our civil liberties. I’ve also depended on uber librarians like Jeanne Bracken, the Lincoln Library’s reference librarian for help with research. On average reference librarians answer more than 8 million questions a week! And there are more public libraries in the US than McDonalds!
In your more recent books, you’ve started including some recipes. Where do your recipes come from? Do you make them up? And what kind of testing goes into ensuring that the recipes will work for your readers?
The recipes are the hardest part of each book as yes, they must be original. Cannot just grab Julia and copy. I want them to be relatively easy, inexpensive, and not require exotic ingredients. And of course, most of all, tasty. I’ve included them in 14 books now, accompanied by an Author’s Note about all sorts of things—my chance to step from behind the curtain. They are at the end of the books as I don’t want them to interrupt the narrative (Faith stumbles across a badly bludgeoned body followed by a brownie recipe). Also some people are not interested in them, which is fine. I include five or more—an appetizer or soup, main dish, usually some kind of bread, and dessert. I test them by making them over and over! Readers were writing to me for recipes, so my editor, Ruth Cavin, suggested I add them. I was afraid I was copying Virginia Rich, but there were several other authors including them and soon the whole culinary crime genre took off.
Have you ever experimented with a recipe that turned out to be a disaster?
I’ve never had a disaster, but I did have a fun experience with one—Aunt Susie’s Cake. I donated the chance to include a recipe in one of my books and the high bidder sent me this family favorite, which Aunt Susie always brought to a Southern Pig Pickin’. I looked at the ingredients—a cake mix, canned fruit, Cool Whip— and wondered how it would taste. It has been one of the most popular recipes I’ve ever put in the books. Try it for yourself!
Aunt Susie’s Cake
1 box good quality yellow cake mix
3/4 cup canola or other vegetable oil
1 (11 ounce) can Mandarin oranges packed in juice
For the frosting:
1 small package instant vanilla pudding
1 large (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple packed in juice
1 large container Cool Whip or other whipped topping
Combine the cake mix, eggs, oil, and oranges (including juice) in a bowl. Mix according to the directions on the box. Pour into 3 round cake pans and bake at 350° for approximately 25 minutes. Remove from the pans and cool on cake racks while you make the frosting.
Drain the pineapple, reserving the juice. Mix the juice and the instant pudding together. Add the Cool Whip and drained pineapple. Mix. Spread some of the frosting between the layers and use the rest on the top and sides of the cake.
Speaking of recipes, along with your mysteries, you also have a cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen. What was it like putting that together? Have your readers been excited about the book? And please, would you be willing to share a recipe with us?
Doing the cookbook was a joy as the publisher, Roger Lathbury of Orchises Press, has been a friend since high school. Besides the paperback for kitchen use, Roger published a collectors hard cover edition, hand sewn in a beautiful slip case (Orchises mostly does this sort of book). There are only a few left! We consulted about fonts, the illustrations—not the ordinary publishing experience. Readers have loved it and now they have all the recipes in one place plus some essays I wrote in between. One reader wrote that all my books in her local library had the recipe sections cut out, so she was thrilled. This is coals to Newcastle, but here’s my family’s cherished fish chowder recipe:
6-7 1/4” thick slices bacon
3 cups diced yellow onions
5-6 medium potatoes, peeled
1 lb. haddock
1 lb. cod
2 cans (3 cups) evaporated milk
1 cup whole milk
Freshly ground pepper
Fry the bacon, removed from the pan, and place on a paper towel. Sauté the onions in the bacon fat and set the pan aside.
Cut the potatoes in half the long way, then in 1/4” slices. Put them in a nonreactive pot large enough for the chowder. Cover the potatoes with water and boil until tender. Be careful not to put in too much water or the chowder will be soupy. While the potatoes are cooking, cut the fish into generous bite-sized pieces. When the potatoes are ready, add the fish to the pot, cover and simmer until the fish flakes.
When the fish is done, crumble the bacon and add it to the pot along with the onions and any grease in the pan, the evaporated and whole milks. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down. Simmer for 5 minutes and add salt and pepper to taste.
Chowder invariably tastes better when made a day ahead.
You may also use salt pork instead of bacon. Two kinds of fish make for a more interesting chowder, but these can be any combination of the following: haddock, cod, Pollack, monkfish, and hake. Finally, there is the question of garnishes: dill, chopped parsley, oyster crackers, butter are all good. My family goes for butter.
One of the reasons we’re excited to have you as one of our interviewees is that you spend a big chunk of every year in Maine yourself. What part of Maine do you call home?
I don’t just call Deer Isle home—it is home. We started going there in 1958 to a nature lodge run by a U Maine retired botanist. My parents bought a small piece of land in 1967 and built a cottage, which my sister now has and we bought the one next door. We are on a beautiful cove. My parents are buried on the island and there’s room for the rest of us. My son has grown up there and if my husband hadn’t loved it when I first took him there in 1974, all bets would have been off. I’m now on the island about 3 months a year and hope to stretch it out in the future.
We love to share our special parts of Maine with our readers. Could you tell us about some of your favorite haunts down your way? Are there great places to eat, to explore, to take a great walk?
Well, we used to love the old Mardens in Ellsworth, but the new one isn’t as good. However, that’s not what you mean. We spend a great deal of time on the water and love the run from Deer Isle to Swan’s Island. On land, I like to go to Cherryfield once a summer and stay at the Englishman’s Bed and Breakfast, continuing on to Schoodic Point. Lily’s Café was the best food on Deer Isle, but Kyra Alex is taking a break. Nothing comes close to the Friday Night Fry at the Harbor Café in Stonington, and their breakfasts, though. Almost forgot Riverside Café in Ellsworth. I also like to go to Northeast Harbor to the gardens there and out to Isle Au Haut for a glimpse of the way Maine used to be. There’s a great guy, Steve Johnson, the Stonington Harbormaster, who is running excursions also—Bert & I Charters—a perfect way to see the area and affordable. And then there’s the Blue Hill Fair (best fries at the King and Queen’s, formerly Thelma the Fry Queen’s but sadly she is gone—same family though). We go every year. And also all the wonderful artists and craftspeople in the area—particularly Blossom Studio and Eggemoggin Textile Studio. Oh, and Haystack Mountain School on Deer Isle and…
What is a question that you’d like to be asked in an interview, and rarely are?
It’s a question I often ask others: “What’s your earliest memory?” Often the answer ties in to what’s significant in a person’s life. For example, my mother, who was an artist, could clearly recall a beaded, multi-colored curtain hanging in a doorway at a cottage on a lake-she would have been two. My first memory is of our car pulling up and my parents getting out with my new baby sister-I was just three. I can even remember the dress my mother was wearing (and no, there isn’t a photo). My family has always been extremely important-immediate one and later husband and son. I’ve also always been interested in other people’s families—especially Faith Fairchild’s.
The books set in Maine are: The Body in the Kelp, The Body in the Basement, The Body in the Lighthouse, and The Body in the Sleigh.
Also the Edgar nominated juvenile: Christie & Company Down Eastand several short stories.
Katherine Hall Page’s series features amateur sleuth/caterer, Faith Fairchild. The Body in the Belfry (1991) won an Agatha for Best First; “The Would-Be Widower” (2001) won Best SS ; and The Body in the Snowdrift (2005) won Best Novel when Katherine was Malice XVIII’s Guest of Honor . She has also written for young adults, bringing the total of her books at present to twenty-six.
Wonderful to see you here at Maine Crime Writers, Katherine! And look forward to seeing you July 26, when you and I and Sarah Graves and Kate Flora will be speaking (about mysteries, of course!) on a panel at the Ellsworth Library at 6:00 p.m.. Open to the public, and should be great fun!
Great interview! You’re a wonderful example of how to keep a long-running series fresh and engaging, and delighting readers all the way.
Katherine–thanks so much for coming by! I loved the Body in the Boudoir, by the way.