When the crime fiction finalist list for the Maine Literary Awards came out, there were two very familiar names on it–Maine Crime Writers’ own Paul Doiron for Trespasser and Gerry Boyle for Port City Black and White. The third finalist, the rose among the thorns if you will, was less familiar–Janis Bolster for The Lost Daughters. Janis lives in mid-coast Maine and writes crime fiction set in Maine, so naturally the Maine Crime Writers wanted to know all about her. She graciously answers our questions here.
Janis will appear–along with most of the Maine Crime Writers and a host of other wonderful Maine authors including Tess Gerritsen, at Books in Boothbay, Maine’s Summer Book Fair on July 14.
Hi Janis. Welcome to Maine Crime Writers. Can you tell us about your Maine connection and about the journey that led you to crime writing and Maine?
Thank you. It’s great to be here in such exciting company.
I grew up in Maine and moved back in the 1990s, after living elsewhere in New England, in the Midwest, and in California.
I’ve worked in editing most of my life, and I’ve always compared book notes with copy editors and proofreaders who do projects for me. When I realized that almost all of them love mysteries as much as I do, I got the idea for the Sally Jean Chalmers Editorial Mystery series. The first book, Murder in Two Tenses, is set in a fictional coastal Connecticut town, but I moved The Lost Daughters to Portland, Maine. I love Portland. I lived there briefly, and when I left, I had a massive case of homesickness. Every time I came back to Maine to visit family, I spent time in Portland researching the book. Now I live in Midcoast Maine, and my love affair with Portland has widened to include the entire Maine coast.
In Murder in Two Tenses, Sally is a lowly editorial assistant just hired by a university press. One of her first projects is a true-crime historical study, and she does everything from line editing (fixing spelling and unscrambling tangled sentences) to trying to make sense of factual inconsistencies. In The Lost Daughters, she’s left that job and started freelancing, with uncomfortable effects on her finances. When she gets hired by an assistant professor at the fictional Cumberland College in Portland, she’s doing a very different kind of editorial work: reading a nineteenth-century Portland diary and helping the professor choose selections to publish.
Sally is just twenty-three at the outset of the series and finding her way. She’s passionate about her work, but her expectations change as she meets people and deals with new kinds of pressures. Her inexperience, especially in the first book, creates some of the problems that snare her. I think readers like watching a character grow and change as she learns from mistakes and discovers which instincts she can trust.
In both your published mysteries, Murder in Two Tenses and The Lost Daughters, events in the past have an impact on the present. What drew you to these stories and why do you think they are so satisfying?
All my life, I’ve been fascinated by the later nineteenth century. Creating the “historic” documents that reveal mysteries is the thing I like best about the series, and readers tell me they enjoy these glimpses into the past. The historic crime in each mystery may be tied to the contemporary murder by theme or by a real connection, but each book combines past and present.
In Murder in Two Tenses, I was looking for a way to involve a very young editor in at least two major crimes, so I gave Sally a high-pressure project with a lot of built-in problems: copyediting a tricky Victorian murder mystery without much support from her boss, the headmistress of the School of Sink or Swim. The journal used as a source in the manuscript adds another narrator – the detective who struggled with the case in the 1890s – and a more immediate connection to the past. Sally hears echoes of her own problems in the detective’s musings. When she uncovers the evidence that solves a contemporary murder, she also finds the resolution of the 1890s story, and the detective’s final thoughts on the case show her a way to live with both past and present.
For The Lost Daughters, I wanted a family history and a link with Portland and Casco Bay. I turned over lots of possibilities before I came up with the idea I used as the deepest of the Cottrell family secrets. This time the historic source is a diary kept from the 1880s into the twentieth century by a Portland woman who was interested in everything she came across; that gave me the chance to embed details of Portland history and daily life. The diarist knows enough to suspect some of her relatives of horrific acts, but the diary has been censored and the facts are elusive. Treasure hunts enchant me, and I involved Sally in a search for long-missing Cottrell jewels that leads ultimately to the truth about both the family’s history and its current choices.
This spring, you were a crime fiction finalist in the Maine Literary Awards competition along with Maine Crime Writers Paul Doiron and Gerry Boyle. How did you feel when you found out? What’s the reaction been?
I was surprised and delighted to be included in such good company. A nomination like this one is hugely encouraging – suddenly people who never heard of you are reading your work.
Your publisher, Reck House Press, is Maine-based. What is their focus? In an age with so many publishing options, why did you decide to go with a small press and Reck House specifically?
I’m actually part of Reck House Press, so here I can answer as both author and editor-in-chief. Reck House has an editorial board, but once a book gets accepted, I have a lot of control over how my work gets presented. Reck House is committed to quality – that’s its focus. The press’s wonderful designer, Lin Maria Riotto, handles all the aesthetics, and for The Lost Daughters, I had the fun of walking Sally’s routes around Portland with her while she took the photos that became the illustrations in the book, and then walking around the cemetery that provided the base image for the cover. For the earlier mystery, Murder in Two Tenses, I got to watch the wizardry and hard work of creating illustrations as diverse as a believable immigration card, a sketch on a napkin, the front page of an 1898 newspaper, and a comic book cover.
What are you working on now?
A Sally Jean Chalmers mystery called Emily Dickinson in the Attic. While I was doing editorial work on a Dickinson book some years ago, I came up with a theory that I knew I’d like to work into a book one day. The Lost Daughters sets up the background for the story, providing an old house where, in the new mystery, Sally finds letters written to Dickinson by a school friend. Her discovery leads to a murder, and in working with the invented letters, I get to play with my theory.
Janis, thanks so much for talking to us. You can find out more about Janis’ book Murder in Two Tenses and order it here. The Lost Daughters is described and can be ordered from Reck House Press, here.