Saturday, May 5, 2012

Katherine Hall Page revisits the past

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Katherine Hall Page is a former teacher who tried mystery writing when her husband’s sabbatical took the family to France for a year. That first book, The Body in the Belfry, won an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She’s been producing mysteries and winning awards regularly ever since. The Body in the Boudoir, the twentieth in the Faith Fairchild series, returns to Faith’s past and tells the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband, Tom, without letting a murder spoil things for them. To learn more about Katherine and her books, visit her website.

Steady readers will know that this isn’t the first book you’ve written that’s set in Faith’s past. What prompted you to write The Body in the Big Apple several years ago and now The Body in the Boudoir?

I wrote The Body in the Big Apple as a result of two things: the first was the suggestion of the title for a future book from a fan and I realized in order to use it—I loved it—I'd have to go into the past in order to have Faith a New Yorker again. I had been thinking of the possibility of doing a prequel for a while. I've always been interested in knowing what came before, which was the second thing. I always want to know where someone grew up, how he or she met his or her partner etc. The back stories if you will.

Had you written any part of those books before you were published, intending one or the other to be the start of the series?

No. I didn't even know I was writing a series. I wrote The Body in the Belfry when my husband was on sabbatical and we were living in France. Our son was a two-year-old and each morning I would take him to the excellent government-funded nursery school (France is way ahead of us in this regard) and return to our apartment in Lyon where I would type madly away on an old Underwood a friend had loaned me. I was a high school administrator and had intended on going back to work when we returned. I figured this was a gift of time, the chance to write the book that had been in my head for some time. When we did return, I sent it off to an agent, it was published immediately, and a new chapter in my life began.

Was it difficult to go back to an earlier point in your protagonist’s life and put her “future” out of your mind? Did you ever catch yourself wanting to write something that wouldn’t jibe with what comes afterward? 

It was great fun to go back, especially since that time was a fascinating one—the end of the 1980s. However, what was even better was to write without having to worry about her husband or kids. She was single, fancy free. I even gave her a lover, which of course would not happen in any subsequent book. All the books are difficult to write—Mary Roberts Rhinehart wrote a lovely little tome on process entitled, Writing is Work—but this particular book was less hard than the others. I think it was because she was unemcumbered, so I was a bit as well.

How have Faith and Tom changed over the years? What traits did you have to tweak when writing about the beginning of their relationship?

Over the years, they've gone through the things all couples do—worries about their children, coping with family and friends' illnesses, but most especially weathering the inevitable ups and downs a relationship like marriage poses. This was most apparent in The Body in the Attic when Tom takes a leave from First Parish and they house sit in Cambridge, MA. They become like ships in the night. He is preoccupied with his own decision to possibly leave a parish ministry, possibly a crisis of faith, and they fail to communicate well with each other. It was interesting to have the love interest from The Body in the Big Apple resurface for Faith in this book. I really didn't have to tweak anything when writing about the beginning of their relationship in The Body in the Boudoir as their basic personalities—and their deep love for each other—never changed.

What do you think it is about Faith that has kept readers coming back to the series?

What was amazing, and extremely gratifying, for me after the first book came out was the way readers thought of Faith as a real person, someone they might know. She seemed real to me, but I hadn't realized how she would seem to others. When people would ask whether she was going to have another baby or if she and Tom were going to move from Aleford, it was as if they were discussing a friend and neighbor. I think this is why readers do come back for more (thank goodness).

Why have you set some of the books in places other than Faith and Tom’s hometown of Aleford, and why did you focus on Faith’s friend Pix in one story?

Again I would like to say that everything I have done was planned out, but that would not be true. The second book, The Body in the Kelp, takes place in Maine because I love Deer Isle. My family has been going there in the summer since the 1950s. I wanted to use it as a setting. I soon realized that alternating the books between what I call the Aleford Books and the Someplace Else Books was a way to keep the series fresh for readers, as well as a challenge for me as a writer. Therefore, they've been set not only in Maine, but in France, Manhattan, Long Island, the Carolinas, Martha's Vineyard, Cambridge, Vermont, Norway, and soon Italy.

I actually focused on Pix in two books. The first was The Body in the Basement, set on Sanpere Island (Deer Isle). I wanted to write a mystery celebrating the relationship among three generations of women in one family—Pix's family. All three provide what's necessary to solve the murder and work together. As for the Norway book, The Body in the Fjord, I had to (and wanted to) use Pix as the main character as it would not have been believable to have Faith up and leave her small, at that time, children for several weeks abroad. I joke that I didn't use Faith because she wouldn't have found anything she wanted to eat in Norway, but that wasn't true when I wrote the book in 1996 (no longer cod and boiled potatoes for dinner each day) and even less true now with what is heralded as a Renaissance in New Scandinavian cuisine, exemplified by Marcus Samuelsson's fantastic NYC restaurant, The Red Rooster.

How would you answer the complaint that a murder or two every year in a small town like Aleford is unrealistic? Do you think small town life has been idealized?

I don't think we can say small town life has been idealized when Faith and other sleuths keep uncovering murders and all sorts of other skullduggery! As we know, there are some pretty murky depths in those idyllic small town ponds. As for the mayhem being unrealistic, I'll give you the answer my editor, the late great Ruth Cavin, gave me when I asked the same question early on: "Katherine, it's fiction. You can do whatever you want."

What are you working on now?

I'm writing the 21st book in the series, The Body in the Piazza. Ben Fairchild is in his early teens and Amy is eleven, both old enough to be left with those convenient neighbors, Pix and Sam Miller, who simply move next door for the duration of a two week anniversary trip to Rome and Tuscany for Tom and Faith.

The Body in the Boudoir and Piazza are bookends. Francesca, a young Italian girl working for Faith in her catering firm on NYC in 1990 and providing a mystery of her own then, reappears in Piazza as a grown woman running a cooking school with her husband outside Florence. Many of the same themes emerge in both books and I think readers will enjoy the echoes. There's also a little Alfred Hitchcock thrown in—North By Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, definitely not Psycho.


Edith Maxwell said...

How fun to read these stories, Katherine (and Sandra). The Body in the Boudoir is my next book to read and I can't wait. I now realize I have missed a few in the series (like the Big Apple and the Cambridge book) so will have to get busy catching up. I've been reading your books, Catherine, since the beginning, though, and have always loved the characters, the stories, and the cooking.

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm in awe of anyone who can write more than 20 books with the same characters and setting and keep the series fresh and moving forward.

Great to see you here!

Marilyn Levinson said...

I love your books. I've read every one in the series. I think your occasional changes of setting and sleuth allow the series to go on and on. Keep them coming!

Sandra Parshall said...

Like Sheila, I'm amazed that any writer can keep a series going so long and keep the characters and plots fresh. Thanks for being here this weekend, Katherine, to tell us about your latest.

Katherine Hall Page said...

Thank you so much, Sandra.
(And btw, best blog title-new award?)
The 21st in the series (!) will be out next spring, The Body in the Piazza, and it follows this book. The Fairchilds land in Rome and then...

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