This week, join me as we continue to look at books that orbit the constellations of children’s series books much-loved by adults: Louisa May Alcott’s books, the Little House books, the Anne of Green Gables books, and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. A brand new novel, Venom on the River, is now available from my favorite young adult mystery author, Marsha Qualey. This time around, she has written a book for adult readers which intersects with a convention of extreme fans of the “Little Girl” series. The fan group in the book is an amalgam of actual groups who talk to each other on listservs, Facebook, and Twitter; throng around author tables at conventions; seek out artifacts from the books; raise money to restore houses and build museums.
Are you one of those fans? I believe you will enjoy reading Venom on the River immensely. Characteristically, Marsha writes with humor, irony, and a keen sense of human grace and foibles. It’s not a mystery, but there are several mysteries intrinsic to the story.
Fascinated by the book’s connection to series fan groups, I asked Marsha a few questions.
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Q. In your first book written for adults, Venom and the River, you’ve created Leigh, a lead character who’s both likeable and flawed, with several less than laudable characteristics. When you first began writing the book, was her personality already in place? Or did she change to allow the story to unfold?
A. There was some evolution for Leigh. She was one of 5 point-of-view characters in the book’s first incarnation. The book opened with her, but didn’t end with her. It truly was an ensemble piece. As I recall, after the book had been rejected a few times by editors, my agent translated those rejections into this: It’s Leigh’s story. Two of those point-of-view characters were revised out entirely, and the other two—Marti Lanier, the high-living realtor who blackmails Leigh and Roberta Garibaldi, the famous novelist whom Leigh blackmails—were moved to the background, voice-wise. Leigh’s story increased in importance, which meant her mother-daughter story and the related backstory and emotions had to play a larger part.
Q. What aspects of Leigh’s character most intrigue you as her author?
A. The lying. Leigh did the one thing that Leigh the journalist would despise most, and her world fell apart. How did she get to that point? What was the cost? I was a child liar, and I was also a high school journalist. If I’d gone into journalism would those old storytelling habits have surfaced at some point? Would I have burnished facts to get a better story or to meet a deadline? At the risk of sounding obsessed, I’ll share that my work-in-progress also has lying at the center of the story. It’s currently titled The Case History of a Lie.
Q. Leigh has found work as a ghost writer for a former US vice president. This allows you to explore the nature of truth. What led you to choose a politician for Leigh’s foil?
A. I needed someone who would have deep roots in Pepin but had long been absent from the town and someone whose professional world would intersect with Leigh’s. A former VP seemed just right.
Q. Leigh finds herself in temporary living quarters while she works with the vice president, which leads to unfolding layers about the long-dead author of a series of books that was turned into a mega-hit television show, the “Little Girl” books. As we look at books that adults read as children—and continue to fascinate them—what facet of fan groups fit into your overall story arc?
A. How some fans move beyond love for the book to love for the author, and in doing so sometimes make assumptions about that person, assumptions that might have nothing to do with the real person.
Q. Did you read the Little House, Betsy-Tacy, and Anne of Green Gables books a child? Do you remember what kept you reading each book in the series?
A. I can only guess what my young self was thinking or feeling when reading them. I suspect it was the magic of friendship and family life in the Betsy-Tacy books that kept me coming back. Betsy and Tacy (and let’s not leave out Tib) had such fun and cared so much for each other, and Betsy also always returned from that fun to a home where the fun and love continued (though, in the “high school books” she at times retreated to her room, as every self-respecting teen protagonist must do). As for the Little House books, I think it was the magic of the setting(s), the concrete details of a long-ago life. When I look back on those books I recall the snow, the heat, the hay, the fiddle music, and especially in Farmer Boy, my favorite, the food. If those are the things that stuck with me all these years, I suspect they were part of the attraction when I was young. I did not read Anne of Green Gables until about a year ago. My mother loved those books and tried to get me to read them, but I resisted. Hateful child! And now I of course wish I could tell her how much I enjoyed Anne of Green Gables, especially the humor.
Q. What do you feel keeps adults connected to the books they read, and loved, as children?
A. I know this sounds flippant, and I don’t mean to be, but I do suppose it depends on the adult. I’ve heard many reasons from many readers, among them: gratitude for what the book provided at a certain time (comfort or escape, or even understanding of a puzzling or frightening world); nostalgia—either for the era of the books’ setting or for the reader’s childhood; simple appreciation of a darn good story.
Q. You’ve been an active member of the Maud Hart Lovelace Society for many years and yet the fan group in Venom and the River is clearly drawn from more than one series’ fans. Did you research other fan groups as you wrote this book?
A. No research, but I’m certain I heard things and absorbed them—about trips to Prince Edward Island or activities in Pepin, Wisconsin or Walnut Grove, Minnesota. And let’s not forget Louisa May Alcott, who was probably a larger influence on my love of reading than even Maud Hart Lovelace. I made the pilgrimage to Concord, MA in the late/mid-90s, in the company of a friend I made through the Betsy-Tacy world, no less. Those were the years the idea for Venom was just starting to form. Orchard House is one of the best house museums I’ve ever toured, truly a wonderful place to visit even if you aren’t a fan of Alcott’s books. I’m sure I had that wonderful place in mind as I concocted the “travesty by the Dairy Queen” in Venom.
Q. You’re known as a deft mystery writer with settings that are contemporary, political, and belief-challenging. You’ve stated that Venom and the River is not a mystery and yet there are mysteries solved. What’s the distinction?
A. I’d have to say “pursuit.” Truth unfolds in Venom, but not as a result of a main character’s pursuit of something. My young adult novel Thin Ice was a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award back in the 90s. That was a great honor, and the award night was a very fun party. Thin Ice didn’t win, and I wasn’t surprised, back then and now. While Arden, the main character, does pursue something throughout the book, the eventual mystery is solved by coincidence/happenstance/vagaries of life. I knew in my heart that it could only be a considered a mystery novel—and a winning mystery novel—if Arden’s efforts had solved the case.
I do admit to using the tease of mystery in the storytelling in Venom. In the opening, for example. That page and a half is essentially an establishing shot of a block of houses in Pepin, with a look into each that offers a glimpse of some of the deliberately-unnamed people who live within. Not one is a major character, but by book’s end the reader can turn back to the first page and read it again, and—I hope—think, “Ah, yes.”
Q. Venom and the River is about tightly held and threatening secrets. Your flawed heroine has choices to make. When your readers close the covers on your book, is it more important for you that they’ve been entertained by a page-turner or that your heroine has been changed?
A. What good is my heroine’s change/epiphany or resistance to same if no reader reaches the point where all that happens? Make no mistake: I want those pages to turn. However, I also understand in my bones that readers turn pages for different reasons– character development or witty dialogue or dead bodies or naked bodies or exquisite prose or maybe things that go Boom! And what makes it even trickier is that a single reader can have different reading moods. I’m no exception. Some days I want to read Lydia Davis, some days Lee Child. While I do think about audience when writing (“audience” is what keeps me from writing pages about rocks and road cuts), I’d go nuts if I tried to anticipate reader reaction.
And, I’m not sure it’s a requirement that a heroine changes. That might be more so in children’s literature? Discuss? Jane Resh Thomas, a wise teacher and wonderful writer, asked me what I found different in writing adult books versus young adult novels. At the time I was a bit flippant and said “Just the problems; I’m now writing about menopause as opposed to first sex.” But the differences are larger, I think, at least with the stories I’m trying now to tell. And the idea of change figures in. How do we change at 55 as opposed to 15? How does that affect the respective stories?