Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Alongside the Books We’ve Loved: Venom and the River

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.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Venom and the RiverVen­om and the Riv­er
Mar­sha Qua­ley
Untreed Reads, 2013
avail­able as an e-book

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? 

Marsha Qualey

pho­to: Kather­ine Warde

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?

Betsy Tacy & TibA.  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.

Little House Wayside

Lit­tle House Way­side
Pepin, Wis­con­sin

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?

Thin IceA. 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?

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