I’d like to introduce you to the sixty-fifth interviewee in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. She is Susan Stoner.
Hi, Susan! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?
I guess the odd thing about my writing is that, despite writing for a living as a lawyer and being a voracious reader of fiction since the second grade, I never thought of writing fiction until relatively recently.
I’ve always written non-fiction. As an undergraduate I would choose research and writing over taking a test. As a consequence, I learned a lot about neighborhood activists in Portland, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans and Houston. I also learned a lot about making ethanol using a solar still and about every aspect of urban waste ranging from waste generation and composition, to garbage handling technologies and recycling programs.
When I went to law school I took the same approach—choosing writing over test taking—choosing to research and write about employment drug testing, cogeneration of electricity and employee owned workplaces.
My eyes got opened to the joy of historical research when I was in college. I worked as a research assistant to the dean of the criminal justice program. He had me research the first sheriff in Portland. I found doing that research, especially using original source materials, an enthralling experience. I got hooked on historical research.
It wasn’t until I read about the Flying Squadron, however, that I felt compelled to use fiction to tell that story. The Squadron was a group of early 1900’s hobos riding the rails. They’d strip cruel railroad bulls of their shoes and throw them off slow moving trains. The idea was to make them behave better towards the thousands of hobos who formed the “floating army” of the unemployed.
I was amazed to discover that I loved every minute of fiction writing. I still do. It is my favorite activity.
Your latest novel, Dry Rot: A Sage Adair Historical Mystery Series, was published in June, 2013. It’s the third in the series. Can you tell us about the book?
It is a fast-paced historical mystery that uses the same characters as the first two books in the series. The murder takes place in the context of a labor strike for a 8-hour day and involves municipal graft…both the dishonest and the honest kind.
One new character is introduced. His name is Herman Eich and he is a ragpicker poet. What is wonderful about historical mysteries is that they can be built upon intriguing historical facts. So, Herman Eich is based on a man of that name who lived in the early 1900’s. He was known as the “Ragpicker Poet of Portland.” Herman is turning out to be quite a popular character with series readers.
Can you tell us about the first two books? I understand that you have two more books finished or in the works? How many more do you have planned in the series?
The core of the first book, Timber Beasts, is an actual timber fraud scheme that resulted in the conviction of a U.S. Senator and a number of other notables. It introduces the characters and has the most complete backstory on two of them; Sage Adair and his mother, Mae Clemens.
The second book revolves around the practice of shanghaiing. That was the practice of kidnapping men off the city streets and selling them to perform forced labor on the sailing ships. Portland was the most dangerous city on the West Coast when it came to shanghaiing. It has another side story but I will spoil the mystery if I write about it.
I am in the final revision stage of the fourth book. It’s called Black Drop. The story is built around President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Portland in 1903.
The fifth book, with a working title of Dead Line, is a bit of stretch for me since it takes place in Central Oregon and has cowboys and sheepherders and homesteaders. I am learning lots about a part of the state I rarely visited when I was growing up. It has a grand beauty and there is much to admire in the history of those who settled it. Not an easy life. I’m seven chapters into that story.
Do you have to do a lot of research for these historical mysteries?
Yes. I think I may do more research than many historical fiction writers. That’s because I get excited about learning new historical facts. For me, research is as engrossing as the actual writing. I once heard author Tony Soo say that he just plagiarizes history. That stuck with me and that’s what I do as well.
The challenge with historical research is to incorporate the historical facts into the storyline without having those facts act as a drag on the pace or push the reader out of the story. My goal is to give a romping good read, have the reader feel greatly satisfied at the end of the last page and only then realize that they just learned a heck of a lot of history.
Why did you choose turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest as the setting for your series?
In terms of location, it’s the place I know and love best. In terms of the time period, that was a political decision. The early 1900’s was a time of metastasized greed. By that I mean that wealth and power were being increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few. Those few were bereft of compassion for the workers and farmers who were making them wealthy. This despairing situation gave rise to the progressive movement. From the progressive movement came the middle class and so many of the values that made America a beacon for the rest of the world.
Today’s globalization of the corporate capitalism is a mirror image of the situation that our great grandparents and our grandparent’s faced in the 1900’s except today the same situation is writ large—in global capitalism. Thankfully, we see that same countervailing force rising up to challenge greed and asserting the value of compassion as opposed to self-interest.
One other point I am making, I hope, is that most of us are the descendants of brave, strong and truly remarkable people. Not the people who got streets named after them, too often that was money talking. The real legacy of America comes from our forefathers and mothers who fought for economic and social justice in their workplaces, city hall, schools and despite great odds they prevailed. It’s a message of hope.
Would you share a brief excerpt from one of your books?
The old man responded to the question on Sage’s face. “So you noticed both my thumbs was missing, did you?” He raised his hands side-by-side so the absence was unmistakable. “A son-of-a-bitch captain tied me in the rigging. Wasn’t able to keep my toes on the deck for long enough. Ain’t seen these thumbs for more than fifty years. I tell you, I miss ‘em every day.”
“Why’d he do that to you?” Sage asked, recalling stories of devil ships and cruel captains. No way to escape a bastard captain in the middle of the ocean unless you killed him. Even if you succeeded, there’d be no putting the act behind you. Mutiny at sea, no matter how awful the captain, carried a death sentence. Just the thought of being trapped aboard such a ship made his skin crawl up his back. It’d be claustrophobic, only above ground, surrounded by an endless expanse of bottomless water.
The old man was rooting around in his own memory, reliving the loss of his thumbs. “Bastard claimed I was insubordinate because I spoke up. He was too hard on the younger boys in ways that weren’t natural.” Despite explaining those missing thumbs for more than fifty years, his words carried outrage. The easy geniality on the old man’s face was gone. “Next time we hit port, I scarpered. It was hell making my way home from Africa, took a couple years. I didn’t care. Heard that later in that same voyage someone stuck a knife between the captain’s ribs while he was whoring it up in some Chilean brothel.”
The old man shifted atop his box and said, “Them days are long gone for me, my boy, but captains like that are still sailing. Old salts like me, we know all of ‘em that comes to port here.” He puffed vigorously on his pipe and nodded toward the beached whaling ship.
“So, what was sinking this whaler here?” Sage asked.
“Well, you see the squiggly channels and small holes in the wood? They mean that sea termites honeycomb the planking. Carpenters can tamp new oakum, that’s hemp coated with tar, into the seams, plank them over, tar ‘em up and sheathe her with metal. But she’ll still be barely seaworthy. Old and riddled as she is, I’m willing to bet her inside frame is rotted out. I sure know I wouldn’t want to be sailing her into the Arctic.” Land Sharks
Is Yamhill Press your own company?
Yes, Yamhill Press is owned by my husband and myself. We actually received and decided against entering into a contract with a large publisher. By the time we had a major publisher interested, we’d done so much research on publishing that we decided it would be better to bring the series out ourselves.
Your personal background is fascinating—you’ve lived in a Sikh home in Singapore, alongside an alligator-infested Louisiana bayou, in a forest lean-to, etc. What took you to so many different places? Do you have a favorite place where you’ve lived?
To adopt and modify a phrase from Aurthurian legend, I have lived the life of a “lady errant.” I like adventuring, traveling and stepping outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t intending to live in interesting places. Rather, I just followed my nose and found myself having wonderful experiences and meeting many wonderful people.
Every place is my favorite place when I am living there. There isn’t a single place I’ve lived that isn’t a treasured memory or else somewhere that taught me an important lesson. That said, I think the Pacific Northwest is the best place to live for a whole host of reasons. But then, I love rain and dislike eternal sunshine.
You a labor union lawyer. Has your experience in your career in any way influenced or helped your writing?
Yes, in many ways and on many different levels. I fight the uncaring, greedy corporate mentality every day of my worklife. I defend and try to improve the life of laboring people and their families. That is what the protagonist of the series does. I am impressed beyond measure by the overwhelming decency, intelligence and kindness of those people who really do the work in this world. This series was written for them.
What books or authors have most influenced you in your own writing?
In terms of my own hopes of style, I have to say I like the spare, clean style of Hemingway. Many writers wow me with their fresh metaphors and stunning insights. I don’t try for that. My goal is for the reader to be unaware of my presence while they are reading the story. I hope they enter into the setting and that the characters become their familiar friends during an exciting and successful adventure.
Historical mystery writers I particularly like are Caleb Carr, Barbara Hambley, Anne Perry, Laurie King, Laura Joh Rowland, Ellis Peters, and Edith Pargeter. I am sure there are a number more that I am forgetting.
Do you have a writing mentor?
Nope. I fly by the seat of my britches.
Do you have a writing routine, a special place where you go to do your writing, or a certain time of day? Do you listen to music while you write, and if so, what kind of music?
Weekend morning, comfortable chair, cup of coffee, laptop and that’s about it. No music. I play the guitar and sing (neither very well) and I think music would be distracting. At odd moments during the week, I mull over the next potential events in the story.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
sageadair on facebook