Up Close with Author + RI Native Suzanne Young
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Interestingly, Young has been a resident of Colorado for over 40 years. Despite leaving the state after graduating from the University of Rhode Island, Young's time spent in the Ocean State has left an indelible mark on her writing.
With this in mind, GoLocal recently spoke to Young, a member of Kindle’s top-100 list of “most popular authors in mystery,” about her Rhode Island upbringing and the influence it has had on her writing.
A Conversation with Suzanne Young
Can you talk a little about growing up in Rhode Island? What are some of your fondest memories of Rhode Island?
I had a happy childhood, growing up with two brothers and two sisters. I was fourth in the pecking order. During the school year, we lived in Warwick, on the East Greenwich line. Summers, weekends and holidays were spent on a farm in Washington County, not far from Dawley Park on the New London Turnpike. In summer, we went on picnics and for walks in the woods. There was a large pond where we boated, swam and fished for brook trout. Winters were a time for sledding and ice-skating.
Until I was seven, the farmhouse had no running water or electricity, so I experienced a kitchen pump, kerosene lanterns and a “two-holer” outhouse. The kitchen had a wood stove that was used even after modern appliances were added. I remember an “ice man” coming in the middle of summer to bring a huge block for the “ice box.”
We had a cow for milk and chickens for eggs. I helped to make butter and mayonnaise. A large garden provided most of our food and, of course, there was canning and preserving of vegetables and fruit in the fall.
All great memories, but my fondest is of Thanksgivings when our extended family got together--four of my mother’s six siblings, their spouses and children plus my father’s sister made a core group of 26. With friends, there were sometimes as many as 35 people for dinner. The smells of roasting turkey and pumpkin pie inside and the crispness of fall outside made the world a glorious place that day. We played games, joked and laughed. It’s still my favorite holiday because of those memories.
My least favorite memories? Cleaning the soot-blackened lantern chimneys and weeding the vegetable garden.
What inspired you to become a writer and did growing up in Rhode Island play a role in this?
My writing was first encouraged by a wonderful teacher I had in junior high, Walter Blanchard. He taught English and history and greatly influenced my love of both subjects. He gave us essay assignments which we would read in class. Mine, he said, were like excerpts out of “Life with Father.”
My family always had our meals together, but supper was particularly enjoyable because my father would “conduct” the conversation. He was a fan of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and poets such as Wordsworth, Keats and Byron. He’d quote something or toss out a fact, then send me or one of my older siblings to look it up in Bartlett’s or the encyclopedia or the dictionary. In every house my parents owned, there was always a room lined with books.
I might have become a writer regardless of where I grew up, but my environment certainly gave me plenty of preparation and material for such a career.
What led to your decision to base several of your novels in Rhode Island?
My novels are a series with a protagonist who lives in Rhode Island. The second in the series, “Murder by Proxy,” was set in Colorado to please my local readers, but Edna Davies really belongs in New England.
The house in which I grew up was built in 1780 by Jeremiah Greene, uncle to Nathanael Greene. Our farm had once been a stop for stagecoaches and the Pony Express, where horses were changed. So, my youth was not only surrounded with history, but with the creaks, thumps and groans of aged houses. Attics and cellars were mysterious places where I was sent on occasion to fetch something stored there, but I usually ran my errand quickly and left as soon as possible. They were dark and smelled of old wood, dust and dirt. I can still conjure up feelings of someone behind me, about to tap on my shoulder with a boney finger.
"Murder by Christmas" is about preparing for a holiday – or what can go terribly wrong in the process. In this story, Edna is frantic. The demands of an incapacitated husband have put her behind schedule so that, five days before Christmas, with family gathering for the first time in years, she hasn't even put up a tree. As a blizzard descends on the town, the owner of a local cat shelter is found dead and neighbor Mary Osbourne disappears. Trying to juggle holiday plans with the search for her friend, Edna confronts a killer and may miss Christmas herself.
In “Murder by Christmas,” I mention a few family traditions, including calling up the chimney to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Once (and only once!), my father stuck his boots in the fireplace ashes and walked from the hearth to the Christmas tree. We were delighted to detect Santa’s footprints on the rug, next morning. (My mother, not so pleased.) I wrote about Christmas because, to me, its preparation seems longer, more involved and more stressful than any other holiday. Good inspiration for murder and mayhem.
If you could collaborate with one author who would it be?
That’s a tough one. There are so many good authors. If I have to pick one, today I would say M.C. Beaton. Her characters are flawed but likable which, to me, makes them real. Her stories are entertaining, and she seems to depict bustling village life with a minimum of words. It would be fun and educational to work with her.
What is your process like, and how do you get your ideas?
I’ve been asked more than once if I write every day. I don’t. To me, that would be one sure path to writer’s block. I think about a scene or a chapter before I sit down to draft it. The first pass of a book is the hardest, by far--filling up all those blank pages. I disliked “rewrites” when I was in school, but now they are my favorite part of producing a book. Once a story has been fleshed out, I enjoy going back and smoothing it out, choosing a slightly better word here or enhancing the story with a little more detail there.
My ideas come from observing and considering things around me. For “Murder by Yew,” my research led me to look into poisons, which I narrowed to natural poisons. When I began studying the plants, bushes and trees native to Rhode Island, I was amazed that I had survived my youth. From rhododendron to lily-of-the-valley to yews, there seemed to be more toxic flora than not. The interesting thing is, in lesser doses, the poisonous substances can all be used medicinally.
“Murder by Proxy,” developed through wondering about the automation of my life. I worked at home, my paycheck was deposited directly into my bank account and phone calls were answered by voice messaging. When utilities and retailers began the campaign to “save a stamp” and “allow us access to your bank account,” the circle was closed. With money coming in for the bills to be paid automatically, the basics of life certainly didn’t need my interference. If I were to die, how long would this process continue?
Morbid, perhaps, but I do earn my living by thinking up ways to kill someone--gently, of course, and only on paper.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
That readers look forward to my next book.
Lastly, what advice do you have for an aspiring writer?
Find a good critique group. Not an easy task because writers can be very sensitive and guarded about their work. A good critique partner must be a serious writer working on his or her own project and be willing to take the time to give your work an honest review, without trying to change your style or your story. A group of three or four is ideal.
I was very fortunate to have found two such writers when I was working on my first novel back in 2000. I don’t know if I’d be published today if it hadn’t been for the deadlines we set and the kind-but-relevant feedback we gave each other. I am still working with terrific critique partners and can’t imagine writing without such support.
Proceeds from Suzanne's book sales help to benefit such causes as Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Arvada Food Bank, Angels Unaware (AngelsUnaware.net), Barnwater Cats and other local animal rescue groups.
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