A Conversation With Susan Wittig Albert

by Claire E. White

Susan Wittig Albert became a full-time writer after abandoning her second career in teaching. (Her first career was in mothering, during which she produced three children, sons Bob and Michael and daughter Robin.)
Photo of Susan Wittig Albert
After undergraduate work, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. For 15 years, she taught and held administrative positions at the University of Texas at Austin, Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans, and Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, Texas. Thoroughly fed up with academic politics, she quit and began writing books for young adults. In 1986, she married computer programmer and writer Bill Albert, whose pseudonyms are Franklin W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Nicholas Adams, and Robin Paige. The couple's co-authored books now number around 80 or so (including the 60-something young adult novels they wrote from 1986-1991). The lastest book out from this prolific writing team is Death at Rottingdean, a Victorian murder mystery which features amateur detectives Lord Charles Sheridan and his wife Kate.

Susan is the creator of the enormously popular herbal mystery series which features ex-attorney and current herbalist China Bayles, who lives in the fictional small Texas town of Pecan Springs. The series debuted in 1992 with Thyme of Death, which was followed by Witches' Bane (Berkley, 1993), Hangman's Root (Berkley, 1994), Rosemary Remembered (Berkley, 1995), Rueful Death (Berkley, 1996), and Love Lies Bleeding (Berkley, 1997). The latest entry in the China Bayles series is Chile Death (Berkley, 1998), in which China investigates a murder committed during a chile cook-off. The series has been praised from everyone from Publishers Weekly to Library Journal, and is known for its snappy dialogue, humor and wonderful regional background. The next China Bayles book is due out in October, 1999 from Berkley Prime Crime, and will be titled Lavender Lies.
Susan lives with her husband Bill at Meadow Knoll, 22 acres in the Texas hill country, 60 miles northwest of Austin, with two antique cats, a black lab named Zach (who tends to eat the window blinds if left unsupervised), and a startling assortment of ducks and geese. When she's not plotting her latest murder, you can find her working in her garden, spending time with her husband, or whipping up a delicious meal that's sure to include some fresh herbs. Susan spoke with us about her escape from academia to life in the Texas Hill Country as a mystery novelist, how she created her popular character China Bayles, and gives some tips on keeping a character in a continuing series fresh and interesting.

What prompted your move from academia to novelist? Was it a difficult transition to make?

My job (vice president for academic affairs) was stressful and took all my time. I needed to do something that allowed me to have a life--and I'd always dreamed of writing. It was a tough decision, though (a lot of money to give up!) and it took a long time to get used to an unstructured life: that is, a life that had only the structure I gave it. I was fortunate in moving into a kind of writing (juvenile fiction) where I could sell immediately, and which kept me busy full-time.

Do you ever miss the academic life?

Cover of
Love Lies Bleeding by Susan Wittig Albert
No, never! In fact, I probably have more intellectual challenges outside the university than I had when I was teaching/doing administration. Now I have time to read "outside my field" and follow research in many different areas. I don't miss my colleagues either--the emphasis was on competition, and that can destroy creativity.

How has your academic background affected your writing?

I learned how to use a library, how to search for information, how to organize research materials. Both the herbal mysteries and the Victorian mysteries benefit from these skills.

Let's talk about China Bayles. How did you create her? Were there any specific characteristics or personality traits that you definitely tried to avoid?

I wanted to create a strong woman who would (over the course of a number of books) learn how to be both strong and soft. I had Kinsey Milhone in mind as a place to start from--that is, as a point of departure. But I wanted China to be able eventually to accept close relationships with others, and to allow others to teach her what she doesn't know. I don't think I consciously avoided any particular character traits.

I'd like to talk about the most recent China Bayles book, Chile Death. How did that book come about?

Cover of
Chile Death by Susan Wittig Albert
It's part of a mini-series within the series, a quartet of books starting with Rueful Death, then Love Lies Bleeding, Chile Death, and finally Lavender Lies. As usual, the book has several plots. In the China-McQuaid plot, I wanted China to rescue McQuaid from his despondency by engaging him in a mystery. (Funny thing: at the end, she has to be rescued, by Ruby.) I'd been wanting to write a "Texas-style" book, and that's how the chili cookoff plot came about. I can't think of anything more Texas than a bowl of red. Also, I thought the title was a winner--and I wanted to use it before Diane Mott Davidson thought of it!

The book is peppered throughout with interesting facts about the chile pepper and how to make a great "bowl of red." The book also features an infamous chile made with peanuts. (As a native Texan, I must admit that I found this somewhat shocking, but managed to keep reading! ) Tell us about the big chile ingredient controversy.

I'm with you--no peanuts, please! But when I began doing research into chili and looking at recipes from all over the country, I realized that peanuts are a common ingredient (except in Texas, where we like our chili straight.) The idea for the peanut poisoning came from a Burden of Proof show, where Greta was interviewing some restaurant owners who had faced suit because of food poisoning. Peanut poisoning was one of the cases she mentioned. I got on the web and looked it up, and voilĂ ! there it was--lots of information about how one dies of anaphylactic shock.

One of the delights of visiting Pecan Springs is renewing acquaintances with old friends, such as China's friend and neighbor, Ruby. It seems like she's playing a larger role in the series lately. What was your inspiration for Ruby?

Ruby is China's right brain. I wanted her to be a foil for China's often too-logical, too-left-brained behavior, and to show China that the answers to a mystery can't always be found by logical deduction. Chance, the Universe, the imagination, and intuition all play a role in helping us figure things out. Ruby's shop, her crazy outfits, her interests--they're all right-brained stuff that I use to fill out the character and make her real.

Can you give us a sneak peek into China's next adventure?

Lavender Lies will be out in October. In it, China and McQuaid finally get married, but not until China finds out who killed a local real estate developer. The book after that is called Death of a Mistletoe Man. (At least, that's my working title. Berkley doesn't always use my title. I wanted Lavender Lies to be called Lavender and Old Malice (a fine title suggested by a reader). I'm writing Mistletoe right now, and am really fascinated by this ancient herb.

Let's talk about the creative process. When starting a new book, do you outline the plot first? Or does it develop as you write?

"I enjoy writing with Bill very much, although I don't know that I would like to write with anyone else. Our strengths complement one another--Bill is very good with plots, I'm better with characters. The greatest challenge, in the beginning, was letting go of my ego-stuff!"
In the China Bayles books, I almost always know who did it, why, and how. I know the herb I want to feature, which often suggests the season of the year and the setting. I also know what's going to happen in the first three chapters (plot) and Bill has usually given me some ideas for plot incidents. After that, I usually let the characters guide me through the sleuthing process, trusting them to turn up some interesting stuff. With the Victorians, it's very different. There, Bill and I talk through the entire plot, and he develops a story board, which outlines the three or four plots we use in those books. They're much more complicated than China's mysteries, because they involve real people and many real events, which have to be integrated with into the story line.

One of the greatest challenges in writing a series is keeping it fresh and alive. You're so good at that -- are there any tips or tricks you can share about keeping it new?

Keep your characters growing! Characters who grow and change in a natural way open themselves to new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world, new kinds of life situations. I always try to have the mystery connected somehow with China's life, so that it impacts her and motivates some sort of shift in her--some new self-knowledge, some new insight into one of her relationships, something that changes her subtly. Also, since I'm writing what I call "ensemble" mysteries, the other characters are going to change too, and their growth helps keep the series fresh. (There's a danger here, though, because some readers don't like their favorite characters to change. I usually suggest to them that they go back and reread Nancy Drew. She's the quintessential static character.)

China has had a very difficult relationship with her mother, Leatha, a recovering alcoholic. Do you find the scenes between China and Leatha difficult to write? It's a complex relationship.

Not difficult, exactly. Lots of readers think China should "get over it"--but I know how hard that is. My father was alcoholic (before anybody realized that this was a disease) and even though I know intellectually what his problems were and so on, I still carry a hard kernal of resentment against him for making my mother's life, and my own, so miserable for many years. That kind of anger doesn't dissolve overnight.

The book also focuses on China's relationship with Mike McQuaid, who is now in a wheelchair. Why paralyze McQuaid? How does this fact impact their relationship?

China's central issue is her focus on personal independence. I wanted to put her in a situation where she wanted to marry McQuaid but he refuses because he doesn't want to be dependent on her. Ironically, she sees her own psychological disability--a kind of emotional paralysis--played out in his physical disability. At the end of Chile Death, though, she has to accept her own dependency, when she ends up in a hospital bed. I give it a comic twist, but there's an important core of meaning there.

Tell us about the book Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story. How did this book come to be? How can it help women writers?

I wrote the book after teaching journaling and memoir writing for several decades. I wanted to share what I had learned, and encourage women to write about their lives. The book itself is an instructional tool, and I hope motivational as well. I've also started a non-profit organization called the Story Circle Network, which publishes a quarterly journal and offers programs and projects to encourage women to write. Our website is www.storycircle.org.

Let's talk about your other series written under the name Robin Paige. How did you and your husband decide to write a Victorian mystery series?

It's a series of historical mysteries (soon to be
"Create a character you'd be happy to live with for the rest of your life. You might just have to!"
6 books). We've been writing together for the YA market for almost ten years, but when we decided not to do any more YAs, we knew we still wanted to work together. So we decided to co-write a mystery series. We chose the late-Victorian period because there are so many new forensic developments at that time (fingerprinting, toxicology, ballistics, serology, forensic photography), and because we both love the period. We do an enormous amount of research, and try to spend three or four weeks in England every year. The series is paperback original, though, and we have decided not to continue it unless we can do it in hardcover. This isn't likely to happen, so we're expecting the series to end after Death at Whitechapel, which comes out in March 2000.

What do you like most about writing with a partner? What's the greatest challenge?

I enjoy writing with Bill very much, although I don't know that I would like to write with anyone else. When two people are writing together, there's not much possibility of writer's block--one or the other of you always has an idea. Also, our strengths complement one another--Bill is very good with plots, I'm better with characters. The greatest challenge, in the beginning, was letting go of my ego-stuff!

Tell us about the new Robin Page novel, Death at Rottingdean.

Cover of
Death at Rottingdean by Robin Paige
Our main (continuing) characters are Lord Charles Sheridan and his wife Kate. They go to Rottingdean, a seacoast village where Rudyard Kipling is living. The book is an espionage mystery that has several plot layers and a wonderful autopsy scene! (I loved writing that autopsy.)

I'd like to talk about Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Success Off the Career Track. Why was this book important to you to write?

It was a problem (leaving a career) that I needed to explore for myself. I abandoned my own successful academic career and I didn't understand why until I began to work on this book.

Do you feel that many women today are not fulfilled creatively in their careers? What can they do about it?

We need to take responsibility for our work. Whether we work for ourselves or for someone else, we have to find a way, every day, to grow in our work--grow for ourselves, learn some new skill, some new idea, some new strength.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Elizabeth George, Sharyn McCrumb

What is your advice to the aspiring mystery novelist?

Create a character you'd be happy to live with for the rest of your life. You might just have to!

What projects are you working on now?

China Bayles # 9--Death of a Mistletoe Man. Bill and I are also planning to do a memoir about our writing life and life in the country. Also, I write a regular column called "Herbal Thymes" for Country Living Gardener Magazine. Gardening is my passion.

Photograph Meadow Knoll looks lovely. What do you love most about the Texas Hill Country? Do you ever miss northern California?

I was born in Illinois and never was a Californian at heart. Texas feels like home to me. I love the climate (even the hot summer) and our 22 acres. We have a creek, a lake shore, wildflower meadows, woods, hills. It's very beautiful here.

How did you get interested in herbs and herbal lore?

I've always gardened, and herbs are part of it. I became more interested after Bill and I married and moved to the country, and when I started doing herbal crafts. (This was in the mid-late '80s.) I've gotten far more interested in herbs and herb lore since I started China's series. I do a lot of speaking and writing about herbs.

Photograph What are your favorite ways to relax?

An afternoon's energetic gardening, dinner with Bill, followed by an evening's reading and journaling, topped off with a hot bubble-bath and lavender scented sheets. My own private spa experience!

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