A Conversation With Susan Wittig Albert
by Claire E. WhiteSusan 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.)
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?
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?
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!
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 voilà! 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!"
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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!
More from Writers Write