Please welcome Leslie Wheeler, author of Rattlesnake Hill!
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My perfect day begins with breakfast for my cat and me—can’t start the day without it—and a glance at my local newspaper, The Boston Globe. Then if Marmalade the cat is feeling frisky, I’ll play with her a bit. After that, it’s up to my study on the third floor of my condo to write while my mind is still fresh and clear but also in touch with the dream world of my unconscious. Though difficult at times, writing is an activity that gives me great pleasure. I’m excited when ideas come to me, and a productive session leaves me with a feeling of accomplishment. I’ll break for a quick lunch, then around 2 or 3 PM, my low point in the day, I’ll either go to the gym, or if the weather’s nice, I’ll take a walk around the Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge, which puts fresh air in my lungs, clears my mind, and removes the kinks in my body that I’ve developed from sitting at my computer. I’ll return, refreshed and relaxed, and if there’s time, I’ll put in an hour or more at my desk. My perfect day ends with me either cooking dinner for my significant other and my son and his girlfriend, all of whom live nearby, or having dinner with my significant other at his place. Afterwards, I might watch a little TV, read a book or a New Yorker article that interests me, then it’s lights out.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression or meal?
From head to toe, the accessories you’re most likely to see me wearing are a beret on my head and patterned socks on my feet. The beret I currently sport is made of soft, dark green wool that after several years of wear fits my head of thick, unruly curly hair perfectly. I’m so attached to it I’d probably freak out if I lost it, as I have when I’ve lost previous favorite berets. I wear a beret outdoors in the fall after it turns chilly and into the summer until it gets too hot and I replace it with a cotton or straw sun hat. The patterned socks I wear come in all colors with lots of different designs. Many feature cats, but others showcase birds, fish, moose, bears and deer. The socks always give me a lift—no pun intended—when I put them on, and I feel sad when a favorite pair develops holes and I can’t wear it anymore.
What themes do you regularly revisit in your writing?
One theme I often revisit in my writing is that of parents’ efforts to control their children’s lives. In Murder at Plimoth Plantation, this is presented in a humorous manner through the portrayal of my main character’s sister-in law, Eileen, who is such a helicopter mom that she jets in from California to Massachusetts once a month to visit her daughter, an interpreter at Plimoth Plantation. In Murder at Gettysburg, the theme takes a more sinister turn that I won’t go into here lest I give too much away. In Murder at Spouters Point, an interfering older brother tries to prevent his sister from marrying a man with a questionable past. In my new book, Rattlesnake Hill, a grandmother’s incessant message of gloom and doom causes her granddaughter to approach people warily, making it difficult for her to have close relationships with men.
Another theme I’ve dealt with frequently is the way in which the past is repeated in the present. Both Murder at Plimoth Plantation and Murder at Spouters Point focus on the often troubled relationships between white people and Native Americans, historically and into the present-day, while Murder at Gettysburg, with its emphasis on Confederate reenactors, takes a hard look at how some people in this country are still fighting the Civil War. In Rattlesnake Hill the past repeats itself in the present with two romantic triangles, separated by over a hundred years, that involve members of the same family.
A third theme that as writer especially interests me is the conflict between remaining on the sidelines of life as an observer and being fully engaged. Not surprisingly, I’ve examined this conflict through Miranda Lewis, the main character of my Living History mysteries, and Kathryn Stinson, the main character of Rattlesnake Hill, both of whom are torn between detachment and involvement.
What inspired you to write your new book?
Rattlesnake Hill grew out of the deep love I developed for the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts after many years of living there, first full-time, now part-time, in a small town that’s off the well-beaten tourist track. I have often been struck by the beauty of the Berkshire landscape, but I’m also well aware of the area’s dark side in the hardscrabble lives of some of the locals.
A story I heard about local people haunted me so much that I built the novel around it. It’s a tragic tale about a love triangle that ended with a woman’s murder and her lover’s blinding. Part of the reason this story had such an impact on me was that I knew and still do some of the people involved. The blinded lover’s father did the excavating on my property and for many years plowed the driveway. I often saw his son riding in the truck with him, dark glasses covering his sightless eyes. Also, relatives of the man who did the shooting are neighbors who live up the hill from me.
In the novel, this love triangle takes place over a hundred years ago, but it’s a story that reverberates over the generations until it’s repeated in another triangle that also ends with a woman’s death. When my main character, Kathryn Stinson, plunges into a passionate affair with a man whose ancestor was involved in the long-ago triangle, and who also figured in the more recent one, the story threatens to repeat itself a third time.
If you couldn’t write, what would you do?
If I couldn’t write, I’d spend more time doing all the things I do when I’m not writing. I’d read more, travel more, garden more, cook more, go for long walks and hike more, hang out with friends more, do more home improvement projects, and continue to do events and give workshops related to writing. But actual writing is so much a part of who I am that I’d feel diminished without it. While I enjoy other activities, I’m most happy when I’m writing—when it’s going well, of course! There have been periods when I couldn’t write, and those were difficult for me. One such period occurred after my husband’s death a number of years ago. I was so overwhelmed by everything that needed to be done, including getting our son through his first year of high school without his father, that it was several months before I ventured into my study. When I finally did sit down at my computer and write, it was such a wonderful experience that I knew I had to continue.
An award-winning author of American history books and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three living history mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her new book, Rattlesnake Hill is the first in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries. Leslie’s short stories have appeared in such anthologies as Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and Level Best Books’ New England Crime Stories series, where she was formerly an editor. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she is Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond. Find her at her website (http://www.lesliewheeler.com) or on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/lesliewheeler)