Interview: Susan Oleksiw

Please welcome guest Susan Oleksiw, author of Below the Tree Line!

Which books/authors inspired me the most?

Edgar Allan Poe was a favorite in my family, along with Sherlock Holmes, and I read both as a teenager. But I didn’t pick up crime fiction again until after college, when I came across Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad. I loved the independence of her main female character, who decides on the spur of the moment to travel to the Middle East. I read all of Christie and hundreds of other British mysteries, but I was especially taken with John Masters, who set a series of novels in India, and John Buchan, whose Thirty-Nine Steps defined a genre.

Below the Tree LineHow did you get started writing?

By fifteen I knew I wanted to write; I wanted to think on paper. I wrote an essay for a magazine a relative edited, and showed it to one of my teachers. She was not impressed, and I pondered her reaction. After a while I concluded she didn’t know how to respond, so she didn’t say anything. In college my freshman English teacher suggested I write fiction, and I was off and typing. I never let anyone tell me writing was not right for me.

Over the years I’ve written just about everything. In my first job, as a case worker in child welfare, I had to keep notes on all visits, and women in the typing pool typed them into the record. I was famous (infamous?) in the department for having long notes on my clients and their foster families or birth families. The first time I took minutes for a women’s organization, the chair handed them out at the next meeting with the introduction, “And here we have, ‘You are there,’ with Susan Oleksiw.” I tried to tone down my notes after that.

During my senior year in college I wrote a novel, revising it several times and submitting it to a contest. It went nowhere, but it was good experience. I didn’t turn to fiction again for several years, and then wrote a pile of short stories that went nowhere. My husband mentioned this to his boss, who told him he had six novels languishing in a desk drawer. That seemed to spark something in me, so I settled down and wrote my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started out?

First, don’t worry about the first chapter. Just write the whole draft and then edit. Second, the writing and publishing business has changed so dramatically since the 1980s that it’s hard to find one piece of advice that would be relevant over time. I sometimes got good advice from an editor or agent that I didn’t take, and later wished I had. Overall, the best advice and support has come from other writers. The mystery community is a great resource, and I’m glad to be part of it.

If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

I’d be a photographer. I’ve had a couple of shows and appeared in a few juried exhibits, and received good feedback. I enjoy the process of creating an image, and using a group of them to create a narrative. Even though photographers can now see the image the minute it’s taken on a digital camera, the printed image has a different impact, a different feeling. It’s a wonderful experience, and I wish I had more time for it. Perhaps that’s why I made Anita Ray, in the series set in South India, a photographer. She gets to play with a camera, and I get to follow along.


Susan OleksiwSusan Oleksiw is the author of the Mellingham mystery series and the Anita Ray mystery series. Beyond the Treeline, her first installment in A Pioneer Valley Mystery series, debuts on September 8 from Midnight Ink. Born and raised in New England, Susan Oleksiw has long been fascinated by the traditional New Englander and the way of life found there. She is the co-founder of Level Best Books, which publishes an annual  anthology of the best New England crime fiction. Her writing has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery and she has served as coeditor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing.

Before she entered into a life of crime, Susan studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a PhD in Asian studies. The author has also spent time living in India, and her fondness for the country lives on through her passion for photography. You can see more on all of her mystery series, as well as featured snapshots of her travels to India at


13 thoughts on “Interview: Susan Oleksiw”

  1. Welcome! Excellent advice about the first chapter. My last book ended up with a totally unanticipated first chapter I could never have planned until I wrote the whole thing. Looking forward to checking out your books.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the insights. As a reader, I am always interested in a writer’s background and writing process. Most do report writing the first chapter first and then continuing on. Some authors have reported that the first the whole book started with the first line and evolved from there.This is the first time the discussion has included writing the first chapter later. I am glad that you encourage writers to be independent and not to always do the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too love reading about a writer’s life and how she or he developed a story or novel. I may begin with the first chapter (later heavily revised) and others may wait till they’ve finished the whole ms, and both sides think the other might be odd. But even odder is the advice from the late John Updike–write a scene, any scene, then another scene from anywhere in the book, and after a while you’ll have the whole story. I’ve never tried it but I’m tempted. It might lead to all sorts of discoveries.

      Liked by 1 person

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