JAN: Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including 5 mysteries from St. Martin’s Press, and now, an historical novel, Midnight Fires: a Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press).
Mary Wollstonecraft is a fascinating historical character. Clearly the material for a terrific protagonist. You’ve written a chapbook of poems on her life, but how and where did you first discover her, and how did you decide she should be a sleuth?
NANCY: Years ago in a college library I stumbled upon Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she called arranged marriage “a legal prostitution,” advocated a female’s right to equal education with boys, and divorce with impunity.
Her peers labeled her “a hyena in petticoats.” After reading her letters about kidnapping a depressed sister from an abusive husband, and later forcing an English captain to rescue French sailors from a sinking ship (she eschewed bigotry and injustice)—I figured she’d make a terrific sleuth.
JAN: What are the special challenges of writing with a protagonist who really lived versus one you’ve completely made up?
NANCY: Unlike a fictional protagonist, Mary has to remain in her own time and place—I can’t have her running down a villain when in real life she was hovering about her mother’s death bed. In 1786 she was en route to be governess to the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family, who lived in Mitchelstown Castle, a sort of creepy gothic manse, so I started the book there. But of course I had to research the historical characters connected with that castle, so that was an added challenge.
JAN: What made you write a historical novel—and do you find it more difficult?
NANCY: More difficult because of the challenges noted above, and the worry of Do I have it right?
On the other hand, I’ve had Mary seething in my head for decades (I love a flawed character), and now I’ve a ready-made time line and plot, like the stormy conflicts between Mary and Lady K, or the womanizing Lord K who got an earlier governess pregnant and later shot his daughter’s lover.
JAN: Publisher’s Weekly said about the book “deftly illuminates 18th century tensions.” Can you tell us about those tensions and how different/same they are to tensions today?
NANCY: In 1786 English Protestants were in ascendancy after Cromwell crushed an earlier Irish uprising. Landlords charged huge rackrents and exported the food peasants grew, so when blight hit the potatoes, people starved.
Inspired by the American Revolution, cells of rebel Irish like the “Defenders” began a clandestine rebellion against the aristocracy. Mary’s pupil Margaret later renounced her own class to join the United Irishmen (everyone blamed Mary for that
JAN: I understand this will be a three book series. Tell me what’s next? And are you always on the lookout for historical figures who make great sleuths?
NANCY: Book #2, The Nightmare (‘11), is set in London just after Mary has written Vindication, and fallen headlong for artist Henry Fuseli. She proposes to join him and his wife in a ménage à trois—“platonically,” she insists—as the door slams in her face. Fiction meets fact when Fuseli’s famous work “The Nightmare” disappears, and a dead woman turns up with an incubus on her breast .
In book three,. Mary rushes off to revolutionary Paris “neck or nothing” (book #3) —and while heads roll, loses her own head (metaphorically speaking) to a feckless American. I might write a fourth when the cad, who keeps a mistress back home, ships Mary and their illegitimate child off to Scandinavia. After that? There are a lot of unsung female rebels lurking there in the mist.
JAN:Nancy, who lives in Vermont with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats, was was an Agatha winner for a children’s mystery, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. To learn more about her, check out her website at www.nancymeanswright.com