I met Leslie Wheeler when we were both first time novelists published by Larcom Press, a small, New England publisher. Since then, Leslie, an award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, has gone on to write two more murder mysteries in her "living history" series. She's also written numerous short stories published in four anthologies by Level Best Books and has become a contributing editor. Her latest short story will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Thin Ice.
Please welcome Leslie to Jungle Red.
JAN: Since you always set your mysteries in historical locations, tell me a little about Spouters Point and why you chose this setting for your mystery?
LESLIE: Spouters Point is a fictionalized version of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. I chose it because I’ve long been fascinated by the history of whaling that is presented at the museum. I’d visited the Seaport years ago, but during my second visit in 2003, I really fell in love with the place, especially with the Charles W. Morgan, which is the world’s oldest surviving wooden whaling ship.
Mystic Seaport was also attractive to me, because of its proximity to Foxwoods, the Mashantucket-Pequot-owned gambling casino complex. These two sites allowed me to further explore a theme I’d dealt with in Murder at Plimoth Plantation: the often troubled relations between the white settlers and the Native peoples.
JAN: Tell us a little bit about your protagonist Miranda Lewis, the workaholic history book writer, and more importantly, how she evolved from your first book Murder at Plimoth Plantation.
LESLIE: When we first meet Miranda in Murder at Plimoth, she’s completely absorbed in her work, but in the course of the novel, she changes from armchair historian to a woman of action. She solves a murder and, as the novel closes, begins a relationship with Nate Barnes. In the second book, Murder at Gettysburg, she continues to get more involved in the real world rather than simply living vicariously through her writing. She solves another murder, but in the process is disillusioned to discover that a man she’s worshipped for years is not the person she thought he was. She returns to Nate, in part because she cares about him, but also because she knows him for who he really is, warts and all.
JAN: Every mystery protagonist has his/her special skills. What is it that makes Miranda such a good sleuth?
LESLIE: I think she’s a good sleuth because she’s observant and curious, always wondering what’s going on beneath the surface of the people around her. She’s also incredibly stubborn. She’ll pursue a possible suspect even though everyone, including Nate, warns her against it.
JAN: Speaking of Nate, I was immediately intrigued by him. He seems fresh and authentic. Maybe I'm just tired of sensitive new age guy/fictional characters, but when Miranda has to cool him down from an episode of road rage, I immediately wanted to know more about him. Tell us where he came from (idea wise) and why you chose him (and if he's not new to this book, just tell us about how he's grown or changed across the series).
LESLIE: I’m so glad you asked about Nate, Jan, also that you like him, because someone else, who read the book pre-publication, was really put off by him, and I found myself defending him. Nate is modeled after a friend’s volatile, Italian-American husband, who couldn’t be more different than his reserved WASP wife. I chose him because I wanted to write about a relationship between two people from very different worlds, who have a lot of issues to work out. There’s also a bit of my adopted son, who is part Native American, in Nate. I imagined Nate as looking much as Nick would thirty-some years down the road.
The odd thing is that as Nick has grown older, he’s become more like Nate in terms of his personality. Hmmm.
JAN: Hmmm is right. Are we mothers just in love with our sons?? (I know I am) Or is this just life imitating art?? Hmmm.....
Anyway, in this book you interweave two fascinating cultures. The seafaring and the Native American. Tell me about your on-site research. Did you spent a lot of time in the casino? And learning about modern day Native American gambling culture?
LESLIE: I confess that because of a deep-seated aversion to gambling, which, I suppose, goes back to my Puritan ancestry. I didn’t spend much time in the casino. I went in, looked around, and that was it. Where I spent the most time was the Mashantucket-Pequot Museum, which is adjacent to Foxwoods. There, I learned a great deal about how a tribe that was all but extinguished in the 1600s was able to make a remarkable comeback by qualifying for Federal recognition and then opening a successful casino complex.
I also attended the Mashantucket-Pequot-sponsored powwow, Schmetizum, which takes place over several days at the end of August every year, and is the largest and richest (in terms of prize money) powwow east of the Mississippi.
JAN: That's pretty cool. A real powwow...
LESLIE: It was a fascinating experience, which taught me about another important aspect of Native American culture. But back to gambling: Like my protagonist, Miranda, I do have a fondness for the race track, though I haven’t indulged it in a while.
JAN: What was your biggest personal challenge in writing this book? The hardest obstacle to overcome?
LESLIE: My biggest challenge was writing a climatic scene where Miranda almost kills another character. True, she’s fighting for her life, but the scene was still hard to write, because Miranda is an extension of me, and I don’t like to think that even if I were up against it, as she is, that’s what I’d do. Miranda is horrified by what she almost did. As she later says, “The worst part was that she [the other person] stopped being a human and became an object I needed to destroy.” The scene is meant to counter the racist stereotype of Indians as savages and white people as civilized beings.
Even Miranda wonders at times if there’s any truth to the stereotype. So I had to put her in a situation where she behaves like a savage herself.
JAN: To find out more or read the excerpt, check out Leslie's website at http://www.lesliewheeler.com