JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We're very excited here on Jungle Red Writers, because today is publication day for Hallie Ephron's latest mystery, THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN. Yesterday's first newspaper review in the Lansing Journal was a rave: "It's a dark, captivating and deliciously creepy tale that’s liable to keep you reading all night long.”
Once upon a time…
…there was an old woman who lived in the Bronx.Ninety-one-year-old Mina Yetner lives in the Bronx neighborhood of Higgs Point where small shotgun houses perch on waterfront with a view marsh grass, birds, and in the distance the Manhattan sky line.
Mina doesn’t like to get into her neighbor’s business, but when Sandra Ferrante, a troubled woman with a drinking problem, is pulled from her home and taken by ambulance to the local hospital, Mina tries to find Sandra’s daughter to convey her mother’s message:
“Don’t let him in until I’m gone.”I know, right? You're pressing the 'buy' link or putting on your coat to head for the bookstore as we speak. While you're off getting your copy of There Was an Old Woman, Hallie and I will have a little chat...
JULIA: Every book, I've discovered, has a kernel - an image, a news story, an event that spurs the writer's imagination. What was the kernel for THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN?
HALLIE EPHRON: Ah, the kernel... The idea came to me on a cold January morning a few years ago when firefighters pulled my next-door neighbor out of her house. She'd fallen and had been lying on her kitchen floor, unable to call for help. Her minister alerted the police when she didn't show up for Sunday services.
Firefighters found a house full of cats and piles of garbage and debris so dense it was barely possible to get to the kitchen to rescue her.
My office window is barely ten feet from her living room window, and a year or so before, I'd brought over some mail mis-delivered to us and the interior looked, well, normal. And I thought she only had two cats.
And so, being a mystery writer, I began to What if. What if my neighbor didn't create that mess she was living in? How could her living conditions have deteriorated around her? Who might have orchestrated it. And the all-important: Why?
JULIA: A feisty 91-year-old isn't the sort of heroine one reads every day. How did you put yourself into Mina's head?
HALLIE: Mina. She's the person I imagine I'll become when I've outgrown the need to apologize for having so many opinions. I'm already pretty forgetful, so that part I didn't have to make up.
JULIA: Forgetfulness... I think everyone at JRW can empathize with that! The book is rooted in the location, a small working-class community on a marsh within reach of Manhattan. Is Higgs Point based on a real community?
HALLIE: I set it in the Bronx where the Bronx River meets the Long Island Sound, at the edge of a marsh that Robert Moses didn't fill.
I call it Higgs Point -- Thomas Higgs is historic figure who owned that (once) beachfront property at the turn of the century. But Evie's street, the little store, and everything else about the neighborhood is made up.
JULIA: The unavoidable question: outline? Or organic?
HALLIE: I tried to outline but it kept getting away from me.
JULIA: Part of the story is anchored in the 1945 crash of a plane into the Empire State building (I looked it up in wikipedia when you gave me the manuscript to read and was surprised to find it was all true!) What led you to include this episode in the book?
HALLIE: That crash links Mina and Evie, the other protagonist.
Evie is a curator at a New York Historical society. She's mounting an exhibit about historic New York fires that includes that incident. Mina turns out to be the last survivor of that fire.
JULIA: THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN has a pretty compelling mystery, but it's also very much a story about mothers and daughters and sisters. Do you see yourself as having written a mystery with a family tale embedded? Or a novel with a mystery attached?
HALLIE: Can I have it both ways?
HALLIE: I'm so glad you see the generations of women. Mina and Evie connect across a massive generational gap in part because they are not related to each other. Evie's relationships with her mother and sister are much more fraught.
Questions? Comments? Cheers? One lucky commenter will win a copy of There Was an Old Woman!