Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Interview with Susan Van Kirk

Jill took a sip of wine and set her glass decisively on the table. “She’s
a woman full of dark secrets and she’s walking a fine line on the edge of disaster.”
“You may be right—both of you,” said Grace. “You know that
old saying from Ben Franklin—‘Three may keep a secret—’”
“‘—if two of them are dead,’” whispered Deb.
And then it was quiet.

Susan Van Kirk
Three May Keep a Secret (Page 17)

Susan Van Kirk writes like I want to write. She has a crisp, clean style that describes without flouncing into poetry. Keeping the plot central to drive the story, Susan doesn’t cheat the reader of backstory and the main character’s insight. After teaching for forty-four years, she has enough experience for her “retirement” job of writing—mystery. I was thrilled when I realized the title of her first mystery came from a Benjamin Franklin quote because he’s my American hero. Three May Keep a Secret will be released in December by Five Star/Gale Cengage Learning. Put it on your cozy to-read list.                                                                      E. B. Davis

Welcome to WWK, Susan. Please give our readers a plot synopsis.
Thank you for having me as a guest, Elaine.
Grace Kimball just retired from teaching high school English in the small town of Endurance, Illinois. When one of her former colleagues, Brenda Norris, dies in a suspicious fire, Grace is hired by the new newspaper editor, Jeff Maitlin, to finish Brenda’s job researching the town’s history for a centennial celebration. Neither of them realizes that the murder is connected to the very research Brenda was doing. Grace’s circle of friends includes TJ Sweeney, the police detective (and Grace’s former student), who is investigating Brenda’s death. Before long, another murder occurs, leaving little doubt that someone will kill to keep a dark secret. Grace’s research and TJ’s investigation eventually lead to extreme danger for Grace Kimball, a woman with a secret of her own. It’s part thriller, part romance, all cozy.

I’m assuming you taught English for forty-four years, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
I taught high school English for thirty-four years, and then I switched to both education and communications classes at our local four-year liberal arts college. I loved teaching.

Did you base your main character, Grace Kimball, on yourself? Do you have any dark secrets like Grace does?
Everyone has secrets, but I don’t think mine are worthy of murder scenarios. Grace and I are more alike than different. Like Grace, I am not a patient person. We are both well organized, love reading good books, and our lives are often entwined with those of former students in our small towns. Like her, I often remember funny anecdotes about former students I see, and it’s a good thing they don’t know what I’m thinking from their crazy, teenage years. Like Grace, I raised my children as a single mother, but because of divorce rather than widowhood. Grace and I both have children and grandchildren in Arizona—but I have nine to Grace’s one, including two sets of twins. And, like Grace, I have a close group of friends who are a great support group. Unlike Grace, there is no Jeff Maitlin in my life. And, finally, unlike Grace, I can cook reasonably well, and I reflect longer on choices before jumping in. Sometimes I just shake my head at Grace.

Do we seek out our greatest fears as a means to overcome them, or does life throw us into situations whereby we must summon our courage to overcome them?

That’s a tough question. Grace and I would say the latter. I believe often fearful situations are thrust upon us, and they help us see our strengths and teach us a great deal—well, if we don’t die in the process. Grace has to face a horrifying situation from her past—a fear that she has never been able to sweep away, and it’s affected her whole life. I’ve known people who were broken by their pasts, and they couldn’t outrun those fears or fearful events. In this first novel, Grace is forced to face her past whether she wants to or not.

I love TJ Sweeney. Please tell our readers more about this fascinating woman.
Ha, ha. Me too. TJ is the woman many women would like to be: free, liberated, and assertive in a man’s world. She’s also physically beautiful, the result of a biracial mix, but she probably scares men off with her beauty and intelligence. She forced the Endurance Police Department to hire her after college because she smashed their test—did better than any man in the history of the department. Then she became their main detective because she was so good at what she did. But, unlike Grace and her circle of friends, TJ is free of commitments and does what she wants. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder at times, but there is never any doubt that she has Grace’s back, and she would do anything for the teacher who mentored her and changed her life. I think people will like the relationship between her and Grace; it’s easygoing and they kid each other a lot.  

Brenda Norris’s death left me wondering: Are we our own worst enemy?
Brenda sure was. She did everything wrong that she could possibly do: lost her job—which mattered to her a great deal—in front of the whole town because of her questionable morals; moved into writing shoddy exposes about people in the town; and generally spent a lot of time at Tully’s bar, often leaving with married men. But no one is 100% bad in Grace’s world, and even Brenda had qualities that made Grace defend her and look into her death.

Is Endurance, IL similar to Monmouth, your hometown in Illinois?
Actually, Monmouth [pop.10,000] is my adopted hometown since I moved here in 1968, and Endurance is very like that 1968 town which was much less economically depressed than Monmouth today. I supposed it reflects the fates of many small towns since that time.

Endurance has 15,000 residents with numerous shopping opportunities and a much larger middle class. Endurance College is probably a lot like Monmouth College, a four-year, liberal arts school. Many of the stories about Grace’s former students have kernels of truth in them, so this time the teacher gets the last word.

There’s more than you’ve told us about Jeff Maitlin. Can you tell us why Jeff Maitlin came to Endurance from NYC?
No. (That was easy.)
Jeff was a huge presence in the media in NYC, and now he has retired to this tiny town to take a part-time, pre-retirement job. No one, not even Grace, knows why. But in my second book, Marry in Haste (another Franklin proverb), we discover Jeff has a huge mystery of his own in his past. In fact, he is quite the mystery man.

Why doesn’t Grace do something about her sister-in-law problem?
Everyone has a Lettisha (Letty) Kimball in their lives—the relative that you have to endure, and you also have to constantly remind yourself of her good qualities. In Grace’s case, Letty came with the marriage. When Roger, Grace’s husband, died young, his sister Letty moved in to help Grace raise their three small children. Currently, Letty doesn’t live with Grace, but she comes over and cooks a lot in Grace’s kitchen. She is the comic relief in the story since she has a jungle grapevine that is even better than TJ Sweeney’s. She is opinionated, believes everything she reads in the tabloids, and can be exasperating, but in the end she and Grace care for each other.

Why did you decide to submit your manuscript to Five Star?
I made a list of five small presses for my first novel. Five Star was the first on my small press list, and they loved my book immediately. I was very fortunate. They have been great to me, and I feel that I am working with professionals.

You’re working on Grace’s next adventure Marry in Haste. A man in Grace’s life? Jeff? Will the series continue to feature the group of four women?
Jeff and Grace are dating in the second Endurance book, but still with large questions about his past. And then he disappears. The subject of the book is domestic abuse. While that might seem unusual for a cozy, I concentrate on the psychological aspects, public opinion, and available help for victims. It has a double plot: a murder in 2012 in Endurance, and the diary of a young woman who came to Endurance as a teenager in 1893. Of course, TJ Sweeney will also be back to investigate and try to keep Grace out of trouble, and so will her friends. And Lettie—shock—will gain a love interest at age sixty-nine.

Are you a beach babe or a mountain gal, Susan?
Definitely mountains for me, whether South Mountain in Phoenix, or the mountains in Colorado. While I live in the flat, corn and soybean state of Illinois, I love visiting mountainous states; how beautiful to wake up in the morning and see mountains instead of corn stalks. 


  1. Susan was kind enough to send me an ARC of Three May Keep a Secret. Here’s the blurb I wrote:

    Bring Jessica Fletcher to Endurance, Illinois, have her teach English so she knows everyone in town (and remembers what they were like as teenagers), and you’ve created the remarkable Grace Kimball. Under Van Kirk’s skillful pen, Endurance comes so fully alive, you want to include it in your next road trip. Combine Kimball and Endurance, mix with a few old-time secrets and enjoy a fiery cocktail of a debut novel.

    ~ Jim

  2. Thank you, Jim, and thanks to Writers Who Kill for having me on as a guest today. I'm having a lot of fun with these characters, and I'm looking forward to Grace's next adventure.

  3. Thanks for sharing with WWK. Your characters sound interesting. I hope you continue to have fun with them.

  4. Welcome to Writers Who Kill. Susan your book sounds exactly like books I like. I need to put it on my To be ordered list.

  5. Thank you for stopping by WWK, Susan! Your book sounds terrific - you had me at the Benjamin Franklin-inspired title.

  6. This sounds like a great series. For a while, I lived in a small Midwest college town for a while. It was sad seeing it shrink. The steel fabricator I worked for shut down, and we sadly joined the exodus.

    I'm looking forward to reading these books.

  7. Sounds like you used your own bio perfectly for a main character. Much luck with your series, Susan.

  8. What a great interview! I can't wait to read this book.

  9. Your series sounds intriguing, Susan. Good luck!

  10. Thank you everyone for the encouragement. I am having a great time with this series and I hope you fall in love with the characters...well, at least the ones that don't die. I appreciate all the kind comments, and thank you for giving me a space to talk about my book and the little town of Endurance.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed your book, Susan. Thanks for interviewing here at WWK. I look forward to visiting with your characters in their next adventure. I'm hoping for a good long run.

  12. Thank you for having me and, yes, I'm hoping for a good, long run also!