Mindy Quigley writes a mystery series featuring a most unusual sleuth, one with a profession I never contemplated before. Main character, Lindsay Harding is an ordained minister who serves as a hospital chaplain. Her profession brings her in contact with victims, but her personal life and history connects her to criminals as well. She’s not your parents’ minister.
Please welcome Mindy Quigley to WWK. E. B. Davis
How did you concoct Lindsay Harding? Was anyone you knew a hospital chaplain?
One of my many jobs (and, as a project manager who moved every couple of years, I’ve had many!) was working with the chaplains in the Pastoral Services department of the Duke University Medical Center. The chaplains would come back from the wards with these unbelievable stories, full of drama, heartbreak, and humor. It was a very unique place to work. I often told them, “One of you has to write a book about this.” None of them ever took up the challenge, so I was obliged to do it myself.
I have another source of real-life inspiration in that two of my four college roommates became ministers. One is a very “high church” Episcopal minister who happens to also be lesbian, and the other is an agnostic-leaning Unitarian Universalist minister who was a complete party animal in college. They are both fantastically empathic, deeply spiritual women who help their congregants wrestle with the big questions. Knowing them definitely changed my perception of what kind of person makes a good minister.
What happened in Lindsay’s life that beckoned her to the profession? Why didn’t she serve in the church?
Lindsay’s father is a very traditional evangelical Christian minister. She’s driven by a lot of the same motivations as him but goes about her work very differently. He’s a great preacher; she’s a great listener. He’s very sure of himself and the tenets of his faith; she’s insecure and always questioning everything. There’s a passage in the first Lindsay Harding mystery in which one of her friends observes that they have a bit of a Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader dynamic. I think that’s apt, except that they’re both good guys who just use “The Force” a little differently.
Lindsay must make use of psychology to deal with all her patients’ crises. Does she use the same techniques to solve crimes?
Yes! Chaplains are usually great listeners and exude empathy—both useful characteristics if you’re trying to get information out of someone. That fact that she’s not always sure of herself or her faith means that she questions other people’s assumptions, too—another great asset when trying to get to the bottom of a crime.
One of her strengths as a chaplain, though, is often her downfall when investigating misdeeds. She is overly trusting of most people, but many times she’s not trusting enough of those closest to her. She has a basic belief in the goodness of people, which she often sees confirmed during her interactions with patients. That, however, is at odds with having been betrayed by her mother, great aunt, and former fiancé at various points in her life. And in her job, she sees plenty of proof that some people are just unredeemable stinkers. For her, there will always be a tension between those two competing visions of human nature.
Her father, Jonah, went from being a drug supplier to a born-again Christian minister. Do you think people who make radical shifts in their lives are genuine? Is he ordained?
I sure hope so. My husband, who is a very private British guy, wouldn’t like me going into details about some of his youthful shenanigans, but suffice it to say he has a bit of a checkered past. He’s now the director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, a great husband and father, and a very upstanding teacher and scholar. I’ll be pretty disappointed if he ends up getting perp-walked out of a lecture one of these days for continuing to engage in the kind of hooliganism and petty criminality that characterized his youth.
Regarding Jonah’s conversion, I think it’s totally genuine. He was jailed at such a young age, I believe he was still capable of being “scared straight.” I’ve never gone into Jonah’s education, but I think he’s the kind of guy who would have started out as a storefront preacher and then gotten ordained at some point. He’s a by-the-book guy.
Your setting is a small town in North Carolina, Mount Moriah, although the second book in the series is set north on Bodie Island (Outer Banks) NC. Is Mount Moriah real? Did you grow up there? Have you visited the four-wheel drive community north of Corolla on Bodie Island?
I wish I’d grown up somewhere as beautiful as the North Carolina Piedmont! Alas, I grew up mostly in the bleak, decaying suburbs on the south side of Chicago. I moved to North Carolina after I finished college, and immediately claimed it as my own. When I visited for the first time, it was early April. Chicago was still cold and winter-gray, whereas in North Carolina, spring was running riot. When I got back to Chicago after that visit, and drove home past the shuttered steel mills and boarded-up strip malls on the South Side, I remember thinking, “I don’t have to live here anymore. I can live somewhere beautiful and warm.”
Mount Moriah was born out of my nostalgia for my nearly ten years of living in North Carolina. I wrote the first book in the series after we moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, because, when I thought of North Carolina, the imaginary little town of Mount Moriah is the place I visited in my mind.
As you note, my second book takes Lindsay away from Mount Moriah, to Duck and Corolla on the Outer Banks. I have visited that area many times, and also did a lot of research on Corolla’s history when I wrote A Death in Duck. Believe it or not, there are hours of YouTube footage taken by people driving on the four-wheel drive beaches. It was very relaxing to watch, and also helped me decide where I was going to place Lindsay’s great aunt’s house and what it would look like.
Lindsay seems not to have inherited a lick of DNA from her mother, Sarabelle, who spends her life in and out of prison. Just when I want to kick her, she reveals her fragility. Does she fit your definition of poor white trash?
Haha! One of the members of my writing group hates Sarabelle, too. I’ll tell her she has company. I have a lot of sympathy for Sarabelle. To me, she’s like a little lap dog—the kind that the owners dress up in sparkly tutus and carry around in a purse. Like those dogs, she was continually rewarded for being cute, and therefore became spoiled and never developed any integrity or fortitude. She has no idea how to survive on her own. Unlike Lindsay, who tries to remain true to her values, Sarabelle adjusts her personality to suit the situation.
As to whether or not she’s the epitome of poor white trash, I’ll agree that has a lot of redneck-y characteristics—you wouldn’t, for example, catch her nibbling petit fours at an avant garde art show. And I doubt she’s ever given any serious thought to existential or spiritual questions. While I don’t see her changing, I’m hoping in book four to show another little glimpse that there’s more to Sarabelle than meets the eye.
Sergeant Warren Satterwhite heads up the first book’s investigation along with the state police. He’s a slippery character taking credit for Lindsay’s research and placing her in awkward situations, but there is a spark between them. Why does Lindsay decide to trust him even though he is married?
Lindsay and Warren go way back. They were friends in high school, so there’s a history with them. Although I never make it explicit, I think she sees him as a safe harbor. He has a law-and-order job to which he’s very dedicated; he clearly wants to settle down; he was raised in a typical mom, dad, two kids and a dog family. To her, he represents everything that being a grown up is about. Ultimately, as I developed that character, I realized that Warren’s combination of characteristics—he’s a straight-arrow and occasionally a hypocrite, and is very ambitious—might be a source of conflict. It’s interesting that you picked up on his slipperiness. I wanted to gradually develop those tiny cracks in the usual “dream boy hunk” motif you often see in a fictional love interest. Warren is a great guy, but he’s not perfect. Then again, neither is Lindsay!
One character who exasperated me—Lindsay’s boss/best friend Rob Wu. Please explain his character for our readers. He works his friendship hard with Lindsay. Is he usually passive aggressive?
Rob is Lindsay’s boss, the head of Pastoral Services at the hospital where she works. They attended college together, and instantly formed a bit of a platonic couple. (He’s gay, so there’s never been any chemistry between them.) I think Rob is the kind of person Lindsay needs in her life. He’s like her little brother—he’ll tease her and annoys her, but when push comes to shove, he will always have her back. She’s been abandoned and deceived by a lot of the people closest to her, so she relies on Rob’s loyalty to steady her. When her first engagement broke down, it was Rob who offered her a place to stay and found her a job. In The Burnt Island Burial Ground, you get to see more of that side of their friendship. When Lindsay is really down and hiding from the world, Rob forces his way in and tells her what she needs to hear. Despite his quirks, he’s on a pretty even keel, emotionally, and can be a source of constancy for Lindsay.
Anna Melrose, an emergency room doctor and a friend of Lindsay, is a refreshing character. From Hoboken, NJ, Anna is an odd duck in small-town NC. What made her accept the job so far from home?
Heartbreak! Anna ended a bad marriage. She worked at the same hospital as her ex, so she had to get outta Dodge. She’s also a very proud person, so she wouldn’t have liked to have people who knew about her divorce talking behind her back or (worse!) feeling sorry for her. She’s ballsy and authoritative, and I think she really gets a kick out of challenging the polite dynamics that characterize life in a small Southern town.
How do you live in a small town with such a large student population as Virginia Tech has?
Let me tell you a little story. Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech is located, has 40,000 residents, but 30,000 of those are students. So the 10,000 of us that live here permanently mostly work for the university and tend to have a pretty strong bond. Earlier this summer, while my sister-in-law was over visiting from the UK, we had a small house fire scare. As soon as I hung up the phone with the 9-1-1 operator, we heard sirens. I said, “That’s probably for us.” My sister-in-law didn’t believe it, but it was. They were there within five minutes. Then, while we were all standing outside, various neighbors who’d heard the sirens, or were out walking their dogs, etc. came over—to offer us babysitting, dog-sitting, a place to stay, a cold beer, or just to have a chat with the fireman, who, naturally, some of them knew. I know small towns can be claustrophobic for some people, but I love living here. Blacksburg is a cosmopolitan place. Our street, with only nine houses, has Canadians, Turks, French, Jewish, Malaysian, and British people. And the students are the lifeblood of the place.
You’ve been involved in some interesting real-life projects. When you aren’t writing fiction, what do you do?
Right now, I’m spearheading the VT veterinary college’s efforts to expand our clinical trials offerings for dogs, cats, and horses. So that requires a lot of outreach to vets and owners, and a lot of interaction with people’s fur-babies. I’ve worked in human hospitals quite a bit, most recently as the project manager for the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, a research center founded at the University of Edinburgh by J.K. Rowling. That was incredibly fulfilling and a wonderful environment, but I have to admit that I prefer the vet hospital. In my current job, I’ve had times where I’ve spent hours looking for just the right image of adorable puppies for a marketing brochure, or had to hang out in the clinic with six sweet Scottish terriers during their appointment for a genetic study. Human patients are just not as cuddly as kittens and puppies.