Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Susan Van Kirk Interview By E. B. Davis

I interviewed Susan Van Kirk when Three May Keep A Secret, the first Endurance Mystery, was released by Five Star Publishing in 2014. Between books two and three in the series, Five Star discontinued publishing mysteries, leaving Susan without a publisher. She self-published the third book in the series, Death Takes No Bribes, and the novelette, The Locket. Last month, Susan announced on her blog that the last book ends the Endurance mysteries—to readers’ dismay.

The characters Susan created in this series are memorable. Almost two years went by between the first and second books. I picked up Marry In Haste, started reading, and never paused, recalling the characters. It was like meeting old friends. I’ll miss main character, Grace Kimball, retired and widowed schoolteacher, her sister-in-law, Lettie, and police detective, TJ Sweeney.

I’ve read all of the books and wanted to ask Susan about the series, her decision to end the series, and her future writing projects. Please welcome Susan Van Kirk back to WWK.       

                                                                                                                                            E. B. Davis ______________________________________________________________________________

In this third mystery set in the small Midwest town of Endurance, Illinois, retired teacher-turned-sleuth, Grace Kimball, returns to her old high school to investigate the poisoning murder of Endurance High School Principal John Hardy. It is a painful journey for Grace because she must face the possibility that one of her former colleagues is a murderer.

Endurance detective TJ Sweeney asks Grace, her former teacher and friend, to help navigate these treacherous waters when it becomes apparent that the murderer is a cold-blooded killer who will not hesitate to kill again.

The two friends have no end of suspects. The chemistry teacher who designed a poison unit? A spurned lover or her betrayed husband? A soon-to-be wealthy widow?

To top that off, the eccentric drama teacher at the high school is producing “Arsenic and Old Lace.” It isn’t exactly the best timing.

Meanwhile, Grace’s boyfriend and editor of the Endurance Register, Jeff Maitlin, has disappeared on some mysterious errand from his past. Then, Grace gets devastating news.

Death is stalking the halls of Endurance High School, and Grace Kimball and TJ Sweeney are only a few steps ahead.

After Five Star stopped publishing mysteries, did you look for another publisher? Why did you decide to self-publish the rest of the series?

It was quite a shock to everyone when Five Star/Cengage decided to drop their entire mystery line. I contacted several small presses because I had good sales numbers and excellent reviews. Unfortunately, no one was interested, or they were interested in publishing a new series rather than finishing the Endurance books. I even had a great idea for a reboot of the Endurance series several years later. Still no go. I had ended Marry in Haste with a real cliffhanger, and the next book, Death Takes No Bribes, was already done when Five Star made their announcement. I have many readers who wanted to know what happened after Marry in Haste’s cliffhanger ending, so I felt I had to self-publish at least one more book to answer their questions.

Had you always planned for the Endurance mysteries to consist of three books? Was the lack of a publisher a factor in limiting the series to three books (and the novelette)?

When I began the series with Three May Keep a Secret, I honestly didn’t know how many books I would write. It did well for a debut novel, selling several thousand copies. By the time it came out, I’d already written a second book. Since a trilogy is often the popular number these days, I figured one more book would work just fine. People have loved these characters, so I could have continued the series with several directions I’d imagined, but doing that on my own would not be my choice. The end of the Five Star line caused my decision to end with three novels.

In Marry In Haste, you explored the topic of spousal abuse, but you did so from a historical perspective, which I found interesting. What did you learn from your research?

What I learned about the historical aspects of abuse and abuse laws would fill a book. So, I will say that Marry in Haste has a double plot: one in the present day and one in the late 1800s. I wanted to know what had changed in domestic abuse issues over time. I discovered that laws banning a man’s right to beat his wife did not appear until the 1870s. Even then, those laws were not enforced. In that 1890 subplot, the character who abuses his wife is a powerful man, and above the law. However, there were rumors and gossip about him in the small town.

The women’s movement of the 1960s shined a light on enforcement and pressured both legislators and police departments to make and enforce the laws. In Marry in Haste, a current-day character remembers the police simply walking her father around the block; often, that was what happened. Several abuse cases that received nation-wide attention in the 1970s brought even more pressure when huge court cases resulted in cities being successfully sued for large monetary settlements because they didn’t enforce the law.

I was more interested in the psychological aspects of domestic violence, and my book doesn’t describe physical violence. However, both abusers, a hundred years apart, use the same techniques to make sure their victims cannot get help, and they isolate them in a bid for power over them. That has never changed. Unfortunately, it continues. Also, I wanted to show this subject as a power issue, one that crosses all socio-economic lines. Both of my abusers are powerful, rich men.

The Locket featured TJ Sweeney, one of Endurance’s police detectives, rather than the series main character, Grace Kimball. Why did you want to explore TJ in more depth?

TJ Sweeney has never had the starring role in the Endurance mysteries, yet many readers wanted to know more about her. Because she is biracial in a mostly Caucasian town, she has had difficulties in her life and she has had to fight for her position in the police department. As readers know, she had a chip on her shoulder when she was younger and first met Grace Kimball. I wanted to explore why. Why did she grow into a sullen teenager who didn’t want to succeed in the world? How did she and Grace find a truce, and how did that—along with the strict hand of TJ’s mother—lead to TJ Sweeney’s motivation and success? Readers have said TJ and Grace have an odd relationship. In the real world, that would not have happened. I beg to differ, and this book explores why that happened: how TJ grew up in a disadvantaged home, how her mother influenced her to be the best she could be, and why she and Grace will forever be friends even though they had such different histories. I must admit it was fun to put Grace in the background for a change and let TJ’s multi-faceted character shine.

In The Locket, TJ’s black mother was more sympathetic to her white husband, who ran away from the marriage, than TJ. Why?

Mama Sweeney is old school. Even TJ’s ringtone for her mama is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Her religious beliefs are set in stone, and forgiveness is one of those beliefs. She maintains that when you marry, you marry for life. Even though her husband left her decades earlier, she has never sought a divorce or even thought about it. She came from a time when divorce was not an option, and even though she doesn’t ever expect to see her husband again, she knows they are joined in the eyes of God. He was watching. He heard those vows. That’s that.

My mother talked about the dancing at the Stage Door Canteen during WWII. Were places like the Roof Garden common in small Midwestern towns?

Places like The Roof Garden were very common in the 1930s and 1940s. I had so much fun researching this for The Locket because I interviewed a woman who danced at The Roof Garden when she was a teenager. In Illinois, big bands traveled from Chicago to the downstate area and played at multiple venues on rooftops. Lawrence Welk and Tommy Dorsey were two of the bands that did so, among others. My parents danced at The Roof Garden, a dance venue on the roof of the Weinberg Arcade in downtown Galesburg, Illinois. A dance studio in the same building sent scouts to Chicago to learn the latest dances, and they returned and taught them to the people in Galesburg. The local library still has oral histories of that time and those dance venues. It was great fun to place the victim of The Locket at that dance before her untimely death.

In Death Takes No Bribes, Grace explores the process of teacher evaluations. A dissatisfactory evaluation jeopardizes a teacher’s job and might be a motive for murder. Have they become a legal and administrative nightmare?

I tried not to spend time bewailing the current state of public education in Death Takes No Bribes. As I left the high school classroom in 2002, teacher evaluations were heading toward where they are now: a way to get rid of veteran teachers who are too expensive because of their years of service, and a way to tie test scores to teacher performance. Evaluation has always been a contentious issue. Testing does not truly reveal teacher performance since the test scores are not counted toward graduation. I’ve seen (as Grace has also), students make beautiful patterns on their answer sheets. They don’t care. So, tying teacher evaluation to those test scores is ludicrous. I wondered if a character could find a way to cheat on these tests, and, sure enough, I found it. They have become a nightmare and, in the wrong hands, a weapon to use against teachers.

What’s next in your writing career? Have you planned a new series? If so, would you give us a short synopsis?

I have already started a new book that may, or may not, become a series. I’d love to say I have a great title, but that’s always my worst problem. This new book begins at the New York City Public Library, and the main character, Beth Russell, is a freelance researcher who hires herself out to big writers who need historical research. Ironically, Beth knows very little about her own history, and when a stranger accosts her at the library with an incredulous story, she starts down a dangerous path, surrounded by people who would rather she didn’t learn the truth about the past. Grace Kimball she ain’t—she’s an expert shot with her Glock 9-mm handgun.

Will you self-publish again or look for a new publisher?

I will look for a publisher.

At a party, would you hang at the edge of groups to watch or would you join the groups talking in the center of the room?

I would probably start at the edge, watching everyone. Then I’d cautiously venture into the middle, one conversation at a time. I spend a lot of time observing people. Oh, that’s right. I’m a writer.
The Locket

The Big Band Era–Dancing on the Rooftop–Romance in the Air–and Murder in the Shadows

“… the dispatcher called to tell her it was time to move the bones.”

After solving a double homicide in the hot Midwest summer, Endurance police detective TJ Sweeney isn’t given long to rest. A construction crew has found human bones while digging a building foundation on the outskirts of town.

Sweeney’s investigation soon concludes this is a murder victim, but from many decades earlier. Trying to identify the remains and put a name on the killer takes the detective through a maze of dead ends and openings, twists and turns.

And then it becomes personal…

Susan Van Kirk taught high school English for 34 years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000) and an additional 10 years at Monmouth College. She is the author of a creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks,), and these cozy mysteries: Three May Keep a Secret; The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney; Marry in Haste; and Death Takes No Bribes. Follow her on Twitter (@susan_vankirk), Facebooks, or Pinterest (The Endurance Mysteries), and visit her website at


Kait said...

I'm sorry to see this series end, but I am so looking forward to your next venture. Sounds enticing!

Grace Topping said...

Hi, Susan. It was a pleasure seeing you here at Writers Who Kill. So disappointing that your series is ending, but I look forward to whatever new series you develop. Wishing you all the best.

Gloria Alden said...

Susan, I loved your first two books and the Novella with T.J. I have your third gook on my To Be Ordered list and look forward to reading it. It was so nice meeting you at Malice, and I thank you for giving me a copy of T.J.'s story. It was quite riveting. I do hope you can continue this series.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Susan, I'm sorry that the publishing world has gotten so crazy and that series like yours have been affected. I hope your fans follow you and make your self publishing venture a great success.
Fascinating topics in these latest books. Your titles are great - I love the nods to Franklin.

E. B. Davis said...

Susan--I enjoyed this series very much. I'm looking forward to whatever you decide to write next. It really is the writer, not the story, even if I enjoyed Grace and her cohorts! Good luck with the next series and thanks for the interviews. Elaine

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for sharing all this with us!

I hope your work meets with success in its new venue.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Great interview! Best wishes for your continued success, Susan.

Susan Van Kirk said...

Thanks for your positive comments. Hope your predictions come true!

Susan Van Kirk said...

Thanks Kait and Grace. I'm working on the next one!

Susan Van Kirk said...

Thanks, Gloria and Shari,
I appreciate your comments, Gloria, and I'm hoping o have a new book for your to read. And Shari, I agree about the publishing world being crazy. Who would have thought a publisher would end every mystery series, even ones selling well? The nods to Franklin are because I sm TERRIBLE at coming up with titles!

Susan Van Kirk said...

Thank you, KM Rockwood. Time will tell, won't it?

Susan Van Kirk said...

Thank you so much, Elaine. You ask the best questions in your interviews. Sorry I'm a little late checking on comments. I appreciate your help and also your kind thoughts about my series. I, too, will hate to see the end of Grace Kimball's adventures, but, as we all know, life continues to change always. Good luck in your writing endeavors, and hope to talk with you again. Susan