by Grace Topping
It’s November in the Berkshires, a dreary time of dwindling light when the tourists have fled along with the last gasp of fall foliage. So when a stranger shows up in the sleepy hilltown of New Nottingham and starts asking questions, the locals don’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.
Bostonian Kathryn Stinson is on a deeply personal quest to solve a family mystery: the identity of a nameless beauty in an old photograph an ancestor brought with him to California over a century ago. But, as Kathryn quickly discovers, the hills possess a host of dark secrets – both ancient and new – that can only be revealed at the price of danger and even death. www.amazon.com
In Rattlesnake Hill, award-winning author Leslie Wheeler brings a small town alive by introducing complex characters, many of whom hold deadly secrets. She writes so vividly about the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts that the place becomes a key character in her story. In addition to her two mystery series, Leslie writes short stories, the most recent appearing in Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse. It was a pleasure talking to Leslie and learning more about her and her work.
Welcome, Leslie, to Writers Who Kill.
To fulfill a promise to her aunt, Kathryn Stinson travels to the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts to find out the identity of a woman in an old photograph an ancestor had treasured. What drives Kathryn to continue this search even after her aunt dies?
Elderly Emily knows the history of the people in New Nottingham but makes Kathryn jump through multiple hoops to learn about them. Why is Emily so secretive?
Emily is secretive toward Kathryn, because Kathryn is a descendant of a man that Emily hates. At one point she says of this man that she hopes he’s rotting in hell. Feeling as she does, no way is Emily going to make things easy for Kathryn. Also, doling out a little information at a time and making Kathryn work hard for it gives Emily a certain amount of control over Kathryn—control she eventually uses to get back at a living man she also hates.
The keeping of secrets seems to be the main theme of this book. Could holding these secrets cause history to repeat itself in New Nottingham?
The keeping of secrets is definitely a theme in Rattlesnake Hill, and what happened in the past does have an impact on the present. But for me, a more important theme is the power
of stories in our lives. Kathryn doesn’t just go to New Nottingham to find out who the woman in the photograph is. She also wants to get this woman’s story. In Nottingham she learns parts of that story, as well as parts of a more recent story: that of the woman who occupied the house she’s renting. The first stories she hears are about falling in love. These stories eventually lead her to fall in love with the storyteller. But there are different versions of what finally happened to the two women. And which version one believes makes all the difference. If narratives can cause people to fall in love, they can also make people commit acts of violence, or as Kathryn learns, risk becoming a victim of violence. Finally, clinging to one narrative at the exclusion of all others can have tragic consequences.
The people of New Nottingham are a superstitious lot. What contributes to their feelings of the supernatural, including their belief in the White Stag?
The fact that the people of New Nottingham live in a remote, rural area, where they’re close to nature, helps to make them superstitious. However, a superstitious belief in the White Stag isn’t unique to them. As I’ve written in a separate blog post on this subject, legends and myths about the White Stag abound, spanning the centuries from ancient times to the present-day, and the world from Europe and the British Isles to Asia and the Americas. These legends are part of hunting lore, and since many residents of New Nottingham are hunters, they would naturally be familiar with White Stag stories. What’s more, white deer do exist in nature, so it’s possible that town residents, past and present, might know someone who’s seen such a creature or have actually glimpsed it themselves.
A number of disturbing things happen to Kathryn and she seems to be surrounded by unfriendly people. Why doesn’t she flee back to Boston and her home there?
Kathryn stays in New Nottingham despite the bad things that happen to her, because she’s not a person who gives up easily. Also, each bit of information she gets about the woman in the photograph makes her determined to get more. And she’s not entirely surrounded by unfriendly people. Millie helps her in the beginning by giving her the remaining pages of Emily’s recollections, and later on, Earl comes to her aid by telling her an important story about this woman that Emily won’t, and by taking her to the place where the woman is buried.
At the end of Rattlesnake Hill you have a surprising twist. Did you plot out your story knowing who your villain was, or did you later select a villain from among your many characters?
I had trouble figuring out who the villain would be from the beginning. When I did settle on a villain, I ended up having to ditch this villain after two readers whose opinion I value told me they thought the entire thread containing this character didn’t belong in the story I was trying to tell. So, I eliminated the thread, which meant substantial re-writing, and looked for another villain. Fortunately, I already had several candidates, so I picked the one I believed would work best.
Although you’ve published other mysteries, it took you a number of years to complete Rattlesnake Hill. What inspired this book and what kept you working on it?
Rattlesnake Hill was inspired by my deep love of the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, where I’ve lived for many years, first full-time, now part-time. I think of the book as my “dark valentine” to the Berkshires, because while I love the landscape for its beauty and the peace it brings me, I’m also aware of the area’s dark side in the difficult lives of some of the locals. Over the years, I became so attached to the characters and their stories that I couldn’t let them go. I really wanted them to see the light of day. Also, as a book that’s very close to my heart, Rattlesnake Hill, in my opinion, contains some of my best writing.
Please tell us about your Miranda Lewis mysteries.
I have three books in my Miranda Lewis series: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. I call these books “living history” mysteries, because they’re set in the present-day at historical sites, which enables me to weave in a lot of history. Murder at Plimoth Plantation takes place at the re-created Pilgrim village in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where first-person interpreters portray the seventeenth century residents. Murder at Gettysburg is set at an annual reenactment of the famous battle, while Murder at Spouters Point takes place at a fictionalized Mystic Seaport and a fictionalized Foxwoods, the Native-owned casino that’s nearby. An important theme in Murder at Plimoth Plantation and Murder at Spouters Point is the often-troubled relationship between white people and Native Americans, past and present. With its focus on Confederate reenactors, Murder at Gettysburg explores the ways in which some people in this country are still fighting the Civil War.
Is Rattlesnake Hill a standalone mystery, or do you plan to make it a series?
Rattlesnake Hill started out as the sequel to Murder at Plimoth Plantation, but then in a crucial scene, I realized that Miranda wouldn’t do what I wanted her to. For me, this meant it had to be another character’s story. After I discovered who that new main character was, I thought the book would be a standalone. But while I was in the midst of re-writing it, another story set in the Berkshires came to mind. I thought this new book would be separate from Rattlesnake Hill, with a different main character, but then during my final revision of the novel, I realized this other novel could be incorporated into a sequel to Rattlesnake Hill, and become the second book, tentatively titled Shuntoll Road, in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown mysteries with Kathryn as the main character.
Your keen interest in history is evident in your books. What comes first, your knowledge of the history of a person or place, or your story idea?
My books begin with a place that intrigues me. It also has to be a place that I like, or even love, as I know I’m going to spend a lot of time there doing research. Then I look at who lives in this particular place, and that gives me my characters. I also look at what might happen in the place, and that gives me story ideas.
You have a home in a town founded by one of your ancestors. Please tell us about him.
Benjamin Wheeler was the first settler of New Marlborough in 1739, on land purchased from Chief Konkapot of the Mahican tribe by a group of Proprietors, of which Wheeler was one. That summer he and a few other Proprietors journeyed 125 miles over rough terrain from their homes in Marlborough, Massachusetts to Township #2, as New Marlborough was then called. The only Proprietor to remain, Wheeler built a cabin in a clearing in the woods, and spent the winter there. Although the Indians weren’t hostile toward him, they forbade him to use his gun to hunt deer, and gave him a bow and arrows instead. Not being skilled in the use of this weapon, he might have starved but for the aid of relatives in Sheffield, who brought him supplies on snowshoes. By following summer, his situation had improved to the extent that he brought his family over the mountains to join him, and eventually built them a regular house. The house, said to haver taken him twenty years to construct, was the oldest house in New Marlborough, and remained in the family for five generations.
What writers have inspired you? Which ones do you read for pleasure?
Writers who inspired me for this particular book include Edith Wharton for her lyrical descriptions of the Berkshire landscape, as well as her depiction of the grimness of the lives of some of the locals in Ethan Frome and Summer; Sharon McCrumb for her portrayal of the hill people of Appalachia; Alice Hoffman for magical realism in her novels; and Daphne du Maurier, for her strong sense of place, her constellation of characters, and the way she builds suspense in Rebecca. Books I’ve read for pleasure include Louise Penny’s mysteries and those of Nevada Barr, especially her earlier ones, and popular novels like Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.
If you were standing in a bookstore, what book couldn’t you resist recommending to a nearby stranger?
I know you only asked for one, but here are two: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.
Thank you, Leslie.
To learn more about Leslie Wheeler or to purchase her books, visit her website, www.lesliewheeler.com.