Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Interview with Author Barbara Ross by E. B. Davis

“My dear friends think I have cause for concern because they know something about
me you don’t. I killed my husband, you see. For most of the years I was
away from Herrickson House, I was in prison.”

My astonished reaction was unfortunately obvious to all of them.
I consciously closed my gaping mouth, giving Mrs. Fischer a tight grin.

“So if you help me, dear, I would appreciate it, she said.
“When a crime is committed, the police love to look no further than at the criminals.”
Barbara Ross, Steamed Open, Kindle Loc. 953

It’s summertime in Busman’s Harbor, Maine, and the clamming is easy—or it was until a mysterious new neighbor blocks access to the beach, cutting off the Snowden Family Clambake’s supply. Julia Snowden is just one of many townspeople angered by Bartholomew Frick’s decision. But which one of them was angry enough to kill?
Beachcombers, lighthouse buffs, and clammers are outraged after Frick puts up a gate in front of his newly inherited mansion. When Julia urges him to reconsider, she’s the last to see him alive—except the person who stabs him in the neck with a clam rake. As she pores through a long list of suspects, Julia meets disgruntled employees, rival heirs, and a pair of tourists determined to visit every lighthouse in America. They all have secrets, and Julia will have to work fast to expose the guilty party—or see this season’s clam harvest dry up for good.
I wrote this interview before Christmas. One afternoon I had every intention of making and baking cookies, that is, until I started reading Barbara Ross’s seventh book in the Maine Clambake mystery series, Steamed Open. Maybe I’d had enough Christmas already, maybe the cold outside made me sink into the pages depicting hot and sweaty summer, maybe I was just lazy, but I was lost in the mesmerizing middle of her book.

Yes, when other books drift into the dreaded-doldrums midsection, Steamed Open blew into full-speed ahead. As a writer, I can’t help but think of those plots that form in entirety like an unexpected gift. I wondered if that had happened to Barb when writing this book.

Let’s not talk of murder, which would only lead to spoilers. This book is about mothers. Mothers, mothers everywhere. The death of a mother preceding the murder, most of the suspects, and mothers in the backstories. And they were all different. Each child with his own story of and relationship to his mother. What circumstances knit and healed while others wounded and festered? After reading the book, ask yourselves the question.

Please welcome Barbara Ross back to WWK.                                 E. B. Davis   

Have you plotted your series? Did this book’s plot present itself fait accompli?

Thanks for your kind words about the book, E.B. I am so glad you liked it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of a chess-player mind where I can see dozens of moves ahead. In this case, I knew I wanted to write about the contentious shoreline access issues we have in Maine. And I wanted to feature clams, which are an important part of the clambake. Earlier books had focused on the lobsters and the blueberries in the dessert. And lighthouses. I knew I wanted to write about lighthouses. The lighthouse, beach, and the death of the 101-year-old Lou Herrickson that kicks off the book are very loosely inspired by real people and places on an island, reachable by bridge, from our peninsula in Maine.

About these “soft-shell” clams—I looked them up because I’d never heard of them. Where I live, on Hatteras, the only soft shelled anything are crabs. The difference, as I understand it, is that soft-shell clams don’t close their bivalve hinges all the way and have longer necks because they dig to deeper depths in the sand. I’m used to eating hard-shell clams such as little neck and cherry stone as steamers. (We have quohogs, but you could play jacks with them.) In fact, if I found a clam that wouldn’t close all the way, I’d throw it out. Likewise, after cooking, if one hadn’t opened, I’d throw it out. So, way up yonder, do you all have different clams and cooking standards?

We have quahogs, too. Those go in the clam chowder. Steamers likewise aren’t eaten if they come out of the clambake fire closed. The soft shell range does extend farther south than New England, but we’re the North Americans who feature them most prominently in our cuisine.

Heloise Herrickson died before the start of the book. Her memorial service was held onboard the Jacquie II where people described her as a philanthropist, a collector, an artist, having humor in old age as she donned outlandish wigs to compensate for her thinning hair, giving generously to the community, and yet…. Does everyone have a dark side, not perhaps, unprovoked, but, does everyone possess some duality?

When I was writing, I didn’t think of it as a dark side and a lighter side. I thought of it as a “before” and “after.” Lou Herrickson drew a firm line in her life when she married Francis Herrickson and moved to Maine. Mainers knew her only one way. Others, from earlier in her life, knew her as another.

I asked that previous question because I felt that, although Heloise had a few specific qualifications in her will, many of the problems incurred were due to her not specifying and qualifying her wishes, leaving many in want. Did she have a philosophy about life and death that dictated a more laissez-faire will?

I think Lou’s will was the way it was because she wanted to do what her long-dead husband would have wished. He had no children, though he had a sister, the grandmother of Bart Frick who inherits. The house, beach and lighthouse come from Francis’s family. Lou leaves everything to that side, even though the bulk the money and possessions in the house come from her.

I thought Le Roi (how did he get his name?) lived with Julia. In Steamed Open, he’s living on the island, greeting guests, and conditioning them for treat donations from their meals. Where does Le Roi live? Isn’t he Julia’s cat?

Le Roi, who is named for his resemblance to the later, Vegas-era Elvis ‘the King’, starts out in book one, Clammed Up, being the cat of the caretaker and his wife who live on the island in the summer and on the mainland in the winter. When they’re unable to keep him that fall, in Fogged Inn, he goes home with Julia because her sister Livvie is pregnant and can’t take him. He always lives on the island in the summer, but his living arrangements in the winter vary. I just finished a novella that takes place in the fall after Steamed Open. In it, Le Roi is spending the off-season (very happily) at Julia’s mother’s house.

The Snowden mansion, Windsholme, and Herrickson House had the same designer, Henry Gilbert. Was he a real architect or did you make him up?

I made him up, though he was inspired by a real Maine architect. There will be more about him in book eight, Sealed Off.

Julia is a conscientious clambake manager, calling clammers every day to insure they have the needed supply for their meals. Is this due to how close the family came to bankruptcy or is this her nature?

It is her nature, but it also springs from necessity. They can store live lobsters in the cages under the dock on Morrow Island for a day or two, but basically fresh seafood has to be delivered to the island every day during the season.

On Hatteras, the National Park Service owns the beach so everyone has free access. I was appalled to learn that in Maine, homeowners own the beach to the LOW tide mark. What nonsense is the 1640 Colonial Ordinance that Maine still follows as set by the Massachusetts Bay Colony?

The issue of shoreline access in Maine has been much litigated—as it has in other places. The Ordinance of 1640 (think about how early that was!) gave rights to the low tide mark because the English hoped it would encourage the Colonists to build much-needed wharves. The law has fundamentally never changed, as often as it’s been challenged in court. It’s an issue because only twelve percent of Maine’s 5400-mile coastline is publicly owned. Because of our jagged coast and many islands, Maine has more ocean shoreline than any other state, even California.

Emmy Bailey is an employee of the Snowden’s helping with the meals on the island. I was a bit surprised she had no need to find the father of her child, Vanessa, no matter how inappropriate Julia’s boyfriend Chris was to ask about a DNA test for her. Wouldn’t a mother want at least financial support for her child?
I think after the one-night stand that resulted in Vanessa, Emmy wanted nothing to do with the man again, especially as he was quite clearly not father material. Sometime after Vanessa’s birth Emmy married the man who is emotionally and financially Vanessa’s father. They’ve fallen on hard times due to a job loss and separated before the start of book six, Stowed Away.

I was surprised to learn that Maine wasn’t a state until 1820. Why was that?

Maine started out as a colony of Massachusetts. If you think living in a colony is tough, try living in a colony of a colony. By the time the citizens of Maine elected to separate from Massachusetts and join the United States, there were twenty-two states, half slave and half free. Congressmen from slave-owning states would only support Maine becoming a state if a slave territory was also admitted, which was the Missouri territory, thus the Missouri Compromise. You see a similar dynamic playing out today when people talk about statehood for Washington, DC or Puerto Rico—not over the issue of slavery, but over the predominant political affiliation of the prospective state’s citizens.

Many of the characters had a happy-endings in Steamed Open. But for Julia, not so much. What’s next for her?

Such a good question! I don’t know, but I know I have at least two more books and one novella to figure it out!



Jim Jackson said...

Congratulations on your latest, Barbara. Keep 'em coming!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

congratulations on your new release and Elaine, great interview! Cape Cod has the low tide line rule, too.

Shari Randall said...

Excellent interview, ladies! Because beach access is also a contentious issue here in CT, Maine's low water mark law definitely seems like a recipe for disaster and murder! Congratulations on your latest and the new series, too, Barb - keep 'em coming!

Tina said...

An excellent interview with a fine writer -- so many current events and a whole lot of mayhem. Sounds wonderful!

Barb Ross said...

"Current events" Tina. LOL. Thanks all. I always look forward to Elaine's thought-provoking interviews.

Gloria Alden said...

I enjoyed your other books. I'll have to order this one now.

E. B. Davis said...

I love this series! Keep them coming, Barb!

KM Rockwood said...

Great series. Thanks for sharing with us.

Debi said...

Oh, no, Barbara! I want about 100 more Clambake books! I love this series! Great interview! Thanks ladies.