Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Barbara Ross Interview by E. B. Davis

Early October is “winding down” time in Busman’s Harbor, Maine, but there’s nothing relaxing about it for Julia Snowden. Between busloads of weekend leaf peepers at the Snowden Family Clambake and a gut renovation of the old mansion on Morrow Island, she’s keeping it all together with a potentially volatile skeleton crew—until one of them turns up dead under the firewood.

When the Russian demo team clearing out the mansion discovers a room that’s been sealed off for decades, Julia’s baffled as to its purpose and what secrets it might have held. Tensions are already simmering with the crew, but when one of the workers is found murdered, things come to a boil. With the discovery of another body—and a mysterious diary with Cyrillic text in the hidden room—the pressure’s on Julia to dig up a real killer fast. But she’ll have to sort through a pile of suspects, including ex-spouses, a spurned lover, and a recently released prisoner, to fish out one clammed-up killer.

In this eighth addition in the Maine Clambake mystery series, Barbara Ross confirms her talent as a great storyteller. Sealed Off shows parallel stories of the vulnerable female human condition, one in the nineteenth century and the other in the twenty-first century. Julia Snowden, Barbara’s main character, connects with these bittersweet tales of women soldiering on to better their positions in the world no matter the context of the times and relates to their struggles as she wrestles with her own.

When Julia finds the body of a man who worked for the family’s clambake, her boyfriend, Chris, asks her to solve the crime because the obvious suspect is his brother, an ex con, who worked with the victim. Julia’s investigation seems to find more evidence that he is guilty, putting her in an uncomfortable position.

Of course, the title is a play on words, but you’ll have to read the book to find out the how and why. Please welcome Barbara Ross back to WWK.                                                                                                                           E. B. Davis

P.S.—As of writing this interview, the first three books in this series were free to read with Kindle Unlimited—subscribe for one month and the cost of buying these books will pay for the subscription!!

When you talk about the actual clambake, you’ve emphasized that it is only the hot stones that cook the meal. How do they get rid of the embers? Is the food wrapped in foil? Do the potatoes have to go on first since the rest of the meal would cook quickly?

Cooking over hot stones is a traditional way to do a New England-style clambake. The embers are raked away once the wood burns off. The food is layered on, as you suggest, from that which needs the most cooking to the least. The corn, onions, and potatoes are wrapped in foil, as are the mesh bags containing meal-sized portions of the steamers (soft shell clams). The last item on the pile is the egg. When it is hard-boiled, all of the food is done.

In Hatteras, our clams clean themselves. After live harvesting, the clams are put in buckets of oceanwater for one day where they continue to siphon water through themselves, which gets rid of the sand. Why in Maine do they need clam broth for cleaning the clams?

I think from some quick Googling that in Hatteras you are clamming for quahogs, hard shell clams. The steamers served at a Maine clambake are soft shell clams, but I’m not sure it makes a difference. They are also soaked overnight and that does get rid of most of the grit. But for some reason steamers are traditionally eaten by dredging them first in warm clam broth and then in butter.

Some of the family’s employees start verbally fighting. Julia and her brother-in-law, Sonny, define the problem differently. Sonny claims the problem is Chris’s brother, Terry. Julia thinks it’s Pru, the ex-wife of Jason and also a coworker. Why do their opinions vary?

Pru and her ex-husband Jason have worked for the Snowden Family Clambake for years, and Sonny’s loyalty is to them. Julia, on the other hand, doesn’t want the problem to be her boyfriend’s brother, Terry. Julia hired Terry over Sonny’s objections even though Julia usually tries not to interfere in Sonny’s territory—the clambake fire.

Pru divorced Jason for cheating. Why is Pru jealous of Emmy, a younger single mother, with whom she works?

The heart wants what the heart wants. But in this case, Pru’s concerns may be more practical. Jason’s previous affairs have been passing. He seems to have an emotional connection to Emmy. Emmy has two children and is young enough to have more. Pru and Jason are still connected financially and by their children. Pru doesn’t want her children’s economic security threatened.

Why does Windsholme seem like an age-ravaged, but proud beautiful old woman?

The mansion has beautiful bones and was once proud and strong, but it has been unlived in since 1929 and given just enough maintenance to keep it standing. It’s still beautiful, but the porches sag, the roof leaks, shingles and shutters are missing, and several windows around the central staircase where there was a fire are boarded up.

Seals and dogs have a common ancestor?

Yes! Seals, sea lions, and walruses belong to the same suborder as bears, weasels, pandas, raccoons, and dogs. As you can totally tell by their appealing, doglike eyes.

Why is it illegal to go within 150 feet of a seal?

Seals have sharp teeth and no matter how appealing a pup, there may be a protective mama nearby. Seal pups are often left alone for as much as twenty-four hours, so you shouldn’t immediately assume a young one on its own is orphaned or abandoned.

I thought most migrants were Spanish agricultural workers. Are there Russian migrant crews in the U.S.?

The southern border of the United States has received most of the attention over the past three years, and rightfully so. However, in part I wrote the book to say, “Hey’ we’re here, too!” Thirteen states share a border with Canada. In many rural areas, including in Maine, the border historically was treated casually. People frequently crossed to shop or work. Since 9/11 and even more so in recent years, the border has been increasingly hardened, making some towns almost uninhabitable. I think most people would be surprised to know that Customs and Border Protection can and does board buses and hold roadblocks within 100 miles of the Canadian border and can ask you--without a warrant, without probable cause, without reasonable suspicion-- if you are a citizen. Because this includes sea borders, all of Maine falls into this zone—as do most cities on the east and west coasts.

As to the Russian demo team, when we renovated our home in Massachusetts it interested me that each of the trades that came through--demo workers, carpenters, drywallers, tilers, flooring workers--were comprised of a different nationality, more established immigrants giving a leg up to newer immigrants, as it has worked in this country, always.

The architect of Windsholme is Henry Gilbert. Was he real? Others you talk of were real turn-of-the-century architects.

He is fictional, though based on an architect, a self-taught French immigrant who only lived to design and build a few houses.

I never heard of a two-story kitchen with a balcony. It sounds awesome! Why does Windsholme possess one? What function did it have?

The kitchen in Windsholme is in the basement, the dining room on the first floor. The kitchen is ringed by a balcony on the first floor level that serves as a pantry, holding the family china, silver, crystal, linens, etc. I don’t know exactly where this idea came from, but there is a two-story pantry at The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. I haven’t been there in decades, but perhaps it seeped into my brain when I visited.

When a sealed room is discovered off the nursery, the diary of Lilly Smythe, who was a governess to the family’s two children in 1898, is found. Lilly was an educated professional, like the family’s yacht captain. Why did this put them in a socially awkward position?

Lilly Smythe, the governess, and Captain Beal, the captain of the Morrow family yacht, are educated people from middle-class families. But on Morrow Island, they are neither part of the upper-class owner’s family, nor are they servants, exactly. In such a small place, they are quite dislocated.

Both female victims, in the 19th and 21st centuries, were isolated. Is this one factor of victimization?

Isolation is attractive to victimizers, though the two cases in the book are quite different. In one, the woman has a job and is surrounded by people, but it turns out their loyalty is to their family and class and not to her. In the other, the victim has become quite isolated by circumstance and undertakes a dangerous journey. If she’d had someone in her life who could have cautioned her about the risks, she might have approached the situation differently.

What is cioppino?

Cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew that is generally
attributed to the Italian fishermen of North Beach in San Francisco. In the recipe in Sealed Off we give it a little twist by using east coast seafood instead of west coast.

Pizzaiola sauce?

Pizzaiola sauce is a red sauce that includes olive oil, garlic, and oregano. Pizzaiola means, “in the style of a pizza maker.” It can be used with any protein that is flavorful enough to stand up to it. The recipe in Sealed Off is for halibut pizzaiola.

Why doesn’t Le Roi, Julia’s cat, like Chris?

Le Roi moved in with Julia before Chris did. Le Roi believes the primary relationship in the household is between him and Julia, and Chris is the interloper. Chris, naturally, sees it another way.

Pru’s sister tells Julia the truth. Do sisters have a unique perspective?

I suppose it depends on the relationship. In this case, Pru’s sister, Aggie, has had a front row seat to Pru’s entire relationship with her ex-husband Jason. Aggie has nothing to lose by telling Julia the truth.

What is a highliner?

A highliner is a highly successful fisherman. The word is used for lobstermen as well, who consider themselves to be fishermen.

Would you advise a young couple to examine each other’s families to see if they are joining the right tribe?

Ha, ha. Again I say that the heart wants what the heart wants. I’m lucky to have wonderful in-laws. Both my kids do, too.

Is Windsholme haunted?

Windsholme is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a workman who died during construction and the ghost of a maid whose appendix burst during a terrible storm when they couldn’t get her off the island. So far, I haven’t taken a position on whether it is actually haunted in any of the books.

Marguerite, Julia’s mother’s ninety-six-year-old cousin, is visiting to see Windsholme one last time before the mansion is renovated. She is the last member of the family to have lived in the house and remember it in its prime. This book is filled with bittersweet stories of women, every one of them. What was happening in your life at the time of its writing?

Oh my goodness! I’m not sure anything in particular was happening to me, though we did sell my mother-in-law’s 1879 Victorian sea captain’s house on the coast of Maine while I was writing Sealed Off, which was bittersweet. And writing in 2019, the themes in the book--the challenges and heartbreak of refugees and immigrants, and stories of powerful men taking advantage of women in subordinate positions—were all around me as I wrote.


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

congratulations on your new release!

carla said...

I love reading about Maine. Spend many summer vacations there!

Shari Randall said...

Terrific interview! Congratulations on the new release, Barb.

KM Rockwood said...

An intriguing addition to a wonderful series!

Teddi1961 said...

Congratulations, on another wonderful new release. I can hardly wait to read this one!

Barb Ross said...

Thanks everyone. I always love doing these interviews. I hope you enjoy Sealed Off.

Kait said...

Congratulations, Barb, sounds like a terrific book. The mansion on Morrow Island has always been intriguing. said...

Oh golly,What a wonderfully researched story. So many details that really fill out characters, fishing in the area,living in the area even eating. This is why Barbara Ross is such a fantastic writer, folks may not easily notice it but it's in the details that just fill up characters and make you able to visualize everything.
This book sounds awesomely fabulous ��.
I would love to get my hands on the book.