This is a previously published interview. My apologies to Jackie Layton, who I was supposed to interview today. E. B. Davis
Refusing to reply is
the higher education equivalent to sticking
one’s tongue out at
an enemy on the schoolyard.
Cynthia Kuhn, The Spirit in Question, Kindle Loc. 2484
English professor Lila Maclean knew drama would be involved when
she agreed to consult on Stonedale University’s production of Puzzled: The
Musical. But she didn’t expect to find herself cast into such
chaos: the incomprehensible play is a disaster, the crumbling theater appears
to be haunted, and, before long, murder takes center stage.
The show must go on—yet as they speed toward opening night, it
becomes clear that other
members of the company may be targeted as well. Lila searches for
answers while contending with a tenacious historical society, an eccentric
playwright, an unsettling psychic, an enigmatic apparition, and a paranormal
search squad. With all of this in play, will she be able to identify who killed
her colleague…or will it soon be curtains for Lila too?
The Spirit in Question is the third book in the Lila
Maclean mystery series by award-winning author Cynthia Kuhn. (Follow the links
to my first
interview with Cynthia.) Lila, the main character is an English Professor
trying to attain tenure. In the first book of the series, Lila is spanking new
and unsure of herself. In The Spirit in
Question, Lila is more assertive, less fearful, and has found her worth.
to see this change because I hate meeting people and characters at their worst.
It’s like the meet and greet of a freshman mixer—everyone is new and the
unknown overwhelms. Although I liked Lila from the start, I now can see more of
her strengths and embrace her like an old friend rather than a scared newbie.
aspect of this series that I enjoy—Lila’s internal thoughts. She smart. She
doesn’t always say what she thinks. But from the privilege of the reader’s
perspective, I loved reading her mind.
welcome Cynthia Kuhn back to WWK. E. B. Davis
Thank you very much for having me
back to WWK! I’m delighted to have a chance to visit with you all. And I so
appreciate your comments on Lila and the series, too.
Stonedale University based on a real one?
Lila is helping to direct a play
written by professor Tolliver Ingersoll. Much of the book is set in the
Stonedale Opera House, built in 1878, where the play will be produced. Your
description interested me, especially the candle boxes set into the floor. I
never thought of how productions were lit before electricity. Was lighting the
stage by candlelight common? How did the actors navigate the stage with candles
staged in the floor?
Indoor plays were performed by
candlelight and oil lamps early on, but theaters were typically using gas
lighting in the latter 19th century. However, for Stonedale Opera House, I put candle
boxes along the front of the stage—in the footlight area—to add a Gothic touch.
The electrical system has been there for a long time when Lila arrives, but I
wanted to preserve a sense of the theater’s quirky flavor.
“The local small theaters were more
excited about his [Tolliver Ingersoll] writing,
as they were made up of younger
folks who found his incomprehensible
plotlines to be great fun.” (Kindle
youngsters just zany or do we learn to appreciate logic as we age?
Well, there is something to be
said about experience leading to wisdom, so hooray for that! This quote is
meant to suggest that current educational trends may encourage the more recent
graduates to embrace nontraditional modes of storytelling.
What is a
ghost light, and why is it left burning at center stage? Do all theaters do
It’s a theatrical tradition with two explanations. The
first reason to leave a bulb burning center stage is for safety. The second is
that it’s a necessary offering for ghosts, so they don’t curse the production. I
don’t know if everyone does it, but if I owned a theater, I would. For both
reasons. Just in case.
suggestions are ignored by director Jean Claude, and he seems to do nothing but
vent his frustrations on her. It’s understandable that Lila is upset when he is
murdered, but when she describes him as a lost friend I was surprised. Wasn’t
he her boss in the production, not a friend?
They are friends. She thinks he
is kind (if bossy) and even lists some of his good qualities at one point. But
when he’s in work mode, he is intense—it’s true.
Claude proclaims Lila’s beloved Stonedale gargoyles not to be in the same
league as Notre Dame’s, does she consider him a snob?
Ha ha! No, she understands where
he’s coming from.
and Jean Claude go to the chancellor to discuss the disruption by the
historical society’s protest of their production, his assistant tries to
prevent the meeting. But Lila actually leans in and gets in her face. What has
changed in Lila?
She’s not a newbie anymore. Her professional
experiences have given her a bit more confidence. And in this case, she is not
about to be brushed off by the gatekeeper.
academic world, is being a university chancellor the equivalent of being a rock
Perhaps! It’s certainly a position
of power. Other people often treated as rock stars, at least in the humanities,
seem to be those whose books, performances, or theories make a big splash in
scholarly circles and even go beyond the borders of academia. In Spirit, Francisco has become that kind
of scholar; his book on Damon Von Tussel (which he was writing in The Art of Vanishing) has gone
mainstream. Yay, Fran! :)
party, fondue is featured. Fondue was popular in the 1970s. Is it making a
In Stonedale, it is.
Delacroix, companion to playwright Tolliver Ingersoll, was a theater professor
who did not get tenure and now considers herself a psychic. Why does she claim
not obtaining tenure helped her psychic abilities?
Leaving academia freed her to
focus on other things. Also, being a professor can demand the majority—if not
all—of your energy and time. Once she was able to move out of her primarily
analytical mindset, her intuitive gifts had more space to flourish.
Tolliver call Lila “petal?”
She was wearing a daisy pendant
the first time they met, and it became a term of endearment.
memes, and how are they used for publicity?
The students in the book are pairing images with humorous
captions or twists on popular sayings that can be circulated on social media to
draw attention to the production.
nothing of the opera house ghost. When she learns of the story behind the
ghost, she doesn’t totally discount it. Has she had encounters with psychic
It’s implied that she has...and
while she isn’t aware of having met any prior ghosts, she tells us that “no one
can grow up the daughter of artist Violet O and not have an open mind.”
and her husband, Braxton, head up the historical society, which doesn’t want
the play to be held in the opera house. They are very different in their manner
with people. Do they play bad cop/good cop when dealing with adversaries?
It’s a natural result of their
personalities. They could not be more opposite.
though the Worthinghams are loathsome, they adopted an abandoned baby left on
their doorstep by the opera house’s former owner, who committed suicide there.
Were they altruistic or did they have more sinister motives?
I’d like to believe that they
adopted baby who is now grown up, and Lila don’t know the identity of their
fathers. Does this give them a bond or is there more that Lila senses in Bella?
It gives them a bond more quickly
than they would have had otherwise.
Detective Lexington Archer
investigates the murder. Lila and he dated briefly, but then both became
immersed in their work. Will they be more successful in dating this time?
It depends on what you mean by
romance, Lila describes herself as a “spill-my-drink-on-him and
blurt-out-absurdities kind of girl.” I think she doesn’t give herself enough
credit. Would Lex agree with her or me?
Lex would probably agree with you,
but will secretly never forget the mug of hot coffee at the café that time.
something unfortunate happens to someone the effect is compounded by people
distancing themselves from that person. Is it superstition or are they at a
loss as to what to say and do?
Good question! I very much admire
the people who go in anyway and let someone know that they’re not alone, even
if it’s difficult to find the words.
writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series: The Semester of Our
Discontent, an Agatha Award recipient for Best First Novel; The Art of
Vanishing, a Lefty Award nominee for Best Humorous Mystery; and The
Spirit in Question. Her work has also appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly
Concern, Literary Mama, Copper Nickel, Prick of the Spindle, Mama PhD, and
other publications. She is professor of English at Metropolitan State
University of Denver and president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information,
please visit cynthiakuhn.net.