The book is dedicated to Ramona DeFelice Long. A long time ago, Ramona blogged here at WWK, and later, I employed her as my editor. Writing mystery is a small world, so I thought I’d know the writer, but I’d never heard of Alicia Beckman. When I turned the last page, the author was revealed—Leslie Budewitz was writing as Alicia Beckman. Blow me down!
I’ve interviewed Leslie here on books from both of her cozy mystery series. I know Leslie lives in Montana and went to school in Seattle, the settings of her series, but the writing and combined genres was so different from her usual writing, I didn’t put the two together.
For the first time, please welcome Alicia Beckman to WWK. For about the fourth time, please welcome Leslie Budewitz to WWK. E. B. Davis
Why this book—so different from your other series?
I love both my Food Lovers’ Village and Spice Shop series, and a few of my short stories form a historical series as well. As writers, we all have many stories to tell, and sometimes, they take a different tone or require a different structure. I’d long wanted to explore how women’s friendships evolve over time, something that’s been central in my life. I do that in my cozies, particularly in The Solace of Bay Leaves, the 5th Spice Shop book. But while I think the cozy is pretty flexible and can touch on social justice issues and difficult emotions, I also wanted to take a deeper dive beneath the surface of a family and a community to sometimes-uncomfortable places, into the fractures and the scars, and the ways we find to live with them.
The book is structured by days of the week, a week in which the murder is solved, but in which many stories are revealed. Why that structure?
In the fall of 2019, I read Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson, which uses a similar structure. When I start a book, I often think about what’s struck me in recent reads, and I realized that structure would work well here. It implies from the start that we’re going to dive right into the problem, whatever it is; that time element helps raise the stakes and, I hope, adds a bit of drive and compulsion to the story.
Main character Sarah McCaskill Carter is a new widow at the age of forty-seven. Do you have friends that are widows? Did you use them for researching what widows feel and face in the earliest stages of their grief?
I am a big advocate of emotional research, mining our memories and observations for insights into human experience, as well as reading books and articles about loss and grief. Though, fortunately, I have no close friends who were widowed at Sarah’s age, I’ve certainly watched older women, including my mother, sister-in-law, and friends who’ve been through the experience. A dear friend’s husband was diagnosed with cancer when their children were about the age of Sarah’s children—he’s doing quite well, thank goodness—but I saw the fear and the rawness that evoked, and imagined what the next stages might bring. Writing fiction requires the practice of empathy, which can be wrenching but is also deeply gratifying. If you do it well, and truly connect with the characters, then readers will connect with them, too, and have a satisfying emotional experience—which is, after all, one of the reasons we read.
Historically, Sarah’s family—the McCaskills—have been wealthy sawmill owners and employers, wealthy enough to have predecessors who willed them a lodge with cabins and acreage on the other side of Bitterroot Lake from their hometown of Deer Park. The camp started as a summer home and continued in that capacity for generations. Although Sarah wants to help her mother inventory the lodge and plan its future, she isn’t prepared for the cleaning. Why haven’t the lodge and cabins been maintained over the years?
Sarah and her siblings’ lives have gone in different directions, with the sisters leaving Deer Park and the brother busy with the business and his own family. I suspect that their father’s death a few years before our story begins affected their connection to Whitetail Lodge as well, since it had been his family’s place. Peggy, their mother, has had some disquieting experiences in the lodge over the years, which have also contributed. Family property can be a great joy and connecting force, but it can also be a burden, especially financially. Here in Montana, some historic lodges have become commercial properties while others have passed into the control of community preservation groups. A few, happily, remain in family hands or have found other owners who treasure them.
Sarah also isn’t prepared to run into her old friend Janine, who she finds camped out in one of the cabins, on the run from a murder scene. Even though Janine left Deer Park, where she, too, grew up, her history is well known there. In small towns, does history forever label you? Does trying to maintain privacy aid and abet the gossip mongers?
Oh, yes, both those things can happen. Deer Park is a truly small town, well under 5,000, although it expands with tourists and summer people in season, which brings a different set of tensions. Small towns can have long memories.
Because of her history, Janine is afraid to go to the authorities after finding the body of a man the women knew when they were college age. Was it the attempted rape of her by the victim or her mother’s history that made Janine run from the scene?
Both. Janine is keenly aware that society dismisses some people, and that social labels can be passed from one generation to the next. She’s not sure how much she can trust Deer Park to have changed. That’s not an unreasonable fear, I think, when the past is so tragic and has so deeply scarred her. Of course, this is part of the burden Renee Harper carries as well.
Much like Janine, Sarah finds her history also hinders her, an unexpected slap. She’s looked upon as perfect, had it easy, married a man who became wealthy, had perfect children—and when others put Janine down for her poor history, others put Sarah down as being too high and mighty—even her younger sister Holly. How can it go both ways, and in each case, they are innocent? Cases of schadenfreude?
The biggest rift is between the sisters. Each knows she’s judging the other harshly, and wonders if that’s fair. Do they justify their actions—and their words—to themselves? They have in the past, but now that they’re face-to-face, they’re forced to acknowledge that they haven’t lived up to their expectations, in Sarah’s case, or been fully honest, in Holly’s. I’m fascinated by the layers within a long-term relationship, and the sometimes-profound impact of misperception and miscommunication.
The other three women seem to have kept more in touch with each other than Sarah has kept close to them. She feels guilty, but then she also lived in Seattle. Did she isolate herself or did the others exclude her?
A little of both, I think. It’s often the case that within a small cluster of friends, some bonds are stronger than others. Janine and Nic were united by being the outsiders, and of course, they both lived in Montana and saw each other, although Janine left for a while. And sometimes, physical distance becomes an excuse and emotional distance a habit.
Without spoilers, it’s fair to say that Sarah’s brother, Connor, and her late husband, Jeremy, make an important decision affecting her without telling her. They don’t seem particularly sexist, and yet their actions are troubling in a way. Why the secrecy?
Quite simply, they think they’re protecting her, both by sparing her the decision and by the decision they make. When we try to protect people from painful emotions, we often create another layer of pain, missing an opportunity to connect on a deeper level and implicitly telling them we didn’t trust them to make good decisions.
Being human can involve some painful ambiguity and contradiction at times, can’t it?
Sarah finds two situations that she believes are mystical or self-invented to be real. The first are her dreams that she believes are warnings, and they may be that. The second are signs from her late husband. Do many new widows receive tangible proof from a dead spouse?
Turns out they do. After my sister-in-law’s husband died shortly before Christmas a few years ago, she often found an ornament from the holiday tree sitting on the floor, too far away to have simply fallen, or elsewhere in the room; she interpreted the incidents as a sign that he was thinking of her, and occasionally, that he wanted her to reach out to the person who had given them that ornament, which she did, always discovering that her call came at an important time. Other widows have told me similar stories. And it isn’t just widows—the story in the book of the artist who painted the angel clouds her murdered sister sent her was told to me by the artist. And I choose to believe that my mother, who adored bunnies, had a hand in the surprising number of snowshoe hares we saw around our house in the months after she died. (My pen name, by the way, is a tribute to her and her mother’s family.)
Bastet, the cat, Janine’s baking, and wine seem to be the only sources of creature comforts for the women. Do those shared comforts assist in keeping the peace among the women?
What a lovely insight! Those things, along with poring over the newly-discovered journal, albums, and letters from a century ago help them reconnect and restore their friendship. Those moments remind them that they have much more in common than the memory of the tragedy that tore them apart, and reassure them that their bonds are not hopelessly severed, that they can depend on each other again.
When Sarah finds her great grandmother Caro’s journal, she discovers that Caro and her friends had founded the Lakeside Ladies’ Aid Society, a group of wealthy women who loaned money to poorer women in need before social security and welfare were promulgated. Were there groups such as this around during the 1920s through the Depression era?
Women’s social and community clubs were hugely important from roughly the 1880s through the 1960s and ‘70s, but especially in new towns and rural communities in the west. Pioneering was often lonely and isolating, and farm and ranch women sometimes went weeks or even months without seeing another woman. I remembered my own mother’s involvement in church groups and the ways that good deeds were often done behind the scenes. It wasn’t much of a stretch to create the Lakeside Ladies’ Aid Society, a sort of secret “good works” club.
Sarah also learns that she isn’t the only one suffering nightmares. Is this a true haunting since it’s recurred over the last 100 years?
One theory about such visitations is that they are tied to the site of an unsolved or unrectified death. That’s very much the case here, though I think I can say without giving too much away that what the spirit—if I can call it that—wants is not revenge, but a sort of fulfillment.
Is Bitterroot Lake the first in a series?
The book came about in a bit of an unusual way. My agent and I pitched a traditional mystery series, and got some interest, but Terri Bischoff at Crooked Lane thought the first in the series had the potential to be a standalone. I’d been very much interested in that, and after working with Terri at Midnight Ink, I trusted her judgment. Writing a standalone is different from writing a series—each decision, from setting to tone to subplots and more, can be made with just the one story in mind, and all the story questions need to be answered, since this is the one time your reader will meet these characters. And the tone and voice are different from my series books, which is probably why you didn’t recognize me as the author—I love that, by the way! So while the series potential exists, I have no plans for a series now.
What are you writing now?
I’m finishing edits for Carried to the Grave, a collection of Food Lovers’ Village short stories slated for summer; it includes a historical prequel set in 1910 featuring the contemporary protagonist’s great-grandparents. And I’m writing the next Spice Shop mystery, which should be out in spring 2022.
Thanks for having me here today, Elaine, and for great questions!