Wednesday, November 17, 2021

An Interview with Susan Van Kirk by E. B. Davis


Retired teacher Grace Kimball is elated when former student Fiona Mackenzie returns to Endurance to make burial plans for her recently deceased mother, Sybil Mackenzie. But this will be no ordinary funeral because Fiona’s mother—a self-proclaimed witch—died in prison following a sensational Endurance murder trial ten years earlier. Detective TJ Sweeney doesn’t need witchcraft or visions to know Sybil Mackenzie’s presence—dead or alive—will rekindle anger in the residents of the small town.

When the judge from Sybil’s trial is poisoned, the evidence points toward Fiona, the witch’s child. Who else has a garden full of poisonous plants? Who else lost her mother to ten years in prison? Who knows the kind of dark magic the witch’s child can create? Her mother put a curse on all involved in her trial. Has Fiona returned to get revenge?

TJ finds other suspects ripe with motives to murder. Add vicious whispers and malicious rumors in the local coffee shops, pushy reporters looking for a story, and clashing opinions on social media. The town of Endurance is like a tinderbox just waiting for someone to light a match. Can Grace and TJ find the judge’s killer before that match is struck?


The Witch’s Child is the fourth Endurance mystery written by Susan Van Kirk. I happily noticed that the first three books in the series are now on Kindle Unlimited. So—if you haven’t read them, do so now with your subscription. It’s been a while since the third book, which I’m sure is a story in itself.


The first three book titles were based on sayings by Benjamin Franklin in his Farmer’s Almanac. This fourth book is not based on sayings, but it addresses an old topic—witches, their practices, and differences from conventional norms. What is contemporary is the theme of discrimination against those different from us based on fear. Unfortunately, real harm was done by a witch in the past. The question is if harm will be done in revenge for the past.


Susan addresses the contemporary topic of social media where gossip occurs without basis in fact resulting in harming the innocent. Her ending also has unexpected surprises, which I will not spoil!                                                   E. B. Davis 

How many years between the third and fourth books? What happened?


That is a long story I could call “Persistence and the Pandemic.” Five Star Publishing had my Endurance series but stopped publishing mysteries after my second book, Marry in Haste. So I finished Death Takes No Bribes and thought I had a publisher to pick up the series. That, too, fell through. I decided to self-publish this third book. It took a while to round up a cover artist and formatter. By summer 2017 when I published Death Takes No Bribes, I decided I would stop the Endurance series after a trilogy and e-book novella. Done. Finished.


I wrote a non-Endurance mystery, A Death at Tippitt Pond, got a publisher, and saw it come out summer 2019. I began writing a new series with Death in a Pale Hue, but the pandemic hit, and I had a tough time writing my name. Finally, I finished Death in a Pale Hue, but the characters from Endurance were on my mind. People kept asking me when I was going to write another Endurance mystery, and would Grace Kimball and her romantic interest, Jeff Maitlin, get together?


Meanwhile, my agent found a publisher for Death in a Pale Hue plus two more books. Since I’d written the first book, I figured I could sneak another Endurance book in, and the pandemic had lessened so I was seeing people and my creativity was back. It was a four-year stretch between three and four, but now I find myself a hybrid author with two series. Life is sure strange, and the publishing world even stranger.


Did all witch lore and history begin in Scotland? I was totally unaware of this, and I’m a Scot by descent. I thought it was just a convenient way to discriminate against all women.


Me too. Scottish. Witchcraft exists in the cultures and religious practices of many countries and over centuries. The reason I settled on Scottish stories was because I traced my ancestors back to a clan in Scotland in the 1400s. I became fascinated by websites for a particular clan that talked of modern-day examples of the second sight [visions and dreams like clairvoyance] and documenting its passing from one generation to the next with anecdotal stories.


Then I traced the Scottish immigrants who came to the Cumberland Valley in the 1770s, so I thought I could create a character descended from those families. I noted that some universities in this country and abroad have actual courses on witchcraft. I ordered and read several books about Scottish witchcraft, pulling out helpful ideas. Wicca or modern witchcraft interested me, and I read books and articles on that. All the while I was thinking about how I could use each of these ideas in The Witch’s Child.


It is true that the designation “witch” has been used to discriminate against women and also people who are “different.” The mid- to late Medieval period through the 18th century saw any dissent from religion in Europe as a threat to the social order. We know about the Inquisition, and our own Salem victims in the 1600s came from European settlers who were aware of the witchcraft trials in their home countries. People who were different became scapegoats and targets, so this was easy to replicate in the current town of Endurance. We know of many dark historical periods where this happened. History changes, feelings don’t.


From the start, when Fiona shows up in town, TJ doesn’t want her around. What does TJ have against Fiona?


TJ safe-guarded Fiona when she was a fifteen-year-old girl suffering through her mother’s trial. She felt sorry for her. But now Fiona is an adult, and TJ knows no good can come from Fiona bringing her mother’s body back to Endurance. That trial brought out such anger in the town, and the husband of the victims still lives in town, along with people who empathize with his loss. TJ knows this plan for a funeral service will end badly, and she will have to deal with the chaos.


Even Lettie, Grace’s former siter-in-law, is against Fiona burying her mother in a Christian cemetery and Fiona staying in Endurance. She’s such a forgiving soul. It seems unlike her. But then, doesn’t Lettie go from one extreme to the other, like she did with Del, her boyfriend?


I can’t decide who struggles more with Lettie’s opinionated side, Lettie or me? Most of the time her opinions are perfect vehicles for humor. She is angry with Fiona because of her mother’s actions. When Grace suggests Lettie should get to know Fiona better and she’d like her, Lettie says, “Of course. We’d have a lot in common. We could exchange recipes. Eye of newt, three-legged frog, an ostrich egg laid at the dark of the moon. I’m not sure I could get those ingredients at Tom Cogburn’s grocery store.”


But later Grace returns home to find Lettie and Fiona bonding in the kitchen over coffee. Lettie tells Grace, “She isn’t so bad once you get to know her. Sometimes people like her who seem so different actually aren’t. You just need to talk to them.” And this is a major theme of the novel. We tend to ostracize people who are different from us and sometimes attribute motives to them that aren’t correct, but if we talk to them we might discover we have more in common than we think.


TJ likes pie and men with great abs. Many women would agree with her. But, in TJ’s case, she doesn’t want to get married. Why? 


The answer to that goes back to my novella, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. TJ is a
biracial woman, her Caucasian father walking out on her Black mother years earlier. Her bitterness toward marriage goes back to that relationship. She never wants to marry a man who, like her father, might break her heart and leave her with kids to bring up by herself. She never wants to love someone so much, like Grace loved her deceased husband Roger, that their death will devastate her. Marriage works for Grace, but it will never work for TJ, or so she believes.

Is the Midwest the center of the universe? (BTW—I’ve never thought Illinois was in the Midwest. I think of Kansas as being Midwest!)


Of course Illinois is the center of the universe. From my front porch, as far as I can see, is the rest of the universe. I tend to think of Kansas as a plains state. The Midwest is Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana. Some people add Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but they’re too far north in my universe. I notice the news reporters disagree with me.


Although Endurance is a small town of 15,000 residents, it has a college. Does Endurance’s population include the college or with the college does that double the population?


No, the college is not included in the population. The town I live in has a college too, but the official (census) population of the town does not include the college. Endurance is a little bigger than my town and wealthier.


When the judge from the trial is poisoned and then a poisoning attempt is made on the prosecutor from the trial, it appears as though Fiona’s mother’s curse is being enacted. Does belladonna have to be processed to be effective or concealed in a beverage?


I had fun checking out the various poisons growing in Fiona’s backyard. (Fiona lived in Ohio for ten years with an aunt, but now she has decided to stay in her old home where she lived with her mother in Endurance.) TJ called her garden a perfect dispensary for murder. Agatha Christie used belladonna a few times. The juice of the belladonna berries is highly poisonous, but it also has a bitter taste, which you’d have to disguise. However, it isn’t very water soluble. Atropine is a poisonous compound found in belladonna that can be introduced into the bloodstream through injection, ingestion, or absorption through the skin. As an injection, atropine is normally converted to a salt to help its solubility in water and its easier absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. It would take an intelligent villain, and several of those appear to be in my story. One is a chemist, oh my!


As a suspect, TJ continues to focus on Fiona. It surprised me because it seemed like a set-up. Why is TJ so intent on Fiona as the number one suspect?


TJ can’t figure out Fiona’s decision to stay in Endurance after her mother’s funeral. What motive could she have for doing that? She has a home to go back to in Ohio. TJ also sees the adult Fiona as an outsider and an odd duck. What we don’t understand often leads to interesting hypotheses. Fiona has easy access to belladonna in her yard and knows how to use all kinds of herbs and poisons, including belladonna. She also has reason to be bitter about her mother’s fate since her mother never made it out of prison alive, and Fiona lost any further years she might have had with her mother. In short, she has the motive, means and opportunity.


You brought in the observation via Grace that the social media seems to have already found Fiona guilty even though there are no fact supporting her guilt. Have you often observed this problem on social media?


Are you kidding? In this mass media and social network world we’re living in with misinformation and misunderstanding about facts versus opinions, this is an everyday occurrence. We draw conclusions about other peoples’ motives all the time because we ascribe opinions to them that they might not even have. Look at the current debate about breaking up social media monopolies because it’s too easy to use them to spread false information. (I must stop before this becomes a rant about the media.)


Are Grace’s friends Deb and Jill former teachers who are retired, too?


Deb O’Hara is the former secretary at the junior high who is retired but does volunteer work at the local genealogical association. Jill Cunningham is not retired but works as an accountant. Jill, Deb, TJ, and Grace are close friends even though TJ is much younger than the others.


Do authors often embellish the facts about how many books they’ve sold? How many print editions?


That’s a good question. I can’t speak for other authors. I do notice many writers using “best-selling” in front of their names, and I’m never sure what that means. I’m fortunate in that Five Star Publishing got my books into hundreds of libraries, and Harlequin Worldwide Mystery republished my first three mysteries and sold thousands of copies to their worldwide book clubs. Most writers don’t ever mention an exact figure, but I’m not sure how you verify copies sold by someone else.


What’s next for Grace and her posse?


That’s difficult to say without giving away secrets. I can only say we’ll see some momentous changes in the lives of all the main characters. Next, I’ll write the second book in the Art Center series with Level Best Books. Then I can go in one of two directions. I’m debating two more novellas about TJ Sweeney cases. I’d put them together in a book with my already written novella, The Locket, so we’d have three cases in one book. Or I might write another Endurance novel. Either way, the small town in the Midwest—center of the universe—will have another day.


  1. Thank you, Elaine, for your excellent (as always) questions. And I appreciate "no spoilers."

  2. Susan, I'm sure wherever you choose to go with your writing, it will be a good decision.

  3. Susan, congratulations on your latest release and wishing you success with more books.

  4. Thanks so much, Jim. I’m glad you have such belief in my ability to make writing decisions. I’ll try to live up to that. And thank you, Margaret.

  5. Fab interview and good luck with the book. You are the definition of perseverance. And I laughed out loud at the part where you couldn't write your name. I was in the same leaky boat. Just started writing again (and it feels good).

  6. Now we know why seniors are told to keep involved in a community! I agree. Writing is going well now that we can see people again.

  7. I'm sure "Endurance" is appropriate for your writing career, too. We all know the obstacles facing authors, and you have persevered and overcome them to have a fabulous career.

    Thanks for a great interview.

  8. I've enjoyed watching your career develop since the Five Star days, Susan. So glad you've endured!

  9. Thanks so much, Kathleen and Molly. We all have persevered somehow since the earlier days. Elaine is a great interviewer.

  10. Terrific interview, Elaine and Susan. Susan, Your new book sounds like a wonderful read!

  11. Congratulations, Susan. All the best to you and your latest.

  12. Susan, so glad to know the Endurance people will stay around in one form or another!

  13. I love following your writing journey, Susan, almost as much as I love reading your books.

  14. Thanks so much, Judy. Maybe someday your Irene could visit Endurance. God knows my Grace is not much of a cook. They’d have a lot in common.

  15. Thanks for your encouragement, Molly.

  16. I'm so looking forward to reading the latest book in this series!

  17. What a great interview! And congrats on your perseverance and all your writing successes, Susan!

  18. Another great interview, E.B.!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, Susan. It's nice to get this insider's peek at your story!