Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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

Mud season takes on a whole new meaning in the coastal town of Busman's Harbor, Maine, when local business owners sling dirt at one another in a heated feud over a proposed pedestrian mall. Vandalism is one thing, but murder means Julia Snowden of the Snowden Family Clambake steps in to clean up the case . . .
When Julia spots police cars in front of Lupine Design, she races over. Her sister Livvie works there as a potter. Livvie is unharmed but surrounded by smashed up pottery. The police find the owner Zoey Butterfield digging clay by a nearby bay, but she has no idea who would target her store. Zoey is a vocal advocate for turning four blocks of Main Street into a pedestrian mall on summer weekends. Other shop owners, including her next-door neighbor, are vehemently opposed. Could a small-town fight provoke such destruction? When a murder follows the break-in, it’s up to Julia to dig through the secrets and lies to uncover the truth . . .


Yesterday, Kensington released the tenth book in Barbara Ross’s Maine Clambake mystery series, Muddled Through.

Evidently a reader thought up this title, as Barbara explained in the postscript, and it is an apt title given the season and state of main character Julia Snowden’s life.


I can’t tell you how much I look forward to reading the books in this series. When I start a book, I try to become aware of when I slide into the reading and reality recedes. Total failure—I’m immersed before I know it.


Barbara puts the reader into intriguing action from the very start, and then she hooks you in with each chapter. But the other aspect that hooks me is the historic and other details that Barbara must research to write. Part of it is teaching. I had no idea lupine flowers (see the cover) was pronounced loopin, not loo-pine (long “i”), which begs the question—why isn’t the spelling lupin, solving the problem? English!


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

Fifty years ago, many small-town folk were wary of strangers, or in as they say in Busman’s Harbor, the setting of this series, those “From Away.” But now? We’re such a transient society and Busman’s Harbor has lots of outsiders who own summer cottages there. Would that mentality still exist?


It would. I live part of the year in Key West, Florida. The people who have the good fortune to be born in the Keys are “Conchs.” People who’ve moved to the Keys from other places but have lived there full-time for at least seven years are called “Freshwater Conchs.” The rest of us are just passing through.


Maine doesn’t even have the “freshwater” gradation. I love this joke, which Katherine Hall Page tells in the thirteenth book in her series, The Body in the Lighthouse.


“A Down East man and his pregnant wife are visiting in New Hampshire when she goes into labor. He bundles her into the car, and they drive as fast as they can to the Maine border, but it’s no good. The baby is born before they can cross it. The same day another baby is born somewhere on the Maine coast. As soon as he can travel, his parents take him to Asia, where he lives for the rest of his life. The other baby lives a long life, too, but he never leaves the state again. They die at the same time. The Ellsworth American runs both obituaries. “Local Man Dies in Singapore” and “Man from New Hampshire Dead at Eighty-one.”


After spring mud comes black fly season. Remind me why people love Maine so much. Don’t the ocean breezes keep the bugs away?


It’s true. Black flies don’t bother us on the coast. But in the woods…


If in twelve thousand years, not enough topsoil has developed to absorb rain and snow melt in Maine (leaving clay exposed for potters), how many years does it take to develop topsoil?


Twelve thousand years is the blink of an eye in the history of the earth. The main point about the topsoil is there’s not enough of it to absorb and drain a combination of snow melt and spring rains, hence “mud season.”


Now that Julia is living with her mother again, broken her relationship with Chris, and unable to continue operating their winter restaurant, she has too much time to think. She’s retrospective, thinking about the last ten years of her life. She’s down. Is this natural or is she depressed?


I don’t think she’s clinically depressed (whatever that might mean), but she’s pensive, betwixt and between, trying to make sense of her life and figure out what’s next.


What does animatronic mean and how does it apply to Busman’s Harbor?


Animatronic comes up in a heated town hearing. A local complains about the “Disneyfication” of their resort town and says the developers won’t stop until the citizens are all animatronic—like the moving statues in the Hall of Presidents at Disney World. It’s a fight about what to keep and what to let go of to accommodate the tourists on which the town depends.


Who were “rusticators?” What was the purpose?


Rusticators are the first wave of tourists who came to Maine in the late nineteenth century. They came specifically to get away from the growing cities and experience a simple life for a week or a summer. They came to Maine because it was rustic.


My husband might be a Mainer. What is that, and is it the same as being cheap or being a potential recycler?


Some people might say it has to do with being cheap, but it really has to do with keeping anything you might ever have a use for, no matter how unlikely. My husband may be one, too.


Are there a lot of New York City expats in Maine?


Oh, my goodness, yes. And since the pandemic, even more.


I would have thought the most popular vehicle in Maine to be four-wheel drive trucks, not Subarus. But are the Subarus four-wheel drive as well?


Subarus are all wheel drive and Maine is the second-best market for Subarus in the country. (Following only Vermont.) However, there are more Ford F150s here than Subarus. (I just had to look that up.) But Maine’s love affair with the Subaru is well-known and well documented.


What does the psychological term “well defended” mean?


The way it’s used in Muddled Through it means self-protective, not allowing oneself to be upset by events by pushing feelings away. It’s not a good thing in the long run because the person isn’t feeling their feelings, but it can be a crutch to get through a crisis in the short term.


Why does Busman’s Harbor have two main streets? Isn’t it confusing?


Busman’s Harbor only has one main street, called Main Street, but it curls around a hill and crosses itself, thereby creating the intersection of Main and Main. You can see a map of it here.


What is pine syrup/bitters? Does it taste like pine, just as yucky gin tastes like spruce trees?


It tastes like Christmas! Really, pine syrup and pine bitters are lovely.


The lobster stew sounds incredible. But even if you could grind up lobster shells so fine as to not cut up your stomach, are they even digestible? They were used to thicken the stew?


It’s lobster bisque that was traditionally thickened by ground up lobster shells—and I mean truly ground up to powder. Some chefs still make it that way.


What do Mainers call tonic (that stuff you add to yucky gin)?


I think you’re alluding to what other people call soda or pop. Old, true New Englanders (not just Mainers) call that tonic. It’s fading from the language rapidly. You hear soda much more often today. I guess they call tonic, tonic as well.


I thought pecan pie was a Southern thing. The recipe is titled Cardamom Pecan Pie, but with the substitution of maple syrup, maybe it should be called Maple Nut Pie. It really is a different pie, isn’t it?


Hmm. Substituting maple syrup for another sweetener is a common practice. I have a novella coming out next year where maple syrup gets substituted for brown sugar in Irish coffee. I don’t think that makes it a whole different thing, does it? I fully acknowledge that pecan pie is a southern thing.


National Geographic Magazine has only employed four female staff photographers in its history. True?


As of 2000, when the book Women Photographers at National Geographic was published it was true, and those four were widely spaced in time. Further it says, “Until the 1970s (and some might say beyond) the National Geographic Society was the publishing equivalent of a private men’s club. Women worked at the society, but nearly always as secretaries or clerks. Men and women ate in separate dining rooms.” Nonetheless from 1907 onward, a small number of intrepid women, almost always submitting over the transom in the early days, or later working as free-lancers, did get their photographs published in the magazine. Some of their achievements are extraordinary.


Is it terrible to want to preserve memories of someone by avoiding the present-day real person?


Such an interesting question. But yes, I think in particular with a romantic partner, when the relationship is firmly in the past, it can be better to remember than to deal with current reality. Sometimes with former friends as well. Like when you rediscover them through Facebook and they’ve turned into jerks.


Why would forensic psychologists think that having someone in your family murdered gives anyone in the family more propensity to kill?


Because violence begets violence and someone raised in violent circumstances is more likely to be violent. It doesn’t apply in the situation in Muddled Through, though. In this case the psychologist, who hasn’t met the person in question, is generalizing and is wrong.


Is it a journalist’s job to make the populace feel safe by portraying murder victims as living unwisely, making them responsible for their own murders? Sounds like blaming the victim and casting aspersions to me.


I don’t think it’s a journalism thing. I think it’s a human-being thing. We look at the victims of anything horrible, manmade or natural, and we think, “I’m a different person in different circumstances, so that won’t happen to me.” It’s a defense mechanism. If we thought about all the terrible things that can happen all the time we’d never make it through the day.


With that, with the murder cited in the newspaper articles in Muddled Through, there is a degree of victim-blaming, particularly when the stories instigated by “leaks” from the defense counsel.


Maine lupines are actually from the West Coast?


Yes. The lupines we love to see in meadows and by the side of the road in June are invasive. We do have one native type of lupine, but it’s been wiped out by the visitors and taken a particular type of butterfly with it. We do love the lupines, though. They are beautiful.


Pottery must be a lot like writing. It teaches you failure. Right?


After interviewing potters for this book, I came away feeling like there was a difference. Both activities are about creating art, but potters face uncontrollable failure all the time from the beginning of their practice to the end. With writing it’s about trying to get close to an ideal and failing. With potters it’s about things literally blowing up in the kiln.


A character in the book tells Julia she needs to learn to fail in regard to her relationship with Chris. I’m not so sure that’s correct. Perhaps in the short term. But is it more that Julia has learned where she needs to draw the line, and appreciate that lesson, for long-term success? She’s already done that in her working relationship with Sonny.


You’re right about Julia’s decision of course. But I think when a loving relationship founders, we’re all susceptible to feeling like we’ve failed. Julia’s inexperienced at love. Her relationship with Chris is the first romantic partnership in her life that’s lasted more than weeks. Their relationship went on for a long time and was intense. They lived together and worked together. Julia imagined a future together, and I think it’s that imaginary future that she’s actually mourning.


What’s next for Julia?


After Muddled Through, we pick Julia up in “Perked Up," a novella in Irish Coffee Murder which will be published on January 31, 2023. The eleventh Maine Clambake Mystery is due to my publisher three days from now. (Gulp.) That will be out summer of 2023.


Thanks so much for asking! Your questions always make me think.



  1. Parts of Maine and Michigan's Upper Peninsula are very similar (without the ocean, of course, although we do have three Great Lakes). I had to laugh about the Subarus and F-150s since I own one of each!

    Congrats on #10, Barbara.

  2. One of my favorite series. I confess, I’m still mourning the Julia/Chris relationship! Looking forward to reading Muddled Through

  3. So glad we have more Maine Clambake books to look forward to. I'm so glad you include lupines - Miss Rumphius is one of my all time favorite books of my heart. Congrats, Barb, and keep writing!

  4. A wonderful series, and I agree with Shari about the lupines and Miss Rumphius. Thanks for stopping by WWK, Barb!

  5. Thanks everyone and thanks for having me. Jim, we had dinner with college friends who live half the year on the UP this May and were comparing the two. For those interested in Miss Rumphius, tomorrow on Jungle Reds I have a post on the real Miss Rumphius.

  6. I love novels set in detailed, well-developed quirky settings. This series fits that bill. And such great stories, too!