Celebrating 25 Years of Mysteries with Katherine Hall Page
By Joe BrosnanMay 6, 2019
This week marks the publication of Katherine Hall Page’s 25th mystery in the Faith Fairchild series, and to help celebrate this momentous occasion, I chatted with Katherine about her career, her motivations, her favorite foods, and so much more. Learn more about Katherine’s series and make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win her newest mystery The Body in the Wake!
* * *
Twenty-five Faith Fairchild books! How do you keep coming up with new mysteries for her to get wrapped up in while also keeping everything so fresh?
After the second book, The Body in the Kelp, I asked my wonderful SMP editor, Ruth Cavin, how could readers possibly believe this woman keeps stumbling across corpses. She replied, “It’s fiction, Katherine. You can do anything you want.” This became a kind of mantra for me—and very freeing. And when you look at “real life” you often say to yourself that you can’t make this stuff up!
That said, once it seemed there would be more than two books, I alternated the locales to keep the series fresh from the fictitious town of Aleford west of Boston where Faith lives with “Someplace Else” books. These settings have included France, Norway, Italy, Vermont, New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts and often an island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, where the latest book, The Body in the Wake, is located.
Faith is always getting dragged into mysteries, even when she is meant to be taking time for herself. But of course, she loves it. Is this how you feel about the series? In other words, do you feel like it is always pulling you back in, in a good way?
This is a very interesting notion and one I had not thought about previously, but yes—and also in a good way. Faith and others in the cast of characters do pull me back when I least expect it. Walking around somewhere I’ll start thinking, “What if Faith…”
Your own time in Maine has clearly influenced the books. Do you find yourself daydreaming about the Maine you know, or rather the Maine that Faith knows? Is one dreamier than the other?
My family first started going to Deer Isle, Maine in 1958. It was a long trek from New Jersey in those days for limited vacation time, but it very soon became the place we loved the most. My parents are buried there and it’s a beautiful, large birch-lined plot, so I’ll be there a long time too. And I do daydream about Maine, especially in the winter months. I’ll picture watching the Great Blue Heron in the cove or walking on the rock-strewn shore and it is a kind of alignment. Faith and I share the same Maine, although it took her a while to get there. A native New Yorker, she was a Hamptons girl in those first books.
You developed an educational program for adolescents with emotional needs. How has that important time in your life influenced your writing?
I have been fortunate to have two careers that have been extremely meaningful for me, and the work I did with adolescents as a teacher and director of that last program influence not only my writing but my whole life. I’d grown up in a family that, without spelling it out, was centered on a belief in the worth and importance of every individual.
I’ve always liked the quotation, paraphrased, stating that Life is short, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind. This combined with not judging (except murderers). Adolescents are truth tellers and very funny. I think I learned as much from them as they did from me. Also, some of the best books have always been YAs.
Life is short, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.
Aside from your award-winning Faith Fairchild series, you also write cookbooks. What’s one meal you couldn’t live without? And do you and Faith share the same favorite meal?
Oh, this is very hard! Like asking what would you want as your last meal if facing a firing squad (the meals might not be the same—tempted as we would be for the last one to select something with many courses hard to chew quickly).
My mother was Norwegian-American and my blood is part fjord. I love fish, simple preparations as well as complex. And all varieties, shellfish, freshwater, saltwater, etc. Yet, the meal I really couldn’t live without would have to include salmon—gravlax, lox, sushi, grilled, poached, baked, even salmon burgers. I recently had one of the last with pimento cheese on brioche and it was decadently delicious. The meal: burrata with a touch of lavender honey and pistachio nuts as a first course, then a perfectly grilled piece of nonfarmed salmon with asparagus in season (hollandaise would be nice), oven roasted Brussels sprouts if wrong time of year for asparagus and pan roasted (in butter and olive oil) new potatoes or those purple ones with a touch of fresh rosemary. For dessert, lemon pavlova with wild strawberries. Prosecco with the burrata, a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with the fish, and a Vouvray or not-too-sweet Sauterne with the Pavlova. Away from the table, a sip or two of Rémy Martin cognac to provoke stories—discreet or not. And without question, Faith would choose the same meal.
You’ve mentioned that you enjoy eavesdropping on your website. What is the most interesting thing you’ve overheard? Have you ever been caught? Does it ever find its way into your books?
I have never been caught and yes, some tidbits have appeared in a few books. The most interesting (and disconcerting) conversation I ever overheard was many years ago. I was having dinner with my sister in Manhattan at The Quilted Giraffe as a special treat. Soon the conversation between the well-dressed 40something couple at the next table drew our attention away from the food. The woman was not speaking loudly, but distinctly and we both looked at each other after hearing, “I saw a lawyer today and I want a divorce.” Her husband turned so pale I thought he would faint and he dropped his fork. “A divorce! Why?” She calmly listed a catalog of transgressions, none of which included infidelity, but that essentially he was not fun anymore—all the while consuming her meal with obvious relish. It wasn’t that the conversation was such an unusual one, but I will never forget her tone of voice and lack of empathy for the man across from her who was gasping and not eating a thing.
And just the other day when I was also in New York, but at a much less cutting edge establishment I overheard a woman say to her friend, matter-of-factly, “Well they finally got the guy who killed her daughter, so she has closure.” I couldn’t help looking over at them and they sadly lowered their voices to the point where I would have had to be on one of their laps for the meaty details.
Faith mentions a run-in with a ghost in chapter one of The Body in the Wake. Have you ever had a similar experience? If so, what happened?’’
The mention has to do with an experience in the previous book, The Body in the Wardrobe, that takes place in Savannah. However, depending on how you define “ghost”, Faith has run-ins with all sorts, especially in The Body in the Attic. I have not been as fortunate, but I’m open to any and all encounters.
Of all the Fairchild mysteries, which has been your favorite to write?
I flat out loved writing the latest book, but my favorite continues to be The Body in the Sleigh. It was an expansion of a short story I wrote, “The Two Marys” and I very much wanted to write more about those two women—years apart in age and life experience. Much of the book also centers on several adolescents and one in particular’s addiction, which all these years later, unfortunately, continues as a significant part of the plot in the new book. Both books are set on Sanpere Island. Sleigh is closest to referencing both of my careers.
If the Faith Fairchild books were to be turned into a movie, who do you think would be great for the role of Faith?
From your lips… When I wrote the first book, I pictured Faith as Blythe Danner in the very fun TV series, Adam’s Rib. Time passed and while Faith did not age much, Ms. Danner did and I progressed to Bonnie Hunt and then Helen Hunt (starting with Mad About You) and I’ve stayed with Helen for now.
When you wrote the first book of the series, The Body in the Belfry, did you always plan on such a long career for Faith?
Good gracious, I did not have a clue. After acquiring the Body in the Belfry, when Ruth Cavin asked my agent “When can we expect the next book in Katherine’s series?” I was completely stunned.
What are you reading and watching at the moment?
My tastes for both are Catholic. Starting with TV, of course, Game of Thrones, but also the PBS News Hour, and I tape Stephen Colbert to watch the next day as I am asleep or reading that late, and all sorts of HGTV, especially House Hunters, which like eavesdropping is satisfying voyeurism. Netflix. Jeopardy. My real claim to fame is that I once was a clue. Many Brit offerings, especially their (original) Antiques Roadshow.
Books! Nonfiction—just finally got to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Other biographies and autobiographies. David Nasaw’s about Hearst is in the bedside pile. Graphic fiction and nonfiction. Jarrett Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo is a must read for all ages. Always some of Persephone Press’s offerings. They reprint mid-twentieth century often overlooked books by women writers, both fiction and nonfiction. I read all sorts of mysteries. Both traditional and noir, but not when I am writing one as I live in fear of subconsciously “borrowing” a plot device. I am a great re-reader, particularly Austen, Mitford, and Wodehouse, and also much-loved children’s books. Winnie-the-Pooh is almost as good as chicken soup when ill.
What is your writing process?
I have always found it interesting to hear about the vast differences in the way writers write—both in the mystery genre and others. I always know who did it from the start and how, as opposed to many others who just sit down and go—turning out terrific books. I am a pretty organized person, so in the beginning, after the first book, I would write a lengthy synopsis and send it to my editor who would make suggestions, or not. I recall Ruth saying one book needed much more suspense in the first chapter to match the rest. Many things change as I write, but the synopsis is the skeleton. I also have timelines so Faith isn’t referring to something that happened a week ago and says it was the day before yesterday. Character lists with descriptions. First and last lines to avoid both repetition and clichés—especially for those last lines, which are there to make the reader stay up all night.
I do various kinds of research and keep all those notes along with the above in the kind of French notebooks that have graph paper in an attempt to keep my writing legible to myself. I rewrite what I wrote the day before when I sit down each morning, so I don’t know how many drafts I’ve made, as it is a kind of rolling one. I started writing when my son was very young and grabbed the time based on the yellow school bus’s departure and then return with exciting breaks to do wash etc. And to take a short walk most days. I like Madeleine L’Engle’s description of the writing process as taking dictation from one’s imagination. (But I do not believe my characters write the books and wish they did).
How has it been, spending 25 books with a character, watching her grow and change?
This 25th book marks a Silver Anniversary, but I view it as Gold. Writing about Faith and her family has been a golden opportunity for me as a writer. I have been able to sustain one character across a number of significant life events: a prequel as a single woman set in her native Manhattan when she is just starting her catering—and sleuthing—career, continuing through marriage, child-rearing (and no, one is never done) through good times and bad. I’ve always thought of the books as a kind of theater. At the core, my ensemble troupe has an unchanging cast of characters. Side characters come and go, some making frequent appearances, others walking on stage only once. And Faith has definitely changed. A close friend said after reading the first book that she thought Faith was spoiled, whining about being stuck in Aleford away from Manhattan—no Bloomingdale’s, Balducci’s, can’t get a good haircut and what was it with those Boiled Dinners? She’s mellowed (but still needs to make trips back for doses of that NYC vibe).
What separates The Body in the Wake from the rest of the series?
I dislike what I call “Soapbox Mysteries” in which the author’s opinions are rammed down a reader’s throat. The author is not a storyteller, but a proselytizer. That said, I wanted to write more directly about the opioid crisis as it has affected one island in Maine. When we have a roadside clean-up day now, we are told to be careful not to touch syringes and other indicators of how widespread the problem is. I wanted to write about the fact that addicts are our friends and family members, not criminals. That relapsing is almost inevitable and we just need to keep trying, supporting those in recovery. The character in this book with the problem is a young mother, the largest group of addicts in the place in Maine where I live part of the year. There are all sorts of reasons for this, as they are for addicts at any age. I have a deep-seated fury for the drug companies that aggressively marketed opioids knowing how addictive they were even as they marketed recovery drugs for the scourge they created. So this is a pretty passionate book. I did get to write what I hope is a good whodunit, as well as what happens when your neighbor clear cuts the property line and most of all a wedding, which brings a great many people from other books joyfully back together.
1990 to 2019 is such a long time to spend with anyone, let alone a fictional character! Has Faith changed with the times, and if so, how has she changed?
Well, she has a cell phone, knows how to text, does not tweet and has left nouvelle cuisine for farm-to-table. I’ve always been careful not to put in too many references to current states of affairs that would later jump out and interrupt the flow of the narrative. However, in an early book—a prequel before Faith is married—I referred to an article in Newsweek magazine saying a single woman over 30 in Manhattan had as much chance of finding a husband as getting hit by a plane in a terrorist attack. On September 12th my editor called and I had a replacement line ready, something about winning the NY State lottery. The book was in paperback by then and we immediately changed the next printing. But few readers look at the copyright date and over the years I’ve had a number of them ask me how I could have been so insensitive, having picked up an old edition or the hardcover. Yet, with this new book, Faith displays awareness about the times we are living in that she certainly didn’t when younger. As do we all.
If you could pair Faith up with any fictional detective to solve a crime, who would you choose?
Sans doute, Hercule Poirot!
And finally, the question we ask all crime writers: if you had to get rid of a dead body, what would be your method?
I’d go for simplicity, the tried-and-true. A remote bluff, easy to find on the jagged 3,478 mile coast of Maine—best if crime also occurred there, quick bludgeon to the head and no fibers or other annoying DNA left in a car trunk—then big push over the edge at high tide and let the rocks plus inhabitants of the sea take care of the remains. It wouldn’t take long.
Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-four previous Faith Fairchild mysteries, the first, The Body in the Belfry, received the Agatha Award for best first mystery. The Body in the Snowdrift and Page’s SS, “The Would-Be-Widower” were also honored with Agathas. The recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic, she has been nominated for the Edgar, Mary Higgins Clark, Macavity, and Maine Literary Awards. She lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.
About The Body in the Wake:
For the first time in years, Faith Fairchild has time for herself. Her husband Tom is spending days on the other side of the island using a friend’s enhanced WiFi for a project; their son, Ben, after his first year in college, is studying abroad for the summer; and their daughter Amy is working at the old Laughing Gulls Lodge, now a revamped conference center.
Faith is looking forward to some projects of her own. Her friend Sophie Maxwell is also spending the summer on Sanpere Island, hoping for distractions from her worries that she isn’t yet pregnant. And the daughter of Faith’s good friend Pix Miller is getting married to a wonderful guy . . . with a less-than-wonderful mother. Between keeping Sophie’s spirits up and Pix’s blood pressure down, Faith has her hands full.
And that’s before a body with a mysterious tattoo and connections far away from small Sanpere Island appears in the Lily Pond. Once again, Faith will get to the bottom of this strange case—and whip up a delicious blueberry buckle on the side.
Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Body in the Wake by Katherine Hall Page!
To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.
The Body in the Wake Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/celebrating-25-years-of-mysteries-with-katherine-hall-page/ beginning at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 6, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 4:59 p.m. ET May 20, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.