Vermont Mystery Authors Archer Mayor and Sarah Stewart Taylor In Conversation
By Crime HQApril 21, 2020
Read on for Archer Mayor's latest, The Orphan's Guilt, his upcoming Joe Gunther novel, and check out Sarah Stewart Taylor's The Mountains Wild, a series debut mystery set between Dublin and New York.
Meet Archer Mayor:
New York Times-bestselling Vermont crime writer Archer Mayor has written thirty-one books in his Joe Gunther series, about a Vermont police detective who solves crimes in all corners of his native state. He is a past winner of the New England Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction and the latest book in the series The Orphan’s Guilt, will be out in September, 2020 from St. Martin’s Publishing Group/Minotaur Books. He lives in Newfane, VT, with his wife Margot, their intrusive cat Gilbert, and their ever-growing tortoise, Rosie.
Meet Sarah Stewart Taylor:
Vermont crime writer Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of The Mountains Wild, coming in June from St. Martin’s Publishing Group/Minotaur Books. She is also the author of the Sweeney St. George mystery series. The first book in the series, O’ Artful Death, is set in a fictional Vermont town and was nominated for an Agatha award. Sarah lives with her husband and three kids on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and blueberries.
Sarah Stewart Taylor: Hi, Archer. I hope you’re doing well down south. We’ve been locked down at home for three weeks now and I find it’s taken me some time to want to read fiction again. We are lucky to be healthy here at the moment, but I’m feeling the collective grief of this time and I’m so worried for people nearby and far away. I’ve finally gone to my bookshelves and have pulled down some mysteries to read (including yours) and it’s been really nice to lose myself in fictional problems instead of real ones.
I’ve been feeling grateful to live in Vermont right now, to be able to safely get outside in nature, to be part of a small community of people pitching in and doing what they can, but I’ve been thinking about isolation too and about Vermont as a popular setting for crime novels. I’m convinced that it’s the combination of isolation and the nearness of history that makes it a perfect place to set mysteries. What do you think makes our Green Mountain State such a great backdrop for crime novels?
Archer Mayor: Hi to you, Sarah. I AM doing well, and delighted to hear you are, too. In fact, given my personality, outlook, and twin occupations as a writer and a death investigator for Vermont’s medical examiner, my life really hasn’t changed much. I’m either working at home, or—as an “essential worker”—out there doing my job, as I have been for many years.
My own literary escape has consistently been history, making the 1918 flu pandemic particularly interesting right now. By nature, I suppose I’m slightly nerdy, less given to expressing my emotions and more inclined toward analysis. Having said that, I am grateful to be living here, where the population is scant and the distances between us considerable.
Your question about setting mysteries here touches on those very same factors, funnily enough. It was the scarcity of people up here that made me wonder, 30+ years ago, whether we, inhabitants of an isolated and sylvan Eden, do the same nasty things to one another as they do in major cities? It turns out, we do, which discovery, in part, influenced the sociological and psychological aspects of my series (over the historical ones.) How about you?
You work from a broader palette of interests than I when you write. Do you find your connection to Vermont—and his history—to be a major, ongoing influence in your work, or does its import ebb and flow?
SST: “Inhabitants of an isolated and sylvan Eden.” I can hear your tongue in your cheek when you say that and I’m so glad you brought that up because I’ve been thinking about how so much of Vermont’s literary tradition addresses that dichotomy: the peaceful, safe, idyllic beauty spot and the reality that, yes, we have cruelty and avarice and murder and strangeness here too.
From Shirley Jackson, to Howard Frank Mosher, to H.P. Lovecraft and my neighbor Joe Citro, fiction set in small Vermont towns, where all is not as it seems on the surface, is one of our state’s legacies.
I think it’s one of the things I love about your work, that dichotomy, but also that you have expanded out-of-state readers’ idea of what Vermont is. Your stories take place in our bigger towns and cities too, they feature people who live in apartments as well as farms, and they make clear that we aren’t immune to issues like drug trafficking, domestic abuse, sexual violence, and entrenched poverty.
Your question is interesting. My very first mystery, which was published in 2002, was set in a fictional Vermont town that I based on Cornish, NH, just across the river from where I live in Hartland, VT. My great-grandmother was a member of the Cornish Arts Colony but then my family became permanent residents of the area and I was always fascinated by that tension between summer people and locals and how that tension affected everything from land use and zoning and development to what colors people paint their houses.
My new book, The Mountains Wild, is mostly set in Ireland, where I lived and went to graduate school for a few years in my twenties and to which I have remained very attached, in a variety of ways. Though the settings have an ocean between them, this new book was very much informed by Vermont. The two places share a two-degrees-of-separation quality. You can’t do anything without someone you know hearing about it.
It’s a useful quality for a crime novel, I think. The chickens always come home to roost. You can’t escape justice or retribution—or the past. Tell me more about The Orphan’s Guilt, which will be out in September. It sounds like it really takes on this idea of history being extra close in Vermont, of old secrets coming back to haunt the descendants of their keepers.
AM: Aha! I am busted, Sarah. Yes, the allusion to a sylvan Eden was indeed ironic. I am, it’s fair to say, a global bum. A New Englander through my father (born and bred on Cape Ann,) I have resided and/or have roots in Europe, North, and South America.
I lived in 30 different places before settling in Vermont 40 years ago. Throughout, I variously saw and enjoyed high culture and sophistication, and was exposed to and suffered isolation and abuse. It was, to mirror a common phrase, a bumpy ride.
All this to state the obvious: We writers—from the working grunts like you and me, to the greats like Faulkner, Austen, and Angelou—write who we are. I may have come to Vermont to find solace and peace from an overpopulated, often brutal larger world, but what did I end up writing about?
You nailed it on the head, Sarah: not the skiers, leaf-peepers, and trust-fund escapees, but my now fellow Vermonters who struggle against the odds, sometimes rage against their fate, and as a result often make some damn poor choices.
You spoke well about metaphorical chickens returning home by instinct. Here I am, ensconced and safe at last in Vermont, writing of a cast of Vermonters, and yet I have them travel throughout my 30-plus books, to Chicago, Montreal, New York, and elsewhere. Similarly, having escaped my demons, I revisit them in every book.
The Orphan’s Guilt transcends the geographical. While it’s set here, it is indeed about personal history and the baggage all of us lug around.
To this point, you mentioned how your latest takes place in Ireland, in part because of your knowledge of, and fondness for, the place. But here’s my question: Did you find yourself also revisiting the darker memories of your experience there, even if only to use them to offset and make brighter the good stuff? I’m of course not being even remotely original here. What’s the line: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?
Do you, Sarah, find yourself using that harder-edged creative source material? And since I bet you do, how do you juggle it with your responsibility as a writer to tell an enticing tale to your readers—a tale familiar to them, in part, because we each do carry some woe—and not completely bum them out?
I might be wandering a little far into the weeds here, but it interests me to know why writers keep at their art with such perseverance, especially when their books, again, like yours and mine, are sometimes seen—I think in error—as more escapist fare than Grand Literature. Is it not, after all, part of our job to subversively tickle the reader’s inner emotions and memories, while pretending to be only weaving a distracting story?
SST: I’m glad you asked about the darker aspects of my time in Ireland and how that may have informed this novel. I think Ireland, like Vermont, is one of those places that is often incompletely represented because of how beautiful it is and because it is so symbolic and has pleasant associations for so many people, especially Irish-Americans. Ireland is beautiful and the people are friendly, but it’s so much more than that and while I see this book very much as a love letter to Ireland, and to Dublin, I was conscious throughout its writing of wanting to draw a complete and non-idealized picture. There are already a lot of idealized or overly simplistic portraits of Ireland and I didn’t think we needed another one.
The source material for The Mountains Wild is very dark. I arrived in Dublin in 1993, only a few months after a young American college student who, like me, had grown up on Long Island, disappeared in the Dublin Mountains. That disappearance, and the subsequent disappearances of Irish women in the same area, was the initial inspiration for The Mountains Wild, though I veer away from history almost immediately and my plot is 100% invention.
I struggled for a long time to write this book because I think I was nervous about showing the potentially dark underbelly of a place I love so much. But ultimately, the way you really honor a person—or a place—is to write fully and completely, to include nuance, dark and light. That’s one of the themes of the book, that you can’t really know someone, can’t really love someone, until you’ve seen the darkness they carry.
I’m so glad you asked about this perceived tension between literature that feeds us and literature that merely distracts us. I really reject the whole premise that you have to choose—and I think you do too. When I read your books, I read for the plots but I also read for your rich characterization and because I want to be challenged to think about criminal justice issues, economic issues impacting rural communities, and how things happening hundreds of miles away can affect people in small Vermont towns.
Thanks for chatting and I’ll be hoping you stay safe and well in your capacity as an essential worker. One of the few silver linings in this strange moment of human history we find ourselves in has been cementing connections with New England writers and trying to boost each others’ work. I hope we’ll have lots more opportunities to do that!
About The Orphan’s Guilt by Archer Mayor:
In Archer Mayor’s intriguing new Vermont-based mystery, The Orphan’s Guilt, a straightforward traffic stop snowballs into a homicide investigation after Joe Gunther and his fellow investigators peel back layer upon layer of history and personal heartbreak to learn a decades-old hidden truth.
About The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor:
The Mountains Wild is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s series debut for fans of Tana French and Kate Atkinson, set in Dublin and New York, homicide detective Maggie D’arcy finally tackles the case that changed the course of her life.