I met Sally Wright online via an email list for mystery fans called DorothyL. Her first series features an archivist. I’m married to one. We both went to Northwestern University (at different times). We both studied Oral Interpretation, the art of reading aloud, although she did her degree at NU and I did my oral interp degree at California State University, Fullerton. I sent her a few questions and she answered. In fact, she gave me such great stuff, I’m having to break her interview into two posts. Here’s Part One.
How hard was it to explain Ben Reese’s job when you were sending your first book out?
– I definitely had to work on the cover letter, but it probably wasn’t as hard explaining Ben’s job as it was getting agents and editors to consider taking on the work of an unknown author back when I was getting started. Everybody faces that, and the rejection and the hard work it leads to teaches you a lot.
I described how, in the early 1960s, Ben Reese (who’d been an Army Ranger and behind-the-lines Scout in WWII) was a jack-of-all-trades university archivist who identified, dated, restored and conserved, whatever artifacts had been given to his university over the previous hundred and fifty years. He rescued abandoned artifacts from the college’s basements and attics, organized and maintained the archives, and displayed all sorts of materials in the library so that students and faculty could appreciate them. His archives contained a wide array of materials – paintings, tapestries, a chandelier that had once hung in the Whitehouse, letters, diaries, rare books, rare coins, early Native American pottery – which gave Ben an opportunity to travel and research those materials in Europe and the U.S. The artifacts that I describe above were, in fact, actual materials that the “real” Ben Reese (John Reid, now-deceased, the archivist/ex-Ranger I worked with on the Ben Reese books) had organized in the archives of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Do you have a favorite archive that you like to visit? Or a fave resource for research? I always joke that I married my favorite resource.
– That was very good planning on your part!
When I was writing the Ben Reese books I worked in the archives at Ohio Wesleyan University, the science library at Bowling Green State University, The Library of Congress, The National Archives in Washington, The British Museum (the famous round reading room in London, not the recently built replacement), the Bodleian Library in Oxford, plus many local libraries in England, Scotland, Fernandina Beach, Florida, St. Mary’s, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, primarily for local history, and several museums and libraries in Tuscany, Italy, most of them in Florence. John Reid worked with me at the Ohio Historical Society (where he was a volunteer after he retired), but generally we worked at his home, which was an incredible resource of all sorts of materials he and his wife had collected.
Now, as I write the Jo Grant mysteries, which take place in Kentucky horse country and have to do with family-owned horse related businesses – a hands-on broodmare care farm, an equine pharmaceutical company, a horse van and trailer manufacturer – I’ve done most of my on-site research in the archives of the Keeneland Racecourse Library in Lexington, which is an excellent resource for all things having to do with the history of the horse, particularly Thoroughbreds, American and world racing, equine medicine (historical and contemporary), equine art, jockeys throughout history, the early days of Kentucky, and much more. And yet – as with all the Ben Reese books as well – the most inspiring research I do comes from interviewing people who are experts in whatever I need to know.
For the Jo Grant books I’ve interviewed law enforcement people (a former Woodford County, Kentucky Sheriff named Squirrel, who’s now a US Marshall, helped me immeasurably), lawyers in Kentucky, and Ohio where I live, five equine vets (practicing and retired, in Kentucky and Ohio) for the book I’m writing now (which will introduce a family owned equine vet practice), a chemical engineer who gave me pivotal parts of two plots, Mackensie Miller, now deceased (a very well respected Thoroughbred trainer who trained for years for Paul Mellon), the author of several non-fiction works on Midway and Versailles, Kentucky, which helped as much as our interviews to introduce me to a widely differing social and work-related group of very compelling people who were part of what gave Woodford County the character it had in the ’60s, life-long owners of a broodmare care business much like Jo Grant’s – to list only those I’ve interviewed who first came to mind.
The memories and the anecdotes and the perspectives I get from talking to people who know what I need to know work mysteriously in the back of my brain to make my imaginary world real to me, and help me create believable characters and plots that hold together.
Sally Wright’s latest book is the Jo Grant mystery Behind the Bonehouse. You can find it at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.