This is the second part of Sally Wright’s guest post. She is the author of both the Ben Reese and Jo Grant mystery series. You can find out more about her on her website, www.sallywright.net.
How would Ben Reese be different if you were writing one of his stories while doing chemo? And would Jo Grant be a different character if the cancer hadn’t come along?
– I don’t know how Ben Reese would’ve been different if I’d had pancreatic cancer when I was writing his books, but it is an interesting question. I was who I was then. It took quite a while for Publish And Perish, the first Ben Reese, to find a publisher (which made becoming a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Alan Poe Award finalist for Pursuit And Persuasion even more of a gift). I was younger and healthier, riding horses all the time, with my kids at home, then just off on their own, then well-established elsewhere, as those books were being published.
I could travel more easily to do the research for the Ben Reese books (which was more complicated in some ways than what I have to do for the Jo Grant books), and gave me some of my all-time favorite memories – hunting with hawks and ferrets in Scotland high on the list among them. The Ben books came out of that time, when I could work with John Reid and write whatever book got my attention. I don’t altogether choose the books I write. They come to me, and make themselves known, and I get caught up in what they ask of me. They can grow out of a setting, or a character, or an historical event, or a method of murder that seems interesting. They’re what they had to be then, and now I can’t imagine them being different than they are.
But Jo Grant is affected by me having cancer, and from other real-life experiences as well. They’re supposedly written by Jo in the mid-1990s when she’s in her mid-sixties, looking back thirty some years on events that happened when she was in her early thirties. She describes the situations she lived through, fitting herself in like every other character in the “memoirs” she’s chosen to write as novels. She uses excerpts too from her journals from the sixties to show what the day-to-day was like while she was going through it.
Jo lived through suffering and danger and the death of those she loved, and how she deals with it in the beginning of Breeding Ground (the first Jo Grant) is different than she does by the end, or in Behind The Bonehouse, the new book in the series.
One of the organizing principles of the way I constructed the framework of the novels is that Jo tells the reader in the preface and the epilogue that she’s seriously ill without identifying the condition. It’s clear she’s living on borrowed time and has no guarantee that she’ll finish the book. (Which is actually the way we all live, even if we don’t think about it much).
Still, “she’s” finished two books (and started a third), and she sees these years as a gift. The perspective I have on the nature of life and death, and the things that become important when you know you have limited time, do affect the way I portray Jo. We don’t complain about the weather anymore, and we’re more grateful for less.
Jo cared for her mother before Breeding Ground opens through to her death from a brain tumor, and when I began planning that plot, I, too, was caring for my mother (who lived next door, with wonderful caregivers) through nearly ten years of dementia. I had Whipple surgery for pancreatic cancer three months before she died on her hundredth birthday, and was going through chemo and radiation during those months.
Jo loses her much loved brother, as well as her mother, and when we first see her she wants nothing to do with caring for anyone or anything – even a good horse. She feels old before her time, as though she’s lost a large chunk of her life, and she wants to be left alone to do her work as an architect without more death and sorrow, or interference from anyone.
Life does interfere, as it’s wont to do in this world. And Jo has to grow up – with the help of a very perceptive chemical engineer who’d been in the OSS in France during WWII. It’s when Jo’s in her sixties, looking back in the preface and the epilogue, that she can explain what she went through more clearly and see what matters most.
Behind The Bonehouse examines the horrors of being wrongly accused (which we all are, sometime of something), then scrambling to prove your innocence when the legal system isn’t listening – before you gradually begin to realize that even if you’re acquitted, many around you, in your small tight community, will always believe you’re guilty. It examines the depths of vindictiveness that human nature is prone to, and the place of forgiveness in surviving it.
Which is not to say that Breeding Ground and Behind The Bonehouse are all doom and gloom. They’re not. They examine, in interesting and unexpected ways, the opportunities and conflicts inherent in family businesses, which have been the backbone of the American economy until the last few years when the cost of doing business makes it harder to start a business, as well as keep it afloat. I was raised with a family business, and I know a lot about the pressures on the founders and their children, and there’s much that’s worth contemplating in those family dynamics.
There’re interesting collections of characters in the Jo Grant books who are easy to like and love, along with great horses, and entertaining dogs. There’s humor too, and happiness that means something, and underpinnings from WWII and the OSS, as well as the kind of danger and death that makes mysteries what they are.
The Jo Grant books are important to me, personally and as a writer, and the positive reviews they’ve been given by accomplished mystery writers like William Kent Krueger, Charles Todd, and Terence Faherty, help me want to get to work in the morning and try to finish the next.