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It’s my pleasure today to introduce Sue Hallgarth, author of Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery. Sue is here to kindly answer the question I had for her about the series: What inspired you to create a mystery series around real people, and are there any challenges that accompany that process? Please give her a warm welcome!

Confession: Thirty-five years ago I was a college professor in need of publications and I had no real topic. My doctoral dissertation had been on a minor Victorian novelist, Robert Smith Surtees, whose delightful foxhunting novels produced a prototype for the character Charles Dickens later developed as Pickwick. Not the best subject for more than one academic publication.

I was also a feminist interested in literary history. I began comparing first-hand accounts with fictional representations of women’s experience on the American frontier. That led me directly to Willa Cather, whose early novels focused on her pioneer experience growing up on the frontier around Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska. Cather’s novels spoke the truth of first-hand accounts. They were also beautifully crafted and featured fascinating characters, including Alexandra Bergson in O! Pioneers, Ántonia Shimerda in My Ántonia, and Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark. But after reading Cather’s fiction, the scholarly articles on her work, and biographies about her life, I noticed something was missing: the Willa Cather I knew.

Homophobia among Cather scholars and biographers had twisted accounts of her life, and they either omitted or misrepresented her nearly forty-year partnership with Edith Lewis, a fellow Nebraskan and professional writer. That and the fact that scholars had no easy access to Cather’s letters—until 2013 her will forbade their publication—led scholars to begin reading Cather’s characters as though they were Willa Cather. So with that mistake, Jim Burden in My Ántonia and the Professor in The Professor’s House simply became Cather herself, as though she had not created her characters but simply recorded details of her own life through them. That misguided practice led to bad literary scholarship and inaccurate biographies.

Unfortunately, Cather’s forbidding publication of her letters had actually encouraged the scholars’ distortions. But she was not the only cause. Her letters that were available could only be read (and not quoted) in research archives. Several letters were actually housed on microfilm in Red Cloud, but when I read them, I found only one letter from Cather to Edith Lewis and lines in that letter had been mysteriously rendered indecipherable. Scholars also regularly dismissed Lewis as Cather’s secretary or “companion” and refused to see her as the editor and advertising professional she actually was. The only evidence of their relationship available was Edith Lewis’ memoir, Willa Cather Living, and scholars regarded that book as less reliable than another memoir by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a journalist and former friend whom Cather had not seen in years.

So here was my mystery: who was the real Willa Cather? What was her relationship with Edith Lewis? And how should we understand her fiction? I began to find the answers by doing research and crafting papers on Cather’s novels to present at professional meetings. But once I was convinced of her actual relationship with Lewis, I realized I needed to do a biography of Cather. Once I read everything Cather wrote, including her letters located in archives across the United States, I found she was exactly the person I “knew” back in 1983. By 1987 Sharon O’Brien officially “revealed” that Cather was a lesbian, but for O’Brien and other biographers, Lewis was still Cather’s secretary or “companion.” Cather, one biographer claimed in the same year, was “too dedicated to her art” to have time for any of “that.” And O’Brien was convinced that Cather had internalized homophobia and therefore must have become depressed and reclusive. In other words, still not the Cather I “knew.”

Academic journals and even feminist scholars had continued to shun my articles because I questioned (indeed challenged) O’Brien’s analysis. In a sense, their rejections led me to write my first piece of fiction, a mystery about Cather and Lewis on Grand Manan titled On the Rocks. So, I would write fiction based on fact. My choice of characters was a given, but why a mystery and not simply historical fiction? I needed a “hook.” For me the question was how to interest readers, all readers, in what I had to say about Willa Cather. And it happened that the moment I made the decision to try a mystery, I was standing front of the real Cather/Lewis Cottage at Whale Cove Cottages on the island of Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada. It occurred to me that someone might easily fall off a nearby two-hundred foot cliff into the Bay of Fundy. In my mind’s eye, I saw a body plunge over the edge and plummet to the rocks below. That image determined that Cather and Lewis would become my fictional sleuths.

When I finished the first Cather mystery, I found I had much more to say. I had introduced Edith Lewis to Cather’s readers in On the Rocks. Death Comes takes place in 1926 at the Mabel Dodge Luhan compound in Taos, New Mexico, which was always filled with artists, writers, and other creative people, I have begun a process of setting Cather and Lewis “in context.” Cather was never the lone genius she was often depicted to be, never so “dedicated to her art” she had no interest in anything or anyone else. In fact, she was so interested in people and the world about her, she found herself without time to do her art. As a result Lewis began to stand guard, to protect Cather so that she would not lose herself in others but could concentrate on her writing. Taos became the setting for the second in the Cather/Lewis series, but they travelled often and to many places. The opportunities for creating more context and therefore more mysteries are almost endless.

Writing about different locations and characters based on real people do present challenges that accompany the process of writing a mystery series about real places and real people. Cather and Lewis are only two of the characters I base on real people. For On the Rocks I did research on thirty or so of all the women who summered in two colonies on Grand Manan, and for Death Comes, I had my choice among the many artists and writers who lived around Taos or visited Mabel Dodge Luhan.

So the first problem I had to solve for both mysteries was how many characters and locations to include. Too many would prove confusing, so the fact is I had to cut more than create and to sharpen details so readers could keep track of who was who and when and where. I was also working with actual people, places, and events, not simply plucking people out of the air, so I had to be sure my details were accurate and my fiction seamlessly fused with fact. If only, I would sometimes think, if only I could just make the whole thing up. But I did exactly what Willa Cather did in so many stories, including Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—read everything she could about specific people, places, and events and transform them into her fictional world. Fiction, yes, but fiction based on fact.

Wow, thanks for sharing, Sue! I know very little about Willa Cather, but how your series came to be is a fascinating story. Congrats on your latest book!

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About Death Comes

Following On the Rocks, Sue Hallgarth’s first Willa Cather and Edith Lewis mystery, Death Comes gives us another glimpse into the life and work of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Willa Cather and her talented life partner. The year is 1926. Willa and Edith return to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s pink adobe in Taos, New Mexico. Willa is writing Death Comes for the Archbishop. Edith is sketching Taos pueblo and hoping for a visit to the nearby D.H. Lawrence ranch. The previous summer they had stumbled on a woman’s body. Now the headless bodies of two women add to the mystery. Sue Hallgarth presents an intimate portrait of Cather, Lewis, the spectacular New Mexico landscape, and the famous artists and writers Mabel Dodge Luhan gathered in Taos.

Check out Death Comes on Goodreads | Amazon

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About the Author

Sue Hallgarth

Sue Hallgarth is former English professor. She has written scholarly articles on Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, and this is her second book of fiction featuring the two of them. Her first book in the series On The Rocks, set in 1929 on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico.

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Giveaway

Courtesy of the publicist, I have one print copy of Death Comes to offer my readers. This giveaway is open to U.S. addresses only. To enter, please leave a comment with your email address. I’d love to hear what intrigues you most about this book/series. This giveaway will close on Sunday, November 5, 2017. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced in the comments section of this post. Good luck!

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