Monday, 15 August 2022

Kayte Nunn

Kayte Nunn is the author of six novels, but The Only Child is her first venture into historical crime fiction.

The Only Child is set in Puget Sound in both 1949 and 2013, and focuses on what was in the past a mother and baby house run by nuns, and in the present is a house being rehabbed by a mother and daughter as a hotel. The daughter, Frankie Gray, is a cop, and though she hasn’t yet begun her new job in Puget Sound, she becomes involved when a tiny skeleton is found on the property. The book is both haunting and relevant.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Why set the book on Puget Sound? I loved the setting, but just wondered, as it looks like you have lived many places in the world.

Kayte Nunn: When I began my research, I came across a book called The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, which focused on the real-life experiences of American girls and women forced to give up their babies for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s. I knew after reading that, that I wanted to set my novel in the United States. I had lived in Tacoma, Washington, as a girl, and have very strong memories of the area. I needed a fairly isolated place, and so to set it on an island in Puget Sound made perfect sense.

And why 2013 for the present timeline, rather than 2022?

This was from an age-timeline point of view. For one of the nuns from the 1949 timeline to still be alive, I couldn’t push the near-present timeline out too far. In 1949 there was a terrible snowstorm in the Pacific Northwest, and that was central to the story, and I wanted a 1950s setting as it was a time when girls were still very much under the rule of their parents in a way that they perhaps weren’t so much in the 1960s.

I loved that The Only Child was very much about various types of human connection and the importance of those connections. Can you talk about that a bit?

It was one of the elements I came across in my research—how the lack of knowledge about your family background and heritage can be incredibly traumatic. It struck me how important it is to have those connections, something I have taken for granted in my life. I was also interested in writing about the generational connections between women and their experiences of motherhood—and to contrast the connection that Brigid [a pregnant 16-year-old in 1949] feels to her baby with that of Frankie’s more ambivalent attitude toward motherhood.

This is certainly timely, as the United States looks to be banning abortion in a large number of states. Was that top of mind as you wrote the novel?

Absolutely—I have watched on with fury, horror, and despair as the balance of the Supreme Court has changed over the past few years and could see exactly what it was going to mean for the reproductive rights of women and girls. Even though I could see the overturn of Roe v. Wade coming, it was still a shock. The fact that it has happened in the United States is a lesson to the rest of the world that women’s rights can be eroded anywhere.

On that same thread, I thought the way you let the reader live the girls’ reality in the ’50s instead of pounding them over the head with it made the whole thing more powerful. Was that conscious, to avoid having the book be a polemic, or more of an artistic or narrative choice?

I think it’s important as a novelist not to be didactic, but to show through carefully researched example, the reality of a situation through your characters.

The Only Child by Kayte NunnHow did you research these mother and baby homes? What did you find out that really surprised you?

I did a lot of reading, watched a documentary and saw the film Philomena early on in the research process. I was surprised by how few rights the girls and women had: how little time they were given to make a decision, how little knowledge they had about getting pregnant and giving birth, and by the fact that during labor, they were often tied down to their beds, given no pain relief, and sometimes forced to give birth alone. That must have been utterly terrifying.

I was riveted by both alternating timelines. How did you balance them and make both compelling?

I wrote each timeline separately, to ensure that each one had a fully fleshed out narrative with a reason for being there. In a sense, each is a story that you could read separately and stands on its own merits. Once I was finished with both, I then wove them together.

What makes you happy when you sit down to write every day? What’s the most difficult part about it?

That I don’t have to commute to an office and that I make my own hours! The difficult part is self-belief, that you have a story worth writing and that you are the one to write it.

Is there a pivotal book in your life? I think all of us who love to read have that book.

I think there are several, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, because she was so meek and overlooked, but incredibly strong-minded, and it felt like one of the first "grown-up" books I read as a child. And The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. I picked it up from a random hostel bookcase during a solo backpacking trip to Mexico and became utterly immersed in the landscape of the novel over the course of several days.

And finally, what’s next for you? What can readers look forward to?

I’m just finishing a first draft of a story about three siblings who reunite 20 years after a devastating event that fractured their family.

 

Kayte Nunn is the author of six novels, including The Botanist’s Daughter which was awarded the 2021 Winston Graham Prize for historical fiction. The Only Child is her first historical crime mystery. Born in Singapore, she has lived in England, the United States (in the Pacific Northwest), and now lives in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia.

 

Kayte Nunn Explores Motherhood and Mystery in "The Only Child"
Robin Agnew
kayte-nunn
Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Carol Goodman

 

"My original idea for a book set on Norton Island was to make it like Agatha Christie’s masterpiece... but I’m not sure I have the detachment and brutal cunning..."

 

Carol Goodman has been writing intelligent and often very scary novels of suspense that take a deep dive into character for more than two decades now. The two-time Mary Higgins Clark Award winner's latest, The Disinvited Guest, is set on a remote Maine island during a second COVID pandemic as a group of friends quarantine together. Much like in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the body count is high and the storytelling is spectacular.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: The Disinvited Guest imagines that we came through a first COVID pandemic only to be hit by another. How did you decide to make that part of your storyline? Were there problems (or perks) of setting a book very slightly in the future?

Carol : Admittedly it was a rather strange idea! It was at the beginning of the pandemic and I felt overwhelmed by what was happening around me, especially to my college students and my daughters and their friends. I found myself wondering how the pandemic would affect the course of their lives. I also felt compelled to write something that made use of what I was seeing and feeling, so somehow I came up with the idea of setting the story in the future. The book circles back to events that occurred during the 2020 pandemic, so I was, in effect, still writing about what was happening around me. Looking back, the strangest assumption I made was that “our” pandemic would end, while now it seems to me that it might well still be with us in some form or another. I suppose that’s the biggest problem of setting something in the future—assuming you know what will happen in between.

In all of your books, many set in New York, setting is a giant part of the story and really seems to shape the tale you are telling. This book takes place on Fever Island, a fictitious, remote place in Maine. Is it based on a place you are familiar with?

Oh yes! In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to attend a writer’s retreat on Norton Island off the coast of Maine sponsored by Eastern Frontier and hosted by a wonderfully generous patron of the arts, Steven Dunn. There was nothing on the island but the retreat and it was remote, rugged, and beautiful. I was thinking of writing something set on the island—an Agatha Christie-ish mystery—but I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d written and I put it aside. When the pandemic hit, I thought about what it would be like to shelter at someplace like Norton Island and what problems my cast of characters would run into there.

Disinvited Guest by Carol GoodmanI love the history and folklore you include in your books. Is that the jumping off point for you? What kind of research did you do for this particular book?

I love history and folklore, too, obviously. While those weren’t the jumping off points (the pandemic and the island setting were), like many people, I was drawn to reading about past pandemics to try to understand what we were going through. I came across a reference to a quarantine island off the coast of Maine where the famine ships from Ireland were forced to stop. I thought that would be an interesting bit of history to give “my” island. Once I had the Irish framework, I started thinking about the folklore that those refugees would bring with them to the island. Mix in some colonial witchcraft and I had a lot of great threads to explore.

Many of your books combine running parallel narratives, one past and one present. How do you maintain interest for the reader in each storyline?

[It's] always a challenge. I try to weave connections between the two storylines so that the reader feels that they’re learning about the present through the past and vice versa. And also, quite frankly, I try to make the past parts a little shorter just in case readers are impatient with them.

I love a map and this book has a great one. How did you work with the artist to decide where everything would be? Is a map something you had in your mind as you wrote?

Someone made me a hand drawn map my first night on Norton Island… It has some of the rough contours of the final map of Fever Island. I wanted to give that feeling of traversing a landscape with only a rough map to go by. I drew my own very rough version of the Fever Island map so I could keep track of my characters’ journeys around the island. And then, I asked my daughter, Maggie Vicknair, who’s a very talented artist, to draw a better version of the map. We went back and forth with several rough drafts as she drew and I described. My editor also had some queries and notes that Maggie responded to. I’m so thrilled that her work is in the book!

How present in your mind was Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as you told your story?

Very present! As I mentioned, my original idea for a book set on Norton Island was to make it like Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. I reread it when I was on the island and reread it again when I started writing my book. I’d have loved to write something very much like it, but when I tried, I found that I didn’t really have the voice for a book like that. I’m not sure I have the detachment and brutal cunning that Christie had. What I did try to take from it was that feeling of being trapped in a limited space and the suspicions that would arise from knowing that someone in your known circle could be a killer.

Your characters are often in their late twenties to early thirties, a time in life when you know sort of where you are going, but maybe aren’t quite there yet. What calls to you when writing about this age?

I’ve written about characters who are older, but quite frankly there’s a limit to how old a character you can write in commercial fiction (or so I’ve been told). I’m not really happy about this restriction and have found some stealthy ways to include older characters in some of my other books—The Night Visitors, for instance, and The Stranger Behind You—in which there are dual narratives that represent younger and older characters. I do like writing about younger characters, too, though, and in this book I was especially interested in how young people would be affected by the pandemic. We’re so shaped by our college years; I can’t help but think about how this generation will be marked by having their education halted during the pandemic.

What makes you happy when you sit down to write every day?

Such a good question! First of all, I have to admit that as grateful as I am to sit down to write (nearly) every day, I also often have a little feeling of dread at the beginning, like the shiver you might have turning on a scary movie. I think it’s a combination of fear that I won’t be able to write and fear of what might come out as I do write. I’ve gotten so used to it that I just acknowledge it (Why hello, Dread, how are you today?) and move on. Some time later—sometimes a matter of minutes but sometimes hours—I’ll come to a moment where I’ll suddenly see the work, or a character in the work, in a whole new way and I’ll see clearly what happens next and what it all means. That’s what makes me happy.

What book was a transformational read for you as a reader or as a writer?

There were many, but I remember very clearly reading Jane Eyre when I was about 13 and loving how angry she was at the beginning. It made me realize that you could write about things that made you angry and that the story of a woman’s journey through life was a worthy subject to write about.

And what’s next? What can readers look forward to?

I’m just finishing the edits on an academic thriller. I guess I wasn’t done with college students quite yet! This one is set in the present, at a college on the edge of the Catskill Mountains near some scary ice caves, and takes place over the winter break at the 25th commemoration of the death of a college professor.

Carol Goodman is the author of 24 novels, including The Widow’s House and The Night Visitors, which both won the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her books have been translated into 16 languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family and teaches at the New School and SUNY New Paltz.

Carol Goodman on Killers of the Human and Viral Kind
Robin Agnew
robin-agnew
Monday, 30 May 2022

I have said several times that Agatha Christie never goes out of style and she seems to be having a resurgence in popularity.

The new novel The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont takes a new view of the 11 days Dame Christie disappeared—a vanishing that has never been explained; The Christie Affair now is in development for a television series planned for 2023. The television series Why Didn't They Ask Evans? directed by Hugh Laurie currently is available. Authors such as Val McDermid, Alyssa Cole, Lucy Foley and Elly Griffiths are contributing short stories to the collection Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, to be published in September

Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express also has a new life, first with the film directed by Kenneth Branagh and now with a retooled play adaptation by U.S. playwright Ken Ludwig, best known for Lend Me a Tenor.

Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express has been produced at a variety of venues including McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., and theaters in Houston, Philadelphia, Japan, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Michigan, among others. A production is currently at the Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex, England. It will open at the highly respected Drury Lane in suburban Chicago.

So how is the new Murder on the Orient Express?

Here is a review by South Florida’s highly respected theater critic Bill Hirschman of Florida Theater on Stage on the currently production at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables. Full disclosure—Bill is my husband. I also saw the production with him on opening night and completely agree.

Murder on the Orient Express Reimagined as Comic Trip

By Bill Hirschman

Do not go to Actors’ Playhouse’s stage production of Murder on the Orient Express expecting the grim locked-room mystery at the heart of the films with Albert Finney or Kenneth Branagh, or even the gravitas of Agatha Christie herself.

This 2017 edition, perhaps the only one written for the stage, is penned by Ken Ludwig, the popular playwright best known for such expert farces as Lend Me A Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo.

So, if you can wipe the tone of those earlier efforts from your mind, you will likely find yourself chuckling much of the night at this cast of skilled South Florida theater veterans having a good time turning Christie into a cute, often funny two-hour comedy sketch.

At one point the voluble and five-time married Mrs. Hubbard tells a character, “You know you remind me of one of my husbands.” The character asks, “Which one?” Not waiting for the rimshot, she answers, “The next one.”

At one point, a suspect bristles that his lover will be questioned. He says, “Well, I don’t like it! Do you understand? And you can put that in your meerschaum pipe and smoke it!” To which Poirot’s friend retorts, “That is Sherlock Holmes.”

A photo is, indeed, worth a thousand words: Glimpse the tableau above and you’ll get the intended tenor perfectly.

The plot does remain rooted in Christie’s brilliant if complex and impossibly convoluted tale of revenge written in 1934 and turned into radio plays, television editions, Sidney Lumet’s 1972 film and Branagh’s 2017 cinema outing, both of which had jabs of humor about detective Hercule Poirot’s fussy demeanor and the aristocrats’ hauteur.

Here, there are a few plot changes and additions, and the number of suspects has shrunk from 13 to 8 for Poirot to interrogate. So, for a moment or two, you wonder whether Christie’s ingenious solution will remain intact. But never fear. (In the pre-curtain speech opening night, director David Arisco asked how many people knew whodunit and amazingly only a smattering of hands were raised. Where have they been?)

In keeping with Ludwig’s vision and Arisco’s strength in comedies, most of the characters – and they are now Characters – are played just this side of over-the-top with a League of Nations of accents.  No one onstage or backstage is taking any of this seriously as a murder mystery. But if you accept their approach, Arisco has a skilled gang for his partners in crime.

Terry Hardcastle, who has been a stalwart at this theater and around the country for decades racking up Carbonells, makes a more solid serious Poirot who exudes the detective’s unwavering curiosity. As the straight man to the rest of the characters, he doesn’t get as many opportunities for laughs other than rolling his eyes at the antics, but he provides the fulcrum for the evening.

But heading the acting list of quirky oddballs is Irene Adjan’s annoyingly nasal bray with an attitude, the widow from Minnesota, Mrs. Hubbard. Adjan‘s much honored local career has encompassed broad farce in Summer Shorts and affecting drama like The Cake. Here she gets to have a blast making Mrs. Hubbard someone you’d hate to be stuck with on a snowbound train for three days.

But the rest of the cast also capably lets themselves go inhabiting intentionally one-dimensional cartoon characters: Lourelene Snedeker  as the aging Russian émigré Princess Dragomiroff; Mallory Newbrough as the fretful Swedish companion Greta Ohlson, a part far removed from her Equus horsewoman or her Beehive Janis Joplin; Krystal Millie Valdes as Debenham; Gaby Tortoledo as the lovely married countess whom Poirot gets a crush on; Alexander Blanco as the murder victim’s aide; Seth Trucks as the busiest train conductor in Europe; Michael McKenzie as the rail line’s executive (we saw him for a few seconds this week on a new Law & Order episode) and Iain Batchelor as both Valdes’s Scottish military beau and the soon-to-die mafiaso Ratchett.

If you’re going to adhere to Ludwig’s vision, you would be hard pressed to find local director better suited to this than Arisco, who can direct high tragedy handily, but whose skill at light comedy is close to unmatched down here.

For all the humor, Arisco and Co. respect that Ludwig does change gears for the finale more in keeping with introspective facet of the original in which Poirot struggles to come to terms with what he sees as a moral dilemma.

Some of the audience gasped at the first sight of the set pieces designed by Tim Bennett and executed by Production Manager Carlos Correa and Technical Director Gene Seyffer. The entire stage in the upstairs auditorium contains two halves of the train’s exterior, and then when the halves slide back into the wings, revealing the lounge car, and, then the whole thing slides offstage to reveal three adjoining compartments. From a technical and mechanical standpoint, it is a bit of a marvel, although the time required to move then in the often changing scenes does drag the pace down a bit.

Ellis Tillman, the dean of local costuming, once again devises character-revealing garb for the cast, notably the white travelling outfit for the countess and the ornate regalia for the princess.

Prior to the pandemic, this was a popular title for regional theaters across the country including the Asolo Repertory in Sarasota (with local Gregg Weiner in the cast) which closed just before the virus exploded, but never made it to Broadway.

Overall, it’s a pleasant amusing ride to buy a ticket for.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through June 5 at Actors Playhouse on the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Wednesdays – Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $65 to $100. Running time 2 hours including one intermission. For more information, call (305) 444-9293 or visit www.actorsplayhouse.org.

 Photo: What? Another body? Poirot hold back the suspects in Actors’ Playhouse’s Murder on the Orient Express / Photo by Alberto Romeu.



Murder on the Orient Express Revised for Theater
Oline H Cogdill
murder-on-the-orient-express-revised-for-theater