Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Sweeney St. George series, about an academic who specializes in gravestone iconography. After a long (and much lamented) break from the mystery world, she returns with The Mountains Wild, a novel of memory and loss set in Ireland. In my opinion, The Mountains Wild is one of the reads of the year.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved your Sweeney St. George series, and it's been a long wait for this new book. I love to see you back in the mystery universe—what have you been up to?
Sarah Stewart Taylor: Thank you so much, Robin. The short answer is that we had three kids in five years and for a while there I was pretty much drowning in babies and toddlers! As much as I loved that early stage of parenting in lots of ways (and have loved seeing the amazing people those little ones, now 9, 11, and 14, have grown into), I found myself constantly exhausted and, honestly, just really creatively depleted for a good few years there, or creatively depleted for fiction writing. I was teaching and doing some other kinds of work in there. (There’s so much pressure to be positive when you’re promoting a new book, but I think it’s really important to be honest about this stuff and acknowledge the challenges that so many writers/parents face.) I also got really into sheep farming, which is a whole other story.
Anyway, I found that as my kids became consumers of children’s literature, first as listeners and then as readers, I was reliving my own journey as a reader, from picture books to fairy tales and Beverly Cleary and Sydney Taylor, to Lucy Maud Montgomery and Nancy Drew and E.L. Konigsburg and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and then Jane Austen and Shakespeare—and of course Agatha Christie and P.D. James. It was amazing to rediscover the power of books and stories through their eyes, but then also on my own.
I was starting to have ideas for stories and one day, I was inspired to write again. I wrote a series of kids’ adventure novels (with a bit of mystery) that I absolutely loved creating and sharing with young readers, but somewhere in there I really started missing crime fiction, too, and I started to work on a novel that would become The Mountains Wild. The idea had been knocking around inside my head for a long time. I lived in Dublin, Ireland, for a few years in my twenties, working and then eventually going to graduate school, and the experience was really important to me in a lot of different ways. I arrived in Dublin in 1993, only a few months after a young American student named Annie McCarrick went missing in the Dublin mountains. Like me, she had grown up on Long Island and then moved to Ireland because of her interest in Irish culture and literature. She was a really wonderful person. I had a few other connections to her and the neighborhood she’d lived in and Irish friends told me to be careful enough times that the case sort of lodged in my head. A number of Irish women would disappear in roughly the same region of the country over the next few years and a group of these cases have never been definitively solved, including McCarrick’s. I’d always wanted to write about these cases, but I knew I shouldn’t and couldn’t try to write an Irish main character investigating these disappearances, so I began to focus on how I could write a fictional version from the point of view of an American character in Ireland, an experience I could write about with some authority. I finally found that I had an idea for how to do it, to create an American homicide detective whose life, many years ago, had been upended by the disappearance of her beloved cousin in Ireland. I knew that she went to Ireland as a young woman and that her inability to find her cousin led her to become a detective. And then I knew there would be new evidence and a new woman missing and 23 years later she would go back. The real-life cases were the start of the process, but ultimately I had to create a completely fictional version in order to say the things I wanted to say about memory and love.
What kinds of books have you been reading during this gap that have proved influential?
It’s probably no surprise to anyone that during this time I discovered—and absolutely loved—Tana French’s novels. I’ve also been catching up on lots of other great Irish crime writers. In fact I just did a blog post about some of my discoveries. There are so many incredible Irish writers exploring—and breaking—the parameters of crime writing. I discovered Attica Locke’s novels a few years ago and I am such a huge fan. She combines beautiful writing, rich characters, and an engagement with history and politics that just blows me away. I’ve loved keeping up with longtime series by writers like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Archer Mayor, Lee Child, Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny, and Ann Cleeves, and I’ve also found that I’ve been going back to old favorites like Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine recently.
I always thought the Sweeney books were the journey of a young woman figuring her life out as she goes. In this new book, the focus is on a middle-aged woman, Maggie, with a successful career. How are these two kinds of characters different to write about? Is this just a reflection of your own life journey?
On some level it is, though one of the things I loved about writing Maggie in The Mountains Wild is that I got to describe her in both stages of life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in some ways we do have these very different eras of our lives, where we’re concerned with completely different things, but that in essential ways we are who we are, and at middle age I think many of us kind of come back to ourselves, if that makes sense. I know that the writing of this book brought me back to myself in a lot of ways, both in returning to crime fiction and in starting to spend more time in Ireland again. In a sense that’s what Maggie’s up to in this first book, trying to reconcile all the different versions of herself with each other in order to solve the mystery of who Erin was and what really happened to her. She has to remember the things she doesn’t want to remember and ask the questions she doesn’t want to ask.
Much of The Mountains Wild is a real love letter to Ireland. How did your love of Ireland come about?
I moved to Dublin the summer after I graduated from college. I had spent some time there while studying abroad in England and I took an amazing Joyce class my senior year and I guess that was it. It was just this idea that I had, that I wanted to go to Ireland. I worked that summer and bought a one-way ticket, thinking I’d travel for a few months and then go home and settle into a job in publishing in New York or something, but instead I settled into life in Dublin. I made friends, fell in and out of love, worked in pubs and restaurants and at a youth hostel and as a nanny, and I made and sold jewelry and took a filmmaking class, and eventually I applied to graduate school at Trinity and got a masters degree in Irish literature. During my time at Trinity, I started writing a novel that, after many twists and turns and transformations, would become the first Sweeney mystery. I got some kind words from a writing professor and I was part of a casual writers’ workshop that would meet up at different pubs in Dublin. People would read their work out loud and everyone would offer encouragement. That was a hugely important thing for me, to read the beginning of my nascent novel and to be told to keep going. Just that, keep going.
I have Irish heritage, a fair bit it turns out, but my family didn’t identify as Irish American in any meaningful way (unlike Maggie, who grew up strongly influenced and surrounded by her family’s Long Island Irish American community). We were Unitarians and, I suppose, identified culturally more as New Englanders, through my father’s family. And so I came to my love of Ireland and Irish culture from a place of real discovery, and a specific interest in the diversity of Irish experience. Dublin in the mid-’90s had a lot of great, wild energy. Irish friends have described those years to me as being transitional in a lot of respects—socially, culturally, economically—and it sort of felt that way, living there then. My best friends in Dublin were Irish and Scottish and English and Spanish and Polish and Australian. One of the characters in The Mountains Wild is a young police detective whose family immigrated to Ireland from Poland around the time Poland joined the EU, and I loved writing about her and learning more about recent immigrants to Ireland and first-generation Irish citizens.
It feels like a cliché to say it, because who doesn’t love Ireland, but my deep and abiding interest in all things Irish has been one of the great sources of richness and growth in my life. I’m an Irish language learner and I take lessons from a 90-year-old woman here in Vermont who has become one of my closest friends. I’m working on a genealogical writing project right now, about my great-grandfather, who emigrated to Boston from West Cork, and it’s turned into an amazing mystery of its own....
This is also a police novel, with a main character who is an American cop as well as a number of Irish Garda. What kind of research was involved to make this part of the book authentic?
I did a lot of research on Ireland’s national police force, An Garda Síochána, on the command structures, the relationships between local stations and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The Garda had undergone a lot of change and reorganization since I’d lived in Ireland, so I found that was the thing I really had to spend a lot of time on, understanding the relationships between all the different parts of the organization, and what everyone’s roles are. It’s very different from our state and county police forces in the States. I consulted with a couple of members of the Guards, as Irish people often refer to the Gardaí, and they were great about answering questions and clarifying things for me. But ultimately, I think you have to strike a balance between doing your work and it being believable and also making choices for your story. I now love seeing how different Irish crime writers handle the Garda hierarchy and special units structure. Do you create a fictional, discreet murder division, like Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad, or do you give the case to a local detective, with technical support from the NBCI, or do you create some other dynamic between various members of the force? People handle it in many different ways.
I’m now kind of obsessed with these obscure points of Garda governance. I’ve been closely following the recent reorganization of policing services. I follow the Garda Facebook account and read the Irish Times online most days, and that really helps in my understanding of how Gardaí interact with the public on a daily basis and how criminal investigations proceed.
As for Maggie’s home department on Long Island, I’ve had to do a lot of research on the Suffolk County Police Department and the relationships between local and county-wide detectives in special divisions and the crime lab and the district attorney’s office. I think that’s one of the things that most of us most frequently misunderstand about police procedure, how many people are a part of a criminal investigation and how many different divisions of a law enforcement agency are involved. But of course we often have to reassign tasks to keep the cast of characters manageable.
I thought so much of this book centered on memory. The memories of the main character when it comes to her missing cousin, the memories of witnesses, and basically the kind of malleable nature of memories. Can you talk about that a bit?
I’m so glad you mentioned that. Yes, I wanted to write about how we form our impressions of people through memories, through patching together all of our recollections to create our ideas of who they were and are and what made them tick. But of course our memories are always incomplete. We weren’t there for important events, we misremember things. Most importantly, I think we so often fail to ask the right questions of the people we love. That was what really drove this novel for me, thinking about detectives as questioners and all of us as detectives of our loved ones’ secrets. But what if you don’t ask the right questions? What if you fail to ask the question that could have opened up the thing you really need to know about that person? What if you’re afraid to? What if the impression you’ve created of a person from all of your memories turns out to be false, because the memory you’ve left out is the crucial one?
Maggie is a skilled detective, but, as she discovers, she doesn’t have all the information she really needs to understand the people she loves.
I loved your earlier books, as I said, but this book seems more directed, or rocket powered, and it may be the format you’ve chosen. Can you talk about narrative drive and the importance of it to developing a story?
I knew that I wanted to tell the story in two time periods, over the course of Maggie’s two trips to Ireland, but it was the unfolding story of the present-day disappearance that gave it the narrative drive I wanted it to have. I love mysteries about unsolved disappearances from the past, but it’s always a little tricky to make them feel vital and full of energy in the here and now. So the disappearance of a new woman and a ticking clock on saving her were the elements I needed to pump a lot of energy into Maggie’s investigation of the past.
And continuing with that question, you are writing this book with multiple timelines. How does that work, exactly? How do you piece together a seamless book while jumping back and forth in time?
There was a lot of back-and-forth, no pun intended! At one point the narrative unfolded in two different sections, one for each of the time periods, and then I played around with different ways of alternating the two different narratives. My agent, Esmond Harmsworth, and my editor, Kelley Ragland, were really helpful and had some insights about the structure that I missed because I was just too close to it.
This book is also a real character study—of the main character and of the missing woman, who as readers we only get to know through the impressions of other people as well as the memories of the main character. Can you talk about creating these two women?
Strangely, I think I had Erin first. Even though she doesn’t get nearly as many pages as Maggie, and she’s a cipher in many ways, she is the heart of the book because her disappearance is the catalyst for everything that happens. I had a sense of her right from the beginning. Maggie took longer because in many ways she spent the early years of her life defining herself in relation to Erin. So when Erin disappears, Maggie has to both find Erin and also find herself. She begins to define herself in Ireland, begins to become herself, but of course the tragic thing about that is that it only happens in Erin’s absence, it only can happen in Erin’s absence.
I’m still getting to know Maggie, to know who she is outside of the heightened events of The Mountains Wild. Luckily, I’m really enjoying it.
Finally, what's next? Will there be another Maggie D'Arcy book?
Yes! I’m trying to finish it right now. It’s been both challenging being on book deadline under lockdown, but also really comforting to have a fictional world to retreat to. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that it’s set on Long Island and in Ireland again and I’m having fun really giving Maggie a chance to shine as a detective, fully deputized and at the height of her powers. She’s struggling with a lot of things in her personal life, but I’m having fun letting her just kick some...you know what...when it comes to her job!
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. She grew up on Long Island in New York, and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries.