A Sense of Place

Our guest bloggers are Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, authors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. The fourth book in the series, The Dead of Achill Island, was published this week.

Plains of Achill Island and Mountain

Photo by Betsy Draine

In planning a mystery, we begin by asking: where? Our first novel, Murder in Lascaux, was set in southwestern France. The setting generated the plot, which focused on prehistoric cave art. A sense of place has been important in each installment in the series: northern California in The Body in Bodega Bay, the French Riviera in Death on a Starry Night, and the West of Ireland in The Dead of Achill Island.

We first visited Achill on the advice of Betsy’s cousin, an Irish nun. The West of Ireland, she told us, is where the old ways are best preserved. The largest of Ireland’s islands, Achill (rhymes with “cackle”) lies offshore above Galway on the Atlantic coast, as far west as an Irishman can go. Today the island is linked to the mainland by a causeway and a bridge. Even so, Achill feels remote. Denuded of trees, the landscape presents flat vistas of bogs and grasslands, steep mountains, and treacherous cliffs. Its megalithic tombs attest that the island has been inhabited for millennia, while church graveyards with broken headstones recall the dead of recent centuries. A soft rain falls more often than not. What better setting for a mystery?

Cottage rubble with mountain backdrop

Photo by Betsy Draine

At the base of Slievemore Mountain lies a string of ruined cottages known as the Deserted Village. These homes were abandoned in the 1840s at the time of the Great Famine. Inhabitants fled to the island’s shore, where they survived by fishing. They left behind an Irish ghost town. As we wandered through the lonely village, we imagined discovering a body in one of the ruined cottages, and that became the opening scene of this novel.

The title refers not only to a fictional murder but also to the victims of two historical tragedies on Achill that gave rise to legend. It is said that In the 17th century a prophet named Brian Rua O’Cearbhain foretold that carriages on iron wheels would come to the island, belching smoke and fire—and on their first and last journeys, the carriages would carry the dead. The prophecy was fulfilled when the first steam train came in 1894, returning the bodies of thirty islanders who had drowned en route to seasonal jobs in Scotland. The last run of the train before the line shut down in 1937 carried the bodies of twenty-three local boys who had died in a fire while working away from home. The haunting legend attached to these tragedies colors the atmosphere of the novel.

A well-rendered sense of place can immerse a reader in another world. In The Dead of Achill Island, we hope the reader is transported to the West of Ireland alongside Nora and Toby.

Draine and Hinden author photoBetsy Draine and Michael Hinden are are coauthors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. They also coauthored the memoir A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France and translated The Walnut Cookbook by Jean-Luc Toussaint. They are professors emeriti of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Fiction is Based on a True Story

Our guest blogger today is Patricia Skalka, author of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series. The fifth book in the series, Death Rides the Bay, was published this month.

Of the five books in the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries, Death by the Bay is the most personal.

In the first four volumes, both the characters and the plots were born in my imagination. The concept for Death by the Bay evolved from a true story that my mother told me when I was ten or twelve. She grew up on a small family farm in central Wisconsin in a community of Polish immigrants. Few spoke English and most had large families. One neighboring couple stood out because they had only one child, a daughter with a disability. One day, an itinerant doctor, or someone posing as such, told the couple that he could help their child. The specifics became blurred over time, but in one version, he talked of a special school where children like their daughter could learn to live independently. I remember my mother saying that he offered to provide free medical care, treatments that would alleviate her condition and even “cure” her.

The stranger was educated, persuasive. The desperate couple believed him. Thinking they were acting in the best interests of their precious only child, they allowed him to leave with her. They never saw her again.

I was horrified. I could not believe that such evil existed in the world. But there was more. Months later, the same predator or one of similar ilk came to my grandparents’ farm. His target was my mother’s younger sister, Rose, who’d been afflicted with polio and as a result was unable to speak or walk properly. Aware of what had happened to the neighboring family, my grandmother picked up a broom and chased the man out the door.

Before I became a novelist, I was a nonfiction writer. My stories about human drama, women’s issues, and medical advancements appeared in many print and online publications. The story I always wanted to write was the story of the couple whose daughter was stolen under false pretenses. But there was no paper trail, no way to research or document the events.

So, I did the only thing I could: I fictionalized the story. This tragic tale I heard decades ago became the seed for Death by the Bay. Though I shifted the locale, altered the circumstances, and developed a contemporary plot line, the basis of the story remains unchanged. Death by the Bay is a tale of the powerful preying on the weak, a tale of the educated taking advantage of the unknowing. It is a story that, unfortunately, continues to repeat itself in various ways throughout the world today.

Patricia Skalka Author

Photo by B.E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is the author of Death Stalks Door CountyDeath at Gills RockDeath in Cold Water, and Death Rides the Ferry, winner of a Midwest Book Award. She is president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and divides her time between Chicago and Door County, Wisconsin.

Visit Patricia’s website to view her upcoming events and more: http://www.patriciaskalka.com/

29th Annual Midwest Book Award Winners for UW Press titles

We are thrilled to announce two Midwest Book Award winners from the University of Wisconsin Press! These awards from the Midwest Independent Publishing Association (MIPA) recognize quality in independent publishing in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin).

Death Rides the Ferry cover imageDeath Rides the Ferry by Patricia Skalka won the Fiction–Mystery/Thriller category. The fourth book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series finds Sheriff Dave Cubiak enjoying a rare day off as tourists and a documentary film crew hover around the newly-revived Viola da Gamba Music Festival, back after a forty-year hiatus. A passenger is found dead on a ferry, and longtime residents recall the disastrous festival decades earlier, when a woman died and a valuable sixteenth-century instrument—the fabled yellow viol—vanished. Sheriff Cubiak is sent on a trail of murder, kidnapping, and false identity. With the lives of those he holds most dear in peril, the sheriff pursues a ruthless killer into the stormy northern reaches of Lake Michigan.

Eleven Miles to Oshkosh cover imageEleven Miles to Oshkosh by Jim Guhl won the category for Fiction-Young Adult. The story centers on the coming-of-age of Del “Minnow” Finwick, whose small world in Wisconsin has blown apart. His father, a deputy sheriff, has been murdered by the unknown “Highway 41 Killer.” His mom has unraveled. And a goon named Larry Buskin has been pummeling Minnow behind Neenah High. When the sheriff seems in no hurry to solve the murder, Minnow must seek justice by partnering with unlikely allies and discovering his own courage.

 

Congratulations again to the authors and all involved! To celebrate, we are giving away a a copy of both award-winning books to one (1) lucky entrant:

An Interview with Poet Rae Armantrout

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we present three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our final poet is Rae Armantrout, a central figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s who was nevertheless somewhat separate from that collectivity, crafting her own flavor of poetry that over time has remained “distinctive and distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams,” according to interviewer Lynn Keller. The conversation presented here touches on everything from physics to religion to ghosts to feminism. Armantrout discusses her cancer diagnosis and how it has impacted the practice and content of her writing, leading her to write poems more quickly and to dwell on mortality (though she says, “I’ve always had an attraction to the dark stuff anyway. I used to say I was channeling Kali. (Not so funny now.)”). When Keller asks Armantrout about the religious imagery in her recent work, she replies that though she’s not religious, she sees a parallel between religious practice and the act of creating a poem or other artwork:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don’t really think, in my case, that I’m talking to a specific audience; I think I’m talking to myself, but when I’m talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it’s not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don’t believe in.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Armantrout’s poems!


And check out our other poetry month offerings:

An interview with Marge Piercy

An interview with Myung Mi Kim

An Interview with Poet Myung Mi Kim

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our second poet is Myung Mi Kim, in conversation with Lynn Keller. Kim, a Korean-American, refers to herself as “as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction.” As Keller puts it, in Kim’s hands, language

is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant’s experience in and between several cultures.

The wide-ranging discussion presented here touches on the poet’s process, childbirth and family, documentary poetry, poetic forms that privilege visual impact, the pastoral, geological time, the slipperiness of nostalgia, the generative power of silence, migration, and loss and mourning. Kim and Keller’s conversation bounces among so many different topics in part because Kim’s vision of poetry is so expansive and all-encompassing. As she describes it, “Poetry invites a practice of language/perception that embraces mutability, undecidability, the motion underneath and around what’s codified in conventions of language, grammar, syntax, semantics, and so forth. Poetry produces new ways of participating in perception, thinking, historical being and becoming.”

Read the full interview here, and then go read Kim’s poems!


And if you missed yesterday’s post, check out an interview with poet Marge Piercy.

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!

Silenced Resistance

Today we present an interview with Joanna Allan, author of the book Silenced Resistance, a compelling addition to our series Women in Africa and the Diaspora.

 

Who and what is being silenced in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea?

In short, I argue in the book that the dictatorial regime in Equatorial Guinea and the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara (Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa) are committing—and covering up—serious, widespread and gendered human rights abuses with the support of foreign corporations and states, including companies from the USA and UK.  Hypocritically, the responsible parties conceal their crimes with the help of public relations and social responsibility campaigns that claim the regimes and their foreign partners are working to promote so-called gender equality. This is, I argue, “genderwashing.”

 

Saharawi activist Hamadi Zaybour links his son’s disabilities to Moroccan police beating his wife while she was pregnant. He also emphasizes that foreign markets, which pay Morocco to access Western Sahara’s natural resources, have played a role in his family’s suffering.

 

Man looking over Smara refugee camps

Why Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea? 

My curiosity in the two countries was provoked, in a large part, by the lack of information about either of them. My undergraduate studies were in the field of Hispanic Studies, and yet my university was, as far as I know, the only one in the UK to include Western Sahara on the syllabus. Equatorial Guinea did not feature on the course at all. Equatorial Guinea and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic are the only Spanish-speaking African states. I therefore wondered why these countries received next to no academic attention in my discipline (or in most other disciplines for that matter).  Actually, referring back to the title of my book, missing whole countries from our syllabi is one way we collectively silence Equatoguinean and Saharawi women.

Occupied El Aaiun, Western Sahara’s largest city

I remember the first time I heard of the conflict in Western Sahara. It was around the time of nonviolent activist Aminatou Haidar’s second imprisonment. I was astonished that Saharawi women seemed to lead the pro-independence movement in occupied Western Sahara. This contrasted with the Equatoguinean case, where the opposition to the ruling regime seemed, according to information available at the time, male-dominated. I was therefore compelled to explore the reasons behind this divergence in the gendered make-up of resistance movements. Actually, Equatoguinean women are very much involved in resisting the dictatorship, but their contributions—for a range of gendered reasons that I explore in the book—have attracted less attention.

Pro–independence poster at a demonstration in the Saharawi refugee camps

In the book, you also explore resistance to Spanish colonialism in the two countries.

Yes. Historical resistance movements have shaped the gendered dynamics of today’s resistance efforts, I argue. For example, in the Saharawi case, black Saharawi women’s historical internal struggles against racism and sexism have resulted in the egalitarian principles of today’s pro-independence movement.

Housing in Equatorial Guinea

Also, with regards to who is silenced and whose stories are told, I wanted to ensure that women’s contributions to Equatoguinean independence were recognized in the book. During my fieldwork, woman after woman in Equatorial Guinea recounted memories of women’s activism against the Spanish colonisers, but lamented that these women had not been taken into account. Women will remain silenced until we make the effort to listen to them.

 

Joanna Allan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University.

Remembering the Hometown Boys

Today’s guest-blogger is Brad Larson, director of the Oshkosh Public Museum and author of All the Hometown Boys.

As a boy in the early 1960s, I seldom saw my grandfather. He had divorced from my grandmother in the early 1930s, remarried, and moved away. His relationship with his two young sons was strained, to put it nicely. Yet, as he and my father aged, they occasionally came together to heal wounds. On one such instance, he led my brother and me to the trunk of his car to show us his old army boots.  He told us those heavy, hob-nailed boots still had remnants of encrusted mud in a few small places. “Boys,” he said, “that is the dirt of France.”

I stood there in the summer sun next to his Pontiac, just a ten year old boy, transfixed as he revealed abbreviated stories of his experiences as a teenage National Guardsman in what seemed to be a distant land and an overlooked war. Strange as it might seem in hindsight, those old boots and the stories he told made everything seem genuine. I came to realize that my grandfather, white-haired and old, was once a courageous soldier.

Brad’s grandfather, Martin Larson

My desire and determination to resurrect the stories of Wisconsin’s 150th Machine Gun Battalion might have had its roots in the stories of my grandfather. Indeed, even as a boy it seemed that I was aware that memory is a fickle thing. As I describe in All the Hometown Boys, the 150th was a household name after its creation in 1917, for it was part of America’s celebrated 42nd “Rainbow” Division, a National Guard division that brought together men from 26 states. The nation was justly proud of the exploits and victories of the “hometown boys.”  In welcome home parades, the men were esteemed heroes.

But 100 years later, who remembers the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, or America’s soldiers who released France from almost certain defeat? If 30-plus years of museum work have shown me anything, it is that remembrance of our past is weak, perhaps even fading. I think that impression is especially true for World War I, for the soldiers of America’s first world war do not even have their own national memorial in Washington, D.C.

Memory is what we make it. To honor and remember someone, or some event, requires time, dedication, and effort to ensure we discover and perhaps even pass on the story. True reverence for our past comes not from brief media coverage close to an anniversary, but rather grows in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans. They make the decision that men like my grandfather, or the men of the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, soldiers who gave of themselves, lost their youth and in some cases their life, deserve to be remembered.  We should take joy in discovering their stories.

 

Brad Larson has been the director of the Oshkosh Public Museum since 1989 and has been researching and presenting public programs about the 150th Machine Gun Battalion for many years. He is the author of Voices of History, 1941–1945.

University of Wisconsin Press Welcomes New Editor in Chief

photo of Nathan MacBrienThe University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to announce that Nathan MacBrien will join our staff as the editor in chief, effective June 3, 2019.

MacBrien, most recently a special projects editor at Northwestern University Press, will oversee the University of Wisconsin Press book acquisitions department, including managing the list of publications. An accomplished editor, he held various acquisitions roles at the University of Pittsburgh Press and Stanford University Press. For eight years he served as the publications director for the Division of International and Area Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he established and directed the Global, Area, and International Archive (GAIA), a peer-reviewed imprint publishing new titles in the social sciences and area studies.

With more than twenty years of experience, MacBrien has valuable expertise in the publishing process. While at Northwestern University Press, he managed the editing and production of thirty-five new books each year.

“I am delighted that Nathan will be joining the University of Wisconsin Press,” says director Dennis Lloyd. “In his career he has earned the respect of his colleagues and authors in a range of fields, and his keen ability to shape both a manuscript and a list are skills that will benefit us greatly as we implement the long-planned refocus of our acquisitions output.”

Says MacBrien, “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the talented staff at the press. This is an exciting and challenging time for university presses, and I look forward to the work of shaping the press’s list, both to reflect the changing tides in publishing and to ensure that we continue to publish the best books for our communities of readers in Wisconsin and worldwide.”

About the University of Wisconsin Press
The University of Wisconsin Press, one of the research and service centers housed within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a not-for-profit publisher of books and journals. With nearly 1,500 titles in print, its mission embodies the Wisconsin Idea by publishing work of distinction that serves the people of Wisconsin and the world.

Starvation Shore

Today’s guest blogger is Laura Waterman, author of Starvation Shore, a compelling tale based on a true story of polar explorers fighting for their lives.

 

My novel, Starvation Shore, is based on the Greely Arctic Expedition of 1881–1884. Also known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, this three-year saga of a little known American Arctic expedition can be equated with the Franklin Expedition for daring and horrific disaster.

This is the story of 25 men who find that surviving in the Arctic requires cooperation to the point of selflessness. But as darkness, vicious wind, and gelid cold confines them to what feels like a prison sentence, what gets laid bare are the fatal flaws and staggering misjudgments.

I began work on this novel in 2008. Researching and writing it has been an epic journey itself. I was drawn to this story because of the hardships that bring us face to face with our true selves. I was curious to join with these men, to see how I would react in a setting that made such physical demands, that required moral, ethical, and spiritual courage.

A group photo of the explorers

This expedition grew out of a desire to counter the enormous loss of men and ships in the Arctic over the last three centuries. In 1881 the United States was part of the International Polar Year that established stations around the icecap. Lt. Greely’s men were there to take meteorological observations and so learn about the Arctic.  They were expected to set a new Farthest North, long held by the British. The U.S. Army was in charge. The equivalent today would be a manned trip to Mars.

Sgt. David Brainard

I used the men’s diaries, particularly Sgt. David Brainard’s, the portion he wrote at Cape Sabine after the men had left the fort they had built at Discovery Harbor, farther north and only 500 miles from the North Pole. The promised resupply by ship had failed because of pack ice. The men had spent a second winter, and as the third winter drew near, Lt. Greely ordered the men into the open boats, a controversial move. They had had supplies enough to make it through a third winter, if they had stayed.

Pvt. Charles B. Henry

That this was an unhappy expedition from the start fascinated me. What was going to happen? Dr. Pavy and Lt. Greely were a mismatch of temperaments. Lt. Kislingbury wished he’d never come.  His senseless acts of insubordination caused Lt. Greely to break him. Sgt. Brainard was sure they had a murderer along, namely Pvt. Charles Henry. Lt. Lockwood, brave, strong, a gifted leader of men—he set the Farthest North record—was prone to depression.

On the other hand, Pvt. Shorty Frederick was there when you needed him. Their young astronomer, Ned Israel, took infectious delight in the mystery of an Arctic night. Photographer George Rice’s glass plates showed a frigid black and white beauty not seen before. Eskimo Jens Edwards died in his boat catching seals for them.

The six survivors on their way home in 1884

When the rescue party arrived in 1884, two thirds of the men were dead. What George Rice had feared, and Sgt. Brainard had tried to prevent, had happened: cannibalism.

I grew up reading about adventure; most children do:  Doctor Doolittle, Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons. When I read Annapurna, Maurice Herzog’s account of the first 8000-meter peak to be climbed, I wondered, had I been along, could I have made it to the top? I began climbing on my homeground. The White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Range in winter, and learned about winds that can knock you down, visibility so compromised you’re relying on all your senses and your internal compass, and frightening subzero cold. I drew on this experience for writing Starvation Shore. I learned, as Greely’s men did, that we are often capable of more than we had thought possible.

 

 Laura Waterman is an author, environmentalist, and outdoor enthusiast. Her books include The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and CampingA Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True, and Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage.