So19 talks with ANNA LOAN-WILSEY

Though the assumptions that clustered around the role of secretary can seem the height of antifeminism in the late twentieth century, Anna Loan-Wilsey's Hattie Davish mysteries are a delightful reminder that this wasn't always true. As her latest novel, A Deceptive Homecoming, depicts, women who would handle the cutting-edge tool that was the typewriter had materially more scope and independence than the great majority of their sisters in society: playing a role in spheres larger than the home, making a respectable living, employing their intelligence, and perhaps seeing something of the world. Hattie Davish enjoys all of these advantages—and if they regularly expose her to mayhem and murder, you won't hear readers complaining. In A Deceptive Homecoming (Kensington, July 2015), Hattie journeys back to her hometown for the first time in a decade. There, she finds herself a celebrity at Mrs. Chaplin's School for Women, where she learned her trade. Less happily, she is forced to confront the trauma of her father's tragic death and cope with the horrifying realization that the body in the casket at a funeral isn't actually that of the fellow being mourned. Surmounting these challenges takes her into the underground tunnels of an insane asylum and the bullet-pocked walls of the house in which Jesse James was shot, the latter both actual locations drawn with and from Loan-Wilsey’s always-impeccable research. Trained as both a biologist and a librarian/information specialist, Loan-Wilsey has lived in Finland, Canada and Texas but now resides in Iowa. A Deceptive Homecoming is the fourth Hattie Davish mystery, following A Lack of Temperance, Anything but Civil and A Sense of Entitlement. You can find out more about the author on her website and keep up with her news on Facebook and Twitter. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Anna Loan-Wilsey about independent women, the crafting of historical mysteries, treatments for the insane, and as always, the 19th century. —SF

So19: This installment is set in 1893—among other things the year of the Chicago World’s Fair (more officially, the World Columbian Exposition), which gets several fun mentions in the story. I wonder if you might tell us a bit about why you chose the end of the 19th century for the series: what that timeframe allows you to write about or avoid, for example.

AL-W: From an early age I have been intrigued by the second half of the 19th century. As a young girl I was drawn in by the clothes, the elaborate decoration of everything from a pin cushion to wallpaper, and my perception of the genteel etiquette that seemed to rule everyday life.

However, as a writer, particularly for mysteries, I discovered that some of my perceptions were wrong and that the era was wrought with contradictions and challenges that were perfect backdrops for murder. I set the novels specifically at the end of the 19th century because of the social, technological, political, and economic upheavals from that era that parallel those we are experiencing today. Not only do they provide the conflict necessary for the novels, but today’s readers can easily relate. For example, rapid technological change is characteristic of the 1890s as much as it is for the 21st century, The Great Panic of 1893 was very similar to the Great Recession of 2008 and the first ever march on Washington by the Commonweal for Christ or Coxey’s Army on May 1, 1894 was just as groundbreaking as the 1963 March on Washington.

Writing about the end of the 19th century also allows me to pick and choose forensic techniques, as many were being developed during this era but nothing was widely used yet. I appreciate that this forces the investigation of crime to focus on the basics—observation, questioning, and clue gathering—all which make it easier for an amateur sleuth to be as capable of solving the crime as the police.

So19: Writing a 19th-century female sleuth can be challenging given the restrictions the era placed on female behavior. For readers who may be new to the series, could you talk a bit about how you developed Hattie’s character, including her role as traveling secretary?

AL-W: As a beginning writer, I decided to “write what you know” and thus decided on a female character who shared a few common traits and interests with me and other women in my life. However, as she developed she became wholly her own, distinct personality. Her role as a personal secretary was chosen very deliberately, as I wanted a protagonist that could plausibly interact with all levels of society from the scullery maids and factory workers to the richest debutantes and industrialists of the day and still not quite fit in with any of them. I invented the role of “traveling secretary” so that she could travel to different locations (each book is set in a different historic town), thus keeping the series fresh by adding new characters and completely different story lines based on the settings she finds herself in.

So19: St. Joseph, Missouri—a very different place from the Newport of the series’ last installment—is a vivid presence in this novel. Do you have experience living there, or near there? If not, what drew you to that setting?

AL-W: I visited St. Joseph for my birthday about ten years ago. Having grown up in New York, I knew little of the town. But I was extremely impressed with the depth and breadth of history one can still explore and experience there. One can relive the beginning of the Pony Express, the end of Jesse James, and the rich and complicated years of the Civil War when St. Joseph was under martial law and Fort Smith’s cannons were aimed toward the city and not away from it. In addition, I discovered the well-kept, well-documented Mount Mora Cemetery, the last resting place of many famous historical figures, as well as the old State Lunatic Asylum #2 and the unique Glore Psychiatric Musuem, which chronicles the 130 year history of the state mental institution. Before I’d left, I knew that I’d found the perfect setting for the conflict, colorful characters and historic details I needed to write an entertaining historical mystery.

So19: The life and death of Hattie’s father, and the relationship Hattie shared with him, is such a moving element of this book. How much of that backstory was present in your mind from the start of the series? How much evolved over time?

AL-W: I knew from the beginning that Hattie had been close to her father and that his death, and the circumstances surrounding his death, had a lasting effect on her. I mention her father several times throughout the series. However, the details of their story definitely evolved over time and weren’t complete until this book.

So19: Hattie returns to find that she is a figure of admiration among the students of Mrs. Chaplin’s School for Women, her alma mater. That element of the story reminded me how important such schools were in terms of female education, independence, and self-confidence at that time.

AL-W: I totally agree. I myself went to an all-women’s college (which has since gone co-ed) that was founded by Henry Wells of Wells Fargo fame as early as 1868 because he understood the need to education and empower women. I felt that Hattie wouldn’t be who she is if she hadn’t (like me) been forced out of her shell and taught that being capable, intelligent and independent were not solely male virtues. Although Hattie is surprised by the admiration she received, it is justified, as she is an excellent, though uncommon, example of what women of that day could accomplish.

So19: State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 in the novel was a very real, and pretty darn scary, place. I’ve reproduced the “reasons for admission” list you shared on your blog below; based on that, I’m not sure I know a single person who wouldn’t have been committed. How did you research this aspect of the plot? What most surprised you about the real-life facts and history of the place?

AL-W: As I mentioned before, I researched this aspect of the plot by visiting the site of the State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 (though the original 19th century Kirkbride building is part of a prison and off-limits) and the Glore Psychiatric Museum. Sarah Elder, Curator of Collections, met with me and kindly answered all my questions as well as escorted me through some of the existing tunnels beneath the institution.

What surprised me was the contradictions I discovered. The public rooms, recreation rooms and grounds of the asylum were quite pleasant, even luxurious, and most of the staff working there truly tried to better the lives of their patients. At the same time, some patients were forced to take “ice baths”, were made to lie in restraint cages, were chained to the wall down in dark tunnels or were subjected to experimental treatments, some with no scientific merit whatsoever. Despite the fact that many patients did find a sympathetic staff, much needed treatment and even cures there, I for one wouldn’t want to take the chance.

So19: Your books are clearly based on very careful research. Could you speak a bit about how you do your background explorations, and how they fit into the actual process of drafting? For example, do you handle all of the research first, or work on the two tasks at the same time?

AL-W: As each book in the series is set in a different location, I always visit the location, usually for three or four days, and gather as much research as I can. I visit museums, libraries, historic homes, and other historic sites such as parks, cemeteries, statues/monuments, and in the case of this book, a lunatic asylum. I read the local historic papers, walk the streets for a sense of distance, climate and scent, and take copious pictures of everything I can think of. After the research trip, I write an outline, taking a great deal of my plot from the history of the town itself. I then write a first draft, leaving out the details, but make a note of their placement in the story. I do this so as not to slow down the writing process: a single detail can take me up to an hour to look up and authenticate! Then I go back and fill in all the necessary historic details either from the information I’d gathered on my research trip to the location, from the numerous sources I have in my personal library, or from the Internet.

So19: It has nothing whatsoever to do with either your new book or the 19th century, but I have to ask: your website mentions that you’ve lived in Finland! How did that happen?

AL-W: My husband accepted a one-year postdoctoral position at the University of Turku in Turku, Finland. We moved there the day after we were married so it was essentially a year-long honeymoon. I learned a bit of the Finnish language (Minä puhun vähän suomea), took Environmental Science graduate classes (taught in English), and traveled throughout Finland as well as to Russia, Estonia, Sweden, Norway, Austria and France. Finland and the Finnish people still hold a special place in my heart. I hope to take my daughter there some day.

So19: In closing, can you tell us a bit about what’s coming up for both yourself and Hattie?

AL-W: Besides enjoying the summer with my 6 year old daughter and husband (it has included a long-awaited holiday to England), I’m currently working on the fifth in the Hattie Davish series, entitled A March to Remember. In the book Hattie encounters the real-life event of the first “march” on Washington D.C. on May 1, 1894 by a group called “The Commonweal of Christ” or simply Coxey’s Army. It has been an exciting challenge incorporating a highly documented historical event into Hattie’s fictional life. This is the first time that Hattie actually will be interacting with historical figures.