So19 Talks With: ASHLEY E. SWEENEY

In the 19th century, the American West became a crossroads for individuals of many different backgrounds and with many different hopes. Imagining women who lived and journeyed there,  the fiction of Ashley E. Sweeney explores female courage and challenge as well as the remarkable places, eras, and episodes of history women helped shape. Sweeney is the winner of the 2020 Arizona Authors Association Award for Answer Creek and the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, Sweeney is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. and resides in the Pacific Northwest and Tucson. She's at work on a third novel, set in rural Arizona Territory in the early 20th century, which is slated for release in Fall 2022. You can find her on TwitterFacebook and Instagram and learn more about her and her books on her website. All that said, here's our chat.

Q. I’d actually like to start with your previous novel, Eliza Waite. It shares with Answer Creek a female protagonist who embarks on an uncertain journey in the hope of creating a new life. Could you tell readers a bit about that book, as well as why that theme resonates for you?

Writing women’s stories set in the American West has become my focus. But more important even than setting is the character’s voice. All of my protagonists are fictional, and I superimpose them in and on known historical eras and events. That is the platform where I can address injustice against women and spin a tale that’s familiar through a new, fresh voice. Eliza Waite is a struggling widow who pulls up stakes from a remote island in Washington State and heads to Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. Her grit and resolve are admirable. Because there are few historical novels set in the American West, I figure I have lifetimes of stories to draw from. 

ART BREAK: Mary Anning

 Book Cover
Sketch of Mary Anning
Mary Anning letter and drawing
Brass Token
Lyme Regis cliffs

I've been fascinated by Mary Anning since learning about her a decade or so ago—she's one of the women who made significant but overlooked contributions to 19th-century science. The digital collage above, one of a series of portrait pieces I've made over the past year, is my homage to her. A working class woman with minimal schooling who spent her life in Lyme Regis on Britain's Dorset coast, Anning is the subject of Tracey Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures and the 2020 film Ammonite. Though both based on her character and life, both take fictional liberties in different ways with the historical record, which is admittedly rather minimal.

I originally began this piece using a full-length frontal portrait of Anning, but (much as I love the inclusion of her dog, rock hammer and collecting basket) it just seemed too static, too ladylike, to be right. Instead, I used a sketch then believed to be her by the paleontologist Henry de la Beche. It looks the way I imagine Anning: sturdy, practical, searching, unpretentious, and entirely unconcerned with anything resembling fashion, though its identification as Anning has more recently been questioned.

The book image is the cover of Oliver Pike's 1907 Adventures in Bird-Land. I replaced the title and side blocks but let the central image—of a figure climbing a cliff—show through the Anning drawing. Anning did her collecting and made her discoveries on the blue lias cliffs of Lyme, and an avalanche of rock from the cliffs killed her beloved dog; an echo of a perilous cliffside moment felt somehow apt. The skeleton images that flank the central panel are cropped and recolored from an 1823 letter in which Anning discusses her discovery of a fossil of the creature now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. The panels on either side of my title block are the two sides of a brass token stamped with Anning's name, "Lyme Regis," and the year 1810 in Roman numerals. Discovered in 2014, it's thought that it might have been an 11th birthday gift to Anning from her father or brother. 

I was set on using a rock pick like the one in the sketch somewhere in my collage and spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for one that seemed sturdy and beat-up enough (Anning's own doesn't seem to be extant). The background layers the text from one of Anning's letters, a photograph of the blue lias cliffs, and a stock photograph of beachside shells and stones. 

In addition to being Anning's home, Lyme Regis figures prominently in two of my very favorite books: John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jane Austen's Persuasion. One day I hope to see its "Cobb" and cliffs in person. 


Given the rarity of such books in the U.S. market, I welcomed the chance to review a historical mystery set in Krakow for Publishers Weekly last year.  Even better, it was set in my beloved 19th century—1893, to be precise—and delightful from beginning to end. Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing was the first novel by Maryla Szymiczkowa, the pen name for Polish writers and partners Jacek Dehnel and Piotr TarczyƄski. I was delighted to talk to the pair about the novel last year and am glad to post our interview now, delayed as it has been by my eye issues and that Covid thing (you might have heard of it). You can read my Publishers Weekly review here and my Q&A with the authors here. Though I didn't review it for PW, I'm glad to say that the duo's second mystery featuring, Karolina and the Torn Curtain, appeared in English last month. With warm thanks to Piotr and Jacek for speaking to me, here is our chat. 

Q. What inspired you to write about 1893 Cracow?

Piotr: Historical mysteries are popular in Poland, but none took place in my hometown of Krakow. I found that surprising, given the fact that late 19th century Krakow was a place rich in history and full of interesting characters: a perfect setting for a historical mystery.

Jacek: That was a time when the old order, the Austro-Hungarian empire under the “eternal” rule of Franz Joseph—the Eastern European equivalent of the Victorian era— would soon start to crumble and then be toppled by the Great War. It's this quiet moment just before the storm.

Piotr: Just like today, when you think of it: we live in times of rapid technological progress, we’re seeing the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism, and women and minorities are fighting for the right place in the society. The series describes 19th-century society, but we also want to say something about the present day.

Ssshhh, we're reading: Emma Stonex's THE LAMPLIGHTERS

Most of my reading year-to-date has been quite distant from the 19th century, though it's included some splendid books. An early favorite was Emma Stonex's The Lamplighters, an extraordinarily rich and atmospheric debut novel that is at once a locked-room mystery, a ghost story, a historical novel and a family and relationship drama. The story was loosely inspired by the never-explained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900 Scotland. Stonex's novel shifts the location to Britain's southern coast and the timeframe to the second half of the 20th century: in her narrative, the vanishing takes place in the 1970s and the "case" is explored again in the 1990s.  I'll save my full review for next month, since the book doesn't appear in either the UK or the US until March 4, but I urge you to put it on your reading list now!

It's always fascinating to see the differences in cover treatments on the different sides of the proverbial pond. The image around which this text wraps is the cover of the American edition, from Viking. It's very attractive, and also true to both Stonex's description of the lighthouse and to the sense of unspoken isolation that pervades the story. Yet it feels quite a bit more conventional than the novel itself, which mixes genres and plays with the ineffable quite fearlessly. And it also feels rather close in mood and color scheme to the cover of M.L. Steadman's The Light Between Oceans

The cover art for the British (Picador) edition, depicted below, is more interesting. I can easily imagine it being less appealing to readers, yet I very much like its boldness and the indirect suggestion of both mystery and the 1970s in the marbled-paper effect. (Admittedly, you may not get that same 70s vibe if you weren't as saturated in rock-concert light shows and tie-dyed everything as I was during that decade.) In any case, an intriguing contrast in mood and strategy. 


I fell in love with Jennifer's sharp comic prose on the first line of her first book, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc. I was fortunate enough to be assigned her second Anna Blanc mystery, The Body in the Camphor Trunk, to review for Publishers Weekly, and then again to review her third, The Body in Griffith Park, for the magazine. To find out more, visit Jennifer's website; it has lots of fun content, and if you sign up for her email list, you can download additional goodies including some of the public-domain books—a coroner’s manual, a cookbook, mystery novels, books by humorists—that inform the novels and their storylines. Her extraordinary Pinterest is loaded thousands and thousands of period photographs related to series' era, locations, fashions and more. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well. And of course, we encourage you to buy her books, which can be ordered on Amazon, Audible, and through your local bookstore.

Your “day job” is in the field of research science. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer as well? How do you juggle the demands of these two very different professional worlds?

I am stupidly busy, and my house is a wreck. If you work, write, and have kids, something has got to give. If I don’t make my bed, no real harm is done. So I prioritize family and writing.

For years, I was on the research faculty at UCLA doing health policy studies. It wasn’t until my 40s that I even thought about writing fiction. In fact, I remember telling my husband, “I can write non-fiction, but I could never make up a story.” But once I started writing fiction, I couldn’t stop. Of course, I was terrible at first. I had to put in my hours reading books on creative writing and practicing.

More recently, I’ve switched to criminal justice research. (My office is inside the secure area of a jail.) Inmates are almost all trauma victims. They are often mentally ill and homeless. Most have traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse is rampant. They are poor, disproportionately of color, and of low educational attainment. Now they are vulnerable to COVID-19 as more inmates test positive.
Seeing them and working with their data informs my novels, since my protagonist, Anna Blanc, works in a jail.


I'm pleased to introduce Katharine Schellman, whose debut historical mystery novel appeared yesterday from Crooked Lane Books, to Society Nineteen readers today. The Body in the Garden finds recent widow Lily Adler moving to London and trying to reinvent her life; when the murdered corpse of a young man turns up in a friend's garden during a society ball, she finds a surprising new purpose. In addition to an absorbing mystery, Katharine delivers a rich, nuanced look at life in 1815 London. Find out more about the author on her websitesign up on the site to read a free Lily Adler short mystery, see her featured on BookPage, follow her on Facebook, and of course, buy the book on Amazon, through your local independent bookstore, or the other venue of your choice. Many thanks to Katharine for speaking with So19!

Like my own, your professional life has been a varied one. Could you talk a little about your background and how you came to write a historical mystery?

I’m a former actor, a trained dancer, and a one-time political consultant. But I always wanted to be a writer: I think the first time I told my parents I was going to write books one day I was six years old!

I didn't necessarily expect to write a historical mystery, though. All my "novels in a drawer" (and there are several on my hard drive that will never see the light of day again) are in other genres. Before I started writing the book that eventually became The Body in the Garden, it wasn't a genre I had ever pictured myself writing in, even though it was one I loved reading. I generally start with characters, rather than plot. So for a while, I had these people in my head, and I wasn't sure what would bring them together in this setting. When I finally realized it was a dead body, everything just clicked: " Oh, that's what they're doing here!"


Society Nineteen interviewed author Anna Lee Huber upon the publication of A Study in Death in 2015, and we're delighted to welcome her back to the journal in 2020.  Today, Anna talks with us about the eighth Lady Darby mystery, A Stroke of Malice, which appears today from Berkley and can be ordered from as well as through your local independent bookstore. You can read our earlier interview here, find out more about Anna and her work on her website and follow her on Facebook among other social media sites. All that said, many thanks to Anna, and let's get this conversation started!

Let’s solace the isolation of social distancing by starting with a giant fictional party! In 2014’s A Grave Matter, you depicted a traditional Scottish Hogmanay celebration. This time around, Kiera and Sebastian are invited to an English Twelfth Night party. Tell readers a little about that tradition—a very weird and elaborate one, I might add!—and why you chose it as the occasion for this book.

Haha! I’ve wanted to set a book during a Twelfth Night Party for years. I read up on the tradition some time ago, and instantly knew that it would not only be fun to write, but also the perfect setting to kick off a mystery. In truth, I hadn’t initially decided to have Gage and Kiera make a stop off on their way from London in Book 7 (An Artless Demise) and Edinburgh, in what will be Book 9 (A Wicked Conceit). But the Duchess of Bowmont was just one of those characters that would not be relegated to playing a minor part, and we’d already met her youngest son Lord Henry (in Book 4, A Study in Death), who I’d known I wanted to revisit again. An idea took hold, and then I realized having the infamous duchess host a Twelfth Night Party would be perfect. So I got my chance.