Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Maggie Wheeler

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Ten Questions with Maggie Wheeler

Maggie Wheeler is author of the acclaimed Farran Mackenzie mystery series, which includes the novels All Mortall Things, The Brother of Sleep and A Violent End. The series, published by General Store Publishing House, is based on the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Maggie is currently working on the fourth and final Farran Mackenzie mystery.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, All Mortall Things.

MW:

All Mortall Things is the third book in my Farran Mackenzie mystery series based on the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. As with the first two, the original murder has taken place during the Seaway project in the 1950s but is solved (with an extra body or two) in the present day. However, AMT is a bit of a switch for me as the protagonist this time is not Farran but another regular character — OPP Inspector Jerry Strauss. This is not only his case but also his personal history come home to roost. And this novel is my stab (bad pun, considering...) at a locked-room mystery. Jerry faces a bed and breakfast establishment with one dead body, several suspects, and only a couple of hours to solve the crime from inside before having to let the media in and the suspects — including a killer — walk away.

OB:

How did you research your book?

MW:

I always start with a look at the former village I will be wrapping my events around. When the Seaway went through, six villages on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence were destroyed to make way. Each of the novels has focused the past events around a different Lost Village. Then I interview former residents to get a personal feel for that lost place and time. At this point, I have my story clearly in mind and go through the regional newspapers from that era to see what historical anchors would partner well with the plot and the themes.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you started writing the Farran Mackenzie mystery series?

MW:

Initially, I did. I wanted to capture a special time in Canadian history that I felt was being forgotten — if a megaproject can be forgotten! Also, the villagers’ experience of losing their homes and generational farms in the expropriation had been marginalized at best all those years and I wanted to bring that reality to the page to be considered. I guess I was writing for the Boomers, per se. However, the fascinating history and the human themes explored by both historical perspective and the characters’ personal lives have connected with a much larger readership, I’m happy to say. The novels have been used in Eastern Ontario schools to teach both history and English, so my readers range from pre-teens to nonagenarians — most of whom contact me personally to comment and discuss.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MW:

I can only tell you what I hope to have one day. I wrote my first novel with three little girls at home, my second during extensive renovations in my ex-husband’s house and my third after moving and beginning to restore an older Seaway house of my own. The dust is settling in my life and I am wondering if I will find it difficult to write in general peace and quiet! My ideal is to work every morning until lunch, with weekends off, in a small study in my home. I’ll let you know if that ever happens!

OB:

What was your first publication?

MW:

My first publication was a short story in a collection printed to raise money for a hospital. I was one of twenty chosen for the project, hosted by General Store Publishing House who is now my publisher. It, too, was about murder. I guess I have a thing about that.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

MW:

I’m doing my master’s degree right now so I have a lot of academic reading that takes my time. Personal reading is non-existent for the present, but if I had it I would be into another auto/biography. I find people fascinating. I love mysteries (no surprise there, I guess) but avoid them as I am usually writing one.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MW:

That’s a very hard choice as Canada has so many wonderful writers. I would have to fall back on some of my personal favourites:
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
Jack’s Farm by Joan Levy Earle, a beautifully written book from the St. Lawrence Valley area.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MW:

That would be something said to me when writing my first novel, A Violent End. The simple murder mystery I had planned to write was getting bigger due to all the issues wrapped around the Seaway and the personal issues I wanted to explore in the book. As a first time novelist, I was hesitant to bite off more than I could chew. Another writer said to me, “Maggie, if you’re going to jump off a cliff, make it a high one. Make the ride worth it.” She was right, and that advice helped me craft the novel AVE turned out to be.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

MW:

That would be difficult because the reader response began immediately and has stayed considerable over the years. I have also spent substantial time on the lecture circuit with the novels and the history, talking to readers personally. I have stories from former villagers, responses from people about their own family histories or personal losses, and discussions with writers finding their own paths. I guess I would offer a very recent note from an Anglican curate who is training to be a priest. He wrote to let me know that my novels are helping him with his pastoral care in the area. He serves many elderly people who are isolated or confined due to health, some of whom came from the Lost Villages of the Seaway. These people are in their final years and are struggling to put their lives in context through memory as we all will. The novels help them do this by reliving a time that had tremendous impact and adventures for them. He said they also enjoy a good story. I’m honoured that my work would help others this way.

OB:

What is your next project?

MW:

I’m writing the fourth and final novel in the Farran Mackenzie series, On a Darkling Plain — this during my master’s so no “general peace and quiet” yet! I hope to have it ready for publication in the summer of 2009, in time for the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. I think that would be a nice fit.

All Mortall Things Visit the General Store Publishing House website to read more about the Maggie Wheeler's Farran Mackenzie Series. Go to http://www.maggiewheeler.com/ to find out more about Maggie's research or to contact the author.

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