Julia Spencer-Fleming has won every award - and more acclaim than you can shake a stick at - in the mystery world - the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry Nero Wolfe and Gumshoe awards. She's also a member of JungleReds - a blog we love. I met up with her at Bouchercon and she graciously agreed to guest blog here at MIE while I'm in Paris. Julia's also got a great sense of humor. If anyone was at the JungleReds panel at Bouchercon you'll remember 'Sookie, Sookie, Sookie!' Her new book, eighth in the Clare Fergusson/Russ VanAlstyne series, “Through the Evil Days,” comes out in November. Thank you so much for joining us, Julia and Welcome.
"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." - Leo Tolstoy
For the first twenty-five years of my life, I was the stranger come to town. Born on a US Air Force base, raised on US Army posts, my family relocated constantly throughout my childhood. I changed schools, states, countries and the accompanying cultures that went with them: different friends, different languages, different food. Different clothing: I remember arriving in Germany on a bleak and wintery March day wearing a spring-like dress that had been perfect for Alabama.
Being the new kid in town is terrifying, but it's also liberating. After all, how many of us use moving to college as a chance to finally ditch the childhood nickname and become the name we always wanted to be? You may need a map and a transit schedule to get around, but there's a whole new city or town to explore. You miss your old friends, but there are people out there who will never know about that time you stole a fetal pig from the bio lab and hid it in the drama club prop room. (Not that I am admitting to this.) Being the stranger in town is a chance to be the person you always wanted to be; to get closer to the Platonic ideal of “you” that exists in your head.
Even when my parents settled near Syracuse, New York, I kept on moving: Ithaca to London to Washington, DC. It wasn't until I married and moved to Maine with my husband that I finally came to rest. Once I stopped moving, I really stopped – we've lived in the same house in the same town for almost twenty years now.
With this as my background, it's no surprise that when I started my Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series with In the Bleak Midwinter, it began with a stranger coming to town. Clare Fergusson is a southern Virginian in the wintery northern Adirondacks of New York State. She's a newly ordained Episcopal priest who's never had a congregation before. She's a female rector at a church that's never been led by a woman before. She's a newcomer in the sort of town where everyone is related tangentally. She is the essential stranger in a strange land.
For most of us in real life, being the stranger is a big deal internally, but less of a game changer to the world around us. Being a twenty-one-year old college student in London may rock your world, but it's a bit less likely you're going to rock London. It's had a long time to absorb newcomers. But in fiction, the stranger changes as much as she is changed. When Clare arrives in Millers Kill, she will knock the police chief's settled like off-axis and send him spinning into a different orbit. She will shake up her church (she wants to invite unwed teen mothers in!) her community (she hires migrant workers!) and her conservative superiors (she blesses a gay couple!) All possible because her new home, Millers Kill, has a population of 8,000 (dropping one by one as citizens are picked off by murderers, of course.) There's a reason Tolstoy's formula says “a stranger comes to town,” not city.
It's been a pleasure and a privilege to let my stranger work out her passions and problems over the course of seven – soon to be eight – books. She's not a visitor or a tourist anymore, but as any ex-pat will tell you, going native has its own set of issues, and those are the ones she deals with in Through the Evil Days. As for Tolstoy's advice, I'm still taking it: I'm working on the ninth book in the series right now and it begins, as all great literature should, with a stranger coming to town.
Julia Spencer-Fleming's New York Times bestselling books have won multiple awards, including the Anthony and Agatha, and have been Edgar and RT Reader's Choice nominees. The next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel, Through the Evil Days, comes out on November 5th. You can find Julia at her website, her readerSpace, on Facebook and on Twitter as @jspencerfleming. She also blogs with the Jungle Red Writers.
Julia—For Cara, Tuesday