[NOTE: This interview happened in late 2015. So some date references might be out of whack. But the lineup of her mysteries has been steadily expanding since then — in fact the newest, Strangled Eggs and Ham (A Country Store Mystery Book 6), is due out by the end of June 2019. So for fans old & new, this author profile should still be interesting.]
Friends, if one (or two) good Quaker mysteries (ahem, mine) deserve some more Quaker mysteries, then it’s time to talk about the “cozy” novels of a remarkable Friendly author, Edith Maxwell of Massachusetts.
Yes! So we did. We were lucky to catch her, because as you’ll see she maintains a full, diligent and highly productive writing schedule.
CEF: Edith, your bio on Amazon says you’re a fourth-generation Californian. How did you end up on a farm north of Boston?
EM: Good question! First let me say I’m delighted to be interviewed by fellow author and Friend Chuck, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person last summer.
I ended up in a linguistics PhD program at Indiana University and my first job after that was at MIT in Cambridge. I moved to the Boston area and just never left, so my sons didn’t get a chance to be fifth-generation Californians.
CEF: You were (or maybe still are?) a tech writer. I read that one of your first short stories was called, “Reduction In Force,” and its origin had something to do with your own experience. Is that right? When was that published?
EM: That is correct. I was laid off a documentation job in the fall of 2008 after fourteen years in the same hi-tech company. The first thing I did after organizing my network and polishing my resume was write a short story of murderous revenge after layoff. It was first published in a competitive anthology called Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers (Level Best Books, 2010) and is now out as a standalone ebook. Then I started writing what ended up as my first published mystery, Speaking of Murder (written as Tace Baker), featuring Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. She solves mysteries both on campus and off.
CEF: Was that connected to your stint as an organic farmer? When I read Til Dirt Do Us Part, the regimen your farmer-sleuth protagonist Cam juggled left me out of breath; farming never stops, plus she had an on-again off-again romance and murderers to catch. It’s a wonder the garlic ever got harvested!
EM: I went into tech writing after spending some years farming and raising my boys when they were little. Yes, I know Cam is busy, but hey, it’s fiction. And I love being back in the world of farming without having to do all the hard work.
CEF: One of your blog posts says you made the leap to full-time writing in 2012. What moved (or helped) you to make the change? When and how did you make the jump to doing fiction?
And how did you decide to go with mysteries, and particularly cozies?
EM: It was spring 2013, actually. I already had a multi-book contract for the Local Foods Mysteries (happy to say I still do). I was fitting writing in around the edges of a full-time job and an hour commute each way, which was very difficult. I looked at my finances and decided to take the plunge. Being a full-time writer has let me land two more series contracts. I also was able to finish the second Lauren Rousseau mystery, Bluffing is Murder, which came out a year ago from Barking Rain Press. I love my new job, and treat it as such, working every day but Sunday on my novels.
I write mysteries, and particularly cozies, because that’s what I like to read. I don’t read super fast-paced thrillers and I don’t enjoy spending time with a lot of on-page violence, bad language, or male sleuths commenting on women’s legs. In a cozy mystery, I write ordinary people struggling to make things right in their world. I like to look at what would make a person go so far as to kill someone, and what would motivate a farmer, a midwife, a professor, or a chef to try to solve a crime. In my books, violence, obscenities, and sex are all off the page, but more important, justice is served at the end.
CEF: How many of your cozies are now in print (or in e-books)?
EM: All six of my published novels are available in print and in all eformats. I have three more coming out this year and three more in 2017, so far.
CEF: I read that a future book in the Local Foods series hadn’t been titled yet, and there were two possibilities: “Cart Before the Corpse” (or maybe “Mulch Ado About Murder”). Such great titles! Where do you come up with them — and how do you choose? (Or maybe you better just write both!)
EM: The 2017 Local Foods mystery will be Mulch Ado about Murder. I’m hopeless at titles so I usually crowd source them, sending out a query to an online group of fellow mystery writers, Sisters in Crime (yes, we also have a few Brothers in Crime) or on my Facebook author page. Aren’t people clever? I give my editor a choice, which he (or she, depending on the series) brings to the sales meeting, and they decide. They nixed Compost Mortem for one of the books, which I happen to love, so watch for a short story with that name one of these years!
CEF: BTW — in the mid-90s I was accepted as a member of Sisters In Crime myself, the Delaware Valley chapter. Had my first Quaker mystery out then, and finished a second while with the group.
How many of your new cozies are in the pipeline for 2016? Tell us a bit about them. And what about your writing plans for next year?
EM: My next book is one I’m really excited about: Delivering the Truth, the first Quaker Midwife mystery. It’s really a cozy but will be shelved as an historical mystery, releasing on April 8. At the end of May Murder Most Fowl and Grilled for Murder come out on the same day. Murder Most Fowl is the fourth Local Foods mystery, in which a local chicken farmer is killed and my organic farmer Cam Flaherty once again gets embroiled in solving the crime. In Grilled for Murder, the second Country Store mystery (written as Maddie Day), my chef-carpenter protagonist Robbie Jordan finds a body on the floor of her country store restaurant the day after she catered a party there – a party for the victim.
My writing plans are head down, write the books. On Jan 1 I’ll start writing Mulch Ado about Murder, which is due May 1. I’ll take a break to polish When the Grits Hit the Fan, due March 1. After I turn in Mulch, I start writing Quaker Midwife Mystery #3, as yet untitled. And if the Country Store series is renewed, after that I’ll get to work on book 4 about Robbie Jordan and her Brown County Indiana country store and restaurant.
CEF: With all this, you’re also clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting, which is historic as heck, poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s home. Tell us about your Quaker pilgrimage. I’m particularly interested in hearing about Friends — present and past — who may have been particularly meaningful for you.
EM: Yes, I am clerk. I love our historic meetinghouse, which John Greenleaf Whittier helped design – he was on the building committee. I’ve been a member for twenty-six years, and until three years ago I drove from neighboring towns to Amesbury. Now I walk to Meeting on Sunday mornings, musing every single time about other Friends walking to the same Meetinghouse over the centuries. I first went to Meeting for worship in Bloomington, Indiana, and realized I’d found my spiritual home. Now Amesbury Friends are my second family.
CEF: I see that poet Whittier at least makes a cameo in your upcoming, “Delivering The Truth” about Rose Carroll, a Quaker midwife in Amesbury in 1888. (Can’t wait to read that one!) Will he be back in future Rose Carroll stories?
EM: Whittier is indeed a friend and mentor to Rose, and he’s in every book. I have very much enjoyed researching his life. His home, a few blocks from where I live, is a museum, and I’m a part-time docent there.
CEF: Are there other Quaker characters or historical incidents that you’re mulling over for fictional use? (There’s sure plenty of both in New England!)
EM: In book two, Breaking the Chain, issues of racism arise. A former slave whom Whittier had sheltered in the basement of the Amesbury Meetinghouse (we believe it was part of the Underground Railroad) is falsely accused of the murder. The author Lucy Larcom makes an appearance, too, and the book opens on the 4th of July with the dedication of a statue of Josiah Bartlett, a local who signed the Declaration of Independence. I think author Celia Thaxter will show up in book three, in which we’ll see women’s suffrage activists like Rose’s mother play a part. Because the series starts in 1888, I have to look closely at what was happening in the world and in Massachusetts at that time. Whittier was getting on in years (he died in 1892)
[Update: more on the “Quaker Midwife Mysteries” at edithmaxwell.com , The fourth book in the series, “Charity’s Burden,” was published in April 2019.]
CEF: In a post last year you wrote about “Wisdom Wills,” documents that undertake to pass on to your “heirs,” not objects or money, but ideas, memories or experiences.
You put it this way: one such will
stemmed from four questions: Who am I? Who have I become? What matters to me? What do I wish for you? Other examples included anecdotes about the person’s parents and grandparents; an essay about the person’s values, hopes, experiences, and stories; a collection of poetry.
And you said you were going to prepare one for yourself “sometime soon.” Have you done that yet? And whether or not, are there some bits from it that you might share with us here?
EM: I’m sorry to say I haven’t written my own wisdom will yet. The idea came out of a workshop Amesbury Friends sponsored. I would certainly include anecdotes about my late father, who wrote long typed letters and might have been an author in his later years if he’d had any. I did recently write an essay on my spiritual journey which I shared with our Meeting in an ongoing series. I talked about my beliefs and how I arrived at Quakerism. I sent a copy to my siblings and my sons, since it’s the kind of thing I might never have shared with them. I guess I was right, because they all responded with appreciation.
CEF: Thanks again, Edith, and we’ll let you get back to writing.
Note: Lots more information about Edith and her mysteries and shorter fiction is on her website: http://edithmaxwell.com/,