I didn’t have to ask what he meant…
— Sally Wright, Behind the Bonehouse
Sally Wright’s mysteries are beautifully written tales that wrestle with moral issue and the complex motivations of everyday people. You can learn more — and see photos! — on her website, SallyWright.net, where she also lists both of her series, in order. Two of the books we talk about in depth are her latest, Behind the Bonehouse, the second in her Jo Grant series, set in horse country, Kentucky; and Code of Silence, the prequel to her Ben Reese series, and featuring as a key plot element the Venona Code.
As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!
Transcript of Interview with Sally Wright
Laura Brennan: My guest today is Edgar Award Finalist Sally Wright. In addition to elegant writing and plotting, Sally does intense research for her novels. She has studied rare books, falconry, painting restoration, the Venona Code, and much more to write about her hero, Ben Reese, an ex-WWII Ranger and university archivist. Her latest series, the Jo Grant mysteries, focus on Kentucky’s horse culture and the families who live and die there.
Sally, thank you for joining me.
Sally Wright: Thank you.
LB: Let’s start with your Ben Reese series. Publish and Perish is the first book, and Ben is a rather unusual protagonist. He’s not a cop, he’s not a PI, he’s an archivist.
LB: And it’s set in 1960. How in the world did you come up with the idea for the series?
SW: Well, because I met a man who was an archivist at a university — and this would’ve been probably about 1973, when I had my first conversation with him. And I knew him as an archivist and he seemed to be World War II age to me, and I asked him what he did in the war. And he gave me a jive response, and I kept just kind of pushing him. And he said, well, I was a behind the lines scout in Europe. I worked for Army intelligence. And I looked at him and I went, if I ever write a mystery novel, you’re the character for me. Because I was so interested in a man of action who could do the really dangerous things that he had done in the war, who would come out of that war and do something highly intellectual and very different than what he had done previously. So that really appealed to me. So if I was can write that character, I had to do it at a time when his age — I wanted to do it when he would have been in his late thirties or something. When he would have been in his prime.
LB: So, when you started, you started with him in academia. Then you said that you wanted him to have a little bit more scope.
SW: First of all, in knowing this gentleman, he traveled all over the world, he had worked studying archival matters and artifacts in several countries and that’s what he would do in the summer when he had time off. And I went, I could put him anywhere. The plot could be based on an artifact or person he meets who owns the artifact or is looking for one. It really gave me tremendous scope. And then I got to go to very interesting places and meet very interesting people that I never would’ve met if I hadn’t been working on the books.
LB: You have a wonderful website that we’re going to link to in the show notes —
SW: Oh, good.
LB: SallyWright.net, correct? SallyWright.net
LB: And you talk a lot about how you come up with your ideas. There always seems to be a connection almost from one book to the next of where you get the idea for the next book — and even for your next series, you got it traveling for the Ben Reese series.
LB: But what I want to know is, for Code of Silence, how did you get the idea to work with the Venona code?
SW: I actually saw a documentary on people who had been implicated by the revelations of the Venona code. And I went, well, that’s interesting — and why have I never heard of this? And why does it get so little exposure in the greater society? So then I just started researching it and I just went, I’ve got to write about this.
But I couldn’t, it seemed to me it had to be a prequel to the previous books based on the timing, so I ended up doing it as a prequel. And I worked with the gentleman from the National Library in Washington who had been one of the two researchers that discovered first the Russian side of the code in the KGB archives in Russia, during that window of time when they were open to the public. And so that actually, when a paper was written on that in the United States, a question was asked in Congress, well, supposedly the US was working on decoding this. What did we learn? Where are these documents? And they were all highly secret and finally the historian at NSA was given the right to reveal the work we had done in the ’30s and ’40s, what we had decoded and what we had known about the agents that this code communicated with, the Soviet agents in the United States. The Rosenbergs for instance. They had huge amounts of data that had been decoded, decrypted I should say, from the communications from the Soviet Union to the Rosenbergs that the United States never admitted that we had that information. Because when they went to trial and everything was brought out, the Soviets would’ve known that we had decrypted the code. So is kind of the same scenario that the British hiding the fact that they had decoded the Enigma during World War II.
LB: Wow. That is just fascinating.
SW: It is. There are several real, historical books that deal with this, if somebody is interested in them, they’re worth reading.
LB: The range of the research you’ve done is just phenomenal. What was the most fun for you?
SW: (Laughter) That’s really hard to answer. It’s like whatever I’m doing at the moment seems to be the most fun. I really enjoyed the work I did on Pursuit and Persuasion, which goes back to a tombstone that I stumbled upon. Our daughter was taking a summer course at Oxford and we found this tombstone on the floor of this little church in Burford that said something like — I’m not going to get it exactly right — “Here lyeth the body of John Pryor Gent who was murdered and found hidden in the priory garden in such-and-such year,” I think it was 1657 or something like that. And I went, well that’s interesting. And wrote it down on my bus ticket. And then I got the little brochure from the church, I talked to the minister the next day. He has been a small landholder. He had been murdered. Nobody knew why. So I went, hmmm… How could this be the basis for a plot that takes place in ’62 or ’63 or something like that. The story then becomes the answer to that.
I placed the time of the tombstone during the Tudors after Henry VIII has died, and Bloody Mary and Queen Elizabeth, the Catholics and the Protestants squaring off against each other. And it has a big component that has to do with microbiology and it has to do with work that was being done in Malaysia in the late 1800s. Which is completely fictional — I mean, it could have been done. What I used to kill the people in the book is absolutely scientific and microbiology. I know because my husband, at that time, was working with microbiologists and I could go pick their brain. I could say, I want a method of murder that people have not used before that would be incredibly difficult to discover. What can we do?
So the book takes place in Oxford and in Scotland and I actually did falconry. I went and got taught by someone who had trained hawks, we spent hours on the moors hunting, I hunted with a Harris’s hawk. And then at the end, we brought out weasels and put them into the rabbit warrants and they would chase the rabbits out and the hawks would go get the rabbits. I mean it was like, “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” And it was, I look back on it and go well, that was odd. But I loved it. You just learn so many interesting things that you wouldn’t get a chance to learn any other way.
LB: I do think part of a writer’s life is doing a lot of things that you look back on it go, well, that was odd. Yes. (Laughter.)
LB: So what started you writing?
SW: I really think it was being read to a whole lot as a little kid. My mother was an excellent reader, she could read Winnie the Pooh and convey all of the subtleties of the psychology of the different characters. And she used it to teach me that human nature. And it was funny and you felt empathetic, it hit all of your emotions. And I remember looking forward to being read to so much. And I spent five winters with my mother’s parents in Orlando, Florida because my father was starting a Ma-and-Pa business, we had practically no money to put together and we were living near an oil refinery. And I think it was really allergic to the stuff that was coming out of it. And I get a bronchial infection up north and I couldn’t get over it. And they’d send me to Florida and I’d be fine.
My granddad sort of picked up where my mother left off, and even long after I could read, he just read to me every night. It was just like books were so entertaining and so interesting and they took you places and showed you things and taught you things that I was really glad I learned about. So I started writing little stories by hand when I was six or so. And I had to go to the office with my parents a lot, so my mom gave me a touch typing chart when I was six probably and a little portable and said, why don’t you go over there and teach yourself to type? So I probably wouldn’t bug her every minute. And I just typed out little, florid adventure stories. And if somebody had asked me I definitely would’ve said I want to be a writer.
LB: You have been compared to Ngaio Marsh, who is one of my very favorites. And I absolutely see that in particular in terms of how rich your characters are and how they interact in such human ways.
SW: Well, I work on that a lot, that’s for sure.
LB: What is it about, I guess, about people that makes you so insightful and makes you so interested in them?
SW: I think my mother was very insightful about human nature. And she talked to me about it. I had two older brothers, kind of much older. She always, if I had a fight with my brothers, or something happened with them or somebody in school or the outside world, she always talked about, well, that person might be afraid of this or that or the other. Maybe they’re acting that way because you got more attention when this happened or that happened. She always discussed things about conflict and interaction in terms of human nature in I think a very realistic but compassionate way.
And I remember spending all this time with my grandparents — my grandfather was from Scotland, he’d come over as a kid and he was a career Army guy and was retired when I knew him. My grandmother was from a Georgia farm family. She lost her mother very young at her father remarried to try to give a mother to the seven kids, someone who was truly vicious. And he died shortly thereafter. And actually had to walk off the farm a hundred miles to Atlanta to move in with the oldest brother. So when I was around my grandmother as a kid, we’ve come up to Atlanta on the way home and stay with these spinsters and widows who were her sisters. And I vividly remember — I mean there is nothing else for me to do, I’m five, I’m six, I’m seven, eight, but listen to them talk — and I’d say, well, tell me about when you were little. My grandmother never said a bad word about the stepmother or did anything complaining, I never got that from her at all. But I’d say, tell me what it was like living on the farm. Or, what was it like when you first went to your first army post? Or was this like, or what was that like? And I just did that with all these old people that I knew and I was fascinated by their stories.
LB: Well, it brings be very nicely, I think, to your most recent book. So you do have second series, the Jo Grant series, and the most recent novel in that is the second one, Behind the Bonehouse.
LB: There is a sense of warmth and complexity to all the characters in that, even evil is given context.
LB: It really, it feels, I don’t mean to suggest it’s not a very good mystery, but it also reads very much like literary fiction.
SW: Good. That’s what I was hoping for.
LB: Was it? Well you totally nailed it then. Who do you read? Who influences your writing?
SW: Well, in terms of mysteries it would be PD James, and what you just described is what I like about her writing. And I think she got, personally, I think she got much better throughout her writing career. I think her later books generally are more, have more developed characters and more complexity and stuff than her early work. But I think she was the first — I mean, I love Ngaio Marsh, I love Dorothy Sayers, Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey I think is a masterpiece within the context of what she was doing. But, I would have to say that Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, and the death of Ivan Ilyich is just an amazing book, short, short but amazing. Jane Austen, her grasp of human nature is truly staggering and coupled with that acerbic wit that she has. So you know the great writers gave me a lot to try to work towards for sure.
I just didn’t want to write little cardboard characters in a, in something that’s really just written for the plot. I really wanted to talk about human nature as we find it in families, in workplaces, in everyday life.
LB: Let me backtrack just a little. For people who haven’t read the Jo Grant novels, they’re also set in the 1960s.
LB: Tell me a little bit about how you decided to go for a new series.
SW: Well, I was studying the OSS and the French Resistance, thinking I might do another Ben Reese book. But I was feeling as though publishers wanted — I had had publishers who said, well, we don’t own your backlist so we don’t really want another Ben Reese book, but if you’d do a new series we would be interested. So I thought, okay, what would I do in a new series? And I love horses. And riding — I mean I never was a great rider by any stretch of the imagination and I always had inexpensive horses, but I had one horse that was truly amazing. And I had him for 17 years, and it was just a great pleasure for me. But I couldn’t ride anymore and I love Lexington and I thought, boy, the work that I did for Watches of the Night, the Ben book that takes partly in the Lexington area. I’d love to go back and place something there. And deal with horses. But then there’s this other part of me that’s spent my life in family business and what goes on there has never really, in my opinion, been written about very well. It’s something that John Updike said, years ago when he was being interviewed by Dick Cavett, that the Great American Novel should be about entrepreneurship in the United States and family business, because that’s really the cornerstone of our culture as it has existed over time. And he said the reason is, writers don’t know hardly anything about it. And I thought, back then in the ’70s when I heard him say it, well, I do! I have been raised with it, the best and the worst and what it does to family dynamics, what it does for providing jobs for people. It’s a very complex undertaking. And I thought, well, I could do family businesses in the horse industry.
So I came up with an equine pharmaceutical company, and a horse van manufacturing company, and a hands-on broodmare care business that Jo Grant is in partnership with her uncle in that. She’s an architect by training and inclination, but she also has a role in this broodmare care farm. And that partly came to me because my husband and I live in the country and next door to us was a very wonderful couple that had fostered a bunch of kids and took broodmares and their babies in and they would sometimes breed the mare but they’d keep them until the mare has a baby. They keep the weanling and then pass them back to the owners. And so we got to watch that every day right next to our property. And got to know them and had real respect for them. And then they sold that property. So it’s like I had watch that business and they were still friends, I could interview them and get insight into how they did things. And so to put together kind of a group of friends who rely on one another and to all have their own opportunities and trials in family business gave the community that interested me. So when one book you can kind of emphasize one group and another book, another group, and give flexibility with some continuity as well. So you could really get to know people over a period of time.
LB: Yes, it’s like interwoven novels.
LB: Behind the Bonehouse is a very personal story for Jo.
LB: Can you tell me a little bit about it?
SW: Sure. The framework is the same in Breeding Ground, the first one, and Behind the Bonehouse. It’s in the ’90s, she’s ill, we don’t know much about what that is. And she’s deciding that she wants to write down some stories, some things that have happened to her and the people that she knew 30-some years, you know, before that, in the ’60s. So she tells the story in Behind the Bonehouse of something that happened to her and her new husband, Alan, when she was like 31, 32, they’d just been married short time. He’s a chemical engineer working in the equine pharmaceutical business, and something occurs there that puts them in a position of real trauma in their lives and I get to look at the human nature surrounding being wrongly accused. And we all experience that at one point or another. I was just interested in looking at that in depth.
And I also based it, there’s a series of events that takes place having to do with intellectual property that actually happen to my parents in their business. Watching somebody steal your own product or formula or whatever it might be is, you know, that’s a traumatic situation.
LB: It’s such a betrayal.
SW: Oh, it is such a betrayal! Particularly when it’s employees and people that you trusted and admired and whatever. So I used the feelings that I’d had growing up watching that and putting Jo in the position of watching something like that.
LB: Younot only capture human beings well, you capture animals well.
SW: Oh, I love animals! And I’ve been very fortunate as I said to have a horse that was just a great — I mean, I had other horses I liked, for sure. But I was fortunate to have one horse that was just the perfect one for me. And he actually appears much more as himself in Watches of the Night, the Ben Reese book. Because my own horse had to have his eye removed and the way he handled that, having to learn to trust me when I rode him to keep him out of trouble when he could only see — because they don’t see the same way we do. They see, they don’t see in the center the way we do. They see off to the right and off to the left, but it doesn’t come together in a seamless view the way we do. So for a horse to only have one eye, he’s really half-blind. Learning how to deal with him in his stall, or walking up to him or riding him, he had to learn to really trust me. And we just had a whole lot of fun and great years together. So I kind of use that when I described Sam in the Jo Grant books. And I’ve had umpteen boxer dogs and boxer mutts that I find highly entertaining. So I always get a dog in there somewhere to amuse me if not everyone else.
LB: You’ve been writing for years and you have two wonderful series. I know some people who listen to this are just starting out writing. Do you have any thoughts to share with them?
SW: Well, I would say that it’s far more important to care about the writing and to care about the publishing. I think a lot of people when they start, and I’m sure I had my fantasies from one moment to the next when I was beginning, well, I’ll get this book published and it’ll sell lots of copies and I will have “made it” in some way… I mean, how dumb is that? What you have to care about is writing the blasted book as absolutely well as it’s possible for you to do it. And there are people who are able to just write a book. They really haven’t planned it, they haven’t done a lot of research, they do it by the seat of their pants. They sit down, they have an idea for the firstscene or whatever, and they just start writing. And they undoubtedly go back and revise, there’s hardly anybody that doesn’t revise. But I really care about the prose and for me, my first draft is just abysmal and I have to revise and revise and revise. And it’s just almost obsessive in terms of the way some people do it. And that’s much more important, so that when you finish you can actually say, I didn’t do this just to make money. And I didn’t do this to try to become famous. I did this to tell something that I’m really committed to, that I think I’m compelled to write this. And I’ve done it as well as I can. And that satisfying to me.
LB: That’s wonderful. Sally, thank you so much for joining me.
SW: Thank you, Laura. I really enjoyed it.