Episode 44: Anne Louise Bannon

Honoria took the cloche off and shrugged off the coat with the white fox collar, laying them on one of the small tables flanking the door. She sniffed. Thanks to the croup, her sense of smell was still off. Yet something did not smell right. She turned toward her bedroom.

The young woman lay sprawled at the entrance to the back hall, her eyes open and staring.

— Anne Louise Bannon, The Last Witnesses

If you haven’t yet read Anne Louise Bannon‘s Freddie and Kathy Mysteries, what a treat you have in store for you! Set in the Roaring Twenties, filled with bootleg hooch and murders aplenty. Here are the books in order:

1 – Fascinating Rhythm

2 – Bring Into Bondage

3 – The Last Witnesses

In addition, Anne has written a very useful book for writers — Howdunnit: Book of Poisons — and has a blogged novel, White House Rhapsody, which she continues to update.

You really must go check out Anne’s website — she has so many projects going on and so many interesting publications to her name, it’s best I send you to the source. Do not forget her wine blog! She also gave a shout out to several authors, including Avery Ames, Mary Higgins ClarkPhyllis A. Whitney and the incomparable Dorothy L. Sayers.


— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Anne Louise Bannon

Laura Brennan: Anne Louise Bannon has made not one, but two careers out of her passion for storytelling. Both a novelist and a journalist, she has an insatiable curiosity. In addition to her mystery novels, she has written a nonfiction book about poisons, freelanced for such diverse publications as the Los Angeles Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Backstage West, and edits a wine blog. On the fiction side, she writes a romantic serial, a spy series, and her wonderful Kathy and Freddie historical mystery series, set in the 1920s.

Anne, thank you for joining me.

Anne Louise Bannon: thank you for having me.

LB: On your website, I noticed that you introduce yourself through an avatar: Robin Goodfellow, who is better known as the impish Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

ALB: Yes,that is only my favorite character from my favorite play in the whole wide world. I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LB: How do you see yourself as Puck?

ALB: It’s not so much physically, I’m not the fastest moving human being on the planet. It’s mostly mentally. My brain is constantly going and there’s throwaway line from the end of Act II: “I’ll put a girdle around the earth in 40 minutes.” Maybe my body doesn’t move that fast, but my brain certainly does. It was something about Puck that I really loved. I also love the fact that he’s a bit of a stinker. A pre-Bugs Bunny Bugs Bunny, if you will.

LB: You are in every medium I can think of. So, let’s actually start though: how did you get started writing? What came first?

ALB: Oh, being a day-dreamy, moody teenager at age 15. I mean, I was spending an awful lot of time daydreaming. I finally figured out if I was going to spend all this time daydreaming, I should find a way to justify it. So I started writing. And that summer I turned 15, I cranked out my first novel.

LB: Why mysteries?

ALB: I’ve always liked mystery, as a genre. As I got older, I just started reading more and more mysteries. I stumbled onto Dorothy Sayers, and Nero Wolfe was popular on TV with, I think, William Cannon at the time. One of my favorite books as a kid was called The Mystery of the Green Cat by Phyllis Whitney and I really enjoyed Nancy Drew, and fell away from it for a while as a teenager but got back into it as a young adult, even before I finished college. I would pick up mysteries as my relaxation from grad school work and stuff like that.

LB: How do you think your training as a journalist impacted your fiction?

ALB: Well, given that my journalism happened way later, as an adult… Here’s the story: I had a really bad first marriage. As part of that, I ended up writing a lot of stuff, in fact that was the spy series that I mostly wrote during that period. And I wrote most of Fascinating Rhythm and — the first draft of Fascinating Rhythm and Bring Into Bondage, and started Last Witnesses while I was still married to my ex. So I was doing most of that before I became a journalist.

After that, I think my research skills definitely helped. Just the ability to tell a story and get a sense of an opening has helped. But again, that all happened very much later, oddly enough. I think if anything, my fiction writing influence my journalism — in a good way, not the fake news way. But it did get me to where I could write a sentence clearly, I got a sense of narrative in my journalistic writing that a lot of people have trouble developing. So, because I had written all these novels, I was able to write a better story journalistically and I think, as all things do, that later had an impact on how I — how I hear people, if that makes sense. Because I’ve always been fairly strong on dialogue, I tend to be more audially oriented. But I think because I was listening to a lot of different people as a journalist, because I was interviewing so many people, I got a better sense of how different people speak.

LB: That is fascinating. I can absolutely see how being a novelist would make you a better journalist, make you better able to tell a story. But I would have pegged it the other way because it seems as if your research skills are so strong in these novels.

ALB: Last Witnesses reflects another sea change in my life: the fact that I married a historian. Actually, I had Bring Into Bondage, because when I did the second draft of it before I actually put it out, I was doing a lot more research, too, and that’s when I had Michael in my life. And God bless him, he has helped so much. He’s just a walking encyclopedia. In the acknowledgments to The Last Witnesses, I literally point out, he’s always there when I have a question — and, I’m sorry, even when he’s watching TV. “Honey? When was…? What about…?” The joke is I have to tell Michael to give me the 30-second answer versus the 20-minute answer, because he’ll give me the whole background on everything. And it was a lot of fun, especially with Last Witnesses when Freddie is in Hollywood and hooking up with people there. It was really hysterical because Michael was able to give me a lot of that background.

On the other hand, Fascinating Rhythm I researched pretty much on my own and mostly through books and before Google, which was really interesting. The same with Bring Into Bondage, because they’re both pretty much right on top of each other. I literally had a reference librarian tracking down for two days, looking for whether or not men were wearing wedding rings or not at the time. By the way, it wasn’t unusual. So was a very different research process, but I had also just come off doing a Master’s degree, so I think I was a little bit on top of the research. And I love finding things out.

LB: The wedding ring thing is just one of those perfect, telling details that you never think about when you sit down to write a novel, you don’t think that that’s the kind of thing you’re going to end up researching. Let’s backtrack just a little bit. The Kathy and Freddie series is set in the 1920s.

ALB: Yes.

LB: Did you want to go into that time period, was that the draw? Or did you have the characters — who came to first?

ALB: You know, it kind of all came at once. It was really kind of weird. As I mentioned on my website, I was about to slide the cheesecake into the oven while Ella Fitzgerald was singing the tune Fascinating Rhythm, dance along, cheesecake ends up on the floor, and I’m realizing, wait. This is a song about obsession. I have this very vivid image of a theater marquee with a 1920s car underneath it, I was just trying to play with it and things were, they kind of all came together.

I started researching it and realized that Fascinating Rhythm was written in 1924 that came out of that whole Broadway play, the first one that George and Ira Gershwin did together, starring Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire. I just started researching it and then I thought, this is the perfect time. And then I found out when it was. I looked up on microfilm the New York Times and saw the original review for the show and it just kind of grew from there.

I’m not sure how Freddie — well, Freddie, I have to admit, is a bit of the Lord Peter Wimsey clone. I was very heavy into Dorothy Sayers at the time and it just happened. I hope it’s homage, not copycat.

LB: Oh, no! I would say that Freddie is a very different character.

ALB: He has different issues than Lord Peter did. He certainly didn’t see action in World War I, like Lord Peter did, and so doesn’t have the same issues there. But he’s also — and it’s really kind of fun because, if I may, I’m actually working on the fourth one in the series right now. And I’m really getting to the bottom of Freddie in a way I haven’t had a chance. I got to a little bit with Kathy in Bring Into Bondage because, again, that’s her family. That’s her back story. Now were doing a lot with Freddie’s family. Honoria, his sister, is always in, she’s been in all of them. And in fact Last Witnesses, even starts with Honoria. But Freddie, I didn’t really get a chance at his back story, and then when his mother started doing weird things in The Last Witnesses… Not physically. I mean, I had an idea of who Gloria Derby Little was and then all of a sudden she starts doing something else and I’m going, wait, that’s better! Okay, we’re going with that.

So we had that. And then I had to go back and figure out who she was, and everything she was seemed to have had an impact on Freddie. And what’s happening with this fourth one, Blood Red, I kill off Freddie’s father.

LB: Wow!

ALB: Yeah, that’s the murder. And Freddie’s reaction is really weird. But you’re talking about a man who has had next to no relationship with his dad, his sister had even less of a relationship with him. There’s this whole thing that I’m discovering that Freddie has a lot of things going on. There are things about Freddie’s character that somebody picked up in, one of my beta readers on Last Witnesses, she picked up that Freddie’s drinking awful lot. Well, yes. Part of that was the time, but part of it also is going to be a problem down the road.

LB: I wanted to talk a little bit about family, because family is a theme in all the books.

ALB: Yes. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but you’re absolutely right, now that I think about it.

LB: So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about family. Is that one of the themes you had wanted to explore or did it just happen because of who the characters were?

ALB: I don’t know. Family tends to crop up in a lot of my writing. I’m trying to think… There’s always a family there. I think some of this because we all have families. But this idea of the lone detective with nobody — that never really interested me. There’s so much fun with families. Some of my favorite books, the Avery Ames Cheese Shop Mysteries, it’s as much about her and her family as it is about the mystery. Even Lord Peter, again, Dorothy Sayers, going back to that — family is there. I guess, me, it wasn’t so much a conscious thing as part of an ongoing reality for me that there’s always family present. What’s the point of having a story if there are characters who don’t have family? I don’t know. They’re just not as interesting to me, I guess.

LB: One of the things I really like is how, without being anachronistic, you still managed to make Kathy a woman that we, today, can really relate to.

ALB: Oh, yeah. I’m glad. I think so, I like that. It’s going to get more interesting as the series goes on because, you know, she is still trying to fight the parenting thing. Thank you, I appreciate that. That’s what I wanted and, truth be told, it was part of the time. I have one very big advantage there, the women had just gotten the vote — kind of scary, we haven’t had the vote, we’ve had the vote for less than a hundred years. But Kathy would be a modern woman at the time. And that sort of thing was going on, we just don’t realize that. And things were still very different and very difficult for women at the time, but there were more women up and about fighting it. I remember reading about the Algonquin roundtable, there was a couple there, the wife was part of a group that believed women should keep their own names. They were already discussing that back in the Twenties. It’s a fun time, it really is.

LB: So as this interview goes live, The Last Witnesses will have just come out.

ALB: Yes. It will have just come out.

LB: So what can you tell me about The Last Witnesses? What can you reveal at this point?

ALB: Oh, reveal! Well, that’s going to be a little bit trickier. It’s going to take a little bit of a different direction in that we’re going to get to know Honoria better. Which is going to be a lot of fun. Because Honoria always comes off as this kind of ditzy little girl, but she isn’t. She’s very bright. There are some really interesting surprises there.

It’s a lot about the politics of the day. Which, you know, it’s funny how eerily they are like our own. And as I say, there is a conspiracy. It’s based on a conspiracy that was running around at the time. And God rest Mary Higgins Clark, I heard her speak a couple of times, and she said it’s the author’s job to ask, “What if?” So I did. If you’re an historian, please remember that I know darn well it probably wasn’t. Because I know is going to be at least one person who is going, “Oh, please tell me she didn’t go there!”

LB: This is very exciting. This is really interesting. Because I do love it when we don’t necessarily know exactly what happened with things —

ALB: Yes.

LB: And so providing a possible answer… That’s your job.

ALB: That’s the job. And, again, I have to admit, I’m playing with facts — I’m playing with what probably happened, let me put it that way. It’s very unlikely that things turned out the way they did. I can’t really say what it was without —

LB: No, no spoilers. No spoilers.

ALB: No spoilers! And yet, it’s one of the most fun parts of this book, is what’s driving everything that’s happening in it. But it was fun. I got some new characters in here that I’m going to have, one of which I just realized today I’m going to have to develop further for book five.

LB: So this is great. There are a lot more books coming. Had you always planned for it to be a series?

ALB: Oh, yes. I mean, well — yes! Because mysteries are series in most cases. I don’t know that I had consciously said, oh, I’m going to write a mystery series. It’s just that when Freddie and Kathy started coming to life, I realized there are more stories to tell here. And, gee, this is such an interesting time. I’ve got about three or four — I know the series is going to go through the early part of the Depression at least. It may go later, I don’t know yet. But I’ve got ideas that I’m floating around and playing with.

One of the things I sometimes like to do with characters, I project where they are going to be in 10, 15, 20 years. And boy does that open up some ideas about who these people really are. So I have a pretty good idea of when we’re going to lose Kathy’s parents. I have a pretty good idea of when Gloria is going to pass. Not so much Kathy’s uncles, which are a lot of fun. Again, the whole family thing. But I do know when Kathy and Freddie die. Obviously, Freddie’s been around far too long to have survived into this millennium, unfortunately. I do know when — who their kids are. Oops. Kathy loses that battle. [Laughter.] And I do know when the kids are born, and I know sort of where they’re at. It’s just something that happens.

In fact, there’s another series I’ve got — I’m a little on the prolific side — so there’s another first draft that I just finished that’s a new series. This one will come out next spring, it’s set in Los Angeles in 1870. But thank God I did project out that far with my main character because it help me resolve when she was telling the story and how she was telling the story. And it had very big impact on how she commented on the action in the story. So the fact that I do this anyway has also created new storylines. And some other things that — you know, one of the uglier aspects of our culture, unfortunately is racism and the history of racism in the United States. What do you do when you find that one of your characters is essentially a racist? So that I’m going to be dealing with in probably book 5. And again, one of the characters that popped up in Last Witnesses is going to be developed more, and I just thought of that this morning so I’m all excited. But how? I don’t know yet. That one’s going to be an interesting one to develop. That’s a couple of years down the road.

LB: Wow, you’ve got so much going on. There’s two more things I want to ask you about, and one is, how did you come to write a book about poisons?

ALB: I was folding newsletters for the Mystery Writers of America SoCal chapter many long years ago with Joyce Madison and Serita Stevens. And I said, gee, you know what would be really useful would be a book about poisons that you look up a symptom — say you need a character to turn blue and fall over at a certain point in your text — if there was just some way to look up “turn blue and fall over” and see, oh, cyanide does that. That would be insanely useful. And my friend Joyce said, “Yes. That would be. Talk to Serita, she’s a nurse.” And Serita said, “We could do this together.” And so we did. And that’s how it came about.

LB: That that is so fun. Fun for mystery writers, let me clarify! That is so fun for people who kill people off for a living.

ALB: Yes! I wish to caution that Howdunnit is definitely for theoretical use only.

LB: Good. Excellent. And then, because you just don’t do enough, and enough different stuff, you also have a serialized, ongoing story online.

ALB: Yes.

LB: And it is of all things, it is a romance. It’s called White House Rhapsody. How did that come about?

ALB: Well, in that period when I was writing to get away from my ex — by the way, the irony of this? That was my ex’s — he did read everything I wrote — and that was my ex’s favorite story. The damn novel wouldn’t end. That’s basically it. And so, we’re coming along, blogging’s getting big and I thought well, shoot, why not? If the story is not going to end, I can keep this thing going and just post little bits of it every so often. If anybody does pick up the book one, you can start reading it that way. It doesn’t end. I’m warning everybody up front. And I warn everybody up front because a friend of mine was talking the other day about how somebody else had sucked her into a novel and then it didn’t end. She was like, “No!”

It just happened. One of the other things I play with is the concept of fairy tale. I love the concept of fairy tale and growing up it was always the white guy who was the president. The story has evolved and the characters have certainly evolved since then to reflect a more modern time, but the idea of — and it may even go back to the whole concept of socialization, and strong women needing even stronger men to bounce off of. I don’t know.

LB: I think it’s a fascinating new kind of storytelling. Really fun.

ALB: Yes, and oddly enough the book actually is one of my better selling books. I do no publicity on it, just online. I’ve done no publicity and I sell more of that than pretty much anything else. It’s really kind of odd. Nobody of course has left reviews yet, sadly, but we’ll hope for that. It’s this odd little thing. I even have a friend who’s always going, “When are you going to post the next post? When are you going to put up the next post?” I am literally rewriting it — I’m way ahead of where the posts are because I have to, but, yes, I’m literally just posting it bit by bit. We’ll see what happens. In fact, actually, one of the things I need to do in the next few weeks is come up with some more side character stories, you know, for the supporting cast. Because it’s a heck of a cast.

LB: It’s a completely different way of thinking about storytelling.

ALB: It really is. It is. And I’m noticing, I’m writing in shorter and shorter episodes as a result, because you’re only putting up like 800 words or 1000 words. Which is different from 70,000 for a novel.

LB: So where can people — people want to find your books, where can they find you online?

ALB: Easiest: AnneLouiseBannon.com. That’s it.

LB: Fantastic. And of course I’ll link to that in the show notes.

ALB: Great.

LB: Anne, thank you so much for joining me today.

ALB: Well, hey, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.