JAM ‘n’ MYSTERIES: A NOVEL APPROACH

interview by NANCY GORDON

 

Mary Lawrence, best-selling historical mystery author and farmer, talked with me about her dual careers and how they ended up on the face of her poster king Henry VIII

Mary, in 2007, you and your husband, Dave Sliman, bought your Limington, Maine, farmland. Was this a move within Maine, or a move to Maine?

In 2007, I was living in Cape Elizabeth and commuting to a job in Massachusetts. Dave and I had been seeing each other for about four years. He lived in New Hampshire and worked in Boston. Both of us were weary from driving back and forth and spending so much of our lives sitting behind a wheel.

We started looking for property far enough from Portland where we could afford it, yet keep Portland as our hub. I’d always loved the Saco River corridor, and one day after looking at a different piece of land in Limington, we stumbled across a “for sale” sign. We couldn’t see anything because of all the trees and there wasn’t a road in. I got back to take a look as soon as I could. When I bushwhacked past the screen of trees, I got an immediate “this is it” feeling. Dave agreed. It took another two years to finally move into a saltbox home we built using a house plan by McKie Roth—originally a boatbuilder with a passion for old houses. We wanted to build a “new” old house. The greatest compliment we get is when “townies” say they didn’t know this old house was here.

Had you done any farming in the past?

No, I’d never farmed before. My mother grew up on a farm in Southern Indiana and always longed to go back to that lifestyle. I spent a lot of weekends riding around with her, looking at farms and land. But my father’s work required him to be in town. My mother never got back to the land.

When I was around 30, I read an article in the Boston Globe about Elliot Coleman—a well-respected organic farmer and advocate now living in Maine. He was teaching a week-long course at the Mountain School in Vermont. I signed up, and after that I was a convert. However, I was a single parent at the time and I didn’t have the confidence or finances to venture into a new life.

Tell about your first year on the farm and what you’ve done, or not done, to ensure sustainability.

Our first year, we cleared the land of shrubby undergrowth and hauled in 130 yards of horse manure. The land had been graveled off and left fallow, so we have had a lot of challenges building up the soil. Every tree we planted required a backhoe because we would inevitably hit a boulder. They also buried stumps on the land so we’ve had a couple of sinkhole issues to deal with. One time the back end of our tractor sank three feet between a row of blueberry bushes. That took some ingenuity to get it out without destroying the bushes.

To ensure sustainability, we follow IPM (Integrated Pest Management) practices to keep pests under control. We subscribe to a University of Maine newsletter that publishes information gathered at various stations throughout the state warning when conditions are favorable for certain pest and disease threats. I spray even less than most folks because I am hyper-aware of pollinators and would rather take the time to cull ugly fruit by hand than threaten bees in any way. We also leave empty fields to grow up for lightning bugs and to encourage wildflowers. I don’t apply herbicides, which means everything is hand weeded.

Did you have experience with fruit trees?

I didn’t have any experience with fruit trees. I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. I ask other farmers, take courses through the Agricultural Trade Show and Cooperative Extension services. I had to take a test to get a pesticide license (even organic farmers are required to in Maine). My fruit is not lovely to look at because I spray minimally. I do a lot of preventative work instead of spraying, like keeping fruit picked and keeping the ground free of rotting fruit.

What varieties of fruit does Rare Berry Farm produce? Any rare berries?

We grow a variety of plums: Golden and Greengage, Damson, Italian and native beach plums. Also, blueberries and a variety of bush cherries developed by the University of Saskatchewan to withstand the harsh winters here. We grow raspberries, summer bearing and fall bearing, including a yellow raspberry—Ann—that we make into “Gold Lust” jam. Our goal is to bring back unusual fruit that is not necessarily on people’s radar. We tried growing lingonberries and had high hopes for them, but they took a great deal of hand weeding and were not productive. I suppose our elderberries are a rare type of berry. And we are experimenting with Aronia (chokeberry) to see how it performs and if it makes into a good jam.

Why jam?

Because we wanted to farm sustainably and because there is a definite learning curve in all of this, we didn’t expect to produce perfect-looking fruit that consumers expect. We also knew that our yield would not be enough to make it profitable to sell. Plus, our land is too steep for a pick-your-own operation. Jam was a value-added product that would earn us a higher return.

I’m a fan, especially of your Ginger Blue jam. When we talked, you mentioned that you make your own pectin. What do you think this adds to the final product in taste and nutritional value?

I definitely think our pectin complements the fruit and allows the flavor of the fruit to “shine.” The texture of our jam is looser and smoother than a jam using commercial pectin. Because our pectin is thinner than commercial, I believe it allows us to pack more fruit into a jar. You’re not getting any additives or gloppy filler with our jam.

Was getting sales started a difficult road?

Start-up food ventures are pretty popular in Maine and we struggled with getting any kind of notice. Smiling Hill Farm (Westbrook) and Farm + Table (Kennebunkport) were big supporters of our product and our sales began to increase through word of mouth. The Kennebunk Farmers’ Market has been our best decision for increasing sales. Now we are struggling to keep up with the demand.

The fruit flavor of your jams is wonderfully rich. What do you think contributes to this?

I think the care we take in growing our own fruit is reflected in the quality of the jam. We pick each fruit by hand and toss out the bad. I immediately freeze the fruit and make it into jam over the winter. None of it is more than a few months old by the time it gets made into product.

Considering all aspects, what’s the workload like?

With the trees reaching maturity, I’m busy with the farm from May through October working 12-hour days, seven days a week. By the time the first frost hits, I’m more than ready for winter.


ON WRITING

 

What inspired you to write books?

I was bored with my job and I read books to escape. I began writing because I wasn’t finding enough of what I wanted to read. Writing began as a conceit, really. I thought I could write as well as a lot of novels I was reading. But learning the craft of writing took me over 25 years to learn. I’m still learning.

Tudor England, Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker, language … Tell us about the great effect they had on you and how they combine in your novels.

I was a science major in college and I never had time to take the history and literature courses that appealed to me. I started reading Shakespeare as a way to broaden myself and I fell in love with the language. I started learning more about the period as a way to understand, and the more I delved into the Tudor dynasty the more intrigued I became. By chance, I happened on a dictionary written by Thomas Dekker, a playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare, and I thought what a shame it was that these phrases and words have been lost to time. I used to read his dictionary at night before bed. The dictionary inspired me to imagine a story set in Tudor times—not one set in the king’s court but with commoners, the real people who had to survive without the help of status or money.

Originally, you wrote historical fiction. Why the change to mysteries?

I came close to signing contracts with two of my historical fiction manuscripts but ultimately, each deal fell through. I was so discouraged by then, I’d been writing for so many years, that I seriously considered quitting. But writing had become too much of a part of my life to just give up. So, I considered changing my genre. I’d never written a mystery before and I saw it as a new challenge. I made a fresh start and dove right in. It took me a year to write The Alchemist’s Daughter and nearly another year to secure a new agent. It sold to the second publisher who looked at it. Historical mysteries seem to suit me.

You are “unconventional” in your approach to the storyteller. Tell us more about this.

I use a third person omniscient narrator and I switch points of view with new chapters. Usually in mysteries, the protagonist or a sidekick narrates the story. I like telling the story through the protagonist’s and suspects’ eyes. It keeps it interesting for me, and I hope, the reader.

How did your editor help move you along?

I used to write books with only an inkling of what I wanted to accomplish. I was a “pantster” instead of a “plotter.” After Kensington bought my first book, my editor required me to submit a plot outline for every book that came after. He wanted an “A to Z” of the story, the inciting event, the twists and turns, and the ending. It helped me stay on schedule so that I could get the novels done on time. I was free to digress from the outline and I often changed entire aspects of the story. But my editor accepted my changes as long as it made sense and the manuscript was submitted by deadline.

There are five books in the Tudor mystery series: The Alchemist’s Daughter, Death of an Alchemist, Death at St. Vedast, The Alchemist of Lost Souls and The Lost Boys of London. Do you have a favorite?

If I had to pick, I would say The Alchemist of Lost Souls is my favorite. It took me a long time to figure out the grand finale of a certain character and when I finally did, I was so pleased with myself. His character arc made perfect sense, but it sure took a lot of brainstorming to get there.

Does each novel stand alone, or is it best to read them in order?

The novels work as stand-alones, however, if you want to follow the nuances of character development, begin with The Alchemist’s Daughter. I don’t want anyone to feel lost if they pick up a book out of order, so I give enough background information to ground the reader. I’ve had readers write in reviews that they didn’t realize the book was part of a series.

Who is Bianca ... Is she a modern woman or more of the Tudor period?

If I adhered to the popular belief that women were subservient and melded into the background in Tudor England, it would put modern readers to sleep. Let’s face it, most accounts of history were written by men. Who’s to say there weren’t strong, independent women living back then? I read a book titled Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills by Susan James and came away realizing that women wielded a great deal more influence on their husbands and society than they are given credit for.

I’ve created Bianca to be a sensible and intelligent young woman. She comes off a bit cold at first, but this is a result of her upbringing. Her father was an alchemist with a single-minded purpose. He readily used the family’s resources to pursue his dark art and expected his wife to make do. Bianca is a bit of a street urchin, having had to fend for herself. It’s her independence and street smarts that serve her well in her sleuthing endeavors.

Help us get to know Bianca ... Can you choose a couple of passages that are quintessentially her?

With pleasure! Both of these passages are from The Alchemist's Daughter:

No sign marked her door. Only the odor of a simmering concoction hinted at what lay on the other side. Passing pedestrians would scrunch up their noses and hurry on, being sure to detour her rent on their return. Sometimes even she couldn't bear the smells and she'd run out into the lane, gasping for air, preferring the stink of Southwark to those of her own making.
 


And ...

 
"Banes," said Bianca, looking up in surprise.

But it was Banes who was the more astonished. Strewn on the board were a half dozen rats splayed open with their greasy little guts glistening in the candlelight. Bianca stood over them wielding a scalpel, her hands and forearms spattered in blood. She looked as unholy and godless as any sight he could imagine. Her hair hung about her face, unkempt, and dark circles shadowed her eyes--eyes that shone with unnatural effulgence.


Do the novels have a point of view?

I get bored following Bianca around and telling the story solely from her point of view. To keep myself engaged (and hopefully the reader), I follow different characters and tell bits of the story from their point of view. It makes it harder for me to keep track of who knows or saw what, but I think it keeps the story’s momentum moving forward. I have a lot of fun with some of the characters.

Each of your books has a glossary along with historical notes in the back. Do your readers find this helpful?

I use a lot of words and phrases from the 16th century. We’ve lost so much of this rich vocabulary that some of the joy I find in writing these books is incorporating the colorful language into the descriptions and dialogue. I use the words in context, hoping the readers will be able to suss out the meaning, but the glossary is there just in case.

Do the farm work and jam making dictate the time you can devote to writing your books?

Definitely. Farming and jam get my full attention from May until October. I try to reserve my winter months for writing. I might make a couple of batches a week to try to steadily work through the fruit in our freezer and build up stock for the summer farmers’ markets. But my mind turns inward with winter and I need that to recharge.

You sell the Rare Berry Farm jams at the Kennebunk Farmers’ Market along with your Tudor mystery novels. This poster of Henry VIII’s jam-smeared face is hilariously appropriate! Tell us about Celia, the poster's creator, and how it came to be.

Celia Jones is the daughter of an author friend of mine who graduated in art from the University of Illinois. She has a wonderfully creative mind and sense of humor. I’ve known her since she was 12 and have watched her design sense develop over the years. Now she is a children’s book author! When a library asked me to talk about the launch of my fourth mystery and our farm and jam business, I struggled with how I could connect jamming with my mysteries. I wanted some sort of graphic linking Henry VIII with my jam. I asked Celia if she could help.

Celia Jones, author-illustrator of Why Do You Cry, Sad Ghost on Henry VIII …

I’m a sucker for a good story, including Mary Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard Mysteries. Most of my hobbies are centered around story lore. From reading books, to writing my recently released Halloween picture book, to engaging in role-playing games, to telling visual stories with photographs, the projects I create all deal with storytelling. When Mary asked me to express the deliciousness of her jam by rendering it in the paunchy grasp of Henry VIII, how could I say no?

Mary, are you working on a new book?

I’m working on a novel about a character who was fished out of a midden heap at a monastery and raised by monks. He becomes a fool in the king’s court, but has a bit of a run-in with Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, advisor to Henry VIII and the uncle of two of Henry’s wives (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard). The result is his mutilation at the hands of Thomas Howard. My character isn’t one to accept his misfortune and the story becomes his quest for revenge.

. . .

rareberryfarm.com
marylawrencebooks.com

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