Food a key ingredient in author’s mystery books
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Novelist Katherine Hall Page knows the perfect recipe for mysteries. You take one dead body, add a liberal amount of suspense and spice the prose with generous discussions about food.
“The way I phrase it is: ‘Who done it is irrevocably tied to who ate it,’” Page said.
Sporting a degree in literature from Wellesley College and wielding a doctorate from the Harvard Education School, the Lincoln, Mass., author entertains millions of readers with her intriguing adult mystery series, which stars Faith Sibley Fairchild, a caterer and brilliant amateur sleuth.
More witty than funny, more Nora Ephron than Ellen DeGeneres, Page loves suspense and food. In fact, she has included recipes of the food she writes about in the narrative in the back of her books. Readers have liked them so much that Page has now collected her all-original recipes into a cookbook, “Have Faith in Your Kitchen.”
“In the adult mystery series that I write, the character Faith Fairchild is a caterer. She’s also married to a minister. She lives in a small town west of Boston, not based on any real town but a compilation of towns about the size of Carlisle and Lincoln with a lot of Lexington features, but she is a native New Yorker,” Page said.
Origin of recipes
Starting with her fourth book, she began listing recipes because readers would write to her seeking them. Her editor suggested she make an appendix in each book with the recipes.
“I said, OK, but I wanted them in the back of the book and did not want them interrupting the narrative. I didn’t want Faith to find a badly bludgeoned body and then a brownie recipe right afterwards,” she said.
She said some people are not interested in the food at all in the books.
”I have a friend who said when one of my books came out that he loved the book but, as usual, there was too much food in it.
Harper Collins publishes her books, first in hard cover and then a year later in paperback.
“Each book includes entrees and desserts, so they were pretty complete. That’s how ‘Have Faith in Your Kitchen’ came about.
Her entire backlist of mysteries is in print. “For an author there is no greater praise. It‘s kind of like the Oscar or the Nobel Prize.”
The Body in …
The titles of her mysteries all begin with the three words, “The Body In … .”
“At the time, in the late ‘80s, we were living in Lexington (Mass.) on Belfry Hill, right up from the green. The belfry is a very eerie-looking structure. There are no trees around it. I was going into the Lexington Library one autumn day and the sun was getting lower in the sky and was catching the bell and I had thought, ‘the belfry, that would be a good place to find a body.’ So that became ”The Body in the Belfry,” my working title.”
Later came “The Body in the Kelp,” “The Body in the bouillon,” The Body in the Vestibule,” etc.
“So if people forget my name, they can go to the library and say, “I want those body books.’ ”
Despite her success as an author, the 63-year-old considers herself an educator. She started her teaching career in early childhood but moved on to teaching English at the Commonwealth School in Boston.
“I loved it and did it for five years but I always was very passionate about public education. So then I went and taught high school in Cambridge and Burlington. During the last five years of my teaching at Burlington I was the director of a program that was a school within a school. It was for kids who had difficulties, who were chronically truant, who had substance abuse issues. They had classes in the morning and got work-study credit in the afternoon. That was just an extraordinary experienced for me with these kids,” she said.
“After 5 years, I lost kids to drug overdoses, suicides, car accidents, so I decided ‘OK this is the time for me to go again and get a doctorate’ because I wanted to go into state planning on a broader level.”
After she received her doctorate, she gave birth to a son.
Writing mystery novel No. 1
“My husband, who was at MIT, took a sabbatical and we lived in France for a year. I thought I was never going to have this gift of time again …so I had better write this novel that was in my head. I wrote a mystery. My friends who lived in Lyon loaned me an old Underwood [typewriter] like you see in “Front Page.” I sat there, and while my son was in daycare, I wrote ‘The Body in the Belfry.’”
Much to her surprise, she sent it to an agent who immediately loved it.
“If I had known now how difficult it was to get published I would never have tried. But I sent it to her and it was picked up right away. Part of it had to do with the times. At that point publishers were looking for books by women. They were also looking for strong female protagonists. They were looking for things that were a little less noir.
“This was the era when there was the guy in the trench coat mysteries. There really were not a whole lot of mysteries where a family was involved. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to put kids in a mystery. It makes things very difficult. She can’t run off and pursue a hunch; she has to think of childcare.”
As a mystery writer, she said she has to know the ending before she writes word one. She is very organized and works from a detailed synopsis, which can be as long as 20 pages.
“I keep account of timelines. I write down the first and last line of every chapter. I always try to end a chapter with a hook, so you don’t go to sleep at night.”
She conducts extensive research and writes every day. “It’s my job and it’s how I earn my living. I try to keep the weekends for my family but they are still workdays. My breaks are not glamorous – put in a wash, make a bed, take a walk. I really need to keep the flow and be writing.”
Unlike some genre writers who want to be considered novelists, she is quite happy with being called a mystery writer.
A book is a book
“All writers feel they want to write the Great American Novel. A lot of mystery writers get caught up in the whole business of saying they aren’t writing mysteries they are writing novels. I don’t have any problem with that. A book is a book; it’s all literature. What matters is that you are writing well and that it is good.”
Page writes a book a year and has signed a two-book contract that will take her through 2013.
But her newest book caters to the caterers and cooks among her readers, and she hopes they will love the gastronomy as much as the dramaturgy.
“For serious cooks and collectors, we are putting out a 100-copy limited edition, signed, slipcase-boxed edition with fine buckram leather for $125.”
The 141-page trade paperback costs $19.95 and will be available in early September.