Edith here, freshly back from Malice! I’m delighted to interview Marian Stanley on the blog today. She’s a fellow New Englander and her brand-new debut mystery is out from Barking Rain Press. The Immaculate is a mystery about the murder of Sister Mary Aurelius, an elderly Boston nun so tough that she was secretly nicknamed Spike by her students, and the determined search for answers by a former student whom the nun had mentored throughout her life.
I read the book and happily endorsed it: “You’ll be a faithful fan of Stanley’s work when you finish this tale of ambitions and betrayals, powerful figures with something to hide, and enduring childhood friendships – a story which grows more compelling page by page.” Marian is giving away a copy of the book to one commenter here today!
E: Marian, The Immaculate is your first mystery to be published and it’s a stunner. Do you have a number of books in the drawer or is this really your first book?
M: Very kind of you, Edith. No books in the drawer, though plenty of early drafts of The Immaculate all over the place!
E: When did you know you wanted to write crime fiction, and how did you get to today – release day?
M: When I was a kid, one of the things I did was to keep my father supplied with mysteries from the Winchester, Massachusetts Public Library. He’d sit in his recliner after work and go through those books like potato chips, so I would sweep seven or eight at a time off the library shelves and bring them home in bags. His tastes ran to hard-boiled mysteries – private eyes, smoking guns, luscious babes and broads, racetracks and fast cars. Not my thing, but the mystery and crime fiction part stuck.
I enjoyed two long careers, one in corporate and one at a university. When I was semi-retired from Northeastern University, I threw myself into various writing classes and workshops for two or three years. Every exercise that I submitted for class critique was related in some way to what would become The Immaculate. I’m getting on in years, and I figured that if I was going to get this thing done, I had better focus pretty tightly!
When I felt The Immaculate was ready and I looking for a good home for the story, I sent the manuscript to Barking Rain Press during its open submission period. Happily, publisher Sheri Gormley was enthusiastic, assigned me a fabulous editor in Melissa Eskue Ousley and we were off to the races!
I have to say that along the way the support and camaraderie of the New England Sisters in Crime organization and the Guppies group was immensely valuable, especially since I was pretty sure I had no idea what I was doing. Of course, some of the best things in my life happen when I’m pretty sure I have no idea what I’m doing.
E: You seem to know the dark side of the culture of nuns and the Catholic Church quite well. Is this your church, or the result of research, or both?
M: While I think there is a dark side to every hierarchy and organization – indeed to all of us, some situations are darker and deeper than others. Yes, I was raised as a Catholic and had a largely Catholic education. For my first two years at the small Catholic college I attended in upstate New York, I lived in Saint Elizabeth’s convent where, for their sins, a group of long-suffering Franciscan nuns had responsibility for fifty lively young women. In graduate school at Boston College, I worked in the office of the Dean of Graduate Arts and Sciences, who had just returned from leading the Jesuit university in Baghdad, and I was grad assistant to a Jesuit English prof and civil rights activist, a veteran of the Selma march. For a brief time later, I was the only lay teacher among a staff of teaching nuns at a Catholic school in Cambridge. So, yes, I feel comfortable talking about that world and I remember that time with great fondness.
Now that I’m a Unitarian – though I guess I’ll always be a Boston Irish Catholic at heart – someone asked me when I was going to start writing about the dark side of First Parish in my little town. I told him that I’m not sure that I have enough to work with – yet.
E: Your protagonist, Rosaria O’Reilly – love the name, by the way – is a single woman with some kind of high-power job. Tell us a bit more about her, and if there’s anything in your background that resembles her.
M: Oh, Rosaria is gutsier and smarter than I will ever be – and she probably has better hair. Her name – glad you like it – is similar to that of an old friend from Boston College I lost touch with over the years. Perhaps that other Rosie will read the book some day and be startled to find her name on the lead character in a mystery novel.
Like Rosaria, I worked internationally for a large company – in her case, high-end athletic shoes (see thread to Converse Rubber company below). In my case it was cameras and Polaroid. My territory for a long time was what was then called Emerging Markets – China, Vietnam, India, South Africa, Turkey and what we termed the “Stans” – the former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. So, what we see of Rosaria’s life in that respect is my own. As the story rolls out, we see Rosaria growing increasingly restless with her corporate life and feeling the pull of the old town she desperately longed to escape as a young woman.
Rosaria married a man of some repute, though her mentor Sister Aurelius didn’t think much of him. Rosaria’s husband was content with this bright spunky girl from a factory town until she started to show some independence and have some achievements of her own which might even eclipse his – then perhaps not so much. So, they ended up parting. A common story – though happily not mine. In The Immaculate Rosaria finds an unlikely, but better fit for herself.
Rosaria grew up in a factory town, and I did too to some extent. Every summer, like Rosaria, I worked on the floor of the Converse Rubber sneaker factory on the Malden River, packing Chuck Taylors and enormous All Star basketball shoes. I did not have a lifelong mentor like the indomitable Sister Mary Aurelius, but she is an amalgam of various well-loved nuns, teachers, and priests in my life – including one called Spike.
Rosaria and I both enjoy the company and affections of a small West Highland White Terrier named Archie, who appears in The Immaculate. Finally, Rosaria’s close friend and fellow sleuth Nuncie, who is dying of cancer in the book, is modeled after my own friend Anna who didn’t make it either.
E: I felt like Malford was really Malden, Massachusetts – or maybe Medford. Is it a fictionalized version of one of those (full disclosure: I used to live in Medford and my older son was born in Malden), and if so, why did you disguise the town?
M: How nice that you are so familiar with the area, Edith. Yes, Malford is much like Malden with some of neighboring Medford thrown in there. To be honest, I gave the town a thinly disguised name so that I could take liberties with the description of its character, the street names, landmarks and geography. In that sense, Malford is indeed a fiction. Also, in the back of my mind, maybe Malford could be translated into “bad or dangerous crossing” – giving a little more meaning and weight to the name. I was born in Malden Hospital and spent my early childhood in Medford.
E: Tell us something surprising about yourself nobody would have heard.
M: Goodness, I’m an open book. Let’s see. Between Polaroid and Northeastern University, as I was nearing sixty, I did the AIDS bike ride from Boston to New York City. I’m not sure that I was the last rider to pull in over the finish line, but I could have been. I do remember enthusiastic New York City police officers and shoppers on the sidewalk cheering me on at the end – “Come on, lady. You can do it!” Afterwards, I went to the apartment of an old friend (from Saint Elizabeth’s) in SoHo and collapsed in a heap. Who knew there were that many #%$&*! hills in Connecticut? Oops – sorry, forgot this was a cozy blog and we don’t use those words!
E: What’s next in your writing life? Will we see more of Rosaria, or is The Immaculate a standalone?
Buried Troubles is my current WIP, set in Boston and Ireland. Rosaria is once again the protagonist. This time, she is caught up in the legacy of old grievances and secrets in Ireland that cross the Atlantic with its immigrants – leading to the murder of a young Irish student in Boston. Some of the characters in The Immaculate make an appearance in the new story, and I think there will be at least one more Rosaria mystery after Buried, perhaps more. Rosaria has a flair for adventure– I’m just along for the ride!
E: Oh, goodie! I’m so glad Rosaria will be back.
M: Now, my turn to pose a couple of questions to dear readers. A free copy of The Immaculate goes to one randomly selected commentator! (E: So make sure we know how to reach you.)
The Immaculate went through some heavy-duty and beneficial critiquing in all those writing classes, workshops and manuscript critiques that I took while the book was being formed. I appreciated and used much of the advice I received. Some advice, for better or worse, I didn’t heed. I’d appreciate your thoughts on two of those points that I considered and left behind.
- I deliberately kept Rosaria’s age ambiguous, though she is clearly older. I got advice several times that the female protagonist in a mystery generally should be no older than her early forties. What are your thoughts on that advice?
- Similarly, Rosaria does have a high-powered job, as Edith points out – though that changes in the course of the story. I was advised that this career or job was not a good fit for a female protagonist in this genre. Do you have an opinion on that, and would the suitability of the career – like age – be different if the protagonist were male?
Many thanks for your thoughts and to Edith for the opportunity to guest blog. It was fun!
Marian Stanley writes in a small town outside of Boston where she lives with her husband Bill and a Westie named Archie. She was fortunate in two long previous careers – the first in an international Fortune 500 company and, more recently, at a large, urban university. Marian attended Saint Bonaventure University, the University of Exeter UK, Boston College and the MIT Sloan School Executive programs. A dual citizen of the United States and Ireland, she is the proud mother of four adult children and a small pack of adorable grandchildren.