Guest: Marian Stanley

Edith here, freshly back from Malice! I’m delighted to interview Marian Stanley on the Immaculate. meblog 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!

Immaculate bookmarksE: 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 immaculate pix.3well. 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.

Immaculate 2Rosaria 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.

Converse Rubber factory on the malden River
Converse Rubber factory on the Malden River

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 Immaculate.ArchieTerrier 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.


55 Thoughts

  1. Congratulations, Marian, and I wish you much good luck with The Immaculate! I knew a Sister Spike type when I went to Catholic school, but the other nuns were far less intimidating. Still, tough women get things done.

    re: your questions. I would love to see a cozy protagonist in the 50s age range, alternately dealing with and enjoying the empty nest, maybe a divorce and return to dating, embracing a career rather than rejecting it. Would a man even think of his successful career as a negative? I guess you have my answer on that one!

    1. Thanks, Ramona – I think we are of the same mind. For awhile, I thought I was out of synch with the mystery universe!

  2. Congratulations! I am looking forward to reading your book and am so sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to meet you at Malice. I am also a Catholic, recovering mostly, and am always interested in reading about it in mysteries. Nuns, there like magical creatures!! As for her age, I enjoy reading about strong women. It makes no difference whether she is twenty or seventy. It’s time to break free of age restraints.

    1. Well, I’ll enjoy meeting you at another Malice, Kimberly! I missed this one for a happy reason – too close to the delivery date for our newest grandson. I’m on call to (wo)man the fort while my daughter’s in the hospital.
      Thanks for your comments on strong women and age restraints. Yes, indeed.

  3. Age doesn’t bother me: I know some pretty spunky women in their 90s (but they are slowing down). Depending on background your detective could still be going strong into her 80s. As to career, you may (or may not) want to establish whether she was the first whatever or a follow along. I think I would look at anyone questioning her background and ask why they were making that remark. As you know, life DOES get slightly easier when one no longer has to deal with periods and children are fairly well launched. That many men ignore such is their loss.

    1. Thoughtful comments, Barbara. Life also gets more and more interesting as we get older, and – if we’re lucky – so do we!

    1. Me too – but I think my tastes are starting to run to middle-aged and old ladies!

  4. I am glad you ignored that awful advice. It sounds like the advisors did not read cozies at all. Mrs. Marple was in the war and well past her forties. Massie Dobbs was in the war as well though she was younger than Marple but still of indeterminate age. Agatha Raisin is in her 50’s and retired from the advertising business that she sold.

    I think that maybe the advisors had a certain idea of what nuns do, no one thinks of them as people that had lives before they became nuns with lives.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Robin. Good comment re: nuns as real people with lives. Also, I guess that, in learning a skill set, one needs to know how to filter well-meant advice and counsel.

  5. I happily read books with older women protagonists. I am in that age group, but even when I was younger, I read Miss Marple stories and watched Murder She Wrote, etc. So no problems there.

    High-powered jobs? Fine with me, as long as the job doesn’t take center stage. I’m not particularly interested in stories about jet setter and/or celebrity protagonists, the kind that name drop exclusive brands, etc., but anything else is good.

    1. Yep – agree with you on female protagonists of a certain age, Avis. Also, Rosaria’s job in this book is really background and perhaps serves the purpose of showing how far she traveled from her old neighborhood, only to be (willingly) pulled back.

  6. I’m with the others – if it’s a good story, I don’t care how old she is! Same with choice of job. Thanks for joining us today, Marian!

  7. Sounds like a wonderful new series and I am so glad to see older people as main characters! Wishing you a long and successful series!

  8. Congrats, Marian! Looking forward to reading! As a recovering Catholic myself, I love digging into the dark side of that institution! I agree with the comments so far – any strong female character holds my interest. Good luck with the book!

    1. So many recovering Catholics, Liz. Some part of me, however, thinks we were imprinted for life. You know the old Jesuit saying about having a child until (s)he’s six and then (s)he’s basically a Catholic for life? I’m sure I have that wrong but you get the idea!
      Thanks for the kind thoughts re: the book.

  9. Great interview! I look forward to reading The Immaculate! And I’m so happy to see Archie on the blog — give him an extra treat from me.

    1. I will as soon as he wakes from his snooze beside me in the big green chair, Sherry! Archie is also a supporting character in The Immaculate, of course.

  10. Congratulations Marian! I look forward to getting a copy of this book at your book launch next Thursday, May 12 at 7pm at the (wonderful) Concord Bookshop, 65 Main Street in Concord, MA. So very, very thrilled for you.

      1. Oh, I’m so pleased, Wickeds! Aren’t you the best? I think I’m getting stage fright.

    1. Terrific, Julie – so good to look out at the reading and see supportive faces!

  11. Marian, sounds like a wonderful story! Not only did I go to Catholic grammar school but my father was a professor at what we irreverently called “the Nun Factory.” So I’m quite familiar with some very strong, dynamic nuns. Of course, as with any community, there were some that were not so nice – whether frustrated, ambitious, power hungry or just dissatisfied with their choices.

    I find it very discouraging that people would say your protagonist needs to be younger. Ageism! I know so many accomplished, engaged, dynamic “women of a certain age” and frankly, they are very interesting and can go in so many fascinating directions. So put them in a good story, surround them with loving/hating family members, and let them wander, using all their acquired life skills, and I’ll read it! Thanks!

    1. A woman after my own heart, Vida, and one that knows from whence she speaks (or something like that)!

  12. Reblogged this on Brand Fearless ~ Kim Fleck and commented:
    Marian Stanley is a fabulous writer and a lovely woman. I had the pleasure of working with her as a consultant for her social media platforms. I am excited to read her book The Immaculate. And most importantly her dog Archie is adorable. Be sure to check her out #fearLESS friends!

  13. Congratulations on your first book! It sounds like a winner. As a practicing Catholic, I’m interested in reading something featuring nuns. I’ve taught in Parochial schools and until recently volunteered in my Parish’s elementary school, and most of the nuns I’ve worked with are dynamic, fascinating women who are committed to something (or Someone) greater than themselves. There are so many books featuring men in the religious life, but very few with the women. Your protagonist, Rosaria, sounds like an interesting person, too — someone I’d like to know. For me, the age of the protagonist doesn’t matter. I’ve read and loved books with characters from 10 — 90s. As long as they are interesting, intelligent people, that’s all I care about. Same with career. Stay at home mom to high powered executive, it doesn’t matter. I can’t wait to read “The Immaculate”.

    1. Ah yes, we probably have had some similar experiences. I wonder if people would be as hard on all those overworked, under-appreciated teaching nuns if they had ever walked in their shoes. When I taught with nuns briefly, granted many years ago, we had 50+ kids in our classes, taught every subject (remember you had to correct all that homework) and you never really had a break – ate your lunch standing up, monitoring the kids as they had their own their lunches or ran around the schoolyard. Who wouldn’t lose it every once in awhile?

  14. Hi Marian! Congratulations. I can’t wait to read this.

    I was brought up sort-of Protestant, but then I married into this big, Italian-American family. My husband’s aunt was a nun on the Bowery in NYC, and do I have some crazy stories to tell!

    I love protagonists of all ages and genders. And I love the idea of a woman with a big job. My first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman was about a female Police Chief in a large, suburban city who was happily married and a mom. I wrote it very deliberately because people will tell you it’s not possible, but I am living proof that it is.

    1. I LOVE the title of Ambitious Woman and haven’t read it yet – on the list! I hope I’m right that these old stereotypes are steadily eroding.
      Your husband’s aunt working in the Bowery must have been one tough cookie. Perhaps a lot like Sister Mary Aurelius in the book!

  15. Congrats on your first book!

    One of my favorite series is Mrs. Pollifax, where the main character was older than her 40’s. I always pictured her in her 60’s.

    1. I’m so glad, Mark. These responses are giving me hope for more female protagonists of a certain age!

  16. Hi Marian, I was disappointed in the advice you were given about age and career for Rosaria. Perhaps that person believed you needed to attract a younger audience that wants to read about younger protagonists to boost sales. However, as our general population ages, I believe it’s important to have roles for older people, demonstrated through their age and career. I don’t think you need to specifically note Rosaria’s age but you can imply it with references to her life. It’s time to acknowledge women as strong, creative, and successful, perhaps because they don’t fit the mold. It’s time not to assume only younger women can achieve goals that contribute to our society. And I think it’s time to place women in career positions that men usually hold to show what women are capable of achieving. We cater to the young and to men, all too often. If it’s a good story, a reader will stay with you regardless of gender, age, and career of the main characters.
    Thanks for this opportunity to express my thoughts! Best wishes, Francie

    1. Wise commentary as usual, Francie. As society evolves – we hope, but can’t be assured – to a better place, I think the old stereotypes will continue to erode. Of course, that does require a little work, including speaking up at the right times, from all of us. Good to see you engage in this blog conversation. My worlds are starting to overlap! This is all good.

  17. I enjoy a well developed protagonist of any age or gender, however perhaps as I am retired I find myself drawn to older characters. I imagine it is because I relate to them. I love empowered women,; books and the world need more of them. My interest is definitely piqued, so looking forward to reading The Immaculate. Thanks for the opportunity to win it.

    1. Our pleasure, MaryAnn. I’m glad you like the description of The Immaculate and its woman-of-a-certain-age protagonist. I think our time may have come!

  18. I love the picture of the nuns playing basketball. It’s so true that we don’t usually think of nuns being, well, something other than what we picture nuns to be. I’m glad to see this fun side of them. The protagonist’s age in books is really not a point of contention for me, nor do I expect them to be in a certain age range. I adored Anne George’s books, and Mary Alice and Elizabeth Ann are both grandmothers, but just as smart and feisty as a younger protagonist would be. With regard to careers, I really guess it depends on the job–being a detective (male or female) obviously gives you time to investigate, while with other high powered jobs that might not be the case. I remember that Edith posted about how wonderful The Immaculate was while she was reading it, and I have been looking forward to it ever since. I was very excited to see this post and enjoyed it immensely!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the interview, Celia. Nuns are just real women who wear a habit. (In The Immaculate the Mother Superior makes the comment that many people think nuns are born with wire glasses.) And basketball is big in girls’ Catholic schools – it’s an inexpensive sport – just a basketball and a hoop. We had to make our own (very modest) uniforms. Good gravy – I’m not very skilled in this regard and you should have seen mine!

  19. Congratulations and thanks for beign on the blog today! I think if no one evers questions the admonition to sideline older female protagonists and women in positions of power it will continue to be standard practice to do so. I’m glad you decided to ignore that advice.

    1. I’m honored to be here, Jessie. And I couldn’t agree more about dealing with the questionable advice I got from well meaning people re: the profile of a woman protagonist. At the time, to be honest, it was pretty disturbing.

  20. That’s some interesting advice you received about the age and career choices of your protagonist. When I think of some of the mysteries I enjoy, I prefer a story with slighter older characters (I’m thinking of E. Peter’s Jacqueline Kirby, L. Penny’s characters, etc.). I mean, how much wisdom can a 20-something have?!? 🙂 Also, I like the idea of a character who has a career- especially something that is not necessarily related to law and order. That advice makes me think that someone is uncomfortable with STRONG women! 🙂 The book sounds excellent! I’m looking forward to reading it!

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. I believe that the teachers and coaches who made those comments somehow separated how they lived their own lives as professional women – and how they saw the specs for a successful mystery novel product in today’s marketplace. All of which ought to make us think.

  21. Marian and Edith… great interview and fascinating comments! The Immaculate will be my next book to read.

    I grew up in two Catholic communities and spent half my childhood in conference with The Priest and my mother at the rectory. One day she said she’d had enough of this. I asked her if she was going to send me to boarding school, and she said “No. We’re leaving the Church.” I was terrified of eternal damnation and begged rather that she send me to boarding school. Eventually I went to live with my “Irish side” who left Marblehead for Boston when ships no longer ran on sail power, never to return except to rescue me. Years later it was clear I was not a Catholic and went to Divinity School where, as the powers that be would have such things, I was assigned to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza as my senior paper advisor. I’m still scared of her.

  22. PS: Rosaria sounds great just the way she is. I know a few ex-Catholic nuns from BC who could fit the description you give above, except that she left the Church to be ordained, obviously in a different denomination. Best wishes with this book and many more to come!

    1. Correction: Except one especially “… who could the description you give above….”

      1. Thanks, Reine. There are so many fascinating, complicated stories around trying and failing to adjust to an organized religion, especially one with the scandals the Church has had. I personally think the questioning and the fussing is all healthy and rich, whether we stay or go, and we’re all the better for it as we each find our own place. I assume I am permanently estranged from the Church and then I read about Sister Simone Campbell and the other Nuns on the Bus traveling across nine states in their bus visiting food pantries, homeless shelters and health clinics for the poor – to raise awareness of social justice issues. Or maybe Pope Francis once again says something humane and civilized and moving, and then . . . well, I just don’t know!

  23. Marian, I can’t wait to read it, it sounds wonderful.

    I will be passing through Exeter in a few weeks, I’ll say hello to it for you.

    As to your questions, what’s age got to do with it? A sharp mind and ready wit can be found in people of any age. One of my favorite detectives is 10, another is in her 80’s! As to career, as long as I learn something about their world, including their work, I’m happy – though location is a strong draw for me.

  24. Thanks for your comments, Marion – we are of the same mind!
    I hope you get to enjoy a Devonshire cream tea in Exeter’s Cathedral Close. I went to a service in that cathedral as a student the day after JFK was shot – that’s how old I am!

    1. Old enough AND young enough! Thanks for the tip, I do love a good Tea!

  25. Thoroughly entertained by this interview, Edith and Marion. While the protagonist’s age and career play an important role in a mystery, from a reader’s standpoint, I believe the author’s treatment of these aspects as they apply to the story dictate the success of the novel.

    1. Agree completely, Gail – that’s really the key. So glad you enjoyed the interview. It was fun for me to do and Edith’s questions were perfect.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment! M.

  26. Marian-You have always been the closest idea to a role model for me. So happy to have come across this blog and Congratulations on your first book. I can’t wait to read and share it with my daughters.

    1. Oh, my goodness, Ladan – what a surprise and a pleasure to hear from you, and to learn you have two daughters! All my best – hope everything is going well for you. Marian
      (I’m on Facebook under Marian McMahon Stanley)

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