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Guest Kathleen Kalb: She Works Hard for the “Brava”

Liz here, happy to be hosting Kathleen Kalb today to talk about her Ella Shane Mysteries! Welcome, Kathleen!

Do the work.

It’s not just my personal philosophy. It’s also the driving force for my main character, Ella Shane. 

Neither of us would have gotten much of anywhere without work ethic, determination and some lucky breaks. I’m a Western Pennsylvania country girl who worked her way up to the radio anchor desk in New York, and I couldn’t imagine writing a character who just had it handed to her.

Ella took shape as a classic Victorian orphan made good. She was born Ellen O’Shaughnessy, the daughter of an Irish father and a Jewish mother, in the tenements of the Lower East Side in the late 1860s. Her early years were spent helping her widowed mother sew piecework in their freezing room, and later, as a poor relation living with her Aunt Ellen’s big family.

From the start, she learned that she had to carry more than her weight just to survive. And as her world widened beyond that tiny tenement room, she realized that people looked at poverty in a certain way. They still do, of course, but this was the era of the “deserving poor,” and the upper class only deigned to help those who conformed to their ideas of appropriate behavior.

The simple fact of being Irish or Jewish, never mind both, would have raised questions about whether one was “deserving,” since there was still plenty of anti-immigrant prejudice at the time.  Young Ellen would have learned very quickly to present herself as a hard-working good girl, rather than one of those lazy street urchins. 

Even her big break comes because she’s working hard. One day, she’s singing as she’s helping her aunt clean a house, and the mistress hears her extraordinary voice. The woman is the sister of a famous diva, and soon, our girl is the protégée and star student of Madame Suzanne Lentini. 

In her opera career, all of that determination and willingness to put in the effort becomes a talent of its own. Ella (as she becomes when she takes a neutral stage name to avoid ethnic prejudice) is that rarest of all things: a brilliantly talented person with a great work ethic. 

Gift and grit are a winning combination, then and now.

She’s also fun to write, and relatable to read. There’s probably an author out there who can make an enjoyable character out of a genteel diva from a fine conservatory…but I’m not her. Ella hasn’t forgotten her tough early life, and she confronts her current adventures with the same wry humor and determination she brought to the climb from the tenements.

Might as well admit it. When it comes to work ethic, Ella and I are exactly alike. She’d probably even say it the same way:

There may be people who are more talented than me, who have better connections – maybe even someone who’s smarter than me. There is no one who will out-work me. 

Question: Is a main character who’s come through a difficult life or other challenges more relatable to you as a reader?  (One randomly chosen commenter gets a copy of A FATAL FIRST NIGHT)

ART: From the NYPL Digital Collections: Sew With Mother: Louis Hine Photo of tenement family; Concert Diva: Jules Cheret Poster 

Kathleen Marple Kalb grew up in front of a microphone, and a keyboard. She’s now a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS New York, capping a career begun as a teenage DJ in Brookville, Pennsylvania. She worked her way up through newsrooms in Pittsburgh, Vermont and Connecticut, developing her skills and a deep and abiding distaste for snowstorms. She, her husband the Professor, and their son the Imp, live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.

A FATAL FIRST NIGHT opens with a murder in Richard III’s dressing room after the premiere of the Ella Shane Opera Company’s new production, The Princes in the Tower.  The killer seems obvious, but Ella and friends aren’t so sure. Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Hetty MacNaughten has finally escaped hats to cover a sensational murder trial. Before it’s over, the cast will have to sort out several interlocking mysteries, welcome an unexpected visitor…and find another Richard III. Will everyone survive to the final curtain? 

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