A Chat with BLOODROOT Editor Susan Oleksiw

From Edith on an exciting mayoral election day here in Amesbury, MA on a decent-weather fall day.

I am thrilled to have as my guest today Susan Oleksiw, one of the editors of this year’s anthology Bloodroot: Best New England Crime Stories. Susan, with fellow editors Ang Pompano and Leslie Wheeler, formed Crime Spell Books, a new press, to release the annual collection, which had been dropped by its previous publisher. I’m glad they did and that Susan agreed to be interviewed for this post.

Take a look at this gorgeous cover!

Edith: Susan, you have come full circle in publishing the Best New England Crime Stories annual anthology. You were part of the team who founded Level Best Books about twenty years ago, with Undertow: Crime Stories by New England Writers being the first issue back in 2003 (which I still have in my bookcase). Give us a walnut-shell history of the anthology.

Susan: Edith, thank you for inviting me to the Wickeds and giving me a chance to talk about one of my favorite topics–putting together an anthology. Yes, I have come full circle, and it’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve learned a lot from working on anthologies, beginning with Level Best Books. Managing this kind of publication is a lot of work, and we, the Level Best Books co-founders, were delighted to be able to pass the anthology on to another group of writers. [Edith notes: Wicked Author Barb Ross was a co-editor in the second group, as was current co-editor Leslie Wheeler.]

They in turn passed it on to a third group. As the requirements expanded over the years, the anthology broadened its focus from New England writers to stories set in New England. The last editors decided to move on to full-length mysteries and set aside the annual anthology. Several of us were concerned about what this meant for the Al Blanchard award as well as New England writers. Crime Spell Books was the answer.

Edith: How do you, Leslie, and Ang divvy up the jobs of running a small publishing house? As one of the lucky ones whose story made the cut, to me it seemed you are primarily wearing the editorial hat.

Susan: The three of us are equally involved in selecting the stories. All three of us read and rate them, and then discuss them at length. Once we have our final list, Leslie and I work out the story order and then edit the complete ms. I set the book for Amazon, and Leslie and I read and proof the text. Ang does a lot of the work of maintaining contact with the writers.

Edith: Tell us about how you all selected the stories for Bloodroot – I’m sure it’s not easy. Were there stories you loved but just didn’t have room to include? Did anybody try to justify not quite meeting the submission guidelines?

Susan: The submission guidelines are pretty clear–a story by a writer who lives in New England. The story can be set anywhere and be about anything to do with crime. We didn’t have any submissions from writers not from New England, though some writers who had appeared in earlier anthologies raised objections about the requirements and we explained our purpose and goals.

For the selection process, we’ve developed what we feel is a fair system. Each of us reads all the stories and rates them 1, 2, or 3. The stories rated 1 by all three of us were a sure bet for the anthology. We then discussed the other stories that received two 1s, sometimes changing our minds and rating a story higher or lower.

Edith: How did the group pick the title? I see that the plant has a lovely flower and doesn’t seem to be poisonous, which frankly disappointed me – but only because I am always looking for new botanical toxins (she says with an evil grin…).

Susan: The plant bloodroot is common in the Berkshires, where Leslie has a vacation home. She knew about the plant and thought it would make a good title and cover, and she was right. If you’re looking for toxic plants, stay tuned. More to come, as they say.

Edith: My very first author signing was at the now shuttered Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA, after my story “Obake for Lance” was included in Riptide: Crime Stories by New England Writers (2004). Traditionally, the anthology has been released at the New England Crime Bake conference, and the contributing authors who attend line up in chairs to sign their story as fans proceed down the line to get their copy signed – so fun for authors and fans alike! What are the plans for this year’s release?

Susan: I too look back at the Crime Bake signing as one of the highlights of the conference. We hope to continue that tradition at Crime Bake 2021, and plan to be there with books for sale and a scheduled time for signing. This is one of the few times when short fiction writers have the thrill of a book signing. If your readers are planning to attend Crime Bake this year, I hope they’ll buy a copy and get in line for the signing, which will be late in the morning on Saturday.

Edith: Where can eager readers who can’t be at Crime Bake buy the collection?

Susan: Bloodroot: Best New England Crime Stories 2021 is available now on Amazon. We haven’t yet released an e-book version but we will.

Edith: Is there already a plan for next year’s anthology? A name? When will submissions open?

Susan: We do plan to continue, but we haven’t yet chosen a name. We’re drawing up a list of poisonous plants to grace the cover, and perhaps give writers, like you, ideas for future crimes. Submissions will open on January 1, 2022.

Edith: Thank you for joining us! I’m delighted to have my story “Dark Corners,” in Bloodroot, which features Dot Henderson and Amelia Earhart solving a crime in 1926 Boston.

Readers: The stories in Bloodroot are in a wide range of subgenres of crime fiction. Do you like such a range or do you prefer stories in anthologies to fit into one subgenre such as traditional mystery or horror or PI? How often do you pick up an anthology to read?

Susan Oleksiw wears many hats in the mystery world. She is co-founder and co-editor of Crime Spell Books, which publishes Best New England Crime Stories. The first volume is Bloodroot, available in November 2021. She also writes three series. The Anita Ray series, set in South India, follows an Indian-American photographer. The Mellingham series set in a New England town features Chief of Police Joe Silva. In Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien, farmer and healer, struggles to keep her land. Susan’s short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. She published A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988) and co-edited The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). Susan received a PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania, and has lived and traveled widely in India. She lives and writes north of Boston. www.susanoleksiw.com

44 Thoughts

  1. I don’t read a lot of anthologies (so many books, so little time) except for the ones that are published at mystery conferences such as Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime. There is usually a theme that links the stories together, often geographical location, a time period, or a musical genre. With that framework, I am fine with reading across the range of stories, from traditional mysteries to PI to thriller, and horror.

    BLOODROOT sounds like a great collection of short stories, Susan. Bravo to you, Ang and Leslie for your hard work in selecting, compiling and publishing these anthologies each year.

    EDITH: Congratulations on having your story “Dark Corners” as part of this anthology.

    I have not been to Crime Bake since 2005, and I don’t remember them having an anthology connected to the conference back then. Maybe my memory is faulty here. Again, so many cons, I do get them mixed up.

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      1. Ahh, thanks for the clarification, Edith. Glad that my memory is not totally wrong about my last Crime Bake. I don’t think the Al Blanchard award existed back in 2005.

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    1. Thanks, Grace. When we began Level Best Books, we focused on New England writers. Since Crime Bake is also a conference focusing on New England writers, it made sense that we release the annual anthology at the conference. And then we offered to publish the Al Blanchard award. We work together but we’re not a conference anthology. The theme is New England writing and the stories range through the subgenres.

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  2. I don’t get around to reading a lot of anthologies but I do tend to pick up the ones that have stories by authors that I read. So the topic of an anthology would matter less to me and I’ll read one whether it has stories that center on one theme or have multiple themes.

    Edith, I’m looking forward to reading your story in BLOODROOT.

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  3. I’m one who sticks to my preferred genres and authors, but you’ve spiked my interest, and I’ll check out the anthologies in Bloodroot when the e-book becomes available. Thanks, Edith and Susan!

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  4. My preference is for a mix of subgenres rather than an anthology devoted to one. It’s like caramel frosting on a dark chocolate cake! Looking forward to the release of the ebook for my collection.

    Edith, congratulations to you, and all the writers. with stories in Bloodroot.

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    1. Kait, we definitely have a mix of subgenres. We too like variety, and agreed early on to focus on good writing and storytelling no matter the subgenre. Our goal is to showcase New England writers, and I think we’ve done that well. The ebook will be available soon.

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  5. Good interview, Susan! As the one who suggested the name Bloodroot, I want to add a few things I’ve learned about the plant since then. It actually is poisonous–that is the rhizome part, or thickened roots, can be fatal if ingested, and if you try to propagate the plant by its roots, you’re advised to either wear gloves or wash your hands afterward. So Edith of the “evil grin,” you can add Bloodroot to your list of poisonous plants after all! Another fun fact about Bloodroot is that Native Americans used its red juice as a dye for baskets, clothing, and war paint, and also as an insect repellent.

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    1. Leslie, this is great information. You’ve given me an idea about our next anthology. We should include a short paragraph on the properties of the cover plant, just to warn our readers and provide the writers with important plot information. (I’m grinning along with Edith.)

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  6. I am so glad you, Leslie, and Ang have picked up the mantle of the Best New England Crime Stories series. (Or picked it back up as the case may be.) I have so many happy memories of my six years as an editor, reading, discussing, arguing over stories, working with the great authors, and carrying manuscripts around in a tote everywhere I went all spring long! I look forward to seeing you at Crime Bake.

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    1. Thanks, Barb, for the memory of your time with the anthology and the words of support. Yes, reading and picking the stories and getting the ms in shape takes over a good part of the year. But it is a pleasure, and we’re delighted to be back at it. Yes, see you at Crime Bake!

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  7. I rarely read anthologies, to be honest. I often find the changes between sub-genres a bit of whiplash, to be honest.

    Having said that, I have several anthologies I’ve bought I really intend to read. But the series I’ve started and haven’t finished call to me louder when I have a free spot on my reading schedule.

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    1. Mark, I hope you’ll give Bloodroot a chance. We tried to organize the stories so that they flow and complement each other. But yes, we have lots of books and stories calling for our attention.

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  8. Lovely to hear you two “chat” and to get a bit of the history. I’m very proud to have contributed a story (and to have been in a few previous anthologies as well). The signing is aways a high point of Crime Bake for me, too.

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  9. Such a great interview, Edith and Susan. We’re so happy to have “Dark Corners” in Bloodroot along with all of the other wonderful stories. Thank you Wickeds for helping to spread the word.

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  10. I read anthologies about as often as Booksprout sends them to me. I just finished two edited by
    Rhonda Parrish: G Is for Ghosts 5*and Dark Waters 4*.

    Liked by 1 person

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