Sue Hallgarth is the author of the new novel Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery. A former English professor, she also has written the novel On the Rocks as well as a variety of scholarly articles. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, Death Comes, and with the idea of featuring Willa Cather and her partner Edith Lewis in a mystery?
A: Death Comes began the moment I ended On the Rocks, my first mystery novel featuring Willa Cather and Edith Lewis. In fact, I wrote the first pages describing Cather and Lewis arriving for their visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos the same day I finished On the Rocks.
Those pages remain, although several years of additional research meant a change of location for the train station from Lamy, New Mexico, to Taos Junction. The Taos Junction station and the narrow-gauge railroad that stopped there are no longer, but Cather and Lewis knew them both well and Taos Junction is where they actually arrived for their visit to the Luhans in 1925.
To say that is to reveal how I work. I insist on accuracy even in fiction.
Willa Cather and Edith Lewis are fictional characters I know well—they are my Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, but my view based on years of scholarly research originally intended to inform a biography of Cather.
When I started doing research on Cather in the early 1980s, I was not a writer of fiction or mysteries. I was an academic, a professor of literature whose reading of Cather, informed by my own feminist and lesbian point of view, differed in important ways from traditional critical notions of Cather.
For those traditional views, Cather is a writer whose characters reflect her own sentimental views of childhood and pioneer America, or a spinster whose novels and stories increasingly revealed her own tormented misery over the loss of youth and early romance.
Neither of these interpretations made sense to me. In fact, they are ironic. Cather was always, whether as a brash young journalist crowing over her own brilliance or as an experienced and famous novelist pushing the boundaries of traditional fiction, a writer who pilloried sentimentalism and a woman who remained realistic and determined even in the face of adversity.
I also discovered Edith Lewis—that shadowy figure Cather’s early critics and biographers portrayed simply as Cather’s secretary or “companion.” Lewis was neither. It is true Cather and even Lewis encouraged that image, given Cather’s fame and the time in which they lived.
But from sometime soon after 1903 when they first met, Edith Lewis was actually Cather’s life partner and a formidable influence on Cather’s development as a writer, as well as an important proof-reader and editor of her fiction.
How could I choose not to feature both Willa Cather and Edith Lewis in whatever I wrote? That I decided to write a mystery series and not a biography is another story, the important part of which is that I enjoy writing and take special pleasure in telling what I know about Cather and Lewis in a form all readers might enjoy, a biographical story without footnotes.
Which is exactly what Cather often did—first the research, then the story—just as together Cather and Lewis did with my second mystery’s namesake, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Q: Did you know when you wrote the first novel about the two of them that you’d be writing a sequel?
A: Yes, the first image for Death Comes happened in my mind exactly as I finished On the Rocks, but it was 20 years between the day I finished the first draft of On the Rocks and the day I returned to the manuscript of Death Comes.
In the meantime, I changed professions, stopped trying to find a publisher, and stopped writing. I also continued my interest in Cather and Lewis, moved to New Mexico, bought land near Taos Junction, and eventually revisited the D. H. Lawrence ranch and spent the night at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, now a bed-and-breakfast. Magical moments of inspiration.
Joining a writers’ group and publishing On the Rocks made my return to my fictional world of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis a given. I love being with them, and by then I was well prepared for an imaginative shift to northern New Mexico and another “who-done-it.”
I must confess the mystery part of my novels was unexpected fun. On the Rocks is a mystery because it began with my imagined image of someone falling off the 200-foot cliff into the Bay of Fundy just to the northwest of where I was standing in the front yard of the Cather-Lewis cottage at Whale Cove.
But I wrote On the Rocks to introduce readers to Cather’s relatively unknown partner Edith Lewis and to the very real women’s summer-colony on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada, where Willa Cather and Edith Lewis spent 20 summers. Both Lewis and the two summer colonies on Grand Manan had been neglected in Cather’s biographies.
Death Comes is a mystery because by now my Willa Cather and Edith Lewis were accomplished sleuths, and this time, I meant for them both to be more directly involved from the outset. I also intended to introduce readers to several of their friends in order to place the two of them into one of the many real contexts of their literary lives.
Why? Just as Cather’s relationship with Lewis and the women of Grand Manan had been neglected and downplayed, Cather herself was too often featured as a lone genius, a literary prima donna.
Of course, Cather and Lewis cultivated that image, too, to protect their privacy and Cather from autograph hounds once she became famous. But they were too successful in their efforts. The image of Cather as a “lone genius” lingers still.
Their actual visit in the mid-1920s with Mabel Dodge Luhan and the lively compound of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, struck me as providing the perfect antidote. In this setting, as on Grand Manan, Cather and Lewis could be unselfconscious and fully themselves.
And I would be free to portray their relationships with famous people they actually knew—including D. H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan, the artists Nicolai Fechin and Andrew Dasburg, and poets Spud Johnson and Witter Bynner—and such well-known Taos “characters” as Long John Dunn, Doc Martin, and Arthur Manby.
A wonderful cast to which I had only to develop a few new characters to carry out the mystery.
So yes, no matter how long it took me to get around to writing it, Death Comes is a sequel to On the Rocks, just as I hoped it would be.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write Death Comes, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I still have stuffed file cabinets and stacks of research materials on Cather and Lewis from the days I combed archives and libraries across this country, but now I also have at my fingertips The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (first edited in 2013 by Janis Stout and Andrew Jewell and published by the University of Nebraska Press), the internet, and an amazing cache of pictures, journals, and manuscripts donated in 2011 to the Willa Cather Archives at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from the estate of her nephew Charles Cather.
For me, the most surprising and delightful find in the archives cache was Edith Lewis’ Blue Jay notebook, which was used by both Cather and Lewis during their time in New Mexico.
Lewis recorded line-a-day notes of their two-week visit at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s, notes on their meanderings around New Mexico, and sketched images in “maps” of the locations Cather used in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather in turn used several pages to draft what would become a chapter in Death Comes for the Archbishop.
I also discovered that a neighbor and friend, Claudia Smith Miller, is the great-granddaughter of Mabel Dodge Luhan. She introduced me to her father and shared childhood memories of Mabel and Tony Luhan and Spud Johnson.
And of course, more than once I visited the D.H. Lawrence ranch, Mabel Dodge Luhan house, and the pink adobe where Cather and Lewis stayed. The pink adobe is now owned by the artist Kevin Cannon, who invited me in. What better kind of research could any writer want?
Actually, I will add that research for fiction is quite different from research for a biography or scholarly paper. All the notes about facts are helpful but far from enough. Fiction requires being “there,” being in the scene, in the character.
To get “there” requires knowing or imagining how things look, feel, smell, sound, and how people think and act. All a writer’s senses get involved, so research for fiction requires listening, touching, seeing, tasting, not just reading. It’s a rich experience, doing research for a novel.
Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make changes along the way?
A: I have a general sense of the way my novels will end, by which I mean I know the crime will be solved. But that’s all I know. The process of writing reveals everything to me. I think through my characters, and they show me what is to happen.
In the case of Death Comes, I didn’t even know what the crime would be until I described it, and I certainly didn’t know who the criminals were or who might catch them, though, of course, I knew Cather and Lewis would be involved.
One of the great daily delights for me in writing a novel—or writing anything—is that process of discovery. Writing shows me what I know without my having realizing it. I discover as I go, character-by-character, scene-by-scene. And I build the plot based on what my characters “want” to do.
I know just two things before I begin: setting and main characters. The rest just happens, not willy-nilly but somehow unconsciously. My job is not to interfere.
I rarely make changes along the way. I do listen to reactions from members of my writing group, so I might rework a passage after a session with them. And once I’ve written a manuscript through, I might refine details or rearrange scenes to make sure the whole works and holds together. But change things along the way? No, my process is to build a story, then refine it; not control it.
Q: What am I working on now?
A: There are so many possible places, people, and events Cather and Lewis were part of in their almost-40 years together, I have yet to make a decision about committing to any one of them again.
New York City? Upstate-New York? Lincoln, Nebraska? Paris, France? Quebec, Canada? Mesa Verde, Colorado? Winslow, Arizona? Jaffrey, New Hampshire? Cather and Lewis were all those places and more.
In the meantime, I am playing with poetry and, having learned my craft from Cather and Lewis, I am working on a memoir of growing up in Alaska and Wisconsin, a serious but humorous memoir, neither sentimental nor nostalgic.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: On my website, I include a blog with pictures and essays about the real people and places behind my characters in the novels.
For On the Rocks, for instance, readers can already see pictures of Whale Cove and Grand Manan and read about Cather’s friends and her relationship with Lewis. I will soon be doing the same for Death Comes.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb