A Note from Sally


April 2017

Since Behind The bonehouse was published last May I’ve been researching and writing the plot of the next Jo Grant mystery. The research has been complicated because the major part of the plot has to do with the MacInneses, and their equine vet practice, who touched Jo’s life for the first time in 1965.

It’s been interesting interviewing current and retired equine vets here in Ohio and in Lexington, though it’s been kind of like trying to get a solid diagnosis from more than one doctor – they have multiple opinions about how things should be done, and/or would’ve been done, in 1965. A whole lot has changed in equine medicine, and trying to track down what was true, or generally in practice, in any specific year is definitely not easy.

Another part of the plot grew out of an unsolved murder that took place on a farm outside of Lexington in 1874. An elderly brother and sister were killed, and though various drifters and family members were suspected, the leads led nowhere. I’ve taken that murder and recast the characters and the circumstances so I can have Jo, when she’s renovating a house for an equine painter, discover very unexpected and valuable objects, as well as a pertinent document, in a wall they’re tearing down that bear on that 19th century murder and discombobulate various descendants the way I think they would.

Characters from the earlier Jo Grant books will reappear, but the widow of the vet who founded the practice and her newly qualified son bear the brunt of the danger and deceit, and Jo’s primarily a narrator this time, rather than the focus of the plot.

I learned a lot of things about horse breeding and the opportunities that exist in the Thoroughbred world for ethical and treacherous behavior and it’s given me a lot to think about. There are horse people – who deal with all breeds and forms of competition – who seem to see horses the way they would machines, or at best a means to make money. There are others who see them as sentient beings with characters and personalities who’re capable of willingly working and communicating with us humans – and I know which side I’m on.

And yet, in this book, as in the other Jo Grants, it’s not the horses that are central to the plot, but human nature in all its variations that makes me want to create these characters and tell their secret stories.

The work this year has been very interesting. And just like the last five years, I know I’m really fortunate to be able to write and work on another book. Chemo is slowing me down, but I’m able to work around it.

Still, living in the country with my husband and our boxer dog, with grandkids nearby and wildlife to watch, makes every day, even those when I can’t write, very much a gift.

January 2015

 

The Real Ben Reese

It makes me very sad to have to report that the university archivist-ex-WWII-Ranger on whom I based Ben died this month at the age of ninety-two. He was still studying and working at what interested him, and he taught me something every time we spoke.

John Reed was an archivist at Ohio Wesleyan University who also oversaw the library collections of the Ohio Methodist Church while undertaking much else besides, before and after, his retirement.

He knew more about more things than anyone else I’ve ever met, and he was one of my favorite people. He was a quiet person who rarely talked about himself, and yet he helped me tirelessly with archival and military matters, and described his experiences in WWII, even though that was difficult for him.

He said when he’d finished reading Watches Of The Night that he’d gotten some closure on the war, and I very much hope he did. He “set-out to help, rather than harm,” after WWII, and he made a difference in an incredible number of lives, according to the accounts of those students and friends.

He was encouraged and supported in whatever he did by the wit and kindness and high intelligence of his much respected professor wife of almost seventy years. Watching them together was a great pleasure, and an example to me of what marriage should be.

 

The book I’m writing

I’ve been working on the sequel to Breeding Ground for more than a year, and I’m closing-in on the final revisions, which means it’ll probably be done in six or eight months. I hope. I’m doing chemo this winter to try to reduce my metastatic pancreatic lung nodules, so that may slow me down – which is not intended as a complaint. The fact that I’m still here, and have felt absolutely fine for three years, is more or less miraculous, and has very much surprised the docs.

The new plot, however, didn’t come easily. I bumbled around getting not much of anywhere, till I remembered an old intellectual property conflict my parents had had to face years ago in their small scientific business. I altered the industry and the chemistry, but used it to develop a fictional situation that grew out of characters I wanted to get to know.

The context is still the same three families from Breeding Ground who own and operate horse related businesses around Lexington, Kentucky in the mid-1960s. Their lives change substantially in the new book, though the fall-out from WWII (pardon the pun) still affects the choices they make in private and in business.

Jo Grant (who “writes” this book the way she did Breeding Ground) is married in this novel, and is blind-sided in a time of real contentment by a completely unexpected event that knocks the ground out under her feet. Lives and novels need that. How else would we all grow up?

In order to learn what I wanted to know, I went down to Woodford County twice last year, and did research in the archives at the Keeneland Race Course Library. One serendipitous find was a group of photographs of the draft horse teams that used to pull the starting gates off the track as soon as the horses shot out.

In 1950, unfortunately, the four huge Percherons hitched to the gate refused to budge – leaving it to block the entire track as a whole field of Thoroughbreds raced straight toward the finish line on the gate’s far side. Spectators leapt onto the dirt and dragged the gate out of the way seconds before the field swept past – which led inexorably to the use of ordinary tractors.

As usual, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the backside of Keeneland watching exercise riders breeze racehorses shortly after sunrise. The escort ponies and pony riders are a spectacle in themselves. And it’s always interesting watching two and three year olds getting taught their job, seeing the more experienced get put through their paces, eavesdropping too on the owners and trainers – the denizens of a sporting culture that’s totally foreign to me.

I ate breakfast at the track kitchen with owners, grooms, trainers, jockeys and exercise riders (who ate next to nothing), trying (and failing) to get up the courage to introduce myself to Ted Bassett – the much-decorated WWII Marine who ran Keeneland for years, and eats breakfast there every day. (He once, with the help of the Aga Khan, dropped a heavy silver trophy Queen Elizabeth had just handed him onto his own toe, which he describes with much self-mockery in his autobiography.)

Friends in Midway and Versailles answered innumerable questions, and took me places I needed to see but wouldn’t have known how to look for, while I watched the land and the Thoroughbreds grazing it with as much satisfaction as ever.

I also interviewed a gentleman named Squirrel, a very knowledgeable U.S. Marshall who’d been Woodford County’s Sheriff for years, about what county police and legal procedures would have been if the convoluted murder I’ve imagined had taken place in the sixties.

And yet this new book is about graver matters than murder. Matters more inexplicable, more worthy of wonder, more permanent too, the way I’ve wanted all my books to be, whether I manage it or not.

I’ve loved spending my days working with these characters, as they come up against their own trials, and triumphs, and tribulations.

And work does play a central part in what this novel’s about – the good it does, the despair it can bring, the challenges and the risk taking that tax our brainpower and give us purpose, but can lead us into twisted desires and torturous paths that jeopardize our souls.

It seems to be an overarching truth – that whatever has potential for great and abiding good has an opposite, and arguably equal, potential for appalling evil. I, being me, think it’s intentional, and contemplating that is part of what makes me want to write.

Of course, writing about horses, and the people whose lives revolve around them, means a lot to me too. I had a riding accident six years ago and can’t anymore, so writing helps fill-in the holes not being with a horse leaves behind.

 

 

October 2013

When I decided to set part of the Ben Reese novel Watches Of The Night in Lexington, Kentucky, I had no idea how much I’d enjoy being there. I had a horse then myself, which probably played a part, but as I worked on Watches, I got more and more interested in life on the horse farms in Woodford County, largely because of the people I met.

A group of women-friends around Versailles and Midway, who lived in really beautiful old farmhouses (some with horses, most without), had started welcoming guests through a loosely organized B&B network run by one of the group.

Some decided to open their homes in order to meet interesting people; others to help put food on the table. But the ones I met while staying in their homes knew so much about local history and old family stories and early Kentucky architecture too, they changed the way I saw Lexington.

They were all book people, and they invited me to their couples’ book club, where I met a woman who’d written memoir vignettes and biographies of exceptional local residents, contemporary and historical. Reading her books gave me even more appreciation for those who’d been born and raised there.

Which meant I found myself going back to Woodford County again and again – sometimes on vacation with Joe and the kids, sometimes for book events, sometimes just to watch the green hills and the Thoroughbreds, wanting to spend more and more time with folks who’d been molded by both – wishing too that Joe and I could move there and have another adventure.

I had to write more about it too, I knew that. For it’s a land that’s unlike most, where a life lived around horses holds folks together – all backgrounds, all educations, all races and income – where horses bring them to dinner tables, as well as funerals and weddings, when they’d hardly meet in most towns, much less know each other well.

But when horse folks get put under pressure by having to make a living from breeding and raising and training them, from racing them too, for fame and money, forces can take control that lead to cruelty and corruption – and horses pay the price.

Still, there’s a lot more to Breeding Ground than Lexington’s horse culture – that complicated world, based on land and breeding and unexpected luck, on bones that break without warning. For the overarching controlling reality is that most of the farms and training stables are still family-owned businesses, like the vast majority of every kind of business in the US today.

When families add the conflicts that come from making business decisions that affect entire organizations to underlying family heartaches – the jealousies and insecurities, the overbearing pride and insensitivities that come with being parents and kids, as well as brothers and sisters and cousins – rational business decisions become minefields of personal hurt.

It’s a world of subtlety and stress, of negotiation and resentment too, that I know something about. My father was an orphan, raised in an orphanage, who, with the help of my mother, started a small scientific manufacturing business that’s now in the hands of my generation, and our children’s as well.

In some sense, the family business has been the organizing factor in our lives. And I very much wanted to examine the permutations of family interaction in three fictional family horse businesses – a small hands-on broodmare farm, a horse van manufacturer, an equine pharmaceutical company – back in the early sixties when WWII GIs had come home, wounded in one way or another, but working to make totally new lives at a time when inventors and industrial entrepreneurs had many more opportunities than they have today.

In researching returning vets, I began studying the OSS (the Office Of Strategic Services, our first real intelligence service that the CIA replaced). I found the OSS involvement with the French Resistance (before, during and shortly after the Normandy Invasion) so intriguing that characters I hadn’t thought of began waking me up at night, making Breeding Ground a wider investigation that begs for another book.

Yet, the novel revolves around Jo Grant, who’d been a young girl during WWII (who’d lost her father earlier), who worried her way all through the war that her older brother wouldn’t come home from the fighting in Europe. She became an architect, once he returned, with a fierce love of the work, that got pushed to the sidelines against her will by her mother’s final illness, and the subsequent demands of the family horse farm she wants to leave behind.

Breeding Ground‘s “written” by Jo, and the ways in which she ends up confronting the struggles that upend her life lies close to the center of the story.

It’s taken me longer to write Breeding Ground than I expected, for I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the summer of 2011, which made me abandon the original plot that entailed more research in France. After I had surgery, I wrote straight through chemo and radiation, but not as quickly as usual – and my “quickly”, as some of you know, is slower than many other writers’ because I’m too much of a hopeless perfectionist who has trouble letting go.

I’ve learned a lot through the pancreatic cancer. “I don’t complain about the weather anymore,” as Jo Grant writes in her “afterward.” And every day has become a gift. I’ve been given great blessings through the experience – contentment and joy when I least expected it – and the fact that a lot of people have prayed for me through it is nothing I take lightly.

I’m about to start the second Jo Grant mystery, and there is a chance it may include an appearance by Ben Reese (though I can’t swear to that now). I hope I’m given the time to finish it, while I live the life I’ve been blessed with, with the only husband I’ve ever wanted. With a daughter and son who’ve grown-up honorable and hard working as well. With two baby grandsons I’d love to see grow-up. With Jake, the boxer, who makes me laugh, while he watches my every move.