Anna Loan-Wilsey is currently at work on the third book in her Hattie Davish Mysteries historical fiction series, set in the midst of the 1890s women’s temperance movement with a female detective at its center. The first installment, A Lack of Temperance, was published last fall to positive reviews in Library Journal, Mystery Scene, and Publisher’s Weekly. The series’ second book, Anything But Civil, releases in October 2013. The in-progress third Hattie Davish novel is A Sense of Entitlement. Loan-Wilsey holds a Master’s in Library and Information Science from McGill University in Montreal and works as a librarian and information specialist in rural Iowa. Her blog features research and ephemera that may interest Points readers and proves Loan-Wilsey an accomplished historical detective in her own right.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I would tell them I’m a writer of historical cozy mystery novels set in late 19th century America, where the violence is off-stage, there is little gore, no pets or penguins get hurt, and my main character is Catholic. I think they would like it.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your Hattie Davish Mysteries series, and specifically A Lack of Temperance?
There is a reason my novels are set in the late 19th century (or Victorian era). I love history myself and consider researching and writing about the era the closest I’ll ever come to inventing a time machine. I would hope then that my stories and settings, real, historically intact towns across America, would appeal to anyone who enjoys history. Specifically, however, I believe the Points audience would appreciate my using the temperance movement as the background setting for the mystery. In fact, I’ve had many reviews that mention the fact that they knew next to nothing about the temperance movement before reading A Lack of Temperance. I’m glad my book has served a purpose beyond mere entertainment.
What led yotu to write about alcohol in the first place?
When I write a book set in a particular town, the actual history of the town is very influential in the story that I tell. A Lack of Temperance is set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, an Ozark town historically known for its health springs. What most don’t know is that it was also home to Carrie Nation, the well-known temperance movement leader. Although she was older and no longer wielding hatchets, her connection inspired me to bring a character like her and others like minded to life. And then I came across a definition of temperance by Xenophon, a Greek historian and philosopher, which says, “Temperance: moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful,” and I felt I had the perfect background for my book.
How would you describe the way that alcohol functions in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if alcohol and related themes weren’t in your writing arsenal?
As Cathy of the blog Kittling: Books wrote in a review, “Author Anna Loan-Wilsey sets her stage immediately by having Hattie Davish witness the demolishing of a saloon. I can’t remember any other fiction book I’ve read using the background of the women’s temperance movement, and as I began reading A Lack of Temperance, I had to wonder why. All the various members created a microcosm of motives, which is perfect for a mystery.”
Mysteries are all about conflict, and Victorian attitudes about alcohol were often black and white. So what better conflict than between those who believe alcohol the root of all evil and those who are simply trying to make a living or have a relaxing night out? And knowing the history of the temperance movement, I was able to tap into the internal conflicts of the movement as well. Not everyone agreed on the best way to deal with problems alcohol presented. Without such conflict, I wouldn’t have had a story!
What do you personally find most interesting about how alcohol works in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects, whether related or unrelated to the series of which A Lack of Temperance is a part?
What I find most interesting is how alcohol can lower inhibitions (important in the repressed society of the Victorian era), expressing the good and bad things that people would not normally do when sober. Thus it works as a vehicle to demonstrate the underlining characters of man and society, the conflict between good and evil around us and within us, between the rich and the poor and between extreme and moderate behavior (hence the Xenophon quote). And as I said before, conflict drives mysteries. And as long as I write about Hattie Davish, as long as my protagonist navigates the highs and lows of Victorian society, I know her intimate encounter with the ladies of the temperance movement will shape how she views alcohol in ways she never would have thought before.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that one of your books (or the series as a whole) gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
“Deathly” by Aimee Mann. It has a great title, a catchy melody and a slightly disquieting message. Perfect for a murder mystery, don’t you think?