This week, we sat down with Sallie Bissell, author of the Mary Crow Novels. Her latest, A Judgment of Whispers, is out now!
Midnight Ink: How long have you been writing?
Sallie Bissell: My parents gave me a typewriter the Christmas I was eight. I’ve been writing at something, ever since. I was an advertising copywriter for a while (this was in Nashville—I wrote radio commercials for the Grand Ole Opry). Then I was a ghost writer for Bonnie Bryant’s Saddle Club series. I started seriously writing under my own name about twenty years ago.
MI: What influence have other authors had on your writing?
SB: I read all of William O. Steele’s work when I was a girl—that got me into the outdoor adventure mode, which I guess I’ve never really left. I learned a lot about the scope of a novel from Gail Godwin. Pacing from Elmore Leonard. Language from John Steinbeck. Suspense from Richard Wright—I think his Native Son is a masterpiece. Margaret Atwood, Barbara Vine and Sara Paretsky have also expanded my view of what fiction can accomplish.
MI: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
|Sallie at work on her typewriter|
SB: Something in art, probably. My mother was a painter and I have a modest bit of talent in that area. I entered college as an art major. My faculty advisor looked greatly relieved when I transferred to the English Department! In my fantasy life, I’d like to be a jet pilot or Serena Williams.
MI: If you have a job outside of writing, what is it?
SB: I’ve kept my hand in advertising, on a freelance basis. I love birds and I’m helping a local bird seed company expand its customer base. I write their newsletter and mind the shop a couple of afternoons a week. It’s fun and totally different from writing fiction. Birders are interesting people, always with good stories to tell, usually about squirrels or bears.
MI: What is/are your favorite thing/s to do when you’re not writing or working?
SB: I love to play tennis, and do so as often as I can. I’m also on a Trivia team that plays at a local restaurant once a week. Writers are good at trivia—we have minds that are stuffed with esoteric information, like what’s the longest river in Chile. I once catapulted the team to victory by knowing who wrote Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. (Dee Brown.) I have no idea what the longest river in Chile is.
MI: Who is your favorite mystery sleuth and why?
SB: Probably Sherlock Holmes. I think Conan Doyle took themes that other writers (Poe, Dickins, Wilkie Collins) had touched on and made a terrific character. It was a perfect storm for success, in a way—you had spiritualism, industrial revolution, scientific discovery—plus the serial formal. The work has endured because the writing is good—the puzzles (plots) are ingenious and the characterizations are interesting, too.
MI: Do you have a favorite murder case from a book (either yours or another author’s)?
SB: My favorite murder case was one my aunt was questioned in (though not as a suspect). It happened in Nashville in the early '70s and was only recently solved, and not to everyone’s satisfaction. I used it as the basis for the murder in my next book, A Judgment of Whispers. Older Nashvillians will know exactly what I’m talking about!
MI: What was your inspiration for this series?
SB: The idea of Mary Crow came about after I moved to Asheville, NC. I went from an urban lifestyle to a rural one, in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. Also I’d never seen a Cherokee Indian before, and I became fascinated with their culture. In writing the first book, In The Forest of Harm, I re-entered the fictional world I’d loved so much as a girl—woods and forests and trails that led who knows where.
MI: Tell us about Mary Crow.
SB: Mary Crow is a woman of color; a woman with a foot in both the white urban Atlanta culture of her father and the rural Cherokee culture of her mother. She was orphaned early and bears the scars of losing the people she’s loved. She is smart, a little to the introvert end of the spectrum and is beautiful when she smiles. She has been in love with Jonathan Walkingstick since the day she first saw him, but can’t quite figure out how to live with him. She loves a good joke, drives a black Miata and owns a Glock 9 that she’s not shy about using. If you were in trouble, she’d help you out, then go kick the butt of whoever got you in trouble in the first place. She’s someone I’d love to have as a friend.
MI: How does this book/series compare to your past works?
SB: A Judgment of Whispers is the most reality based novel I’ve ever written. I use the above mentioned murder case, mixed with the autistic son of a dear friend of mine. Mostly, it’s a novel about how hard people can be on people whose only crime is being different.
MI: Do you have a pet? Tell us about him/her.
SB: I’m the proud owner of Peyton Manning Bissell, a rescue pup who has grown into my 70 pound personal body guard. Also Princess Tingaling, a rescue cat. If Peyton were human he’d drive a pickup, drink Pabst beer and wear an orange Tennessee baseball cap. If Ting were human she’d sit on a throne and eat caviar with a little spoon. We have some fun times at our house.
|Sallie and Peyton Manning Bissell|
MI: If you don’t have a pet, do you have a favorite animal?
SB: I can’t think of an animal I don’t like, but I have a particular fondness for elephants and horses. Elephants because they are amazingly smart but overly hunted; horses because I’ve ridden them all my life. Animals, I think, behave far more decently than most humans. I make a point not to hurt them in my books.
MI: What food could you live off of for the rest of your life?
SB: Pizza. Hot for dinner, cold for breakfast. It’s all good!
MI: Do you have a favorite recipe?
SB: There’s a pie we eat in Tennessee called Chess Pie. I got my grandmother’s recipe for it before she died, but I think she forgot a few key ingredients. Mine has never come out as good as hers did. I don’t make it often, since it has about ten million calories a slice.
MI: What’s your favorite part about being an Inker?
SB: Writing stories that people get excited about! The long haul of writing—the sitting down and working for hours and weeks and months is a lot like shouting down a well. It’s lonely, isolating and has driven braver folks than me over the edge. To have colleagues who care about your work and are looking forward to the next rabbit you pull out of your hat makes things a lot more fun!
A Judgment of Whispers is available online and in bookstores now!
Visit Sallie online here.