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Friday, December 18, 2015

The Irrepressible Vermont Woman by Nancy Means Wright

I met Nancy Means Wright when we were both panelists for a Sisters in Crime discussion at a library in Vermont. Maybe it was a shared love of the mountains that nudged me to take a shine to this blunt and eloquent woman. Once we started talking, my upbringing on a dairy farm sparked her interest to tell me about her mysteries set on a dairy farm in Vermont. Then the talk went on to burning barns, and, well, the rest is history. 


Vermont has always seemed an Eden, a land of milk and honey, a place for healing and quiet meditation. A land that, early on called itself a Republic, a self-governed country that coined its own money and broke the rules it didn’t care for. Like the biblical Eden, there is always a snake in the garden. A decade ago I saw that small independent farmers were losing their farms, and that harmful drugs were infiltrating our paradise, poisoning our youth. I felt compelled to write in defense of those children and their parents.
When a pair of elderly famers were assaulted back in the ’90s, I began a novel, knowing only that I would set it on a hardscrabble farm run by a female farmer whom I’d call Ruth after a resourceful relative of mine. She would be tough and resilient, yet vulnerable as women often are, and angry at anyone who would harm her kids or do any kind of injustice to a neighbor. Since it was March and my driveway a mud bath, I would set the novel during mud season and call it MadSeason. A Boston Globe editor who’d liked one of my books said that locale should be “a reason, not merely setting” for a plot, so I tried to make the fictional town of “Branbury” a virtual character. Vermont is, after all, a land of extremes: ice, snow, heat, mud. In winter we huddle beside our woodstoves; when claustrophobia sets in, tempers might explode. The crime rate in Vermont is low, but when a murder occurs, it can be violent–and usually domestic.

My fictional Ruth Willmarth (a family surname) would have thirty cows on her farm, which she’d name after famous or literary women like Jane Eyre, Oprah. She’d be like myself as author, fumbling and bumbling and trying to find out whodunnit and why—especially why. Since I was going through a divorce at the time, I would make her a single mother of three whose husband has run off with another woman (that snake in the garden again). When Mad Season came out from St Martin’s Press (I lucked out, using my husband’s name as agent), The Philadelphia Inquirer called Ruth “earthy, funny, hot-tempered, and sexier than she knows—the glue for this admirably crafted first novel.”

I wrote four more before the series came to an end (Harvest of Bones, Poison Apples, Stolen Honey, Mad Cow Nightmare with Belgrave House).

By now I had a number of other published books, along with four grown children, and for their sake I began to research my forebears. At the turn of the 20th-century my Scottish grandmother took ship to NYC, alone, at the age of seventeen. Her half-sister had married an American, died in childbirth, and my granny had to give up a chance at university to be nanny to that sister’s brood of seven children. In time, she married her middle-aged uncle, gave him six more babies and ultimately moved to Vermont. I soon discovered in the Edinburgh, Scotland archives that she was illegitimate! It took a few scotches for me to digest this stunning news. But, I had to tell her story, along with the story of her oldest child, my mother Jessie.

I would put these women in a novel rather than memoir because in fiction one can make changes and write the story “slant.” After all, I had only the basic facts, along with family legends, doubtless altered with the telling, like the fictional tale of my grandmother’s journey to America, published in Seventeen Magazine. I would set the novel in the machine tool town of Springfield, Vermont, which was on Hitler’s list during World War II. I created a love affair between my heroine, Jessie, who teaches English to foreigners, and a young Polish poet, of whom her pious uncle bitterly disapproves. As far as I know, my grandmother was never in love with a young Pole, who despite his pacifism, fights for his new country in WW1, but like my proud mother Jessie, who never revealed her illegitimate origins (if indeed she knew) my granny stored her secrets deep inside.

Since my novel (Queens Never MakeBargains, published by Wind Ridge Books) tells the story of three passionate Vermont women who carry on their lives through two world wars, a pandemic and a Great Depression, I write from three different points of view. In Part 3, for instance, I’m in the head of rebel Victoria, the youngest of Jessie’s charges, who is hopelessly in love with a married professor and with the Spitfire airplane she ferries during WWII.

But, it’s Jessie who holds the family—and the book— together. Jessie, based on my own mother who nourished four children through two wars and endured the early loss of a husband with no money for health or life insurance. I was the youngest and she took me with her into a girl’s boarding school so I could have an education while she worked.

For me, Jessie is the quintessential tough, creative, irrepressible Vermont woman.


Nancy Means Wright has published numerous books of fiction (mystery and mainstream), with St Martin’s Press, Perseverance Press & elsewhere, including two historical mysteries featuring 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft.  Her most recent historicals are Walking into the Wild (Prince and Pauper Press), and the multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains (Wind Ridge Books).  Short stories appear in American Literary Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Level Best Books, et al. Her children’s mysteries have received an Agatha Award and Agatha nomination. Nancy lives in Middlebury, Vermont, with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats. 

Next week my guest will be attorney and author V.S. Kemanis. If you are in New York on December 19, join V.S. and other mystery writers at the KBG Bar for the Mystery Writers of America Crime Fiction Reading. V.S. will be reading an excerpt from her upcoming novel, Forsaken Oath.


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