By Susan McBride
Letha Albright made her debut on the mystery scene with TULSA TIME, a powerful story of trust. It’s no wonder the title received critical acclaim with its vivid descriptions of northeastern Oklahoma, the setting for the novel, and strong characterizations, particularly that of Viv Powers, the reporter who must investigate the possibility that her lover is a killer. Letha follows up her powerful first novel with DAREDEVIL’S APPRENTICE, officially a June release from Avocet Press. Once again, the theme of trust—and friendship—is at the heart of the tale. I wondered what prompted the author to tackle the subject a second time around.
Susan McBride: Tell us about DAREDEVIL'S APPRENTICE and how the idea for this second Viv Powers' mystery was born?
Letha Albright: DAREDEVIL’S APPRENTICE explores friendship and its boundaries. When reporter Viv Powers is asked to help cover up a murder committed by her friend Lucie Dreadfulwater, she is torn between loyalty to her friend and growing evidence that she has been drawn into something with far-reaching consequences. When Lucie winds up dead, Viv’s sense of guilt forces her into an investigation that puts her own life at risk.
The seeds for this story were planted more than two decades ago when I lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Even when I lived there, I realized it would make a great setting for a book. The land was harsh but beautiful, the people complex and surprising. Nothing was ever as it seemed on the surface. I was surrounded by well-educated drunks and artists. I knew moonshiners, dope growers, cockfighters and petty thieves. These same people partied with musicians, artists, priests and professors. Almost everyone claimed some Native American ancestry. It was a freewheeling, heady society, where all kinds of excesses, failings and miracles were accepted.
While living there, it seemed impossible to get started writing about the place. I imagined a book that featured a strong, tough woman and her shallow sister, but I was never able to sit down and write. How would my friends feel, I wondered? Would they act differently around me if they thought they might end up in a book? In a way, it seemed like a betrayal. It wasn’t until years later and miles away, that I allowed my mind to play with those characters and create some “what if?” situations.
SM: Like love, trust can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you and why do you like to play with it as a theme in your writing?
LA: In my first mystery novel, TULSA TIME, Viv Powers’ trust and loyalty was put to the ultimate test when her lover was accused of murder. DAREDEVIL’S APPRENTICE deals with the bonds of friendship. Both books examine a more basic issue that we all face: How well do we really know the people who make up the fabric of our daily lives?
I keep returning to these themes — these intimate, basic ways in which people relate to one another — because I wrestle with these issues in my own life. And, as is often the case, the answer to your question lies in the past.
I recently sat my parents down and asked them to recount every place we had lived from my birth until I left for college at age 18. They came up with 25. All my young life, I was the new kid. It may be to the advantage of a writer to always feel like an outsider, but as a child, it’s a painful experience. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s all part of growing up, and it has provided a rich storehouse of memories and characters from which to draw stories.
At the same time, it gave me a distorted view of security and the longevity of relationships. When you’re in fifth grade and have a falling out with your best friend, no big deal. You’ll be moving soon and making new friends. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to form lasting, significant friendships. And I’m still learning about what that means, which may be why those themes crop up in my books.
SM: What did you learn in the process of promoting TULSA TIME that you can put to use this time around?
LA: It’s more fun to go on the road with others. I’m part of the Deadly Divas, a group of four mystery authors who tour together and give talks at bookstores and libraries. We have a lot of fun together, and we’re all fans of each other’s work, so it makes promotion seem like a great adventure.
SM: Do you think having to be a promoter of your own books is contrary to the "solitary" personality of a writer? How do you deal with it?
LA: It is certainly contrary to my solitary nature. But I learned long ago that I have to get out of the house, or I go quietly insane. I start imagining a darker, more unkind place is outside my doors if I don’t get out on a regular basis and see evidence to the contrary.
If I ever get to the place where I can make a living staying home and writing novels, I will have to make a conscious effort to be a part of the larger society – whether it’s through a part-time job or volunteer work. Sometimes I imagine being a full-time writer and having the luxury of time to sit on a barstool in the afternoons and listening to the stories of the people who stop by. Kind of like the resident roadhouse shrink.
SM: When do you get your writing time in between family obligations, your full-time job as a magazine editor and promotional events?
LA: I wish I could say that I’m very organized and never procrastinate. But that would be a lie. I do set a schedule and try to stick to it. Sunday is my fiction-writing day, and if I’m really in the zone with a scene, my writing time can extend to weekday evenings. I could never write early in the morning, though. That takes too much active brainwork, and the only thing I’m good for before 8 a.m. is reading and drinking coffee. Pots of it.
Unfortunately, I’m no saint when it comes to keeping my schedule. If it’s a beautiful, sunny day, and someone invites me to go rock climbing, it’s almost impossible to say no. Instead, I vow to work harder and make up for it later. That usually works.
SM: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about being a published author?
LA: No. 1: That we’re rich.
No. 2: That our books will automatically be available in every bookstore in the country.
No. 3: Since we have a book out, the “Today Show” must be begging us to book an appearance.
SM: What are you working on now?
LA: I’m wrapping up a book called BED OF STONE. It’s set in Oklahoma (again!) during the Great Depression, and it tells the story of a woman whose baby has been sold. She turns to robbing banks in order to raise money to find her child.
It’s a dark and violent book, and it’s one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever worked on – in part because it was sparked by family history. Back in the 1920s in Oklahoma City, a landlady sold my husband’s aunt to a couple who wanted to adopt her. Apparently child selling was rampant during those hard times; the Oklahoma legislature even passed a law in the 1930s outlawing the practice. Although my husband’s family tried to find the girl and get her back, they weren’t successful.
That’s where the “what if” part comes in. What if the mother was so desperate to find her child that she was willing to break the law? What kind of woman would she be? How would she go about it? And BED OF STONE was born.
SM: Which contemporary authors most inspire you and why?
LA: John McPhee for his amazing research skills, his ability to grasp very complex situations and write about them in simple terms. Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy for the harsh beauty of their language and unsparing depiction of the American West. Barbara Kingsolver for the complex emotional life of her characters. They shine with truth and life. Flannery O’Conner and Raymond Carver for their spare use of language. The way they know when they’ve told you just enough. Less is sometimes more. I also admire the courage with which they write: their subject matter and their characters.
SM: What do you hope readers "get" when they dive into a Letha Albright novel?
LA: I hope they say to themselves, “Yeah, she got that right.” I hope they see my characters as real people, whose lives extend beyond the pages of the book. I hope that when they finish the book they’ll think about how some of the issues I’ve raised relate to their own lives.
SM: Share the best advice you ever got (with regard to writing or life in general)?
LA: I like something I read by author Michael Chabon in the Washington Post that reveals the lengths to which we must go if we want to write anything meaningful. The quote is hanging on the wall in my office. Here’s part of it:
“Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. Telling the truth, when the truth matters most, is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.”
Visit Letha Albright’s web site at http://letha-albright.com
for more on the author and DAREDEVIL’S APPRENTICE.
Oklahoma reporter Viv Powers returns in Daredevil's Apprentice, the second in the series by the talented Letha Albright. The novel explores friendship, asking us how well we really know even our closest friends and how far we would go to protect them. Viv's own beliefs are put to the test when she finds her best buddy, Lucie Dreadfulwater, hovering over the dead body of Dale Nowlin in her barn with a bloodied knife clasped in her hand. When Lucie asks Viv to assist her in cover up the murder, what's a friend to do?
When Lucie herself turns up dead not long after, Viv wonders about the choice she made. She wonders, too, what troubles Lucie had gotten into that she'd never discussed with her best friend. Once Viv starts looking under rocks, she turns up more than she'd bargained for: questions about who Dale Nowlin was and his strange family ties; the unsolved disappearance of Lucie Dreadfulwater's grandfather; and the malevolent power of a mythical Indian spirit called Utlunta on those drawn into the web of murders in Tahlequah.
Albright mixes rich characterization, a northeastern Oklahoma setting ripe with history and myth and a complex tale of murder, loyalty and cover-ups. For mystery fans who like slightly edgy amateur sleuth novels, you can't do better than Daredevil's Apprentice.