Vivian Lawry has roots in Appalachia, and ties to Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, and up-state New York. Now she lives and writes near Richmond, Virginia. She writes broadly, everything from memoir to magical realism. She is co-author of two Chesapeake Bay Mysteries: Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart. Her most recent book is Different Drummer—a collection of off-beat fiction. The title says it all. Winner of the Sandra Brown Award for Short Fiction, her work appears in more than four dozen literary magazines and anthologies. She blogs about writing and life at vivianlawry.com. Like Vivian Lawry on Facebook.
When I was a young child, the only books in our house were several Bibles and a two-volume pictorial history of World War II. My father, who had an eighth grade education, subscribed to Field and Stream. My mother (tenth grade education) subscribed to Modern Romance and True Confessions. Besides the Dick-and-Jane readers, the first books I remember clearly are The Littlest Mermaid (not the Disney version) and my fourth grade geography book. The former showed me beauty, magic, and sorrow. The latter showed me wonders of the world beyond my small Ohio town. I can still see the pictures of African tribes—pigmies; women with elongated necks, their heads resting on a column of rings; men with artistic scarring.
Neither my school nor my town was big enough to boast a library. Instead, we had a bookmobile that came every two weeks. I had special dispensation from my teachers to take out more than two books at a time. I walked home with all the books I could carry between my cupped hands and chin. On the shelves of that bookmobile I discovered my first serialized love: the Cherry Ames nurse books, 27 of them written between 1943 and 1968 (by Helen Wells (18) and Julia Campbell Tatham (9)). Every book involved a medical mystery. My second serial love was the Ruth Fielding series, 30 volumes produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, between 1913 and1934. Ruth Fielding volumes and several books of fairy tales filled a small bookshelf at the foot of my Aunt Mary’s bed. Mary was (and is) five years older than I. When I stayed with my grandparents in the summer, I devoured Aunt Mary’s books. Ruth Fielding also solved mysteries. And the fairy tales? Only a step from The Littlest Mermaid.
Reading, reading, reading. When I was well into elementary school, my parents decided to acquire a set of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedias. A local grocery story offered one volume for a quarter with a grocery purchase of a specified amount I don’t remember, and they thought we three children should have the reference books on hand. Facts are fabulous.
Skipping lightly over lots of reading, I first discovered The Great Escape in college. During finals week one semester, I read The Complete Illustrated Sherlock Holmes. I currently follow both the “Elementary” and “Sherlock” series on TV. Another finals week, I read all of Jane Austen. I’ve read all of Jane Austen several times since then. On my honeymoon, I discovered Ross MacDonald on the shelves of a B&B in Vermont. I loved his twisted, multi-generational plots, dark as they were. I read all I could find, as soon as I could find them. Then there was Dorothy L. Sayers. She is the only mystery writer whose books I’ve read more than once. Once you know who done it, what’s left but the craft? As a green academic, I found Rex Stout’s thirty-three mysteries a great escape from cyclical pressures, each of them so formulaic. In the Dick Francis series of forty-three novels, the through-line wasn’t a character but racing in the broadest sense. I discovered the fun of learning things from mysteries. That eventually merged with my pleasure in the Nevada Barr mysteries, where her through-character (Anna Pigeon) takes the reader from one national park to another.
Over the years, I sometimes ventured into other escape routes, leading to calm in the midst of stress, something to make me just not think about it and fill hours of sleeplessness. For example, I sipped port as I read all the volumes of The Poldark Saga as well as all of Robertson Davies. I could never get interested in Agatha Christie, unfortunately for me, given how prolific she was. But so many of her stories seemed to be solved by the alligator over the transom—an unforeseen, fortuitous event, with evidence completely unavailable to the reader.
Funny thing, though. Since I started writing mysteries, reading them is no longer escapist reading. I still read mysteries sometimes. I read all three of the Steig Larsson books, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He broke all the rules and was a raging success. I’ve recently read Tana French, very atmospheric. But now it feels like research.
I spent long hours at the hospital, holding my brother’s hand as he lay dying. When I wasn’t holding his hand, I read Jane Austen Fan Fiction. There are hundreds of them out there. And no matter what twists, turns, extensions, or variations of Pride and Prejudice come to hand, there is a basically familiar structure. Shades of Rex Stout!
Most recently, I’ve discovered the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, nine l-o-n-g novels, including elements of historical fiction, romance, mystery, adventure, and science fiction/fantasy. I’m not usually a fan of science fiction, in spite of the excellent works of Ursula Le Guin. But the Gabaldon books are time-travel novels that go into the past, incredibly well researched and grounded in fact. Nettie’s Books, my manuscript that is a finalist in the Best Unpublished Novel Contest sponsored biannually by James River Writers and Richmond Magazine, took me in that direction. Although set in western Virginia, 1930-1935, it took me into that territory of getting it right.
Bottom line: books are the great escape! And there’s something there for you, wherever you might be in your journey.