Sunday, February 27, 2011

Donis Casey for Authors @ The Teague

Donis Casey's appearance for Authors @ The Teague attracted an audience that was particularly interested in her mystery series because the books are set in Oklahoma. They recognized the settings of her mysteries, Boynton. So, Donis introduced herself by saying she and her husband moved to Arizona from Oklahoma about twenty-five years ago. She worked as a librarian at Arizona State University, and when she felt like quitting, she opened a business in Tempe, a gift shop that specialized in items from Scotland and Ireland. But, she'd always wanted to write a mystery, so she closed her business with plans to write. However, her sister asked her to wait to write the mystery until she gave the family a gift by writing a family history for her siblings, since Casey had already done some genealogical work.

As Donis researched, she also remembered her family history, and stories of the family, stories she remembered from growing up in Oklahoma. Her grandfather owned a barber shop in Boynton. Her grandmother ran Mrs. Casey's Cafe. Donis' other grandparents had a farm, the farm described in her mysteries. And, she remembered how they lived on the farm, with no electricity, no running water, but they were self-sufficient. And, even her husband, who grew up at the edge of town in Enid, Oklahoma, grew up with no indoor toilet. Donis saw her grandmother do laundry in the backyard over a big old iron kettle, using blueing, and hanging the sheets on the line or draping them over bushes.  It's a scene she used in her first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. She included a lot of detail as to the laundry.  She uses many of the stories of her family in the books.

Casey said she discovered history was made by her ancestors.  When you're living your life, you don't realize you're making history.

Alafair Tucker is Donis Casey's sleuth.  When the series starts, she's not quite forty.  She has nine children in that first book.  Her oldest children are in their early twenties.  Later in the series, she has ten children.  So, their ages range from early twenties down to an infant.

Originally, Casey planned to center each book on a different child.  She though of the series as having a ten story arc.  Each one of the children would get in mischief, and mama, Alafair, would get them out, whether or not they wanted her to do that.  All of the children have their own personalities.

The first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, is set in 1912. It's centered on Phoebe, who is seventeen in that book. Phoebe is based on Donis' mother, Phoebe. Alafair is the name of her father's grandmother. The second book, Hornswoggled, features Alice, based on Casey's father's mother. She's Phoebe's twin, but she's headstrong, and doesn't want her mother interfering in her life.

In book three, The Drop Edge of Yonder, the story deals with Mary, named for Casey's father's aunt.  Donis told us she's particularly fond of the fourth book, The Sky Took Him. In that mystery, Alafair and her oldest daughter, Martha, take a train ride to Enid, Oklahoma.  This is Casey's mother/daughter story. Since Alafair really isn't that much older than Martha, this is their opportunity to discover each other as human beings, rather than just mother and daughter.  Each of those first four books featured a child.

So, then it was time for the fifth book, Crying Blood. Casey told us she once went to see mystery writer Jerrilyn Farmer, who writes a series about a caterer. Farmer said when she started, she heard it takes about five books to feel as if you've made it. Now, she understands it takes seven books before you feel as if you've made it.

Casey's idea was to write ten books in the series.  She knew where it was going. But, things change, and people want to know about the characters. For her fifth book, she started to write a story set at the beginning of World War I in 1917.  But, her editor wanted her to slow down, and not make everyone grow up so fast. So, Crying Blood is set only three months after The Sky Took Him, in 1915.

Crying Blood deals with Alafair's husband, Shaw.  This one deals with the men in the family.

Donis told us that she went to college from 1966-70. She was a big feminist. She was not interested in living the traditional woman's life. But, eventually, she realized in denigrating the lives our mothers and grandmothers were living, she was making a mistake. If not for them, she wouldn't be what she is. She couldn't think their lives were any less important than men's. In her opinion, civilization is because of women. If not for them, we would still be living in caves. She wanted to honor her grandmothers, and how they lived with such grace.

Alafair's daughters are coming up in a new world in the 20th century. They have choices. They're hoping for votes for women. Alafair didn't have the same choices, yet she has tremendous power over her family.

Crying Blood is to honor the father, Shaw. It's setting is the fall of 1915, beginning with the men's annual quail hunting trip. They're hunting on abandoned land owned by Shaw's stepfather. Shaw is always melancholy this time of year. It reminds him of his father who took them hunting. Shaw's father died when he was eight. But, this year, he's melancholy because his older children are growing up and leaving home. So, he's already in a state at the beginning of the story.

Instead of bringing back a bird, one of the dogs brings back an old boot. When the boys dump it out, bones fall out. The dog leads Shaw back to an old grave in the woods, where they uncover a skeleton that was shot between the eyes. That makes Shaw uneasy because the land is owned by his stepfather, who he wasn't fond of. They reported the body to the local authorities who said it could have been an Indian or it could have even been from the Civil War, which wasn't that far in the past in 1915. But, when the men return home, things happen on the farm. Shaw is aware that something followed them home, and he wishes they hadn't disturbed that grave.

Casey said the past has long arms. There are echoes of things that happened long ago. Crying Blood is set on Creek land, and she calls it her Indian book. The Creeks believed in Crying Blood. Their Master of Breath, a beautiful term for God, set the world in balance, and it remains that way unless we screw it up. If the world is set out of balance, if someone is killed before their time and it's someone's fault, that person has to make restitution, or the family of the victim is crying blood, trying to set the world back in balance. This story is about setting the past back in balance. And, Shaw takes things into his own hands.

Donis' mysteries talk about the lives of the people, and the way they lived those lives. Food is important in the books. With ten kids, what's for dinner is important. She includes recipes in the back of her books that are directions for making the food they might have eaten. But, this book has to deal with butchering time. They kill hogs and preserve the meat. One of Casey's readers told her she didn't think she'd be making these recipes for things such as head cheese.

There will be another book before the World War I story. Casey's trying to write one that will come out in 2012,Arizona's centennial year, that will bring Alafair to Arizona. She's been researching what was happening here in 1916. It was quite a busy year. The Mexican Civil War was going on, and immigrant were trying to escape from Mexico, pouring into Arizona. There were so many that in 1914 the state passed a law saying all businesses must have at least 80% of the employees who were native born. But that didn't work, because they couldn't find enough workers to pick the crops. They repealed that a year later.

Donis hopes to set her book in Tempe in 1916. There was a Hollywood movie filming there that year, "The Yaqui," featuring a major star, Hobart Bosworth.

Casey said she has the whole storyline arc planned for her books. She has five books out now. She wants them all to be interesting books that hold up. She told us any series writer starts to be desperate after writing five to ten books. Mystery writers refer to the Cabot Cove syndrome, in which too many murders occur in a small community. Cabot Cove became a murder capitol in the Jessica Fletcher series. So, she took Alafair Tucker out of Boynton for the fourth book in the series. She wants to keep the series fresh, so Alafair is going to have to travel again. She feels sorry for Sue Grafton, who is committed to a twenty-six book series. When she started the series, it was a contemporary series set in the 1980s. Now it's a historical series, set in the '80s.

If Donis takes all of her children through the arc of the series, Alafair's youngest will be in her twenties just in time for the Depression.  Casey really didn't want to cover the Depression because that's all anyone thinks of when they think of Oklahoma. But, in this time period, 1912 on, Oklahoma is actually booming with growth, businesses, oil.

Donis Casey hadn't been back to Boynton, Oklahoma since 1979, when she returned in 2006. The town that had boomed with businesses, restaurants, and two banks really isn't there anymore. It's sad. The last census counted 200 residents, and it's probably smaller now. It was a little boom town in the early twentieth century.

Casey's mystery series allows her to preserve a way of life that she only got in at the tail end of.

Donis Casey's website is www.doniscasey.com

Crying Blood by Donis Casey.  Poisoned Pen Press, ©2011. ISBN 9781590588314 (hardcover), 250p.

10 comments:

Naomi Johnson said...

I'm looking forward to reading the new book. Some of Casey's stories about turn-of-the-century Oklahoma evoke my own family stories about the same time period in Appalachia.

Lesa said...

Naomi,

I always enjoy the stories about the children, but it was really interesting to see this one focus on Shaw. I'm sure you'll be able to relate this to the men in your family.

Beth Hoffman said...

Thank you for introducing me to this author, Lesa. I just added her name to my list!

Hope you and the kitties are having a lovely Sunday.

Lesa said...

I think you'll appreciate her books, Beth. I'm sure some of the stories of Oklahoma will remind you of the South.

The kitties just had their 11:30 snack, so they're all happy. And, I'm waiting for the Oscars today. Go Colin Firth!

Elizabeth said...

I have read the first book so far and plan to continue.
I liked the genteel tone of the book, the politeness everyone showed for each other, something so totally
lost in many areas nowadays.

Pat Browning said...

Quoting: "Donis saw her grandmother do laundry in the backyard over a big old iron kettle, using blueing, and hanging the sheets on the line or draping them over bushes."

I can't believe I'm old enough to be Donis Casey's grandmother, but that's how we washed clothes when I was growing up in Oklahoma. We had a barbed wire fence to hang clothes on. For years I had a scar on my left leg from throwing coal oil under the big iron pot to hurry up the fire. Since I lived through those days I love reading books set in Oklahoma in the 1930s and 1940s.
Pat Browning
Author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE

Lesa said...

Elizabeth,

I know what you mean about the genteel tone. I like the family relationships in these books, and the stories of their lives.

Lesa said...

Oh, Pat. You'd have to talk to Donis, but I don't know that you're actually old enough to be her grandmother. Remember, you said you were growing up then, too. And, the series actually starts in 1912. I'm sure you'd enjoy them if you haven't read them yet.

Donis Casey said...

What a fabulous article, thanks so much, Lesa. And thanks for hosting me on Saturday. The Teague is one of my favorite venues. BTW, Pat, if you were old enough to be my grandmother, you'd definitely be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Lesa said...

I always enjoy having you come to Velma Teague, Donis. Thank you again. My pleasure to host you, and write the recap. I didn't think Pat was quite that old, Donis. (grin)