Thursday, May 6, 2021

Alicia Beckman

Alicia Beckman adored living in Seattle as a college student and young lawyer, but is happiest back home in her native Montana, where she lives with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their full-figured gray tuxedo cat. As Leslie Budewitz, she’s the bestselling author of the Seattle Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. A three-time Agatha Award winner, for Best Short Story (2018), Best First Novel (2013), and Best Nonfiction (2011), she is a past president of Sisters in Crime and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America.

Beckman's new novel is Bitterroot Lake.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Bitterroot Lake appeared as I neared the end of the first draft, and like love at first sight, I recognized it instantly. My previous novels are cozy mystery—the light-hearted side of the mystery world—and I was headed down an adjacent road, with a proposal for a traditional mystery series. The acquiring editor thought the first had the potential to be stand-alone suspense and I knew she was absolutely right. That meant my working title no longer fit, and also meant using a pen name. I didn’t mind either change. Only a handful of my books have come to print with their original titles, and the pen name gave me a chance to honor my late mother.

Bitterroot Lake is the story of four women who reunite unexpectedly after twenty-five years and are forced by murder to reconsider the tragedy that tore them apart. It’s also a story of fractured friendships and family ties, of the connections between women across the generations, and of the ways a place can influence us.

Not far from my home in NW Montana is a small mountain lake called Little Bitterroot. The name worked so well for this book that I didn’t hesitate to borrow it. The real lake is fairly remote and not near a town, but the surrounding area is very much that of the fictional place.

The connotations of the word “bitterroot” fit the story perfectly. The bitterroot is a ground-flower with pinkish-lavender petals native to the Northern Rockies, wild and impossible to cultivate. Meriwether Lewis, he of “undaunted courage” as historian Stephen Ambrose titled his biography, borrowing a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, named the plant, which is sacred to the native tribes of Western Montana. It is now the state flower. It is pure loveliness, a brief life that returns each year. And yet, the name hints at secrets, that something deeply rooted has left a bitter taste, sown discord.

The unexpected gathering at the center of the story takes place at a lakeside lodge owned by the family of the main character, Sarah McCaskill Carter. And there is something inherently mysterious, even ominous, about “lake” in a title.

So the title is both geography and metaphor, taking us to a place and setting the mood for the journey. Ultimately, like that flower blooming on the hillside high above the water, good and beauty triumph, but at a cost.

What's in a name?

Sarah and her brother and sister are each named for a long-gone relative or family friend. They know it, but they don’t know much about their namesakes. I firmly believe that a woman’s journey—a heroine’s journey—is one of identity. For Sarah and Holly, discovering the truth about the women whose names they bear gives them a stronger sense of connection to their family and its history, and ultimately, a stronger sense of themselves.

But it was actually finding the brother’s name, Connor—through a suggestion from a reader—that helped me see the connections between the three siblings and their ancestors, and decide to make that a stronger element in the story.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self worked as a bookseller, the second best job I’ve ever had. (First? Novelist, of course.) One of my favorite books from those days was “. . . And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer, a fat paperback I still have. It begins in 1868 in a small town in Ohio, when two young girls are invited to join a local book club, and ends in 1932 when the last of them dies. In between, the girls become young women, wives, mothers, widows, and old ladies, but the constants are their friendship and the club. Clearly, the themes of women’s friendships and of women helping each other cope with ordinary life and extraordinary tragedy—a huge part of Bitterroot Lake—took hold a long time ago.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

While I can’t say one is harder than the other, for most of my books, the beginning changes more. That seems natural: We find the story as we write it, and what we thought was the beginning might turn out to have happened years before, fifty pages in, or not at all. That said, the first chapter of Bitterroot Lake is pretty much what I wrote in the original proposal, although the finished book has a short prologue that both sets up and reflects the rest of the story.

I always knew the choices Sarah and her friends would make at the end. I did not know how they would get to those choices or the discoveries they would make along the way. Finding out what happens, and how it affects the main characters, is a big part of why I write, and I think it’s the main reason we read fiction: to have an emotional experience, to make an emotional connection, that helps us better understand the world around us.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There’s a piece of me or something that intrigues me in most of my characters, even, I have to admit, the villains. The key is to take that bit and push it, stretch it, see how an experience makes one person behave one way, while another person responds completely differently.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So many things! I’m deeply rooted in Montana, the setting of Bitterroot Lake and my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, and I loved going to college in Seattle, the setting of my Spice Shop mysteries. A sense of place and history are key to my writing. I paint a little, and art and artists work their way into most of my stories. Food. Travel. Dogs and cats. The sense of discovery. Knowing a lot of artists, writers, and musicians, as Mr. Right and I do, has expanded my sense of the creative process. Central to it is the ability to bring together disparate ideas, and I’m grateful for the ways that writing, by doing that, connects me to the world and the people in it.
Visit Leslie Budewitz's & Alicia Beckman's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bitterroot Lake.

--Marshal Zeringue