Julia Spencer-Fleming Interviews Michelle Blake

Michelle Blake is the author of the critically acclaimed Lily Connor series. Lily is an Episcopal priest, born and bred in Texas, transplanted to Boston, at odds with the church, and, as befits a sleuth, often in trouble. The New York Times Book Reviews wrote that the series "...stands out for a couple of reasons--besides the essential one of being written with intelligence and grace. These books take a long view of crime, finding meaningful lessons in antisocial acts."

Blake received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and at one time considered becoming a priest herself. She now teaches fiction writing at Tufts University and lives outside of Boston with her husband, the novelist, Dennis McFarland, and their two children. The paperback version of the third book in the series, THE BOOK OF LIGHT, was published this spring by Penguin Putnam.

Michelle tells me she thinks associatively--which explains some of the lovely, unique imagery found in her writing. When it came to my interview questions, she grouped a few together to answer by theme.

Julia: Amazon.com has said, "To that extremely short list of crime-solving clerics who manage to be convincing as both priests and detectives (such as G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown and Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael), we can now add Lily Connor." What would you like to tell us about your series?

Amazon, like almost every review of your books, fixates on Lily's jeans and "hand-tooled cowboy boots." Now, I notice the boots because here in New England, you don't see many of them around. However, the reviews seem amazed that a priest gets up in that garb. Any thoughts as to why that is so remarkable?

"The Lutheran" praised the "quality of discernment" in your work. Lily doesn't just barge into situations, looking for answers; she brings her concerns to God in prayer. She may in fact be the only detective in mysteries today who goes on retreat when faced with difficult issues (in The Tentmaker and The Book of Light.) What do you feel the element of discernemtn brings to the books? To Lily? Do you every worry about balancing the contemplative with the active?

Michelle: I'm always happy when I hear that Lily is convincing. She is certainly convincing to me--meaning that I experience her as three-dimensional, a character with her own way of doing things, and wearing things, and making decisions. For instance, she wears the cowboy boots because she grew up on a ranch in a small town in the Hill Country, between Houston and Austin. So she grew up wearing boots--at least, on weekends and after school. (Because she went to a Catholic school, she wore a uniform, which did not include cowboy boots.) For a lot of people, once you're used to cowboy boots, other shoes aren't very comfortable. And it's also a way for her to keep a part of herself, and her past, and her love for her father alive. Reviewers may remark on them because they act as a kind of objective correlative for who Lily is--a Texan, an iconoclast, a character with specific quirks and preferences.

The same is true for her praying or going on retreats. She does it because that's how she understands the world. Lily's faith is real. God isn't a theory to her. So she assumes that the answers to the questions (dare I say mysteries) in her life are out there, somewhere. She has to be quiet and listen for them. And, then, of course, she has to get busy and act on those answers. So the balance of action and contemplation in the books is, to some degree, the balance of action and contemplation in the life of a faithful person. Lily's impatience with the church, her righteous (and self-righteous) indignation get her into trouble and often keep her from listening as well as she might. I like the play of impatient, impulsive actions against the backdrop of contemplation.

Most armchair detectives, in the Conan Doyle-Sayers-Heilbrun tradition, have their own form of prayer and retreat. Sherlock Holmes locked himself in his rooms, took cocaine and opium, smoked his pipe, and thought really hard. He was, at heart, a scientist, and his faith was in the power of deduction. Wimsey flitted about asking questions, but there's always a moment in those books when he comes to rest; often it involves a feeling of dread or sadness about the outcome of the investigation. He is an astonishingly literate person, and a book collector, and Harriet Vane is a writer, so one has the sense that their faith is in literature, the capacity of the human being to create art and behave decently--very British. (Of course, Sayers was an active and influential Anglican herself, although you don't see Wimsey or Harriet Vane doing much praying.)

The focus over the last fifty years seems to have from deduction to kicking people in the head. I actually like reading both, and I like writing action scenes. I loved writing the scenes (in EARTH HAS NO SORROW) in which Lily is held prisoner in a box-like room in a basement, and then she breaks out. I practiced the action, with my daughter opening a door and my trying to slam her upside the head (I didn't actually ). But, finally, the real pleasure for me, as a reader and as a writer, has to do with revelation--the moment when it all comes together.

Julia: You're releasing a book in the Lily Connor series every other year--in addition to teaching at Tufts and raising kids. Teaching English and creative writing must take a great deal of the same sort of energy that one needs for writing. How do you summon the wherewithal for your own work while attending to your students'? How do you organize your time?

Michelle: I want to say something about this question. It's really gratifying for me to have someone notice how busy I've been over the last seven or eight years. On the other hand, having been that busy for that long, there's part of me that is now saying--wait a minute. We really do give women (a small category of women, at least--formally educated women living with moderate to high incomes) the message that if you want a family and a career and an income and health benefits, you can have them, but you have to be willing to work at a kind of frenzied pace. So I worry about making that kind of accomplishment--having done so many things--a kind of goal or even an inspiration. For a lot of those years, I was TOO busy. I had too much going on. I didn't sleep enough. I was always a pretty conscientious mother, so my kids didn't suffer anything other than the usual pains of having a human being for a parent. But I suffered, at my own hand. Nobody made me do it. And I'm thrilled I have the children and the books and the health benefits, and I'm grateful, as well, to have had all those opportunities. But I'm ready to slow down--though I don't really know what that means yet.

As for teaching, I think teachers--those called to the profession--are the cream of the crop. They're the ones who ought to be running the country. I'm not called to teaching--at least, not teaching creative writing to college students. It's fun. I have wonderful students and colleagues at Tufts. It's an ideal job for a writer in many ways. But, yes, it does take a lot of the same energy as writing--and as being a mother. If I could--that's to say, if I made enough money--I would write full time and read and garden and hang out with my kids. On the other hand, I should add that I was a poet for twenty years, so when I started teaching fiction I learned a lot about narrative and dialogue and tension and conflict--the basics. And that, of course, has helped my writing immensely.
Julia: There are strong social justice themes in all your books--homophobia, anti-semitism, sexism to name some notable concerns. And of course, there's theology. The Book of Light reminded me of Laurie R. King's "A Letter of Mary." Both feature a lost and avidly sought-after document, both have a strongly feminist viewpoint and theologically sophisticated sleuths, although your novel focuses its spiritual exploration in a more personal way, through Lily's eyes. Were you influenced by King? What is it like entwining theology with fiction? Which comes first when you begin a story, the issue or the mystery? And no question about writing would be complete without the old standby: Outline? Or no?

Michelle: For me, the novels almost always begin with a scene, something I see clearly. Usually, it's Lily sitting at a desk, leaning back with her feet up--on a college campus, or in a parish, or at the Women's Center. I live with each novel for a while before I ever start to write. I know most of the characters, I know what's at stake, and I know what matters to me, and to Lily, in the story. She and I share a lot of social justice concerns, and so those concerns naturally surface in the books. As I think about it, the concerns and the mystery are inextricable in some ways. For me, and for Lily, the bad or wrong or evil things that happen are directly linked to some kind of abuse of power.

I've never been very interested in the criminal mind. It seems to me a little one-note--the obsessive-compulsive ritual murderer, making the perfect omelette and then cutting women's heads off. And I have a very strong bias against using violence toward women and children, especially sexual violence, as a plot point in a book. I'm much more interested in the forces in life that cause everyday people to become desperate enough to commit a crime.

And here's where theology and mysteries seem to meet in a natural, even inevitable, way. Theologically, sin could be said to be a falling away from God, or the divine, however one imagines that. In Hebrew the word for sin means literally "to miss the mark." What I want to look at in these books are the ways in which human beings miss the mark, the ways in which we fall away from what we know to be right--and what it takes to get back on course. In both mysteries and theology, there's this idea of confession as the first step toward absolution, forgiveness, correction. Most of my "bad" characters are characters who have lost their way; this seems almost always to include lying and keeping secrets--big secrets, about who they are and what they've done.

When I was growing up, my mother married a man who eventually became my adoptive father. He was Jewish, though I never knew this until I was in my twenties, after he was dead. It was a secret he tried to keep for his entire life. He was extremely successful in business, he loved my mother, he had a beautiful home, but he was miserable much of the time. I have always connected the two--his unhappiness and his secret. Somehow, this staying on course is inextricably bound up in knowing and accepting who we are. In any case, I have noticed that a lot of my troubled characters are people who try to keep secrets about their lives, and this ends up in some kind of disaster.

As for Laurie King, she is a wonderful writer, but I've never read the Mary book. I'm a born mimic, and I'm terrified of reading someone else's work, then having a key element from that book turn up in my next novel. I'm often unconscious about the source of my ideas, so I try to avoid a situation in which I might, unconsciously, steal, say, the plot point or character trait from a Laurie King or Julia Spencer-Fleming novel. One great thing for me is that if I ever stop writing this series, I'll have some brilliant books to read.

Julia: You attended the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. part time and you have a masters in Theological studies from Harvard Divinity. Were you actively studying for the priesthood? How does your experience inform Lily's? And how did you get from there to writing fiction?

Michelle: I've been a writer all my life. In seventh grade I won an award, and that's all it took. I wrote poetry, on and off, for almost thirty years (if you count the award in junior high). I majored in English and Creative Writing at Stanford, and also studied Human Biology. But I have always assumed I would be a writer, and that's what I became.

In 1973, I attended Episcopal Divinity School (then Episcopal Theological School) for a couple of years, but I didn't stay to finish my degree. At that time, women were not being LEGALLY ordained, so it was a strange time to be in seminary. I was studying Greek and Hebrew, and I loved it, but I didn't know what I would do with it. Also, I met someone with whom I moved to Vermont to live.

Finally, I went to the Goddard MFA Program in Vermont. I was writing poetry all this time, and I ended up running that graduate program and continuing to teach and write poetry. Eventually, I felt called to finish my stint in seminary, so when my kids were little, I went to Harvard Divinity School, and this time I got a Masters of Theological Studies. This is not the degree one gets in order to be a priest; the MTS is an academic degree.

So then, as we like to say in my family, I had the two most useless degrees in the world--and MFA and an MTS. But out of that combination, my writing and my studying theology, Lily was born. I have also always been a voracious reader of mysteries, and I felt I had run out of series I loved to read. So I decided to try to write one. I went to the beach by myself for a while, and I came up with a version of Lily; her name was Anne, and she was a less interesting character in some ways. But I kept writing scenes for this character, and eventually she became Lily Connor. In the process, she took on a lot more of my own history--being from Texas, going to school in Massachusetts, and other things as well.

In a way, I feel that Lily has given me a way to act on my vocation without giving up what I want, and need, to do. Being a priest seems all consuming to me. I don't have the stamina to be around people all day every day. And if someone called me and woke me up in the middle of the night, with a crisis, I'm sure I would hang up on them. This way, I get to write about the church, and social justice, and hymns and Bible passages and theology, and also sleep through the night.

Julia: What are you working on now?

Michelle: I almost always work on two books at a time. I have three going this year--one of which is the fourth Lily novel--but for the moment I'm taking a break from the series and focusing primarily on a non-fiction book. It has actually turned out to be a murder mystery, though I didn't think of it that way when I started it. My stepbrother, the son of the man I mention above, was killed on the street in Dallas when he was 19. We were very close, and I have always wanted to know what happened, how he ended up at that spot that night, and why he was shot.

In the process of doing research, I've also gotten interested in the act of remembering. What does my brain actually do when I try to remember my stepbrother's face, or voice, or the time we got chickens for Easter? So now I'm involved in a lot of research about the brain. I'm in way over my head (no pun intended, here) in this material, but as I just said to a friend, I like to dog-paddle around in all this information, trusting I will see land eventually. Finally, I've started to ask about how memories work to help us create a self. I love doing the reading and research, and I've started writing, so I would like to finish this book next year.

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