Adventures and Misadventures of Writing in a New Genre by Sue McGinty
Marilyn: Sue, you have published five mystery novels featuring Bella Kowalski, a former nun turned obituary writer and amateur sleuth. What’s your new book, and how is it different?
Sue: My current work, “The Sojourner Chronicles,” is historical fiction. It takes place in 1943, during World War II and features the Detroit defense industry as a backdrop.
M: Four of your five previous novels have showcased local California Central Coast settings. Why is this setting so important to the story?
S: Many southerners, both black and white, migrated to Detroit to work in the defense industry during the war years of 1942 to 1945. This was the first instance of them working together as equals, which created a lot of tension between the races. The culmination of this was the Belle Isle riot of 1943, the first of several Detroit has experienced over the years.
M: Okay, we now know the scene. What’s the story about?
S: Thirteen-year-old Sara LeBeau, whose mother has died, and whose father is a reporter, is summarily dispatched to live with an eccentric great-aunt in a spooky old house while her father goes off to cover the war for Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper.
M: Why did you pick the title “The Sojourner Chronicles?”
S: The title is in tribute to Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist in the 1800s. Sojourner means a person who stays in one place for only a short time. Sara Grace considers herself a sojourner in her great-aunt’s home. She writes a series of newsletters which she calls “The Sojourner Chronicles” to her absent father. Sojourner Truth lived in Michigan at the end of her life, and the Sojourner Truth housing project figures prominently in the story.
M: How did you come to write this story?
S: Actually, I’ve been working on this book for twenty years. It was a “drawer novel,” one you put in a drawer and promise yourself you’ll work on sometime soon. I finally decided it was now or never.
M: If your protagonist is only thirteen, is this book for kids?
S: Actually, no, it’s a historical coming-of-age story with a young protagonist. Think “Scout” in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Mary Francie Nolan in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I think it’s more like the latter because both she and Sara Grace have flawed father figures.
M: What’s the difference between young adult and coming-of-age books?
S: The book started life as a young adult novel, but Jay Asher, the amazing author of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” who was in my critique group at the time, pointed out the voice of Sara Grace was that of an adult looking back on her childhood. A young adult story is told in the immediate point of view of the teenage protagonist. Actually, the book is for anyone who wants to read it.
M: Virtually all mysteries feature a secret that someone wants to tell, or wants to keep. Is there a secret in “The Sojourner Chronicles?”
S: There certainly is. Sara Grace, the young protagonist, is convinced that her Great Aunt Blanche has a secret and that it resides somewhere within her spooky old house. Inquisitive by nature, Sara Grace is determined to uncover the secret.
M: How is the story different from that of a mystery?
S: Actually it’s not that much different. The story starts when Sara Grace life changes because her father goes overseas. She’s soon in hot water with her great-aunt because of her curiosity and her inability to keep her opinions to herself. At the lowest point of the arc, through a series of misadventures, Sara Grace finds herself trapped on Belle Isle during the racial incident.
M: How about the ending?
S: The ending is somewhat ambiguous, with Sara Grace making a big decision that will affect her future. I’ve added an epilog where the reader meets her as an adult. As usual, she’s done something unexpected.
M: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
S: The biggest challenge was finding an image for the cover. I feel strongly that the cover should reflect some important aspect of the story. Since it takes place seventy-plus years ago, I had a hard time finding an illustration or vintage photo. I finally got lucky found one at selfpubbookcovers.com, which features hundreds of premade book covers.
M: What’s next on your writing agenda?
S: Since I have a background in the aerospace industry, I want to write a historical thriller that takes place there. It’s tentatively titled “Murder at Area 51.” I also want to explore my grandmother’s migration as a child from England to South Africa to New Orleans to Detroit. And there’s one more Bella mystery, where she and Mike reach some kind of detente. I think it takes place in New Zealand.