James. R. Benn’s successful Billy Boyle mystery series has captivated readers with its historical accuracy and intriguing plots. Now, Billy returns for his 10th outing in The White Ghost. Get to know James, his research and writing habits, his past as a librarian (including a connection to BCPL!) and enjoy a sneak peek at where Billy’s headed next.
Between the Covers: The Billy Boyle series is set during World War II. Was this a historical time period that always interested you? What is it about this war that remains a historical touchstone for so many? Do you hear from veterans and/or their families?
James R. Benn: When I was growing up, nearly every kid in the neighborhood had a dad who was in the war. It was part of the fabric of life. My father served in the China-India-Burma Theater and I was mesmerized by his stories and the souvenirs he brought home. When I finally started writing, the choice was based somewhat on that history, but also on a study of the historical mystery genre. I discovered it was the fastest growing fiction genre, and noted that the Second World War was not well represented. It was then a natural choice.
World War II was a turning point for America; we went into it a somewhat isolated, disparate nation. It was this war that truly created the famous melting pot of America. Men and women from all walks of life and regions were thrown together and sent all over the world. Nothing like that had ever happened, and I think there’s a yearning for that kind of commonality. And clear-cut power, as well.
I frequently hear from the families of veterans. I have interviewed several vets at the invitation of family members, who say that their father, uncle or grandfather has never talked about the war. It often begins with reluctance, and then a stream of stories, mostly about their buddies. Finally, they may talk about combat. Once, a D-Day veteran signaled me to come close as his family chatted on the far side of the room. “They always ask me if I killed anyone,” he whispered. “I tell ’em no. But I did.”
BTC: Billy was a secondary character in your first book. Why did that character stay with you and compel you to flesh him out more fully? As the war progresses, it becomes more complex and morally murky. How have these complications and sometimes harsh realities changed Billy?
JRB: He just plain wouldn’t go away. I liked his attitude, and thought there might be something to his Eisenhower connection which would allow me to visit a wide variety of situations. After completing research for the first book, I sat down to begin writing. I’d planned on using the third person, being somewhat intimidated by first-person narratives. Then I typed the first line:
I wanted to die.
That stunned me, but I stayed with it. I guess Billy lives somewhere in my subconscious.
After the first book, I understood that the war had to take an emotional toll for Billy. I received terrific advice from the novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “remember, the story has to move down as well as forward.” Billy is constantly confronted by terrible choices, navigating the lesser of multiple evils in a horribly evil war. It is taking a toll.
BTC: In The White Ghost, Billy goes back in time to the Pacific where he gets involved with the Kennedy family. Why was it important to you to set Billy in the Pacific? How critical was it that you share the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109?
JRB: I was surprised at how many readers asked for a book set in the Pacific; perhaps a lot of them had family who served there. I was stumped at how to do that in a way that made sense. Then I thought the Boston Irish connection with Jack Kennedy would be interesting. But, in the timeline of Billy’s world, it was May 1944. By then, JFK was back in the States and out of the service for medical reasons.
In a flash of unplanned genius, I noticed a gap between the third and fourth books; several months which fit exactly into the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109. So…now, the story can be told.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in awe of JFK. I had no idea what a very strange family he came from. The Kennedy children were brought up in a highly competitive and emotionally traumatizing environment. The war was the best thing that ever happened to Jack Kennedy; it got him out from under the thumb of his overbearing father and showed him what regular folks were like. He really had no idea.
BTC: Billy has travelled all over, beginning in England and including Norway, the Mediterranean and Ireland. Is travelling to these locations part of your research? What is your most memorable trip?
JRB: Yes; my wife and I have traveled to England, Sicily, Italy and Ireland for research. Sicily was quite special; we approached a farmer about looking at some bunkers on his land where a battle took place. It turned out to be Easter Monday, which is a big family gathering day in Sicily. We were taken in and treated as honored guests among the 30 or so family members. No one spoke English and we didn’t speak Italian. With the aid of a pocket dictionary and the German I and one of the men spoke, we talked all day. And ate and drank. We left that night loaded with flowers and fruit. It was a wonderful experience, and a perfect example of Sicilian hospitality. They’ve survived centuries of conquest by absorbing newcomers.
BTC: Other than travelling, do you have any research or writing routines?
JRB: My research is built around reading widely about the subject and geographical area I want to explore. I try to immerse myself in the time and place, through contemporary fiction and nonfiction. My goal is not to simply understand the facts of what happened, but how people in the 1940s would have perceived what was happening to them.
BTC: You pay homage to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in two of the books. Who are your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
JRB: The Sherlock Holmes stories were the first mysteries I ever read, so it was hard to resist a ride down Baker Street. While I also enjoy Agatha Christie, it was the proximity of her home (used as a naval headquarters) to the Slapton Sands tragedy that led me to give her a walk-on in The Rest Is Silence.
BTC: You had a long career as a librarian! Did that influence your writing in any way? What is the thing you miss most about working in a library?
JRB: My first job at age 14 was as a library page. I became a librarian out of an unabashed old-school love of books and reading. I wandered around the library field quite a bit, even getting to know Charlie Robinson at BCPL when I worked for a library automation company. That career wanderlust was probably due to the fact I knew there was something else I wanted to do with my life. It was my wife who steered me in the right direction on my 50th birthday, but that’s another story. Right now what I like best about libraries is inter-library loan, the mainstay of my research!
BTC: Do you have a finite number of books planned for the series? Can you give us a preview of Billy’s next adventure?
JRB: Billy and I have not grown tired of each other yet. I’m about to turn in the manuscript for the 2016 release, The Blue Madonna. That book will bring us to D-Day, with Billy and Kaz behind enemy lines in a strange chateau with ghosts, mysterious tunnels, downed airmen and a certain SOE operative who Billy knows very well. And oh yes, murders.
I also have a vague idea for a book involving USO entertainers at some point. Billy needs to see a good show, don’t you think?
Ronald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?
Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.
Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.
BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?
RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.
I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.
BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression?
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.
BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.
BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next?
RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.
Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.
After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!
BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.
I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.
As for recent reads, I recently finished Lee Kelly’s City of Savages, which was quite good, and have also read the first book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy.
I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.
BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers?
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.
BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore.
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.
Also, crab cakes.
Sylvie and Cassandra graduate from the palace of privilege known as Bennington College in 2003 and set out to make their marks on the world in Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver. Bennington is a unique institution, rumored to have been founded in 1932 as an option for wayward daughters of prosperous families. Free thinking is encouraged and, while the students — which now includes boys — aren’t all heirs to pastry fortunes and diamond mines, each embraces an attitude of entitlement. But these graduates soon discover that this magnified sense of self-worth is often at odds with the workings of the real world.
Sylvie heads to New York first with Cassandra visiting frequently before settling there permanently after her romantic sure-thing falls apart. The two are convinced that their friendship will last through anything and they'll enjoy their 20s in New York, exploring the city and their sexuality all while trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Each is flawed in her own way, but Sylvie is incapable of recognizing her defects. Cassandra grows increasingly tired of Sylvie using her for her money, and the friction between these besties intensifies.
This coming-of-age novel is an honest look at two young, immature and flawed women struggling to find themselves in their post-college years. A revolving cast of quirky characters, many of whom are friends from Bennington, provide added insight into the rarefied world Cassandra and Sylvie inhabit — a world of art, money and sex. While often unlikeable, the characters are intriguing, and the depiction of life after college is authentic. Silver, a Bennington grad herself, infuses an irreverent humor throughout the novel which balances the deeper messages of failed friendship and emotional maturation.
Amelia Tate lands the role of a lifetime when she, a relative unknown, is cast to play Princess Ann in a remake of the classic film Roman Holiday. That’s the role that catapulted Audrey Hepburn to fame, and Amelia is over the moon with excitement in Rome in Love by Anita Hughes. Her life couldn’t be more perfect with this dream job, a handsome boyfriend and two months of living and working in the picturesque capital of Italy.
Once settled in Rome, Amelia’s reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. She struggles with the part, her fear of failure and the director’s intense expectations. She also learns that distance doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder when her boyfriend presents her with an ultimatum of him or her career. While dealing with the breakup she must also cope with the ever-present paparazzi and longs for anonymity. On one of her escapes she meets handsome journalist Philip, who believes she is a hotel maid. As their relationship develops and attraction deepens, the guilt she harbors about concealing her identity intensifies. Little does she know that she’s not the only one hiding the truth.
Staying in the same suite Hepburn did during her filming helps bring Amelia closer to her idol, especially when she finds a stash of letters Audrey wrote during her filming. She also befriends a young woman named Sophie, a princess enjoying one last hurrah until an arranged marriage will force her to settle down. Together the two take every opportunity to discover the bountiful riches throughout Rome, and along the way find love that could jeopardize both of their worlds. This enjoyable read will entrance readers with fairy-tale romance, transporting them to modern Rome with sumptuous descriptions of food, drink and fashion.
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cortez is in a bind when she gets kicked out of her fifth foster home in 10 years in Andi Teran’s debut Ana of California. A contemporary Anne of Green Gables, this Ana of Los Angeles will delight readers in all of the same ways as the original with her spunk, smart mouth and sometimes flawed decision-making.
At this point Ana is left with two options: a group home or a work internship on a farm in Northern California. Ana chooses the latter knowing that if it doesn’t work out, she can file for emancipation when she turns 16, which is just a few months away. Her arrival at Garber Farm owned by siblings Emmett and Abbie isn’t as welcoming as she hoped. Emmett was expecting a 16-year-old boy and thinks they should send her back. But Abbie is thrilled with Ana and is convinced that she will be a good worker. Abbie’s resolve wins out, and Ana’s first week on the farm is a blur of early mornings, hard work and new people. As a denizen of the city with limited familiarity of fresh foods, her learning curve on the farm is steep. Fortunately, farm manager Manny Lavaca takes her under his wings, and Ana appreciates the kindness of this fellow Mexican American.
Ana begins to finally feel comfortable in this place she dares to think of as home, even making her first real friend. But when one bad decision might have her headed back to L.A., she realizes that life, friendship and love is a complicated mess. This charming retelling of a beloved classic introduces an endearing heroine, a small town with quirky characters and a quickly paced coming-of-age story for readers of all ages.