"It's Magical Realism, and the Hell With It."
Fans of humorous mysteries cherish Helen Chappell's series featuring Eastern Shore reporter Hollis Ball and the ghost of her ex-husband, Sam. In fact, Sharyn McCrumb called them a "delightful combination of Topper meets The Thin Man."
But Chappell wears a number of literary hats. From mainstream fiction to romance, from journalism to history, from humor to environmental activism -- Bartholomew Cubbins has nothing on Chappell.
CB: What originally inspired the Sam and Hollis series? (Too many viewings of A Christmas Carol, maybe?)
Helen Chappell: I was inspired by a single scene I had in mind for several years. A woman goes to her ex-husband's funeral. When she gets into her car to leave, his face pops up in the rearview mirror. He's been killed and he wants her to figure out whodunnit. Well, I thought, what if… he were a ghost? It would certainly be more fun to play with, and it fit into the themes of magical realism I'd been experimenting with in my "straight" fiction.
Making Sam a ghost was a tough decision, because I wasn't certain it would work, or that I could sell the reader on the idea of a funny ghost, a la Topper, or even A Hundred Years of Solitude, which is my absolute favorite novel of all time. Eventually, to entertain myself, I decided Sam would be a ghost. It seems to have started a sub-genre, according to my agent. I hate the term "woo woo" for what I do. It's magical realism, and the hell with it.
Crescent Blues: A lot of the locations and minor characters in the Sam and Hollis series also appear in your non-mystery Oysterback stories and plays -- what is it about the region and the characters that so inspires you?
Helen Chappell: I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is more like a cult than a geographical region. It's a place I know and love -- a low, marshy countryside where as someone said, land and water intertwine.
Water is an important element to me, and always has been. I feel more comfortable living near water, even when I lived in Manhattan. There's a certain drama to the landscape in these parts that I like, and I like writing about the way the environment affects the culture. They say write about what you know, so I do.
When I first started to write fiction (I finished my first novel when I was 16) I created a whole fictional geography of the Eastern Shore. Years later, when I created Oysterback, a small village down on the marsh where anything can happen and frequently does, it seemed right and natural to base it on the rural low country of my childhood. When I created Sam and Hollis, it seemed right and natural to place them into that imaginary landscape. When a critic compared my imaginary places to Faulkner's, it made perfect sense, because like Faulkner, I needed to bend reality to fiction. And of course, I was flattered beyond words.
Crescent Blues: I suppose this has already dawned on you, but setting mysteries in the Oysterback milieu means you have to sacrifice a few locals from time to time -- either that, or make it a really dangerous place to visit. Don't you find that hard to do, killing off some of your most outrageous characters?
Helen Chappell: Not at all. One kills a local now and then to encourage the others to better behavior.
Crescent Blues: I don't see you wearing any traces of tar and feathers so can we assume that your Eastern Shore neighbors enjoy the Oysterback books and the Sam and Hollis series. Or are you using an assumed name at home these days?
Helen Chappell: Interestingly enough, very few of my neighbors have any idea about Oysterback or Sam and Hollis. Most of them know my non-fiction work in regional magazines and newspapers. I've covered the waterfront for nearly twenty years. If they knew what I was really doing with all that information I've collected, they would lynch me.
Crescent Blues: Do you worry about the future of places like the Eastern Shore, about the possibility that what makes them unique may be already disappearing? The theme of environmental responsibility also runs through many of your books. Is that a conscious choice, or does it arise naturally from stories set on the Eastern Shore?
Helen Chappell: I worry about the future of the world. Environmental concerns are important, especially when they affect the place where you live and work. Wetlands are fragile, and the pressures of increasing development have really damaged the health of Chesapeake Bay.
There's a second, lesser known factor of cultural environmentalism that is also threatened. Which could be good or bad, depending on your outlook on isolated cultures. A lot of people fleeing urban woes have been pouring into the Eastern Shore, which dilutes the essence of what makes the Shore unique. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing.
What I find interesting is the people -- the "come heres" -- who are amazed when they move here and discover they are now living below the Smith and Wesson line. This is the Upper South, which is a good thing and a bad thing.
Crescent Blues: Is it true that you've also had a tempestuous, clandestine second life as a romance writer?
Helen Chappell: Guilty as charged. For many years, I wrote Regencies under the nom-de-guerre Rebecca Baldwin. I like the period, and I know something about it, and they paid the way for more serious stuff to happen.
Crescent Blues: You've also paid your dues as a reporter. What kind of beats have you covered?
Helen Chappell: You name it. For a while, I was a one-woman outpost for a local paper in the next county. I was reporter, photographer, editor, office manager, janitor, layout and sales rep. So when I say I've covered the waterfront, I mean it. I've written about everything from church and fire hall suppers to capital murder cases.
My favorite beat was criminal court. I loved criminal court. I still love criminal court. It's a real show, when you have an interesting trial with a couple of hammy lawyers and a good judge. One of the great things about living the small town life is that you start to know everyone -- the judge, the prosecution, the defense, the witnesses, the jurors and the defendants. After a while, you start to see the same defendants over and over again, charged with the same stuff. Court has a kind of excitement to it that you just don't get on other beats. And the characters are certainly more interesting than say, covering zoning meetings or mortgage burnings.
Crescent Blues: Has journalism been a good background for your other writing?
Helen Chappell: It's taught me to question everything. Writing as a journalist is often like writing in another language, when compared to fiction.
Crescent Blues: You know, it just occurred to me that we could make this a lot easier -- is there a kind of writing you have no plans to tackle, and why the heck not?
Helen Chappell: Technical writing, for obvious reasons. I think I've done a little of almost everything else. I've been very fortunate to have opportunities to write in so many venues, including seeing a play I'd written produced. Hearing actors speak your words is really an interesting event.
Crescent Blues: I understand that some of your earlier books may become available in an electronically published format. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Helen Chappell: Too early to talk about, but I understand FatBrain will be making some of my short fiction available this year. I'm always open to a new medium, and I think e-pubbing is definitely one of the waves of the future. Where it will go from here, I don't know, but I'm happy to be connected to it.
Crescent Blues: You've supported yourself as a working writer for several decades. Is that harder than it used to be, or has it always been difficult?
Helen Chappell: I think it's harder now than it has been in years. My friend Tom Horton and I were discussing this issue the other day, and we decided that we are working twice as hard and getting about half the advance money we were making in the Eighties.
Crescent Blues: Have computers and the growth of the Internet changed the way you work?
Helen Chappell: Yes. I had to be dragged to the computer, kicking and screaming, and now I think I'd have to be dragged away from it, kicking and screaming. Email certainly makes life easier… and connects you with other writers, which is great, because we can all support each other.
Crescent Blues: What is a typical writing day like for you?
Helen Chappell: Stare out the window. Type a few words. Stare out the window, type a few words, stare out the window, type a few words… You get the idea. Writing a book is like driving a truck across country with a bad road map.
Crescent Blues: If you hadn't become a writer and had to get a respectable job, can you think of anything else you could stand to do?
Helen Chappell: Well, I always thought I would make a terrific 18th century pirate. I'm very good at saying "Arrrr, matey!"
Crescent Blues: We were all glad to see the publication in October 1999 of The Chesapeake Book of the Dead. At least, the book's publication finally put to rest all those nasty rumors about necrophilia and grave-robbing. What inspired you to spend so many months skulking in cemeteries to research a book on ghosts and strange headstones?
Helen Chappell: Several years ago, I wrote an article for a regional magazine on old graveyards in this region. The response was so great, and people were so interested, that I expanded it into a book. People really love that stuff. I'm really not obsessed with death. I'm more interested in living well than dying badly.
Crescent Blues: Do you enjoy the research that goes into doing a book on a new subject, or do you consider it a necessary evil?
Helen Chappell: I like research. Being an intrinsically nosey person, I love finding stuff out. It gives you a great excuse to snoop around and find stuff out and talk to people.
Crescent Blues: If we lived in a perfect world and you could get a humongous advance -- or at least one large enough to live on -- for writing anything you wanted, is there a project you'd like to tackle that you haven't yet had the chance to do?
Helen Chappell: A biography. But I haven't found a subject that intrigues me enough to do all the research you would need for such a work.
Crescent Blues: What books and writers do you think have most influenced your own writing?
Helen Chappell: Eudora Welty, Raymond Chandler, John Barth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Twain, Baruch Spinoza, Ellen Gilchrist, Kaye Gibbons, Joan Hess, Margaret Maron, Reginald Hill, Donna Andrews, St. Teresa d Avila, Truman Capote, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Pym, Jane Austen, Joel Achenbach -- the list goes on and on. And one fabulous editor, Hal Piper at The Baltimore Sun. He has been my Max Perkins.
Crescent Blues: Do you think it's still true that humorous writing doesn't get as much respect as "serious" writing?
Helen Chappell: Why aren't Donald Westlake and Joan Hess on the New York Times Bestseller List?
Crescent Blues: Fantasize for a moment: who would you pick to play Hollis and Sam if they were filming one of your mysteries... and who would you be terrified that they'd pick?
Helen Chappell: Tough one. I think Greg Kinnear has that rich boy charm that Sam needs, and I like Hilary B. Smith for Hollis. With my luck, I'll end up with Carmen Electra as Hollis and Stone Cold Steve Austin for Sam.
Crescent Blues: Aside from Sam, you also have other guest ghosts -- I think Edgar Allen Poe has probably been my favorite, although the Elvis ghost was a lot of fun, too. Are there other ghosts you'd like to bring into the series?
Helen Chappell: If I told you that, I would have to give you an amnesiac.
Crescent Blues: I get the giggles just thinking about the premise of Giving Up the Ghost -- the murder of an Elvis impersonator in the middle of a convocation of Elvis impersonators -- or Elvii, as you call them. Did you do a lot of research into the Elvis phenomenon for the book, or has this always been an interest?
Helen Chappell: Elvis is everybody, Elvis is everywhere. In his young and hungry 50's incarnation, he was on the cutting edge of the latter half of the 20th Century. In his God of Excess Late Vegas incarnation, he represents all the wonderful tackiness that is American culture, no matter what Martha Stewart says.
Let's put it this way; a judge friend says if he had an Elvis impersonator serial killer in HIS courtroom, he'd direct an acquittal. It was time.
Crescent Blues: Anything else you'd like to say in closing?
Helen Chappell: Please buy my books. Thank you. Can I have those negatives back now?
Donna Andrews is the author of Murder with Peacocks, which won the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award in May 1998. Her second book in the Meg and Michael series, Murder with Puffins, will be released this spring.