July, 2014 interview with Brenda Buchanan, author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series
Q: Maine is the setting of all of your stories. Have you always lived there?
A: Not in Maine, but almost always in New England. I was raised in the Central Massachusetts city of Fitchburg, a paper mill town about an hour northwest of Boston. I spent my first two years of college in Knoxville, Tennessee (go Lady Vols!) then transferred to Northeastern University in Boston for the rest of my journalism studies. I moved to Maine in 1980, a few months after graduating from Northeastern, and I’ve lived here ever since.
Q: What attracted you to Maine? What keeps you here?
A: In a practical sense, I was attracted to Maine because it meant my first professional job in journalism at the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk. Until then I had little experience with Maine. My older brother was a Coast Guardsman stationed on a South Portland buoy tender in the 1960s, so I’d made it as far as Portland when I was a little kid, riding in the way back of the beach wagon, asking if we were there yet.
When I moved to Maine in the fall of 1980 I was mesmerized by its natural beauty – truly bowled over by it. I also was delighted to find myself living among such fascinating people. Those two things – the daily opportunity to experience the stunning Maine coast and the chance to live among so many interesting, talented, caring people – are the reasons Maine has remained my home.
Q: Like your character, Joe Gale, you were a newspaper reporter. How did you come to pursue that line of work?
A: I wanted to be a newspaper reporter pretty much as soon as I learned to read. Everyone in my childhood world read newspapers – way more than they read books. Multiple newspapers, every day, and then talked about what they’d read.
My maternal grandfather had emigrated from Ireland (County Mayo) and learned the ways of his new country by reading newspapers. So my mother got the habit from him, and at 92, still reads the local paper every day.
Growing up in Appalachia during the Depression, my father’s formal schooling was cut short by the need to help put food on the table. But my Dad loved to read, and he read at least two newspapers each day to keep himself informed about all kinds of topics. Local politics. The economy. Sports.
In Irish-Catholic families of that era, it was a huge deal if one of the kids became a nun or a priest. The religious life was not for me, but in my little girl’s mind, being a newspaper reporter was almost as holy.
Q: How did you go about pursing your “calling?”
A: I joined the staff of my high school paper in 1972 and, with a couple of other firebrands, set about turning it from a low-key school booster sheet into a lean, mean investigative machine. Shortly after Title IX was adopted we undertook a detailed review of the enormous disparity between spending on boys and girls sports, and wrote about the legal consequences the school could face if it didn’t create more opportunities for girls. The story got us in a bit of internal hot water, but it resulted in the hiring of a new athletic director who committed himself to creating a quality athletic program for girls.
At Northeastern University I took full advantage of the co-op program, which allowed me to alternate classroom semesters with semesters working at a newspaper. I was fortunate to wind up at The Boston Globe, at first answering phones on the city desk and helping the copy editors. My final year I was a reporter trainee on the “lobster shift,” driving all over Boston (and sometimes all over Massachusetts) covering stories that happened in the middle of the night. It was an absolute blast and the kind of education you can’t get from a textbook.
After graduating from Northeastern, I moved to Maine and was a reporter at the Star for a half-dozen years, covering Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Ogunquit and the courts. I also had a weekly column, called By The Bye, the same name as my blog. (I have been accused and found guilty of sentimentality.)
By 1986 it was time to move on to the next thing, which turned out to be law school. So my journalism career ended before the internet and the newsroom downsizing and all of the other slings and arrows that my former colleagues have endured. I’m grateful to those who taught me how to be a newspaper reporter, and stand in absolute awe of those who are still doing it.
It’s critically important that the kind of journalism traditionally done by newspapers continues to be done, even if the delivery method is electronic rather than paper. Stories like the Watergate break-in, the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church and the terrifying scope of the NSA surveillance program would not have come to light but for the extraordinary work of newspaper reporters. And the small town dailies and the weekly newspapers are as important as the national newspapers. If there’s no systematic coverage of the local Town Council and Planning Board meetings, who’ll sound the alarm when favors are granted or bids are rigged?
Human nature demands watchdogs and good journalism costs money. As a society, we can’t afford not to support vigorous, independent reporters.
As you can tell, I still think newspaper reporters are almost saintly.
Q: How did you start writing fiction? And why crime fiction?
A: When I was at Northeastern, I studied creative writing with none other than Robert B. Parker. I took two courses with him a year or so before he eased out of teaching to write full time. He was an engaging teacher and a thoughtful critic. But I had my sights set on journalism, and didn’t write fiction again for years.
In the early 2000s Joe Gale, Christie Pappas and Rufe Smathers started whispering in my ear. I imagined them into existence over the course of a few years, along with the Town of Riverside and a few fictional scenarios. I eventually started writing on an occasional basis. At the end of 2008, I promised myself I’d make it a daily habit, and I did. Every evening I sat down in front of the computer and stayed there until I’d written two pages. On weekends, I would usually write more than two pages, but always kept to the two-page minimum.
I was in a writers’ group at that time, which was enormously helpful. The other members were good writers who were willing to read my work and give feedback, and let me read their work and give them feedback. That process spotlighted my bad habits, and taught me to both use and question my instincts.
Why crime fiction? Because it’s what I read. My childhood faves were mystery and suspense, and that’s never changed. I imagined myself Nancy Drew’s sidekick until I was about ten, then moved on to adult mystery. These days I love character-driven work with a strong sense of place. Louise Penny. Val McDermid. Julia Spencer-Fleming. Paul Doiron. Tana French. Peter May. Kate Flora. Steve Ulfelder. Too many to name, actually.
Q: Is Quick Pivot your first book?
A. It will be my first published book, but it’s actually the second book I wrote. Like a bottle of red wine, the first one needed a little time to breathe.
Q: Tell me about your spouse.
A: Diane is my most constructive critic and my biggest fan. I am lucky to have found such a smart, loving, supportive woman with whom to share my life. She is endlessly patient with me in general, no small feat. She never complains when I ask to read passages to aloud to her, or for help working through a plot tangle. And she loves my characters as much as I do.
Q: Who is your favorite character in Quick Pivot?
A: What a question! I love every one of them. Joe, of course, running around with his journalist’s heart on his sleeve in 2014, when it’s more fashionable to be cynical. Paulie, because he’s an amalgam of a number of older reporters who taught me what was what. Joan, because she didn’t let a broken heart break her spirit. Helena, for being so determined and strong, and MacMahon, for never letting go of a tough case.
Q: Is Riverside based on a real mill town?
A: It’s based on several: Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where I grew up, was primarily a paper mill town, as was Westbrook, Maine, where I live now. Biddeford and Lewiston, Maine, where the mills turned out textiles famous the world over, also served as inspiration.
All are proud towns that have seen more downs than ups in recent years due to global economic trends that made it cheaper to make paper and weave textiles elsewhere, first in the South and eventually offshore. The loss of manufacturing jobs devastated entire communities across New England, and though it has taken decades, many are now on their way back.
Fitchburg, Lowell, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Westbrook, Biddeford, Lewiston and so many others are re-inventing themselves as vigorous, exciting places to live and work. I’m especially happy when I see 150 year old brick edifices made vital again, renovated to serve community needs for affordable housing and economic development.
Q: On to some fun questions. Favorite item of clothing?
A: Wool socks. I wear ‘em all year long.
Q: Favorite game as a child?
A: Baseball. I played a mean first base. I’m still a devoted Red Sox fan (some would say fanatic.)
Q: Favorite pizza joint?
A: Flatbread in Portland, Maine.
Q: Beer or wine?
A: Beer, especially one of the Maine craft brews. Or Guinness.
Q: Most embarrassing moment?
A: It has to do with my know-it-all attitude when I was eight years old, making my First Holy Communion. It’s a story told best after a couple of pints.
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