For some time, I had wanted to interview mystery author Aaron Paul Lazar. Since I was in New York City doing some research for a book, I figured that was the closest I was going to get to his place of residence anytime soon. I got up at an ungodly hour, jumped in the rental car, then took I-90 west, then I390 south to Geneseo and the Genesee Valley area of western upstate New York to do the interview. I arrived at Aaron’s just in time for lunch. Aaron and I hit it off right away. He stands at about five feet ten and is a pretty young looking grandfather. Except for a sprinkling of silver in his wavy dark brown hair, you’d never know he’s fifty-eight.
After a lunch of sautéed chicken, smothered with cappelini and fresh pea pods and basil from his garden, we settled in the high-ceilinged great room amidst a hodgepodge of antiques and old family paintings by Emma Fletcher, his wife’s great-great-great aunt. With birds chirping through open windows and the shrieks of four grandchildren running around outside as background, I decided to begin the interview with a question about something our readers might like to know.
Doug: So, Aaron, as you know, I just finished reading and writing a review for your latest Gus LeGarde mystery, FireSong. In the author information you stated that the impetus for your writing came from a series of deaths of friends and family members, especially of your father. My question is, why mystery? Since your novels have a literary quality to them, why not novels about family life drama or human relationships?
Aaron: Ah, good question, Doug. And thanks for the nice review, by the way [Note: the review is posted here on Gather–check it out]. Okay, to your question. Why mystery? I guess it’s because that’s pretty much all I read. To be honest, it’s all I’ve ever read. Well, except for a brief foray with science fiction when I was in college. And mysteries are what both of my parents always read. I grew up on Rex Stout and John D. MacDonald books, all the English writers like Christie and PD James, with a sprinkling of Dick Francis and Clive Cussler in there, as well. It just seemed a natural transition to write mystery. I never considered much else, except sometimes I let my mind go wild and imagine writing a romance.
I think the literary aspects of my books–the inner thoughts, the philosophical elements, the more poetic descriptions of nature, the illustrations of how to deal with loss while not losing your mind–all come from inside me. I can’t help it, and it’s a natural part of my writing. I have considered writing a "pure" literary novel, but to tell you the truth, it scares me. I’m afraid all these erudite academia types will pour over my words and say they are just a bunch of crap, not "real" literary material. Ha! Shows you how frail the old author ego can be, doesn’t it?
Doug: As I sit here looking at your antique woodwork, bookcases and French doors, I have a question about the house. In FireSong, you talk about an undiscovered hidden room in Gus LeGarde’s house that was used as a safe house for what was known as the Underground Railway, where runaway slaves from the south were provided safe haven on their way north. Was this based on your own house, or a house in your own family? If not, what made you decide to bring that part of history into the story’s plot?
Aaron: Ah, yes. The hidden room. Well, this particular house was built in 1811, and has many crooked lines and interesting facets. We’ve been here for 26 years now and have looked up the original owner, Dr. Hunt, and his wife. Their graves are just a few miles up the road, and prove a fascinating story in their own right.
But the house where I am positive there IS a hidden room was the 1799 colonial where I grew up. This was a rickety old place where, in the winter, wind whistled through the windows and the floorboards were always freezing, where bats took up residence in the attic and sometimes popped down the chimneys to "visit" us, and where there were always several "somethings" needing repair. We had six fireplaces (don’t get the wrong idea; back then houses were inexpensive and we lived a frugal life), and behind the largest hearth and matching Dutch ovens, there was clearly an "unaccounted for" space. There were even three-patterned bumps on one dining room panel (like hinge patterns) that I was sure led to a space behind the hearth. My father and mother used to talk about the Underground Railroad, the different color bricks n the chimney, etc. that indicated a safe house for slaves. And I imagined–oh, how I imagined–that our house was part of it all.
One day, I finally convinced my folks to let me drill into the back of the closet in the dining room to see if we could see anything back there. Alas, it was dark, and we never proceeded to the next step where (in FireSong) Gus and Camille drilled a second hole for a flashlight. The house has been sold several times since my parents left it, but I still think about that secret room .... I’m sure it’s there!
After an early afternoon repast of strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream (thanks to Aaron’s mother-in-law for the fresh made shortcake and to the grandkids for picking his strawberries), Aaron took me on a tour of his vast gardens. The property is mostly surrounded by trees, including sugar maple, copper beech, pine and Catawba. There is an American Yellowwood tree that is so fragrant it perfumes the whole yard. He has tons of perennial gardens with peonies, iris, and poppies all in bloom. In addition to his flower gardens, his vegetable garden is quite impressive, with every kind of vegetable known to man, including 90 tomato plants–lucky neighbors! We sat next to the garden under a cherry tree. When we settled into metal green chairs around a table of the same make and decor, the family dogs, Balto, a half King Charles Cavalier Spaniel/half Poodle, and Amber, a half King Charles Cavalier Spaniel/half Bichon, with muddy paws and faces from digging holes in the lawn, joined us by lying at our feet under the table. I got back to the interview.
Doug: In FireSong, the fifth of the Gus LeGarde novels, we find Gus remarried to a woman named Camille. Since this was the first LeGarde novel I’ve read, can you give our readers an overview of the development of this character over the first four books?
Aaron: You bet. Gus is near and dear to my heart, since he’s loosely based on my father and–to be honest–on me.
You can get a glimpse of the "young" Gus in Tremolo: cry of the loon, which was written fourth and published in 2007 as a prequel to Double Forté. In this book, Gus is eleven, and readers are able to see some of the people and events that shape him into the man he has become in the start of Double Forté.
When Double Forté opens, Gus is mourning the loss of his first wife, Elsbeth. Daughter of a holocaust survivor and twin to brother Siegfried, she was a fiery, passionate woman who gave up her concert pianist career to marry her childhood sweetheart, Gus, and raise their daughter, Frederica. Now gone four years, Gus spends his time lavishing affection on his dog, Max, and his family, including a grandson he adores. But he’s aching and lonely inside and, although he tries hard, he’s really struggling.
Gus’s secretary, Maddy, is an inveterate matchmaker, and when her daughter Camille moves back to town, she tries to set them up. Much to Gus’s astonishment, this complex woman with a mysterious history steals his heart. Unfortunately, it takes quite some time for her to learn to trust, but after rejecting him numerous times, eventually she capitulates and, by the end of the book, she agrees to marry him.
In Upstaged, book two in the LeGarde series, Gus and Camille are engaged and together deal with a psychotic saboteur who lurks backstage in the high school musical production of Spirit Me Away that, many years earlier, Gus wrote at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Gus is drawn back in time to memories which occur in Portamento (a book not yet published, which will be another prequel to Double Forté) where Gus married Elsbeth and learns he’s going to be a father. He has to grow up fast.
Gus and Camille get married between Upstaged and Mazurka [book four], where a planned European honeymoon is undermined by a chance run-in on the streets of Paris with neo-Nazis.
Finally, safely back in East Goodland, New York, in their beloved Genesee Valley, FireSong takes them on yet another wild ride with links to Colombian drug lords, the Underground Railroad and, as you well know, much more.
Dale, Aaron’s wife, brought us iced Mohitos (for those not in the know, traditional Cuban highballs). The Mohitos were made with fresh-picked mint. Aaron says he grows five varieties, and that the apple mint goes best with the Mohitos. We watched the grandchildren in the pool, enjoyed the afternoon breeze, and talked.
Doug: I have yet to read your Sam Moore mysteries. Was there any event or anyone in particular that brought that character and series into your writing scheme?
Aaron: It’s funny, but I never intended to start a new series. The whole thing came about one day when, after rototilling, I found a green marble in my garden. It was a cat’s eye, a beautiful shade of jade green. I held it in my hands and wondered about the little child who, years ago, had lost it. Then, as authors often do, I kept fantasizing about a boy who, fifty years ago, had lost the marble. What if he had disappeared? What if there had been a killer alive back then, who was also still alive? What if he were my neighbor? And what if I could squeeze the marble in my hand and go back in time to witness the events that led to the boy’s disappearance?
It was also at that time that my wife kept bugging me to write a story from the "killer’s point of view." She loves books that get into the crazed killer’s psyche. I really didn’t intend for this series to be born but, because I discovered the marble and my wife was relentless in her suggestions, it happened. Now, three books later, the Moore characters are as real to me as the LeGarde clan.
Doug: How do the characters Gus LeGarde and Sam Moore differ (or not) in their personal lives and/or in their approach to solving mysteries?
Aaron: Actually, neither of my guys (Sam or Gus) are officially "mystery" solvers. They are just good guys to whom things happen. They have sterling souls and decent moral compasses, so when people go missing or things are wrong in the community, they can’t help but get involved.
Gus tends to rely a bit more on his connections with Lieutenant Joe Russell and town historian Oscar Stone for ideas and information. Sam just plods though life trying to figure it all out, caring for his dear disabled wife and being a good grandfather to Evan and Timmy. Because he was a family doctor, he has quite a few connections in town. Gus is a pianist and music professor who loves to cook. Sam’s an awful cook but a helluva gardener. Both guys are amalgams of me, in a way. I’m actually very jealous of Sam’s retirement and ability to be in the garden all day long.
As Aaron talked, one of his grandsons came up to a nearby potting table, picked up a tomato set and asked his granddad if he could plant it. The answer, of course, was "go to it." Watching him made me think of my own grandson, Quinn, who loves to work with me in my own pathetic garden. The happenstance reminded me of a thought I had while reading FireSong.
Doug: When I was reading FireSong, the thought hit me that you could take one of the mysterious events, age down the characters and create a plot line for a children’s book. Have you thought about creating a children’s chapter book series, middle grade series or even a young adult (teen) series, as I have done with my The Adventures of Quinn Higgins: Boy Detective Series based on, say, one of your grandchildren?
Aaron: Very cool that your grandson is named Quinn. Matter of fact, before I met you, I named one of my leads in my newest (third) mystery series, Tall Pines Mysteries, Quinn Hollister. He’s half British, half Seneca Indian, and runs an antique store on Honeoye Lake (one of the nearby Finger Lakes) with his wife, Marcella. That’s an interview for another day, but it’s coming out this fall with two books already in the queue.
But now to get to your question. Tremolo: cry of the loon, has frequently been referred to as Young Adult Fiction, but my original intention was just to write a nostalgic mystery based on my childhood in Maine. It probably is suitable for age 11 and up, but some of my most enthusiastic fans of the book were actually my age and into their nineties. We all like remembering back to the good old days, don’t we?
I’ve also written a sequel to Tremolo called Don’t Let the Wind Catch You (March 2012), when Gus is 12. He runs into some very challenging mysteries based on his deceased grandfather and fascinating and somewhat paranormal links to the Ambuscade, a historical setting where, in the late 18th century, Sullivan’s army fought a bloody battle with the local Indians.
Sometimes, I think about writing for a younger audience, and it is quite tempting. What I’ll have to do to get my bearings is to read your Quinn Higgins stories to get a handle on what’s normal for that age. I’m sure I’d love these books as much as I anticipate devouring your Webb Sawyer mysteries.
We talked for a long time about writing and family and life and all the things that made the subject matter of our writing similar and all the things that made them very different. We talked about characters and story development and how a simple everyday incident or news report could spark an idea that just wouldn’t go away and had to be exploited by Aaron’s Gus LeGarde and Sam Moore or my Webb Sawyer or Jennifer Ellis, or even Quinn Higgins.
Doug: Aaron, is there anything else you’d like to discuss or let the readers know before I head to Rochester to turn in the rental car and catch a flight back to Norfolk, Virginia?
Aaron: I’m so pleased that you came all the way up here to visit. Maybe you can come back in the winter and we’ll take a cross-country ski trip across the Genesee Valley. You’d love the winter views–absolutely gorgeous. I do hope I can return the favor and come see you in northeast North Carolina sometime soon, especially after reading your book, so I can ask you plenty of questions about them. But before you go, let’s take one final tour around the grounds so you can pick something for your family. How about some nice Thai basil? That’ll fit in your suitcase ....
After thanking Aaron for his and his family for their hospitality and saying our goodbyes, I wondered if I might talk Aaron into contributing to a future anthology, like the one currently in the works titled Four of a Kind, with myself as editor and contributor, and three other mystery and suspense authors. I’ll keep that in mind after the first mystery author anthology is released in the fall of 2012.
And, by the way, I used the Thai basil in a tiger shrimp wok stir fry and it was oh so delicious or, as I call it, delicioso.
If you would like to read Douglas Quinn's book review here on Gather of FireSong by Aaron Paul
Lazar, go to: