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Elena Santangelo

interviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

I asked Elena Santangelo - author of By Blood Possessed and Hang My Head and Cry if she would grant me an interview. I had an idea that I would do a different sort of interview without the question and answer format. I posed her the questions with the intention of weaving her answers into a pleasing narrative.

What a foolish plan that was. Her answers were so succinct and informative that I realized I couldn't improve upon her words. So here is the interview I conducted with a very intelligent and witty woman whose protagonist is an intelligent and witty woman.

Elena writes of a modern day woman who finds herself caught up in the life of a Civil War ghost in By Blood Possessed. A ghost of the Reconstruction Era shares the book with heroine Pat Montella in Hang My Head and Cry.

Q: How did you get started in writing?

A: One summer in junior high my parents made me take a typing course. They told me it was because everyone needed to know how to type. My parents now regret that they didn't make me take something like a plumbing or roofing course instead. Anyway, the rest of my friends were in summer band and I was bored silly. Walking to and from school, and frequently during class - the times I couldn't read - I started making up stories in my head. I had to take a steno pad to class instead of a regular notebook, and it was such a convenient size, I started using the steno paper to write letters to pen pals. Eventually, I wrote other ramblings in that pad, along with bad poetry. Then I got another pad and began writing plays (including my first musical, written in the back row of geometry class) and mystery stories. I finished my first mystery 'book' (a novelette really) in college. But a dozen years went by before I thought of trying to sell anything.

Q: Why did you write By Blood Possessed, your first book? What was your motivation?

A: I wasn't having any luck selling the novels or short stories I'd written, so I was looking around for a new idea and was toying with writing a contemporary mystery involving a ghost. I'd just read a wonderful collection of stories called Ghosts of Gettysburg (by Mark Nesbitt, Thomas Publications, 1991), and I'd been to most of the Civil War sites between Pennsylvania and North Carolina - and found them all creepy - so a Civil War setting seemed perfect. But I still couldn't think of a hook--something to make the book unique.

I'd written some short stories involving twins and one night I was lamenting to my brother Tom that I wanted to have two protagonists tell a story, yet not have to give up the intimacy of a first person narrator. He challenged me to write a story with two first person narrators, making their voices so different the readers wouldn't get them confused. I told him it couldn't work. But, a dare's a dare. I realized it
could work if the protagonists never met each other. The ghost idea resurfaced and suddenly I had a historical narrator along with my contemporary one. The whole idea became an obsession. I had the first draft done in three and a half months.

Q: Is Pat Montella based on yourself?

A: Loosely. We're both Italian-American, with both Sicilian and Montellese blood (Pat's last name is the small city due east of Naples where my maternal family was from). Both Pat and I grew up in the Philadelphia area, then worked for over a decade in corporate America and found it wanting. We both love gardening (more on that later). We both have over-active imaginations. Other than that, Pat has elements of friends and family. She's a cook like my brother, in that she understands food and can convert recipes and improvise. I can't do that.

Q: How about Miss Maggie? Based on a real person?

A: At my best friend's church, there were women who were in their nineties, yet were still active and would show up to dress the altar or work on the Christmas bazaar. I've also known quite a few amazing older women - my grandmother for one. Miss Maggie's intelligence and love of her pet topic, history, comes from my music composition teacher, Alice Parker, who loves music the same way and who put me in touch with my creativity.

Q: Are the recipes you use in both books your own or have they been gleaned from your family?

A: The Italian recipes are mostly family (the bread soup recipe on my web site is from my grandmother). My brother Tom for a few years put out a newsletter called Heart Health Digest, with recipes modified for cardiac patients. I use some of those recipes, or consult with him about what to feed Miss Maggie. The other recipes - for instance, the potluck spread after Wyatt Avery's funeral in Hang My Head and Cry - I research from cookbooks, restaurants, and good cooks I know. This year I've been researching colonial recipes for book three.

Q: Do you really have vegetable gardens in your life? Or are they just for the book?

A: As we speak, I've got tomato and banana pepper plants, and beds of lettuce, carrots, basil, and string beans, all producing.

Q: Is it true that the first agent interested in By Blood Possessed died and her replacement wasn't interested in a book that was later nominated for an Agatha?

A: It wasn't the first agent, and 'interested' is too strong a word, though she did want to give it a full reading. Actually, two agents died after reading partials of my book, but since I queried around forty agents altogether, I don't think we're talking curse here.

Q: Do you find the research as interesting as the actual writing?

A: The research is more interesting. Imagining the story isn't so bad, but putting words to paper is just hard work.

Q: What is your biggest hang-up in writing? What phase gives you pause?

A: No phase. Vitality. Writing - the way I want to write - takes a HUGE amount of energy and I never seem to have enough each day.

Q: What gives you the greatest pleasure?

A: Finishing things. Finishing a chapter, or even just a scene, and feeling that I conveyed what I needed to and hopefully made it entertaining.

Q: Do you find the book signing circuit tiring? Would you rather not do it at all or is meeting your fans a boost?

A: I love meeting readers, especially mystery readers. They don't have to be fans of my novels - I just like talking about books. The tiring part is when I'm NOT meeting people - when I'm sitting in a mall and people are just walking by, or when I'm doing drive by signings (where an author stops by a store to sign their stock without a formal event). Robin Hathaway (author of The Doctor Digs a Grave and The Doctor Makes a Dollhouse Call) and I did an overnight tour of the Jersey Shore - 13 stores in 27 hours. I slept most of the two days afterward.

Q: I understand you have other talents - one of them in the musical field. You compose music and also perform. How did you slide from music to writing? Which is the more satisfying?

A: I began playing an instrument two years before that typing course, and I was singing long before that, so music DID come first. I majored in it in college and taught public school music for three years before deciding I wasn't cut out for the classroom. Now I sing with the Philadelphia Revels. There's more immediate satisfaction with performing music, because the creativity occurs when the audience is present. The satisfaction doesn't come from applause, but from the energy created by good music and reflected back by the audience, and from that last moment when the final chord echoes and no one wants to breathe and break the spell. Writing's a different kind of satisfaction, more delayed. The creative process is the same, though. All art has to produce something that has energy or the audience falls asleep.

Q: Ghosts figure prominently in both your books. Do you believe in ghosts? Have you had personal experience with ghosts?

A: I wonder if anyone ever asked Charles Dickens if he believed in ghosts. Or Tolkien if he believed in hobbits. Still, I come from a culture of people who nail bull horns to buildings as protection against the evil eye. Even if we don't believe in the evil eye, it doesn't hurt to be prepared. If I say I don't believe in ghosts aloud, chances are one of my dead relatives would feel the need to prove me wrong. I also think it's narrow-minded to staunchly not believe in something just because I've never seen it. I've never seen a lot of things that other folks say exist - black holes, Sitka deer, Madagascar - but I take their word for it. Maybe I'm too trusting.

I believe in the *possibility* of ghosts. And anything else, for that matter. As for personal experience, my best friend's childhood home is supposedly haunted by a ghost calling himself (via a Ouija board) Abe. I could have imagined the tap on my shoulder when I was alone in the front bedroom of that house, but I like to think I've met Abe. I also, along with the entire chorus of a college production of
Anything Goes, smelled cigar smoke on opening night, minutes before all the lights in the theater went out. Two psychics who came to campus the next year said the building was haunted by a former college president. We checked. He smoked cigars.

Q: You mentioned doing research on colonial recipes. Will your next book have colonial ghosts in it?

A: Not 'colonial' ghosts, per se. The historical time period in book three is the Confederation (those years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) - specifically 1783, the Christmas after the peace treaty. The setting for both parts is Williamsburg (where Pat goes to meet the rest of the Lee clan). I'm having a dandy time researching eighteenth century holiday customs.
Elena Santangelo lives and writes in Pennsylvania. Find out more about the author by visiting her Website.
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