From the Booking Desk:
Last Friday, I ran the BOLO Books review of Cynthia Kuhn’s debut mystery, The Semester of Our Discontent. Today, I am thrilled to welcome Cynthia Kuhn to the blog to answer a few questions on launch day for her novel. We both hope you enjoy this interview.
BOLO Books: Briefly tell us a bit about your debut novel, The Semester of Our Discontent.
Cynthia Kuhn: It’s a mystery about a new professor who is thrilled with her job until she finds one of her colleagues dead…and sleuthing ensues!
BOLO Books: The Semester of Our Discontent received a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant. I am sure this generated both a boost of confidence as well as a newly added pressure. Tell us a bit about that.
Cynthia Kuhn: Sometimes I still can’t believe it happened. I am deeply grateful for the encouragement and support. The Malice Domestic conference was an incredible experience, and the grant provided opportunities for growth through professional development activities during the year. It’s a remarkable program, and I hope anyone who is eligible to apply will consider doing so.
BOLO Books: The Semester of Our Discontent follows a long tradition of academic mysteries. Do you have some favorites in this sub-genre?
Cynthia Kuhn: Yes! Authors of my favorite series include Amanda Cross (Carolyn G. Heilbrun), Joanne Dobson, Maggie Barbieri, and Lev Raphael. I love Carol Goodman’s books, both standalones and series. Also Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Robert Grudin’s Book: A Novel, and Lori Rader-Day’s The Black Hour. I’ll read just about anything set in academia, and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. Since 2009, Ms. Mentor at The Chronicle of Higher Education has given out awards for academic novels of note (“The Ackies”). I restock my to-be-read list when the annual guide comes out, and a good number of them are mysteries; as she says, “The favorite crime, as always, is murder” (“Ms. Mentor’s Annual Guide to Academic Novels” 8 June 2015).
BOLO Books: Your heroine, Lila Maclean, is researching a little known female mystery author named Isabella Dare. Did you base this fictional character on any particular overlooked author of the past?
Cynthia Kuhn: Only in the sense that I wanted Lila to be working on someone she’d have to fight for; Isabella Dare’s position is representative of authors who have been overlooked or marginalized and are later “(re)discovered.” But Dare is not based on anyone specific (though stylistically, she’s described as “Agatha Christie meets Shirley Jackson, with a twist”).
BOLO Books: There is much discussion in the novel of the literary canon and its tradition of holding on to the significance of “dead white men” to the exclusion of some very important literary figures who don’t fit that mold. Do you think this problem is getting any better?
BOLO Books: My day job is in the academic journals division of The Johns Hopkins University Press, so I was fascinated with all the discussion in the book about “publish or perish” and getting into the “right” journal. Is it fair that this is so important when candidates are considered for tenure?
Cynthia Kuhn: Depends on whom you ask. It’s complicated because perceived quality or status can affect not only tenure applications but also reputations of departments. Another debated aspect involves the expectation that scholars publish more often and sooner (aka “turboprofessionalization”), an acceleration that comes into play with hiring decisions as well. I’d be interested to hear what you have encountered, working at such a respected press.
BOLO Books: Lila’s mother has a very interesting career. Tell us about that and how you decided to include that in the novel. How does this help to mold Lila into the person she is today?
Cynthia Kuhn: It started as backstory but took on its own energy. Violet O is an artist with a fierce commitment to provoking discussion about gender and identity through her work. Lila’s sense of herself as an outsider (as well as her love of the mystery genre, which Violet draws from) has roots in her mother’s career. They moved frequently to accommodate Violet’s various multimedia projects, so Lila was always the new kid in town, with all of the challenges that go along with that. Although now an adult, Lila has rarely felt like a genuine part of any particular community and wishes to find a place where she belongs. On the flip side, this has made her more adaptable, though I am not sure she’s aware of that strength (or of how much her own determination to reach her goals mirrors her mother’s resolve).
BOLO Books: As one of those who survived the rigors of being an English major, I loved hearing about what works the teachers were covering in their classes – Everything from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Sylvia Plath to Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare. I imagine you will have fun creating the curriculum for future novels in the series.
Cynthia Kuhn: Congratulations on not only surviving but also turning that English degree into something quite impressive, both here at BOLO Books and at the university press! And thanks for saying you enjoyed the references to authors and texts—there will be new ones in future books, so stay tuned.
BOLO Books: Henery Press always does a nice job with their cover designs. Are you happy with the final product for The Semester of Our Discontent?
Cynthia Kuhn: Absolutely. They have been wonderful in every way (thank you, HP).
BOLO Books: Any hints about what Lila is going to be facing in book two of the series?
Cynthia Kuhn: Lila is immersed in a mystery featuring a visiting author who finds Stonedale to be a dangerous place indeed…
BOLO Books: If forced to choose only one format for all your future reading, which would you choose: Hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, or e-book? And why?
Cynthia Kuhn: Mass-market paperback is the only format that doesn’t hurt my wrists, so I would have to choose that.
Thank you for having me here at BOLO Books and for coming up with such thoughtful questions, Kristopher! It’s been an honor and a pleasure.