What made you decide to write mystery stories? How did you get started?
My parents loved mysteries--in fact, they fought over a mystery novel on their honeymoon. I grew up in a house in Massachusetts full of old Penguin mysteries. Lots of Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie. I vividly remember Dad reading aloud “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe's “Telltale Heart” and the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
What got me started was working in the former World Heritage Museum on the top floor of Lincoln Hall. It was a creepy old attic with no climate control, a creaky elevator, and broken windows that allowed pigeons to fly in and out and leave deposits on our suits of armor and Greek statues. I coordinated analyses on an Egyptian mummy http://www.itarp.uiuc.edu/atam/research/mummy/index.html owned by the museum, and it was while I was writing up the non-fiction account of that project that I got the idea for my first novel, "Bound for Eternity."
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Thirty-five years of working in academia and in museums--I've met lots of interesting characters who are passionate about museums and mummies and ceramics. We have all the usual hang-ups about how to teach, how best to take care of artifacts, and career advancement, so there is plenty of potential for murderous feelings. Throw in the problems of illegal antiquities and art forgeries and you have the makings of a good mystery!
As an archeologist, are there ever any mysteries in your work?
Yes! The first book, “Bound for Eternity,” is about an archaeologist who discovers that clues hidden in an Egyptian mummy hold the secret to two murders in her Boston museum (by the way, the museum was moved from Illinois to Boston to protect the innocent). Book 2, “The Dead Sea Codex,” is about two archaeologists who race to find an ancient manuscript before Christian fanatics destroy it.
For those who have not read any of your books, what can you say about your works? What are they about?
My first four novels all feature Lisa Donahue, a young archaeologist and museum curator who has a very similar background to my own. The first and third (The Fall of Augustus)are set in a fictional Boston museum, but the second and fourth (The House of the Sphinx) are set in the Middle East where I started my career (I studied and excavated in Israel during my junior year in college, an experience that changed my life and hooked me on archaeology).
I’m currently working on my first historical mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew, set in the central Illinois town of Big Grove (which has a large university) in 1923. My protagonist is a German-American physician who is also an amateur archaeologist. The plot revolves around both Prohibition and early archaeology in our state.
Do you have any advice to give to students in your field of study? Or for writers out there?
For students in archaeology, my best advice would be get out here and dig on an excavation, in the U.S. or abroad, and find out if you are a fieldwork person. The Archaeological Institute of American has a wonderful listing of fieldwork opportunities every year: http://www.archaeological.org/fieldwork/afob And/or, volunteer or work in a museum in some capacity, because that’s often where archaeologists end up working if they don’t teach for a living.
For writers, there are wonderful online groups in each genre that connect you with other writers. In mysteries, there’s Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Also, go to conferences—the networking alone is worth the price of registration, and as well as other writers, you often meet agents, publishers, and editors who may be interested in your work. Mystery conferences I enjoy include “Love is Murder” in Chicago, “Magna cum Murder” in Muncie Indiana, “Malice Domestic” in the D.C. Area, and the biggie, “Bouchercon” that rotates between different cities. In addition to hearing great talks and panels on writing and the writing life, you also get training in gun handling, crime scene interpretation, forensics (no, not much like CSI!) and lectures from a pharmacist who is known as the Poison Lady…
Other than your own books, what else do you like to read? Who is your favorite author?
I like many authors, particularly classic British mysteries by authors such as the ones mentioned above (question 1) and modern writers such as Barbara D’Amato, Sheila Connelly, and Sharon Newman. I also enjoy non-fiction books and articles on historical subjects and archaeological science (especially mummies!). I like to reread old favorites too, such as books by C.S. Lewis, Nevil Shute, Mary Stewart, and Ellis Peters. Favorite authors? Julia Spencer-Fleming and Nancy Picard.
Causes Sarah Wisseman Supports
Archaeological Institute of America