I’m so delighted that the amazing Heather Haven is my guest today. She kindly shared some of her process and inspiration for her latest release, MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP.
Devon Ellington: What inspired you to write MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP?
Heather Haven: All my life I remember my mother showing me pictures, costumes, and souvenirs from her time at the circus. She was a person who liked to savor her memories of people and incidents. Her stories about what brought her to join the circus as a twenty-year old with her two gorgeous, screwball pals, Margie and Doris, were hilarious, never ceasing to thrill and entertain me. Each time she described her stint there, she would whip out a picture from what seemed to be an endless supply of black and white photos. Even though I wasn’t a part of it in reality, it made me feel as if I was there, experiencing it all. One day when I was all grown up and already writing the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, my eye caught one photo out of a pile of dozens. It was a picture of her dressed for the show sitting atop a curled elephant’s trunk. She was looking down at a clown whose back was to the camera. I was intrigued and picked the photo up. I remember thinking how odd it was I hadn’t noticed this amazing picture before.
I turned to Mom and said, “Who is this clown? What’s his name?” I knew she was like a walking catalogue of the times, remembering names and stories from long gone.
But this time, she took the fading photo from my hand and shook her head. “I can’t remember his name. I don’t know what happened to him.”
Well! Never say that to a writer. I decided then and there I was going to make up a story about my mom and that clown. Of course, as I write mysteries, something dastardly would happen to him. On paper. What happened to him in real life, we’ll never know.
DE: How did you meld fiction and fact? Was it hard to move away from “this is how it really happened” in order to make it more dramatic for the story?
HH: This was the hardest novel I’ve ever written because I was combining fact and fiction, all wrapped around my mother. She was beautiful, inside and out, and I wanted to do right by that part of her life. In my mind’s eye, she was my ‘muse’, which only added to the pressure. While the story, itself, is totally made up, I want to stress that the day-to-day existence at Ringling Brothers’ is true to life and very factual. That’s why I call this a documentary fiction. I not only used her memories and written accounts, but did a lot of research. It took me six long years but I made construction mistakes, too. Initially, I wrote the story in third person. It didn’t work. Too stilted. So I change the entire work to first person. Jeri Deanne talking, thinking, feeling, reacting, upfront and real. It was a big job. Actually, more tedious than big. That took me another eight months. Then my editor decided past tense wasn’t working. Not immediate enough. So back to the keyboard. Once again, I changed the entire novel beginning to end, going from past tense to present tense. That was when it leapt out at me it should have a short-fuse time period. 48-hours. Become a real thriller. But then the framing I’d used for the story, a prologue and epilogue, didn’t fit. Out, out, out. But I was getting used to total rewrites, never being done. Then one day everything worked. Just like that. It wasn’t an easy journey, but a fulfilling one.
DE: What was the most unusual nugget you came across in your research?
HH: I discovered that the country – our country – was completely freaked out by the war. German subs off the Atlantic and Japanese subs off the Pacific. American service men and women dying on foreign soil. I had no idea there was such rampant fear looming within the populace and with such cause. Most people from the 50s on never talked about it. Certainly no one I knew talked about the effects of the war on them. But it was absolutely there. Do a little digging and you find the early 40s were terrifying times for most Americans. The second world war became very real for me when I read the accounts of what people went through.
DE: What assumptions about circus life changed as you researched and wrote?
HH: It was a world unto itself. And it was an escape from WWII, much as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies were during the depression. Remember, the depression only happened a few years before. America was already tired and worn out from that. Adding a world war to the mix was much more than the average person could handle. Ringling Brothers’ Circus offered them an afternoon’s respite. And it was huge! The sheer volume of the circus was almost overwhelming. They traveled with fifty-one elephants, over two thousand animals, eighteen hundred people. It also carried housing, food, costumes, everything to be completely self-contained. It was a traveling city, bigger than many towns they played. Any circus today pales in comparison. Seriously.
DE: What did you have to cut out that you wish you could have kept?
HH: Not one blasted thing. I kept everything in I wanted to keep in. I compromised on nothing.
DE: How did the experience of writing this book differ from your other books?
HH: I put everything I had into this book. I understand completely how authors can devote their lives to words. The power of them! And remember, it was an homage of sorts to Mom. That’s why I was delighted the novel won the Silver IPPY for Best Mystery/thriller near Mother’s Day, the same year my mother passed. The award meant a lot then; it means a lot now. I knew Mom was smiling down on me. Job well done, I think – I hope – she said.
About Heather Haven:
Back in the Punic Wars, Heather moved to the Bay Area and studied creative writing in the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. Previously, several of her comedy acts and plays were performed in NYC. Her novels include the multi-award winning Silicon Valley based Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Manhattan based Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, and standalone mystery documentary fiction, Murder under the Big Top, based upon her mother’s stint as a performer with Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Just to break up the monotony, her short stories are featured in Corliss and Other Award-Winning Stories. Her latest endeavor is the September 2019 release of Christmas Trifle, Book One of the Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Novels.
She and her husband of thirty-seven years are allowed to live with their two cats in the foothills of San Jose, California.
Thank you, Heather! I can’t wait to read this!