Tag: Utah



Two weeks ago, I had my first reading of Blessed be the Wicked at The King’s English in Salt Lake City. I haven’t lived in Utah since I graduated from high school a very long time ago. Still, Utah’s a place always close to my heart. My pioneer ancestors helped settle Deseret in the mid-nineteenth century. I grew up listening to my mom tell stories of her grandpa’s ranch out in Grantsville. The farm hands were up at the crack of dawn, and when they came in from the first labor of the day, around dawn, my great grandma would feed them steak, eggs, and potatoes for breakfast. Meanwhile, my mom would sneak spoon fulls of cream from the top of milk jugs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier grins than what I saw in the frayed black-and-white photo of my great grandpa in striped overalls with my mom by his side on his tractor. Grantsville, Utah, in the late 1940s was a place where people knew to cherish time. As a rancher, my great grandpa had plenty of work that had to be done. He did it and he did it well. If you’re a farmer and a rancher, there’s nothing to be gained by cutting corners. When he finished what needed to be finished, though, he knew there was more to life. From the stories, I know he knew how to have fun. He took my mom out on the horses, he let her drive the tractor, he watched her climb trees. I never knew my Great Grandpa Brown. I only know him through my mom’s and my grandma’s stories. HE laughed a lot. He smiled. He knew how to live. Getting work done was important, but so was playing. It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply in my own life. We need to get our work done: yes. We need to do the best job we can: yes. Then, we need to play: absolutely. So do what you need to do. Do it well. Then, climb a tree.

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D.A. Bartley's Blessed Be the Wicked

 How lucky am I to be blogging the week that our own Miss Demeanor, D.A. Bartley’s Bless Be the Wicked, is launched. I got to hear her fascinating answers to these questions first. Your book releases today, what’s the day look like for you? Alison: I’m in Utah visiting my Dad, which makes the pub date particularly special because I get to share it with him. Tomorrow, I’ll be reading and signing at The King’s English. If you know Salt Lake, you know that TKE is one of the world’s most wonderful independent bookstores. It’s a place run by book lovers for book lovers. If you’re in the area, please stop by at 7:00 pm. I’d love to see you!  You live in New York City, but the Abish Taylor series is set in Utah. Why? Alison: My grandma loved to point out that I come from sturdy pioneer stock. I do. My ancestors arrived in Deseret—now Utah—in the late 1840s and 50s. Most pushed handcarts​​ from New York to the Salt Lake valley, although it’s rumored a few could afford covered wagons. Whenever I feel like complaining about walking a few extra blocks, I think of walking across the plains in winter. Suddenly, ten blocks in mid-town Manhattan isn’t so bad.  You’re an attorney with a Ph.D. in political science. How did you come to write a murder mystery?  Alison: The very first grown up book I ever read was an Agatha Christie. Both my mom and grandma were big readers, especially of murder mysteries. My mom passed away a few years ago after a ten-year struggle with Alzheimer’s. I was in Utah a lot during those years. On one visit, I went to a friend’s house north of Salt Lake. There was an enormous home at the end of her street with an amazing view of the mountains. It had been empty for a few years after the housing bubble burst. When I got back to New York, I couldn’t get that house out of my head. What could happen in a place like that? One morning, I just sat down and wrote. That might have been the end of it except for a week later my daughter suffered a moderate concussion and couldn’t read or look at screens. (She’s fine now and off to college next week!) She didn’t like the audio books I’d gotten her. She asked me to read what I was writing. When I finished the seventh chapter, she asked me what happened next. I didn’t know. She said, “Mom, go write more.” So I did. That’s how it went until she recovered. By then, I had written a good chunk of the story.  What can you tell us about your protagonist, Detective Abish Taylor? Alison: Abbie is trying to re-start her life. In Blessed be the Wicked, she’s still reeling from having lost her husband. She had been living in New York, having left her state, family, and religion behind. Suddenly alone, she decides to move back to Utah to be near family, but her relationship with them is strained.  Her father, a respected LDS historian, doesn’t understand why his daughter left the Church, and she doesn’t understand why he’s still a member. Family is just the first of Abbie’s problems. The death is a reminder of a dark history, a history powerful people would prefer stays forgotten.   I hear the first murder has some religious overtones, is that true? Alison: Yes. When Abbie sees the first body, she recognizes the hallmarks of a ritual discussed in the early days of the Mormon Church. LDS scholars and historians debated blood atonement as late as the 1970s, but there are no verifiable examples that anyone was ever killed this way. Of course, as a writer, it’s just too much fun to play around with a macabre doctrine from the 19th century in today’s world. It reminds me how important it is to be mindful about what we believe, and how we believe.  What is your schedule after this? Alison: Besides helping my daughter move into her dorm next week? I’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida where I’ll be on the panel discussing religion in mysteries on September 9th. On September 17th, I’ll be reading and signing books at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.   

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Writing about Cultural Setting

 Utahns are friendly and stubbornly optimistic. There’s an open warmth wherever you go in the state. I’d argue that some of that, at least, stems from growing up hearing stories of overcoming unbelievable hardship as a community. The lyrics to the Mormon pioneer song advises that we “put our shoulder to the wheel.” Every person helped out on the trek from the east coast to the Salt Lake Valley—pulling a handcart, or, if you were lucky, riding in a covered wagon—through snow and mud, despite disease and famine, toward an unknown destination. Politeness and friendliness are to Utah what competence and efficiency are to Manhattan, but that’s a superficial description. Cultural setting needs to scrape beneath the surface. Just as some of the nicest most generous people I know are New Yorkers by birth or adoption (meaning you’ve lived in the city long enough to have survived at least one business cycle), there are plenty of Utahns who don’t conform to the branded image of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. It’s the below-the-veneer characters who make a story interesting: the people who don’t fit in; people who see the world in a different way from the majority; the ones who’ve been knocked around a bit in life. Then there are the people who keep secrets, who lie and cheat. The ones who sometimes make the wrong choice and feel bad about it . . . or don’t. All of them keep a story moving. Some of the scenes I like best are where my characters confront challenging decisions head on. I start writing and I don’t know where the characters will lead me. Will there be a heartfelt apology or a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing? Will she choose kindness or cruelty? Honesty or deceit? Love, loss, greed, and generosity are part of being human wherever you live on the globe, but different cultures translate that humanity in different ways. Linda Castillo lets us peak into what it means to be Amish; Dana Stabenow gives us a flavor of indigenous life in Alaska. Then, of course, there is Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Hans Rosenfeldt and so many others who set their novels in worlds where we get to learn something about the culture where murder happens. I’m always looking to add to my TBR list. Any suggestions for authors who excel at introducing new cultures?     

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Seeing with New Eyes

Snow in the Wasatch Mountains, court-side seats at a Jazz basketball game, a stroll around Temple Square, otherworldly rock formations at Arches, sweeping vistas in Canyonlands, bison and birds on Antelope Island, and the quiet beauty of Huntsville after a treacherous drive up rocky Ogden Canyon. I spent last week in Utah, a place I haven’t lived full time since I graduated from high school. After my son fractured his wrist snowboarding, my family made a quick decision to turn our ski vacation into a hiking vacation. We drove down to Moab. In a delightful coincidence, friends of ours from New York were there for a few days. Over a lunch of green papaya salad, beef noodles and curried chicken (yes, there’s a great Thai restaurant in Moab, Utah), our friends described the immense beauty of my home state.  I was about five the first time I remember traveling from our house in the alpine mountains in the north ofthe state to the red rock in the south. My child self assumed that everything I saw was normal. It took my friend, who lives a few blocks away from us on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to remind me that it was pretty fabulous to be able to drive 45 minutes to world-class skiing and then several hours to spectacular desert hiking. Sitting in a Thai restaurant in Moab, I saw my state through new eyes. When we made our way back through the desolate beauty of southeastern Utah to Salt Lake, I appreciated the astonishing Utah’s topography. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life: Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Massachusetts and Philadelphia. There’s something wonderfully special wherever you are. Sometimes, though, we get used to it. We stop seeing what makes where we are special. We stop seeing through new eyes.  I’m devoting this week’s posts to what makes setting—the people, places and things—compelling and unique. What would Nero Wolfe be without Manhattan and his orchids? Can you imagine Longmire any place other than Absaroka County, Wyoming?  Could Jimmy Perez exist outside of the Shetland Islands? My question for you is: what makes your setting unique and how do you describe it to those who don’t know it first hand?

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What's real not what's perfect.

 I used to hate this picture.   My mom loved it. I was in second grade when it was taken, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The hand-smocked blue dress scratched my neck and the sleeves dug into my armpits. I wanted to go outside and play soccer. The photographer was an overworked man whose job was to take pictures of elementary-school children in Utah. There are a lot of school children in Utah. When it came time for him to take my photo, I didn’t want to smile. The poor photographer was tired. He tried to coax me to grin. He said I looked beautiful. He tried to tell a joke. Finally, he pulled out a ratty, rust-colored stuffed animal with a missing eye. I smirked. Did he really think he could coerce me into smiling by showing me a tattered toy? He snapped the camera. I don’t think he cared what I looked like at that point. My last name started with “B.” He had a lot more photographs to take that morning. When the picture came home, I knew it was bad. I didn’t look pretty. I wasn’t smiling like a delightful little girl. I looked skeptical…cynical…not sweet or nice at all. My mom kept a framed version of this photo on her dresser. She passed away three years ago after journeying through the various cruel stages of Alzheimers.  I never had a chance to ask her why she loved this picture, but I think I know the answer now. This picture shows me as I am: a little skeptical, a little irreverent. I was never perfect like the other girls at school or church. My mom loved this picture for the very reason I hated it: it was the real me, not the version of me I wanted to project into the world.  This picture sits on my dresser now…and I love it.     

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Meet D.A. Bartley

 We are thrilled to have D. A. (“Alison”) Bartley join us at Miss Demeanors and wanted you to get to know a little more about her, so we interrogated her for you. She sat unflappable under the hot lights for hours while we grilled her. She’s going to fit in just fine here at www.MissDemeanors.com Miss Demeanors:   When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?  Alison: I should have always known, but I didn’t. It was only after I started writing my first mystery that I realized how much I loved being a writer.  I’m a lifelong mystery reader, so my mind gravitates towards puzzles. I started writing when my mom was in the final stages of Alzheimers. I was flying back and forth between New York and Utah all the time. On one of those trips I visited a friend in Pleasant View, where there was an enormous, brand-new house that was completely empty. I couldn’t get the house out of my head. One day I started writing about it. I had written about seven chapters when my daughter got a moderate concussion playing lacrosse. (She is completely fine now!) She had to stay in a dark room without a computer or books while she recovered. She didn’t like the audio books I got her and asked me to read what I was writing. When I finished reading everything I’d written at that point, she asked, “What happens next?” I told her I didn’t know. She asked me to go write some more. So I did. That story became Blood Atonement, which is scheduled to be published by Crooked Lane in 2018. Miss Demeanors:   What other careers, jobs have you had? Alison: I was a litigator with a large international law firm in Manhattan. Then I was a research scholar. My area of interest was state sovereignty and international law. I have a Ph.D. in political science and a law degree. In both fields your writing and ideas are constantly critiqued. You learn not to get too attached to words or thoughts because, generally, the critiquing process makes your writing and thinking better. In retrospect, it’s probably not a bad background for a writer. Miss Demeanors:   Who has influenced you as a writer?  Alison:   First and foremost, Agatha Christie. My mom and grandma were big mystery readers. Agatha Christie was at the top of their lists, so she was at the top of mine, too. There are so many other great writers who inspire me. On my nightstand and Kindle right now there’s some P.D. James, Terry Tempest Williams, Harold Evans, Elizabeth George, Linda Castillo, Craig Johnson, Dana Stabenow and Zygmunt Miłoszewski. I recently finished my first Tana French and can’t wait to read more.   Miss Demeanors:    What is your debut novel about? Alison:    Unquestioning faith. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, grew up in Utah, but moved away after high school. She has returned to work as the sole detective in a small town in the north of the state. Her father is a well-respected Mormon historian and Chair of the Church History and Doctrine Department at Brigham Young University. Abbie doesn’t go to church, so there’s tension between father and daughter. Both Abbie and her dad want a close relationship, but neither is very good with interpersonal connections.  Of course, there’s a body (maybe more than one), and it has hallmarks of a ritual dating back to the days of Brigham Young. Abbie starts investigating and uncovers a dark side of the quiet town of Pleasant View…  After that, I can’t say.  Miss Demeanors:    What is something about you that would surprise us? Alison:   I spent my junior year studying in Leningrad/St. Petersburg because I thought I wanted to be a Sovietologist. On second thought, maybe a better answer is that I completed Improv 101 at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I heard an interview with Amy Poehler where she spoke about how the world would be a better place if everyone learned the skills that make for good improv. I thought, “Wow, I don’t do any of those things very well.” I signed up. The two most important practices I learned there were how important it is to really listen to other people, and that it’s much better to say “yes, and” than to say “yes, but.” I wish I could say I’ve mastered those skills. I haven’t, but I know when I follow the improv rules, life flows a little more smoothly.  So now you’ve met our newest Miss Demeanor. Please stop by and ask a question we may have missed.      

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