Sally Wright's most recent novel, Behind The Bonehouse, the second in her Jo Grant mystery series, is driven by the conflicts and emotional connections in three family businesses in the horse industry in Kentucky in the early '60s. Wright's Ben Reese series chronicles the investigations of a WWII Ranger turned academic archivist in six mysteries that unfold in Britain, the US and Italy where he researches arcane artifacts while seeking some sort of justice for the victims of unsolved murders. Sally and her husband live with their boxer dog in northwestern Ohio.
The Art of Looking Back
When I was little, I spent a lot of time asking my mother and her much older parents to tell me about when they were young. I loved the stories of the early 1900s when there were still horses on every street making their way around touring cars with Eisenglass curtains, when the three of them lived in ramshackled housing on a collection of army posts spread across the country.
My father talked about his childhood too, but he was raised in an orphanage and it always made me feel sorry for him, knowing how hard it must’ve been, even though he told us the funny things, my favorite being the retired fire horse, who plowed the orphanage farm, who broke out of his stall and ran back to the firehouse every time he heard a siren.
I don’t think I’d be a writer if I didn’t like looking back, wondering about the lives other people have lived. Of course, age plays a part too. Now that I’m in my late sixties (and here undoubtedly by the grace of God) I find myself saying, when I never did before, “I won’t get to do that again. . . . No, I’ll never be able to travel there. . . . Yeah, I know, I have to stop riding. I can’t afford to get thrown again.”
Age, yes, and having cancer - they both make you reflect, which helps your writing in countless ways, while the writing itself eases the trials of transition. That’s partly why Behind The Bonehouse, the second Jo Grant horse country novel, has been so satisfying to write. I can’t ride a horse anymore, but I can write about doing it for thirty years, and describe the horse I loved the most, and relive it all while I work.
Which is not to say the book came easily. I had no idea what to write next when I’d finished Breeding Ground in 2013. I actually went to bed one night in something of a panic praying for some small glimmer of an idea. When I woke the next morning I found myself thinking about the family business my parents had started when I was four, which took me where I needed to go.
It’s a business based on formulations, and I started thinking about all the ups and downs the family’s lived through because of it. Right at the beginning, the manufacturer who was to make Dad’s product (since Dad couldn’t afford a plant of his own) substituted pages in the middle of their contract (long before there were Xerox machines, when my dad hadn’t known to initial every page), which claimed he now owned my dad’s formulation in exchange for blending the batches. My parents had to pay $20,000 – a fortune then, they definitely didn’t have – to buy back my dad’s own work, which nearly shut the business down before it got off the ground.
I thought about that, and other alarming, instructive, even gratifying events – and suddenly saw that I could use an equally dishonest setback, adapted and expanded, as the underpinning for a plot based on Equine Pharmaceuticals where Alan Munro, Jo Grant’s new husband, worked in Lexington in 1964. I could tie it in to all sorts of other things – their friends in Breeding Ground in two other family businesses, the horses there, and the racing world - in ways I thought would be interesting.
And that actually wasn’t the first time my father’s work drove a mystery. Back in the 30s and early 40s, when he worked as a chemist at American Cyanamid, Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason mysteries) called my father out of the blue. He wanted to know if there was something that could be put on a duck’s feathers that would keep it from floating in water. My father told him how wetting agents could be used - how they’d work and why, without injuring the duck. The two of them corresponded for some time, and when The Case Of The Drowning Duck was published Gardner gave my father the original watercolor painting that was used for the book’s cover. It now hangs in the hallway by my bedroom with a copy of a 1942 Life Magazine article (affixed to the back for future generations) that talked about the work they did to validate the plot.
And yet, when I was writing Bonehouse, I looked back on a lot more than my own family’s experiences. Setting is incredibly important to me whenever I write (or even read) a book, and I loved remembering the time I’d spent on the horse farms in Woodford County Kentucky, studying its history, getting to know the people born and raised there who appeal mightily to me.
Behind The Bonehouse takes place in several houses I’ve stayed in in Versailles and Midway, owned by friends, or friends of theirs. And I happily went back as many times as I could to take more pictures and interview experts (a US Marshall named Squirrel, the most interesting among them). The houses I describe all exist in that green rolling world, though I move them from one place to another, and change what I need to change to make the story work.
It’s fun for me to wonder and remember, amusing myself fitting pieces of the past, real and imagined and deliberately redirected - horses I’ve loved, houses I’ve stayed in, land I’ve cared about since the first time I saw it, made-up characters more real than family - into something new I couldn’t see when I started looking for a story I thought would be worth telling.
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