April 14th, 2008
Susan Wittig Albert: In Search of China’s Father

Datura inoxia
Datura innoxia known commonly as angel’s trumpet or thornapple, a hallucinogenic and deadly nightshade found commonly in Central Texas.

Update: Winner Announced

Congratulations to Dianna Otterstad of Lewisville, TX who won a copy of Nightshade in the drawing.

Today I’m happy to welcome author Susan Wittig Albert. As I read her latest China Bayles’ mystery, Nightshade, I was thrilled to discover that several scenes are set quite near Zanthan Gardens and in other Austin locales quite familiar to me. Now I’m expecting to see China around every corner. I did have the pleasure of meeting Susan during last weekend’s Spring Fling–which just goes to show, that in the world of gardening and mysteries, you never know what might happen next. — mss

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

Many thanks to MSS for hosting me today at Zanthan Gardens. China Bayles logoThis blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the latest China Bayles mystery. For those of you who haven’t met her, China is a former criminal defense attorney who left the rat race and moved to Pecan Springs TX, a small town at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. There, she owns an herb shop and tends her gardens, when she isn’t solving mysteries. One of the mysteries she’s compelled to solve arises out of her own past, out of her father’s death, some sixteen years ago.

(Spoiler alert: this post contains some information that is part of the mystery—but only some. There’s still plenty of mystery left for you to solve.)

China’s Past, China’s Present

Real people have a past—that’s one of the things that make them so interesting. Writers know that their fictional characters need a past, as well: to give them depth and substantiality, to make their present actions understandable, and to hold the reader’s interest. As a series writer (mysteries are usually written in series), I’ve loved having the opportunity to let my characters’ pasts come to light gradually—not all at once, and not all in one book, but bit by bit, as their present situation summons up the memories of the past.

book cover Thyme of Death

China Bayles tells us a bit about her past in almost every book. In Thyme of Death, we learn that her father, Robert Bayles, a successful Houston lawyer, influenced her decision to go to law school and become an attorney. She did it to “get his attention,” she says, “to please him.” But nothing China did could ever please Bayles, a cold, remote man who had little time for his daughter or his alcoholic wife.

A bit of my own personal history here: China’s relationship with her father was modeled on my own troubled relationship with my father, a stern, distant man who inspired me alternately with adoration, as a girl, and fear, as a teen and as his alcoholism grew worse. I struggled with my feelings for him for years, even after he died. Writing about China’s relationship with her father has helped me see mine more clearly.

book cover Bleeding Hearts

As the series moves along, we begin to understand that China’s inability to trust men arises in part from her unhappy, untrusting relationship with her father. In Bleeding Hearts, more of the backstory emerges. We find out that when China was in her teens, she had a weekend and summer job in Bayles’ law office, where she met the partners, her father’s secretary, Laura Danforth, and Danforth’s son Buddy. We learn how her father died, in a fiery car crash sixteen years before the present. And we discover that Laura Danforth was her father’s mistress, and Buddy—now a practicing attorney, introduced by his real name, Miles—is her father’s son. This back story plays out as one of the mysteries of the book, as China meets Buddy. At the end of the book, Miles gives her a batch of letters Robert Bayles wrote to his mother, letters that cast China’s father in an entirely new light.

book cover Spanish Dagger

In Spanish Dagger, more details of China’s father’s story emerge. We discover that Laura Danforth did not believe that the car crash that killed Bob Bayles was accidental, and that she was still trying to solve the mystery when she died. Miles, her son, is carrying on that search and wants to involve China, who is not at all anxious to get dragged into a past that she finds altogether unpleasant. But in Nightshade, China has to get involved, when the search for the facts behind her father’s death comes home to haunt her. What happens in this mystery is going to change China’s life completely, in ways she can’t begin to understand—not yet.

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

The story of China’s father was so complex that I didn’t want to try to tell it and solve its mysteries all in one book. Instead, I chose to develop it across three books: a trilogy within the series. The story is introduced as a subplot in Bleeding Hearts, when China meets her half-brother and learns about her father’s illicit affair with Laura Danforth. It continues and is expanded (but is still a subplot) in Spanish Dagger, as China finds out more details about Danforth’s investigation into Robert Bayles’ death. It becomes the central plot in Nightshade, where all the mysteries are finally resolved.

I love writing mysteries because they’re written in a series and a series offers so many possibilities for character development and extended story-telling. I could never have told the whole story of China’s relationship with her father and her discovery of the truth behind his death in a single book. It would have been far too complicated, and important parts of it could not have been developed.

book cover Nightshade

I realize that I’m taking a chance doing this. Some readers may be irritated at not having every loose end tied up in the final chapter, as is usually done in a mystery. And a reader who begins the series with the second or third book in the trilogy may have some catching-up to do. But the story itself was too rich to compress and too important to ignore. So here it is, complete at last—that is, as much as a story can be completed. As I said, what happens in Nightshade is going to alter China’s life in some very important ways. How? Well, gosh. We’ll just have to wait for the next book or two, I guess.

Susan’s Blog Tour

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.

Thanks again to Zanthan Gardens for hosting me today. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around all day, and tomorrow and the next, to reply to your comments. — Susan

My pleasure, Susan. — mss

by M Sinclair Stevens

18 Responses to post “Susan Wittig Albert: In Search of China’s Father”

  1. From Ann Bevak, Michigan:

    I’ve enjoyed so much every day’s posting on this blog tour. I’ve always suspected that there’s a lot of YOU in China — I hear her voice in yours, if that’s possible. More and more do I see the need to go back and start the series again from scratch, just as I do with the Brother Cadfaels about every 3 years.

    My favorite post so far is the “back to nature” one. We are learning to observe through your eyes on all the Lifescapes.

  2. From bill/prairie point:

    I have read several of the China books in the earlier part of the series and enjoyed this preview of what to expect as I progress through them. Also enjoyed seeing you at the Lady Bird Center.

  3. From Bonnie, Austin:

    Sounds like an exciting series, Susan. Now I definitely need to read the books to know more about China!

  4. From Cindy, Katy:

    Susan, I look forward to reading NIGHTSHADE. Thanks, MSS, for hosting one of my favorite Texas authors!

  5. From Susan Albert:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. It’s always interesting to hear what people think about the series–especially from a reader who rereads the books every few years! That’s certainly something I need to do. 🙂 Might keep me from committing a few of my blunders.

    I’m in Austin the rest of today. Back for more conversation tomorrow.

  6. From Susan Schoch:

    Reading a bit about the development of the “trilogy within the series” makes me curious about how this all works in your head, Susan. I know that at any given time you must be holding ideas and plans that extend beyond the book you’re currently working on, and I’m wondering how far in advance you plot things out, and how much those plans change as you’re doing the actual writing. Do you already have a plan for the end of the series? Do you work concurrently on your other writing, or try to hunker down and focus on one book at a time?
    Again, I’m enjoying the blog tour immensely. Thanks.

  7. From Dani:

    I’ve been thinking lately that I need to go back and re-read all the books, too. How many years has it been since the first one?

  8. From Annie in Austin:

    Hello Susan and MSS,

    I’m currently in the middle of the trilogy and am enjoying it immensely. Like Ann, I also like to reread previously read books in the series. It’s fun to look for your initial introduction of concepts and people who may be important several volumes later.

    If you ever need a character who grows Cilantro, think of MSS and her Larkspur, Poppy, Cilantro meadow!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  9. From our friend Ben:

    Geez, Susan, sounds like you’re having way too much fun with the series! But since you’re the author, I guess that’s allowed! There’s nothing fun about having an alcoholic parent, however. I think it’s brave and excellent of you to bring that forward in your books. And as we all know who’ve been there, there’s nothing stereotypical about alcoholics, either–they’re just as complex (or simple), brilliant (or stupid), cultured (or ignorant), loving (or distant), and what-have-you as everyone else. They simply have an overlayer as slaves to their addiction.

    And thank you, MSS, for playing host to Susan today!

  10. From Jinni Turkelson, Grand Rapids, MI:

    I’m happy to know that other readers enjoy re-reading series books. I sometimes find tidbits I missed,or didn’t see the significance of, when I read the books a second time. The thing I love about Susan’s blogs is getting her POV and her sharing how events in her own life find their way into her books.I always learn something from each blog. Thanks for hosting this one!

  11. From kate:

    I clearly remember my enjoyment of the first China mystery and how long the wait seemed to be before the next in the series was published.

    I enjoy books that don’t always tie up all the loose ends and leave something for the next book.

  12. From Angelina:

    I’m ready for a new mystery series. I usually hear about what’s out there from my mom who has a voracious appetite for mysteries.

    I’ve been thinking about Datura lately and wondering how well I could get it to grow here, I must look it up. I had one I loved that looks just like your picture above. Really pale though with the slightest hint of lavender. Gorgeous!

  13. From Mary in CNY:

    I love the idea that the name of an herb inspired one of your books. The way you began to develop Brian into a more rounded character in Dead Man’s Bones is wonderful. Then the way he and Jake were central to the plot of Bleeding Hearts was such a suprise.
    The cover art on you books is always an illustration of the featured herb but I noticed the cover for Bleeding Hearts is different. It is more ornate that the others. Did your cover artist change for that one?

    Handmade paper is a favorite medium for my letter writing so Spanish Dagger had me from the start. Then you started the Miles storyline. It was great. Then Bleeding Hearts continued the Miles story.

    I just finished Nightshade the plot was more complicated since you had two separate voices investigating the murder. The Colin/Ruby plot conclusion was lovely. Ruby falls in love so easily but this time she did fall for a good man, who fell for her too. You had blogged about telling part of Nightshade with Mike’s voice. That was a great decision!

    I like Mike’s vocabulary, his instant liking to the tomatillo lady and the way he worries about China. I hope you write his voice into another plot.

    I have an question about a comment you made in an earlier blog refering to some changes in China’s life that may happen in a future book but to ask it now might spoil Nightshade for someone else. Maybe in the blog tour for the next book I will ask my question.
    Thank you for Nightshade,
    Mary in Central New York

  14. From Dawn:

    My grandmother had an angel’s trumpet plant. She was very proud of the blooms. I look forward to reading how “Nightshade” is used in your latest book.

    I so enjoyed meeting you at the Wildflower Center. Hope you had as much fun as the rest of us did that day. 🙂


  15. From Susan Albert:

    Mary, that’s a good question about the cover for Bleeding Hearts. The art department always handles the covers for this series, and I never see them until it’s too late to make any changes. (The situation is different for the Cottage Tales.) For Bleeding Hearts, it was the same artist as other covers. The Nightshade artist is the same man, too–Joe Burleson. You can see his name on the back inside flap. But he stylized the nightshade to the point where it’s practically unrecognizable. I squawked about this, unsuccessfully, of course. (“Too late to make changes.”) I love the colors, but I’ve disowned the plant. 🙂

  16. From Susan Albert:

    Hey, Dawn–

    I think Angel’s trumpet (also called Devil’s trumpet) deserves its own mystery, but not right away. It’ll be a few years. Nice to meet you at the WFC, too–there’s never enough time to talk, though.

    Special thanks to M for hosting me here at her beautiful Zanthan Gardens. Everybody, thanks for following along on the blog tour. Hope to be able to meet you all in person sometime!

  17. From kerri:

    I’m a little late commenting because we were away for the weekend. It’s going to take me a while to work my way through the series, but after just finishing Thyme of Death, I know I’m going to enjoy myself immensely.
    It’s been fun ‘getting to know you’ a little, and discovering your mystery series, Susan, through this blog tour. Great idea for promoting the book!
    Thanks MSS for playing hostess today.

  18. From Joe Burleson:

    I want to apologise for over-stylizeing the plant,Susan.Sometimes, I feel limited to the reference material I find and/or given.Ive always loved doing your series ,Susan!And Im happy you like Nightshades colors.As for the the ornate nature of Bleeding Hearts, I just know I had fun doing it,just as i do with all of Susans books!May Susans writing flurish just as her plants do!