25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with R.J. Harlick

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R.J. Harlick talks to Open Book about her new book, A Green Place for Dying, why she decided to write about the disappearance of First Nations women and the best advice she's been given about mystery writing.

R.J. Harlick has several events coming up.

March 24, 2012: Book signing in Peterborough.
March 25, 2012: Book signing in Kingston.
March 31, 2012: Book signing in Waterloo.
April 11, 2012: Book signing in Stittsville.
April 12, 2012: Book signing with mystery author Vicki Delany in Ottawa.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, A Green Place for Dying.

R.J. Harlick:

In this latest Meg Harris mystery, the fifth in the series, Meg returns home from Baffin Island (see Arctic Blue Death) only to learn that Fleur, the daughter of a friend has gone missing from the Migiskan Anishinabeg Reserve near her West Quebec wilderness home. The young woman has been missing for over a month. Needless to say the mother is sick with worry.

Unfortunately the police, believing she is a runaway, refuse to do anything other than a nominal search. So Meg agrees to help her friend and discovers that Fleur is not the only Native woman that has gone missing in the Ottawa/Gatineau area. Over the past 5 years 15 other Native woman have also disappeared, four of whom have been found dead. Before long, Meg finds herself descending into an underworld of evil that she would rather not know existed.


What caused you to decide to focus on the disappearance of First Nations women in this Meg Harris mystery?


My series has an underlying Native theme, with each book exploring a particular issue relating to Aboriginals living in Canada. When I set out to write A Green Place for Dying, the papers were filled with stories on the high rate of missing Native woman, over 580 at the latest count. Moreover in 2008, two young women had disappeared from the Kitigan Zibi Reserve near Maniwaki, Quebec and nothing had been seen or heard from them since. I therefore felt it was not only a timely issue to explore, but also one that needed to be kept on the radar screen. However, out of respect for the families of these missing women, I have endeavoured to keep my story wholly fictional and have not based it on any real case.


Meg Harris often finds herself solving crimes in remote locations in Canada. What are some of the benefits and/or challenges to choosing these settings?


I love remote wild places, so when I set out to write my first Meg Harris mystery, Death?s Golden Whisper, it seemed only natural that I set the series in a place where I spend much of my time, the wilds of West Quebec. I gave Meg, Three Deer Point, a 1500 acre wilderness property that she inherited from her Great Aunt Agatha and a century old Victorian timber cottage, the kind of cottage I have always wanted.

A wilderness is a wonderful place to set a murder mystery, for danger lurks at ever twist of a trail or bend of a river and is a perfect place to hide a body. However, with a local population of less than 1000, there is the danger of having too many murders. Not wanting the series to suffer from the Cabot Cove syndrome, I have Meg travel to other wild places, like the Baffin Island setting of Arctic Blue Death, the 4th book of the series.


You first Meg Harris mystery, Death's Golden Whisper, was published in 2004. Did you know at the time that you would continue to follow Meg as a character? What is it about her that makes her a good heroine?


I am an avid mystery reader and have always enjoyed sinking my teeth into a good series, so when I started writing Death?s Golden Whisper, I intended that Meg be a character that would go on to live in another book.

I wanted a character who had depth and would grow and evolve as the series progressed. A Torontonian, Meg fled the big city to escape an abusive marriage, intent on healing her wounded soul in the peace and quiet of Three Deer Point. She drinks a little too much and is afraid of the dark, yet she lives alone with her only companion, Sergei, her wimpy standard poodle. Not being very lucky with love, she has an on-again off-again relationship with the band chief of the neighbouring reserve. She is a reluctant sleuth and only gets involved when she finds herself wanting to help a friend, as she does in A Green Place for Dying, or to make right what she perceives is an injustice.


Do you always know "whodunit" and other aspects of the plot when you begin a mystery novel, or are you often surprised along the way?


I am one of those writers who flies by the seat of her pants. No matter how often I try outlining, I invariably find my story taking Meg in wholly unexpected places, so I now usually start with a germ of an idea, an underlying theme, a starting cast of characters, a location and an opening hook to grab the readers attention and mine. I never know whodunit, rather I set it up with several suspects and I find myself at the end madly writing to finish the book so I can find out whodunit.


What is the best advice you've been given about writing mystery novels?


Perseverance. When the writing gets tough, don?t give up, just keep on writing and eventually the logjam will break and the words will come pouring out. Often what helps break the logjam for me is throwing an obstacle in the path of Meg, like a dead body, which then necessitates me to figure out how Meg will handle the situation and next I know I am writing frantically.


Who are your favourite novelists?


Needless to say as a writer of crime fiction, I love reading it and in particular Canadian crime fiction. We are very fortunate to have so many good crime writers in Canada. Some of my favourites include Mary Jane Maffini, who has three series. But I especially like her wicked humour in the Camilla McFee series set in Ottawa. John Farrow?s Detective Cinq-Mars series plunges you into the riveting underworld of Montreal and invariably leaves you gasping for air. And I quite enjoyed BC writer Stephen Legault?s first historical novel, End of the Line, set in the Rockies during the building of the railway.


What's next for Meg Harris?


Meg gets to travel once again, which means I do too. Silver Totem of Shame is the name of the next Meg Harris mystery, which is set in Vancouver and Haida Gwaii and has an underlying Haida theme.

R.J. Harlick is a lover of the outdoors and can often be found roaming the forests or canoeing the waterways. Her fourth Meg Harris novel, Arctic Blue Death, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. She divides her time between her home in Ottawa and a log cabin in West Quebec.

For more information about A Green Place for Dying please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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