Every October, all the big names in the publishing world make an annual pilgrimage to Austin for the most awesome book festival in the nation. But what I love most about the Texas Book Festival is meandering through the book signing tents and discovering emerging new authors. A few years ago, I stumbled across Sylvia Dickey Smith’s book-signing booth and took a chance on her Sidra Smart mysteries, Deadly Sins, Deadly Secrets, and Dead Wreckoning (read my reviews here). How could I say no to a Texas crime thriller filled with strong-willed women, ghosts and phantom pirate ships? Needless to say, I’ve been a fan ever since.
Sylvia was kind enough to chat with me about her new book The Swamp Whisperer, a fun little murder mystery set deep in the dark bayous and swamps of Southeast Texas. Read on to learn more about her unique approach to character development, how her background in psychotherapy factors into her writing, and what she’s working on now!
How did the idea for Swamp Whisperer come about?
Gosh, Jessica, who knows! But for lack of any more believable explanation, I’ve come up with this theory.
Deep in the frigid north of Rochester, Minnesota, there live three mischievous, trouble-making leprechauns named Alfyn Lee, Alfie, and Dr. Alf. Along with them, resides a neat priest named Johnny, who has long since given up responsibility for their behavior. While I slept, I’m guessing these fellows crawled into my dreams and dared me to write a story about an old swamp woman more concerned with the health of the bayous of southeast Texas than she was her own safety.
Why do they care? Because Boo Murphy, who is the swamp whisperer, gets in as much trouble as they do, and everyone knows fun loves company.
What drew you to the swamps and bayous of Southeast Texas as a setting?
My roots there grow deep—like five generations deep. When I searched for a setting for the Sidra Smart mystery series, my hometown kept calling me back. I had moved away shortly after high school, and have not lived there since, but the area carries its own magic and mysticism, likely left over from the indigenous Atakapa-Ishak Indians and the swamp lands they inhabited. The area is different than any other part of Texas. It is said to carry its very own gravity. You either get out early, or you don’t get out at all.
The dark swamps and bayous meander through town carrying whispers of time pasts, of the dreaded feu follet, of tales of sunken pirate ships and Jean Lafitte’s buried treasures. The area offers so much more than setting. It offers mysterious ambience, smells of rotting vegetation, out-of-the-ordinary, colorful and sometimes weird characters. I know. Many of them were my family. Some folks even say it takes one to know one.
So, I ask—wouldn’t you?
What made you decide to go against the norm and revolve your story around a cantankerous old woman?
Cantankerous old women and men have always interested me. They have color, personality, and they call it like they see it. No beating around the bush or pussyfooting around. Years ago, I dabbled in oil painting and one of my favorite subjects was the character and personality of the elderly.
My brother once told me a tale of an old man who went out in the swamps every day to fish and hunt squirrel. Fascinated by the story, I knew I wanted to write a tale with such a character. Not a man, however, but a woman, and a strong woman at that. So Boo Murphy was born in the third mystery of the series, Dead Wreckoning. Readers fell in love with her and demanded she have her own book. So, The Swamp Whisperer came to life in my heart and mind. I hope I did her justice. If I didn’t, as outspoken as she is, I’m sure she will let me know.
As many cantankerous old people do, Boo Murphy likes critters better than people. The critter she loves more than any other is her dog, Dawg. When he gets kidnapped, there’s no stopping Boo. You just don’t mess with a woman’s dog.
I wanted to write in the voice of an elderly woman because we have so much to learn from her. She carries a wealth of knowledge and experience from which we can all benefit.
It’s obvious you really looked into the history and mystery of the Texas-Louisiana borderlands. How did you go about researching this novel?
I researched it by talking to those who have been there and done that. I took boat rides out into the swamps and walked the shores collecting potshards and clamshells left behind by the Atakapa-Ishak people. I climbed atop large shell mounds, also called shell middens, which are piles of empty clam and oyster shells, the remains of their foraging for food along the banks of the bayous and rivers. I imagined what it must smell like to rub your skin with oil from alligators to keep the mosquitoes from eating you alive, to bear children with little shelter from the environment, to withstand hurricanes and floods. And to watch your way of life end with the coming of the Europeans.
As far as cantankerous old people, I’ve known enough of them in my lifetime that it didn’t take a stretch at all. When questions arose I couldn’t answer, I called my brother, Pete, who still lives there. He always had an answer for me, and if he didn’t, he made it up.
You do a wonderful job of establishing the yin-yang relationship with Boo’s cousin, Sasha. How did you construct her as both a friend and foil for Boo?
As a retired psychotherapist, I’ve spent a lot of time working with clients on the issue of balance. Black and white, up and down, right and left, negative and positive, hot and cold, north and south, man and woman, clean and dirty, cantankerous and sickly sweet.
Opposites yes, yet neither end of the continuum either right or wrong, only different. Both are simply opposite ends on a continuum, constantly moving toward the other.
I knew Boo needed someone to help balance out her personality and challenge her to address her own imbalance. What better way to do that than with a ‘second-cousin once removed.’ In other words, a cousin you’d just as soon not claim if you don’t have to. I wanted Sasha to help Boo discover her softer side, to learn she indeed does care for people, and for Boo to balance Sasha’s goody two-shoes personality.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring novelist?
Sit in the chair and write!
Could you give us a sneak peek into what you’re working on now?
Something totally different. Yes, there will be another Sidra book, but only after I get this novel-in- progress done. It is a contemporary fiction.
Original Cyn is the story is of an outwardly perfect wife of an outwardly perfect pastor in danger of losing her soul. Who would have thought she’d find it by standing up to his congregation after they discover their pastor isn’t so perfect after all.
Where can I find you at the upcoming Texas Book Festival?
Russ Hall and I share a booth in Tent # 2, Space 212, right across the aisle from Bright Sky Press. I really do hope you and all your readers will come by and say hello! I remember, Jessica, that is where and how we met! You stopped by, eager to read a new author, and we were off! How long ago was that, four years, maybe? I love meeting folks who love to read!
I will also have Rosie the Riveter fridge magnets and key chains on sale in case anyone else is a fan of hers like I am.
Want to know more about this talented Texas author? Go check out her website!