Interview With Mystery Writer Marianne Wilski Strong

By Jennifer Ciotta

Literary Traveler celebrates the Mystery by talking with the award-winning mystery writer Marianne Wilski Strong. The author of twenty-four mystery short stories, many published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Wilski sets most of her stories in Northeastern Pennsylvania, calling upon both the region’s anthracite coal history and her own Polish upbringing.

Literary Traveler: How did you decide to become a writer?  In particular, why did you choose mystery as your genre?

Marianne Wilski Strong: I have always loved stories and storytelling.  In fact, my father was really a great storyteller.  I remember as a child sitting and listening to his stories that ranged from Polish folktales to stories that he heard from coal miners in the garage which he ran in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where I grew up.  So I think that’s why I chose to become a writer–just this love of stories.  I chose the mystery genre because it offers a writer a clear form.  You obviously have to have a murder or some sort of crime that needs to be solved but at the same time, the mystery genre has an enormous amount of flexibility.  You can write contemporary or historical mysteries.  You can go off in many directions, but you still have a nice form to work with.  You’re working within the rules, but the rules are very flexible.  I really like that.  I like the rationality of the mystery story.  You can arrive at truth through careful investigation and reasoning with a world view, which appeals to me.

LT: Which literary writers or books have inspired you the most?

MWS: Certainly some of the classics, especially Jane Austen.  Talk about rationality, she has it.  On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed the Bronte sisters, everything from Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre.  In terms of mystery itself, I have been heavily influenced by the classics: Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the mystery story after all, and the queen of mystery writing Agatha Christie.  It’s true that some of her plots have a wonderful way of pulling the readers into her stories and so she had a big effect on me.  In regards to contemporary mystery, I would say Ellis Peters for her historical mysteries and no one rivals P.D. James on creating atmosphere and mood.

LT: In regards to place, how did the coal mining area of Pennsylvania inspire your numerous mystery short stories, and now your novel?

MWS: The coal mining area of PA has an incredibly rich history.  It had everything–  murders; deaths by numerous means; tension between the manager and the laborer;  and tension between the wealthy and the immigrant, which is basically a tension between life and death.  Most of all, this area has a sense of place.  It’s almost gothic.  There are the great breakers–there’s only one or two left–in which the coal was separated from the slag.  They loom over the landscape.  They’re dark.  They’re mysterious.  The landscape itself is an environmental disaster, but these slag heaps look like piles of rock, yet inspired my imagination.  It has made me wonder how did this happen?  Who was involved in this story of the tragedy of coal mining?  It”s an area of intense mood–dark and mysterious in some places, tragic in others.

LT: How did you come to write for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine?

MWS: Those two magazines are really the premiere magazines for mysteries in this country.  Back in the 1920s and 30s writers had a lot of choices.  Dashiell Hammet really honed his own writing skills writing for Black Mask.  There were tons of dime detective magazines, pulp fiction basically.  Only two really have survived: Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen.  When I wrote my first short story and wanted to sell it, I naturally submitted to one of those.  AH published my first story and EQ published my second one.  They still are great magazines for writers and readers of mystery short stories.

LT: Do you receive a lot of feedback from your readers or the magazines?

MWS: I don’t get a whole lot of feedback from the magazines, although I do get some.  They do send me any commentary or mail they get from their readers in regards to my stories.  One of the most touching for me was a letter from a man who said the character I created in a story called “The Last Vigil,” an old man who fights to save the icon in his church, reminded the reader of his own father.  And he was very touched by that.  This keeps me going.  But my main feedback comes from my family and friends and their reactions to my stories, including my husband who tremendously helps in editing my stories for me.

LT: Do you write for a specific audience?

MWS: Sometimes, I feel as if I’m writing stories for my family.  For instance, “The Last Vigil” was based on a Polish tradition of the men holding a vigil before Easter, which reproduces the idea of guarding the grave of Jesus.  In this case I am writing for my family and for others who share the same Polish background as myself.  Otherwise, I’m addressing a general audience, in some cases hoping that this general audience takes some interest in the coal mining area of PA, if that is where the story takes place.  In my ancient Greece stories I feel that I’m addressing an audience who may become interested in the incredible history of ancient Greece, and influence them to do some additional reading.

LT: You grew up in Wilkes-Barre, PA.  Do many of your stories involve your childhood or come from incidents in your childhood?

MWS: Certainly not all but some of them do.  Several originated from stories that circulated in my own family, generally concerning coal mining and either disasters in the mines or stories of individual miners.  As I just mentioned, “The Last Vigil” was inspired by my waking up at three o’clock in the morning to see my father leaving the house to go and keep his hours vigil at the church.  This kind of rich childhood where there were the Polish customs and the rich coal mining history gave me an enormous amount of material to use.  I did write a story called “The Honored Guest” which dealt with the custom of leaving a place empty at Christmas dinner just in case an “honored guest” showed up.  That kind of custom that my family had has turned out to be greatly inspiring for my stories.

LT: If our readers would like to know more about the coal mining history in PA, are there any places you suggest visiting?

MWS: Yes, there are a number of places in northeastern PA that give a sense of what that whole history is about.  It’s so important since this history fired the American industrial revolution.  There is a place called Eckley Miners’ Village off Interstate 81 in Hazelton, which is a state historic site.  It gives the reader a very good idea of what a coal mining town was like.  In Scranton, there is a Lackawanna Museum where you can see what kind of tools the miners used.  But what”s really wonderful there is you can take a small train down into a mine.  For people who have done it, like myself, really begin to understand the sense of claustrophobia and the sense of 1000 feet of earth over your head.  And, of course, I recommend just wandering through the hills of northeastern PA to get a full sense of what the coal mining era was like.

LT: How popular is coal mining today?  Are there black lung widows?

MWS: Most of the black lung widows have passed on.  Coal mining did come to an abrupt halt in 1959 in the northern anthracite fields because the Susquehanna River broke into the mines on a very cold January day.  You don’t have many people left who actually mine nor the black lung widows but you do have children and grandchildren who carry in themselves the stories they heard from their fathers and grandfathers.  They have a renewed interest in the history of the area.  And as the United States faces the problem of energy sources–and there’s more and more talk of using coal since the US sits on a very strong reserve of coal–the whole history of coal mining is going to be extremely important to know what can happen environmentally and to human beings if such mining is not strongly regulated.

LT: Additionally, you write fictional short stories about ancient Greece.  Please tell us about how these originated?  Have you visited Greece, and if so, is there anything unique you recommend seeing?

MWS: Well I began writing my stories, my series, in ancient Greece because I have always loved the ancient Greek mythology and literature.  I really think the ancient Greeks were and remain the best storytellers of them all.  Think of the Odyssey, the Iliad, Oedipus Rex–just wonderful, wonderful stories.  After all the Greeks did invent tragedy.  Some people think of Oedipus Rex as the first mystery story, who actually killed Oedipus’ father.  Of course we all know who it was.  The Greeks just have this incredible talent for storytelling.  I’ve always been interested in ancient Greek literature, read it and then taught it for many years as well.  I taught a course called Mythology, Legends and Folklore in which I did a good deal of Greek myth.  So I wanted to write a series that would perhaps get other people interested the wonderful literature of Greece.  My key detective figure is a Sophist in 5th century Athens, living under Pericles.  They established the world’s first democracy there.  So I am able to take my reader from the beginnings of the democracy and eventually, of course, the stories will end with the fall of the world”s first democracy.

I’ve been in Greece many, many times.  It’s a wonderful country to visit.  It”s very difficult to pinpoint just one thing people should see, but there is one I would recommend.  It’s one that not many tourists go to.  Almost all the tourists go to see the Parthenon, of course.  But from the Parthenon you could look at a hill, its called the Pnyx, which is the place where the meetings of the first democracy were held.  In those days where male Greeks could vote and listen to the speeches on various issues such as: should we have a preemptive war against Syracuse to how should the taxes be spent this year?  They would meet, discuss and take a vote.  For tourists to go to that hill, just inside of the Parthenon, they would be standing on a place where the first democracy really functioned.  And even the platform called the bema from which people like Pericles made their speeches is still there.  It’s an incredible feeling.  So I would recommend to any tourist to visit the hill called the Pnyx.

LT: How did you feel to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize for your short stories, and to have a story selected for a book of Best Mystery Short Stories of 2001?

MWS: When I heard that I was nominated and then later one of my stories was selected, I felt absolutely wonderful.  It was a high for quite some time.  But it was also encouraging to me as a writer to have this recognition of the stories that I had worked on so hard.  And especially for the one that was published in Best Mystery Stories of 2001. That was the story called “The Honored Guest,” which I mentioned early.  It had a great deal of emotion behind it for me because it dealt with a custom that my family had held for many years.  It was wonderful to me that other people reacted to that story with great interest and found it engaging.  Also, it made me feel in some small way that I was contributing to the genre of the mystery story, which I really love.  I do love the genre.

LT: Please tell us about the current mystery novel you are finishingit will be a mystery series for young girls?  What other upcoming stories can we expect from you?

MWS: The mystery that I’m working on for young girls–which I would love if I could turn it into a series–deals with a young Polish girl who goes up to West Point (NY) to work with Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer who was appointed by George Washington to fortify West Point.   My point in creating this mystery story was to revive some interest in the contribution of Kosciuszko to the American Revolution.  He’s really an extremely important figure and regarded as a great hero at the time of the Revolution, yet he’s almost forgotten now.  Since I’m of Polish background this attempt to revive some interest in him has to do with meaning for me.  I did a fair amount of research into women in the American Revolution and found that their contributions were wonderful.  Many of them worked actually as spies for George Washington because women were able to go across British lines saying they were getting food for the families and then they would bring back information to General Washington.  There were a number of young girls in the Revolution who made rides–more dangerous than Paul Revere’s–to save villages and to warn them that: The British were coming.  So I incorporated that into the novel and was able, therefore, to pull together the two strands that were interesting to me: women in the Revolution and Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s contribution to the Revolution.  That is the novel that I’ve now finished for young girls. It is called Journey Up The Hudson because it begins in Lancaster, PA with the young girl, Anna Kilewski, leaving the home she’s been living in for a while and going up the Hudson to West Point with Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

I am right in the middle of getting the preliminary scenes down for a novel set up in northeastern PA.  It will include references, and I may even go back and forth in time, to something called the Latimer Massacre, a labor massacre that occurred near Hazelton, PA in a small coal town called Latimer.  About 19 men were killed and 30-some wounded.  These men were protesting the lack of safety and lack of decent living wages in the coal mines where they worked.  The coal companies hired a number of deputies out of Wilkes-Barre to head off the miners.  The deputies fired on them.  The miners were unarmed.  They turned to flee and the deputies kept firing.  It is an almost forgotten tragedy in American labor history.  I’m going to use that as the background for the novel although it will be set in current times.  Where this novel is going to go, I’m not entirely sure.  I never am until it’s finished because the characters will begin to direct me as to what to do.

I am working on another story in the Greek series called “Death in Siracusa.”  It will be set in about 420 B.C. in the Greek colony of Syracuse, which is on the island of Sicily.  This is where the great Greek playwright Aeschylus went and presented his plays.  My detective figure, Kleides, will go to Siracusa.  I was there about three years ago, did some research and pretty much saw the lay of the land there.

The last thing is I have in my head only an image.  It is an image of from, again, near Hazelton, PA.  There is a shrine dedicated to the figure of Mary in the Catholic religion and if you stand in that shrine, you see a rather beautiful statue, greenery, trees–it’s quite lovely.  But if you turn around you see behind you an old coal slag heap, a mountain of detritus neglect from the coal mines.  The juxtaposition of this beautiful shrine and the slag heap is in my mind and that will become a story.  I don’t how yet.  I don’t know when yet.  But it is there

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