By Doug Moe
From Mystery to Me Bookstore’s monthly newsletter.
It was three decades ago when J.F. Riordan discovered the island that would become her muse for four novels and counting.
“I was in Door County,” she told me recently by phone, “just looking for something to do, and decided why not go see what’s on the island?”
Washington Island sits some seven miles northeast of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and is reachable by ferry.
“From the first moment I set foot on that ferry,” Riordan says, “the magic of the place swept over me. And it’s really never gone away.”
Riordan appeared at a Mystery to Me virtual author event September 10 at 7 p.m. with A Small Earnest Question, her new novel and the fourth in her North of the Tension Line series, which was also the title of Riordan’s 2014 debut. Click here to watch a replay of the event!
The books have earned praise for their mix of mystery, humor, and the inevitable intrusion of small-town politics into daily island life. Riordan herself says, “The beauty of the mundane is really what my novels are about.” She said it while we were discussing her earlier life as a professional opera singer.
Riordan was born in New Jersey but moved as a child with her family to Michigan, then Wisconsin. She learned to love music early, from her father, whose mother took him to weekly performances of the famed Metropolitan Opera. Riordan had barely reached her teens when she announced she would be an opera singer.
“I was probably about 13,” she says. “I started preparing myself quite seriously. It was completely lucky that it turned out I actually had talent. That wasn’t a given.”
At 16, Riordan left high school to enroll at the University of New Mexico, drawn by a particular teacher to study voice. “A mixed bag,” she says now of the decision. “Sixteen is pretty young.” Still, she fulfilled her goal and became a professional, a life less glamorous than perhaps perceived, with its backstage squabbles and constant travel to opera houses in small European cities.
“I was lonely,” she says. “Homesick.”
The experience produced an epiphany: “Your life is really how you spend your days. It’s your everyday life. It’s not some grandiose dream. I was miserable.”
Riordan moved back, eventually earning a college degree in English and teaching three years in the Milwaukee inner city, where she coached a forensics team.
It was after she began another job, working for a foundation doing philanthropic research, that Riordan began to write, squeezing in time early mornings or late at night. She likes the essay form and considered a nonfiction book on her teaching experience. Slowly, however, the fictional story of former Chicago newspaper reporter turned freelance writer Fiona Campbell and her eccentric cast of friends and adversaries on Washington Island took shape.
“I think it took seven or eight years to write,” Riordan says. “There’s a lot of self-doubt and questioning when you’re writing a first book because you don’t know if anybody wants it. You don’t know if it’s ever going to be read or published.”
Her husband, Charlie, was supportive, laughing in the right places when he read the early chapters, and bluntly counseling her not to think about agents or publishers, when she raised the subject. “None of that is your business right now,” Charlie said. “Go upstairs and write the damn book.”
When the manuscript of North of the Tension Line was finished, Riordan sent it to a few agents, scattershot, uncertain of the process. “I submitted my manuscript to someone who specialized in historic railroads,” she says.
She also sent it to a few trusted friends, one of whom worked in the same office building as a book publisher. This friend’s wife loved the novel, and that was enough for the friend to talk to the publisher, Eric Kampmann of Beaufort Books, who gave Riordan the contact information of his editor-in-chief.
Riordan sent the manuscript that night, a Thursday. Charlie counseled patience. “You know, it will be a month before they look at it. Start another book. It will be a while.”
The following Monday, Riordan was at home checking email after a busy day at work. The editor was back in touch: “Loved the book, couldn’t put it down, read it all weekend. Attached is a contract.” Charlie was in another room. Riordan recalls, “He said I made a noise that made him think there was an animal in the house.”
A life-changing moment. “That never happens,” Riordan says. “I was very fortunate.”
And – clearly – highly-talented. Three more Tension Line novels have followed, and a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile.
Of the new novel, A Small Earnest Question,Riordan says she wrote two endings and didn’t decide which one to put in the book until a week before she submitted the manuscript. The title came out of something her copy editor said in a meeting.
“She is not a hesitant or timid person,” Riordan says of the editor, who nevertheless framed a query by saying, “I have a small earnest question.”
Riordan recalls, “As soon as she said it, I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the title of my next book.’”
Riordan’s love of Washington Island – so evident in the novels – is also mirrored in the title of her book of essays.
“When I say I live in exile in Mequon, Wisconsin, people think I’m kidding,” Riordan says. “But I’m not. I mean that quite sincerely. I’d love to live on the island. It’s just not practical. Trying to get your whole family to pull up stakes and live on a remote island in the middle of nowhere is kind of a hard sell.”
She concludes, “The desire to be on the island is part of my impetus to keep writing. I can pretend I’m there.”
A note from J. F. Riordan:
Mystery to Me in Madison, Wisconsin is one the most charming bookstores anywhere. and one of my favorites to visit. Help keep our neighborhoods filled with lovely stores like this by buying my books from an independent bookseller.