We’ll hazard a guess that, at least once in your life, you’ve fantasized about packing up your life and moving to (what feels like) a different world—an idyllic small town, a bustling metropolis, a remote windswept isle… In J. F. Riordan’s sparkling North of the Tension line series, a writer does just that, moving from Chicago to a sparsely populated island in Door County, Wisconsin. Her ensuing small-town adventures are presented with enormous heart throughout this delightful series. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu sat down (virtually, no masks required!) with novelist J. F. Riordan to learn more about why she chose Door County as her setting, how opera helped shape her novelist’s voice, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her writing. Continue reading →
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.
I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.
Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.
I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.
It was in the cab.
You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?
I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…
An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”
So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.
Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.
I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place
It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”
“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”
The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.
We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.
The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station. It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.
As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”
And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands. He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.
And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.
The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.
It was a good day.
One of my favorite parts of any book tour is a stop at this wonderful little store, where new and used books are carefully organized in stacks to the ceiling. You can also find vintage maps, prints, and other curiosities. Its proprietor, Peter Sloma, is a thoughtful, passionate reader. Its location is not obvious, in part because of the signage rules, but it is very much worth a stop.
So, I am very much looking forward to spending some time at Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, this coming Saturday, June 16th from 4:00- 6:00 pm.
Please stop by and say hello.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich this week, about the release of Robert’s Rules, Book Three in my North of the Tension Line series, my appearance tonight at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, and small town life on Washington Island. Listen here, then come tonight and say hello.
I hope you will join me at the Milwaukee launch of Robert’s Rules, Book Three of North of the Tension Line on Thursday, May 24th at 7 pm, at Boswell Book Company. For writers like me, operating a bit below the radar, these things are very much group efforts. I need your help to get my book off the ground. That’s why they call it a launch!
Here’s a blurb from the book: “Robert’s Rules is Book Three in the award-winning North of the Tension Line series, set on a remote island in the Great Lakes. Called a modern-day Jane Austen, author J.F. Riordan creates wry, engaging tales and vivid characters that celebrate the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman.”
First of all, please come! I would love to meet you, or if you’re an old friend, to see you again. A big crowd tells the bookstore that my books are worth the effort. Bring your friends, your book club, your Moose lodge, your groupies.
Second, please call or visit Boswell, and pre-order. Pre-orders are a very big deal in the publishing industry, and can make or break a book. If you can’t make it to Boswell, please go to your favorite bookseller, or online. Please let me know that you can join me in giving Robert’s Rules a successful launch. Let’s boost it so high that everyone can see it!
I hope to see you there!
If you’re an early riser, catch me tomorrow morning talking about my new book on WKOW’s Wake up Wisconsin Weekend at 6:25 am.
I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander McCall Smith on Thursday night at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. He was here to promote his new book, The House of Unexpected Sisters. You can buy it here.
It can always be a bit dicey meeting someone you admire, because you’re never sure whether he will live up to your expectations. In this case, however, the author was exactly as his books reveal him to be: erudite, kind, funny, and charming. I hung back at the end of the signing in order to present him with one of my books (a presumption I had to work myself up to) and was able to observe his patience and warmth with every single one of the three hundred-some people who waited in line for his autograph.
It is difficult–if not impossible–to say anything original about a man so well-known, and, indeed, a Commander of the British Empire, but my attempt follows:
We live in troubled times. Although in the West we have lives of comfort and ease beyond the dreams of any other era of humanity, we wake, I believe, most days, with the sense that something has gone deeply wrong.
And then we realize that our Iphones are safe in the next room.
Modern life, in its material richness, is often plagued by anxiety. And when we have read the dire stories in the news, witnessed the crudeness and vulgarity of mainstream culture, and exhausted our capacity for cruelty and vituperation on Twitter, our minds and souls are in desperate need of an escape. If we have any sense at all, we turn to books as our refuge.
Alexander McCall Smith is the master of escapist literature. I use that term with deep admiration. It requires firm principles, deep courage, and a steadfast heart to look around and find joy and things to laugh about. Perhaps it also requires a bit of desperation.
His books, however charming, express both a deeply held moral philosophy and biting social satire. And whether it’s Isabel Dalhousie in her beautiful house in Edinburgh, Mma Ramatswe in Botswana, or seven year old Bertie reluctantly practicing yoga at 44 Scotland Street, his protagonists have a firm determination to do what’s right: to be honest, to express and appreciate beauty, to find meaning, and most particularly, to be kind.
The humor can be subtle or riotous, but the beauty, and warmth, and rich value of everyday people living everyday lives of meaning and virtue is at the core of every book. And today—indeed, in any era—that is a powerful and important thing.
Escapist literature is a banner of hope in a dark world. And, as Mma Ramotswe says: “… it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”
Our guest, tonight, is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and story writer, over the course of many years. He is the author of multiple series—including my favorite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which features the hapless Herr Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld—and along with this new addition to his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and to the 44 Scotland Street Series, has another new children’s book about to be published in Britain. He is the recipient of many honors, and a Commander of the British Empire.
The truth is, he needs no introduction to any of you, but I really wanted to meet him.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Alexander McCall Smith.
I’ll be chatting with novelist and host Cynthia Hammer on her show, Hammer Away. Wednesday November 1st in the 4 o’clock hour, Central Time. You can tune in to latalkradio.com from your mobile device, or go to http://www.latalkradio.com/content/hammer-away.
Hope you can join us.
So, book signings are always fun, but this one has an interesting twist. In accordance with ALA (American Library Association) tradition, unedited copies of the first 40 pages or so of North of the Tension Line’s Book 3, Robert’s Rules will be given out. First come, first served.
Sunday, June 25th, from 10:30-11:00 am.
Come on, all you librarians!
I hope to see you there!