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IL Interview- The Old Shelter

Feb 20, 2019

It’s always such a great pleasure when I get in touch with fellow writers who also write stories set in the 1920s… though in this case I can’t get the merit. It was in fact Sherilyn who found me and got in touch on Facebook and I’m so happy she did.

We have a lot in common as authors, Sherilyn and I. We both write the 1920s, we both prefer everyday life and people to big historical figures and events. We are both passionate about the research and we enjoy it. Meeting her was a blast!

When I had the opportunity to help her launch her crime series on her blog tour I didn’t waver a moment. Of course I would have helped her anyway, but blog tours are such fun, I’m really happy I’m part of it.

So, meet Sherilyn Decter, great weaver of stories and lover of the 1920s.

Interview with Author Sherilyn Decter

Sherilyn, we’ve known each other for over one year, I think. I’ve followed your progress in the creation of your series and I’m so excited to be part of your book launch now.

1. This is going to be a long series, isn’t it? Would you like to introduce the novels and their themes?

The Bootleggers’ Chronicles is a five-book series set in Philadelphia during Prohibition. The first novel, Innocence Lost, Introduces the tragedy that sets the whole series in motion- the murder of a young boy. The main character, Maggie Barnes, needs to decide how she is going to respond to the situation. She can follow her first impulse which is to ignore it and not become involved, or she can help, a prospect she finds both intimidating and intrusive. It is her eventual pursuit of justice for the murder of her son’s friend and the growing violence and corruption in the city she loves that shapes who she becomes throughout the five books.

Book #2 Tasting the Apple continues with Maggie’s quest for justice and deals with the age-old question of temptation. There’s an old saying that ‘Opportunity knocks once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.’ That’s certainly true for the principal characters in the Bootleggers’ series. Of course, temptation comes in many forms. For Maggie, it’s financial security. What is she prepared to give up to acquire it? Even her son Tommy is tempted, by good grades in school. And of course, there is the traditional temptation of lust. When writing Apple, I wanted the reader surprised by who succumbed and who was able to say no and why.

Book #3 Best Served Cold is about revenge, big and small. Prohibition and the criminal underworld that feasted upon it created many opportunities for revenge. One thing you can always be sure of, ‘them tables will turn.’ But even though there are plenty of gangsters, revenge in Best Served Cold is not just a blaze of gunfire, although there is plenty of that in Book #3. There’s revenge on schoolyard bullies, and Maggie’s son Tommy begins to step forward as a principle character. There’s revenge on spurned lovers and duplicitous business partners. Finally, there is no revenge more complete than forgiveness, and there’s a bit of that in Book #3, as well. Maggie and Frank’s investigations take a significant leap forward, and Maggie gets to put her knowledge of accounting and finance into practice.

Book #4 Watch Your Back concerns loyalty and the foundation it is built on- trust. Despite the corruption of lawmakers and law keepers in this era, there was still public pressure for justice. A major Grand Jury investigation into bootlegging and police corruption forms the backdrop and tests everyone’s loyalty. Maggie comes to some bitter conclusions about a friend’s loyalty although it does create the circumstances that could eventually bring Mickey down. Loyalty between criminals is tested several times, as are other, less violent relationships. Even the previously solid partnership between Frank and Maggie is tested, with compelling consequences. At the end of the day, loyalty is hard to find, trust is easy to lose, and actions speak louder than words.

Finally, the last book of the series #5 Come at the King is about retribution. Maggie’s surprise ally in regaining Frank’s trust is Mickey himself. And Mickey, when he’s not aiding Maggie, must wrestle with some hard truths about himself. What is he prepared to sacrifice to retain the one thing he values most, his wife, Edith. There is a new villain in the shadows that threatens Mickey’s empire. With a foot in both Mickey’s world as well as his mother’s, Tommy learns to straddle both. And Maggie discovers that a business partner can also be a partner for life.

2. You wrote this entire series of 5 books in just over one year. How did you manage it? Why did you choose this option and didn’t to go – as many authors do – just one novel at a time?

The five book series, The Bootleggers’ Chronicles was sketched out before the first word was written. Once I was in the grip of the entire story, it was impossible for me to leave off. We all understand how easy it is to get caught up in binge watching our fave episodes on Netflicks, or binge reading a newly discovered fave author. Well, I became ensnared in the creative drive of an unfolding story. And as a brand new writer, I didn’t understand that this was an unusual approach.

But writers will recognize that having multiple books on the go simultaneously can get a bit ‘hairy.’ At one point I was working on the first draft on one book, the fourth draft of another, sending yet another off to beta readers, and had one with the editor. Trying to remember who said what to whom and when in the story was a real juggling act.

The advantage of doing all the books in the series in one go was it allowed me to go back and forth between the books and foreshadow various plot twists as they developed while I was writing. When I had initially outlined the book, I hadn’t realized the relationship between Maggie and Mickey would become so complicated. Several scenes between them and a couple of plot twists gave me the chance to explore what happens when an investigator gets to know the subject during an extended period. Over the series, Maggie’s natural empathy allows her to discover echoes of Mickey in herself, making objectivity in the investigation challenging to maintain over time.

3. Your main characters – who starts off as Peggy – undergoes a great evolution in the course of the first novel, Innocence Lost. This is underlined by her decision to change the name she goes by. Is she the incarnation of the theme of the novel?

Very much so. Her initial innocence is her willing blindness about what was happening beyond her front door as the ultimate lawlessness of Prohibition begins to reshape her neighbourhood and city. It also refers to the initial tragedy- the death of a young boy. And ultimately, it defines Philadelphia, a city that had been known as a city where every day was a Sunday (peaceful and God-fearing) to a bootlegger’s playground where violence and corruption were commonplace.

4. You obviously researched wide and deep for this series. I can see it in the ease with which you handle the setting. Was there something you like the most and something you liked the least in your research?

I loved making connections with fellow history lovers, whether they were archivists at the newspaper or within the police department, amateur historians caring for the museum associated with the hospital used in the book, the alumni folks at Drexel University when Maggie decides to go back to school, or the folks at various historical societies.
I also relied on the seductive ease of Google to get me started but always tried to verify important details at least twice.

The aspect I found most frustrating was discovering a juicy bit of historic detail that would be absolutely perfect in the story- only to find out that it wouldn’t fit the timeline. For example, I needed Maggie to get and receive information, but a woman of her means would not have had a private telephone. So my dilemma become where would she go to use the phone. I arbitrarily decided that the corner grocery store would have a telephone for orders from their carriage-trade customers. It was very exciting for me when she finally got a telephone (in the main floor front hall) in a later book.

The day to day reality of a working woman really became a problem in later books. As a working mother, I could rely on the convenience of slow-cookers, prepared foods, microwaves, take out, or asking others in the family for help. Maggie didn’t have those options available to her. A pressure cooker was the best I could find, but the size of the small icebox on the top of her 1920s refrigerator made it extremely difficult for her to even batch meals.

The term ‘teenager’ didn’t come into use until the 1930s. Tommy matures throughout the story, growing from a seven year old boy through all the phases of first job, first love, first shave. Keeping track of his development involved specific research and unfortunately, there’s not a lot of documentation to rely on. Photographs from this era did speak a thousand words, though and were incredibly valuable at defining a young boy’s role in the Twenties.

A surprise for me as I was doing research on the 1920s was the birth of advertising and consumerism. The advertising industry we know and love today evolved from the propaganda used during World War I. And innovations in transportation and communication that also sprang from the War, gave birth to modern consumerism and that vague feeling of dissatisfaction with what we currently have and what we think we need to make us happy. Consumerism drove product innovation- ‘new and improved’ become bywords. Supermarkets gradually pushed out the corner store as people demanded more choice and were prepared to travel further to get it. People became enthralled with radio programs and movies and yearned to become the people they watched on the screen or listened to on the radio.

5. One aspect that the story shows – and that goes very well with Peggy’s character’s arc, if I may say – is how the 1920s were a time of change. Deep and fast.
I always feel the 1920s are a lot like our own time, in this respect. What’s your perspective on it?

The Twenties were indeed a whirlwind of change for women. Battles that had been fought for decades, like the vote for women, were suddenly decided. Stepping up to do their part while ‘the boys’ were away fighting in the war meant that independence became a reality overnight. There was no way that those new found freedoms would be taken away at the end of the war without a great deal of resistance. Independence was reflected in how women dressed, how they acted, how they talked, and the hopes and dreams they cherished.

Internally, women wrestled with how they would ‘fit in’ with that changing world. Generational disapproval, the different expectations of urban and rural women, the harsh reality of ‘having it all’, still resonate. Even today, women struggle with balancing career and family responsibilities.

6. You mentioned to me that the experience in WWI partly influenced the way people lived Prohibition in the United States. How so?

The world before World War I was one of class and privilege. Economic stations and expectations were well defined by birth. Like many aspects of society, the war experience turned all that on its head.

Young men went to war with their expectations defined by family and neighborhood and came home with a world view, a very different skill set, and a sense of how mass hierarchical organization could be effectively utilized. These were game changers, with the economic opportunities of Prohibition fuel to the fire. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks with perhaps a few run-ins with the law suddenly found risk taking, and street smarts encouraged not punished. Many of the early bootleggers and gangsters were war heroes and developed strong leadership skills on the front lines. Men were often drafted by community, served together and formed a strong bond of loyalty on the front lines, and those that made it home were now forged into a fighting unit.

Arriving back on American soil, they looked around for an answer to the question ‘what next’. Prohibition gave them the answer. They were prepared to break the law to satisfy the demand for liquor. Their command skills acquired during battle stood them in good stead. They knew how to organize men and effort to accomplish a goal. And boy, were they comfortable with the risk and the ultimate violence of lawlessness. You had young men who had held wrenches, brooms, pitchforks, and bakers spatulas returning home able to take apart and reassemble tommy guns blindfolded. They knew how to drive, how to shoot, and how to plot. They understood the value of inside information and intelligence from war espionage and applied those same tactics to corrupting police and other law makers. The war set the stage but it was Prohibition that gave them the script.

7. One thing I really like in your story is that your characters are ‘normal’ people. Peggy, her lodgers, her neighbours, the gangsters as well as the police, these are all people who went about their life trying to get the best of it, however little their possibilities might be. Is there a reason why you didn’t choose characters more in the spotlight?

Seeing the good guys and the bad guys as people I could know in real life made sense to me. It also allowed me to have each of them answer the question “what would I do?” over and over again with different results. I think that, while we’re all fascinated with the glitz and glamour of celebrity or well-known historical figures, we can relate best to characters that are familiar to us.

8. Another aspect I like is the unintrusive supernatural element. So unintrusive, in fact, that I’d be hesitant to define your story ‘supernatural’ in spite of the supernatural element. How is it that you decide to include this element?

If Maggie was going to take on the investigation of her son’s friend’s disappearance and murder, she was going to need skills far beyond the experience and training available to a woman of her time. There weren’t women police officers, soldiers, or detectives, and social expectations frowned on ‘the gentler sex’ pursuing any ambition in that direction. Therefore, Maggie would need a mentor. While there is a policeman conveniently living in her rooming house, he has the same bias as most men of the era- so that option was out. Ditto a retired member of the police force, unless… there was a reason that he would be forced to align himself with (gasp) a woman. Voila- Frank walked in. A man who needed the unique help that only Maggie could provide.

I was hesitant including the ‘touch of the paranormal’ until I got the first comments back from beta readers. They all loved Frank and wanted more Frank in the story. Developing the relationship between a stodgy Victorian police inspector and a widow coming to grips with a new chapter in her life was amusing to write, and I hope to read.

9. Have I heard you’re at work at a new series? (winks winks)

I am very excited about the new series I’m working on, the Run Runners’ Chronicles. It takes the story of our favorite gun moll, Edith Duffy, and transplants her from Philadelphia to Florida. She is a woman needing to start a new chapter in her life and taking the skills and experiences of her previous life as the wife and business partner of the King of the Bootleggers in Philly, she opens a blind-tiger aka a speakeasy on the coast of Florida near Miami.

Throughout the three books of the series, Edith builds on her existing talents, learns the subtle but critical differences of buying and selling illegal liquor on water vs land, and discovers that great things in business are never done by one person alone but require a team. Although it will come as no surprise to readers of the Bootleggers’ Chronicles, that team is not only defined as a group of people working together towards a common goal, it’s also a group of people who trust each other. And trust becomes important when Edith’s growing enterprise is threatened by rival rum runners and the Coast Guard. The third threat of course, given that the books are set in Florida, is the weather.

Like the Bootleggers’ Chronicles, several of the principle characters were actual people, including Spanish Marie who was a successful and notorious rum runner based in Havana, Cuba; and Cleo Lythgoe, known as Queen of the Bahamas and a major liquor wholesaler in Nassau. As part of my research, I discovered and fell in love with Bill McCoy, America’s first gentleman rum runner. Incorporating these three factual people into my fictional series was a delight.

Finally, and the last hint I’ll give about the Rum Runners’ Chronicles is there is a touch of the paranormal… and it’s not a ghost.

I’m currently buried in research and fine tuning the outline. Hopefully, I’ll start the first draft of the first book next month with an eye to releasing the first book of the new series this time next year.