Author One-on-One: Deborah Crombie and Hallie Ephron
Deborah Crombie's most recent novels include The Sound of Broken Glass and No Mark upon Her.
Deborah Crombie: Hallie, you write such wonderful characters. Mina (the "old woman" of the title) touched me particularly. I've dealt with Alzheimer's repeatedly in my own family, so her fears were very real to me. Was Mina inspired by anyone you've known?
Hallie Ephron: I think all of us after (ahem) a certain age start to wonder whether the little grey cells are holding up. I sometimes can't remember if I've brushed my teeth without feeling the toothbrush. Once I went out to cut flowers and realized I'd brought out the wine bottle opener instead of the shears. Yes, I've forgotten to turn off the stove.
Mina, who is ninety-one for heavens sake, is used to little lapses. But when she misplaces purse and it turns up in the refrigerator, and then she loses her car, she's more than concerned. She's terrified.
DC: Are there other characters that mirrored your own experiences? (I noticed some sibling rivalry between Evie and Ginger!)
HE: Of course! Evie's and Ginger's mother is dying of cirhossis. My mother was an alcoholic who died at 57. Writing the book gave me a chance to examine the ways love and grief can get all mixed up with anger and relief, and how sisters can grow apart or together as they deal with loss.
DC: How did you discover that a plane had crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s?
HE: You've got to love Google. I was looking for a "historic NYC fire" for Evie to feature in the historical society exhibit she's curating. There it was: July 28, 1945, B-25 bomber crashes in heavy fog into the 79th floor. One of the bomber's engines flew off, shot across the building, and plummeted down an elevator shaft. The explosion sent one of the elevators into free fall. An elevator operator miraculously survived an 80-story drop. I used that amazing incident in the book. Hint: Mina worked in the Empire State Building in 1945.
DC: You describe the Bronx neighborhood of Higgs Point in such fascinating detail. Is it a real place?
HE: Higgs Point is a few facts fueling a lot of fiction. It's where the East River meets the Long Island Sound where a natural wetland with marsh and lagoons survives today. At the turn of the century there really was an amusement park there with a swimming pool called the Ink Well (water piped direct from the river) and a Ferris wheel that blew over. Its quirky waterfront houses, built on narrow lanes in the 1920s, have breathtaking views of marsh and Manhattan skyline. I named the neighborhood after Thomas Higgs, the man who owned the acreage before it was developed for housing.
DC: There Was An Old Woman has a truly diabolical plot. What first gave you the idea?
HE:A few winters ago my neighbor was pulled out of her house by rescuers who found her collapsed in her kitchen. No heat. No electricity. Between the fleas, cats, and mountains of garbage, they almost couldn't find her. The house was quickly sold at auction and a year later, the man who renovated it made a tidy profit. So I've always wondered, how could the house have gotten that bad if she didn't do it?
DC:What do you like about writing a standalone thriller rather than a series mystery?
HE: Each time it's a fresh start. New characters, different houses (I love to write houses), and a new answer to my favorite question: What's going on here?
Things are slightly askew when Evie Ferrante takes her turn as duty daughter to be with her desperately ill mother. Not only is the older Bronx home of widowed Sandra Ferrante sadly in need of repair and cleaning, but there is also the matter of Sandra’s recent unexplained influx of funds, the disappearance of vitamins from her medicine cabinet, and the mysterious message that, as she’s taken by ambulance to the hospital, she leaves with her neighbor, 91-year-old Mina Yetner. As Evie juggles family and work responsibilities as a historical society curator preparing her first major exhibit, she bonds with title character Mina, who shares some history of the community and an experience pertinent to Evie’s exhibit. At the same time, Mina becomes at risk. With retribution and greed fueling the skulduggery, Ephron’s third novel (after Never Tell a Lie, 2009, and Come and Find Me, 2011) is billed as a novel of suspense, but its level of tension remains fairly low. Enjoy it instead for the characterizations—particularly of Mina, still sharp in her tenth decade—and the nicely detailed sense of place. --Michele Leber