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Author Interview: R.J. Koreto

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Katie Specht is talking with R.J. Koreto, author of The Turnbull Murders: A Historic Homes Mystery.

FQ: This is the second book in the Wren Fontaine Historic Homes mystery series with an old home playing an integral role in the development of the story. The way in which you interwove the importance of the house into the plot was very interesting and makes me wonder where this deep connection you have with historic homes comes from. Do you have firsthand experience living in or interacting in some way with a historic home in your own life, and if so, can you please explain a bit about this? If you don’t have any such experience, where did you develop such admiration for historic homes to the point that you wanted to write a series centered on them?

KORETO: Actually, I live in a historic home! My wife and I own an 1850 house in Rockland County, just northwest of New York City. I became interested in the people who lived there originally—our neighbor said his house and ours were built by brothers who farmed the area. I keep having to remind myself that back then, even rail connections to the area were new and incomplete. And over the years, contractors have marveled over aspects of the home's construction that although still solid, hadn’t been used in decades. Other old house connections include my grandfather, an electrical worker who in the 1940s helped turn the 1799 Gracie Mansion into the NYC mayor's official residence. He spoke with me about that when I was a boy.

FQ: You have currently written two books in this Historic Homes mystery series. Can your readers expect another book in this series continuing the adventures of Wren and Hadley, and if so, what can you share about what is in store for them?

KORETO: I'm well into book #3, The Cadieux Murders, and I'm very excited about it. Wren is renovating a magnificent 1950s modernist house on Long Island's elegant North Shore. The original owner was part of the Sephardic community, Iberian Jews who settled in what was then New Amsterdam in the 17th century and founded the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States—which still exists. They had a powerful community identity but also integrated themselves into the larger American society: Of the 24 brokers who founded the New York Stock Exchange in 1792, five were Jews--their story is woven into American history. On the personal level, Wren and Hadley are now happily cohabitating, even as Wren is forced to revisit her childhood: Marius Cadieux, the home's architect, was an important mentor to Wren's father. Cadieux gave Wren a riddle about the house when she was 10—and she needs to figure it out today to uncover the reasons for a half century of murder.

FQ: You share that you wanted to be a writer since reading The Naked and the Dead. Can you share a bit about this book and how it influenced you to later become an author?

KORETO: That was one of the revelatory books for me, a book that said "That is writing!" The world he created and populated became so starkly real—so vivid. So much of Mailer's larger-than-life personality and misdeeds overshadowed his extraordinary talent. When I finished that book I found the setting and characters stayed with me for a long time. A few other writers have done that: F. Scott Fitzgerald, John le Carre, Ernest Hemingway and Kingsley Amis. I'd like to say I know why they affected me, but I can't figure it out. All I can hope is that with practice, I can move a little bit closer to what they achieved, even if I'm still a hundred miles away!

FQ: You express that you enjoy writing historical mysteries because you get to blend fact and fiction together. During the writing process, how do you determine which part of your story will be fictitious and which part you will leave factual?

KORETO: In the end, that's a matter of figuring out what's important and what isn't. For example, the enormous Schwab mansion dominated Manhattan's West Side—but was torn down decades ago. In The Greenleaf Murders, I imagined the house was still there, inhabited by my own characters, mourning over the loss of their world, when then were important. So the house still existing is fiction, but the tone of the Gilded Age is real. My Federal-style house in The Turnbull Murders is fictional, but the architect is real: John McComb Jr., who designed New York's Gracie Mansion and Alexander Hamiton's house. And I toured Gracie Mansion, to get a feel of what it was like to live in a house of that era. So the idea of living in a house like that hopefully comes through.

In one of my Alice Roosevelt books, I had an African-American character. For plot reasons, I needed him to be Catholic. But I wanted to be true to the time—was that a possibility? Research proved me right: New York City actually had a church specifically for African-American Catholics, St. Benedict the Moor.

Sometimes you can slip surprises in! I was called out because in one of my Edwardian mysteries, I had a character in London—a woman—use jiu jitsu. In fact, a prominent Japanese jiu jitsu practitioner had set up a dojo in London at that time and accepted women students.

FQ: The family dynamic surrounding Nicky’s entourage is unique, to say the least. What was your motivation for not only introducing such a distinctive cast of characters, but also developing their interpersonal relationships the way you did?

KORETO: Thanks for calling the family dynamic "unique." That's what I was going for. For me, unusual families are fascinating. Indeed, Agatha Christie has a reputation as a "cozy" writer, but she gives us plenty of twisted families. Just look at Appointment with Death and The Hollow. But ultimately, as unusual families can be, I'm drawn to how one way or another, people try to assemble a family. There is actually a lot of sameness no matter how unusual the players. In one of my Edwardian-era books, two unmarried women set up a household together at a time when same-sex relationships were not even discussed. There were laws against them. My editor asked me, "So are you discreetly saying they're lesbians?" I told him they had set up a family, and that's what was important, that's what we needed to focus on. Their sex life? Even fictional characters deserve some privacy.

FQ: Are there any mystery authors who you would say you relate to or derive inspiration from?

KORETO: So many! For plot and pacing, there's still no one to beat Agatha Christie. John le Carre has always astonished me with the richly developed thematic content, delivered by such well-drawn characters. And my long-term goal would be to create such a believable world as Rex Stout did in his Nero Wolfe books. You lose sight it’s fiction, the world seems so real! Of those who are still writing, I have been particularly influenced by noted historical writer Victoria Thompson. She is meticulous in creating a time and place in her historicals, and yet the emotions and themes resonate today—it's a very neat trick!

FQ: The story of The Turnbull Murders is unique in that it almost resembles a dual-timeline novel, with Wren, Hadley, and Nicky’s family living in the present-day as they try to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the sea captain who built the Turnbull House two hundred years earlier. Prior to this book, have you ever authored a novel that was written in a dual-timeline manner? What was your motivation for presenting the plot of the story in this way?

KORETO: I call my books "semi-historicals" and keep saying I'm going to copyright that! I hadn't tried this dual timeline method before The Greenleaf Murders, the first book in the series. It came to me by accident: I write and edit an e-newsletter for homeowners, and we once published an article about what to do if your home has received landmark status. That means it's of historic value and some aspects cannot be changed. In fact, you need a specially certified architect to handle any changes—and so Wren was born! The connection between the old and new mysteries is always the house. I make this clear by having Wren fall somewhere on the neurodiversity spectrum—she understands houses, but has difficulty with people, reading them based on how they respond to the houses. That allows Wren to connect new and old mysteries.

FQ: In your bio, you share that you have worked as a business and financial journalist, a magazine writer and editor, a website manager, a public relations consultant, and a seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, in addition to your work as an author. If you had to choose just one occupation as your favorite, which one would it be and why?

KORETO: Good one! I've always liked what I was doing, and sometimes they overlapped. In my long-ago youth, I loved Isaac Asimov, who moved seamlessly between fiction and nonfiction. I'm proud of the many articles I wrote and the novels and short stories. At this point in my life, my greatest joy is writing fiction, but who knows if that will change again someday.

FQ: As the Turnbull House and Turnbull Island are both fictitious, where would you credit the inspiration behind these amazing locations that provide such a stunning backdrop for the story of The Turnbull Murders?

KORETO: I grew up in New York City and was familiar with the harbor—I've visited both Ellis Island and Liberty Island. So I know the area, I know what the harbor looks like and what the views are. That's what made my invention possible—it's based on what I know. I'm hardly the first writer to invent island scenes: Another book that influenced me was James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," set in a region he knew well from his World War II service. He won a richly deserved Pulitzer for that.

FQ: One of your previous careers was serving as a seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Can you share with your readers a bit about this organization and what your job as a seaman entailed?

KORETO: The Merchant Marine consists of U.S. civilian commercial ships and those who sail them. My ship was the Pacifico, and it was 820 feet long. (In perspective, that was 13 times as long as Columbus's Santa Maria.) We sailed from New York into the Mediterranean and Black seas: Cadiz, Livorno, Alexandria and Constanza. I was an "ordinary seaman," the lowest rank. The work was fairly menial but the experience was astonishing. Who knows—maybe someday I'll be a good enough writer to put that experience down on paper!

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