Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Scary Stuff"

Sharon Fiffer collects buttons, Bakelite, pottery, vintage potholders, keys, locks, and other killer stuff. She is coeditor of the anthologies Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own; Body; and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own, and the author of five previous Jane Wheel mysteries as well as the nonfiction book, Imagining America.

She applied the Page 69 Test to Scary Stuff, the latest Jane Wheel mystery, and reported the following:
Jane Wheel, who leads the chase through the “Stuff” novels is easily distracted. It’s the stuff—the vintage photos, the bakelite, the pottery—shards of another time that catch her eye and engage her imagination. Jane is never unhappy to be haunted by the past as long as it is represented by inanimate objects.

In Scary Stuff, Jane tracks down a con man who looks enough like her brother, Michael, to cause confusion, embarrassment and near fist fights when Michael is mistaken for him— an internet scammer known as “Honest Joe.” The search leads her back to Kankakee, Illinois where Jane grew up and on page 69, she is in the EZ Way Inn, her parent’s tavern where she spots a table of older women.

“Don’t you know those girls?” asked Nellie. “That’s Christine and Zarita and Joyce. That there’s Swanette and I don’t know the other two names, but they all used to come in every day. They loved my vegetable soup.”

“Those girls are about eighty years old,” whispered Jane. They’ve been retired for decades. Are they ghosts?”

“You remember the girls, don’t you Janie?” asked her dad.

Jane did remember the office girls, as they had always been called. When she was around Q’s age, she had begun working summers at the tavern, helping cook and serve and wash dishes in the heyday of serving the Roper boys, as they had always been called. The office girls left her a tip. Jane rushed to serve them and clear their dishes, and under the coffee cups and saucers she found dimes and quarters. Since no one ever tipped at the E Z Way Inn, this was an event, and Jane offered the money first to Nellie who would shake her head and refuse it.

When Jane re-introduces herself to the girls, her father brags about her exploits as a detective and her mother, Nellie, bluntly tells them she is a scavenger, a junk collector who works estate sales. Turns out, Swanette, one of the office girls, can use her help organizing a farm sale. Since helping her will give Jane an additional reason to visit the small town of Herscher where she hopes to face down her brother’s doppelganger, she agrees.

All that set in motion on page 69? To my surprise, yes. But more intriguing to me is the one line I don’t remember writing.

“Are they ghosts?”

I often make the case that all writers write mysteries—all try to right wrongs, discover cause, shape experience and make sense of a chaotic world. I think I could make an equally compelling case that all writers write ghost stories—exploring the past, mining the unknown for answers. But Scary Stuff? This is the first book I have written where I ask my protagonist to openly confront obvious ghosts. It is, however, the not-so obvious ghosts in Jane’s past and in her family’s past that interest me more, and I am surprised that so early in the narrative, Jane, with or without me, when she is surprised by seeing people from her past, people who are fixed at a certain time, a certain place in her own memory, is already asking the right question.

“Are they ghosts?”
Read an excerpt from Scary Stuff, and learn more about the book and author at Sharon Fiffer's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue