Mary E. Stibal lives in the Seaport District in Boston, and has published fiction in Yankee Magazine as well as Seasmoke (2006), published by Level Best Books. She is learning to ride English (somewhat harrowing) and is working on her second mystery novel, A Socialite in Pearls, a sequel set in Boston, which features Madeline Lane, a gemologist in the estate gem business. In the book Madeline is also (what a coincidence) learning to ride.
Your story, “Madame Blavatsky Takes a Lover” takes place in the present, but has echoes in history. What interested you about this material?
I’ve always been interested in Madame Blavatsky and the rise of spiritualism in the late 19th century. (All one has to do is take a look at a photo of her and wonder, “What on earth was going on with this woman?”) And then the story of General ‘Chinese’ Gordon and his foolhardy defense of Khartoum is one of those great ”last gasp of Empire” sagas. So combining a bit of the background for both in a short story was great. Delicious actually.
When you’re working on a story what comes first–character, plot, setting? How do you build out from the starting point?
The odd thing about this story is that the title “Madame Blavatsky Takes a Lover” came before anything else! It just popped into my head one day, so I wrote the story around the title! But usually, I start with a good, strong character and then go from there and let the plot develop as I go. For example, with this story I had no idea who the killer was until I was half-way finished. I didn’t know, until then, and all of a sudden it was, “Of course this is how it would have happened.”
What are you working on now?
I’m writing “A Socialite in Pearls,” a novel featuring Madeline Lane, a high-end gem dealer in Boston, who discovers the $100,000 pearl necklace she’s just sold to a mega-rich customer is hot, as in the ‘you lose your gem license and go directly to jail’ kind of hot. Madeline tries to stave off disaster, but winds up to her neck in a 50-year-old scandal with a $400 million inheritance at stake. And two murders.