Interview with Iona Whishaw

photo of Iona Whishaw
Photo by Anick Violette.

Iona Whishaw was born in British Columbia. After living her early years in the Kootenays, she spent her formative years living and learning in Mexico, Nicaragua, and the US. She travelled extensively for pleasure and education before settling in the Vancouver area. Throughout her roles as youth worker, social worker, teacher, and award-winning high school principal, her love of writing remained consistent, and compelled her to obtain her master’s in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Iona has published short fiction, poetry, poetry translation, and one children’s book, Henry and the Cow Problem. A Killer in King’s Cove was her first adult novel. Her heroine, Lane Winslow, was inspired by Iona’s mother who, like her father before her, was a wartime spy. You can find Iona online at ionawhishaw.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What can you tell me about your newest book, A Match Made for Murder, which comes out this spring?

In this seventh book Lane and Inspector Darling go off to Tucson, Arizona to stay in quite a luxurious inn for their honeymoon. It’s a good fit; they get away from the cold of November in BC, and as it happens, Darling has an old colleague there who is now the Assistant Chief of Police in the Tucson Police Department. Their honeymoon is off to a bad start when another guest at the hotel is shot to death right near Lane, when Darling is off visiting his friend. While they find themselves dragged reluctantly into the wheels within wheels of the Tucson murder, Ames, now a sergeant, is in charge of a murder investigation with his new black colleague, Constable J. Terrell. He’s horrified to find that it looks like his latest flame, the mechanic Tina Van Eyck, is very much implicated.

What makes Lane Winslow, the heroine of your series, different from other lady detectives?

She neither wants to be a detective particularly, nor does she think of herself as one. What she has enjoyed about being involved with the cases is that it makes her feel of use. And the skills she employs are really the same ones she employed when she worked in intelligence during the war. She was recruited out of Oxford because of her brains and her command of languages. Now, her languages, her clarity of thinking, her curiosity and her resourcefulness, especially when she is in danger, the very skills she used as a spy, she uses to help solve crimes. She has a clarity of thinking that she enjoys employing to solve the kinds of puzzles the cases present. She’s not a woman who’s thought of a ‘career’ outside of maybe one day becoming a writer, and these cases have given her both an occupation and a way to contribute usefully.

When the idea of Lane Winslow first came to you, was she fully formed? Or did she evolve as you’ve written more books in the series?

I think in many ways she was fully formed. I could see her exactly in my mind’s eye and I knew without a doubt what her character would be. I didn’t have to think about it at all. Part of that, of course, is because I based her in small measure on my own mother, but also, I think I have a sort of ideal female type in my head: intelligent, brave, skilled, a clear thinker, unconscious of her own looks, highly ethical and very articulate and amusing, with an enormous capacity to care for others. At the same time, she certainly has evolved. The experiences she’s been having seem to make her constantly re-evaluate what she thinks she knows about herself, and her own deep insecurities, and her own past, and she has learned, for example, that in spite of the sorrow of growing up with a very unloving father, and her wartime love affair, far from rejecting love, she has demonstrated a capacity to love again, and deeply. And though she is an immigrant from the ‘old country’ she seems to have adopted her new country with real zeal and passion.

As you’ve already mentioned, A Match Made for Murder is the seventh book in your Lane Winslow series. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of writing a longstanding series?

The most rewarding, of course, is my own knowledge of the characters. Even as they evolve, they have very distinct core personalities, so it is easier for me to see how they behave in different sorts of situations, how they will react to stress and so on. And I really love the relationships they have developed with each other.

The challenge is every writer’s challenge: what will this book be about? Because my sense is that my readers are very attached to the characters, it’s important to honour them, to let them grow, to have them be true to themselves and their values and not to have them become facile and two dimensional.

And these are, after all, murder mysteries, so people have to die. It’s only somewhat helpful to have your husband looking over your shoulder and saying ‘Hey, didn’t someone already die like that in one of your books?” I most assuredly don’t want to get into a sort of arms race of different and more and more ghoulish ways to die. The point of the deaths is really the story that is revealed out of the gash the murder has made in the lives of everyone in the story. In real life I expect, most murder victims die of being stabbed, or shot, or bashed over the head. I don’t think my readers want to revel in blood, so much as to understand the story behind the crime, and how my main characters carry on with the solving. In a way this helps me; it allows me to think more about who dies, and why, rather than how, and I can explore the real story behind the tragedy of someone’s murder. And that opens up an actual infinity of stories. A challenge yes, but enjoyably doable.

The series takes place in the fictional town of King’s Cove, BC. What drew you to set the adventures of an ex-British intelligence officer there?

The place is indeed fictional, but it is also very real and still exists (not under that name of course), both in my own mind, and as a real geographical place. It happens to be where I spent my very early childhood, and a number of the characters are built on beloved already quite old people I knew as a child 65 years ago. They were mostly from ‘the old country,’ were largely fruit farmers, and enormously self-sufficient. My parents immigrated to BC after the war, and my mother, who was, in fact recruited for espionage during the war, found this house in the middle of what was definitely the back of beyond then, and fell in love with it completely. I modeled Lane’s discovery of the house in King’s Cove a bit on that.

How did you set about populating your fictional town for the novel? Did you have ideas for the other characters (such as the police officers) from the get go, or did they evolve along with the first story in the series?

A few of the characters in King’s Cove were based on people I had met as a tiny child, and then I added on to that. Once I began writing the first book, people would just materialize when I needed them; body found in the creek? Here come two police officers from 30 miles away in the town. And then once they were there, I liked them so much I had to give them almost as much space as my main character. 

And then of course there are the characters who are there just for any given book; the murder victim, people they knew, things that happened to them that got them to this unfortunate place. I have a Russian spy called Aptekar who was only meant to come in for one book, but honestly, he kept turning up, and I really rather like him. He’s retired to a farm in England, so that may be the last of him.

Some of the regulars get special care. Darling is a kind of ideal man. Dorothy L Sayers once said Lord Peter was designed to be her ideal man; Darling in some ways is mine. Slightly dark, a bit sarky with his underlings that barely covers up how much he appreciates them, thoughtful, an education in literature, deeply honest and wedded to the notion of justice for people who have been victimized, completely undone when he finds a woman equal to him with whom he falls in love. 

So what are you working on now?

My late mother-in-law taught in a one room schoolhouse in the 1940s, and as an ex educator, I have always been fascinated with this rural institution. My own brother attended the one room school right near our community in Balfour. I also had a wonderful reader who contacted me over my books who is a sociologist who specializes in Rural Canadian schools, so I have a story set around the local rural one room school and am working on that.

Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I believe I was first inspired to write when I was a child, and saw that both my mother and father seemed to be writing all the time. I just thought it was what one was supposed to do. But I was a voracious reader from a very early age and I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to write stories. I didn’t really do much about it till I went to get my MFA when I was 40, and didn’t write my first Lane Winslow till I was 64. Dorothy L Sayers was my first true love mystery writer, but I think I thrilled to the possibilities in mystery through the wonderful books by the late Stuart Kaminsky. Absolute clarity in his prose and a deep humane center in his works.

I adore Charles Dickens for his rolling language, and Jane Austen for stories so centered in the basic human need for love. I grew up with British parents, and PG Wodehouse embodies the wit I had around me.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read? 

I think everyone should read what they love, and open themselves up to new reading experiences from time to time. And may I say, Canada has an absolute treasure trove of great mystery writers to be read! I for example, love reading science, though I am hopelessly and terminally not a math or science person. 

What are you currently reading?

Mansfield House by Jane Austen and The Body by Bill Bryson.

cover of a Match Made for Murder

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