By Eyre Price
I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Sherry Knowlton, author of the successful Alexa Williams suspense novels, Dead of Autumn and now DEAD OF SUMMER.
Knowlton (nee Rothenberger) was born and raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she developed a lifelong passion for books. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Knowlton spent much of her early career in state government, working primarily with social and human services programs, including services for abused children, rape crisis, domestic violence, and family planning. In the 1990s, she served as the Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The latter part of Knowlton’s career has focused on the field of Medicaid managed care. Now retired from executive positions in the health insurance industry, Knowlton runs her own health care consulting business. Knowlton has a B.A. in English and psychology from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
South Central Pennsylvania is a special place to those who know it, but it’s often overshadowed by other parts of the Commonwealth. Can you tell us what makes the area so special to you and how you feel it’s influenced your writing?
I grew up in South Central Pennsylvania; to me, it’s home. I’ve traveled to a lot of gorgeous places in the United States and throughout the world. South Central Pennsylvania might not have the majesty of the Rockies or beaches of Polynesia, but the area has a lush, quiet beauty. There are charming small towns, acres of farmland, miles and miles of state forests, famous fly-fishing creeks, several colleges and universities, and the state capitol. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Underground Railroad made their mark on the area.
Like most places, things are changing here. Today tractor-trailers on their way to the Amazon distribution warehouse pass Mennonite families in their buggies. Housing developments are eating up farmland. And, almost every day, you read about the latest shooting.
Because South Central is in my bones, it seemed like the natural setting for my Alexa Williams novels. I think that the books convey a strong sense of place. At the same time, the changing environment of the area has allowed me to credibly plunge Alexa into a series of dangerous situations.
Part of your latest novel, DEAD OF SUMMER, takes place in the iconic summer of 1969. Can you tell us what drew you to that time period and what challenges and/or rewards you found in writing about the past?
I like to explore the intersection of the past and the present. Both of my novels take place in the present day but incorporate parallel stories set in the past. I included the Woodstock storyline in DEAD of SUMMER because I came of age in the late sixties and early seventies. So, it’s a time period I lived through. I went to the Woodstock festival, and some of the story is based on my recollections of the time. That old saying “if you remember Woodstock, you weren’t really there” wasn’t strictly true as I wrote the book. But I had to do considerable research to reconstruct what happened over the course of those Three Days of Peace and Music. It was fun to take a trip down memory lane while creating a fictional story that had little to do with my own experiences at Woodstock.
DEAD OF SUMMER finds its heroine, Alexa Williams, embroiled in the dangerous world of sex trafficking, which is (tragically) an all-too-modern problem. Can you tell us what drew you to examine such a harrowing topic?
I like to write about topical issues, especially those that are primarily women’s issues. I think that writing mystery/suspense allows an author to deal with very serious topics while capturing the reader in an engrossing story. The sobering reality is that modern-day slavery exists, and exploited women, girls, and some boys are simply fodder for others’ profit. Why not bring attention to the issue?
It seems that the dark world of international sex trafficking is another world entirely separate from the bucolic ideal of South Central Pennsylvania. Can you tell us what your research into the subject was like?
Unfortunately, the world of sex trafficking is not as far removed from South Central as one might think. Not far from where I live, two main highways intersect, the north-south Interstate 81 and the east-west Pennsylvania Turnpike. These are huge trucking routes with the truck stops and the services to support the traffic. One of the services includes prostitution rings that allegedly traffic young girls up and down a Pennsylvania-Ohio corridor.
To research the broader problem of international sex trafficking, I did a lot of research by reading statistics, case studies, and a number of reports from the United Nations and other international bodies. I watched a number of news reports and documentaries. I also had a number of discussions with people who have hands-on experience with sex trafficking. For example, I spoke to local police about their search for runaway children. I interviewed an attorney who has been involved in a number of European efforts to combat sex trafficking and connected with a faith-based group that helps women who escape from the sex trade.
The locations in DEAD OF SUMMER are equally exotic, with Alexa eventually finding that the murderous trail leads all the way to Africa. Was travel a part of your research in writing the book and, if so, where did it take you?
My husband and I love traveling to Africa. We’ve done several safaris in East and Southern Africa. While I was writing DEAD of SUMMER, we went on a fourth safari, this time to Botswana and Zimbabwe. So I was able to draw on that experience for Alexa’s journey. An encounter that we had several years back with a group of refugees in transit in Kenya inspired a critical point in the novel.
While Alexa doesn’t actually get to Thailand in the book, her friend Melissa’s experience there figures prominently in the story. Another aspect of the book touches on the animism still practiced in the Golden Triangle of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. My husband and I had already visited Laos, but during the months I was writing DEAD of SUMMER, we also traveled to Thailand and Myanmar. Much of what I learned and observed there made its way into the novel.
Your biography includes a nod to your own past in “a hippie van.” What do you think you took from that experience and how has it shaped you as a writer?
That extended summer of traveling around the United States taught me a lot. I hadn’t traveled very far from my small town, and suddenly I got to see all these wonderful places throughout the country. We met cowboys, Mormons, and French-speaking Quebecois. We saw redwoods and moose and grizzly bears. We ran out of money and had to work for a month or so in Jackson, Wyoming. And when our van’s engine blew up in the Arizona desert, we learned the resourcefulness to get us back home—even though we arrived with a new dog and just thirty cents between us.
That trip became the foundation for my firm belief that life is an adventure. Hike the wilderness. Learn to sail. Travel the globe. Write a book. Embracing that sense of adventure surely has made its way into my writing.
You talk about being a book kid and reading with a flashlight beneath the covers. What are some of the books from that era that stick with you still and how did they shape you as an author?
I read almost anything I could get my hands on, but my favorites at one stage were Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I spent a lot of time in the mystery section of the local library, and also discovered Daphne DuMaurier and Mary Stewart. I read a lot of the classics like Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Pasternak along with books that took me to exotic places, written by James Michener, Leon Uris, Alistar MacLean, Robert Ruark. I could go on and on.
One author who has really shaped my writing was John D. MacDonald. I’ve read every Travis McGee novel he ever wrote. I like the way Travis would walk into danger to help damsels and others in distress. He and his economist friend, Meyer, were smart, a little bohemian, and practicing environmentalists before the word was invented.
You came to writing after a long and distinguished career in the health care field, including a position as Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What impact do you think it had on you as a writer to have a professional career behind you before you started your career as a writer?
Obviously, I’m a bit more “mature” than many as I’ve embarked on this writing career. I don’t know if older means wiser, but I’ve had a lot of experience over the years. That includes a huge amount of time writing—not novels, but policies, regulations, laws, and all sort of technical documents. I’ve dealt with people from all walks of life. And dealt with a lot of difficult situations that affected peoples’ lives.
Many of the issues that I’ve been involved in during my career have become a part of my books. In my early days with the Commonwealth, I was involved with services to abused and neglected children—a subject that is part of DEAD of SUMMER. At one point, I worked with the family planning, rape crisis, and domestic violence programs. Those themes, primarily womens’ issues, were all incorporated into Dead of Autumn.
What advice would you give to someone who has a desire to write, but fears that they might have gotten a late start on writing as a serious pursuit?
Just do it. A few years ago when I left my day job for part-time consulting, I decided that it was now or never for that novel I’d always wanted to write. Finally, I had the luxury of more time. No more sixty-hour workweeks. No more high-stress job. So, for me, many aspects of starting to take on writing as a serious pursuit only became possible when I’d reached a certain stage in my life.
I suspect that many others are in similar situations. Having time, focus, and desire are key to writing. Age is relevant only to the extent that each year brings a richer life experience to draw upon as you begin to write.
What’s next up for you? Are there more adventures coming for Alexa?
Alexa moved home from New York City to South Central Pennsylvania to live a calmer life. Unfortunately, serenity will continue to elude her. Right now, I’m working on complicating her life further in Dead of Spring.
Sherry Knowlton is the author of the successful Alexa Williams suspense novels, DEAD of AUTUMN and DEAD of SUMMER. Sherry (nee Sherry Rothenberger) was born and raised in Chambersburg, PA where she developed a lifelong passion for books. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name.
Sherry spent much of her early career in state government, working primarily with social and human services programs, including services for abused children, rape crisis, domestic violence, and family planning. In the 1990s, she served as the Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The latter part of Sherry’s career has focused on the field of Medicaid managed care. Now retired from executive positions in the health insurance industry, Sherry runs her own health care consulting business.
Sherry has a B.A. in English and psychology from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
Sherry and her husband, Mike, began their journey together in the days of peace and music when they traversed the country in a hippie van. Running out of money several months into the trip, Sherry waitressed the night shift at a cowboy hangout in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Mike washed dishes in a bakery. Undeterred, they embraced the travel experience and continue to explore far-flung places around the globe. Sherry and Mike have one son, Josh, a craft brewer.
Sherry lives in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, where her novels are set.
To learn more, please visit her website.