By Rick Reed
In DEAD OF AUTUMN, Alexa Williams is a successful lawyer who volunteers weekly at a women’s clinic. One autumn day she takes Scout, her giant English Mastiff, into the Pennsylvania woods, and her world is turned upside down with the discovery of a body. She becomes entangled in a murder mystery—one that she tries to unravel by linking it to experiences in her own life and can’t shake the feeling that there is some sort of connection to the murder victim. She thinks back to the stories she heard as a child, about the Babes in the Woods, who were murdered close to where the victim’s body was found, wondering if that might be why she draws the connection.
Alexa soon finds herself amidst violence aimed at the clinic where she volunteers, when she’s almost raped, ambushed by religious zealots who wish to convert her. When the murderer strikes again, Alexa must rely on her knowledge of local history and terrain in order to save her own life.
Almost a century earlier, Dewilla Noakes, a child of the Depression, has recently lost her mother. Dewilla’s father packs up the girls—and their attractive cousin, Winnie—and hits the road to look for a job on the east coast. Along the way, money becomes tighter, food becomes scarce, and relationships become strained. Dewilla’s father fears he’s brought nothing but misery to his family. Running out of options, he begins to consider the unthinkable…
DEAD of AUTUMN ties together the struggles faced by females, young and old, past and present, and the degrees of power they embrace to combat their situations.
Tell us about Alexa Williams. What kind of person is she, and how did you create her character?
Alexa is smart, articulated and committed. In her late twenties, she’s still learning her strengths but still has a tendency to want to please other people. She was dumped by the love of her life. Now, she’s avoiding a serious relationship by experimenting with casual sex. During the course of the novel, Alexa’s character evolves. She comes into her own as she confronts mounting danger.
I chose the law as a profession for Alexa because it’s a white-collar job that gives her considerable flexibility, a recognizable profession, and a certain stature in the community.
In creating Alexa, I drew on my own experiences and the characteristics of people I’ve encountered along the way. In many ways, Alexa revealed her character to me as I wrote.
My son is in his early thirties, so having him and his friends around helped provide a window into what a young woman of that age might do, say and think in today’s world. That was important since I kissed my twenties goodbye years ago.
As I created Alexa, it was important that she be a fully rounded person; someone you could run into on the street or at work, and strike up a conversation. The last thing I wanted was for Alexa to come across as younger, more interesting and attractive version of Sherry Knowlton.
The key character in the Depression-era subplot was more difficult to write. Putting myself in the shoes of a ten-year old girl in 1934 wasn’t easy. But, by the time I had finished writing Dewilla’s story, I really felt connected to her. Writing her final scene hit me hard.
Why did you become a writer?
Although I’ve never written any novel-length fiction, I’ve been a fan of the written word my entire life. I was an avid reader even as a young child. I spent hours with “my nose in a book” as my mother would say. I’d sneak books to bed and read under the covers by flashlight. I grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I remember spending summer afternoons on the front porch at a friend’s house. We would both be sitting there, reading a book.
Early on, my passion for the written word also began to include putting those words on a page myself. I won a few awards for writing in elementary school—those anthologies that featured poetry and short stories from kids across the country. I remember writing and cranking out an elementary school newsletter on an old mimeograph machine.
Then, I edited my high school newsletter and yearbook at CASHS. I worked on my college newspaper at Dickinson.
I had planned a career in journalism, but mostly by accident, took another path. Even so, much of my career has involved professional writing. I worked for many years for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. I wrote regulations and policy, proposals, and documents to send to the Federal government. When I left State government to work in the insurance industry, I wrote very long proposals to state Medicaid programs, speeches, policy statements, and more. Even today, I work as a consultant and write policy papers and other professional documents.
In the field of fiction, I’ve written a few short stories and essays. However, the only one of those that was published was an essay for Public Radio’s This I Believe Series—which I read on-air.
What prompted you to write DEAD OF AUTUMN?
DEAD OF AUTUMN is my first book. Writing a novel is something that I’ve wanted to do for years, but all my earlier attempts fell to wayside due to time pressures. I’m now semi-retired. For the last twenty years of my career—prior to retirement—I had executive positions in the health insurance industry and state government that required much more time than the typical 40-hour workweek—with no time for writing a novel. When I stopped working full time, I told myself that it’s “now or never” if I was going to write that book.
My favorite genre has always been suspense. When I was a kid, I loved the way that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys solved mysteries. I read every Travis McGee novel ever written by John D. MacDonald. Today, when I read for pleasure, I gravitate toward suspense and thrillers. Many of ITW’s members are on my list of favorite authors. So, when I decided to write my own book, there was never any doubt what genre I would choose.
What is a typical writing day like in the Knowlton household? And where is your favorite place to write?
Like many authors, I have to juggle my writing with many other activities—my consulting work, traveling, and activities of daily living. Some days, I don’t write at all. Some days, I can carve out just a few hours. Other times, I write like a madwoman for days or weeks with little interruption.
The laptop computer and Wi-Fi are marvelous inventions. They allow me to write and do some of my research from my two favorite working spaces. On summer days, you can find me surrounded by the forest in our outdoor gazebo, which is outfitted with a comfortable couch and electricity to keep my laptop fully charged. In the winter or late at night, I set up in our sunroom to write.
I often work through plot points, scenes or dialog while I am driving—or sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room or on a walk. I keep a small pad of paper with me to jot down the results. When I get back to my computer, I have to sort through all these pages of handwritten notes to incorporate into the manuscript.
Now that you’ve published your first novel, what advice would you share with beginning writers?
Don’t give up. Just keep plugging away and things will eventually come together in a readable manuscript. Seek out the advice of other authors, through writing course, conferences and personal interaction. Accept constructive criticism with an open mind. Gladly accept the expert advice of an editor.
DEAD OF AUTUMN is the beginning of a series? What’s next for Alexa Williams?
I like my DEAD OF AUTUMN heroine, Alexa Williams, and plan at least a three-book series featuring Alexa, her friends and family. I’m currently working on a second novel in the series that explores Alexa’s reaction to the events of DEAD OF AUTUMN while plunging her into another mystery. Once again, I plan to continue incorporate social issues into the fabric of the plot. Human trafficking and endangered wildlife are two themes I’m working with in the second book.
What’s next for Sherry Knowlton?
I’m having a great time these days, so I’m looking forward to more of the same. I plan to continue writing more novels in the Alexa Williams series. With the Affordable Care Act, my consulting work in the health care insurance field is pretty exciting. My husband, Mike, is also retired, so we’ve been traveling extensively. This past year, we spent time in Botswana and Zimbabwe on safari, visited Myanmar and Thailand, and went to see the polar bears in Churchill, Canada. We already have two trips scheduled for 2015.
Sherry Knowlton (nee 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 launched her writing career with a mimeographed elementary school newsletter and went on to write and edit for her high school and college newspapers. Since then, Sherry’s creative and technical writing has run the gamut from poetry, essays, and short stories to environmental newsletters, policy papers, regulations, and grant proposals. DEAD of AUTUMN is her first novel.
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 in upstate New York.
Sherry lives in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, only a short distance from the Babes in the Woods memorial.
To learn more about Sherry, please visit her website.