The ingredients seem familiar: A remote island in upstate New York. A fierce rainstorm. A blood-soaked bed. A missing man. A failing business. A group of family, friends, and employees, all of whom might (or might not) have a reason to resort to violence and mayhem. A police detective with a troubled past.
Stir, then shake.
And what you wind up with is Tessa Wegert’s debut novel, DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which introduces readers to Senior Investigator Shana Merchant. The novel, in the mighty tradition of Agatha Christie, weaves a gripping tale that twists and turns in the wind, leaving the reader collecting clues in hopes of solving the mystery: what really happened to Jasper Sinclair.
The Big Thrill recently talked with Wegert about her path to publication, the demands of plotting a murder mystery, and the inspiration for her debut novel.
Tell us a little about your background.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, up until I was 10, when my family finally settled in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (of Louise Penny/Inspector Gamache fame). My father was a university professor, my mother a librarian-slash-decorative painter, and so my brother and I were always encouraged to read and flex our creative muscle. I was always drawing, writing, and reading.
We spent every summer at a somewhat remote cottage in Manitoba, where my parents grew up, and without school friends around I had time to kill. There were a few early successes—I won a prize in a poetry contest that got me an appearance on a local Vermont TV station, and I was chosen to participate in a writing workshop in Montreal. My first attempt at a novel was a Neverending Story-inspired fantasy that I cobbled together while on a student exchange trip to Germany. But I didn’t follow through with it. (I still have the draft in a drawer somewhere.)
After doing a year of English lit and theatre at Bishop’s University, where my father taught, I wanted to spread my wings and pursue other interests, so I transferred to Concordia University in Montreal and graduated with a BA in communication studies.
After I met my American husband, who was in Montreal on a work visa, we moved to Massachusetts. I’ve lived in the US for about 16 years now, bouncing from Massachusetts to Florida, Michigan, Illinois, and Connecticut.
I’ve been married almost 17 years and have two kids in middle school. We live in Darien, Connecticut, within commuting distance of Manhattan. I’ll be well over 40 when my first novel is published, but that puts me in the company of William Kent Krueger and Kathy Reichs, which is reassuring.
You’ve held a whole bunch of jobs. Tell us about them.
Armed with a communications degree, I worked several marketing and advertising jobs, including one with a digital agency right when online advertising was starting to take off. I was hired to create media plans, but ended up writing copy for online ads and client websites, too.
It was during this time that the agency’s PR manager put out a call to employees for articles that would help tout our expertise. I started writing a column about media buying for a New York-based online magazine, then I branched out to tech and business articles for The Montreal Gazette and The Globe and Mail. Almost 20 years later, I still write about digital marketing, but somewhere along the way I transitioned to working directly with brands that need blog posts, white papers, and so on.
Tell us about how DEATH IN THE FAMILY came about.
DEATH IN THE FAMILY is my first published novel, but it’s about the fourth novel I wrote (I say “about” because some revisions on those other ones were so extensive they became entirely new books). I started writing fiction in earnest 10 years ago, with a Michael Crichton-esque thriller that I still hope to find a home for someday. There was a mystery component to it that I really enjoyed, and that made me want to explore the genre further.
I’ve always had a penchant for dark stories. I loved Lord of the Flies, The Magus, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. My father, who’s German by birth, had a copy of Max und Moritz lying around, which is essentially black comedy for kids. There’s a limit to what I’m willing to handle, though, and if the violence gets too graphic, I check out.
The idea for DEATH IN THE FAMILY started brewing a few years ago, after I reread Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I’d been visiting the Thousand Islands every summer for about 15 years, and always thought it would be an excellent place to set a mystery. On the surface, it’s picturesque and charming, but when you live on an island, the threat of bad weather or an emergency that can’t be attended to looms large.
I intended for this book to pay homage to Agatha Christie, Clue, and the somewhat hackneyed image of “a dark and stormy night.” I’ve always found all three thrilling, and hope readers of this modern take on these concepts will feel the same way.
Your investigator, Shana Merchant, who moves to upstate New York from New York City to be with a man she intends to marry, is a complicated character with a dark, chilling past…
I wanted to raise the stakes by writing a female protagonist who brings baggage of her own to the island, so that isolation and imminent physical danger aren’t the only hazards she has to face. I like a story with layers. Giving Shana a shadowy backstory that’s revealed in stages made me want to keep writing, so I hope it keeps readers turning the pages, too. Abella, the victim’s girlfriend, was inspired by my own experience meeting my boyfriend’s (now husband) family in the Thousand Islands (upstate New York) for the first time. That meeting went a lot more smoothly than Abella’s did.
Which writers inspire you?
Mystery authors like Louise Penny, Tana French, Ian Rankin, Wendy Walker, and Lori Rader-Day, but I also read a lot of thrillers. Marcus Sakey and Andrew Pyper are among my favorite thriller writers.
Let’s talk a little about process.
I used to be a pantser all the way; I never knew where the plot was going, and would change direction countless times along the way. Then I tried writing a mystery. I got about a third of the way through DEATH IN THE FAMILY before realizing that winging it wasn’t doing me any favors. After that, I wrote a pretty detailed outline, and while I did stray a little, it helped me stay on track.
I like to polish as I go, even if I’m nowhere near the final draft. I think this comes from working in journalism under tight deadlines. I can’t help but edit myself as I write, and I’m not precious about the words. I’ll write an entire chapter to try out an idea and scrap the whole thing if it doesn’t gel. It isn’t the fastest approach, but it gives me confidence in my final decisions.
Between the locked room mystery and no fewer than eight suspects, this story kept me on my toes throughout the writing process. I enjoyed the challenge of ensuring the reader wasn’t overwhelmed by the large cast of characters, and found the limitations of the setting actually pushed me to be more creative with the crime itself.
I wrote DEATH IN THE FAMILY over the course of about two years. At one point I was concerned about the number of suspects. I didn’t want to muddy the plot with too many characters. It took quite a few revisions before I was happy with those crowded parlor scenes.
There’s a second Shana Merchant book on the way, slated for publication next year. It dives deeper into Shana’s backstory and her connection to Bram (a serial killer who plays an important part in Shana’s past and present). I’m also working on a separate mystery set in Chicago that makes use of my background in digital media and technology. If there’s one thing I’m never short of, it’s story ideas.
Tessa Wegert is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist. She grew up in Quebec near the border of Vermont and now lives with her family in Coastal Connecticut. Tessa writes mysteries set in Upstate New York while studying martial arts and dance. DEATH IN THE FAMILY is her first novel.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.