By Terri Nolan
Alicia Beckman’s BITTERROOT LAKE has a robust sense of self, place, and atmosphere. Though the novel is set in a fictional locale, it has a rich history, superbly crafted and so believable, it’s easy to see one’s self there.
Whitetail Lodge is finely situated on the shores of Bitterroot Lake. Owned by the McCaskill family, it’s a place of gatherings, friends, and childhood adventures. But there is a menace that runs as deep as the frigid lake. Guilt, regret, and demanding nightmares form an emotional connection spanning generations of women associated with the lodge. What do the dreams speak of? Do they warn of an unseen danger?
Recent widow Sarah McCaskill has experienced the dreams. Currently, they are in a state of hibernation. At the urging of her mother, Sarah returns to the lodge to help prepare the property for a potential sale. Upon arriving, she immediately feels the dread of the past as the frightening dreams return. Something else, too. An old friend is hiding in a nearby cabin and a man from their shared past has been murdered. Do the dreams have anything to do with the present? Sarah is determined to find out. No matter what.
Beckman delves deeper into the inspiration for this atmospheric thriller in this interview with The Big Thrill.
Alicia, thank you for taking the time to join us at The Big Thrill. Tell us, how was Sarah born?
I’d long wanted to write a book focused on women and friendship. It’s a recurring theme in all my books. One woman always steps to the front of the crowd, and that was instantly Sarah. I was interested in the idea of a woman at a crossroads not of her own making. It turned out to be an exploration of grief in a way I hadn’t fully expected. I loved Sarah’s willingness to be honest about her conflicting emotions and her own uncertainty. I’m talking about her as if she were a real person, and she came to be that for me fairly quickly, especially when she was willing to dive into the past and own her part in it, acknowledging how the choices she made then affected other people.
Sarah had been in Seattle, where some of your other novels are set (written as Leslie Budewitz). Was she a character from one of those?
No, though I could easily see her stopping at my Pike Place Market Spice Shop. I sent her to Seattle after college because so many tech startups took root there, and it was a natural place for Jeremy [her husband] to go back to. She settled into that world easily, but without him, it no longer fits her quite like it did.
Tell us about your writing journey.
I started writing at four on my father’s desk. Quite literally. I did not yet grasp the concept of paper. Fortunately, my parents were amused and kept me well-supplied in paper, pens, and books. In high school and college I worked in bookstores, and that was heavenly. Even so—this was before the days of author tours—I didn’t know anyone who wrote professionally and didn’t think it was a job option. So naturally, I went to law school.
Like a lot of people with a creative urge, it forced its way out during a difficult time in my life. That’s not uncommon. Something in us knows that we can work out our emotions, discover a path through the troubling issues by turning to our creativity and giving it a bigger role in our lives. That’s when I realized that writing and other creative work needed to be at the center of my life, not the fringe.
What authors have influenced your stories?
I’d always read mysteries, starting with the Happy Hollisters and the Bobbsey Twins, and moving up to the usual suspects, including Agatha Christie. The stories in me ultimately took the form of mysteries because I was doing a lot of driving and listening to books on tape from the library in Missoula, Montana: Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael tales. And most importantly, Tony Hillerman.
From Hillerman’s books I realized that I could set books where I lived, in the small towns of western Montana, featuring the kinds of people I knew. Place is incredibly important to me, as a person and as a writer, and I think that comes out in my novels and short stories. Place and our relationship to it, whether we’ve always lived in the same community or never spent more than a few years in the same spot, influences how we connect—or don’t—with other people, our sense of what’s important and the pace of life, even how we breathe.
Of course, committing to writing is one thing, getting published another. Like most authors, I’ve got my stack of practice novels, the stories that helped me learn to write and that helped me meet other writers, agents, and editors. My legal career and my stint as a teenage bookseller have been a big help to me as an author, navigating the curious world of publishing.
Do you still practice law?
I practice law part-time, doing research and writing for other lawyers and mediating cases on appeal. Writing is my full-time job. I’ve got a wonderful treehouse-like office in our home out in the woods. Typically, I write in the morning and do business and promotional work in the afternoon. I write amateur sleuths, but there’s always a parallel investigation in which I draw on my law background for knowledge of the justice system.
If you could tell the readers of The Big Thrill one thing, what would it be?
We read, in part, for an emotional experience, to connect with other people and places and better understand the world. I hope, when you finish one of my books, you’ll feel like you understand a little bit more about the world and the people in it, and maybe more about yourself.
Leslie Budewitz (writing as Alicia Beckman) blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives and cooks in NW Montana.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.