Joanne Dobson is joining us today at Literary Labors. Her latest project is a work of historical fiction titled The Kashmiri Shawl, and it’s set to hit the shelves any day now. She’s also a mystery writer and a scholar of American women’s literature. Her six-book Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series won her an Agatha nomination and a Noted Author of the Year award from the New York State Library Association.


Thanks for stopping by today, Joanne! You just published a brand new novel, The Kashmiri Shawl – congratulations! Can you tell us something more about it?

Thanks for the congratulations! The Kashmiri Shawl is a historical novel in which a nineteenth-century American missionary widow embarks on a daring quest to find her dark-skinned child. In India during the Spring of 1857, Anna Wheeler Roundtree, missionary wife, flees her husband’s pious tyranny, leaving the safety of the Protestant Mission in which she’s spent most of the past decade. But her timing is bad: the train carrying her to freedom steams into the midst of the brutal Indian Rebellion. Together with Ashok Montgomery, a wealthy Anglo-Indian tea planter and a benefactor of the Missionary hospital, she escapes the angry mobs and finds the shelter of an isolated mountain cave. There, for the first time, Anna learns the true nature of love.

When the novel opens, in 1860, Anna Wheeler, now a successful poet, lives in New York City, where she is stunned to learn that the daughter she bore upon her return from India was not stillborn, as she’d been told, but has been kidnapped. When Anna hears the baby described as “dark-skinned,” she realizes that Ashok, the man she’d left behind in the tumult of the rebellion, is the true father, not her blond, fair-skinned missionary husband as she’d assumed. In racially inflamed America, on the verge of its own disastrous rebellion, Anna throws respectability to the winds, learns to take risks, break rules, and trust strangers in a determined search for the little girl.
Then a deranged voice arises from her tormented past, making demands that compel her back to India, and Anna must confront the evil that sent her running in the first place. Will her daring quest for her child, and for the love of her life, end in triumph or in heartbreak?

As far as I can tell, The Kashmiri Shawl is your eighth book, right? Aside from the subject matter, how was it different from your previous books? Has your creative process evolved since your very first book?

Actually, it’s my tenth book, if you want to count two scholarly tomes (but let’s not!). Oddly enough, I wrote a pivotal scene of Kashmiri almost thirty years ago, long before I had any academic publications. When I was offered my first job as an English professor, I tucked the scene away in my files, expecting I’d never look at it again, but it continued to haunt me! Even when I was writing the Professor Karen Pelletier mysteries, I had this desperate runaway missionary wife haunting my imagination.

Speaking of your previous books, you co-authored Face of the Enemy with Beverle Graves Myers, the subject of a recent author interview here at Literary Labors. What’s it like to have a co-author?

Wonderful! Writing is such a lonely job. Nobody wants to hear about it during the process. The only thing your friends and family want to know is “when is the damn thing going to be finished!” (The exclamation point instead of a question mark is deliberate.) Bev and I worked together beautifully, sparking off each other’s knowledge and imaginations. I miss her voice in my head and on my page — her skill and her intelligence! However, I will caution anyone who’s considering co-authorship to be very, very careful, and to know the person extremely well, because I can imagine a million pitfalls.

Do you recall the moment you knew you wanted to become a writer? How did you go about becoming a writer? What do you think about the rise in popularity of the MFA in writing?

I always wanted to be a writer, but I never thought I could. Especially after I got my Ph.D. in English! Graduate school in English is a grueling process in which the word Great becomes surgically attached to the word Writer; if you can’t be Herman Melville, don’t even try! One thing that freed me up from this unconscious self-censorship was my love for mystery fiction, which I’ve read voluminously throughout my life. So, when Karen Pelletier, academic sleuth, popped into my mind, I thought, “Well, it’s only a mystery. How hard could it be?” Still, I kept Quieter Than Sleep, the first Karen novel, a deep dark secret from my colleagues until the books were actually on the shelves.

As for the MFA, I’ve never taken part in that program, but I do teach a course on Writing Pageturning Fiction weekly at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I’ve seen some beginning writers learn and grow amazingly. I’ve also seen others who come in thinking they know everything already, and that’s never a good sign!

For those who might not know her, could you describe Professor Karen Pelletier? Where did she come from?

Karen Pelletier is an English professor at elite Enflield College in Western Massachusetts. Does she fit in there — in that bastion of privilege? Not on your life! Karen is a single mother who grew up hardscrabble poor in the working-class factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Through innate brilliance, hard work, stubborn perseverance, and a hell of a lot of moxie, she earned a Ph.D. in English, and now teaches literature and solves murder cases in the fabled land of the ivy-covered towers. Oh, yes, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder a mile wide. (And she’s very funny!)

If Karen were here asking you for a book recommendation, which book or author would you suggest she read? Who’s your favorite mystery writer, by the way?

At the moment, my favorite mystery writer is Steven Havill, who writes mysteries set in Posadas County, New Mexico. I just discovered him and have read about a dozen (so far) featuring retired sheriff Bill Gastner and his successor, brilliant and beautiful Estelle Reyes Guzman in this impoverished, dusty area just north of the Mexican border. Havill’s detailed, often grim, settings, his wonderful characters, and complex, baffling, sometimes heart-breaking, plots create a fictional world that completely draws me in and keeps me breathless until the end. Karen would like these — they’re smart and hardscrabble, just like her.

And as usual, let’s close with our obligatory set of questions:

Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our literary inspiration here at Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip)? Do you like cheese dip, by the way? Would you share a favorite recipe with us?

Confederacy intimidates me, and I have never read it. I avoid cheese dip for health reasons, but I’ll share Karen’s (and my) favorite meatloaf recipe.

Star Cafe meatloaf
Karen’s Meatloaf

3 pounds ground meat (pork, beef and veal)
2 cups panko bread crumbs
3½ cups Imagine Garden Tomato soup (the kind in the box)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt, pepper garlic salt and whatever spices you want

Smush together with fingers. Cook at 350 until done. (I prefer to put this in two pans, freeze one, and cook the other about 1½ hours, till firm in the middle.)

Joanne Dobson is a mystery novelist and a scholar of American women’s literature. Her six-book Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series won her an Agatha nomination and a Noted Author of the Year award from the New York State Library Association. THE KASHMIRI SHAWL is her first venture into the genre of historical fiction. Formerly a tenured professor of American Literature at Fordham University, Joanne is a specialist in Emily Dickinson and in the work of nineteenth-century American women writers. Currently she teaches in National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright Fellowship International summer programs at Amherst College. She also teaches Creative Writing at the Hudson Valley Writers Center.