NEAL CONAN, host:
Some mystery stories are intellectual puzzles, some are police procedurals, some introduce us to exotic locales and familiar friends. Victoria Houston does all of those in her Loon Lake Fishing Mysteries, and adds the attraction of a cast of cops, retired dentists, and backwoods fishing guides, and she's with us here at the theater in Wausau. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. VICTORIA HOUSTON (Author): Thank you, Neal. It's great to be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
CONAN: So, Loon Lake, exotic locale?
Ms. HOUSTON: Oh, absolutely. A little ways north of Wausau, south of Land O'Lakes, to the west of Goodman, and east of Park Falls that hovers over us just like Brigadoon. It's got heavy doses of towns, people here know, Minocgua, Eagle River, Three Lakes, Rhinelander...
CONAN: And what led you to try to write about this Brigadoon of the North Woods?
Ms. HOUSTON: Well, it was a series of major life mistakes, not including my former husbands, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HOUSTON: I was originally a nonfiction writer, and decided to tackle fiction. I worked in book publishing and I was observing a gentleman who wrote very mediocre mystery for $100,000 a year. And I thought, I could be mediocre for that kind of money. Only I soon found out that it's hard to be mediocre.
So, it was about seven years of trying to write a mystery. And I had grown up in the North Woods, gone away for 30 years, and then come back. But I kept trying to set a mystery, for example in Kansas City, where I lived, or against a background of art theft, which, I was an art critic. And then one day, after really struggling and finding how to "show not tell" on the page and discovering too that I was character-driven, I started a story. I was 45-pages into it, set in Kansas City, when all of a sudden, this stolen art ended up at the bottom of a lake in northern Wisconsin; discovered by a retired dentist who was out Muskie fishing.
And when I had my pages critiqued, my critique said, "You know, this story was really boring until it got to Wisconsin. And then it just sparkled, it came alive." And that was in 1995, and so I had a discussion with that retired dentist and I realized that apparently I write better from the perspective of a gentleman, and a fishing fellow...
CONAN: A gentleman of a certain age.
Ms. HOUSTON: Yes. And to write, you know, from this landscape where I grew up, a landscape that I can write from the inside out, and a culture that I grew up in...
CONAN: We're talking with Victoria Houston, author of the Loon Lake Fishing Mysteries, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
There's also, the central character though, is not the retired dentist but the person around whose, the person who, he revolves his life around, and that's of course the police chief in Loon Lake. The first female police chief, ever, in Loon Lake.
Ms. HOUSTON: Yes, and I don't believe there's one yet, in real life North Woods, Wisconsin, and probably not for a few years yet.
CONAN: And the interesting thing to me is that, while you have this wonderful town full of characters and obviously detectives to hunt down mysteries, you've got to have a lot of murders too. Everybody in Loon Lake is not so nice.
Ms. HOUSTON: You know, I thought that might come up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HOUSTON: I have to tell you, I was nine years old when we had the Ed Geene serial murder thing, here in Wisconsin, it's, 60 miles from my hometown. My reading skills from my daily newspaper skyrocketed, because every detail was in it. Plus, growing up in a small town, I have to tell you, there are murders. And there are people who get away with murder. And I have those memories from childhood, and so those are what fuel the ideas in these books. They are not pegged to actual, real murders, but they're from those memories of things that happened back when.
CONAN: From that description, you should not come away thinking that these are blood-soaked and graphically violent books. In fact, it seems to me we learn a lot more about fly fishing than we do about police procedures in Loon Lake.
Ms. HOUSTON: Well I hope so. And going back to that main character, Lewellyn Ferris, the police chief, she's also a very fine fisherman. And, again, I think maybe that's a very subconscious effort on my part, because I grew up fishing. I fished as a kid every day, I gave it up at age 11 for boys, but, you know, at age 50 I saw the light and I gave up...
CONAN: You gave up boys again?
Ms. HOUSTON: Yeah. And I'm, you know, really big into fly fishing myself, and bait fishing, Muskie and Walleye. But again, it's such a wonderful culture. And it's a great way for people who don't cross paths at work or at home to run across each other, either in the water as a fly fisherman, or on the water as a bait fisherman.
CONAN: I also have to ask, if you read these books you will encounter a few words that may be unfamiliar to you. And I have to ask, what's a rasbonia?
Ms. HOUSTON: Rasbonia (ras-bone-e-a).
CONAN: Rasbonia? See, I didn't even pronounce it right.
Ms. HOUSTON: Or giboni (gee-bone-nee).
CONAN: I would have said giboni (ge-bone).
Ms. HOUSTON: I probably get more emails on those two words than on anything. Growing up in Rhinelander, in a community of Scandinavians, Polish, German, Irish, that was the vernacular that I heard in our household, and it means, nincompoop. You know? But, and if you talk to someone else who grew up in Rhinelander in my generation and say, Did you ever hear the word "rasbonia"?, they'll say, Oh, sure. Oh, sure.
CONAN: I also have to ask, when last we left Lewellyn Ferris and her campaign for sheriff in the county, she had decided against a run for this elective office and preferred to stay well into the somewhat restricted areas of the Loon Lake Police Department, where she has to deal with all these political problems...anyway, is she going to run for sheriff or not?
Ms. HOUSTON: I think you're going to have to read the next book, Neal.
CONAN: I hate it when that happens. I really hate it when that happens. Victoria Houston, thanks so much for being with us today.
Ms. HOUSTON: Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
CONAN: Victoria Houston is the author of the Loon Lake Fishing Mysteries, and she was with us here at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County Theater.