The Bookshelf: Novelist Jessica Estevao

Jan 6, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Milton Mills, New Hampshire novelist Jessica Estevao. In her new mystery novel, Whispers Beyond the Veil, it's 1898, and 20 year old Ruby Proulx is working with her father in Canada. Their job: sell medicines and other supposed cure-all that don’t work to people who don’t know any better. She’s a con artist, lured into that life by her father. When she and her father accidently kill someone, they part ways. Ruby heads to Old Orchard, Maine, where her aunt runs a hotel that caters to mediums, psychics and other folks who claim to see the future and communicate the dead. Scroll down to read Jessica's top five reading recommendations and the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello.

Jessica Estevao's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. "This is an atmospheric novel with engaging characters and a charmingly gothic feel. Reading it was like setting off on the best sort of adventure. A great read in the depths of a New Hampshire winter with a fire crackling in the grate and a hot beverage steaming on a side table at your arm."

2.   The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell. “Dorothy Cannell is one of my favorite writers. Her wit, her insight into the lives of normal people, and her ability to make the quirkiest of characters seem plausible warms my heart. Fo me, all of her books have been re-reads."

3.   The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. "This book was a magical heart-breaker with a cadence and a compassion that left me considering the characters long after the last page. It is a rich tale of loneliness, the search for meaning and the quest to find a place in the world. Fanciful, fantastic and utterly engrossing.

4.   Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. "I have loved books by Alice Hoffman since I discovered a copy of Blackbird House at my local library many years ago. The Museum of Extraordinary Things was filled with magical realism and the sort of complex characters I have come to appreciate in all her books. Set in a dime museum on Coney Island in the early years of the twentieth century, it provides a spellbinding look at another time and a unusual and enchanting cast of characters."

5.   Any of the Lucia Books by E. F. Benson. "For years I have re-read these comical and affectionate character studies set in England between the World Wars every January. There is something so charming about the pace of life, the feeling of community and the well-deserved comeuppances these books portray. Well worth the read if. like me, you adore light-hearted period pieces."

Let’s talk about the setting of this book: Old Orchard Beach, Maine, which is referred to as just "Old Orchard" in this novel. But was it called Old Orchard Beach back in the day, 1898?

It was called "Old Orchard" until I think the Depression when they decided they wanted to capitalize on the chief feature of the town, and they included “Beach” in the name. So when this is set in 1898, it was in fact called "Old Orchard."

And I’ve been to Old Orchard within the past few years and it seems like it was nothing like it was back then.

It’s a town that’s had a lot of reversals in fortune. And I think it’s a fairly classic sort of story where towns that were resorts communities in the Victorian era, when everyone arrived on the train and many people stayed for the entire season really fell on hard times when the motor car came into being, and people were interested in going off in all sorts of different directions to more scattered locations, and people weren’t spending all season in a place with grand hotels. It’s changed a lot over the years.

Seems like the pickpockets have cleared out somewhat.

I think the pickpockets are not in force in the same way. It has its charms now that are different than they were then, but it’s still a wonderful place to summer.

Certainly. So before we get into the details about Ruby Proulx, tell us about what drew you to write about this particular era?

I’ve always enjoyed things that were Victorian in nature. I grew up in a house full of antiques. There were lots of things that just had that feeling to them in my home. But I also wanted to tell a story about Old Orchard, that was really what I wanted to talk about. You’re spoiled for choice in that location. There are so many wonderful areas there. And since I was having trouble deciding I thought why not start where it all really began there, which was the year the pier opened. And that was 1898.

The year things may have really started to take off for the town.

Exactly. There had been summer people there since the 1850s when the train came down within three miles from Montreal in 1850. But it really didn’t become nationally renowned until they decided to open the pier. 

So when Ruby appears in Old Orchard having come from Canada to escape this murder that she was not willing to be a part of, but her father sort of led her there, she’s here now in Old Orchard and she’s encountering this almost convention of… some might call them con men other would call them people with “special abilities” to talk to the dead or know the future. Was this another feature of that era – a wide-spread belief that there were people that could see through to the other side and talk with the dead?

Absolutely. It was a very, very popular pastime to do table-tipping and hold séances, and –

Can you explain what table tipping is?

That would be using a table almost like you’d use a Ouija board, and they would ask the table to answer and it would rock and tip and knock. So sort of one rock for yes, two rocks for no, that sort of thing. And it was always a question like it is with the Ouija board: is someone pushing, is someone tipping? So in an era when there was no television and there was no radio, people sought a lot of entertainments at home, and this was one of them. People were either true believers or they weren’t, but it was an interesting way to pass the time.

Is it fair to call Ruby a "carny"? Would you call her a carny?

I think we would call her a carny now. I’m not certain they called them carnies at that point. But yes, I think that would be a fair assessment.

She’s got a good read on people. She can look at someone and get a sense of where their – maybe the right word is vulnerabilities, but she knows where she can exploit, something she’s learned from her father. And then when she goes to Old Orchard and she’s staying for her aunt’s hotel and there’s a need for a medium, she’s not really ever thought of herself in that way, but she already has these skills because she considers herself a con artist.

Absolutely. She spent a lot of time doing medical intuitive work, which in her case is a complete con.  She’s able to read those microgestures, that subtle leaning in, that subtle pulling away, the twitches in a face that say you’re on track, you’re off track. And she always wants to deliver news that people will want to hear because she is a good hearted con artist. So she ends up using those for good not evil, I suppose, in what she delivers in her messages. But she is absolutely a con artist; she’s absolutely got a skill set for reading people that she’s honed over a lot of years. And it works wonders for her when she arrives at Old Orchard.

Yeah. And one of the strengths of the narrative I think is that you are able to paint a portrait of a character who does these things that are less than above board and you still like her. You still appreciate who she is.

I love to hear that because I really like her. And I hope the readers like her, too. I think one of the ways that that’s accomplished is her honesty with herself about who she is. And the fact that she shares with the reader her struggles about her conscious with things. And she really does try to use what she’s able to see generally to help people, not usually to extract more money from them or put herself in a position of power of them. She usually does it to push them along a path they wanted to go along anyway. Or as she likes to think about it, people generally make their own destiny based on their beliefs, and so she likes to beliefs that will take them to the destiny that’s better for them anyway. So I think she is pretty likeable.

You get the sense that, under different circumstances, if she had a choice, she wouldn’t have chosen this line of work.

I do not think she would have chosen any part of her life before she reached Old Orchard, no.

Right. She was sort of dealt this silly hand. But as with any hand you’re dealt, your fortunes can change and that’s why it’s called "A Change of Fortunes Mystery." The first of a series, I should mention.  There’s more to come for Ruby.

That’s correct.

You said Ruby’s good at reading people. Is that a quality you share with her? Are you good at reading people in that way?

I think I am pretty good at reading people in that way, and I think that’s one of the reasons that Ruby’s character comes through fairly strongly is that’s something I have some personal ability with. I am not an expert and I have never extracted anyone’s money from them based on knowing what they want, but I think oftentimes I’m pretty good at that.

Well, what’s your experience with mediums or psychics or tarot cards?

I have gone and done research for the books with both mediums and with tarot card readers. It’s been something that’s been a great deal of pleasure in researching these books is to spend time with different kinds of people. In the summer, this past summer, I went to Lily Dale, New York, which is an enclave for spiritualist. And it’s been in existence in approximately the same time as the Ruby books are set. And it’s charming. It’s an entire small village where when you wander up and down the streets you’ll see signs hanging outside of the cottages, and they’re mostly mediums and psychics of different sorts. You can book an appointment with them, and they have a waiting room area like they would if you went into a doctor’s office. And it’s fascinating and it’s quite surreal. And that was a lot of fun.

I’ve done tarot card readings, and I’ve just had a lot of really enjoyable experiences with these kind of metaphysical practitioners. Some of which feel more authentic and some that feel a little wishful, but they’ve all been interesting to participate with.

Do you believe that some people can see through to the other side and talk with the dead?

I’m not sure with whom people speak, but I think there are lots of ways of knowing things that are outside of what we can always just touch. I gave Ruby the ability to be clairaudient from a personal experience when I was a teenager that has always stuck with me to think about.

I was 16. I was a new driver, and my parents were taking full advantage of having a new driver in the house, and they sent me to drive my sister to a middle school dance.  And we lived in a house that had a driveway that was shaped like a lower case letter ‘h’. And the parking spot we had for my car was at the top of the stem of the ‘h’, so on the straight portion. And the straight portion was farther from me as I was returning home, and the short rounded portion was the closer driveway.  And I was driving along, and I heard this voice in my left ear, and it said, "Take the first driveway." And I thought, "Well, that’s kind of weird."  And I just kept driving.  And I got closer to the house and it said it more loudly. And it said, "Take the first driveway."

Was it a male voice? A female voice?

I don’t even know. I can’t tell you. 

So I took it. I took the first driveway, and I swooped in. And out of the corner of my eye I saw something going on across the street. And I turned and looked, and a car had swooped into the year of the house across the street. And an enormous plume of earth shot into the air. And I couldn’t hear anything. I felt like I was underwater. And then my ears unstoppered and I could hear the horn. And there were fatalities in that car. 

I drove up into the driveway where I would park, and I went into the house, and my parents were standing in the kitchen and they said, “What happened?”  And I said, “I think there was an accident.”  So my father went running down to the end of the driveway and there were enormous skid marks right in front of the second driveway where I would usually be turning.  And the police came and the ambulance came, and police determined it would have been a head on collision if I had taken the second driveway.  So my father came back up and the phone started to ring, and it was a friend’s mother saying, “I think something’s wrong with Jessie.  Is she all right?” And my mother said, “She’s fine. She was almost in an accident.” And then she hung up and the phone rang again, and it was the woman I babysat for. And she said, “I think there’s something wrong with Jessie. Is she all right?” She said, "She’s fine. She was almost in an accident." And then the phone rang again and it was the pastor of the church asking the same thing. 

And I think sometimes there’s just stuff out there and I don’t know where it comes from and how you can tap into it and if you can tap into it at will. But I think there’s stuff out there, and it always fascinates me. And I wanted to explore in this book someone who could more frequently access that experience and began to do so at will. And I wanted to explore what happens when you don’t listen. And the two things together, it was a pleasure to write that. 

Has that experience come to you again since then?

I have had it happen again. I had it happen quite dramatically once more in a car accident. It’s been cars, frequently. I was leaning back with my eyes closed, and I heard the voice say, "Keep your eyes closed," and my husband pressed on the breaks, and we were in a very serious car accident in the bridge in Newington. It totaled the car. So I can’t call it like Ruby can. I don’t know what it Is, I have no idea what it is, but I always appreciate listening. I think I’m very lucky.

Yeah. In my personal experience, I’ve been to a psychic. I’ll tell you my story and maybe you’ll tell me if it’s something you’ve heard of before. It’s something you make an appointment for a long way in advance. And I went into it with a healthy dose of skepticism, thinking, "Okay, let's see what this is." And they’ll sort of prep you to say think about your loved ones, the ones you want to… I guess, I don’t know if  summon is the right word…

Contact?

Contact, summon, yeah. They ask you to think about that loved one so you come there I guess, maybe they want you to believe you you’re wearing an aura that will attract them. You’re nodding so you think maybe that might be the case. Anyway, you go and they start throwing stuff at you to see what sticks. And I think they went after my grandfather in saying that we liked to fish, and said, “No.”  I didn’t know my grandfathers but they were city people. They didn’t fish. I get the sense that maybe they’re just making stuff up to see what I will glob onto. And the same way that Ruby in the book when she’s doing the séance, she’s asking to hold hands with those who are participating, and she’s waiting for them to involuntarily grip her when she’s onto something and then she’ll respond to that.  I don’t know if that’s what was happening to me, they were sort of visually gripping me to see what would respond, what would stick.

I think there’s a likelihood. I think that all industries have people with good character and ability, and people with poor character and a lack of ability. And I don’t advocate about the industry or not, I just enjoyed exploring the character and all of the people in her orbit. And I enjoy the fact that it is quite a muddy space to be in because there’s no proving it or disproving it particularly. There’s suspicion, there’s true believers, there is the gambit, and that’s a fertile ground for a writer to be in amongst the gambit.

So tell me about your writing life. When did you decide to be a writer or know that you were a writer?

Well, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I think most writers will say that. I had a very large group of imaginary friends with rather dramatic lives when I was a very small child. So probably always? We didn’t have a television in most of my growing up years, and that meant a lot of reading. And I think that probably sparked things even more because you spent so much time in the covers of books. So, probably always. 

And did you always gravitate toward fiction?

Yes, absolutely.

Mysteries in particular?

Mysteries in particular. The first chapter book I read was The Bobbsey Twins at the Sea Shore, and I was so proud of myself for reading this chapter book that I think I always had a soft spot for mysteries.

I like the structure of the mystery genre. There’s something really pleasurable about the reveal and conceal aspects of the story, and challenging yourself to do both, that I really enjoyed the architecture of it, and the fact that when it’s finished it’s got an ending that’s really quite complete. It’s not generally nebulous at the end of the story, which I also like.

What you say reminds me a writing professor told me that stuck with me in that mystery is not what you conceal, it’s what you reveal. The picking of the details that make you think, that raise a question in your mind. You’re nodding your head. Is that resonating with you?

I would say so. I think a lot of it is misdirection, and which details you pick to misdirect and how you do that subtly because most mystery reading enthusiasts are very good at their job. So you have to be just a little bit better at pointing out that subtle thing and what you do reveal – maybe you’re not revealing the truth, but you’re revealing something, and the truth has to hide in amongst all these falsehoods that you reveal. So it is about revelation and detail, but it’s always mixed together with falsehoods. 

So what’s you’re writing life now? Do you write several hours a day?

It depends on what point in the story I’m at. When I’m writing a first draft I tend to write more hours in the day straight out. When I’m doing revisions, I tinker; I sort of dip in and out of it. I do a block of the work and then I’ll check my email or I’ll get a snack or take a half hour of break for an episode on Acorn TV. And then I’ll come back for another dive. When I’m writing a first draft, I need to be all in a bit more for bigger chunks of time. So I do work most of the day most weekdays because I work from home and its my fulltime job, so I have to stay busy with it. 

Which is incredibly rare.

It is rare. I’m really lucky. I’m very lucky my husband is very supportive, and we’ve worked our lifestyle out so that’s a possibility for me and I really do feel grateful.

So will we see more of Ruby in the next book of the series?

Yes! Actually, the next Ruby book is coming out in September of this year.

Will it be similar settings, similar themes of spirituality?

Ruby will still be in Old Orchard.  She will still be at the hotel with her aunt.  And it will be I think a bit timely, this book, because one of the people that is a guest at the hotel will be an outspoken, notorious suffragist. And that was actually a very common thing at the time for suffragists to also be spiritualists and to be mediums. It was a fascinating time period for women, and ways in which they could speak and ways in which they could not speak. 

So why the connection there between suffragists and spiritualists?

So women were considered to be quite passive, just simply vessels in a lot of ways, in a lot of aspects of life at that time. And people felt that spirit would overpower you, that you were essentially an empty vessel and that women were more easily overpowered than men because they simply were weaker in every way. And so they made a better channel through which the other side would flow and would speak. And clever women took advantage of this frequently, and they allowed themselves to appear to be overpowered by spirits to deliver the message they themselves wished to deliver. And that way it was actually heard. Because women on this side of the veil would certainly not be someone who had a voice of authority about women having the ability to vote or any other sort of thing they might want to have in their lives. But perhaps the spirit world knew better. And it passed through them, and they would be on stage, and they would be speaking to multitudes, and their words would get published in the newspaper, and they really had a lot of power. It was an ideal, very clever combination and it was not infrequent.