Interview With Kathleen Marple Kalb
“Delightfully intriguing.” An “engaging debut.” That’s how two author-reviewers describe Kathleen Marple Kalb’s historical mystery novel, A Fatal Finale, featuring plucky heroine Ella Shane. Kathleen is already working on her next Ella Shane mystery (yes!), but she agreed to take a break to chat with us about A Fatal Finale, her affinity for history, her interesting weekend gig, and more. (Oh—and she has some great advice for aspiring writers!)
Buy the book: https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/9781496727237/
Welcome, Kathleen! Tell us about A Fatal Finale.
A Fatal Finale is the debut of Ella Shane, a Gilded Age opera singer best described as part Beverly Sills, part Anne of Green Gables, part Errol Flynn, and all her own woman. Ella, a diva who specializes in “trouser roles,” male parts played by women, is singing Romeo when her Juliet drinks real poison and dies onstage. Soon, the girl’s cousin, a British Duke, turns up wanting to know what happened. Ella has to school him in how to treat a lady, in a fencing match, but quickly agrees to help. With her “confirmed bachelor” cousin Tommy, reporter friend Hetty, and a cast of other colorful friends, they eventually realize they’re investigating a murder. Finally (no spoiler, just tease!) Ella confronts the killer in an old-school catwalk duel, as the Duke waits in the wings.
Who is Ella Shane? What makes her tick?
Born Ellen O’Shaugnessy on the Lower East Side, she’s the child of an Irish Catholic father and Jewish mother at a time when an interfaith marriage was a ticket to the abyss. Orphaned at age eight, she was taken in by her Aunt Ellen, whose son Tommy Hurley became Ella’s protector…and she his, throwing in on his side when the neighborhood boys called him a sissy. That was before Tommy became a boxing champ—and Ella’s gift for music was discovered by a woman whose house she and Aunt Ellen were cleaning. Ella knows how lucky she is, and works to repay it in helping others. More, she has her mother’s Jewish ethical code, which gives her the strong sense of responsibility to her late Juliet that leads her to help investigate the death, even though she didn’t really like the girl. Ella does her best to do the right thing and the kind thing, even when it’s not easy.
How did you get interested in writing historical fiction?
History junkie from the time I started reading—and history major at Pitt. I still read a lot of history, especially anything by Alison Weir and anyone taking a new look at the Victorian Era. I didn’t really intend to write historical fiction, but I kept walking to work through the Washington Square neighborhood in New York, and the Gilded Age kept whispering to me. And when I read a book about young singers at the Met, one of whom was a woman who sang trouser roles, I realized I could write the lady swashbuckler who’d been lurking in my soul since I saw Olivia de Havilland forced to stand on the sidelines while Errol Flynn had all the fun. And so Ella was born.
You have an interesting weekend gig. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I sometimes call myself a weekend anchor and weekday mom. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I’m on the air at 1010 WINS Radio, New York’s top all-news station, reading the news. The rest of the week (except for fill-in work on holidays, vacations, etc.) I’m at home in Connecticut with my son, the Imp, who will soon be a fifth-grader. Until the pandemic that meant a three-hour commute each way and lots of writing time on school days. Now it means work from home, being a virtual teaching assistant, and writing whenever I can. No complaints…a lot of folks have it a lot worse.
How old were you when you wrote your first story?
I actually wrote my first historical novel at age sixteen, a truly impressive piece of drivel inspired by the search for the lost Romanovs. More, I queried the thing, writing to publishers that didn’t require agents…and even got a couple editors to read it. Thankfully nobody bought it—I wouldn’t want my name on it now. But, of course, I didn’t know that when I was sixteen!
Do you have a specific writing routine or process?
(Trying to maintain serious writerly face) Anytime I have a few minutes and a flat surface for the laptop. I’m a mom—I do what I can when I can! That said, I love to think through scenes while I walk or exercise. And if I’m away from my computer when I get an idea, I’ll email it to myself from my phone. For me, the important thing is to always be working on something, however I manage it.
Do you base your characters on real people or make them up from scratch?
I don’t do one-to-ones, but I do use relationship dynamics, or borrow characteristics. For example, Ella and Tommy’s relationship is very much like mine with close male friends. Their “informal uncle,” sports columnist Preston Dare, behaves a lot like my own late uncle, with a bit of a former on-air partner who is still a dear friend. I borrow names as tributes, too. Tommy is named for my own favorite cousin and grandfather. And, Ella’s doctor, Edith Silver, gets her first name from my husband’s excellent aunt, also a doctor.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Do the work and hang in there. Never give anyone a reason to weed you out. Remember, the first thing you want prospective agents/editors/publishers to know about you is that you’re a terrific writer—not that you think you’re too great to follow the rules. So know those guidelines and rules and follow them so well that nobody sees anything but the excellence of your work. And just keep at it.
What kinds of books do you like to read?
Of course, I’m a mystery fan…everything from old-school Elizabeth Peters to the latest Jonathan Kellerman, to culinary cozies, and all things in between. But I’m a new enough author that I’m terrified of picking up someone else’s ideas by osmosis, and when I’m really heavily into building a story, I switch to non-fiction. Alison Weir’s Tudor period books are my comfort reads. When things are really stressful, I like to hang out in a corner of Henry VIII’s court and watch trouble that isn’t mine!
What’s your favorite place to visit?
The San Francisco Bay Area. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon and we have wonderful relatives there. Beautiful place, terrific people, incredible food. Easy choice.
Would you rather…be able to teleport or read minds?
Teleport. No contest…I’ll skip that three-hour commute! Not to mention that I really don’t need to know when friends and family are just being nice and actually hate my book—or at least hearing about it!