Susan Wittig Albert and the Herbal Mystery Novel

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Worlds away from the fast-track life of academia, Susan Albert, in photo at left with her friend Zach, has found time to do what she enjoys most—writing ­mystery novels, gardening, and ­relishing quiet moments relaxing at home.
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The Texas Hill Country offers its own version of splendor. Vast ­meadows fringed by rolling hills are awash with Indian paintbrush and horsemint.
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Susan’s herb gardens provide ­material for her novels. She never writes about an herb she hasn’t grown.
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Susan regularly fills her basket with native artemisia, which she dries and uses in wreaths.

As a prolificfiction writer, Susan Wittig Albert is a woman of many voices. One of her favorites is that of the brash and breezy China Bayles, a small-town Texas herbalist and mystery-novel heroine. Susan follows characters and plotlines to any far-flung place she chooses, including Victorian England, but she comes home to a town much like China’s in the Texas Hill Country, where she tends her garden and her animals and shares a life with her husband that is not so far removed from that of her heroine–minus the murder and intrigue mingled with the herbs.

In fact, it’s quite a peaceful life, as I found when I spent a few days recently at the Alberts’ home in Bertram, about fifty miles northwest of Austin. Susan is a storyteller by nature, and as we drove around the countryside, we talked of her life and her work, her voices and her choices, and the fast-growing genre of women’s cozy mysteries.

Susan’s heroine China Bayles is a lawyer who has fled the big city to open an herb shop in the Texas backcountry. “China is following the curve of my own life,” she explains.

Susan herself, a medieval scholar with a doctorate in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, has held tenured positions at three universities, including dean of Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. In 1985, she stepped down as vice president for academic affairs at Southwest Texas State University and left behind the trappings of academia; her husband, Bill, bailed out of a career as a computer programmer and data analyst. They were off to pursue The Writing Life (I can hear those capital letters in her voice).

The Alberts moved a house trailer onto land they owned 3 miles outside of Bertram (Home of the Oatmeal Festival, population 849). In this quiet, rural, hilly area of central Texas, mistletoe clings to the branches of mesquite trees and thick groves of cedar and live oak line the highways. In April, a dazzling tapestry of native bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and bright yellow coreopsis washes the hillsides with a chaos of color.

The Alberts took off their suits and put on plaid shirts and jeans, set up adjoining offices, and surrounded themselves with chickens, ducks, geese, and a peacock named Picasso that shrieked every time the phone rang (they have since found a more suitable home for Picasso). Susan planted herb gardens and butterfly gardens. Bill started grafting pecan trees. They started taking long walks every day down by the creek on their property, which they call Meadow Knoll.

For quite a few years, to pay the bills, the Alberts under a variety of pseudonyms wrote Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels and other adolescent fiction at the breathless pace of one a month–“book of the month club”, Bill called it. They did about sixty before they’d had enough of kids’ books and turned to mystery stories that they could tell in voices closer to their own.

Connecting to herbs

Not long after the Alberts launched their new careers as professional writers, Susan began developing her interest in herbs and all things herbal. Susan grew up on a farm in Illinois and has had culinary herb gardens at various times throughout her life, but now she got to know the Texas natives, the ornamental perennial herbs, and the wildflowers that grow in her part of Texas. She took a class on making wreaths, made her first out of southernwood on a grapevine base, and was hooked.

“I realized the herbs I’d been cooking with had another dimension,” Susan explained. “I was beginning to understand the ornamental qualities of plants. I gathered bushels of our native artemisia, called estafiate, for wreaths, and bundles of globe amaranth, horsemint, the local purple bee balm, which dried beautifully, and celosia, which the peacocks loved to eat.” She laughed, adding, “There was a conflict there.” She also used sturdy tansy, the mealy sage that grows waist-high, and delicate garlic blossoms.

Before she knew it, Susan had turned the couple’s old Dodge RV into a workshop and the base for a thriving herbal wreath business called Hill Country Wreaths, selling wreaths to shops in the area. That business lasted about three years. She gave it up reluctantly and only because by then she had created China, who was about to take on a life of her own.

Thyme of Death, China’s first adventure, was published in 1992. That book was followed by Witches’ Bane, Hangman’s Root, Rosemary Remembered, Rueful Death, and, most recently, Love Lies Bleeding. Herbs season them all. Two more titles are on the drawing board. Look for Chile Death in 1998 and Lavender Lace in 1999. For each book, Susan chooses an herb for the title, then shapes the plot around it. In one, the murder victim is a collector of poisonous herbs. In another, China goes on retreat to a convent where the nuns grow garlic and live serene, meditative lives–at least until the mystery starts to unfold. Herbs are intertwined through the settings and the plots, but they are never the weapons, Susan says.

Why an herbalist as the main character? Susan was indulging her own interest in herbs, letting China do some of the things she has a yen to do herself. “I wanted her to have a charming little herb shop like the Herb Bar in Austin,” she says, referring to the shop where she took her first wreath class. Even then, Susan saw that a national fascination with herbs was building, and she wanted to tap that potential. “I write for readers, not critics, and I think people want more knowledge about herbs. There’s a lot of interest there.”

She is still, at heart, an academic and a researcher, and finding the herb lore and accurate information on usage to incorporate into her novels is half the fun. “The Herb Companion is China’s magazine,” she adds.

Partners in crime

She and Bill are working together on another line of mystery novels, these set in Victorian England and involving two amateur sleuths, Sir Charles Sheridan and Kate Ardleigh. The first was Death at Bishop’s Keep (1995), followed at a pace of one a year by Death at Gallow’s Green and Death at Daisy’s Folly, with Death at Devil’s Bridge due in 1998. All are written under the pseudonym Robin Paige. They are delightful novels, filled with detail about social, political, and economic issues of the period.

“People don’t realize how many voices writers have,” Susan says. “China is smart-alecky, Ruby [her wacky New Age friend in the series] is outrageous. Robin Paige is nineteenth-century, so when I’m writing under that name, I listen to Anthony Trollope on tape. It’s a cacophony of voices. The adolescent books–Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys–that’s where I learned to be versatile. You read about a dozen of them and you’ve got the voice.”

Over the years, the Alberts have worked out the routine of writing together. Susan rises at 4 a.m. to meditate and have some time to herself. When Bill gets up at 6:30, they take a walk with the dog, Zach, through the woods and down to the creek where snapping turtles named Simon and Schuster hang out. They collect the mail, have breakfast, and plan their day. By midmorning, they’re both at their computers in their own offices. Working from a strong outline for each book, they each pick scenes to write. They review and edit each other’s work, passing manuscripts back and forth, resolving their disagreements according to who feels the most strongly, Susan the stylist tinkering with the words, Bill adding many of the twists and turns of the plot. Bill also has worked on the China Bayles books that carry Susan’s name.

Although the two mystery series are their bread and butter, the Alberts have a slew of other projects and interests that keep them busy and energized. Susan has written two nonfiction books about women exploring the meaning of their lives, Work of Her Own: A Woman’s Guide to Success off the Career Track (Putnam, 1992) and Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story (Putnam, 1997). They are actively involved in marketing their books, and they sell them from booths at regional herb festivals. They put out several newsletters, including one called China’s Garden for readers of that series. They run a mail-order herb bookstore in the space where Susan used to make wreaths, offering not only their own books, but also herb books of all kinds.

Susan also has a busy schedule of workshops and lectures, and at the Jung Society in Austin, she teaches journaling, tarot, and astrology. (China’s friend, the outrageous Ruby, is just another side of Susan, she admits with a laugh. She has been interested in astrology, tarot, and other occult topics for many years.)

One of the Alberts’ latest projects has been to get a web site up on the Internet, but so far, this has been hampered by inadequate phone lines. “Every year, the phone company begs cowboys not to shoot the doves roosting on the wires,” Susan says with a laugh.

One morning, I sat at the Alberts’ breakfast table, eating an omelette that Susan had made from a single huge egg laid by a goose named Mama Superior. Just outside the kitchen door in the herb garden, the thymes, lamb’s-ears and sages grow lush before the summer heat scorches everything.

The house is cozy, unpretentious and filled with things Bill and Susan have made or to which they feel connected. Susan does pysanky, the Ukrainian technique of painting and applying wax with a stylus to create intricate designs on blown eggshells (all products of Meadow Knoll). Her decorated eggs nest in a beautiful hand-turned ­wooden bowl made by Bill. A finely crafted vase by Bill holds bright rooster and peacock feathers. Susan’s contemporary quilts grace the walls. Their cups and saucers don’t match–“and that’s the way we like it,” she says.

Susan and Bill are easy companions and partners who have blended their lives so intimately that they’re seldom apart. But once or twice a year, Susan heads off to a silent community of Oblate Fathers, located in a rambling ranch house set on several hundred acres of Texas scrub country (and the inspiration for the monastic setting of Rueful Death). She goes there for the silence, and for a week or two, she listens only to the voices from the enormous library.

Susan is plainspoken, practical, and incisive. At fifty-seven, she’s just entering her “crone years”, she says with a smile. “That’s the time in your life when you renew yourself on your own terms. It’s a release and a relief to set myself loose from the disciplines that structured my living through midlife. I’m happy and comfortable about that. I even welcome the wrinkles.”

Over the past fifteen years, she has thrown out perfume and makeup and packaged foods, quit apologizing for her lifestyle, taken control of her life, and let go of the worry. She watches her diet, eats out of her garden, and treats herself and her animals with a variety of medicinal herbs and vitamins. She even views her garden differently.

“I’ve had a garden in every house I’ve ever lived in, but I always planted annuals. I didn’t dare put down too many roots. Gardening is not for the mobile; it’s for the rooted.”

“Now, my home is an extension of myself. A lot of women are like me. We enjoy our gardens with a special poignancy: they really are a refuge because we’re away so much. They help us know who we are. Herbs are a lot about that, too. They’re about coming home, putting down roots, making connections. They’re a lot more than scrawny little green plant things.”

Kathleen Halloran is the editor of The Herb Companion and a faithful mystery reader.

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