Jeannie Mobley, author of the new historical novel, BOBBY LEE CLAREMONT AND THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT, joins me today and has graciously offered to answer a few questions. The story line and time period of this novel sure pulled me in and I’m sure it will do the same for you:
All aboard for a fast-paced, Jazz Age–era murder mystery set aboard a Chicago-bound train! It’s 1923, and thirteen-year-old Bobby Lee Claremont is leaving the Sisters of Charitable Mercy orphanage in New Orleans, certain a better life awaits in Chicago’s glamorous-sounding mob scene. But his plans unravel when he boards his train and meets the recently widowed Nanette O’Halloran, her two traveling companions, and a cop who suspects the trio of murdering Nanette’s husband. Bobby Lee is sure Nanette’s innocent. But what about her companions? As Bobby Lee digs for answers, he discovers the mob, Prohibition, segregation, and a famed jazz band are all pieces of an increasingly dangerous puzzle.
Hi Jeannie and welcome to ALWAYS in the MIDDLE. Congratulations on your new historical novel. I’ll have a review next week right here on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. First off, how did you decide to become a writer?
Hmm. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever decided to become a writer. I think I was an innocent victim of a whole bunch of stories that kept leaping out of shadows and demanding to be told. This all started when I was in grade school. When I got to college, I managed to hide behind schoolwork for a while, but eventually in graduate school a story caught me again, and I was powerless against it. That was about twenty years ago. When I finished my dissertation–rather miraculously, considering how much time I was spending on writing fiction instead of research—I decided I would pursue publication in the world of fiction and apply for jobs in my field of study (anthropology) and whichever career panned out would be the one I would pursue. Here I am twelve years later with a full time job in anthropology and three published novels, still waiting for my answer.
You obviously love what you do on both fronts. Now this new story is set in 1923 on a train as it travels from New Orleans to Chicago. What brought you to using this setting and time period as the backdrop for your story?
This setting has a rather spurious beginning, I’m afraid. The initial inspiration for the story came to me while I was singing in the shower. The song was City of New Orleans, and the various scenes in the song made me start thinking about what a fun bunch of characters and setting it was. I was intrigued by the challenge of telling a story on a train for two reasons. One, the characters are trapped in a very small, setting that limits their movement and the range of things they can do or access, which is a challenge for plotting. Second, this closed setting is itself moving, from the South to the North of the country at the height of segregation and Jim Crow laws, when even the definition of White and Black changed from state to state. This really let me play with a range of situations in the social setting.
The main character, thirteen-year-old Bobby Lee Claremont, wants to be a criminal. How were you able to make him so endearing to readers?
I think he has two qualities that make him endearing. First, is the voice. The story is told in first person narrative, which allowed Bobby Lee a lot of space to express his charming, quirky, Southern self. He likes to use funny metaphors and similes, and is very open with his less-than-reverent views on society, money, crime, and even God. But at the same time he expresses his somewhat cynical views on the world, they are never sharp edged, bitter, or cruel. Booklist, in a starred review, called Bobby Lee “cocky but disarmingly naïve,” and I think this is the second key to his likeability. He himself thinks he’s got a black heart, but the reader can see pretty clearly that it’s gold, and we are all just waiting for Bobby Lee to realize it. His bad is never as bad as he believes it to be, and his good is much, much better, so in the end, he’s pretty lovable.
You’ve written several other historical novels (Colorado Book Award winners’ KATARINA’S WISH and SEARCHING FOR SLIVERHEELS). Was the experience of writing BOBBY LEE CLAREMONT AND THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT different from those first two? What new challenges did you face?
The process really wasn’t much different. Every novel has its own unique problems and research. My previous two books were both set in my home state of Colorado, so I felt a little more at home with the settings of those, but since this book was set more on a train than in any one place, and I have spent some time on old trains (thank goodness for all the historic trains in Colorado and my dad’s love of them that has given me chances to ride them), I didn’t have to worry about intricate knowledge of a strange city. I did do some research on every location that is described in the book, so since the train passes through many towns and stops at many depots, I did look for historic photographs or descriptions of all of them, but didn’t have to go into great detail. Had I set the story only in one place, it would have saved me some time, but the research was fascinating, so I regret nothing.
What three wishes do you hope young readers will leave with after reading the story?
Above anything, I just want my readers to enjoy the experience. While there are social issues in the book that could be discussed, and the book could educate readers on aspects of American history, I think the main thing I want is for the mystery, the humor, and the characters to take reader on a fun, exciting romp. That said, I personally like reading a book that can be discussed on many levels, so for readers who feel that way, I hope BOBBY LEE provides enough depth for that as well.
That’s not exactly three wishes, but really, naming three is too hard when every reader should be free to find whatever kind of enjoyment they want in reading.
Do you have any big plans to celebrate sending Bobbie Lee out into the world?
I’ve already been celebrating, with a variety of events in Denver, Boulder, and even Austin, Texas. But my BIG event is coming up this Sunday, November 5, 2:00 at the Tattered Cover in Denver, at 2:00. Come on by and you can hear more about the book, enjoy some nibbles, and get a chance to learn some 1920s dances to 1920s music! You can check out my website for additional information on upcoming events. www.jeanniemobley.com
Thanks, Jeannie, and best of luck with Bobby Lee. For more about BOBBY LEE CLAREMONT AND THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT look for my review here next week at the new temporary home for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.
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