A small-town gossip columnist stumbles across a body floating in a pond. An intrepid reporter takes up the case and starts sniffing around. A peaceful village is revealed to be a mysterious place full of dark secrets and twisted intrigue. Meanwhile, a beaver named Reginald Von Beaverpelt lords over the town sawmill, and a moose named Joe runs the local coffee shop.
Welcome to Shady Hollow, a place where foxes, mice, rabbits, bears, and other woodland creatures play out the all-too human games of scheming, conspiracy…and murder. Former Harry W. Schwartz booksellers Jocelyn Koehler and Sharon Nagel are the brains behind the fanciful town and its animalistic denizens, as well as the witty, breezy new Shady Hollow, written under the pen name Juneau Black. Koehler (now a Philadelphia resident) and Nagel (a current bookseller at Schwartz heir Boswell Book Company) describe their novel as a mix between Agatha Christie and Beatrix Potter; with its small-town secrets and fast-talking animal characters, it also reads as a cross between Twin Peaks and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Before Koehler and Nagel read from Shady Hollow Wednesday, November 4 at Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee Record reached out to Koehler via email to find out more about the book, its origins in National Novel Writing Month, and why she’ll need a ride to Kopp’s when she returns to town.
Milwaukee Record: Your press release mentions you got the idea for using animal characters from a cache of animal puppets. What were the pros and cons of writing for animal characters? Was it that much different from writing for humans?
Jocelyn Koehler: Sharon and I are both writers. We’d each written novels and stories previously, and writing one together seemed like it would be fun. Shady Hollow was certainly different from what we’d done before, in that yes, all the characters are animals. But they act very human, so in the end, we didn’t have too much difficulty. The worst part was when logic intruded, like when we’d have discussions about how there could be a diner where a bear and a squirrel could both sit comfortably at a table. But then we just realized, “Oh, right, we’re talking about a bear and a squirrel ordering coffee and maybe worrying about who’s the murderer in this cute little town. And the bear is holding an elected office! And the squirrel is wearing a hat!” So at some point, we just embraced the quirky. No one ever finished a novel by overthinking it.
MR: What drew you to telling an old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery?
JK: We both have such love for classic mystery novels and the older TV shows that public television would air (Channels 10 and 36 FTW!). You know the ones I’m talking about: Hercule Poirot, Sherlock, Miss Marple, Murder She Wrote, Columbo. There’s something so comforting about the genre and the rules within it. Even though you’re immersed in murder and death, you know that at least you’ll learn the answer in the end, and order will be more or less restored. That’s the deal we make with our old-timey mystery writers.
MR: How did your backgrounds as booksellers inform the writing? How about your backgrounds as former Schwartz booksellers?
JK: Well, we both read a lot, obviously. And I hope that we’ve learned a bit about what readers enjoy and what sparks their interest. As booksellers, we both have a tendency to get very, very excited about books we love, and we’ll talk about them to anyone who isn’t walking away. Schwartz was a wonderful place to work because that spirit was encouraged, just as it’s still encouraged at Boswell Books, where Sharon works as a bookseller now (and I did work when we started writing Shady Hollow). I don’t want to get too precious about it, but there is definitely a sense of community and love for reading there, as well as a determination to endure despite all the changes in publishing and, yes, technology. When our own book was published, there was no question about having an event at Boswell. Otherwise, it’d be like visiting Milwaukee and not going to Kopp’s. (By the way, anyone want to go to Kopp’s with us after the event? Because we won’t have a car.)
MR: Other than the pen name, which references Solomon Juneau, does the book have any other references to Milwaukee?
JK: Nope. Shady Hollow is a fictional town, set in a fictional world where there are no humans. Now that you mention it though, we should probably work a Bucks reference into a sequel. I adore cheesy puns.
MR: What was the writing process like working with another author?
JK: It was fun, since you get to bounce ideas off someone and share the creative burden. It was also exhausting, since we did it during NaNoWriMo. We switched off days that November, each writing up to the word count goal, then sending the file back to the other person. So we did have a first draft pretty quickly. It was the edits that took a long time, though we’re very happy with the final result. It was worth the wait.
MR: Where do you see the book landing in the current publishing landscape? Adult? YA? Somewhere in between?
JK: I think the main audience is people who do love cozy mystery or just quirky little books. So we’re aiming it at adults, since we include some rather adult themes (murder, adultery, SO much coffee…). But it’s also very much in the vein of Agatha Christie, where the emphasis is on the sleuthing and the characters, not buckets of blood. The only grit is at the bottom of the coffee mugs. Did I mention coffee is a major element? True.
We also intend to write more books set in and around Shady Hollow. We had too much fun dreaming up all the characters and settings to just leave them after one book. And we’ll be keen to hear from readers about where they’d like to see the story go. That’s why people should totally come to Boswell Books for the launch party. You can see both of us, Sharon and Jocelyn, in one location, and see the fabled counter where we first saw those little animal finger puppets and said, “If this mouse had a name, it would be Howard Chitters…”
Koehler and Nagel will read from Shady Hollow Wednesday, November 4 at Boswell Book Company. The reading begins at 7 p.m. and is free.