Q-and-A: Crime novelist Julie Kramer to speak on ‘Shunning Sarah’“Shunning Sarah” is a mystery involving the murder of a young woman in southeastern Minnesota’s Amish community. Author Kramer will talk about “Shunning Sarah” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Cloquet Public Library.
By: Mark King, Pine Journal
Reading one of crime fiction writer Julie Kramer’s novels, you’re likely to come across several story elements that you’ll also notice concurrently appearing in the news media. For example, her most recent national bestseller, “Shunning Sarah,” refers to Anthony Weiner, controversy over hunting research bears in Northern Minnesota, and recent hair- and beard-cutting attacks among the Amish in Ohio — incidents that are woven into the novel’s timely events. At least two of these were broadcast news stories last week.
“Shunning Sarah” is a mystery involving the murder of a young woman in southeastern Minnesota’s Amish community. Author Kramer will talk about “Shunning Sarah” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Cloquet Public Library. Her presentation is made possible by a grant from the Minnesota Book Awards, supported by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. Kramer won the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction with her first crime novel, “Stalking Susan,” in 2009, and was a finalist in 2011 for “Silencing Sam.” The event will be hosted by the Cloquet Library Reading Club.
October marks the book club’s first-year anniversary. The group meets once a month to discuss the current reading selection, and new attendees are welcome. Each member takes turn at leading the discussion on the book they’ve recommended. Choices have included contemporary fiction (“Life of Pi”), cultural history (“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern”), social commentary (“The Absolutely True Diary of an American Indian”), World War II history (“The Shetland Bus”), and classics (“Washington Square”). “Shunning Sarah” is the first mystery to be chosen.
Kramer’s book, the fifth in her Riley Spartz series, is as hot-off-the-press as they come. As a former investigative news reporter for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities, Kramer uses the backdrop of a competitive television newsroom as the springboard for murder investigations. In “Shunning Sarah,” snappy dialogue and wry humor punctuate a story that ultimately becomes more tragic than the reader anticipates.
In preparation for her talk at the library, we asked Kramer a few questions about “Shunning Sarah,” to which she graciously responded as follows.
Q: What led you to write about the Amish at this point in your mystery/crime series, specifically about a 19-year-old Amish woman who is shunned by her family and community?
Julie Kramer: I grew up on a Minnesota farm near an Amish family and became a television news producer. Writing “Shunning Sarah” was a way of combining those two parts of my life. Flashy TV news versus the reclusive Amish leads to conflict — and conflict leads to good storytelling.
Q: Have you had any reactions from any Amish (or former Amish) readers?
JK: “Shunning Sarah” is about Old Order Amish — the most conservative — and technically, they aren’t allowed to read fiction, only nonfiction. So they really weren’t my audience. I did receive an email from a man who claimed to be Amish. He was upset about the book and thought I was making the Amish look bad. I didn’t press him about why, if he was so Amish, he had a computer and email, but simply explained that in the course of my books I’ve made doctors, lawyers, journalists, police, veterinarians, all sorts of people look bad. I hoped he wouldn’t take this personally. He replied, again via email, that after considerable thought, he had decided to forgive me unconditionally.
Q: Your depiction of the Amish community is far from idyllic. Some would say your depiction is closer to reality than, for example, what many of us remember from the movie “Witness.” Can you comment on that?
JK: There’s a lot of mystery about the Amish, and people tend to romanticize their way of life. But it can be tough, particularly for women, who still do laundry by hand. Men, however, can use gas engines to help with chores. I also received some angry emails from readers of Christian fiction who thought because “Shunning Sarah” has a horse and buggy on the cover, it would be a tale of spiritual inspiration. Instead, they got an intriguing tale of murder. I wrote back, reminding them that the book cover had blood spatter and that should have clued them in.
Q: How much of Riley’s experience reflects your own experience as an investigative reporter?
JK: There’s a little bit of me in my protagonist, but also some of the other people I’ve worked with. I’m lucky to have been able to live my research.
Q: The internal squabbles and behind-the-scenes pressures of a television newsroom seem authentic. Newsroom managers don’t come off very well, though. Weren’t you a newsroom manager yourself?
JK: People are often surprised by the amount of competition that goes on in a newsroom. Reporters are constantly vying against each other to be the lead story, to have more airtime, to travel. The backdrop of the newsroom in my Riley Spartz series is realistic. And while I supervised an investigative unit at WCCO-TV, I was never a desk boss. I always continued to work in the field and scramble for news.
Q: The ending of “Shunning Sarah” takes the reader by surprise. Not everyone attending your library talk will have read the book. What can you say without giving away the ending?
JK: I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I had written a different ending in the first draft. I asked my editor what she thought and explained I had another ending I was kicking around. She suggested I write that as well and when I did, I realized it was the right way to wrap up this story. My teenage son preferred the first ending. If anyone who has read the book wants to stick around after my talk, I’ll be happy to share the other version and we can talk about which they prefer.
Q: Riley gets a number of news tips from her parents who live in a rural farming community. Did you ever get an important news tip from your mother?
JK: Yes. Over the years, as a journalist I received several useful news leads from my parents. I trained them to call me when they heard of anything unusual. I told them, if it’s something you have firsthand knowledge of and know to be true, be sure and tell me that, but even if it’s just an interesting rumor, let me know and I’ll judge whether it’s newsworthy. Once my mom called me, quite upset, about a murder. “I have firsthand knowledge,” she said. “I’ve seen the blood.” I called the police to verify it and the chief was stunned that I already knew about the crime. I can’t go into more detail because I always protect my sources, but just to be clear, my mom was not the killer.