Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Suspense and Subculture with Sandra Parshall

If you haven’t yet discovered Sandra Parshall’s novels, you’re in for a fabulous treat. Sandra is the author of the critically acclaimed Rachel Goddard mysteries: The Heat of the Moon, which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel; Disturbing the Dead; Broken Places; and the upcoming Under the Dog Star (September 2011). She serves on the national Sisters in Crime board. A native southerner, she now lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two cats. You can read more about Sandra and her books on her web site ( and at her group blog (

Your novels feature a little-known American community known as the Melungeons. Who are they, and where do they live? How large a community is it?

Melungeons are among several groups sociologists call “tri-racial isolates” – people of mixed race living apart from mainstream society, usually because they were excluded and forced into isolation. Melungeons have lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains for at least 400 years. Common physical traits are Caucasian features (including blue eyes) with dark skin and black hair, reflecting a mixture of Turkish or Portuguese, Native American, and in some cases African American heritage. Well into the 20th century, Melungeons were considered black and suffered the same legal discrimination faced by African Americans. In earlier times, as white settlers moved into the region, the farmland of Melungeon families was seized and the people were forced into the remotest areas, where they lived in small communities and seldom interacted with the outside world.

Today, many people with Melungeon heritage still live in the southern Appalachians, but no distinct communities remain. Melungeons have assimilated into mainstream society (as my character Tom Bridger has, and his father before him), although I’ve heard many stories about the bigotry they still face if their skin is dark. In the past, the very word Melungeon was detested by the people it labeled, but the Melungeon Heritage Association has helped to create a sense of pride and a desire to know more about their history.

What are some of the myths, legends, or speculations about this community? How much of what we know about them and their history is fact?

Melungeons have always been considered descendants of shipwrecked Turkish or Portuguese sailors who moved into the mountains and made new lives for themselves, intermarrying with Native Americans and, in some cases, escaped slaves. In recent years, the Melungeon DNA Project has proved that they are genetically similar to present-day residents of the Mediterranean region. The legend of their origin is apparently correct.

A lot of books call themselves psychological suspense but the pleasure of reading your first novel, The Heat of the Moon, is a truly hypnotic experience. What did it entail to get into the minds of your characters for this book, both the psychologists and their patients? 

I wrote The Heat of the Moon in first person in Rachel’s voice, so the only POV I had to express was hers, but of course the writer has to know every character inside and out. A lot of readers have told me they hated Judith, Rachel’s mother, but because I know her so well I feel great sympathy for her. She did something horrifying and unforgivable, but it was a response to terrible things that happened to her. Rachel’s selfish younger sister Michelle was easy to understand – don’t we all know dozens of people like her? But her selfishness hides a terror of facing the truth about her family, so I can feel compassion for her too. Judith might be a practicing psychologist, and Michelle might be on the verge of becoming one, but both could use a little psychological help for themselves! Theo, the older psychiatrist who helps Rachel, is the ideal compassionate, wise counselor.

What kind of research do you have to do for your books?

That depends, of course, on the story. Research, for me, is done on a need-to-know basis. Sometimes I must have the information before I can start writing. Other times, a question comes up in the course of writing and I go searching for an answer. For The Heat of the Moon, I read a lot about memory in general and suppressed memories in particular. For Disturbing the Dead, I researched the history of the Melungeons in Appalachia. 

I've found Doug Lyle's blog ( tremendously helpful when it comes to such delightful topics as describing wounds, describing a corpse at various stages of deadness, etc. Lee Lofland's blog ( is a goldmine of information about firearms and police procedure. I have a shelf
several shelves, actually!filled with books about crime investigation, forensics, etc., and I use them when I need to check something quickly.

Because yours books are such taut, smooth reads, we readers tend to assume the words just flowed from the author’s pen in one easy stream. How did they really unfold?

I write a very messy first draft that isn’t fit for human consumption. I would never allow anyone to see it. I throw in everything that occurs to me as I get to know the characters and let the story take shape. The first draft is not fun in any way. It’s a form of self-torture I have to go through to get to the other side. When I begin rewriting, deepening the characters, sharpening the story and working out the kinks, I start to enjoy the process. I’m editing – mostly cutting unnecessary words – right up to the minute I send the manuscript file off to my editor. And by that point, I must say, I thoroughly loathe the book! Fortunately, I regain some enthusiasm for it by the time it’s published.

Your books feature characters with interesting careers. What was your career before (or while) you became an author?

I was a newspaper reporter in South Carolina, West Virginia, and Baltimore. That experience exposed me to a lot of situations and people that have been useful in fiction. I’ve never based a character entirely on a real person, but I’ve used bits and pieces of real people’s personalities and backgrounds in creating characters. For a long time, my only “career” was that of unpublished writer, but I’m glad I stuck with it until my dream of publication finally came true.

We're glad too! The first three books of the Rachel Goddard series weave back and forth between two primary settings—Washington, D.C., and the rural Virginia mountain country—and the points of view of your primary character, veterinarian Rachel Goddard, and her romantic interest, Detective Tom Bridger. Rumor has it you’ve just wrapped up writing book four. Do we get to know more about these people and settings with the new book? And what else do you have in store for us?

Rachel left the D.C. area and moved to the mountains of southwest Virginia to get away from bad memories and start over. As she discovered in both Disturbing the Dead and Broken Places, however, the past will follow wherever you go. She’s learning to deal with her past, but in a future book, it might come back in a major way to disrupt her life with Tom in Mason County. Tom has his own bad memories: he still blames himself for the road accident that killed his parents, brother, and sister-in-law.  However, the new book, Under the Dog Star (to be published September 1), keeps both Tom and Rachel so busy they don’t have a lot of time to dwell on the past. The story is about the way people use and abuse animals, but it also involves the seriously screwed up family of a prominent local doctor who is murdered by a vicious killer using a trained attack dog as a weapon. Rachel isn’t part of the mountain culture, and she clashes with Tom and some of the local people on a number of issues. Holly Turner and Mrs. Barker make return appearances, and of course the young deputy Brandon is back.

I have to ask--how many more books do you envision in this series? Any plans for a new series or standalone? Do share!

I don’t have a definite number of books in mind. I often feel as if the series is just beginning to gain traction with readers, and it’s hard to resist people who say they want more. I would like to write other things, though – not necessarily another series, but perhaps standalone suspense. I have a suspense manuscript that I’d like to rework. The future tends to happen on its own terms, regardless of our careful planning, so who knows what I’ll be writing in a few years? With the publishing world changing rapidly and drastically, I’ll be happy to be published at all!

Sandra, thanks for joining us today! 


  1. Thanks a million for the interview and the chance to be part of your entertaining blog.

  2. Sandy, it rare for me these days to read a book that I truly cannot put down. But Heat of the Moon was just like that for me. It kept me up all night! Your sympathy for Judith did come through for me. I wanted to hate her, but couldn't. There was just enough humanity behind her terrible actions to keep her from being a monster.

    I'm very curious about the Melungeons. They have such an interesting history. Is there any trace of their Turkish and Portuguese culture left in their food, traditions or speech?

  3. It's very reassuring to hear that your first drafts are messy! What keeps you going through the times when you worry--is this the time it's not going to work? Or do you ever feel that?


  4. Oh, Hank, I feel that way all the time! I never believe for one second that what I'm doing is going to work, so I'm constantly seeking a way to improve it. What keeps me going? Well, I've become addicted to the sight of my words in print, to tell you the truth. I love holding a real book that I wrote. That's my reward for all the suffering. :-)

    Heidi, modern Melungeons don't retain anything of their heritage, but many are interested in exploring their background. When the Melungeons were discovered hundreds of years ago living in a remote part of the Appalachians, they spoke broken English and identified themselves as "Portygee" -- which could only have been a corruption of Portuguese. They had black hair and dark skin like Native Americans, but many had blue eyes and all had Caucasian features. They lived in houses with windows, structures unknown among Native Americans. The Melungeon Heritage Assn. site has a lot of information. (

  5. Can't wait for book 4!! When I was reading the book with the Melungeons, I found out my son Ben (living in Tennessee) knew at least one who acknowledged it. Someday I hope to meet the guy! I'd also like to meet one of the Crypto-Jews (or Hidden Jews) in New Mexico. Those are fascinating mini-cultures.

  6. It's terrible that in the past so many people with Melungeon heritage felt they had to hide it, and wonderful that the Melungeon Heritage Assn. has made it possible for people to learn about and take pride in who they are.

  7. I find it surprising that I'd never heard of Melungeons before your series, Sandy. But I'm with Heidi--I started Heat of the Moon at bedtime one night and was still reading when the sun came up the next morning. And yes, I found Judith complex and somewhat sympathetic as well. And the powerful ending has stayed with me. Looking forward to book 4. Thanks again, Sandy!

  8. "The future tends to happen on its own terms, regardless of our careful planning"

    Oh yes, that is so true! Your books sound wonderful, Sandra. Thanks for sharing your time with us and it's great that a group of people like the Melungeon Heritage Assn. is around to help people be proud of their ancestory.