I moved to Oak Park when I got married in 1988; back then it was a sleepy, shady town with at least four used bookstores, and I loved to wander from one to another on a Sunday afternoon. Armchair Books and Joe’s Books were two of my favorites, but perhaps the best was the Left Bank Bookstall, which boasted a couple of resident bookstore cats and paperback mysteries for less than a dollar. I loaded up on those, building collections of mysteries written by Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Jill McGown, Ross MacDonald and P.D. James. And I always stayed on the lookout for books by that terrific 20th-century trio of Gothic suspense: Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt. These were the women who descended from the likes of the Brontes and Daphne DuMaurier, keeping some of the alluring staples of Gothic fiction. Stewart was my favorite; I always said that if I, an introvert, ever stood in line to meet someone in person, it would be her.
Around that time I started experimenting with writing my own mysteries. I learned my craft for more than a decade, in moments stolen away from work or mothering. I sold my first book in 2004, then won a contract with Penguin/Random House (Berkley Prime Crime) to write a cozy series. I decided to bundle together some of my favorite details from various Lake Michigan resort towns and use those sensory images to create Blue Lake, Indiana, where a young writer is given the chance of a lifetime: to live and work with a famous Gothic suspense novelist that she has always admired (this is called wish fulfillment through writing). The books were dubbed The Writer’s Apprentice series by the publisher, and the first book, A Dark and Stormy Murder, earned some surprising plaudits — from Writer’s Digest, who called it “A Noteworthy Traditional Mystery,” and from Charlaine Harris, creator of the Sookie Stackhouse books (which led to HBO’s True Blood), who blogged that “Dark and Stormy is a lot of fun.”
There are several homages to Stewart in this series, starting with the main character, Camilla Graham, who embodies what I imagine Stewart would have been like. Stewart started each chapter of her suspense novels with a literary epigraph, and I did the same, except my quotations come from a fictional Graham novel called “The Salzburg Train”. Many readers have enjoyed these faux passages so much I receive emails asking me where people can buy “The Salzburg Train”. When I tell them the book exists only in the fictional world of Blue Lake, they ask if I’d consider writing the book for real. I am beyond pleased that people are so drawn into my fictional world they want to find Camilla’s books in the library or bookstore.
While the series had a quiet beginning, it has accumulated a loyal following. The third book, A Dark and Twisting Path, debuted on July 31 and hit the Barnes and Noble bestseller list two weeks later. This upward trend is due entirely to loyal readers and the more-precious-than-rubies word of mouth publicity.
My other work for Penguin was a culinary mystery series. The Big Chili, the debut novel, takes readers into the small (also fictional) town of Pine Haven. It is a testament to my laziness that all my fictional towns are “near Chicago,” and this includes my newest mystery, set in a European teahouse, which will debut next year.
My Oak Park life hasn’t changed much since those early days of wandering through dusty, beautiful bookstores; I still teach at Trinity High School in River Forest. My children grew up and went to school in Oak Park, and I live in the same little house where I wrote my first published novel, and in which I’ll most likely be sitting when you read this. I might be grading papers or toiling over a sentence that doesn’t sound quite right.
For more on Julia Buckley, go to juliabuckley.com, Facebook: Julia Buckley Mystery Novels or Twitter: @juliabucks. Her mysteries are available at The Book Table, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park, and Centuries & Sleuths, 7419 Madison St., Forest Park.