PUBLISHERS WEEKLY * Sept. 22, 2014
(Q & A)
PW TALKS WITH B. B. OAK
Henry David Thoreau: Master Detective?
B. B. Oak (the husband-and-wife team of Ben and Beth Oak) showcases the transcendentalist philosopher's crime-solving skills in Thoreau on Wolf Hill (Reviews, p. 49; pub month, Nov.), the second book in the series.
When did your interest in Thoreau start?
Ben – Beth and I have shared an interest in Thoreau since college days. But for different reasons. I was more interested in his observations about nature than his philosophy, and I found his ironic humor, contrary attitude, and independent spirit very appealing. Thoreau wrote Walden in his twenties and people that age really "get" him. He's that age in our mystery series, bursting with vitality and eager to take on the world.
Beth: For me, it was Thoreau's spirituality that sparked my interest in him. He had a surprisingly modern concept of God as a universal energy that could be found in the natural world. He meditated, studied Eastern philosophy, and made a point of living in the present moment.
What led to the idea of a series of mystery novels featuring him?
Beth: It began with the desire to write a mystery series that took place in antebellum New England. We thought it would be interesting to contrast the outwardly peaceful countryside and villages with turbulent emotions, repressed desires and bloody murder. And the image of Henry David Thoreau finding a body on one of his nature walks was irresistible. If anybody would be determined to discover the murderer, it would be Henry.
Ben: He seemed the obvious choice. Like all the best detectives in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe to Parker's Spencer and Lee Child's Reacher, Thoreau was a self-reliant loner with his own code of honor and his own sense of justice. After all, it was Thoreau who coined the phrase about marching to the sound of your own drummer.
How easy was it to have him display Sherlockian deductive skills?
Ben: Thoreau used his observational and deductive skills every day of his life, so it was fairly easy. As he famously said, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” He devoted himself to investigating the world around him and that's why we thought he
would make such a natural detective.
Beth: In fact, Sherlock Holmes himself quotes Thoreau in regard to circumstantial evidence in the short story "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor." Like Holmes, Thoreau carried a magnifying glass in his pocket. Or rather, Holmes carried one like Thoreau. I've read that
Sherlock Holmes was based on Poe's Inspector Dupin and Doyle's university professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. But maybe he was also based on Henry David Thoreau, the supreme master of observation and deduction.
– Lenny Picker
# # #
B.B. Oak is the pseudonym for the writing duo Ben and Beth Oak. Connecticut natives, they met
at Boston University and have been together ever since. Besides the enjoyment they find in each other, the pair of writers has an affinity for Henry David Thoreau. It is this kinship and respect, as well as a love of mystery that inspired the Oaks to create a unique, though very real, role for the iconic Walden Pond resident.
In Beth and Ben’s debut novel “Thoreau at Devil’s Perch,” Thoreau adopts a Sherlock Holmes style of investigating as the storied author and poet seeks to identify the killer of a young black man he found at the bottom of a rocky crag called Devil’s Perch. Told through the voices of Thoreau’s partners in this investigation, displaced lovers Julia Bell and Dr. Adam Walker, the Oaks draw upon Thoreau’s own documented words, passions, and survival skills to create a scenario so believable, many will agree that Thoreau could have rivaled the greatest
detectives of the time had he chosen that pursuit.
The Oaks go to great detail to remain true to the era, and the end results are carefully crafted
settings such as the woodlands, town streets and businesses, and even a den of ill-repute. Historical fans will find little to raise a brow at. Thoreau fans will discover a character much like the man himself who speaks in his time-tested manner that has kept readers enthralled for centuries. Mystery fans will have their powers of observation tested against that of Thoreau, the
American version of Holmes. And, of course, if Thoreau is Holmes, then star-crossed lovers and narrators Adam and Julia are Watson.
“Thoreau at Devil’s Perch” has something for everyone. Most of all, it contains a very enjoyable,
well-written story utilizing uncommon characters that will create fans for books to come. And, yes, the next tale in the series is on the horizon.
Q) Placing Thoreau in any role other than “expected” could have been a literary death knell. But, you pull it off. What gave you the self-confidence to turn Thoreau into a man determined to solve a murder others scoff at?
Ben – Thoreau's own self-confidence inspired us. He never gave a hang about what others expected of him. It was Thoreau, after all, who coined the phrase about marching to the sound of your own drummer. Like all great gumshoes, he was a loner with his own sense of honor and justice.
Beth– And he was a master of observation and deduction, as his journals demonstrate. So we simply portrayed him as he was in life, a natural born detective devoted to seeking out the truth and fighting injustices.
Q) Had the two of you not met, what writing paths would you each have embarked on, and, will those paths make appearances in your future works?
Beth – Never to have met Ben? Impossible to contemplate! Even at eighteen we both knew that we wanted to be writers and would most likely stay together.
Ben – What we didn't know is that we'd be writing together. Our career paths have gone in different directions until now, so we bring separate skills and interests to our writing partnership.
Beth - Ben is a lot better at writing actions scenes and nature descriptions than I am.
Ben – Beth is better at dialogue and character motivation. As far as plotting goes, we talk it out
together, bouncing ideas off each other.
Beth – And trying to top each other to make the action scenes more exciting and the plot more complicated. Turns out Ben is quite bloodthirsty.
Ben – And Beth is quite devious.
Q) Julia and Adam are risky characters – cousins in love. Why create an atmosphere of forbidden romance for them in a story already rife with intrigue?
Ben - We wanted the mystery to unfold from both a male and female perspective because men and women lived in separate spheres at that time. And to make it all the more interesting, we decided to have the two characters telling the story develop a strong sexual attraction for each other as the mystery unfolds.
Beth – It's not just a sexual attraction. Julia and Adam have loved each other since they were children. Their love might even go back centuries. They could well be soul mates that have lived past lives together. This ties in with Thoreau's open-mindedness to the possibility of reincarnation.
Ben – In any case, if you're going to have romance in a mystery, it should be rife with conflict and obstacles.
Beth - And isn't what is forbidden all the more desirable?
Q) Even Sherlock Holmes grew and changed as a character. Will readers see Thoreau grow as well in future books, and if so, what areas do you see as potential areas for change?
Beth – Thoreau is only twenty-nine when the first book opens, filled with expectations and wide open to change.
Ben – As in real life, he'll become less a loner when he leaves Walden Pond. He'll form very close relationships with others.
Beth - Especially with Mrs. Emerson. In our second book, Thoreau is living with Lidian while Ralph Waldo travels in Europe.
Ben – Thoreau has a lot of trials and disappointments ahead of him, but he'll always remain purposeful and principled. We intend to stay true to the basic elements of the real Thoreau's character, which we find inspiring.
Beth - And we hope to show him as he really was, a vital young man full of joy and warmth and love.
DA Kentner is an award-winning author - www.kevad.net