When the Clock Strikes Midnight
by Margaret Maron
We know what happened to Cinderella when she stayed too long at the ball. The clock struck midnight, her golden carriage became a pumpkin, her white horses turned back into white mice and her beautiful ballgown became rags.
Several years ago, when my newly published colleagues and I were members of the "freshman class," we noticed that several of the "senior class"—male and female both—had stayed too long the ball. They had written strong books with sparkling characters, but now they were older and tired, and their books no longer sparkled. They seemed to be phoning it in. As someone who grew up on a farm, it was like watching cows endlessly chewing the same cud. We promised ourselves that we wouldn't be like that. We would quit before we tarnished our reputations. Indeed, three of us made a pact: if that began to happen to one of us, the other two would come and put her out of her misery.
Bootlegger's Daughter, my first Judge Deborah Knott book, was published in 1992. Long Upon the Land, which will publish next week, is the 20th. (The title comes from the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days shall be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.") In that first book, Deborah was running for a seat on the district court bench. She was single, impulsive and apt to leap before she looked. In the past twenty-odd years, she has matured, married, and become a mother. She has held court from the coast to the mountains and back again and the books have allowed me to examine various aspects of life in North Carolina, both social and political.
I had thought that last year's book, Designated Daughters, would be the last, but then I realized that there was one loose end I had never tied up to my own satisfaction: how did her parents meet and marry and what was the story behind her mother's cigarette lighter that all of her brothers wanted? All along, Deborah's known that her parents were very much in love and that their marriage was strong despite their differences. But Sue Stephenson was the daughter of a respected attorney, a town girl who would have made her debut in long white gloves and a gauzy white gown had the war not intervened. She had graduated from high school and spent a year in college. Kezzie Knott was a semi-illiterate moonshiner who barely finished the eighth grade and was a widower with eight small boys, to boot.
Like me, Deborah was curious about how they could defy convention and marry. Long Upon the Land satisfies my curiosity and leaves me content in knowing that this really is the last book I'll write about her.
Besides, not only do I not want to be left standing in rags beside a rotten pumpkin and a handful of mice, my friends take their promises very seriously!
* * *
Born and bred in North Carolina where the piedmont meets the sandhills, I grew up on a modest two-mule tobacco farm that has been in the family for over a hundred years. Tobacco is no longer grown on the farm, but the memories linger — the singing, the laughter, the gossip that went on at the bench as those rank green leaves came from the field, the bliss of an icy cold drink bottle pressed to a hot sweaty face, getting up at dawn to help “take out” a barn, the sweet smell of soft golden leaves as they’re being readied for auction. Working in tobacco is one of those life experiences I’m glad to have had. I’m even gladder that it’s something I’ll never have to do again.
After high school came two years of college before a summer job at the Pentagon led to marriage, a tour of duty in Italy, then several years in my husband’s native Brooklyn. I had always loved writing and for the first few years, wrote nothing but short stories and very bad poetry. (The legendary Ruth Cavin of St. Martin’s Press once said of the silly verses I write to celebrate various friends “It's doggerel, Margaret. But inspired doggerel.” I was immensely flattered.)
Eventually, I backed into writing novels about NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald, mysteries set against the New York City art world. Living there let me see how the city is a collection of villages, each with its own vitality and distinct ambiance, vibrant and ever-changing. But once I had settled back into North Carolina, love of my native state and a desire to write out of current experiences led to the creation of District Court Judge Deborah Knott, the opinionated daughter of a crusty old ex-bootlegger and youngest sibling of eleven older brothers. (I was one of only three, so no, I’m not writing about my own family.)
We’ve been back on a corner of the family land for many years now. My city-born husband discovered he prefers goldfinches, rabbits, and the occasional quiet deer to yellow cabs, concrete, and a city that never sleeps. A son, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters are icing on our cake.
Why mysteries? Quite honestly, when I first chose this genre, it was because I thought I had nothing to say and the classic mystery novel had a form that would let me write without any burden of trying to be profound. All I had to do was entertain. But once I began writing about North Carolina, I realized that there was nothing I couldn’t say in this most flexible form.