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SunLit Interviews

Interview: Author Pat Stoltey explored the history of her native Illinois in writing what began as a crime story

An image from a dream formed the basis for this novel rich with regional history

What inspired you to write this book?

The inspiration for “Wishing Caswell Dead” started with one image left over from a dream: a tintype photo of a girl with tangled curly hair. I wrote a short story first, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more about the other characters and how they all came together the day Caswell died.

Pat Stoltey

Even though this book was originally meant to be crime fiction, the historical part of the story grew bigger than the mystery. That accident of writing has led me into a whole new genre.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

My favorite authors Include a long list of mystery/thriller writers like William Kent Krueger, Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Mizushima; Madeline l’Engle for her Crosswick Journal memoirs, esp. A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, and Sandra Dallas, a great storyteller.  My one all-time favorite character is Connelly’s Harry Bosch.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

This selection from “Wishing Caswell Dead” introduces young Jo Mae Proud, a neglected and mistreated child whose fierce determination and instinctive knowledge of right and wrong help her survive. She’s my favorite character in the story. I plan to write more about her in the future.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

The best part was the new history I learned during research about the Illinois region where I grew up. Although I was familiar with the Kickapoo ties to the area, I did not know the tribe’s full story. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 were a surprise, especially how destructive they were to surrounding states. And what a coincidence to discover Abe Lincoln lived in New Salem at the time three of my characters journeyed there from Sangamon.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book?

The toughest part to write was any chapter from Caswell’s point of view. He was cruel and depraved, a man despised and feared by everyone. Trying to get in his head and describe his thoughts and behavior proved difficult because I didn’t have much sympathy for him.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

During those 1811-1812 earthquakes, there was a brief period when the Mississippi River ran backwards. Jay Feldman wrote a fascinating book with that title about the earthquakes and the history of the times.

What project are you working on next?

I have completed the first draft of a story set in 1838 in the Village of Sangamon, four years after the Caswell novel. This new book includes a lady outlaw with a connection to the village who returns after twelve years away, stirring up a whole mess of trouble. Learning about the Cave-in-Rock outlaw hideout near Shawneetown and the Ohio river pirates prompted me to do more research on Illinois outlaws. I had no idea there were so many famous bad guys east of the big river.

Buy: “Wishing Caswell Dead” at Book Bar.
Excerpt: “Wishing Caswell Dead”