Better late than never. At least, that’s likely how readers will feel about Ruth Moose’s debut novel Doing It at the Dixie Dew, which was 25 years in the making. Moose is a celebrated poet and short-story writer, but this effort marks her first foray into novels. Her debut has already won accolades: Moose was the winner of the 2013 Malice Domestic Competition for Best First Traditional Mystery Novel.
In Doing It at the Dixie Dew, Beth McKenzie returns to her hometown after the death of the grandmother who raised her. She decides to transform a dilapidated mansion into a bed and breakfast, only to have one of her first guests, an elderly woman returning to town after decades, murdered in her room. McKenzie sets out to solve the mystery that threatens to derail her B&B dreams.
Here, Moose chats with Bookish about life in a small Southern town, the difference between writing poems and novels, and why it took her 25 years to publish Dixie Dew.
Bookish: After three short story collections and six books of poetry, this is your first novel. What brought about the switch to long-form storytelling?
Ruth Moose: Short stories will always be my first love. I love the pace of them, the way they can be read in one sitting, and that you can read and reread them and find something new each [time]. They are an absolute delight to write—to take an idea and see it come to life on the page in such a short time always surprises me.
I wrote the novel 25 years ago to try to teach myself to plot. Short story writers and poets are not known to be strong on plot. My first creative writing instructor, Doris Betts, suggested I read mysteries to learn to plot, just as I read plays to learn dialogue. I read poetry for the sheer love of language, the delicious beauty of words.
I worked nine months of the year as reference librarian at Pfeiffer University. During my three months off during the summer, I revised the awkward first draft, which was originally called Murder on Main Street. At the same time, I wrote and published short stories and poetry.
Bookish: Was it difficult changing your style from short story writing to novel writing?
RM: For 15 years at UNC, I taught Introduction to Writing Short Fiction. I used to tell students, a poem is like a first date: the bliss, the joy of new love. A short story is a relationship with a bite, but a novel… oh, it’s a long term marriage. It is work. It is skydiving without a parachute. It’s rowing a leaky boat in a murky pond where there are water moccasins.
Bookish: This is a classic murder mystery. Did you have to plot it out before you started, or did you figure it out as you went along?
RM: I knew from a botany class I’d taken I would use a certain deadly plant. I just had to find a way to do it, [otherwise] I had no plot when I started. I had characters and have always believed that if you have a character, you will have a plot. As I wrote, more characters introduced themselves, which is one of the joys of writing without a plot.
Bookish: You live in Pittsboro, NC, and Dixie Dew is set in quaint, very Southern, somewhat zany Littleboro, NC. Are there any similarities?
RM: A lot of people are going to think of Pittsboro, but when I wrote Dixie Dew 25 years ago, I didn’t live here. I lived in the Uwharrie Mountains near Charlotte, NC.
Pittsboro has a courthouse in the middle of town and before it stands the statue of the Confederate soldier. There is a lovely bed and breakfast here, Rosemary House, but it isn’t Dixie Dew[‘s Littleboro.]
Bookish: This small-town world of old money drying up is ruled, in a way, by Littleboro’s many blue-haired old ladies who are the last of their families, who were once a sort of Southern royalty. Is that what Southern life is like today?
RM: I remembered the expression a friend once said of such a family, that they “daughtered out.” I loved finding a place to use that phrase [in the book].
In imagining Littleboro, I thought of a town that had a lot of these beautiful old houses. Some were blessed with fixer-up buyers, some just stayed empty year after year and got sadder and more run-down. Small towns in the South do tend to have big ole houses that cost a fortune to paint and restore—and to live in. Heating and cooling don’t come cheap in large rooms with tall ceilings. I always drive past them thinking, “Lovely to look at, but I wouldn’t want to live in one.”
Bookish: The novel is set in the contemporary world, but there is hardly an email or cell phone to be seen, even for Beth. What was behind that choice?
RM: In so many ways, small towns don’t change with the times. There are still places you can’t get wifi, and people manage to go on with their lives. There is one reference to a cell phone, and that was my editor’s idea.
I also had to explain why Beth’s ex wrote a letter instead of email. I like letters and still write a lot of real ones. Real mail is exciting. Email is not, unless it’s from [my editor] saying I won the $10,000 Malice Domestic Competition. That was exciting!
Bookish: Are you planning a follow-up?
RM: I am working on a sequel called Doing It AGAIN at the Dixie Dew.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
RM: I love independent book stores. My favorite always has been McIntyre’s Books, here in Fearrington Village, NC.
Ruth Moose is the 2013 winner of the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition. She won the PEN Award for Syndicated Fiction, the Robert Ruark Award for the Short Story, and the Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award. She has received 3 Pushcart nominations and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She’s published three collections of short stories and six collections of poetry. She was on the Creative Writing faculty at UNC Chapel Hill for fifteen years. Moose lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.