My late mother lived in Norwalk, Connecticut for many years, where she enjoyed the lively arts scene and loved taking classes at the local community college. So, it was a special pleasure for me to interview Laurel Peterson, a terrific writer who’s also a professor at Norwalk Community College and the city’s first poet laureate. Below are Laurel’s responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio and contact/buy links:
I was fascinated to learn that not only are you a professor at Norwalk Community College and an accomplished poet and essayist, but a mystery author as well! Can you share with our readers a bit about the first two books in your Clara Montague mystery series, SHADOW NOTES and THE FALLEN?
Hi Lynn: I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for hosting me!
Shadow Notes and The Fallen feature protagonist Clara Montague, who has predictive dreams about the people she loves. Shadow Notes opens with a frightening dream about Clara’s difficult mother. The dream convinces Clara that her mother is in danger, so she returns home after fifteen years away to help her.
The second novel, The Fallen, alternates viewpoints between Clara and her love interest, Kyle DuPont, the local chief of police. Kyle arrived in Connecticut from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina carrying some darkness from his past. When a gang shooting disrupts their peaceful town, Kyle realizes his past threatens to destroy his future, and he must return to New Orleans to stop the menace to his family and future.
Clara Montague is such an interesting character with an unusual gift. What inspired her character for you?
I’ve had a few unusual experiences, as I imagine many people have, times when I knew something intuitively without being able to explain how I knew it. I’m curious about those experiences as well as skeptical. Clara is my way of thinking through my own ideas about “knowing.” For example, when I have ignored or denied gut feelings about people, it usually leads to misery. Where does that gut feeling come from? Clara, like many women in our culture, has to learn to trust her visions and her gut. Women are often taught that someone else knows better than we do and that we should give over our authority to those people, often men.
What drew you to mystery writing?
Revenge, of course! (I saw today in a Harper’s article that this motivation puts me in the esteemed company of Annie Ernaux!) My first piece of writing for myself was a response to an eighth-grade bully who was properly chastised by the end of the story. My first (unpublished) novel strung up a predatory college president on a campus flagpole. It’s so delicious to be wicked, isn’t it?
Recently, many friends have died, some in their forties. I wrote a series of poems about these losses, and my writing group finally was so depressed that I promised them a romantic comedy. Within two sessions, the new novel had already turned threatening and vengeful. Perhaps I’m just not capable of writing other things, at least in fiction.
Is your writing process very different for your mystery writing as compared to your poetry?
I find writing longer work easier. Fiction is a more structured process. I can work regularly on the next scene or chapter and feel I’m moving forward. Poems come when they feel like it.
Project work, in general, makes it possible for me to write. The grief poems I referenced above came as part of a photography and poem project; my latest book of poetry, Daughter of Sky, was constructed around astronomical imagery: sky, stars, flying, galaxies, etc. The more I work that way, the more I accomplish.
I thought it was wonderful that you were the first poet laureate of Norwalk and served from 2016-2019. What was that experience like for you?
Wonderful fun! I collaborated with dancers, artists, and musicians to create multi-genre presentations; we had readings in local galleries and wine shops; we put poetry on the buses and in public parks. I still run an event called Writers in Conversation, where I bring two writers together to read and discuss their work. I love getting people to talk about what they’re thinking. Connecticut has really supported this initiative and has had 68 town and state poets laureate over the past 5 years. How cool is that?
Did you always know you wanted to become a writer?
I found writing in fifth grade English class, and then it crystallized a couple years later with that bully. Ah ha! A way to deal with terrible things that are happening to me! I studied psychology in college, thinking I would work in advertising, but went back for my MFA in my mid-twenties and became a teacher to support my writing habit. I think books are the most magical things in the world.
Are there particular writers who have inspired you in your own writing journey?
So many! Simone de Beauvoir (whose lipstick-covered grave I visited last fall in Paris) gave me permission to have ambition. Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton pointed the way for female detectives. Anne Sexton’s poetry opened the door to raw honesty. Claudia Rankine demonstrated flexibility of genre. Mark Doty Stephen Dunn, and Robert Frost all showed the importance of immediate experience and image. A. A. Milne’s verse and Pooh stories offered up playfulness with language. Robert Penn Warren presented the wide view.
How do you balance your work as a professor with your work as a writer? Is it challenging to find time to write?
I balance it badly! However, the pandemic and a shift toward more online teaching has had its advantages. Not being in the classroom four days a week allows me to schedule more time to write. As we move back toward more in-person work, I will lose the flexibility and probably have less time to write—but retirement isn’t that far away! In the meantime, I’m enjoying being back in person and talking with live students!
What is next for you writing-wise?
I’m about 100 pages into a psychological cat-and-mouse book. I’ve also started a Substack on joy and am using it as a challenge to write in a different way, maybe find a different audience or a broader one.
It’s fun to experiment.
Anything else you’d like to add, or wish I’d asked that I didn’t?
I will repeat this as many times as I can: as writers, we need to be kind to ourselves. Sometimes that means writing; sometimes, it means rest and gentleness.
Again, thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to talk with your readers.
Laurel Peterson’s poetry has been published in many literary journals. She has two poetry chapbooks, That’s the Way the Music Sounds and Talking to the Mirror, and two full-length collections, Do You Expect Your Art to Answer? and Daughter of Sky. She has also written two mystery novels, Shadow Notes and The Fallen. She is a member the Norwalk Public Library Board, and served as Norwalk, Connecticut’s, Poet Laureate from April 2016 – April 2019.