Perhaps no one in Monroe personifies optimism as much as does novelist Bernadette Pajer. She wrote 11 complete manuscripts before ever being published, but with her customary blithe enthusiasm for writing, submitted a twelfth, a mystery set in the Seattle of a century ago.
That one was published by Poison Pen, one of the nation’s largest mystery publishers, and won glowing reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and other leading book critics.
That began a series of books about the protagonist, Professor Bradshaw, who solves mysteries using his vast understanding of electrical engineering of his era, the industrial revolution that gave rise to the “steampunk” aesthetic currently in vogue.
In addition to writing her exquisitely researched mystery series, Pajer also started a writers’ group called Wednesday Writers, and an ancillary group for young writers, both of which meets Wednesday evenings at the Monroe Public Library.
This month, Pajer is preparing to celebrate the fourth book in her series, entitled “The Edison Effect,” in which famed inventor Thomas Edison comes to Seattle in pursuit of a lost invention, whereupon the ruthless scientist turns Seattle on its ear, and murders and mayhem ensue.
We caught up with the busy Pajer, who next week will coordinate and participate in two authors’ events at the Monroe Library, and learned how life is going as a published author of an acclaimed mystery series, a bit about the book, and what’s next for this prolific and public-spirited writer.
This is book number four of your series. How is it going?
To borrow the title of one of my favorite movies, it’s a wonderful life. Professor Bradshaw has been steadily finding readers, and I’m enjoying the progress of the series, taking Bradshaw’s personal and professional life forward to new adventures.
Do you continue to have lots of ideas?
The problem isn’t a shortage but an abundance of ideas. With each new book, there are so many electrical advances to choose from, and so much historical detail to feature, that I’m at times overwhelmed with choice. I like to write tight, fast-paced stories, with enough historical and technical detail to immerse the reader but not so much that the tension lags. What helps is knowing Professor Bradshaw. When I imagine him in a particular situation, my gut tells me if it’s the right direction for him. I like to put my beloved Bradshaw outside of his comfort zone.
Poison Pen Press seems supportive, how goes the published life?
PPP is very supportive. They’re a medium-sized, traditional publishing house. Working with them is like being part of a family. There’s easy communication, generous sharing, a little good-natured arguing, and lots of support. The published life? Rich. Not financially, at least not yet. But rich with friends and experiences. Over the past few years I’ve met readers who enjoy Bradshaw’s world as much as I do, bookstore owners who cherish books and authors, and authors I admire and respect. I’m particularly rich being a member of the Seattle7Writers, a group of 60 plus authors who band together to support literacy and the written word. This year I’ve had a great time with a sub-group of mystery and thriller author members of the S7W. We call ourselves the Crime Squad, and we’re doing an event in Monroe! On Saturday, June 21, at 2 p.m., we’ll be doing a fun panel-quiz show at the Monroe Library. Joining me will be Elizabeth George, William Dietrich, Mike Lawson, and Boyd Morrison. On the same day, Elizabeth will also be doing a presentation at 11 a.m. at the library on her Young Adult series.
Tell us a little about Wednesday Writers. We’re a writing support group that meets every Wednesday from 7-9 p.m., and the door is always open to new members. Through June, we’ll be meeting at the Monroe Library, but beginning in July, we’ll move to Main Street Books, thanks to owner Emily Newman.
What sort of things are the writers writing? You name it, we have a member writing it. Fiction of all sorts from literary to zombie; nonfiction, poetry, stage play, screen play, short story, memoir.
Has it helped your writing at all? Every week my understanding and appreciation of the craft grows thanks to the diversity of talented writers. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses and we learn from each other. The best part of what we get from each other is emotional support. We really should call it Writing Therapy.
Will you do a book tour?
Just a local tour in the Pacific Northwest.
Will you have local signings?
Yes, I plan to visit my favorite local bookstores and those will be listed on the events page of my website. The book launch event for The Edison Effect will be held at the Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington, where some key scenes in the book take place. A featured character in this book is Professor Joseph Marion Taylor who was the UW’s first math professor and first observatory director. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Taylor’s great-great grandson, George Myers, who lives in Seattle, and we’re all looking forward to celebrating the book’s release in the very building where Professor Taylor once spent many happy hours. Details will be on my website.
You’ve made an actual major historical figure, that of Thomas Edison, a rather unpleasant and sinister character. What have you learned about him? Was he actually such a rascal?
I did not make Edison an unpleasant and sinister character, he did that completely on his own. Yes, he was a rascal. A very shrewd and ruthless businessman. While the events concerning Edison are fictional, they are in keeping with his litigious and aggressive ways. I should add that I do admire Edison for some of what he accomplished, I just wish he’d been kinder in his methods. I’ve been called a Pollyanna more than once.
What is it that you love about the era in which you write? You write of the Gilded Age, the era that gave birth to steampunk. What is the fascination with the era, do you think?
I talked about this once with steampunk authors at a steampunk fair in Bellingham (my books aren’t steampunk, but they share the era) and we decided that gears are sexy. There is such elegance in design of machines with gears and all mechanical parts. Even typewriters back then had curves and were made with attention to visual appeal. It gives you a simple pleasure to see them work, all the parts moving in harmony. It was also an era of enormous change, when possibilities for scientific and technological advancement were on the verge of becoming reality.
Remind us of how you do your incredibly exacting research. You, as a side effect of your writing, have become an expert on electrical engineering of the early 1900s, as well as Seattle and UW history.
Goodness, I only wish I were an expert. But my memory is poor and my intelligence limited, so with each book, I surround myself with historical texts and images. I visit the University of Washington archives, MOHAI, and numerous websites. I consult with real engineers and experts in the fields I write about, and when my manuscripts are complete, experts kindly read them for me and I incorporate their suggested changes. Each book in the series, including The Edison Effect, has passed peer review by the Washington Academy of Sciences and earned their Science Seal of Approval. It delights me to hear from readers who have PhDs in physics, or readers who are engineers or real professors and they tell me that are enjoying the series and love the accuracy of the science. It makes all the long hours worthwhile. For my non-engineering readers, I think it helps that I’m actually no expert, because I find ways of describing the science in the books in a way we can all understand.
When might we see book five get underway?
Before I turn to book five, which will jump to 1909 when the AYP (Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition) was on the grounds of the University of Washington, I’m taking some time to work on a contemporary suspense novel. I haven’t set myself any deadlines so I don’t know how long it will be, but I know the good Professor will eventually call me back and I will happily return to see what happens at the fair.