A Chat with C. Michele Dorsey

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with fellow mystery/suspense writer C. Michele Dorsey to talk about our mutual affinity for the Caribbean and her recent release set there.

GIVEAWAY: Be sure to comment below. Michele will be giving away all three books in her Caribbean series to a commenter, randomly chosen from all of the commenters to this post.

Here’s our chat:

Penny: I love the fact that we both have mystery novels set in the lush tropical islands of the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands to be specific. A lot of people vacation there. But you found your way there and ended up staying longer than most. How did that come about?

Michele: I accidentally discovered St John in 1986 during a day excursion on a cruise I hated. But I fell in love with the island. After more than three decades of going to St. John, I never tire of its beauty. More than three quarters of the land is owned by the National Park Department, which saves it (largely) from being spoiled. There is something about being on St. John that makes me feel at peace with myself.

Penny: How has the time you’ve spent on St. John had an influence on your writing?

C. Michele Dorsey

Michele: When I was super busy practicing law, teaching part-time, and raising a family, the only time I had to write was on weekends and while on vacation. After we discovered St. John, we returned several times a year until we began spending winters there in 2015. Writing on St. John was bliss. What could be better than soaking in silky warm aqua water, then sitting on a beach chair with your toes in powdery white sand with your laptop on your lap, playing make believe? In the beginning, I wrote stories based in Massachusetts where I lived, but then one day when I was sitting at the dining room table in my favorite vacation villa staring at an empty hammock, I imagined a man being shot while lying in it. And that’s how my first Sabrina Salter mystery was born.

Penny: Tell me more about your protagonist Sabrina and how she made her way to St. John like the author who created her.

Michele: Sabrina is an exile from Massachusetts, who was acquitted of murdering her husband by a jury but was convicted and vilified by the press. Her career as a television meteorologist in Boston is over, so she flees to St. John to start over. Many people who live in St. John have come to start over after colorful pasts, so Sabrina meets many interesting characters, including her partner Henry with whom she begins a villa rental business. Between the tourists who come to visit St. John and those who have defected to the island, there is no shortage of stories.

Penny:  Have you ever been on island during a hurricane or tropical storm? Have you been back since the horrific one-two punch of the two Cat 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria (termed Irmaria by locals) in September 2017?

Michele: Funny, you should ask. Tropical Depression, the third book in the series, which was recently released, is set during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Tropical Depression was challenging to write because I wasn’t there during the hurricane, but I interviewed a number of people who were and had seen the damage firsthand during a visit shortly after the storm. The cottage we had been renting was uninhabitable and our efforts to relocate long term thus far have been unsuccessful. It was a devastating hurricane, far more so than earlier ones we had seen the damage from. Maria was the second punch that added insult to injury. Islands are fragile, even with perfect weather. The effects of two Cat 5 hurricanes back-to-back will be felt for years.

Michele’s Caribbean Series

Penny: What are the challenges of living an extended period of time on an island?

Michele:  Living in paradise is not perfect. It’s hard for those of us who live in variable climates like we have in New England to imagine perfect weather nearly every day. I’m a little like my protagonist, Sabrina. I love weather. I admit I can find it monotonous.

There can also be a sense of isolation on an island and a feeling of cultural deprivation.

There’s plenty of art and music, but not the variety we have in the states. It can be a little like living in a pandemic when all you want to do is crawl through a bookstore or watch a movie in a theater with the smell of popcorn surrounding you.

Penny: Interesting parallel between living on an island and enduring a pandemic with all its limitations. I can see it.

Shifting to characters, how much are you pulling from your past with Sabrina’s character? Are any of your other characters inspired by people you know?

Michele: Even though the Sabrina stories are mysteries set on a gorgeous Caribbean Island, they are really stories about broken relationships. Unfortunately, some of them lead to murder. My characters are often composites of people I’ve met.

Penny: Historically, you have split your time between a cooler climate in the summer and a warmer one the rest of the year: Cape Cod and St. John. Are any of your mysteries set on the Cape or New England at large? Or do you envision setting a mystery in New England at some point?

Michele: I have written several mysteries set in New England. Stay tuned.

Penny: Oooh, I am looking forward to that. Have you or will you ever write outside the mystery genre?

Michele: I’ve taken a stab at romantic comedy. I enjoyed writing it, but the editing is going oh-so-slow.

Penny: Romantic comedy? Well, that’s ambitious. Good for you. I look forward to reading it.

Can you share more about the storyline for Tropical Depression?

Michele: Sabrina Salter returns home to St. John in the Virgin Islands after a disastrous vacation in New England where her grandmother rejected her and her boyfriend, Neil, betrayed her. She discovers an employee at her villa rental agency has been murdered and her best friend and business partner, Henry, is the prime suspect. If that isn’t enough, Hurricane Irma, a category five-plus hurricane is racing toward St. John and her grandmother is on island to make amends. Reluctantly, Sabrina must enlist Neil and his rusty legal skills to save Henry and help find the murderer while a killer, a massive hurricane, and her grandmother are charging her way.

Penny: I look forward to following Sabrina on her next escapade on St. John. Can you tell us how we can get a copy of Tropical Depression?

Michele: You can find it on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1736557726

Be on the lookout for the fourth Sabrina Salter mystery, which is scheduled to be released June 1, 2022. In Saltwater Wounds, Sabrina and her octogenarian grandmother enter a truce while they set off to find out what happened to Sabrina’s mother when she disappeared thirty years before.

Penny: Good luck with the release of Tropical Depression. Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Looking forward to Saltwater Wounds!

Author Bio:

C. Michele Dorsey is the author of the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, and Tropical Depression. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean. 

GIVEAWAY: Comment below for a chance to win all three books in Michele’s Caribbean series. She will be randomly choosing a winner from all of the commenters. Good luck!

What’s Up With Olivia Benning

After bearing witness to Olivia Benning’s harrowing experiences in THE EMPTY CHAIR: Murder in the Caribbean, I was anxious to catch up with her before she returns to the Virgin Islands to pick up the pieces in OVER THE EDGE: Murder Returns to the Caribbean (to be released 11/10/20). In spite of all of her packing and preparations to take care of before she can go wheels-up on a southbound 737 and leave Boston behind, Olivia was generous to take a few minutes and sit down with me. Here is our chat.

Penny Goetjen: Olivia, first off, congratulations on completing your apprenticeship with Abigail Adams Studios in Boston. That was quite an accomplishment just to land such a highly coveted position and even more so to complete it.

Olivia Benning: Yeah, thanks. It was a lot harder than I expected but a great experience, for sure. I’m grateful to have had it. I learned a lot.

PG: And I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. Even though, to a certain extent, it was expected, that must have been hard for you. Do you struggle with conflicting emotions about it? Sadness, certainly, but are there any lingering anger issues?

OB: It was hard. Still is. And even though I knew it would be coming down the pike sooner or later, it happened much faster than I expected. My time with him just seemed to evaporate at the end…. And anger? Yeah, definitely. I can’t stop thinking it didn’t have to turn out the way it did—if he’d made some different choices.

PG: And speaking of choices, you didn’t really have one when it came to who you were to live with when your parents separated years ago, did you?

OB: No. That really sucked. My father insisted I stay with him in Boston. He said the schools are better there. But I missed out on so much with my mother. And living with him was nothing short of miserable.

PG: You would have preferred to be with your mother on St. Thomas.

OB: Absolutely! She and I were very close—closer than most mothers and daughters. We didn’t get enough time together. I spent my school breaks with her, but it was never enough. Kayaking was one of our favorite things to do. We took our cameras everywhere we went. She taught me how to actually see what I was looking at through the camera lens. The art she created was amazing. She was amazing. I cried like a baby every time I left. I just wanted to stay and live with her, learn more about photography from her. I wanted to be like her.

PG: And you were hoping to join her in her photography business one day?

OB: Yeah, that was the plan in my head. I’m sure my mother would have gone along with it. My dad probably would have opposed it.

PG: But surely at some point—at a certain age—you would have been allowed to make your own life-altering decisions.

OB: (She laughs.) You would think, wouldn’t you? Maybe I should have stood my ground better, but now it doesn’t really matter. What’s done is done.

PG: Again, different choices would have had very different results.

OB: Yes. . . I feel like my time with my mother was taken from me. I miss her.

PG: So now you’re heading back to St. Thomas, your first visit since the powerful hurricane rocked the islands. What condition do you expect to find them in?

OB: I’m not too optimistic. The photos and videos I’ve seen online are so heartbreaking. Some of the images are upsetting to look at. So much devastation. It will take years to rebuild. But the people of the Virgin Islands are a tenacious bunch. Resilient. They get knocked down by these hurricanes but they don’t stay down long. They’re very quick to look to the future and talk about rebuilding and better days ahead.

PG: I understand you plan to rebuild your mother’s bungalow. What do you envision it looking like? Will you keep the same design as it was before or start from scratch and create something new?

OB: I’d like to rebuild it just the way it was—including the funky colors on the outside. It just makes sense from a budget standpoint if I keep the same footprint. But I’d like to add a half bath. I’d also like to build a garage with some storage for kayaks. We’ll see how it all works out. If I can only afford to rebuild it exactly the way it was, I’ll make it work.

PG: Are you hoping to catch up with Colton? Have you been in touch with him since you’ve been gone?

OB: (She pauses and grins. I detect slight blushing.) Yeah, I’m hoping to catch up with Colton. That’s the plan.

PG: What else is in the plan? (Do I have to pull it out of her?)

OB: Well, I’m planning to twist his arm to get him to let me stay at his place while I rebuild. I think he’d be willing to make room for me.

PG: So, he’s not aware of his involvement in your plan? You two haven’t talked while you were away?

OB: No, we haven’t.

PG: Why not? And that doesn’t concern you?

OB: Even when I’m on the island, he’s not very easy to get in touch with. He tends to live off the grid.

PG: So, you’re not concerned what that might mean. That maybe he’s lost interest. Or there’s someone else.

OB: If that’s the case, fine. I’ll deal with it. But I can tell you, the way things were between us when I left, I think he’ll be happy to see me.

PG: Or perhaps the reason he hasn’t been in touch is because it’s something else entirely—

OB: Like I said, I’ll deal with it when I get there. I’m going, no matter what. I’m going there to rebuild my mother’s bungalow. That’s all there is to it.

PG: All right then. I wish you the best of luck back on the island. We look forward to seeing how it all turns out for you. Safe travels.

OB: Thanks.

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