I was born in North Branford, Connecticut, in 1943, and I lived there through my early college years. I received a bachelor’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University in English in 1965, a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1966, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, studying under Jules Chatmezky. For many years I taught multi-ethnic literary studies for the United States Information Agency, spending summers in Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Israel, and South Korea. I was a former chair of MELUS, the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the United States. I taught junior-level English at Branford High School from 1966 through 1969. From 1972 to 2003 I taught creative writing and literature at Tunxis Community College, in Farmington, Connecticut, retiring as a full professor.
As a child, I had the obsessive habit of wanting to read every book by any author I liked. For that reason I moved through all of Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy, Mark Twain, and others. In high school I discovered George Eliot, and carted home from a used-bookstore a box load of her collected works, much to the dismay of my parents as I unloaded the dusty volumes onto the living room floor. I read all of George Eliot, a feat that I believe should have earned me some medal. I even read her full-length poem, The Spanish Gypsy. I got bogged down in the stilted rhythms but I persisted. The same with Sir Thomas More's Utopia, of which I understood not one bit. But I read … and read. In the mix, for course, were many mysteries because my mother favored them. I always marveled at the intricate plotting of those that I read, and was always baffled by the solutions. Intrigued, I told myself I would master the craft someday. I'm still trying, and the journey is remarkably entertaining.
From earliest childhood, I also had a keen, abiding interest in writing. Over the years I have published short stories, poetry, and essays in magazines and journals like The Village Voice, The Journal of Popular Culture, Hartford Monthly, The Journal of American History, and so forth. A short story of mine, “Cleopatra,” won an award from the Hartford Advocate a few years back. I have published many books in a variety of fields. In 1980 I wrote a novel based up Croatian farmers living through the Depression in a town outside New Haven, a book loosely based on my family: Anna Marinkovich (Manyland Books, 1980), republished as A Girl Holding Lilacs. I published a number of book-length scholarly monographs on subjects ranging from the culture of American movies (Dream Street) to pre-World War I best-selling fiction (For Love of Country), as well as textbooks on multiculturalism (The Yugoslavs in America, Ethnic Perspectives in American Literature, and American Letter: Immigrant and Ethnic Writing). I published a thirty-year history of Tunxis Community College, a collection of interviews and perspectives (A Bend in the River: Voices from a Community College).
Ella Moon: A Novel Based on the Life of Ella Wheeler Wilcox (Badger Books, 2001), was written out of deep love for my subject. Back when I was an English teacher at Branford High School, I had friends who lived in Short Beach. One of whom mentioned Ella Wheeler Wilcox to me. I already knew her as the author of those perennial lines: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.” I had bought a few of her volumes at used bookstores. I had not realized she had been a resident of Branford. Eventually I planned to write a critical biography—actually a cultural biography, of sorts—but the more I sketched such a book, the more I was enthralled by the rich melodrama of her life. The result was Ella Moon, my take on this important woman.
Years back I had the idea to write a series of mystery novels using famed novelist Edna Ferber as a protagonist. After I retired, I found a publisher receptive to the idea: Poisoned Pen Press. Working with marvelous editors Barbara Peters and Annette Rogers, I have established the series, beginning with Lone Star, which features James Dean. Because she had a long and varied writing career, beginning when she was nineteen as a cub reporter for the Appleton, Wisconsin Crescent, up until her eighties in the 1960s (her last novel was Ice Palace, published in the 1950s), I can imagine my amateur sleuth at different times in her life. In other words, I can show how her decisive personality evolved from girlhood to maturity. This is one of the wonderful things I can do with such a real-life character: I can discuss her reactions to gruesome situations as a young woman of, say, nineteen, but then allow variations on that personality as she moves through her twenties and into adulthood.
I also wanted to create a new kind of protagonist/detective—an Amerasian named Rick Van Lam. To my knowledge there has been no such hero in mystery fiction. I became closely connected to the large Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Chinese communities of Hartford, participating in their festivals, family gatherings, etc. In particular, I learned much about the life of those of mixed blood-the so-called bui doi, the children of the dust—who are often ignored by the larger Vietnamese community. (The bui doi are featured in the hit Broadway musical Miss Saigon,). So I created Rick Van Lam, Americanized, bright, clever—but also a man curious about his Vietnamese roots, about his unknown American father, about the life he left behind when he came to America as a boy. I have always believed that mystery or detective fiction is one of the great avenues for dispensing knowledge about a culture to a readership out there. I wanted my Rick Van Lam series to introduce a mysterious part of a new American culture to that readership. The first book in the series, Caught Dead, garnered excellent reviews, and I am now outlining additions to the series.