In this premiere episode of season 2, co-hosts Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy interview debut author Kate Khavari, Wichita native and author of the upcoming historical mystery novel, A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons, due out on June 7, 2022. They discuss the differences between self-publishing and working with a large publisher, how she juggles writing while being a stay-at-home mom, her advice for aspiring writers, and more.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription. Some errors may occur. If you find a transcription error, please contact us with any corrections and we will make those corrections as quickly as possible.
SARA DIXON, VOICEOVER: Hi, welcome to season two of Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. I'm Sara Dixon.
DANIEL PEWEWARDY, VOICEOVER: And I'm Daniel Pewewardy. We're librarians on the adult programming team at the Advanced Learning Library and your new hosts. If you're new to ReadICT, it's a reading challenge collaboration between the Wichita Public Library, Suzanne Perez from KMUW public radio, and the Wichita Eagle. There are 12 different categories that invite readers to expand their reading horizons. You can find out more information on our website at wichitalibrary.org/readict.
SARA, VOICEOVER: In 2022, our sixth year of this challenge, we've got a new list of categories to explore. Over the course of the season, we're going to dive into several. For this first one, we're going to talk to Kate Khavari, author of the upcoming mystery novel A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons who is also originally from Wichita. This is her first novel to be published in print and we are very excited to have her here. Let's get started.
DANIEL: Hi, Kate. Welcome to Read. Return. Repeat. We're happy to have you.
KATE KHAVARI: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
DANIEL: So we hear you're from Wichita. Can you tell us a little about your experiences growing up here?
KATE: Yeah, I grew up in Wichita and I moved about nine years ago. But it was a great place to grow up. My parents were like really involved in the community so I went to a lot of Riverfest and blue jeans concerts and I did Exploration Place and Final Fridays so I had a great time growing up in Wichita. And now I feel like it's even more exciting to go back because since I've been gone, there's been a lot of changes in the city like the Kansas flag is like a big deal -- or not the Kansas flag -- the Wichita flag is like a big deal. And I love all of that like community building aspect that's been happening.
SARA: Yeah and have you been to the Advanced Learning Library?
KATE: I have not but it's like I'm coming to Wichita in a couple weeks so it's... it's on my list.
SARA: Great. Well, come find us. We'll give you a tour.
KATE: That would be great.
SARA: Well, congrats on your upcoming book I just finished an advanced reader's copy and all our listeners are very in for a treat. So tell our audience a little bit about it.
KATE: Thank you so much. It's a historical mystery called A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons and it follows an assistant researcher at the University College London named Saffron Everly and it's in 1923 and basically she's trying to clear her mentor of being accused of being a poisoner. And so it's about her and her unwilling accomplice Alexander Ashton and they're basically just using science to solve a crime. And there's also plenty of like sneaking around and mischief as well.
SARA: It's... it's really fun. Yeah, I can... I can just attest to that. So yeah, everybody's going to be excited to read it.
DANIEL: Saffron's a cool character.
KATE: Thank you.
DANIEL: How did you decide to become a writer?
KATE: I didn't really, it just kind of like happened one day. I've always loved like reading and writing but I never thought that I would do it like professionally. But a couple years ago, I was binge reading historical mysteries after finding Kerry Greenwood's Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. And so after binge reading all of those and then like really for like an entire year I was just reading, reading, reading and one day I was like, "I'm gonna write my own perfect historical mystery." So I wanted like a dynamic lead character and like really lush settings and some romance. So I basically just like announced one day to my husband, I'm like, "I'm gonna write a book." And then I sat down and I wrote it like obsessively. I was literally like if I wasn't like on my laptop, I was walking around like grocery stores like with my phone in my face like typing on Google Docs for weeks. And once I finished the first one, I immediately started writing the next ones. So I ended up writing four books in like three months.
DANIEL: Oh, wow.
KATE: Yeah, and then we had planned on me being a stay-at-home mom when we had our first child. So when that happened, I was like, this is a great opportunity for me to try to do something with these books that I wrote. And I've been incredibly lucky that I was able to do something with them so that's how I became a writer, kind of by accident on purpose.
SARA: That's awesome. I was definitely catching some Phryne Fisher vibes from your book so yeah, I'm glad you... that was... that was a connection there.
DANIEL: Your website describes the book as The Lost Apothecary meets Dead Dead Girls. Are there any other books that influenced this novel or other stories you've written?
SARA: Besides Kerry Greenwood.
KATE: Yeah, that's... that's kind of the number one. Also I just want to point out that my publisher and reviewers have been incredibly generous in those comparisons. I did not decide that my book was like those books. But like so I mean Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is what really got me started but I grew up watching adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot so basically I feel like those are like in my DNA at this point and I'm not at all surprised that when I decided to write a book, it was a historical mystery that came out because those are like, that's like what I grew up on. That and like Harry Potter. But yeah and the... the first thing that I wrote not for the Saffron Everly books but just like the first thing that I had written in years was actually Miss Fisher fanfiction. I like made up a story about what she would have done during the second world war and that's like what got me started so...
SARA: You know, there's a new Miss Fisher mystery. I haven't watched them but it's supposed to be like I think a relative of hers and it's set a couple of decades in the future. Have you seen those?
KATE: It's like Miss... Miss Fisher like solves a crime or something. I think it's in the '60s. I haven't watched it because '60s is just like not my jam but I probably should watch it because I love Miss Fisher.
SARA: I felt the same way. I was like, well, it's different but anyway. So the most common piece of writing advice is to write what you know. Would you find that this is true for you and are there aspects of yourself or people that you know or even life experiences in your book?
KATE: I don't know that I would agree with write what you know because if that was true, then my books would be about like living in Kansas or living in Texas and like being a teacher and I don't... I don't know that I want to read that book. But I would say it's more like write what you are willing to spend a lot of time thinking about and researching. I'm not a botanist but I love plants and so when I decided to make Saffron a botanist, I knew that I was committing to like hours and hours of learning about botany. And luckily like I ended up loving it so that was... that was a benefit. But like in terms of like for myself and others, like putting them into a book, I mean Saffron definitely has a lot of my characteristics like... I mean surface level. She has blue eyes and dark hair and I also have blue eyes and dark hair. So like not super original there.
Alexander is a biologist and a microbiologist and my husband has degrees in biology and microbiology so again like not... not very dissimilar. But like it was my first book and, you know, I wrote about the people that I was thinking about, I guess. And like kind of on like the darker side, in terms of like writing about, you know, things from like real life, I've really noticed in my work -- because I've... I've written the Saffron Everly mysteries and then I have several other works that I'm still working on in publishing -- there's like this theme of like learning things about your loved ones who have passed on and like what do you do with information that you've learned about them but you can't like talk to them about because they've passed on. So I really love like that idea of like what happens to someone like Saffron who's very curious and who loves solving mysteries when she finds a mystery that she can't solve?
SARA: Are you saying that's what we can expect from the future Saffron Everly mysteries?
DANIEL: Spoiler alert!
KATE: Maybe there's some... some themes of that going on in the next books.
SARA: Okay. All right. We'll see... we'll see that when it comes out. So you're a very busy stay-at-home mom. You've said that that was your plan from the beginning. When do you find the time to write and how do you balance those two very big pieces of your life?
KATE: Sometimes not too well and other times very well. My... my goal has always been like child first. You know, that was my goal in like being a stay-at-home mom is I wanted to be able to like spend that time with my son and like really be invested, involved in his life. But I realized that I am like a much better and happier person and therefore a better parent when I'm writing and working. So I try to get a couple hours every day whether it's during nap time or like right now he's at his like little nursery school he goes a couple days a week. But mostly it's like sneaking in, you know, some notes on my phone and then when he's asleep I'll like type some stuff out. But luckily my husband is like super supportive and he's always... he's always able to give me an hour here and there if I'm like, "Hey, I need to write this before I forget it so."
DANIEL: Yeah, it's always important to have a balance.
DANIEL: We are going to take a quick break. When we return, we will want to talk more about your upcoming book, The Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons.
VOICE: Looking for an easy way to keep track of your ReadICT challenge progress? Check out the Beanstack app. With Beanstack, you can participate in library reading challenges, log reading activities, and even win prizes. You can access the app either through the Apple or Google Play stores or on a desktop computer by visiting wichitalibrary.beanstack.org. If you are participating in the ReadICT challenge, every month you log a book, you will be entered into a drawing for a chance to win a cool bookish themed prize. For more information on Beanstack, visit wichitalibrary.org/beanstack.
DANIEL: And we're back. So let's continue our discussion about your new book. Your novel takes place in London in 1923 and gets really technical about plants. How did you go about doing the research for this one?
KATE: With a lot of patience and a lot of internet searches. Basically Google Maps like street view is my hero. And there is a lot of things that were easier than like others to research so like luckily the college was partially damaged during World War II but it... you know, is... it's fine. They rebuilt some things and a lot of things are the same as what they were in 1923 so I was able to use a lot of information from the college. And they're also like really nice. I emailed their like records and archives department several times over the past couple years and every time they're like, "Oh yeah, here is this thing that like you can look at and like here's where to find that information." So big shoutout to them because they were very generous.
DANIEL: Gotta love archivists.
KATE: Yeah, they were they were really nice. And in terms of the plants, that was actually the easiest thing to research somehow. I guess it's because not a lot has changed in terms of like... like they haven't like changed the vocabulary between now and then so I can look up like, you know, like parts of the plants and it's the same. But it was... it was really interesting to figure out just how much like scientific jargon I could get away with in the book. Because even if you're an enthusiast like me, like half of what Saffron says about the plants in those scenes that she's getting very technical, I'm like, "If I was reading this, I would have no idea. I would have to look stuff up."
But I tried to limit it because, you know, even if you're an enthusiast, you're probably not going to want to be interrupting your reading to go and figure out all of these words that she just said. But the hardest part of all of the research was not figuring out like what the information was and when it was discovered but it was figuring out like what would the characters... like how would they interact with that information? Like what would they think was interesting and new, what is like old news, what it... what would they scoff at because someone is choosing to research this, they're like that's not very like cutting edge but you're gonna spend your time on that? Like stuff like that I thought was really interesting. So like for example like chlorophyll is mentioned in the book. Chlorophyll was discovered like 50 years previously but there was still work being done on it at that time in the 1920s. So it's a... it's a weird combination of like what would they know, what would they think is interesting, and like how would they talk about it realistically as scientists?
DANIEL: That's really interesting to think about the contemporary versus like the historic mindset of people, like people in the 1920s are thinking completely different about science than we are today so that's really cool that you went there.
SARA: Yeah. I really want to like dive into all the little bits and pieces of your story but I feel like we need to let people read it so we'll wait for it to come out in June. So let's just keep it pretty, you know, top of the line. So you had mentioned before that you might be particularly planning this as a series. And so can you talk us to us about how you see the story evolving?
KATE: Yeah, so the first and second books are in the works. My second book is with my editor right now and I would love to see this series go on for a couple books, at least long enough to give Saffron and the other characters a chance to like settle into new careers, new relationships and like give them like transformative arcs as well as like really satisfying mysteries. And I would love to continue playing with... with poisons. It's been really fun.
SARA: Cool. Well, good. I can't wait to see how... how those turn out.
KATE: Me too. Very curious.
DANIEL: I understand that you self-published an e-book before the upcoming novel. How is this book different from your first work?
KATE: So I did self-published an urban fantasy book called Blood Print and it was really more of like an experiment more than anything. I had written these books and when I heard about Kindle Vella -- which is the new like serialized storytelling platform from Kindle -- I thought that it was like the perfect place to try out these books and to try out this platform because it is a by... like per-episode format so you don't have to have like an entire book, you know, finished and completed. You can write as you go if you want. I didn't do that because I had stories ready. But there's a lot of authors that have really found a great deal of success publishing in that format and writing in that format. So if... if there's anyone, you know, curious about what that would be like, I would really suggest that you go and check out Kindle Vella. But it was a really good learning experience for me about self-editing and promotion and advertising and, you know, everything that it takes to not just write a book but to self-publish a book.
SARA: Thank you because we do have a lot of local authors here in our community and so we try to share information with them at least once a year at Local Author Day we like to do a local authors workshop and so that information will be really helpful to those folks.
So your new book is published by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House which is as we all know a very major publisher. How did you go about getting your book published? How did you find an agent? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
KATE: Okay so again for those, maybe the potential authors who are listening -- and those who aren't -- because I didn't know anything about this stuff until I wanted to get published, the traditional publishing, you know, method pretty much follows this trajectory: you write a book, you query your book to agents saying, "Hey, this is my book, this is what it's about, this is how many words it is in the genre, would you like to represent me, you know, trying to sell this book to publishers?" They say yes or no, hopefully yes, and then once they're representing you they sell -- not literally sell -- but they are... they're sharing your book with editors who work for publishers. And then they buy your book for the publisher.
So I queried A Botanist's Guide for a year and a half. I didn't know what I was doing. I had a really bad query letter to start with. My book was not ready, like my materials were not good. And so I burn out a lot of agents. And I was really disappointed, I didn't really know what to do because I had like gone through like a lot of agents. I think I ended up sending 55 agent queries or I got 55 rejections, I don't remember which it is. But it was a lot. And like I said, I didn't know what I was doing so I think that really had a lot to do with it. But I was getting feedback and I was getting interest. I had a number of full requests, I had people who were interested but it never quite clicked. So that told me that I like shouldn't completely give up on this story, just something was going on with my query or my materials or whatever. So I planned on shelving the book and working on some of my other projects, but a friend of mine announced that she had sold a book to another big publisher without an agent. And I'm like, "I didn't know that you could do that!" I was really excited. So I immediately started researching and I found a handful of publishers who accept unagented submissions and I sent Saffron to them. And within... I think within three weeks of doing that I had an offer from Crooked Lane from my editor, Melissa.
DANIEL: That's awesome.
KATE: So I love telling this story -- yeah, it was it was great. I love telling this story because so many people give up on their manuscripts because they don't get an agent. And you don't have to have an agent. Even if you don't plan on self-publishing, you don't necessarily need an agent in order to traditionally publish. It is, you know, a little bit more on your shoulders because you have to do the contract by yourself, you have to do a lot of the like liaising between, you know, event spaces and bookstores and things like that but it's very doable to do it without an agent. So if you're getting rejections, don't give up because you can still make your book happen.
SARA: That's really cool.
DANIEL: That's so awesome to hear that you're able to just like directly contact them and make it happen for yourself. That's so cool. Good job.
SARA: Yeah, I think that'll also be really helpful to our listeners that are maybe aspiring authors as well so that's awesome. Let's see how many times we can say awesome in like a 40 second period.
DANIEL: Putting yourself out there can be scary. How do you handle the criticism?
SARA: And but on the flip side, like how do you handle the praise? I mean, some of these reviews that we've seen are comparing your novel to Agatha Christie. I caught the Kerry Greenwood vibes. I mean, that's a big deal.
KATE: Being compared to Agatha Christie or any of the other authors that have been mentioned is both terrifying and amazing I really don't think about that much because I think it's really helpful for readers to see comparisons like that. And like for me as a reader, if, you know, I see one of my favorite authors, you know, being comped to a book I'm like, "Oh, okay," like I'll pick that up but like sitting down to write and thinking, "Is this Christie enough?" like that's not helpful for me.
SARA: Yeah, I can see that.
KATE: Yeah, I try not to think about that part but I'm like, I'm a really firm believer in like receiving feedback and reflecting on it and like implementing changes to my work and, you know, like in all aspects of life but like everyone says, "Do not read your reviews." Everyone says that and I read all the reviews. I have read so many reviews it like makes my head spin. And a lot of it was like really uplifting and helpful. Even the... the reviews that gave like, you know, lower stars or whatever, most of them had something nice to say. But there were a couple that like even now I can like hear it in my head, I'm like, "I probably should not have read all of the reviews."
DANIEL: Did you get anyone that was like a bit mad about the botany being wrong or anything like... like a big plant nerd or anyone like that?
KATE: No, that was the thing that I was the most worried about. I was terrified that somebody was gonna be like, "I'm a botanist and this is not correct." So I like triple checked everything. There probably are definitely like still mistakes in there but I was really worried about that. But I mean I've had reviews say that the pacing was too slow, the pacing was too fast, the characters were too smart with like all of their science, the characters were too dumb. Like I mean they're all over the place. Everybody has like different opinions and it's so subjective. And at some point I realized that like it... it is not gonna be the perfect book for most people but it's like the perfect book for me. And like I'm the one who has to, like, live with it at the end of the day. And I love it. It's like it's the book that I wanted to read. So hopefully I will find other people that it is also one of their perfect books.
SARA: So maybe it's not write what you know but write what you want to read.
SARA: I don't know, maybe not. Well, I don't really want to stop talking but we are going to take another just short break and so we'll be right back.
VOICE: Stretch your legs while learning about Wichita's rich history with the Wichita History Walk. Download the PocketSights app and experience a guided audio tour of local landmarks that can be enjoyed at your own pace. The tour features three routes: Wild West Delano, Historic Downtown, and East Douglas Heritage. The PocketSights app is available for free on both Android and iOS. Download the app today and start exploring.
SARA: Okay, before we wrap things up, we have a couple more questions for you, Kate. Since this is a podcast for some pretty avid readers of our ReadICT challenge, we have to ask what is your favorite genre of books to read? I think you pretty much have covered this but, you know, if there's anything else you want to say about it and then maybe if you have any favorite debuts since this is our debut author category.
KATE: Definitely. Like I've mentioned, I write in like multiple genres and that's because I read in multiple genres. But mostly I spend my time in the kind of historical section of the library in the fantasy section, but I'm also a huge romance fan, like I could read like a historical mystery all day every day and be so happy. I am chomping at the bit for the next season of Bridgerton to come out. But as for debuts, I recently read an ARC of a gorgeous, gorgeous contemporary romance from Jen Devon. It's called Bend Toward the Sun. And if you are into botany, this is the book for you because it's about a botanist like restoring a vineyard and it is a beautiful, beautiful book. If you're into contemporary romance, this is like a book to look for. And for mystery lovers, it's not a debut of a new author but a new series: Ashley Weaver's A Peculiar Combination, it came out in the last year. That was a... it was a fantastic mystery book, highly recommend it. And there... there's another in that series coming up this summer I think so be on the lookout.
SARA: We'll have to look at that, put those in a, like coming out in whatever month they come out in.
SARA: I think there's a better way to say that.
I think it comes out in August and it is a beautiful read.
SARA: Great. Good recommendations.
DANIEL: Thanks. And for our listeners that want to be the next Kate Khavari, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
KATE: Man, that is a... that's a show-stopper of a question: being the next Kate Khavari. A lot of things come to mind but like pretty much what you said earlier, Sara, like you need to write what you want to read because it is what will keep you motivated and keep you excited to sit down and share your ideas. Oh, and always have a way to write down the ideas that you come up with when you're like driving or like in the shower or falling asleep because you will regret all the ideas that you don't write down.
SARA: It's like that Seinfeld episode where he picks up the pad and he writes down... you guys watch Seinfeld?
DANIEL: Oh yeah, yeah.
Do you have like a note method to take notes, do you like keep a recorder on you or you like talk into to your watch or --?
KATE: I have like a huge pile of notebooks like right in front of me and I have all the notes and all the emails. I mostly sent emails to myself so that way I have like an email chain that I can like look... look through, especially for books that I'm not actively working on, I'm like I don't want to forget anything because I'm not like sitting down to draft it every day so there's a lot of emails in my inbox with many ideas.
SARA: That's interesting to think about, like plethora of ideas. Well, Kate, thanks so much for joining us today. If our listeners... listeners weren't already excited to read your book, I think now they'll be extra excited. So tell us again when it comes out.
KATE: It comes out June 7. And if you are excited, please considering pre-ordering which you can do online or in person at your favorite bookseller or check it out at the library.
DANIEL: Thanks for that.
SARA: Awesome. Well, hey, congrats again. This was so much fun to be able to interview you as our inaugural season two guest and... and then a debut author so.
DANIEL: Thank you so much. Oh yeah, it was great talking with you.
KATE: Thank you both. I enjoyed our conversation. I can't wait to share my book with everyone.
SARA: Yeah. Hey, come check us out when you are... when you visit next, okay?
KATE: Will do, will do. Thank you, guys.
SARA: You take care.
DANIEL: Take care.
SARA: Bye bye.
SARA, VOICEOVER: As we did in season one, we want to include some category specific reading recommendations from our staff. Here are three recommended books by a debut author.
KELLY FABRIZIUS: Hi, I'm Kelly Fabrizius and I'm a member of the adult programming team at the Wichita Public Library. My book recommendation for the ReadICT category 1, book by a debut author, is The Maid by Nita Prose. This book is a quick and extremely fun read. It was released on January 4 and has been described as a cross between a modern day Clue movie and an Amelia Bedelia book. The book centers around Molly Gray, who is a housekeeper at a prestigious New York City hotel. Molly has a very quirky personality and significantly struggles with the proper social skills; however, in the past, her dear Gran whom she lived with would always help her navigate her way through these situations. Since Molly's grandmother has recently passed away, she finds herself not quite sure what to do with herself. But Molly still has her job and is excellent at what she does.
She looks forward to going to work each day and takes great pride in her work. However, one day Molly's neat and orderly world is turned upside down when upon entering a room to clean it she discovers the room in disarray and the body of a very wealthy man who was a regular guest to the hotel. Then, as Molly is being questioned by the authorities about what she witnessed, her behavior is misinterpreted by the police and she suddenly finds herself as a suspect. The Maid not only has you rooting for molly while trying to solve the mystery of who the real killer is, but this book also finds a way to touch your heart. And I personally cannot wait to see what Nita Prose will come up with next. If you are looking for a fun, enjoyable read for the debut author category, I encourage you to pick this one up. For more reading recommendations, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict.
CASSIE FAHEY: Hello, my name is Cassie and I'm part of the programming team here at the Wichita Public Library. My recommendation for category one of the ReadICT 2022 challenge, debut authors, is Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews. In this riveting, almost Hitchcockian thriller, author Andrews poses the question, "How far would you go into darkness to claim a life you've only dreamed of?" The plot revolves around two women: publishing assistant Florence Darrow and the brilliant, secretive, and reclusive author Maud Dixon whose true identity is known to a very few and carries dark secrets of her own. The two women journey to exotic Morocco supposedly to research Maud's second book when the aftermath of a horrific car accident deftly invokes Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley as the opportunity to shed identities for both women leads to several unexpected diabolical twists and murder, truly a story leaving you to ponder the after effects of a wrong choice. For further book recommendations, please go to wichitalibrary.org/readict.
RACINE: Hi, this is librarian Racine. This is my recommendation for category one. All right, you might have read the wonderful book A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles or his newest, Lincoln Highway, but I remember reading a debut called Rules of Civility. Amor Towles's first book was so brilliant, I was outraged no one else had read it. The story follows Katey and her friend Eve who are two girls looking to class up their lives by living in Manhattan. Working by day and partying by night in the late '30s, the young women rub elbows with a variety of beaus from the regular Joes to jazz musicians. They meet Tinker Grey on New Year's Eve, a wealthy man. And in 1937, their lives are changed forever as they vie for his attention.
I love all of the quotes of this book. One of them is, "I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss." Another one is, "The problem with living in New York is that you've got no New York to run away to." It's a brilliant book. I really recommend you pick it up because the time period is wonderfully conveyed, there's mixing of the classes, and the love triangle. It's also reminiscent of Great Gatsby. Forevermore I'm going to think of this book as the story of the female Gatsby who lived her fabulous life without crashing on the rocks of the rich. For more reading recommendations, go to wichitalibrary.org/readict.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Before we go, we're going to hear a reading of "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Cottingly Girls" by J. Russell Jones, a submission to our local author short story program.
IAN, VOICEOVER: The events that I am prepared to relate occurred in the autumn of 1917, while I was enjoying an extended stay with my friend, Sherlock Holmes, and his delightful wife, Mary Russell, at his home in the Sussex South Downs. The consulting detective and I had both retired from public life and were relishing a nearly complete lack of day-to-day commitments.
It may come as a surprise to some that Holmes had taken a wife, but these are modern times, and the two of them seemed quite suited to each other. They each admired the intellect of the other, and each found in the other that perfect companionship that is so rare. In Miss Russell, Holmes had finally met his equal.
It had been an uneventful visit, which is what I vastly prefer. Holmes pottered about with his bee hives and worked on his memoirs, while Russell—she insisted on being called "Russell," never "Mary" and certainly not "Mrs. Holmes"—and I explored the surrounding area. The South Downs possess sufficient diversion to easily satisfy an old man such as I, and Russell seemed to enjoy squiring me about.
One sunny fall morning, as we were lingered over a late breakfast, Russell exclaimed, "Look! It would appear we are to be visited by two gentlemen." Through the front window, one could observe two figures at a distance, coming up the lane.
The first was extremely tall, perhaps six and a half feet, a rather portly gentleman of around sixty years, with spectacles and luxurious mustaches, from which latter a meerschaum pipe protruded. He was obviously winded and looked as if he'd come to regret the outing entirely.
His companion was younger, something over forty I would guess. He was a good foot shorter, with a compact, muscular build, dark curly hair, and an air of swagger about him. He was vaguely familiar.
"Ah yes, Russell," Holmes observed, turning to check the mantel clock, "I received a telegram with today's first post, from John's publisher, informing me that he and a friend would be arriving to consult with me at precisely eleven-thirty."
By this time, the two had approached closely enough that it could be discerned that the taller of our visitors was my occasional editor and publisher, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But I did not recognize his companion.
There was a knock at the door and Russell stood to give admittance. Holmes likewise stood and, shaking the the hands of both, entreated, "Do come in, gentlemen, and have some tea. You appear to be winded."
Once they had entered, he turned to the other man and said, "And you, sir, I presume to be the American escapologist so admired of late in the City, Mr. Harry Houdini."
"Incredible," said Mr. Houdini, for it was he. "I have read with much pleasure Dr. Watson's accounts of your deductive powers, but never imagined I would be the subject of them. Do tell me, how ever did you determine my identity?"
"I do not wish to disappoint you, but it was quite simple, I'm afraid. I recognized you from a photograph on the front page of today's Times, bound in chains, suspended head down from a great height over Piccadilly," Holmes replied with a wry smile.
"But please gentlemen, rest yourselves and tell us why you've come all the way here from London this morning. It's a long walk from the depot, and your journey was surely not for the exercise."
Once we were all seated, after some introductions, tea, and idle banter, Conan Doyle cleared his throat. "Houdini and I have a conundrum for you, Mr. Holmes, and a wager for you to settle." He drew a sheaf from his coat pocket and handed it to Holmes. "Inside you will find several curious photographs. They were made by two girls in Cottingley using the camera of one of their fathers, an avid amateur photographer. They are of those same girls, posing with what appear to be fairies or pixies. Houdini insists that there is some sort of trickery involved because fairies simply do not exist. I, on the other hand, contend that they are an actual photograph of the fey folk. After all, they are just as clear as the nose on one's face, and the camera does not lie. But Houdini and I cannot agree and have determined to accept your judgement as final."
"They've been studied," added Houdini, "by several experts who assure us that the pictures have not been modified, and we ask you to determine their true nature. We must know if they present a record of an actual event! I will tell you that the disposition of the sum of one gold guniea depends on your results."
After Holmes had asked several questions, our two callers provided him with the girls' names and their address and prepared to take their leave. "If you will return here in two days time, gentlemen, I believe I shall have an answer for you," Holmes said.
The next day, quite early, Holmes set off for the depot. I must point out that he wore, as always when traveling, a normal Homburg hat, not the ridiculous deerstalker with which Sidney Paget even today insists on outfitting him when he illustrates one of Holmes' adventures in the Strand. He urged us not to wait up for him because he would be returning late.
Russell and I passed a few hours that day admiring nearby Arundel Castle, a magnificent old Gothic pile, recently restored to its full glory and receiving visitors. It was a fascinating and most gratifying diversion.
The next morning when I arose, I discovered Holmes and Russell already breaking their fast. "Oh good, Doctor, you are finally up, Russell cried. "My husband has refused to relate anything of his findings until you were with us. Now perhaps he will inform us as to what he discovered yesterday."
"Indeed," said Holmes. "As you know, I departed for Cottingley early yesterday. I had no difficulty reaching the abode of the two girls, Elsie Wright, sixteen years of age, and her friend, Frances Griffiths, age nine. Once their parents had been apprised of who I was, they were pleased to allow me to speak with the girls privately. I promptly asked them to take me to the glen where the photographs had been made. When we arrived and I'd observed that it was a perfectly normal copse of trees and nothing more, I looked at the girls very sternly and told them that they'd been quite naughty.
"'Oh, Mr. Holmes, whatever can you mean?' Elsie entreated, innocently.
"'You must tell me the truth at once,' I frowned. 'I assure you that no trouble will come to you but you must come clean,' I told them. 'There are no fairies in Cottingly, now are there?'
"'But you can see the pictures before you,' Elsie cried.
"'Young ladies," I intoned, more gently, "what I see are pictures of two mischievous girls posing with some drawings cut from scraps of cardboard, do I not?'
"Finally, after much spluttering and denial, the younger girl, Frances, looked to her friend and said, 'He knows all, Elsie. We must confess.'
"Elsie sighed and told me that my surmise was correct, that incident had started as a lark, but had quickly expanded into a national sensation. 'We only intended to play a jest on my father but it got entirely out of hand. Oh, Mr. Holmes, what are we to do?'
"I observed that the idea of hoodwinking the entire nation was one that rather appealed to me, and that I certainly would not be the one to expose them. 'But you must promise that you will, someday, admit the truth.' And they made a solemn oath that they would do so...someday."
Russell and I were entranced by Holmes' story and laughed with delight when he completed it. "But how did you determine the true nature of the fairies?" I queried.
"Why, with my eyes, Watson!" my friend declared. "The truth of these pictures is obvious to one who will but observe it."
"I see your clients approaching now, my husband," Russell said, fondly. "What will you tell them?"
"Why, the truth, of course, my dear."
"But how can you tell the truth without exposing Elsie and Frances?"
"I intend to tell Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mr. Harry Houdini that the pictures are genuine, as genuine as the three of us!"
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Wow, what a first episode! We got to have an awesome conversation with a debut author from Wichita, heard some great recommendations, and even heard one of our published short stories. You can find more short stories like these at any one of our short story dispensers located at Reverie Roasters coffee shop and now the Eisenhower airport, or just wait till the next episode.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Listeners can request books by visiting our website, wichitalibrary.org, or calling the Library at (316) 261-8500. To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. To find a full list of books mentioned in this episode, you can visit wichitalibrary.org/podcast.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: And as always, stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. To join the group, search #ReadICT challenge on Facebook and click "join."
SARA, VOICEOVER: You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes on whatever platform you listen to podcasts. If you like what you heard today, be sure to leave us a five star review. This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to all the staff members that helped produce this episode. I'm Sara Dixon.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: And I'm Daniel Pewewardy. Join us next episode when we will discuss category 11, a book that deals with mental illness.