It wasn’t writing, but travel that early on infatuated Christine Volker, whose mystery, Venetian Blood, won Story Circle Network’s 2017 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction. “I distinctly remember, when I was thirteen, looking up from the sands of Fire Island, New York, and spotting a Pan Am plane high above, flying to Europe. I said to myself, I will be on that one day,” Christine writes on her web page. “My thought wasn’t purely to escape my mundane existence, but to sail beyond boundaries, to experience the world from a different perspective, and to feed my budding interest in foreign languages.”
It wasn’t until the author was in her early 40s, during a tumultuous and painful time when her first marriage was in shambles, that Christine started writing. “It was a way to create, and to give voice to my feelings. I ended up writing about a woman with a common link to my past, and Anna was born. I had lived through enough and found the confidence to pick up the pen.” Anna eventually became the main protagonist in Venetian Blood.
Christine grew up on suburban Long Island, where summers meant the sun, the sea, the beach, and a town library in walking distance. She would visit the library with a friend and return home with an arm full of books.
Proud of her public-school education, Christine says she developed a love affair with foreign languages in the seventh grade. Then, at the University of Albany, she followed that passion by majoring in Spanish, minoring in German, and spending her junior year in Madrid. School vacations that year were spent traveling to different corners of Europe and Morocco. Those experiences “unveiled a new and exciting world of diverse traditions, languages, cultures and history.”
After earning a master’s degree in library science, Christine moved to California, hoping to work in the foreign book collection of a university library. Instead, finding that library jobs had been cut back, her Spanish landed her a job in international banking. A few years later, to advance in her career, she left to earn an MBA in finance at UC Berkeley.
“Time has brought clarity on what’s important. Family and friends are first, life on earth, and legacy, what I leave behind, are next. I always remember what John Keats, the English Romantic poet said: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Of course, that wasn’t true for him. But I see it as a symbol of caution: what will you do — even if it’s small — by making a difference for the future, and avoiding that fate?”
She chose to write in the mystery genre because it possesses a natural intrigue that propels readers forward, and she chose the foreign setting to add depth to the story. The bonus of that decision, Christine admits, is that it allows her to explore that chosen setting, both personally and in her imagination. “The mystery can be layered with character and complexity so that it achieves much more than a pure whodunit. I’ve spent my entire life fascinated by what’s foreign… I’m up to my eyeballs in wanderlust. I love traveling.”
Long Island, where she grew up, was not a diverse place, Christine says, and that may be the reason she wanted to escape it, to discover what was on the other side of the ocean whenever she dipped her toes into the Atlantic, or heard her grandparents speaking Italian. “I don’t know why I have this thirst. But one thing I do know: if we’d seek out different places and care enough to understand the people inhabiting them, we’d have less strife on this earth.”
Christine points out that her book started with Venice. The city and its language enchant her — and she has visited at least a dozen times. “Venice speaks of duality, of opposites. The sea is a protector and an invader, the buildings, perched above the water, have reflections, the ancient origins of the city had two masters — Byzantine and Roman… It was the perfect setting for Anna, who is the microcosm. Overly rational, repressed emotionally, she doesn’t realize that her two sides are at war. She’s also afraid of drowning — pretty terrifying in a city of water. Lastly, we have the cautionary tale I wanted to tell of a sinking city — a symbol of what rising seas will bring around the world.
“Surprising in a city of water and stone, Venetian Blood has references to more than 60 wild animals, some through Anna’s musings on their beauty and surprising feats,” the author notes. “A few even hold a key to a deeper mystery. Humans tend to get too wrapped up in their own dramas and desires, not giving much thought to nature, and taking for granted that the planet will somehow muddle through. We’ve reached the point where that’s not true anymore. I hope readers come away with more admiration and respect for wildlife in their hearts.”
Christine says receiving the award named after May Sarton is kind of like a perfect circle, as Sarton also wrote about nature and family. “I’m honored to be chosen for an award in her name. It’s a stamp of approval, particularly important for a debut novelist, and for that I’m very grateful.”
The best piece of writing advice she received, Christine mentions, was to let her characters get into impossible situations, and then not to rescue them. She says she found that hard to do in her earlier drafts, that she would let Anna escape too easily. “I was heaping all of this misery upon her, which wasn’t fair. But without that misery, she couldn’t grow, find her inner strengths and become more whole. To other writers I’d say: Reach for the heights, be fearless, and know that you are the only one who can tell your story.”
While Christine has received many awards working for a global financial institution, which has allowed her to live in Italy and England, what she is most proud of is her second-chance family. “At some point, we’re faced with the choice to either close down, or stay open to what may come our way. In 2002, seven years after my separation and subsequent divorce, I had come back from a solo vacation in Peru, convinced that solo would be a permanent feature of my future. But I ventured forth and met Steve. Marrying in 2003, with dedication we forged a strong partnership and a part-time home base for his two sons, now grown and flourishing.”
Of course, Christine is also proud of completing her first book, and finally getting it published. “Venetian Blood started almost as an impossible hope, and it’s been thrilling to see it in print. I poured everything I had into the book, revising, polishing, adding complexity, with the years rolling by. Finally, in 2017, it entered the universe of books with the help of my publisher, She Writes Press.”
Though Christine says she was a seat-of-the-pants writer for Venetian Blood, she is being more organized for her next mystery, one that takes place in the Peruvian Amazon. She has also written a children’s picture book that she hopes to get published.
“As the years clicked forward, it’s not surprising that I chose to write international mysteries, exploring unique foreign places and cultures, examining the precariousness of the earth, and touching on truths we all share. The moral of my story, I suppose, is that even a curving path can bring you to your destination.”