Fueled by her love of reading, Suzanne Stauffer has had careers as a librarian, a professor of library science, and now as an author of historical fiction. Her debut novel, Fried Chicken Castañeda (March 2023), is the first book in her Courier series inspired by the Fred Harvey Southwestern Indian Detours that ran in New Mexico and Arizona from 1926 until the early 1940s. Look for Suzanne on her website CouriersSeries1926.com, and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter/X.
What is your elevator pitch for Fried Chicken Castañeda?
In this genre-blending historical mystery served with a large helping of romance and sprinkled liberally with food porn, librarian Prudence Bates escapes her boring middle-class life and becomes embroiled with bootlegging, murder and romance at the Hotel Castañeda in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1929.
Amazon categorizes the book as women’s crime fiction/historical fiction, as well as historical mystery, thriller and suspense fiction. Readers also call it a cozy mystery. If you didn’t have the limitations of Amazon categories, how would you characterize the book?
A journey of self-discovery wrapped in a historical culinary mystery.
How did the book come together?
The genesis was a trip to Grand Canyon five or six years ago where I saw an exhibit on the Couriers. I became engrossed in the history of the Fred Harvey company and the Southwestern Indian Detours. I started the book sometime in 2020 or 2021, but hadn’t really done much until a friend challenged me to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2021. I finished it during that month, then revised it with suggestions from friends over the next several months and finalized it sometime in 2022. I probably spent more time researching the history than I did writing the novel. I ultimately self-published it in March 2023.
Who are your main characters? What is it about Prudence that makes her a likeable and relatable protagonist?
Prudence Bates is a 25-year-old public librarian from Cleveland, Ohio. She’s had a comfortable, upper-middle class life to this point, and is bored stiff. I think most of us can remember that age, when we wanted excitement and adventure and romance before we settled down. She’s open to new experiences and new people. She can be thoughtless and tone-deaf and something of a snob, but she’s always willing to admit when she is wrong. She also lets her imagination run away with her. As with many librarians, she’s an observer and a bit of a pedant. In some ways, she’s a cipher. This is her journey of self-discovery.
Why is New Mexico the perfect setting for the book? How does the time period of the book impact the story and the characters?
Prudence has gone west to train as a “courier” for the Fred Harvey Southwestern Indian Detours, which ran from 1926 to the early 1940s. Just as Fred Harvey hired young women to work as waitresses in the Harvey Houses, the corporation hired young women to serve as guides for their automobile tours of the Southwest. The training took place at the La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is inspired by courier Anita Rose’s promotional visit to Cleveland in 1929 and spends a week in Las Vegas, New Mexico in this book, expecting to learn everything there is to know about life in the Southwest. At the end of the week, she embarks on the three-day Las Vegas to Albuquerque Detour. Prohibition and bootlegging also play a role, and Las Vegas at that time was a hotbed of criminal activity.
During this time period, women had more freedoms than they had to that point. They had achieved the vote, they had access to fairly reliable contraception and to a college education, and they were entering the workforce in large numbers. It’s the period of the “New Woman.”
Tell us a few of the more interesting facts you discovered about the Fred Harvey couriers and the Southwestern Indian Detours.
They probably served as the model for the airline stewardesses who would come along a decade or so later. They had an identifiable uniform, they went through a rigorous six-week training program which covered geology, geography, history, anthropology, art, etc., and they were responsible for every aspect of the experience, including booking hotel rooms, paying for included meals, and assisting the driver (always a man) with car repairs, as well as the health and safety of the Detourists.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
This is going to sound silly, but I’m still excited at having discovered two books of paper dolls published around 2000, one of the Harvey Girls and one of the Couriers. They were created by Leslie Poling-Kempes, who wrote the definitive work on the Harvey Girls. Both books include entries from the diary of a (fictional) Harvey Girl. I referred to them for clothing ideas, in particular. I feel like a kid again when I page through them (they will NEVER be cut!).
Why did you chose Fried Chicken Castañeda as the title of the book?
Prudence stays at the Castañeda during the week that she’s in Las Vegas, and that was the signature dish of the Hotel Castañeda. I’ve included an updated recipe for it in an appendix.
How did your careers as a librarian and a professor of library science benefit your fiction writing?
I think it worked the other way. I became a librarian because I have always been an avid reader. My area of research as an academic is American library history, so I’ve learned a lot about how to research history.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Well, as an academic, I am a writer, but of non-fiction that no one reads except my students when I assign it. As for fiction, I suppose I always have. I remember writing (bad) poems when I was in elementary school. I won a short story contest in junior high school and took creative writing in college. I belonged to a writing group when I was working as a librarian in New York, and I wrote quite a bit of fan fiction when I was a doctoral student, but I never seriously considered it as a career, because it’s so difficult to break into.
What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received on your writing journey?
To follow your own voice and to be willing to listen to advice and criticism. That applies to nonfiction and fiction alike.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on the second volume of the Courier series. In this one, Prudence goes on the three-day Las Vegas to Albuquerque detour. They spend two nights at the La Fonda and the final night at the Alvarado (of blessed memory).
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
The Fred Harvey History Weekend, a fund raiser for the New Mexico History Museum, takes place every October at the La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe. It’s being held October 27-30 this year, and I’ll be there!
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.