Judy Tierney – Submitted photo

Congratulations, Judy, on your latest book, The Washashore Murders: A Nor’easter Island Mystery. Let’s start with that. Can you give us an overview of the book?

The Washashore Murders is a cozy mystery set on Nor’easter Island, a fictional summer resort much like our regional New England islands, including Block Island.  The book opens after Labor Day when most outsiders have returned to the mainland. Two untimely and sudden deaths raise the specter of murder, and reporter Dita Redmond investigates. Close bonds and comradery thrive in this isolated community and everyone thinks they know everyone else’s secrets. But do they really?  In the end betrayal is as common as the seagulls that fish the waters along the beaches.

The book also deals with the personal crises of its characters, in particular, the changes approaching mid-life presents, and the struggle to earn a living and hold a family together in a community where jobs are scarce after summer ends.            

What inspired you to write it?

I missed Block Island, so I invented Nor’easter Island using Block Island as a template. Steeping myself in writing  the mystery on Nor’easter Island  lifted me out of the humdrum days of the Covid quarantine.Writing a book that revolves around a puzzle was an easy choice because I am an avid mystery reader and I love to do puzzles.

When did you begin writing it and when did you end?

I had a lot of time on my hands during the Covid epidemic, so I started looking around for some online courses to take. The Writing Salon in San Francisco offered zoom classes and I signed up for some. I began with a memoir course which led to my first book, and then took several fiction courses with the writer Elaine Beale. I wrote several scenes of the book for the course, and then I spent about a year writing it. I finished last year.

Tell us about your writing process: where you write, what time of day, editing and more.

Writing for  newspapers on deadline was akin to doing ballet barre exercises for me. The barre trains you to do steps without thinking about where to put your feet when you dance. News writing  teaches you to write without worrying about how to do it. I write any time of day and any place. Editing was a nightmare for me because I tore apart my pieces until there was almost nothing left but pieces. I had to learn to use a light hand.

Did you have any writing mentors or teachers?

Yes, I had many. These are a few of the most influential ones:

First there was my father, who praised the short stories I wrote about the models in the Sears Roebuck catalogues. I used to cut them out and paste them on sheets of paper and create families who lived much more fun lives than I did.

Then there was my boss when I was a secretary at the Yale School of Nursing. Donna Diers, a nursing researcher and later the school’s Dean, was a voluminous writer of nursing articles and encouraged me to develop my intellect by auditing her research courses and writing up meetings, etc. Most important, though, she loaned me one of her Dick Francis mysteries and got me hooked on Who Done It books.

My friend Barrie Collins who was a local reporter for the New Haven Register got me started at The Bulletin, a weekly.

This was a short list. There were many others.

Your previous book was “Passing Time in Winter, Block Island Style.” Tell us about that. And I would note that many years ago, when I was a staff writer at The Providence Journal, I spent a week there in the dead of winter and wrote a magazine story so I think I can relate!

 I did love living on Block Island, but I especially loved it in the fall and winter when the air is crisp, the water turns a sapphire hue, and the sun lights the tips of the sea grass to a golden glow. And then there’s the Milky Way. There are no buildings and  in winter, few lights to block the view of the sky.  Who sees the wonder of the Milky Way in a city?

I wanted to pass down my love of these often forgotten wonders to my granddaughters so I wrote the essays in Passing Time in Winter, Block Island Style for them. I also wanted them to know about my newspaper reporting, so I wrote some essays about that.

OK, can you give us some of your background? How about starting with where you grew up and your education.

I grew up on the East side of Bridgeport, CT in a public housing project, but spent some summers in the Catskills of NY where my father tried to start a business. Though I lived mostly in a city, I came to know the freedom of being in the country as well.

I started college at the University of Connecticut but became disillusioned and dropped out my junior year to experience what I thought was the real world and worked a variety of unskilled, boring jobs. One dreary day on the cusp of winter, my husband and I heard the Mommas and the Poppas sing California Dreaming on the car radio and we decided to move to San Francisco. We bought a used VW bus, outfitted it as a camper and in 1967 we drove across the country. I still believe that to really understand the politics of the United States, you need to drive through it and experience the regions that are so different from ours, the Great Plains,  the Rocky Mountains, the Mojave desert.

Jane Goodall speaking at the University of Rhode Island several years ago

When we returned, I finished college at night at Southern CT State College while working at Yale. The University was more open to locals back then, and I spent my lunch hours getting an informal education by strolling across campus and sitting in on talks by visiting lecturers like Jane Goodall, for example, at Yale College. When YSN started a special  R.N. master’s program for college graduates, my bosses  pushed  me into it. I resisted for two years because I’ve never been nuts about what I call blood and gore, but they convinced me I would survive and I did.

The back cover of The Washashore Murders states that in “her mainland years, [you] were a clinical specialist in psychiatric-mental health and environmental activist.” Can you break that down for us?

After I graduated from YSN I worked as an outpatient psychiatric nursing clinical specialist seeing a large caseload of chronic psychiatric patients. This was not long after states began closing down the large state hospitals without providing much needed support to substitute for that care. I saw how hard people had to struggle to deal  with their everyday lives because of their illnesses and the lack of supports. Sadly, this hasn’t changed much.

We lived in a third ring suburb of New Haven at that time, mostly a farm community with a lot of forested areas, some of which were water company properties and some privately owned. As suburbia encroached, more and more of that space was disappearing, so a few of us formed a Save our Open Space group and lobbied the town to buy land for preservation. We lost an important swathe, but we managed to force a town referendum to start a fund to buy land in the future, and we won that.

How did you first get connected to Block Island? We understand that you were a long-time summer cottager and then moved there year-round.

One weekend when my husband and I were  young we camped in Point Judith and drove around the area to see what was there. We found the ferry and thought, why not. We parked and hopped on. When we arrived, we hiked up Corn Neck Road and were intoxicated by the scents of honeysuckles, rosa rugosas, and the sea air.  It was race week and when we walked into the bar at the old Ballard’s Inn it was crowded with scruffy guys who’d been sailing all day  and they were singing sea shanties. We fell in love with the island right then.  Little did we know the ferry didn’t run at night so we were stranded.  We didn’t return for many years because we never could get hotel reservations or a house rental. Our travel was always impulsive, not planned. We were extremely lucky to find and buy a house that had been foreclosed during the credit crisis of the early 1990’s that the bank wanted to ditch.

And for those who may not have heard the term, what is a “washashore”?

I was a washashore.  The term refers to people who come to an island for a visit or a job and decide to stay. They wash ashore like driftwood or seaweed. Though I first heard it from a friend on Block Island who mainly used it to refer to people she thought were low lifes, it is also used on the Cape and other coastal islands and includes anyone who comes to live from the mainland.

You also were a journalist, writing for The Block Island Times and winning a few awards. Please describe that career.

I left the nursing profession when my son was small. As a new mother in my 40’s, I found myself too tired to care for a child and patients. I always wanted to become a writer and thought maybe it was a good time to try. My friend Barrie reported for both the New Haven Register and a local weekly and she spoke to the weekly’s editor, Bridget Albert, about hiring me. I offered to volunteer my time. She “hired” me and it didn’t take long for her to start paying me. Bridget was a fierce journalist, not content to run as a weekly shopper. There were rumors surfacing that our newly renovated district high school was covered with mold that was making students and staff sick, and the board of education was busy keeping it quiet. Bridgette dove into the story with a vengeance and it was from her that I learned how to look under the covers and find the dirt.

It was at the Block Island Times, though, that I got the courage to do it. I can’t recall which editor there, Pippa Jack or Peter Voskamp, assigned me a story brought to the paper by a man who had been a victim of a man who befriended people, borrowed large sums of money from them and never repaid it.  We broke a series of stories on his scams, but I’m sorry to say his victims never recovered their loans despite winning civil court cases against him. He declared bankruptcy and continued with a new scam for some years.

Working for the BITimes was a lot of fun for me.  I covered town meetings, interviewed  fascinating people, and wrote a blog that took me into the shops that I loved. One day I was visiting a friend, and there was a crowd next door. The neighbor’s house was being auctioned off. I went over there and introduced myself, and while the auction was being set up, the owner brought me inside and told  me how he was once  a wealthy contractor with  several homes, a plane, a boat and the resources to put his children through college,but he gambled everything  away. He was a very nice person, but a total addict. After the auction, he planned to go straight to the mainland to one of the casinos with the  couple thousand dollars the auctioneers paid him to leave the cottage clean. And he did. That story won a state award.

Will you be on Block Island this summer?

Medical issues took us to the mainland, and now prevent us from returning much, but this summer we will be going in July when our son visits and we will be showing our granddaughters where their father spent his summers.

And lastly, what’s next for Judy Tierney?

I’m writing a sequel, another  murder mystery on Nor’easter Island, this time during the summer season. I’ve not written about summer yet. Unfortunately, the business of publishing and selling my book takes more time than writing one, so I have a ways to go before I finish.