Middleton author Kathleen Ernst has had a prolific career, including books of nonfiction; historical fiction for young readers; and her popular Wisconsin-based Chloe Ellefson mystery series.
This month brings the publication of her 40th book, which happens to be one of poetry: “Balancing: Poems of the Female Immigrant Experience in the Upper Midwest, 1830-1930.” But that’s not all that’s been keeping Ernst busy this year. Her 11th Chloe Ellefson mystery “The Weaver’s Revenge” came out in May and she has started a new Wisconsin-based historical fiction series featuring character Hanneke Bauer, with the first book, “Lies of Omission,” out in November.
Q: The Chloe Ellefson series centers around Chloe — a curator at Old World Wisconsin — and her police officer boyfriend, Roelke McKenna. The books tend to find each dealing with internal, personal struggles along with jointly solving a mystery. What are the two up to in “The Weaver’s Revenge?”
A: As I planned the series I decided early on that Chloe and Roelke would grow and change as individuals and as a couple with each book. When I consider a location and the stories that setting can tell, I time using that location so the story can reflect what’s going on in the characters’ personal lives. In the most recent book, they are newly married and marriage becomes an underlying theme within the story. They are happy, but Chloe in particular realizes that she needs to figure out what this new reality means. The book takes place at the Hanka Homestead Finnish Museum in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some of the homestead’s stories touch on various choices people made about marriage. I hope that provides a mirror to help tie the historical plot line with Chloe’s inner journey.
Q: What made you feature weaving?
A: I learned to weave while employed at Old World Wisconsin. Finnish immigrants have an unbroken rug-weaving tradition and are known for the quality of their rugs. Although rag rugs are practical items, I wanted to shed a bit of lamp light on the social and emotional aspects of making them. Rag rugs might be easily dismissed as purely utilitarian, but as I researched this book, I realized that in many ways, creating rag rugs helped weavers survive incredibly difficult times. Some of it was financial; for a woman who was struggling to put food on the table, earning a little extra money selling rugs was huge. Also, oral histories indicate that for some weavers, the only place they could escape their troubles was at the loom. Some enjoyed working with color during long winters. Others commented that pounding a loom’s beater bar was their only outlet when they were upset or angry. There was so much more to weaving rag rugs than functionality. That’s what I really wanted to highlight.
Q: Research is always such a big part of your books. What and how did you research this latest installment?
A: I did make several trips to Michigan, where the book is set, although Covid did limit my travel. Fortunately, these are long projects and I started thinking about “The Weaver’s Revenge,” and delving into research, a couple years in advance. With long-distance help from curators and historians, I was able to do what I needed to do.
Q: I know you’ve started another mystery series, does this mean an end to Chloe Ellefson stories?
A: Absolutely not! I love the Chloe series, and the project is very personal to me. I’m passionate about the places and topics that I explore in the stories. Although Chloe and I are two different people, we have a lot in common. Each book is set in a new location, and features a new museum or historic site. That keeps the series fresh.
Q: I saw on your website that you have a new publisher that will be reprinting your books — why the change? Will there be new covers?
A: The publisher I had been working with for the first 10 Chloe Ellefson books closed its doors. Happily, I was able to find a new home with HenschelHAUS in Milwaukee. When the backlist is reprinted they will keep their original covers … and the cover for the newest book blends seamlessly.
Q: You have said that your book of poetry “Balancing: Poems of the Female Immigrant Experience in the Upper Midwest, 1830-1930” was inspired by reading diaries, memoirs and letters written by Wisconsin’s early Yankee and European women for 40 years. You’ve written poetry before, but is this your first book?
A: I’ve published individual poems in a variety of places, but this is my first collection. People often ask why I so often focus on immigrant stories. One reason is that I find immigrant stories endlessly inspiring. It was (and is) such a … daunting experience. Not every story has a happy ending, but all-in-all, people put their heads down and did what they needed to do. In the middle of the pandemic I needed … a special, positive project that might help inspire other people, too. I’ve been working on the collection for about 20 years, so it only needed some fine-tuning. The book came together pretty quickly.
Q: I know it’s hard to describe poetry, but how do you describe your poems?
A: In each poem I hope to provide a glimpse into a pivotal moment in a woman’s life. The poems were inspired by first-person accounts that stuck with me about a poignant choice a woman had to make, or something new she learned. I hope that readers come away with a little more insight into the struggles and joys women found on their journey to a new home.
Q: Were you writing both books simultaneously?
A: I was writing simultaneously. I always have juggled projects. For many years I wrote adult books and children’s books at the same time. Since a novel is such a big project, working on a poem in the evening is a pleasant change of pace. I can create or fine-tune a poem in a short period of time. I find that balance very satisfying.
Q: Also exciting is your new series featuring the character Hanneke Bauer. What can you tell us about it and “Lies of Omission” out in November?
A: After I finished the first Chloe Ellefson mystery and I gave it to my agent, I needed a new project. I’d always wanted to write a historical mystery series, and got halfway through “Lies of Omission” before the Chloe series sold, and I had to set it aside. During the recent break while I was looking for a new Chloe publisher, I dusted off the historical and discovered I was just as excited about the project as I was 12 years ago. The main character, Hanneke Bauer, is a Pomeranian woman who immigrated to Wisconsin in 1855. She quickly gets caught up in a murder investigation of great personal importance. Choosing 1855 allowed me to explore a volatile time of rising anti-immigration sentiment. There was a lot of concern in some Wisconsin communities about the influx of German immigrants, which led to social and political upheaval. The timing felt very right for this book.
Q: What is next for you?
A: My publisher for “Lies of Omission” gave me a three-book contract, so I’m also working on the second Hanneke Bauer mystery. I am also working on the 12th Chloe Ellefson mystery, which will feature a new setting and ethnic group. One of my original goals for this series was to help introduce special historic places to readers who might not be familiar with them, and I’m doing more book-based travel. In August I’m holding a special event for readers at the Hanka Homestead, and in 2021 I’m leading a trip to Norway that is based on the 10th Chloe Ellefson mystery, “Fiddling with Fate.”