After 28 years as a lawyer, C.M. Surrisi says she “started to reach the point where I felt I was ready to be done with law and really, seriously write.” The result of this decision was The Maypop Kidnapping, first in a series of middle-grade mysteries. Surrisi will celebrate the book’s release on Sunday, March 6, at Malaprop’s.
But having been a lawyer all that time left the author with a few handicaps. “I had no adjectives, basically,” she says. “It’s sort of a crime to embellish the facts in a brief.”
Practicing labor and employment law gave did give her some material to work with, however. “You see a lot of family trauma,” she says. “Because the workplace is so much of people’s lives, I’d see the person who made a mistake, or the stress of a negotiation, and I always would imagine the effect that was having on the family.” The travel required of the job gave Surrisi room to write, and writing served as a release from the pressures of her work.
All along, Surrisi wrote middle-grade fiction, just as she had since she was young. “From the time I could write, I wanted to write,” she says. “I wrote volumes. I wrote a series of horrible stories about two girls who became sisters who solved mysteries — missing erasers and so on.”
Asked why she focuses on this age — Quinnie Boyd, the protagonist of The Maypop Kidnapping, is 13 — Surrisi says that time of life fascinates her. “You’re just starting the process of going from being tightly bound to a family unit to emerging as an individual,” she says. “It’s a valuable territory to read about, so you can see how other girls are doing it successfully.”
Middle-grade fiction also connects Surrisi with her own childhood. That age, she says, is when she fell in love with reading. In fact, since turning to writing as a profession, she has begun collecting many of the books she loved as a kid, including her favorite Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and a set of the soda shop-era stories of Rosamond DuJardin.
As she settled in to write The Maypop Kidnapping, which tells how Quinnie investigates the disappearance of a beloved teacher, Surrisi reached back to her childhood in another way. “I knew that when I wrote a book with some seriousness, I would set it in Maine,” she says. That’s because, in addition to being an evocative setting (“Maine is a welcoming place for mysteries”), it was the place where Surrisi’s family summered when she was growing up. Surrisi credits one year in particular — when her family stayed past the end of summer, and she saw the true life of a coastal town — with inspiring the setting and a few of The Maypop Kidnapping‘s memorable characters.
As it happened, the book had a rapid path to publication. Toward the end of Surrisi’s MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Carolrhoda books issued an open call for middle-grade mysteries with quirky characters and unusual settings. “I got several emails saying, ‘This person’s describing your book,’” the author says.
Within a few weeks of contacting Carolrhoda, Surrisi’s manuscript became her first work of fiction accepted for publication. After a full career in law, Surrisi found that she had completed her middle-grade mystery at precisely the right moment.
“A lot of it is timing and having your manuscript in front of someone when it’s the kind of thing they’re looking for,” she says. “There’s not always a way to plan for that.”
WHO: C.M. Surrisi presents The Maypop Kidnapping
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Sunday, March 6, 11 a.m. Free