If asked to describe a traditional Thanksgiving, most Americans have no trouble recalling the usual parade of turkey, football and pumpkin pie.
But on the eve of Thanksgiving 2012, one Chapel Hill mother ushered her California-based daughter into the family home with a warm hug and asked: “Play dead for me?”
And thus started a new family tradition.
Rewind to four years earlier, when Noelle Granger, professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, retired from her teaching position and started writing a mystery novel.
Granger, former assistant dean at UNC School of Medicine, binge-wrote the first in the Rhe Brewster Mystery series in just six months. Her only previous connection to fiction and gore had been as an adviser supplying the moths used in the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs.”
“Writing was just something on my bucket list. Then I wrote it and discovered, ‘Wow, I like this. Maybe I could become an author,’” she said.
“Death in a Red Canvas Chair” was published in 2013, and the follow-up, “Death in a Dacron Sail,” launched this week at Top of the Hill restaurant in Chapel Hill. In the second novel, a pregnant Rhe Brewster, the nurse and mother sleuth who drives the series, investigates a finger found in a lobster pot in Maine, and finds herself in the middle of an old mystery linked to her missing childhood friend.
Granger’s Thanksgiving guest – her daughter Cameron – is the model for the dead figure on each book cover.
Learning the writing ropes
When Granger, 70, began writing “Death in a Red Canvas Chair,” she found that she was a fledgling in the realm of crime fiction because of her 28 years spent writing academic papers and doing scientific research.
“I would rather read a mystery more than anything else, because I think it challenges you,” she said. “But I didn’t know how to write good dialogue. I didn’t know how to put a book together. I thought I was such a good writer, and I look back and was like, ‘What was I doing?’”
After finishing the first draft of “Red Canvas Chair,” Granger immersed herself in fiction writing by joining a critique group, Triangle Writer’s Group, with a network of about 600 writers. She spent four years shaping her book while searching for a publisher.
“I figured I’d put it out there and everybody would come rushing to my doorstep,” she said. “Well, that’s not the way it works anymore. There are thousands of books out there. Let’s face it, at my age, I don’t have time to sit around and wait for an agent, so I went with Createspace.”
Createspace, an Amazon company for independent publishing, made Granger not just the writer of her book, but the cover artist, the marketing department and part-time editor. She took to the Internet and blogged to get her name out.
Still playing dead
Back in 2012, during that Thanksgiving holiday when her daughter visited, Granger drove to a vacant UNC soccer field and snapped photos of her 27-year-old daughter slumped zombie-like in a red lawn chair. This past Thanksgiving, Granger’s daughter wrapped herself in a sail and laid down on the shores of Jordan Lake for a second photo shoot.
“That’s my daughter on the cover again,” Granger said of the latest book. “That’s her foot.”
Today, in addition to her duties advising medical students, Granger has started on her third book, “Death by Pumpkin,” and has ideas for a fourth. Her daughter is likely to star on the covers of those as well.
“I have a better idea now with the third book, and it’s easier now,” Granger said. “I don’t know where things are going, but it’s like after 40 years of scientific writing, the beast is out of her cage!”
Death in a Dacron Sail: A Rhe Brewster Mystery
Copper Ledge, 276 pages, $12, paperback or Kindle