Saturday, August 21, 2021

Erica Obey Interview: A Mystery in Woodstock

The New York town of Woodstock proves a perfect setting for the historical mystery Dazzle Paint, written by Erica Obey, a longtime resident. While many people think of the 1969 rock festival when you say "Woodstock," it's a place with a fascinating history that stretches much further back. There's mystery and magic in Woodstock, evocatively captured by Obey in her fifth novel.

Erica Obey

In its glowing review, Publishers Weekly described Dazzle Paint as a "sprightly paranormal mystery"  with a plot set in 1919 "that involve Communists, Kaiser Wilhelm, Lord Kitchener, Masons, anti-Semites, artists, trade unionists, and all manner of 'bogies, bogles, boggarts, abbey lubbers and buttery spirits.' ” It seems clear that Obey's background--she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught courses on Arthurian romance, fantasy and mystery fiction at various colleges, including Fordham--plays a role in crafting her novel. Also of note: She is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

The story of Dazzle Paint: Gavin Fellowes, a damaged WWI veteran turned cynical psychic investigator, arrives in Ker-Ys, a Utopian art colony in Woodstock, NY, to investigate a series of purported fairy kidnappings of Communist garment workers who have taken over the failed Overlook Mountain House above the village. He is rapidly confronted with the willful blind spots of the well-meaning artists and the burgeoning anti-Semitism of the Catskills. With the help of Kate Ames, an illustrator and dazzlepaint designer who once might have been kidnapped by the fairies herself, Gavin must dig beneath the myth and legend to uncover an all-too-real occult threat that looms over Europe in the aftermath of the Great War.

Dazzle Paint

I caught up with Obey to ask her about Dazzle Paint and its inspirations.

Nancy Bilyeau: How much of a role did living in Woodstock play in the creation of the plot in 'Dazzle Paint' and when did its various elements come to you? 

Erica Obey: Oh, I think everything! I’ve been living up here for twenty years, but it hardly took that long to realize that you can’t live in these woods without feeling the voices of those that came before you. The colony where I live, Byrdcliffe, is truly a special place, which nurtured not only Bob Dylan but also artists as diverse as Sara Teasdale and Isadora Duncan.

On the porch of "White Pines" at Byrdcliffe. The arts colony was founded in 1902
 and is still offering residencies to artists and writers.

NB: Why did you pick the year you did to set the story in, and do you think the effect of World War One on America is at all misrepresented in our culture?

EO: The aftermath of WWI crystallized attitudes and issues that we are still grappling with today. As I’m sure indigenous Americans find ironic, nativism has always been part of the American psyche, dating back to Astor Place riot of 1849, which was over rival English and American actors performing Macbeth.  However, the massive immigrant influx in the wake of WWI and the Russian Revolution irrevocably coupled immigrants with criminality and Communism.

 NB: How did you research the religious and class tensions that existed in the Hudson Valley in the 1910s and 1920s?

 EO: We are lucky to have a great historical society with extensive archives here in Woodstock as well as many residents whose family roots run very deep in this community. In fact, I lived in terror of a long-time resident reading a detail and crying, “WRONG!” I had a great deal of support from the Historical Society of Woodstock’s archivist, JoAnn Margolis, as well as Richard Heppner, the Town Historian, and Fern Malkine-Falvey, who fact-checked the book for me. I’m sure there remain many errors, but they are entirely my own.

Arists at work on the town's Green.

NB: Is the character of Kate Ames based on a real person? What inspired her?

 EO: Kate and Melisandre’s origins lie in two pairs of girls who captivated the turn-of-the-century imagination, only to be later exposed as hoaxes. The Fox sisters were adolescent spiritualists famed for their table rapping. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated the Cottingley Fairy Hoax, which convinced even such an arch-rationalist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have always been fascinated by the question of whether these girls believed in what they were doing or whether they were the victims of cynical adult manipulation. (Or both. It’s obviously not an either/or question.)

 NB: What about Gavin Fellowes? What was his genesis?

 EO: There’s a lot of me in Kate – in particular her reticence. However, because she is so self-contained, I wanted a second narrator whose rational brain is at odds with his emotional/mystical one. The book is intended to be poised between two explanations and I would hope Gavin’s epistemological uncertainty would echo the reader’s.

NB: How closely are the arts and political groups in your novel to the real groups that came to Woodstock in the early 20th century?

 EO: With the exception of the Byrdcliffe Colony, which I fictionalized as Ker-Ys, all the groups and locations in the novel are carefully researched and historically accurate. The American Communist Party did hold a summit at the Overlook Hotel in 1920, and it was this, not the later beatniks and hippies, that put Woodstock on Hoover’s watchlist. I did deliberately fictionalize Byrdcliffe because its past sins are at once more venial and far worse. In particular, the Whiteheads’ anti-Semitism is appalling and undeniable. On the other hand, the more criminal behaviors I invented for Ker-Ys never took place.

 NB: Can you explain the term "dazzle paint" and its importance in the early 20th century?

 EO: Dazzlepaint is one of the most sophisticated forms of camouflage ever invented. Attempts to conceal or disguise troops and weapons are nothing new; think of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Somewhat less successful attempts include a rather ambitious plan to disguise horses as cows and haystacks to avoid aerial surveillance during WWI. But while rowboats and small crafts could be easily disguised as logs or outcroppings along the shore, it was impossible to use this approach to protect Allied ships from the threat of Germany’s U-Boats on the open sea. Not that people didn’t try: the first attempt to disguise a battleship as a floating island was so top-heavy, the camouflage fell off before the ship even left the harbor. In contrast, dazzlepaint doesn’t try to hide the fact you’re seeing a ship; its jagged lines and awkward angles are instead meant to confuse your perception of the vessel’s direction, speed, and size, so that it is impossible to accurately aim a weapon at it. Modern technology has reduced dazzlepaint to nothing but an elegant artifact, but it remains a tribute to the artistic power of misdirection (which in my mind is a central theme of this book).

NB: Do you think there is a magical element to this part of the Hudson Valley that feeds your fiction and also feeds some of the artistic and political groups that have been drawn here?

EO: It’s very easy if you live in the Hudson Valley. Folklore and mythology are part of the air we breathe. The tradition of legends and hauntings stretches from Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow all the way to the twentieth-century Pine Grove UFO sightings. There are plenty of jokes about LSD in the water in Woodstock, but many of my neighbors would agree that there is a sense the boundaries between worlds have been lowered up here.

 NB: How close is 2021 Woodstock to the popular stereotype of the town? In other words: what is it with tie-dye?!

 EO: Despite its Bohemian reputation, Woodstock has always been a small town, where everyone knows everyone and families have roots (and feuds) going back centuries. The change over the last year has been seismic, with the Hudson Valley becoming one of the hottest property grabs in the country, and a lot of the long-time locals are (justifiably) feeling pushed out by affluent newcomers who have caused housing prices to skyrocket. 

The radical Maverick Festival in Hurley was founded in 1915

Novelist and poet Hervey White, Maverick's founder, 

Traditionally, Woodstock has always been a combination of liberal and conservative, united by a stubborn individualism and a constitutional resistance to being told what to do. So the same impulse that drove Dylan to create some of the most iconic protest music in history also drives the bikers and hunters with their “Live Free or Die” bumper stickers.

NB: In our time, "conspiracy theory" is a dirty word (or phrase). Do you have a view of conspiracies in history that surface in popular culture and how we can think of them differently?

 EO: There have always been conspiracy theories and secret doctrines, going back far before the Eleusinian Mysteries. They flourished in the 19th century, when amateur antiquarianism was replaced by professional historiography, especially among the (entirely male) Edinburgh school of rationalists. But WWI was a hotbed of very real conspiracy theories, beginning with the Zimmerman telegram, which finally drew the United States into the war. It is well-documented how British Intelligence sought a way of conveying the telegram’s information to the United States without betraying that they had cracked the Axis codes. Despite the admittedly horrible uses conspiracy theories have been forced to serve, I would argue they have always had an anti-authoritarian, anti-rational bent that articulates the concerns of marginalized thinkers.

 NB: Do you have advice for other authors who want to research an area for bits of history that can be woven into popular fiction?

 EO: Every historical novelist has to find their own ways of engaging with the past. For me, it’s two very different sources: Landscape and archives. I love ruins and old buildings and happily, the Hudson Valley is replete with both. I love driving through old towns with either abandoned or repurposed architecture and trying to envision the lives of those who originally occupied those buildings.

 I’m also an archive junkie. Archives are a priceless resource.  I could cite a variety of examples, but I’d like to shout out to Miss Stone, the Woodstock Social Studies teacher who assigned her 7th-grade students the task of creating an oral history of Woodstock life. The assignment dates back as far as 1963, but the carefully hand-written copies remain in the archives of the Historical Society of Woodstock to this day (in FAR better penmanship than my own. Grammar and spelling counted too.)

 NB: What's next for you? Will there be another book with these characters?

 EO: I’m moving on to a contemporary Hudson Valley series, featuring a female programmer and the AI bot she taught to write (and solve) mysteries. Each book is a classic traditional mystery, and the entire series is a love letter to all the Golden Age mysteries I read growing up – as well as the small-town way of life that is rapidly vanishing from the Hudson Valley.


Dazzle Paint can be ordered through the bookstore The Golden Notebook and