An Interview with Antiques Expert Emyl Jenkins, Author of “Stealing With Style”

Emyl Jenkins already had a successful career as an antiques appraiser and nonfiction author when she tried her hand at fiction four years ago. “It’s a big leap,” Jenkins told me in a June 2005 interview for Metro Magazine, “and I was afraid to do it, I was afraid I’d fail. But finally I decided I didn’t want to go to my grave saying I wish I had.” Readers, in turn, were glad she made that leap. That first novel, Stealing with Style, introduced antiques appraiser and amateur sleuth Sterling Glass and quickly caught the attention not only of regular followers of Jenkins’ antiques books and columns but also of mystery readers and critics. The New York Times, for example, called the book “a highly entertaining tale of thieving, mystery, and fraud” and ultimately deemed it “delightful.” 

This month, Algonquin Books releases the second novel of the series, The Big Steal, in which Glass is hired by an insurance company to appraise items stolen and damaged during a burglary at Wynderly, a manor-house-turned-museum in the Virginia horse country. But what Glass discovers is a bigger mess: an estate near financial ruin, a curator in over her head, a bickering set of board members, and a family history filled with secrets and lies and a hint of scandal.

Jenkins’ tour for the new book kicks off this Friday, June 26, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C. and continues over the next month at venues throughout North Carolina and Virginia, where the author currently lives. Stops include Sunday, June 28, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, near Pittsboro, NC; Saturday, July 11, at the Barboursville Vineyards in Barboursville, VA; and Tuesday, July 14, at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, among other locations. (Check Jenkins’ website for a complete schedule.)

On the eve of her promotional tour, Jenkins and I spoke by email about The Big Steal, second novels, the antiques world, and more. As always, she proved gracious, witty and insightful.

Art Taylor: Stealing with Style was your first foray into fiction writing, and when we talked about that book, you admitted some trepidation about making that move. Did The Big Steal prove easier to write or did you find new challenges with the second novel?

Emyl Jenkins: Readers who are used to reading novels by a host of other writers look forward to a new book every few months. But you see, I didn’t expect Stealing with Style to be as successful as it was. When I’d give talks and do book signings, readers, in their generous and complimentary way, would say, “So tell me, Emyl, is your next book going to be as good as this one?” Well, that raised the bar and fear struck my heart.

Was this writer’s block, or did I just not want to let anyone down? I don’t know. But once I actually started telling Sterling Glass’s story, the writing didn’t take that long. And I’ve taken comfort in hearing other writers say that writing the second book was the hardest thing they’ve done. (Maybe we should write the second one first!) Now, to my delight, many readers and reviewers are saying they like The Big Steal even more than Stealing with Style, so hopefully those worries are behind me.

Southern tradition is important to many of the characters here, though each character has his or her own perspective on that. one of the original owners of Wynderly manor, the late Mazie Wyndfield, is quoted as saying that “I was raised to live by the rule of pride, property, and then — only then — people.” How do you see Sterling herself standing as a connection to tradition on the one hand and to new rules, new values on the other? and what did you discover about Sterling this time out that you didn’t know with the first book?

Yes, Southern tradition is a huge part of the book, as it has been in my life and you’re exactly right, Sterling bridges the years between the attitudes of the past and present generations.

Mazie’s take on life came from her very early 20th-century Louisiana upbringing — the 1910s and ‘20s. Chivalry and duty were part of her tradition. On the other hand, Sterling, who is in her fifties, is very much a woman of today. Yet, being the age she is, she is familiar with the views and standards of an earlier era. Though the line isn’t in the book, I’m quite sure that Sterling might have heard her mother say, “The new morality is nothing but the old immorality.” In other words, had she been faced with the same choices as Mazie, Sterling might have acted quite differently, but because Sterling respects tradition, she understands why Mazie did what she did.

This also goes to your question about what I learned about Sterling this go-round that I didn’t know about her when writing Stealing with Style. In The Big Steal, Sterling connects more deeply with the people around her. I saw how she responded to the people in the rural, yet sophisticated and steeped-in-tradition horse county of Virginia. Antiques and the mystery surrounding them continue to be at the heart of the story, but Sterling is more concerned with learning why people act the way they do. Ultimately the people she meets in The Big Steal — Mazie, Michelle, Miss Mary Sophie, and of course the indomitable Tracy — help Sterling to look more clearly into her own life to learn more about herself.

Both Ellen Glasgow and Edith Wharton are mentioned and even quoted in your novel. To what degree do you see yourself as writing novels of manners and of society as well as traditional mysteries?

Actually, in the opening of Stealing with Style, when Sterling says, “Invite me over to see your things one day and after about thirty seconds I’ll know all about you,” I set the scene for what is to come in all of Sterling Glass’s adventures — an observation of people in their surroundings, be they modern, antique, eclectic, whatever.

My whole life I’ve been fascinated by how people express themselves through their furnishings — the styles they like, the pictures they hang on their walls, how they live in their homes. We know that how people act mirrors their character and beliefs, but perhaps more subtly, how people decorate their homes and their private sanctuaries tells us just as much. Maybe more.

Along these lines, I’ve always loved books that used “things” to explain something about a character. Of course the best-known such scene is Miss Haversham’s dining room, still set for the wedding that never transpired, in Dickens’s Great Expectations. So whenever I see a character in my mind’s eye, I look for more than just the character’s physical appearance. I see him in his living room or den, or even standing outside his house. That’s how Sterling first sees Mazie and Hoyt. In an old photograph they are a handsome couple, holding hands in front of their home, Wynderly. What did Sterling observe? “Though scaffolding was still in place and muddy earth was mounded high around its [Wynderly’s] foundation, I could almost feel their love for the place.” Places and things are very important in my books.

On the subject of genres, I couldn’t help but laugh at one character’s comment, “But what’s a mystery without a dead body? It takes a corpse to get the action started, to get to the truth or, if not a corpse, a scandal.” This story offers the potential for scandal aplenty, but you’ve avoided the traditional emphasis on murder as the core of the mystery novel. Why?

Who wouldn’t be flattered to be put in the same genre with the great mystery writers? Everyone from Poe to Michael Connelly to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh? But in truth, when I began writing Stealing with Style, I had no idea I was writing a mystery. I was doing what writers have always done — I was telling a story.

Like so many young girls, I loved Nancy Drew. In fact, when I was about twelve I wrote in my diary that my dream was to be an F.B.I. agent. Imagine! And a little paperback that I literally wore out one summer when I was ten or eleven had a title something like, A Mystery A Minute, or 100 Minute Mysteries. These were simple stories, puzzles really. There were few if any dead bodies, and no blood and guts.

In my adulthood I discovered P.D. James, and though learning whodunit was exciting, it was the characters, the setting, and the writing that kept me turning the pages. So you can imagine how delighted I was to come upon James’s address delivered to the Jane Austen Society, “Emma Considered as a Detective Story” at the end of her autobiography, Time to be in Earnest. In it, James discusses how clues, missteps, deceptions, and misinterpretations throughout Emma explore the story’s interlocking relationships, or in other words, set up the “mystery” that Austen solves in Emma. (I can’t help wondering if it’s a coincidence that Dalgliesh’s love interest is Emma.) It’s a wonderful essay and goes to something I say quite often: You want a mystery? Life’s a mystery.

Greed fascinates me. It’s everywhere in every conceivable form. Murder, on the other hand, in real life, happens only seldom. Look at your own street, your own neighborhood. How many murders/murderers have you encountered? But greed? As Sterling says, “Greed lurks behind every door on every street in every town. I’ve seen it almost daily when doing appraisals for the rich, the very, very rich, the wannabe rich, and sometimes just nice, simple people who have watched Antiques Roadshow one time too many.”

I love a good whodunit, but I also love a whydunit?

Sterling is an antiques appraiser and here she’s working for an insurance company to investigate a theft; as an antiques appraiser yourself, you’ve also worked for insurance companies to investigate theft. I won’t ask about the parallels between you and Sterling or whether these stories are inspired by true events, but I am interested in how accurately the whole process is presented here — whether real-life antiques appraisal truly does offer the possibility for intrigue that Sterling stumbles into and the range of personalities that populate these pages.

Well Art, you’re the first person who hasn’t asked me about the parallels between Sterling and me and if these stories are inspired by true events. Maybe the answer to that question is hidden here, though. Yes, a real-life antiques appraiser has untold opportunities to be caught up in intrigue and even danger. In the antiques trade, dealers and auctioneers say that they’re in business thanks to the three “Ds” — death, debt, and divorce. Today’s headlines are filled with families battling over “things” — be they houses, antiques, art, jewels, whatever. In my appraisal days, I worked for insurance companies (some claims were scams), attorneys (divorce and death can be most revealing), and law agencies (you’d be amazed how many crimes are motivated by greed). Even in what some would think is a “ladylike” profession, you quickly learn that truth can be stranger than fiction. But fiction can be more fun than the truth and have fewer dire consequences. That’s why I’m having a ball telling Sterling Glass’s adventures.

Finally, the inevitable question: A second book makes the Sterling Glass series a true series! Is there a third book in the works now?

You bet ya! Another book is in the works, and this time I’m following Sterling’s adventures through the alleys, cemeteries, old houses and stately mansions, and other haunts in Richmond, Virginia. And after that, there’s more to come!

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