Jane Thornley is a colourful author – quite literally. She’s a knitter, art-to-wear designer, world traveler and the author of the Crime by Design mystery series. You’ll see the passion she has for the visual arts below if you have a look at her book covers. They are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, which is one reason I wanted to talk to Jane.
Based in Halifax, Canada, Jane and her husband are able to indulge their love of travel and history, and Jane incorporates much of what she sees and learns in her Phoebe McCabe mystery novels. One of my favorite things about hosting this podcast is that I learn something from each guest. This interview is no exception; Jane helped me understand a bit of the importance in the history of the fabric arts.
You can also watch the interview on YouTube, if you prefer. (If you do, you’ll see an example of Jane’s AMAZING knitting.)
Transcription of Interview with Jane Thornley
Alexandra: Hello, Mystery Readers. I’m Alexandra Amor and this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m here today with Jane Thornley. Hi, Jane.
Jane: Hi, and hi, Mystery Readers everywhere.
Alexandra: That’s right. You’re in Halifax. I’m in Vancouver. I feel like we’re kind of waving across the country at one another.
Jane: We’re bookends.
Alexandra: We’re bookends, exactly. Let me introduce our listeners to you. Once upon a time, Jane Thornley explored many roles, librarian, teacher, designer, school administrator, software consultant, but writer has always been her default self. She began writing stories in elementary school and completed four novels before graduating public education. I’ll have to ask you about that. But that was just a warm-up. She loves to play her life out in color, adventure, travel, and creativity. Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, she continues as an art-to-wear knitwear designer, an impassioned traveler, while weaving her stories against a colorful international backdrop so vibrant, readers constantly remark on it in her reviews. That’s such a nice thing to have that kind of positive feedback from our readers, isn’t it?
Alexandra: Exactly, yes. I was saying before we got on the call, I love your colorful background there and you mentioned that it’s all your knitting.
Jane: It is. I have knit since I was about 23. This is a Koi pond by the way. You can see the fish. I have art-to-wear knitters club where we really go outside the box and knit of the grid. This is an example of an upcoming design.
Alexandra: Just beautiful.
Jane: I literally have fiber hanging everywhere in my house, fiber and books and technology.
Alexandra: Your three favorite things.
Jane: And travel. Those are my three favorite things.
Alexandra: Great. Let’s talk about “Crime by Design” books because I was just so intrigued by this concept and wanted to talk to you about it.
Your main character is a woman named Phoebe McCabe. I love that you described her family in one of your descriptions as black market entrepreneurs. I thought that was fantastic. So tell us a bit about Phoebe.
Jane: Phoebe is a Nova Scotian girl, woman actually. She started of wanting to play a very legal life. In other words she was going to law school and she was trying to quelch her creative side…there’s obviously some similarities between that character and myself but we’re not totally alike…and go into law, but she found out that her family was actually quite involved in black market. First, her father because he found himself entangled with some of the interesting things that are sunken around Nova Scotia.
Then later, her brother, and it went on and on until she found out in fact…and I have one of my lines in my upcoming or my latest book is, “For Phoebe, crime is immaterial.” Because in fact, she can’t get away from it. It’s all relative. She’s involved and she’s still trying to do the right thing, though there’s a very strong textile stream through it because she’s a knitter and she eventually ends up working as a gallery owner in London. She is constantly running into people trying to steal artifacts and it’s just because where family connections where she’s always been put in this unusual situation.
So she has quite a few rides. It’s taken her to Turkey in “Warp in the Weave.” She ends up in Turkey and there’s quite involved exploration of culture and textiles in Turkey while she’s being chased by black market thieves. Then she ends up, in the latest book, “Beautiful Survivor,” in Italy. So it’s evolving throughout textiles, artifacts, color design, travel, adventure, and romance. Can’t leave out romance.
Alexandra: No, of course not.
Jane: I like to think of her as embracing the full gamut of what a woman either experiences or would like to experience because let’s face it, I write to entertain. This is to help you go away from your armchair and take a wild ride, places you haven’t been, experiences you may not have had. My writing is very visual.
Alexandra: Yes, right, which is something your reviews mention quite often.
It’s the visual element of everything. I imagine that so you must be a very visual person if you’re so interested in weaving, and knitting, and textiles yourself, and color.
Jane: I am, I’m very visual. In fact, when I am writing a scene, I’m seeing it. It’s like a movie for me. And it becomes such a reality in some senses that some of my reviewers have sent me messages and said, “I think we should get that actress to play this. I think this should be Foxy. I think this should be Phoebe.” They really are getting into it and that’s kind of fun.
Alexandra: That’s the best kind of response you can have to a book. That’s fantastic.
You mentioned Foxy, so tell us a bit about him. Sir Rupert Fox is the character, and is he kind of her sidekick, would you say?
Jane: He is kind of her sidekick. So many authors have said this and we can’t quite understand how it happens, but a character that we mean to be only a sideline bit player walks on to our stage and takes over, and that’s what happened with Foxy. I just love this character. He’s very complex. He really is a composite of people I have known. He just came alive on a page one day and then everybody said, “Can you bring back Foxy?” At the end of “Warp in the Weave,” everybody wanted him back. He came back in a big way in “Beautiful Survivor” and he will continue to play a major role in the series because he’s very popular.
Alexandra: I saw in one of the descriptions that he starts out in the first book as her Wednesday afternoon knitting companion I think.
Jane: It evolves after “Warp in the Weave” that they develop a friendship, a very unusual friendship. Both of them are knitters. Foxy is of the argyle sock, the manly kind of accessories, but as we know in the British Isles in particular, knitting is a very manly occupation. It’s thankfully popular ideas about what men and women should do has changed enormously over the decades. But for Foxy, he’s an interesting character. He takes his knitting very seriously, whereas Phoebe is more relaxed, sort of the creative, “I’ll just let it go the way I want it to go.” Whereas with Foxy, there’s a definite right way of doing things and a wrong way of doing things and one must follow the pattern.
So this dynamic goes between them which is actually kind of plays out in how they interrelate in the books. Foxy is quite a strategic planner and he’s also fabulously wealthy because, of course, he’s been dealing in the black market so he’s got influx of money coming under the table which helps to prop up his estate in the country and his house in Eaton Square and all of that. So he has been able to indulge his British eccentricity rather well.
And Phoebe, who is a fisherman’s daughter, is proud to be, if not poor, at least humble, and a little wary of anyone who was born into wealth. And her godfather, who she is a partner with in her London gallery, is also…he used to be in a black market too, and he used to be friends with Foxy. He is quite a different folk all together because he’s more of the brash Australian type so quite a few sparks fly there.
Alexandra: Nice, that’s great.
In the first book, I think…and maybe in more than one, she’s looking for her brother who is missing. Is that correct?
Jane: That’s right, that’s correct. In the first one, she’s looking for her brother, Toby. Toby turns out to…he’s a very talented fellow. I don’t want to give away the story but the way it evolved or how he got into the black market is explained in the first book. Once you’re in it and once you’ve created a crime or you’ve done a crime, of course, you are there. Unless you want to turn yourself in, you got to live with it. And so this is where her family or crime family seem to continually draw her in because, of course, everyone believes that she must also be a player in the black market when she’s trying desperately to play it clean in a dirty world.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. You mentioned you like travel and so Phoebe’s traveled a little bit.
Have you been to all the locations that Phoebe has been to?
Jane: I have. I’m a passionate traveler. In fact, the trip to Italy was partly research for a “Beautiful Survivor.” Next year, I’m going to England to get some more details for the fourth book, and then I’m going to Australia to get details for the fifth book. And the travel, I really want the locations, the exotic locals to be so vivid for people that they really feel like they’ve been there, and they said that that’s exactly how they feel. They feel like they have been to these places and experienced what the character has experience. And I love hearing that because that’s what I want to do. I want to take everybody with me. I want them to see what it’s like to be in an underground city in Cappadocia in Turkey, and maybe see what it’s like to be trapped in an underground city in Capp…all of that. You could have a safe adventure and experience it along with me. But I have traveled and I just can’t stop traveling really. I love it. I like a foot in my home world and I like to escape whenever I can.
Alexandra: It must be so great to merge so many interests from your life, the textiles, the knitting, the weaving, the travel, and writing, all kind of combined into one project.
Jane: It is. I’ve always written. I started writing stories when I was a child and then the knitting came later, but I always painted. I always had watercolors going. It’s only in the past decade. I feel like I’m weaving. I really feel like I’m weaving these elements together. There is a true textile symbolism through everything I do because it is very much like weaving as you know yourself, when you’re putting thoughts together. When you’re putting a life together, it’s a same sort of thing. You want the bright notes, and then you want the more serious foundation. You want to have a balance of everything so that’s what I’ve aspired to so it feels like I’m reaching my stride now.
It’s very, very fun to go to a place like Italy and look over a stunningly dizzying spot and then try to figure…I didn’t end up using this particular plotline. But at the time, I looked at my husband and I said, “How can we drive a Maserati of the end of this bridge?” There are people standing around, and they’re looking at me, and stop…we thought…actually, most of them didn’t speak English but we realized there was a couple of ladies standing and looking at us. “Can we get around that particular block?” Says, “No, no, no.” He said, “You have to be going pretty fast to smash a car.” And we’re having this conversation. In the end, I didn’t do it that way but I mean this is kind of thing that unravels when you’re traveling and writing a novel as you go.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. I’m assuming you’re a mystery fan yourself. You like reading mystery books.
Jane: I am.
Alexandra: And so did you have any question in your mind about…I think it’s so unique that Phoebe is a textile artist and that there’s this theme of knitting and weaving in the books. I mean that’s not certainly something that you see every single day.
So as a writer, did you ever think to yourself, “I don’t know if this will fly”?
Jane: No, I never did because simultaneously to that, I have a business, the art-to-wear business that I mentioned, and I have a number of people who actually sign up to a subscription for that and I give patterns and ideas and inspiration. I’ve been doing this for almost five years and during that time, I have come across literally thousands of people who love this combination, and there are more knitters in the world than there are golfers. I love telling men that.
Alexandra: You’re kidding.
Jane: Everybody has this vision that knitting is one thing, whether it be the sweater your grandmother made or the socks your mother made, when in fact, it’s extremely wide and varied. There’s a knitter for everything. Knitting as a group, it doesn’t just include women, it’s men, it’s all kinds of different people so that audience was there, though you don’t have to be a knitter to enjoy these books. It just happens to be that Phoebe is the way we can read books where perhaps a central character is a lawyer and we’re not lawyers. It’s that kind of thing. And also, I do a lot of research for my books and I wanted people to understand the history that comes with, especially antique textiles.
Like in “Warp in the Weave,” Phoebe is running a gallery that has ethnographic and antique carpets for the London market. And I’ve been to many of these shops as I traveled and they have fascinating people. The stories that these carpets tell, I mean, being smuggled out of cities during wars, being the prime possession of a family that they love, and they gather around, and the time and energy and the symbolism of the actual designs. All that is a story in itself.
I like to give people a taste of the textile world because it’s not something that people write about or that it’s widely…it’s not widely understood. We take more seriously as history in artifacts, gold and silver and things like that, whereas in fact, the technology of weaving and textiles is even older because we always had to put something on our bodies to keep warm.
Alexandra: Right, before we had money or furniture or…
Jane: That’s right. And we decorated our homes and it’s an expression of who we are as humanity. When you go into a house in Turkey, it’s literally almost walled in textiles because they are saying, “This is who we are.” It’s a nonverbal communication and I wanted to express that. I never thought people wouldn’t be interested. I thought I just got to let them see what this is all about and sort of introduce them to what I think is a fascinating topic.
Alexandra: That is fascinating. I didn’t know much of that myself.
Do you think that textiles are less well-known as antiquities, and the history of them, because they’re a bit more fragile, they disintegrate, and they fall apart?
Jane: Definitely. That is definitely a part. There are very few that survive though there are few fragments that are amazingly old that have been preserved. There’s been some Egyptian fragments and Coptic and things like that. What Phoebe tries to do is to express the provenance of these pieces that she has. So she tries to research the story behind a carpet which is partly what gets her going in “Warp in the Weave” that sends her off on this trip to Turkey. Because when you find out that in fact most of them were…I shouldn’t say most of them but the ones that end up in the galleries are usually ones that are rare and very treasured, and they’ve been treasured by their owners across the centuries.
So there’s inevitably a story behind them and those are the ones that have been preserved. It’s just amazing what they can tell us. I guess in some extent when I’m writing, I’m writing about different types of communication. There’s a visual communication, visual story, and then there’s a verbal story and the written story. Putting them all together is what I really find fascinating.
Alexandra: Have you ever based any of your storylines or plot points on a famous…I don’t how else to say it but a famous carpet or a famous artifact?
Jane: Yes, actually. Not necessarily one specific thing, this artifact, but certainly this story. There’s a hint of truth behind every one of the books. For instance, in…”Rogue Wave” starts from the Oak Island mystery which you may have heard of. In fact, there’s been a series running on the History Channel for the last three years about two brothers who have invested in Nova Scotia, this little island called Oak Island, to uncover the Oak Island treasure which there’s been many theories, many books written about what it is and where it is, but there’s obviously something there. They’ve found some incredibly old artifacts and quite a number of things, Templar coins, doubloons, and all these kind of things. So that’s based on a real event or a real situation. And then I obviously have taken it further, and purely imagination, what I do with it there.
And then “Warp in the Weave” started at based on a real textile, a real carpet. The symbolism of that carpet is based on women in…this would’ve been in Anatolia in maybe 2000 BC, the worship of the goddess. Because one time, the goddess, as there was a book that says one time, God was a woman. The main deity of life was a female who gave life. And so it talks about that symbolism in that book.
And then “Beautiful Survivor” talks about the Etruscans. And the Etruscans…of course, it’s not talking about one specific artifact but the history of the Etruscans and what they left behind, primarily gold and funerary objects, but incredibly beautiful, and interesting people who were noted for not only their creativity but their love of food and dancing. Though they were warriors, which sort of had to be when the Romans are coming up behind you, but they were a much gentler and almost whimsical people compared to the Romans. You can see a real difference between them in how they look.
And women, this is another thing that was interesting. Women were seen as equal with men so they sat at the banquet tables next to men. They had their own property and they were beings of their own right which, throughout history, has not been the case for us women. We haven’t fared well. And that’s just sort of ongoing theme. I’ve been very interested in how we have women look on the world because we’ve had a lot different, I guess, influences that have been placed on us. There’s an ongoing thread that comes out through these novels.
Alexandra: Right, sort of tying it into reality I want to say or…
Jane: It is very real in fact.
Alexandra: Some true history.
Jane: Even though the “Crime by Design” series is quite funny in parts, I mean there’s a lot of humor in it. There are times when it gets quite serious, too. So again, that balance. But for the most part, I think it’d be end of the story, it’s funny. It’s meant to be funny. You’re meant to enjoy it and not cry at the end of it, though some people said they did cry a little bit in some of them but anyway…
Alexandra: I’m thrilled to hear you have more ideas for future books. So the first three books are available now and they’re also in a box set I noticed on Amazon.
Jane: They are.
Alexandra: That’s great. So people can get…readers can get all three books for one price.
Jane: And it’s lower than it would be if you bought all three.
Alexandra: And you have book four and book five planned.
Any other ideas percolating?
Jane: I do. The one in Australia is going to be quite interesting because it really has a strong romantic note because there’s an ongoing love interest which Phoebe is trying to wrestle with. At first, she’s decided she really doesn’t want a man, “Why do we need men for? I mean, they’re so troublesome.” And especially since she’s been surrounded by nothing but troubles of men and they’re all related to her. But she falls rather heavily for this one fellow, just happens to work with her brother and be in the black market, too. She can’t get away from it. So book five is going to deal with that relationship.
Book four is going to be set in England and it’s going to unfold over Christmas time. And I hope to get it out before Christmas because I think it will be an enjoyable read for the festive season. I also have another book which was the first one published which is “Frozen Angel.”
“Frozen Angel” is a paranormal suspense, a paranormal romantic suspense which deals with a time travel. It was very well received, too. So at some point, I plan to return to writing. In fact, I’m currently writing a story that’s just suspense, a psychological suspense, and at some point, I want to return to sort of the elements of the supernatural. Not in like werewolves and things like that, but actually pluming some strange events that people have experienced that don’t have any explanation for.
Alexandra: Nice. I look forward to those for sure. And so you plan to have book four out, you said, by the end of 2016, by Christmas time?
Jane: That’s right. That’s hope.
Alexandra: We’ll keep our eyes open for that. Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find you? You’ve got a website, janethornley.com.
Jane: I have a website, janethornley.com. And if you type in janethornley.com, it will bring you to my writing website and you’ll see my books with synopses and links, but you’ll also see up on the top menu, my knitting menu. So you can click on those and see some of the knitting I do and some of the designs that I’ve made. I’m also on Ravelry. For those knitters who are familiar, they’ll know what Ravelry is. My Amazon author page is fairly complete with all my books. There’s a trailer there and things like that.
I started off really in business as a knitter where I’m still writing madly way in the backroom but I wasn’t publishing any at the time, so there’s quite a lot of information out there about my knitting. Finally, I noticed when I Googled myself…once in a while we Google our self, right, to see what’s coming up. I found out that the writing is now coming up first which is great because I see myself as a writer who knits, not a knitter who writes.
Alexandra: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much for being with me here today, Jane. It’s been great. Nice to talk to another Canadian. I love that.
Jane: Thank you for having me. This has been great fun and I hope that your Mystery Readers will check up “Crime by Design.”
Alexandra: I hope so, too. I’ll talk to you soon. Take care.
Jane: Okay, thank you. Bye.