Julie Mangano has been involved in the publishing industry since 1989 as a publications manager, writer, editor and art director. Braha is her first mystery. Born and raised in Southern California, she now lives in Round Rock, Texas with her husband. Mangano is currently at work on the sequel.
What is your latest book?
My book is called Braha, a mystery that is a blend of contemporary and historical fiction. It is a carefully-crafted tale of two unforgettable women, born centuries apart, whose lives of secret parallel danger coincide in a suspenseful saga, reaching down through the ages following decades of intrigue, spying, and murder.
Linden St. Clair is working overseas when she learns her beloved grandfather has passed away under suspicious circumstances. Returning home, she discovers he has left her an old family journal, as well as clues to an explosive family secret. The journal, written by Leena Weiss, Linden’s great-great grandmother, recalls the woman’s early years as a German girl living in a small Russian village. Leena’s life is turned upside down when a Russian army officer turns her into his object of affection. Caught in a difficult situation, Leena soon finds herself living a life one the run, pursued by the Okhrana, a secret police organization and predecessor to the KGB. A century later, Linden peels back shadowy layers, exposing clues and secrets. Despite having professional security services, she and her family remain pawns in a deadly game that extends beyond borders and crisscrosses the globe.
Most people recognize the book by the distinctive cover, a close-up of a sheep’s head. The sheep represents the innocence of the main characters in Braha. In addition, the nickname Leena Weiss is “my little lamb.”
Tell us a secret about the book that most people don’t know.
One of the key elements in the book are the carved flagstones that say: F ♥️ P. This is ripped straight from my family’s history. My grandfather had his and his wife’s initials carved out of stone, along with a heart. He installed them on one of the risers of the stone steps in front of his house, so everyone would know of his love for my grandmother. I’ve always thought that was such a wonderfully special way to proclaim one’s love through the ages, so I knew I had to somehow include it in this book.
Is your recent book part of a series?
Braha is the first in a series and lays the foundation for the books to come by introducing a host of characters in two distinct components: historical and contemporary. Linden St. Clair is the present-day main character who discovers some unsettling things about her family’s past. Leena Weiss is Linden’s great-great grandmother, born as a German in Russia in the late 1800s. Understanding the turbulent socioeconomic times in for both Germans in Russia and Imperial Russia in the early 1900s is important to the story line. Decisions made then have affected Leena Weiss’s family and kept them in danger for generations.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
While each book needs to be a complete, stand-alone project, there are important details from earlier books that needs to be recapped for new readers. I am cognizant of the need to keep the review succinct yet complete, so that someone who has missed reading an earlier novel in the series is not confused by the events that occur in the follow-up novels. Many mystery writers already do this quite well: Harlan Coben, Nelson DeMille and Sue Grafton, for example. What separates Braha from the books these authors have written is the historical component. In this regard, Braha is more similar to The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy, with the exception that Braha is a mystery.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
Usually I am a very linear writer, almost to a fault. Braha was different because of the historical and contemporary components. Generally, I wrote the historical section first, writing the scenes in order of occurrence, and then the contemporary section. Later on, I added sections to each, which is kind of messy because you then need to do a quick edit to be sure the flow and details are updated accordingly. Near the end of the project, I deleted some scenes, which required the same detailed reviews. By far, the hardest part was then integrating the historical chapters in with the contemporary chapters. I spent so much time looking at them as separate books that blending them together was completely chaotic. For the next book in the series, I’ve already started writing little snippets and sections as I do my research. When it comes to the nitty gritty writing, however, I think I will be back to fleshing out the scenes in order.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I do tend to edit as I write, and I edit sections or chapters after I finish them. But that is nothing compared to the many, many edits the book goes through after I’ve finished with writing the story.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
The historical component of my novel needed to be as accurate as possible when describing the little known group of Germans who lived in Russia, so it required a great deal of research not only about this group of people, but about Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century. I happen to know quite a bit about the Germans from Russia because I am descended from them, but I am the exception rather than the rule. It was because there was so little known about these people that I decided to focus on them in Braha.
My maternal grandparents and their families were born in Grimm, Russia, a small village on the Volga River. They emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1900s. They had family members who stayed behind, some of whom lost their lives when the Germans were driven out of their villages and forced to relocate in Siberia. My grandfather used to speak around the country about the Germans from Russia, and he left us a recording about his family’s history and where they originally came from in Germany.
Forty years later, I have an extensive collection of genealogical materials in my home library. Much of that information is from a group called the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. It includes maps, photos, pedigree charts, books, and more. I used those materials for much of my research, as well as various sites on the Internet.
Part of the book takes place in Finland, a place I’d never been to but heard about from a childhood friend. Her stories captivated me, so I decided that Finland would be another location in my book. I meticulously researched Finland and started a private Pinterest board where I posted photos of the countryside there.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
As a rule, I never let others read my work in progress. Part of it is my own insecurity. I want to make sure I’ve reviewed my and edited my work well, making it as perfect as possible before I let others have a look at it.
The first people I allowed to see my manuscript were my husband and my mother. My husband seems like a biased reader, but he writes and edits for a living, so he was able to use his skills to help me polish my work. My mother was a teacher for many years, and after that, she edited Bibles, so she is also a professional who would look at my work with a critical eye. She was also an important reviewer because her parents lived the life that Leena Weiss did as a young child. She knew more about her parents’ lives in Russia than I did. It was important to me that she thought I described the German people and their way of life accurately and that the story was believable.
In addition, I included some details that I knew my mother would recognize: the village her parents came from was called Grimm, the greble and chocolate cake recipes were from her mother, and her grandfather was forced into the Russian Army and served on the Tsar’s security detail, much like one of the characters in Braha.
Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?
I chose to get a Kirkus indie review and a Clarion Foreword review for Braha. The biggest surprise was that the Clarion Foreword reviewer liked the historical section and the Leena Weiss story best. He felt she was the heart and soul of the story. The Kirkus reviewer preferred the Linden St. Clair part of the story best. It just goes to show you that people’s opinions vary. Just because one person likes or dislikes something doesn’t mean others will feel the same way about it.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I’d like to say it’s important for me to know the ending of a book before I write it, but I actually changed my ending as I was writing in order to add more twists. I hate it when a book is predictable. Every time I felt like what was coming up could be easily deduced by the reader, I changed it.
I thought I had my title from the start and was very firm about it: The House on Nordahl Road. When it came to designing a book cover, however, the title made it difficult, almost demanding a literal interpretation. No one had my vision. Once I decided to change the title, everything fell into place.
Interestingly, the name Braha, where Leena Weiss lived for three years, is a fictional town, with the name based on the real city of Raaha, Finland. I wanted to use find a one- or two-word title that was easy to pronounce and used a letter near the beginning of the alphabet. I came up with the name Braha for the town, and eventually used it for my book title.
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
Writing is in my blood. My great grandfather and grandfather loved to write, as did one of my father’s aunts. My father was a Journalism major and spent his early career as a newspaper reporter. I learned to write before I started Kindergarten and can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories or keeping a journal. It didn’t seem possible for me to have a career as a writer, without starving in the process of becoming successful,so I took the long road before finally giving in to my passion. Along the way, however, most of my jobs had some element of writing involved in each of them.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
I prefer to write at night, the later the better. Some of my best writing happens in the wee hours of the morning. During the daytime, there are too many distractions. I may force myself to write when it’s light out, but it’s not when I’m most prolific. Editing, however, is a good, daytime endeavor.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I currently live in the Austin, Texas area. I hope that one day I can live back by a seashore. I’m not picky, but I love the Atlantic coastal area. If I could move out of the country, I would love to live in England in a manor house in the country. I would also love to live in Scandinavia. My husband would battle me for Spain or Portugal, though, so we’d probably have to split out time between two places.
What’s the coolest surprise you’ve ever had?
For my 30th birthday, my parents arranged for one of my favorite teachers, my second grade teacher, to come over for dinner. I hadn’t seen her since the middle of the second grade, when she left to take a job as a principal at another school. My dad knew her professionally and had kept up with her over the years. When I opened the door and saw her standing there, I was shocked, but I knew exactly who she was. We had a lovely dinner together.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
I love anything starchy, especially sourdough bread, mashed potatoes, and dumplings. I hate avocados, mushrooms and bananas.
Have you ever played a practical joke on a friend? Ever had one played on you?
I haven’t played a practical joke on someone since I was in high school, and I can’t even remember what it was. When my kids were young, however, one night I told them they were eating broccoli balls instead of peas. I made up a very elaborate story about how NASA invented broccoli balls for astronauts because they were more compact that broccoli stems and florets, and the kids bought it. Broccoli balls became their new favorite food until I ‘fessed up. Now that they know the truth, they once again hate peas.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
I would love to be a great chef. Nothing about cooking comes naturally to me. Even simple recipes can turn out disastrous. My sister inherited all the good cooking genes, and thankfully she hosts many special occasions at her home. At our house, my husband is the chef and he keeps us healthy with many wonderful concoctions.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I was bullied and assaulted in the 7th grade. It changed my life.
What makes you angry?
Unkind people. There is no reason to ever be unkind.
What kind of music soothes you?
Deep down, I’m really a James Taylor kind of girl. I can count the concerts I’ve been to on one hand, and two of those have been James Taylor concerts. Today I find myself drawn to Sting’s latest project, “The Last Ship.” It’s actually a musical that will be out later this year, but the album is already available. I fall asleep listening to it
If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?
I love mysteries and quirky shows. Some of my favorites are Lilyhammer, Wallender, Hunted, Orphan Black, Downton Abbey, The Americans, Wire in the Blood, and almost any British spy series I haven’t already mentioned.
CONNECT WITH JULIE