She Writes Press, the publisher of A Dream To Die For, was a natural home for Susan Ritz, who counts women’s issues as one of her major interests. She first encountered She Writes through its online community, “a really supporting group of sister writers.” By the time her manuscript was ready for publication, she knew she had found the right place for it—especially because she knew from the start that cover design, layout, and distribution were areas that required expert assistance. “I’m not going to be able to figure out all this self-publishing stuff,” she told herself.
With a publisher in charge of the logistical details, Ritz was able to focus on her first book—a contemporary mystery in which a woman struggles to break free from a charismatic and controlling therapist who has introduced her to the world of sharing and experiencing dreams. Ritz, who worked in nonprofit events and fundraising before branching out into freelance journalism, is new to writing fiction, but like her work for Vermont Woman and other magazines, the novel allows her to tell a woman’s story.
One of the women Ritz has written about is Ivy Mix, whom Ritz calls “one of the world’s most famous bartenders.” Mix provided some of the inspiration for Celeste Fortune, the world-traveling and bartending protagonist of A Dream To Die For. (Celeste’s career was also shaped by Ritz’s own interest in mixology. The author’s favorite drink, she reports, is a hot toddy—“I live in a cold climate”—though during Vermont’s brief summer she turns to Moscow mules. The state has seen a number of local distilleries open in recent years, including one in Ritz’s hometown. Distilleries, Ritz says, are the perfect complement to another product the state is known for: “People can come here and eat cheese and drink.”)
When Celeste is not behind the bar, she is busy with the Dreamscape, a menacingly dedicated and tight-knit organization led by her therapist, Larry, though she is beginning to doubt the effectiveness of sharing dreams within the group. The Dreamscape leads Celeste into trouble when she finds Larry dying on his office floor and group members suspect her of killing him.
The Dreamscape is also inspired by real life: “I was in dream therapy for 15 years,” Ritz says. “Everybody I knew was in the dream work.” She found her second therapist very helpful, but the first was a disaster. The character of Larry is not directly based on that therapist, but creating him was an act of catharsis for Ritz, who welcomed the opportunity “to turn the bad therapist into someone I can manipulate and control” within the pages of her fiction.
The novel blends the Vermont landscape in as well, creating an atmosphere appropriate for a murder:
Celeste gave up her effort to dislodge him. With her forehead pressed against the window, she looked out as they drove past stubbled fields dotted with round hay bales encased in white plastic looking like giant marshmallows. The river running along and below the road was high and muddy with November rain. The colors had been leached from the landscape, leaving only tones of gray with occasional splashes of red and rust in the soft bursts of sumac, as bushy as squirrel tails. Along the riverbank, knotweed leaves, like oversized leather gloves, waved in the wind.
Writing a mystery was a challenge for Ritz, who hadn’t been much of a mystery reader. “I decided to write a mystery because a friend told me, whatever you write, make sure there’s some mystery in it.” The genre elements—suspects, clues, red herrings—were helpful in developing the book’s plot and structure, though Ritz admits the result was a surprise even to her. “I didn’t know who did it until I finished the first draft,” she says.
She also acknowledges that getting into mystery writing was a procrastination technique when she needed a break from another ongoing project. “I kind of wrote the mystery to put off the memoir,” she says, though she has plans to finish that as well. Ritz is writing the story of her stint in the German county of Dachau in the 1980s when she and her family lived in a village of 350 people and were the only Americans in the region. Ritz worked as a volunteer tour guide at the memorial site for the Dachau concentration camp, which gave her the opportunity to see how her neighbors were still coming to terms with World War II decades after its end (“It’s finally a different situation now”) as economic growth and the end of the Cold War brought new changes.
Germany is only one of the many countries Ritz has lived in since her teens. Her unconventional college program required students to leave the classroom and spend time living and working in two different countries. Ritz chose Kenya and Japan and recorded her travels in the journals required by the college. “It made me really want to be a writer,” she says. She “didn’t really understand you could be a writer for a career,” so after graduation, she followed a different path, working as a social worker in Singapore, visiting Indonesia, and finding a career in the nonprofit sector.
Ritz returned to writing later in life, earning an MFA and pursuing local journalism before she undertook her book projects. “My voice is stronger than I thought it was,” she says. “I feel really proud of myself that I stuck with something.”
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in the Boston area.