Winner of a 2019 IPPY award for "Undergrowth" and a Wishing Shelf Book Awards finalist for "The EvoAngel," Ellen King Rice is a former wildlife biologist with passions for epigenetics and fungi. She’s currently learning about slime molds and mycorrhizal mushrooms. When it comes to the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, there are always new mysteries to explore. Learn more Ellen and Pacific Northwest Mushrooms at: www.ellenkingrice.com Website: https://www.ellenkingrice.com.
Please give us a short introduction to what Undergrowth is about.
Undergrowth is a mushroom-rich thriller set in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. When an elderly botanist finds a dead man next to a rare shelf fungus, events ensnare a young woman doing her best to navigate the gig economy of the northwest.
What inspired you to write about someone who finds a dead body among a rare shelf fungus?
I have met some mycologists who are very secretive about where they find certain species of fungi. Some go to great lengths to protect their favorite spots from discovery. I liked the idea of putting a botanist in conflict: Should he report finding a body or should he protect a rare beauty?
Tell us more about Elspeth Dwerryhouse. What makes her tick?
My main character, Elspeth Dwerryhouse, is based on so many young people in our area who are working multiple jobs. Elspeth knows she has to have college to get ahead but her conviction for selling psychoactive mushrooms makes her ineligible for financial aid. She’s taking responsibility for her actions but it is a struggle to turn her life around. There are not enough hours in the day to earn the money she needs. She doesn’t know what to do except work harder. She is a lovely person fighting some harsh realities.
Why did you pick the Pacific Northwest as the backdrop for your story?
I love writing about my own backyard! We live in rural Thurston county and the woods are teeming with life – we’ve found over 100 species of fungi on our road alone.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
My secret skill is making dark chocolate disappear very, very quickly. I am also fluent in “dog” and “Small boy.”
Tell us more about the mushrooms that feature in this book. What makes them so special?
The centerpiece fungus in Undergrowth is Bridgeoporous nobilissimus, also known as “The Fuzzy Sandozi.” This broad shelf fungus can grow to be as large as a coffee table – only this woodland “coffee table” is typically covered with ferns and mosses instead of books and coffee cups. This is a rare species, but it also makes for a dramatic find for any woodland hiker. Later in the story, Elspeth and her cousin, Carmen, come across a seller of psychoactive fungi, which happens to be a component of our area’s thriving alternative economy. What saves Elspeth and her cousin, however, are the viscous and eerie waxy caps, which are little known gems from our woods.
Which character in this book did you find the most challenging to create?
My most challenging character to develop was Henry, who can be both ruthless and generous. People are this way in real life, and it can be hard to know which side will emerge on any given occasion. Henry surprised me more than once.
Your books are usually somewhat educational. Why do you take this approach?
I spent many years as a Scout Leader and found there was great focus and comradery when fire or weaponry were involved. (Teaching the Textile merit badge is quite fun when recognizing fabric components by smoke patterns). I’d had a few hours of a college class on fungi and . . . went to sleep as the professor droned on about basidiospores. Because fungi interact with us on so many levels (think beer, wine, yeast, soy sauce, antibiotics and cancer cures), it seemed to me that the best way to talk about fungi was to begin with lust, murder and mayhem. We all need to know more about our Earth. We might as well have fun doing that learning.
Even readers who are not that much into mushrooms enjoyed this book - how did you pull this off?
Aren’t most readers looking for insight, escape or entertainment? I work to provide all three.
This book received a 2019 IPPY award - what surprised you most about reader reactions to the book?
I was delighted to receive an IPPY! I had hoped that readers would like a regional tale but I wasn’t entirely confident I’d done a good enough job of capturing our woods. I waver on how much detail to include. Thank goodness, readers are happy with details that take them to our woods.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
For me one hard challenge is sitting in a chair at the computer. I have several health conditions including spinal cord issues. I can sit for about half an hour, so all my work is in short bursts.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you? Favorite writing spot, best time of the day to write ect?
My writing habits are shaped by the back-pain issues – and the knowledge of glucose gates. Our cells have glucose gates that move! Normally our blood stream delivers meals to the cells with insulin acting as a doorman. But when we sit for half an hour or so, the “doors” withdraw to the interior of the cells, leaving the glucose in the blood stream (until it’s deposited on our backsides!). Then our cells are hungry because they haven’t had a food delivery. Bummer! (This explains why sitting at the computer gives us the munchies). I work to get up and move every half hour for five to ten minutes. Gates go up, glucose is delivered and I can write some more.
What are you working on right now?
My next story is “The Slime Mold Murders” and will feature . . . slime molds! This story will have illustrations by Duncan Sheffels, the Olympia artist who has provided the illustrations in the mushroom thrillers.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?