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NPR host Linda Holmes' latest novel is a mystery centered on a left-behind duck decoy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If you want to take your secrets with you to the grave, it's important not to leave behind any evidence for your relatives to find.

LINDA HOLMES: The last thing you want to do is leave a box in your house that says, please don't open this box because you just know it's going to be the first thing everybody's going to open. I have to see what's in the don't open this box box.

RASCOE: That's Linda Holmes. You may know her as co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. She's also the author of a new novel, "Flying Solo." The story kicks off when Laurie, a wildlife journalist about to turn 40, returns to her hometown to clean out her beloved great-aunt's house after her death. While there, Laurie finds this mysterious wooden duck. And she sets out to find what it may reveal about her aunt. It's a very gentle, cozy mystery, and Holmes says that was intentional.

HOLMES: I always want to write the book that I like to read, and I tend to gravitate a lot toward things that are, you know, smart but warm. And I don't necessarily always want to read things that are just going to stress me out. So, yeah, cozy is kind of where I tend to settle.

RASCOE: This is your second novel and, like your first novel, this one is set in the fictional town of Calcasset, Maine. Are you having fun building out this, like, perfect small town? I mean, it's not like Stephen King's Castle Rock.

HOLMES: No.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Different Maine small town, yes.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

HOLMES: Fewer evil clowns.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Tell me a little bit more about this really nice wooden duck decoy. How did you land on that as the catalyst for this story?

HOLMES: Well, during the pandemic, I was watching a lot of "Antiques Roadshow," and I was watching a lot of stories about things that people loved and things that people inherited and it made me think about tying a family story to the finding of a beloved object. And I started thinking about what kind of object. I consulted with my buddy Jesse Thorn, who actually hosts Bullseye, which is also an NPR show. And Jesse is an antiques guy and loves "Antiques Roadshow." And I explained kind of, like, what object I was looking for. And Jesse said, how about a duck decoy? And I said, sold.

RASCOE: One of the things that I thought about, obviously, reading this is what is that responsibility you have to that relative who has passed on?

HOLMES: Yeah.

RASCOE: Did you think a lot about that? Like, what is that responsibility?

HOLMES: I did. I thought a lot about - when someone dies, it often creates work. Some of it is the work of dealing with the things that people accumulated and loved. And you, I do think, have a responsibility to try to do that in a respectful way that also accepts that the person probably wouldn't expect you to fuss over every individual thing. So that balance between what's my obligation to respect someone's life and legacy versus how do I balance that with my own life and the other things I have to do and if I have my own family or whatever job. One of the things that Laurie concludes in this book is everybody is entitled to the same dignity of having your possessions and your life respected and cared for whether or not you have that obvious person, like a surviving spouse or surviving kids, who might be the most obvious candidates to take care of your stuff.

RASCOE: It seemed like another big question of this book was that question of, like, legacy and, like, what it means to leave a legacy when you don't have that obvious descendant carrying on your line. What do you think about what it means to leave a legacy?

HOLMES: You know, I think the most common vision of that, as you said, is leaving descendants. But I think one of the things that I explored a little bit in this book is what else does it mean? It can mean that you influenced people who weren't your direct kids or spouse or whatever. I think the pandemic, for a lot of people, me included, was a time of thinking about the structure of how you live your life.

RASCOE: And even though this is, like, a mystery - a cozy mystery, Laurie is turning 40. She's thinking about her life and whether to try to have a partner or continue looking for a partner, or maybe is she going to stay single? So there's some love interest in this.

HOLMES: There is.

RASCOE: Like, was it important to you to think about this idea of a woman who is turning 40 and single and what that means?

HOLMES: I love a love story, but I think that, for a lot of people, as they get older, the shape of that ideal may change. And I told one of my friends while I was writing this book, you know, the idea of this book is that maybe you reach a point where your fantasy is meeting somebody who loves you so much that they don't expect you to live with them, which is tongue-in-cheek, but it's - but sort of not. I mean, it's the idea of sharing a household becoming complicated in a different way for some people when they've lived alone for a long time. So yeah, I wanted to combine all those things and think about what a partnership might look like other than you get married. You move in together. You have babies, you live in a house. You get a dog - which is a perfectly wonderful model, by the way, that's made many people happy. But maybe that's not the only model.

RASCOE: Or giving up your high-power job to live...

HOLMES: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...In your hometown...

HOLMES: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...And run the bake shop (laughter).

HOLMES: Right. That's - and that's the other thing that I think you've accurately identified that I was trying to explore a little bit - is the pattern of, you know, people who leave the place that they've moved to and built a life for themselves and go back and explore the place where they grew up. The assumption is often, in fiction, you go back there to discover that you don't want what you thought you wanted, that you don't want this big city life and the house that you bought and the friends that you made out there. You want to move back to your hometown and date your old boyfriend - which, by the way, is also something that has made many people happy, and that's completely fine. But I wanted to explore what that is like for somebody who both really loves her hometown but also loves her own life and her existing life and is not necessarily in the process of learning that her dreams for herself were false.

RASCOE: Linda Holmes is the co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, and her new book is called "Flying Solo." Thanks for being here, Linda.

HOLMES: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.