Sarah Wisseman (a.k.a. Sally Underhill) grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and Weston Massachusetts. She remembers being surrounded by books all her life, especially moldy old Penguin paperbacks (Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey) that were fought over by her parents. Her mother was a weaver and an avid reader, and her father, Thomas Underhill, was a lawyer who wrote mysteries and crossword puzzles.
Sarah hadn’t a clue that she wanted to be an archaeologist until she traveled to Israel right after her freshman year in college. There she ate felafel, fell in love with Jerusalem, camped illegally on Masada, and spent a month at the excavation of biblical Beersheba. Once hooked by archaeology, she returned for her Junior Year Abroad at Tel Aviv University, an experience that eventually inspired the Lisa Donahue books.
After the museum stint, Sarah worked for thirty years as an archaeological scientist and Director of the Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials (now a division of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She retired in May 2013.
Sarah lives in Champaign, IL, with her husband and two cats. She began painting when her children were small at Saturday morning art classes at the University of Illinois.
Book Interview with author Sarah Underhill Wisseman
How did you become a writer?
My parents read to me when I was very little, and my father wrote two unpublished mysteries after he retired. My university job has always required writing, but I wrote mostly non-fiction until about 1998.
What is your background?
I grew up in Evanston, IL and Weston, MA. Since college, I have worked as a museum curator, database manager, conservation lab assistant, field archaeologist, archaeological scientist, cook on an archaeological dig, and dorm mother. I majored in Anthropology as an undergraduate, and that’s when I fell in love with archaeology and museum work.
Your books are about archaeology and museums. Do you have experience in those areas?
Yes. I’ve been on archaeological excavations in Israel, Italy, North Carolina, and Nevada. My museum experience began in college when I took a job as a museum guard at the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass. Since then I have worked in five other museums in four different cities in registration, conservation, research, curation, tour-guiding, fund-raising, and database management.
Have you published other books?
Yes. Five books of non-fiction on ancient Greek vases, Greek archaeology, scientific methods in archaeology, and Egyptian mummies.
How did you become an archaeologist?
During my freshman year in college, a friend handed me a brochure about a summer archaeology program in Israel. I signed up and it changed my life. I went back for a junior year abroad, living in Tel Aviv and digging in the dessert around Beersheva and the Dead Sea area. I completed my graduate work (M.A. and Ph.D) at Bryn Mawr College in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology.
Is “Bound for Eternity” based on real life?
Yes. At the University of Illinois, my colleagues and I conducted an investigation of an Egyptian mummy using X-ray, CT scanning, and other non-destructive analyses. I wrote about our results in several technical articles and then in a book for the general public called The Virtual Mummy which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2003. The murder mystery grew out of that experience (of writing the non-fiction book).
Why Boston for your setting?
I grew up in a Boston suburb and went to high school and college in that area. Although I have lived in Illinois for over twenty years, I wanted to return home to Boston in my books since it is one of my favorite cities. Also, Cape Cod was my parents’ home after they retired.
Is your museum real?
No, but it is based upon a former attic museum at the University of Illinois.
Is “Dead Sea Codex” based on real life?
Yes and no. The story and characters are fictional, but the settings of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the site of Masada are real and known to me from nearly two years of living and traveling in Israel in the 1970s.
Have you won any awards for your writing?
Yes, I placed third in the Lovey contest for best historical mystery in Jan 2013 at the conference "Love is Murder." In 2004, I was a finalist in the St. Martin's Press/MALICE DOMESTIC CONTEST for the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel.