Archive for Interviews

Author Interview: Maureen Jennings

Maureen JenningsMaureen Jennings is very well known as the creator of Inspector Murdoch, with the popular television series spreading Murdoch and Victorian Toronto far and wide. But of course, before the Murdoch television show, there were the books, which are remarkable. Jennings is great at creating a setting and an atmosphere – Victorian Toronto is brought to life in her words as well as in any television depiction. Her depth of characterization, her lovely prose, and her attention to what was happening in the world at the time she’s writing about all make this series a standout. She returns Murdoch to the printed page after a ten year hiatus with Let Darkness Bury the Dead.

Q: You’ve been away from Murdoch for 10 years.  Why have you come back to him?

A: I think he started nagging me—they have a way of doing that, these characters. Just seemed like a good time to pick up on that world.

Q: At this point, how much research is needed as you write about turn of the century Toronto?  Do you kind of have a reference library in your head?

A: This new book is set in 1917 and I had to do the usual… newspapers, street directories, primary source material. I love that aspect of writing.

Q: All the Murdoch books (and all your books, really) have a hook that’s related to a social issue – abortion, child pornography, slavery, the poor and mentally ill, to name a few.  I was part of a discussion recently where someone pointed out that there used to be “social novels,” by Upton Sinclair, for example, or going further back, Elizabeth Gaskell and even Dickens – do you think mysteries are the new version of the social novel?  And if yes, is that important to you?

A: VERY important. I loved the (Per) Wahlöö books and I know they set out to deal with Swedish social issues in the mystery genre. In this book, I wanted to write about WWI hopefully in a fresh way. How did people at home cope? What were they thinking? What were some of the worst things about the war that might not be so well known.

Q: What’s your “way in” as you start to write an historical novel?  How do you re-create a past world so convincingly?  Your novels all make it seem to real – you can practically smell what Murdoch is smelling.

A: I start reading primary sources and cast a wide net, noting down any particular things that grab me. For instance, I have a book published by the Canadian Bank of Commerce which is a record of letters from their employees who were overseas. (They paid the wages of the young men who signed up.) I have replicas of tracts handed to the young officers about how to lead their troops. Utterly fascinating. I still walk the streets to get a feeling of the time even though much has gone, I can still commune with those folks.

Q: You’ve put poor Murdoch through a lot – he fled an abusive parent, when we meet him he’s grieving his fiancée, and in this new book, he’s lost his wife and daughter and is attempting to make up with his son, who was gassed in WWI.  I guess what I’m asking is, did you have an arc in mind for Murdoch as you were writing, or did it develop?  Did you mean to make him suffer so?  He’s such a nice guy!

A: I think it developed. Unfortunately, it’s a little inconvenient to deal with a wife, not to mention children and a dog, i.e. when does he go home? So he’s back to being single again. As for suffering I think I must have a melancholic streak that I’ve passed onto him. Hopefully it makes Murdoch seem more vulnerable than a tough guy although I think for decades now, writers have moved away from that model…if it even existed.

Q: In this new book there’s obviously been a time lapse between the last one (Journeyman to Grief) and this one, and you’ve brought Murdoch up to WWI.  What made you want to write about WWI?  You could have kept him back in 1910 or so in that little golden bubble before the war.

A: I’ve been fascinated with WWI forever. As I said above I wanted to try to show something about it that was fresh, perhaps not as well known i.e. the presence of dogs and cats on the front line; the use of sports and competitions to keep the soldiers entertained even within earshot of the guns.

Q: Many of your recent books are set during wars – the Tom Tyler series, which I love, are British home front WWII novels – is writing a book set during wartime more or less challenging?  Does it someone ramp up interest and tension more than a peacetime story might?

A: For a long time I resisted both reading and writing books set during wartime… homicide seemed so incidental to the massacres happening daily on the front. Now with more time elapsed I think I (we) can set books during that time. The war hovers there but there are still crimes to deal with, some of them serious.

Q: Now that you have had such a long writing career, what are you hoping to still attempt with your mysteries?  What writing frontiers are you still hoping to explore?

A: I am excited by beginning work on a new book set in 1936. I want to capture Murdoch’s world. Same city, some of the same people show up. As I delve more into that period I’m finding it so fascinating. Such a dark dark time actually. Talk about social issues to bring in—depression time, injustice… Hitler just starting his rise to power. Also my protagonist is a female P.I. and I can use the first person narrative, which is loads of fun.

Q: Can you name a book that was transformational for you – one that set you on the path to being a reader and/or a writer?

A: So many. I can hardly remember when I first started to read. They all affected me. Black Beauty. Little Women, all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Dickens. I wanted to be a citizen of that magic world.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: The Tom Tyler books have been optioned for TV and I would love to see that happen. I have strong opinions about how I’d like to see it. The new book I mentioned in question 8 is most exciting. It’s called The Paradise Cafe. I suppose I’m always excited to start a new book but I seem to be particularly loving this one. I get to be a bit funnier than usual.

Thank you, Maureen!

Author Interview: Karen Dionne

Karen DionneKaren Dionne has been on the mystery scene for years – writing mass market thrillers and most recently, an adaptation of the TV show, “The Killing.” She also is the driving force behind the Backspace Writer’s Conference, for which she’s been honored by the Library of Michigan as Author of the Year. But with The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen joins the big time as she draws on her experiences homesteading in the UP in the 70’s.


Q: Can you talk a bit about your own experience homesteading in the UP?

A: During the 1970s, my husband and I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as part of the back-to-the-land movement. We were city kids, and didn’t know a thing about living off the land, but the idea of living close to nature really appealed to us. We bought 10 acres of hardwoods, and moved onto our property when our oldest daughter was 6 weeks old, living in a tent while we build a small cabin, carrying water from a stream, and sampling wild foods. I’ve made wild apple-chokecherry jelly over an open campfire (and had to defend it against marauding raccoons) and washed my daughter’s diapers in a bucket (which I promise is every bit as disgusting as it sounds). We lived in the Upper Peninsula for thirty years, so I know the area well, and drew heavily on my experiences when I wrote The Marsh King’s Daughter. The U.P. is such a wild and beautiful place, I’ve always wanted to set a novel there. The Marsh King’s Daughter is truly the book of my heart, my love letter to the Upper Peninsula.

Q: I was really intrigued by the way you aren’t exactly sure, as a reader, of the time period, and time is relative, certainly according to Helena herself.   How did you work out the details of the time line?

A: The Marsh King’s Daughter is actually set in the present day, though it’s never clearly stated, so the timeline counts backwards from 2017. I think the reason the timeline seems so fluid is because the chapters that take place in the past offer no clear indication of the current date since Helena, who is narrating the story, doesn’t know what year it is (and doesn’t care). She and her family get up when it gets light, and go to bed when it gets dark. Because she lives so in tune with the natural world and the seasons, this is the only “time” that matters to her.

Q: I loved the Anderson fairytale being told as the book goes forward – he was a pretty harsh storyteller!  Is this a story that’s always intrigued you?  Did you read a lot of Hans Christian Andersen as a kid?

A: I’ve loved fairy tales since I was a child, the darker the better, and adore lines such as the one that ends the opening excerpt in the novel: “Great black bubbles rose out of the slime, and with these, every trace of the princess vanished.” I also love novels such as Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child that offer a modern take on a fairy tale. So after the character of Helena as the offspring of a kidnapped girl and her captor came to me and I was looking for a story for her, I pulled my childhood fairy tale books off the shelf to see if I could find a tale that would structure the novel. I was very excited when I came upon “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” because the fit was so perfect. In the fairy tale, the main character is the daughter of a beautiful Egyptian princess and the evil Marsh King. By day, the girl is beautiful like her mother, but has her father’s wicked, wild temperament, while at night, she takes on her mother’s gentle nature in the guise of a hideous frog. In my novel, Helena is also the product of an innocent and a monster, half good, half bad, and like the Marsh King’s daughter in the fairy tale, she struggles with her dual nature.

Q: One of the things I feel as a reader that’s very difficult to do is to have a character change in a believable way.  It can so easily seem false or manipulated, but you really pulled this off, as Helena’s story is truly a journey.  Can you talk about that a bit?

A: While The Marsh King’s Daughter can be read and enjoyed as a straight-up thriller, Helena’s emotional journey and her relationship with her father are the heart of the story. For her first 12 years, she loves living in the marsh, hunting and fishing and foraging, and she loves her father to the exclusion of all else. Then when she leaves the marsh, she hates her father – not only for what he did to her mother, but for all the things about the outside world he didn’t teach her that she needed to know. Then at age 18, when she’s had all she can stand of the notoriety of being known only as “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” she changes her name and her appearance and moves away, in effect denying her father. And finally, at the end of the story, she has to come to terms with who and what she is. Thus the core of her journey is her love-hate relationship with her father. David Morrell once called The Marsh King’s Daughter “a tragic love story,” and I think the description fits!

As I was channeling Helena, I drew most heavily on my relationship with my own father. Like Helena, I adored my father when I was small. As I grew older, naturally, I began to see his flaws, but that didn’t diminish my love for him, and this was how I wanted to depict Helena. Yes, she grows up in terrible circumstances; yes, her father is without question a monster. And yet, for a time, “before everything fell apart,” as she puts it, her childhood was truly happy.

Q: Some of Helena’s assessments of “civilization” after she returns to it ring pretty true.  Are those your own views?  Could you go back to no phone, TV, news, as long as you had running water and electricity?  

A: Helena and I share a love of wild places and an ease with nature, so many of her opinions of so-called “civilization” are also mine. I could happily say goodbye to technology and live a more natural way of life, and I wouldn’t even mind doing it without electricity and running water. From a practical standpoint, I doubt that’s likely to happen, since my 90-year-old mother lives with me now, and because my current lifestyle necessitates access to bookstores and airports. But would I chuck everything and go live in the wilderness again if circumstances allowed? Absolutely!

Q: I was also very impressed with the actual prose, which is deceptively simple and not distracting but also evocative.  How did you arrive at the voice you are using here – other than a lifetime of practice?

A: The voice and the tone of the novel come straight from Helena since the novel is written in first person, and everything is told through her filter. She in turn relates everything back to the marsh, because during her formative years, this is all she knows. Helena’s circumstances are so unique, it was a lot of fun to put myself in her position and think not how I would describe something, but how she would. Particularly in the chapters when Helena is a child, I tried to choose words and language that not only would a five-year-old use, but a five-year-old who had never watched television or seen or spoken to anyone other than her parents.

Q: I really, really take my hat off to a writer who effectively uses the setting as an integrated part of the plot.  Setting is essential here and the story could be told nowhere else.  Where did you start – setting?  Plot?  Character?

A: Unlike my previous novels which began with plot, this novel started with the character. I actually woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of The Marsh King’s Daughter fully formed in my head. I wasn’t dreaming about the character, she was just there, talking to me, and telling me who she was. Middle-of-the-night ideas don’t always look quite so appealing in the morning, but to my surprise, this one did. So I wrote up a few paragraphs in the character’s voice – which are now the first pages of the novel.

Interestingly, as I was writing those paragraphs, I almost gave the story an urban setting, thinking of the women in Cleveland who were hidden in plain sight. But at the last moment, I decided to set the book in a place I knew well: the Tahquamenon River valley in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now the setting and the story are so intimately connected, it’s impossible to imagine this novel being set anywhere else.

Q: Do you have a secret stash of National Geographics?

A: I loved paging through National Geographic magazines when I was a child. Every family I knew had a big stack because they were too beautiful to throw away! I put a pile of old National Geographics in the cabin where Helena’s family is squatting because I wanted her to learn to read, and I also wanted her to know something of the outside world, even if that knowledge was very dated. Plus, anyone who’s ever spent time up north knows that every cottage and cabin has a stack of musty old National Geographic magazines to read on rainy days!

Q: What book or writers are influential in your own writing?

A: I adore terrifically written novels that take me deep into a world I know nothing about: Paulette Jile’s News of the World, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, as well as older titles such as Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and E.M. Forrester’s A Passage to India (one of my own favorites: ed.).

Q: Can you name a book that’s been “transformational” for you?  A book that set you on the path to reading or writing?  You can go back to Peter Rabbit, if that’s the one!

A: The Boxcar Children series fascinated me when I was a child, as did the Little House on the Prairie books. I guess this explains where my love of wild places began!

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: I’m working on another standalone tentatively called The White Bear’s Keeper, which is also a psychological suspense featuring a character with a dark past that’s set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and that has a fairy tale element. Readers who enjoy The Marsh King’s Daughter will find enough in the new novel that’s familiar, while at the same time enjoying an entirely different story.

Author Interview: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-DayWhen you read Lori Rader-Day’s new book, The Day I Died, it should be obvious why she’s regarded as an up and comer. Her first two books, The Black Hour and Little Pretty Things, garnered plenty of attention and award nominations. This one stays with you long after you finish reading it – and Lori was nice enough to answer some questions about it.

Q: I saw in the back of this book that you’ve been thinking about writing it for 10 years. What part of this story came to you first? What compelled you forward to work on this for 10 years?

A: I didn’t think about writing it for ten years. Over the course of ten years, I wrote it! It was a short story in 2007; by 2009, it was a full novel draft. The problem was that I was not yet a novelist. Writing that draft taught me all the pitfalls of novel writing. When I put it away and started what became my first published book, The Black Hour, I was so much more comfortable with the process and the shape of a novel-length project. And then I wrote my second novel, Little Pretty Things. After that, I had to decide what came next. I could have let the draft of what is now The Day I Died languish; it wouldn’t have killed me to let it go and write something new. But I felt as though the problem with that draft hadn’t been the story or the character or the set-up, but me. I hadn’t been a skilled enough writer at the time I attempted that book. I wanted to give that story and that character a chance.

Q: Did you always know you were a mystery writer, as opposed to some other type of writer?

A: I had to be told, actually! In 2008, I won a fellowship to a retreat hosted by Midwest Writers Workshop. When I arrived, I found I had been placed in the mystery group, as opposed to the fiction group. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Before then, I had no idea what I was writing was a mystery. The instructor of our group at that retreat was Terrence Faherty, who showed me the direction I should go, and he saved me a lot of wasted time. He told me about Bouchercon, which was in St. Louis in 2011, which is where I joined Mystery Writers of America and really started getting involved in the mystery community.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to be put in the mystery group. I had always loved reading mysteries—I just hadn’t ever tried to write one. Not on purpose, anyway.

Q: I have noticed, having met several people who write scary psychological thrillers, as you do, that they seem to be especially empathic. What is it, do you think, that allows you to put yourself into a situation you yourself may not have actually experienced?  

A: Empathy is a particularly useful writer’s tool, so the best writers of any genre are probably empathetic. We also use our own experiences to fuel our stories, even when the plots have nothing to do with our lives. We use our memories of experiences to give our characters their experiences, which then gives the reader hers. For instance, in my first book The Black Hour, the main character had been injured in an act of campus violence. I heard from many readers that they thought Amelia’s pain was real. One book club reader who had chronic pain herself said I got it right. But I’ve never been shot. Nor do I want to do the research. I used my own recovery from having my spleen removed (long story) to give me those pain details. I’ve never been the victim of domestic violence, but can I imagine betrayal by someone I should be able to trust? Of course.

Q: I was interested throughout the novel in how you talked about the main character making her world smaller and smaller. Was this something you especially wanted to explore?

A: Her world starts out the smallest it has ever been. When we meet Anna Winger, she is leading a narrow job centered around her son and her work. All other distractions have been blocked out. Throughout the book, though, she starts to connect: to her neighbor, to the mentor who helped her get started in handwriting analysis who she’s only met in person a few times, to the sheriff who seeks her help now and other members of her new community. I wanted the help Anna gives to the sheriff to take her to a place where she has to change, to where she has no choice but to let others in.

Q: One of the more interesting parts of the book is the fact that the main character is a handwriting analyst.  How did that profession present itself to you, and how much do you know about it?

A: I discovered handwriting analysis at a library. I was there trolling for inspiration for a new short story and found it. I’m no expert myself, but I used some research to fill in the gaps and to extrapolate what Anna needed to notice throughout the book. Once I figured out that Anna would be paying attention to every shred of handwriting she could find, I had fun with inserting more chances for her use her expertise.

Q: Does this book feel different to you than other books you’ve written?  Do you feel you grow as a writer with each book?

A:I hope that’s what is happening, though growing as a writer doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing gets any easier. In some ways, it’s more difficult. You expect more of yourself and so do other people. The Day I Died is different in that it’s about a mother, something I am not. My approach, of course, was very different. In the end, what I was hoping was not so much that this book would be different but that it would be the same. Since I wrote it first, I was worried it wouldn’t be what my readers had come to expect from me.

Q: What mystery writers (or other kinds of writers) have influenced you? 

A: My early favorites were Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Lois Duncan. Of course as soon as I discovered Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, it was all over for me. I also love writers like Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) and T.C. Boyle (World’s End). My favorite crime novels of all time are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, it is) and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.

Q: Can you name a book that was a “transformational read” for you? One that turned you on to reading, or changed your life as a reader or writer? 

A: I was always a reader, but the writer who made me want to be a writer first was Beverly Cleary. Ramona forever.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: I’m revising my next novel for William Morrow for release in 2018, an as-yet-untitled murder mystery that takes place in a dark sky park—a place kept free of light pollution so that visitors can see the stars the way nature intended. It’s set in Michigan, as a matter of fact! I borrowed the very real Headlands park up near Mackinaw (City, ed.) but changed some details and names. I’ll soon be striking out on a new story but haven’t decided what that will be yet.


Author Interview: Laura Joh Rowland

Laura Joh RowlandLaura Joh Rowland wrote the long running, beloved Sano Ichiro series set in feudal Japan. She has also written mysteries featuring Charlotte Bronte, and now is writing a series set in 1888 London featuring photographer Sarah Bain. In the first of the series, The Ripper’s Shadow, Sarah ends up in the crosshairs of both the police and the Ripper himself.

Q: Your first series, set in feudal Japan, was always really popular with our customers, and I wonder how you picked that particular time period?

A:The short answer is, I watched too many samurai movies while I was in college (at the University of Michigan. Go Blue!). The longer answer is that when I decided to write mystery novels, I needed to carve out a territory for myself, and feudal Japan was wide open. It was a marriage of interest and opportunity.

Q: I often think historical mystery writers are the most “pure” detective novelists working at the moment, as they aren’t using all the new forensic tools available to contemporary detectives, they have to use good old fashioned shoe leather and deductive reasoning to solve the crime. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I agree. Modern forensic tools are amazing, but even nowadays they don’t always solve cases. It often comes down to what a jury believes. I was a scientist when I started writing fiction, and I chose historical novels partly because I wouldn’t have to write about the scientific instruments and techniques I used at my day job.

Q: You now have had quite a long career, with an impressive number of books, all of them in the historical mystery genre. What drew you to historicals? Are you trained as an historian?

A: I’m not trained as an historian, but I love tracking down information. There’s no thrill quite like finding a fact that I need for a story. It’s like a treasure hunt. I like historical novels because they’re a welcome break from modern problems. Whenever life seems rough, I can look back and remember that in Victorian England, public hangings were popular entertainment.

Q: After a long run in feudal Japan, you jumped to Charlotte Bronte. Hw did that come about?

A: I’ve always loved Charlotte Bronte’s own story as much as I love her novels. She was a talented, ambitious woman who became a best-selling, famous author despite her humble background and plain looks. Through her novels and in her personal writings she expressed a desire for adventure. I wanted to give her an adventure that I think she would have liked.

Q: Was it difficult using such a famous literary figure as a character?

A: Writing about famous people can mean challenging readers’ assumptions about them. I think a lot of readers see Charlotte Bronte as a prim church mouse who never left Haworth and never did anything but write. Those readers probably didn’t like my books, in which she travels, solves crimes, and has a passionate love affair.

Q: Your new novel, The Ripper’s Shadow, centers on probably the most famous unsolved serial murder case of all time. What are you brining to the party that’s different?

A: I’m refreshing the idea that the Jack the Ripper case was solved by somebody who was flying under the radar. Many mystery novels about the Ripper focus on rehashing the historical evidence and putting forth a theory about which of the real suspects was actually the Ripper. That didn’t interest me because I think the evidence is too time-worn to prove anything, the case will never be solved, and the culprit was probably none of those suspects. My book focuses on the dilemma of a fictional photographer named Sarah Bain, who has inside information about the Ripper murders and personal reasons for keeping it secret.

Q: Has it been refreshing, both in this novel and in your Charlotte Bronte novels, to utilize a female central character rather than a male?

A: Yes. Women and men really do live on different planets. It’s fun to explore Venus after spending so much time on Mars. I particularly like writing about women’s personal relationships, which I think have complications that are sometimes lacking in men’s.

Q: Who are your influences, mystery-wise? Any contemporary mystery authors you especially enjoy?

A: When I started writing mysteries, P.D. James and Elizabeth George were big influences, although my stories aren’t much like theirs. I enjoy Sophie Hannah, Carol Goodman, Robert Harris, and Thomas Cook.

Q: What book in your life was transformational – made the reading light switch on? It can be anything from something you read at age 5 on up.

A: I can’t remember! It’s as though I was born loving to read, and all the many books I’ve read are such a part of me that I couldn’t say which was the most important. That would be like choosing between my lungs and my kidneys. In retrospect, the transformational moment was when I got old enough to pick out library books for my father. He was too busy or lazy to go to the library himself, so my mother picked out his books until she passed the job on to me. He loved mysteries, so I became very familiar with that section of the library, and I started reading and loving them myself. The rest is history.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

I’m working on the next book in my Sarah Bain series. It’s called The Monster’s Child, and the mystery is a kidnapping case that was inspired by the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping.

Author Interview: Emily Winslow

Jamie interviewed Emily Winslow, author of Jane Doe January. Her powerful answers about her rape case are included here.

emilywinslowQ: You maintained your desire for justice for twenty years after your rape. Was there any point where you thought the official case would progress any further?

A: I was always hopeful. I was frustrated that it wasn’t happening yet, but I always imagined that the case would move forward at some point in the future. Right up until the end, I believed that we would get all the way to conviction.

Q: It seems to me that contemporary writing about crime has shifted its emphasis from the crime itself to the ripples and rents to the fabric of society caused by the breaking of the social order. Your book takes that emphasis to the level of an individual consciousness as well, to the damage to your sense of self. Obviously you were able to be productive and fulfilled, but with the crime as as an accepted part of your identity.

A: The “ripples and rents” have long been what I enjoy in the crime stories I read and watch, and the priority of my fiction. But it’s important to me to recognise that those ripples and rents are parts of a character, not the whole of a character. And it’s a relief to be able to say from personal experience that that is true. The crime has affected me, but it doesn’t define me.

Q: The character of the criminal has been an important part of crime fiction since the beginning, and often they’re intriguing figures. You did quite a bit of research on him, and your assailant, however, turns out not to be a brilliant anti-hero but a rather quotidian creep. How important to you was it to learn the identity of your attacker? Did the banality of his evil surprise you?

A: It was a gift to finally learn who he is. I had started researching with the hope of an explanation, some trauma of his own or other “reason” for why he did what he did. In the end, what I learned instead was that he is not a force, he’s not a power, he’s just a man, smaller than I remembered. That in itself is valuable.

Q: Up to this point you’ve been a fiction writer. What differences did you find when you wrote a nonfiction work? How do you think this experience will affect your future novels?

A: I write my fiction via first-person narrators, so telling a story through “I” was familiar; but depending on real life to give me the story, instead of creating one in my head, was very different, and both harder and easier. It limited me to what was real, yet expanded me farther than the habits of my imagination, forcing me into directions I may not have explored of my own volition and leading me to discoveries different from what I would have designed. I’m working on my fourth novel now, and sometimes it feels freeing to return to return to making it all up, and sometimes it feels daunting to be again responsible for creating every character and incident from scratch.

Q: The resolution of Jane Doe January would have raised howls in a novel, but in nonfiction it worked quite well. How do you think the readers’ expectations are different?

A: While readers understand that a non-fiction writer is at the mercy of reality, they still expect that a story will have an arc, rightly so. Both as the protagonist and as the writer, when the expected ending didn’t come through, I had to look to other aspects of the story for satisfaction. And I think there is a lot in the other aspects that are, in a way, “happy” endings.

Q: I read your book immediately after The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson, another personal essay which also involves a terrible case rather unexpectedly reopened by DNA evidence. Have you read it? She also deals with the power of the institutions of the media and the contending branches of the justice system, but seems to be more critical of the former than you are. They all create different narratives about crime, often distorting events to fit their own template. Did you feel well served by them?

A: No one story can represent the breadth and variety of experience even in this specific niche of “rape cases reopened by DNA.” The more voices the better. In my specific case, the kindness and respect of the police and others in authority were a bright spot. In other true stories, authorities are deservedly criticized. Both truths are important.

Q: You wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times about the importance of testing all the backlogged rape kits, of which there are a staggering amount. Do you think that the hold up is simply financial, or is there a sexist or willfully blind element as well?

A: There are many, many factors that swirled together to create the backlog, which is the accumulation of untested evidence from rapes. Sexism and indifference are no doubt a significant part of what caused the backlog to grow so enormous. There are also practical issues of resources and time, especially with regard to the older rape kits that were collected in the years before the creation of databases of criminal DNA, when it wasn’t practical to test them. In the past year, grants of many millions of dollars have been put forward to try to tackle this problem once and for all. But it’s not just the money that’s solving this; it’s the spotlight. The grants have aimed attention at this important problem.

Q: Finally, on a personal note, as a proud product of Pittsburgh, born in the Magee-Womens hospital where you were taken after the rape, I often felt stung by the realization that awful things happen there just like any other place, and the book’s shorthand of Pittsburgh as “the place where the awful thing happened.” However, I’ve always thought that beside all the natural beauty and great institutions of the ‘Burgh the best thing about it was its people, and in the end you realize that all the members of your justice team are natives, and that their bluff honesty and goodness is crucial to your well being. Do you think you’ll ever go back there?

A: I was in Pittsburgh last week! It’s a beautiful city, and lots of old friends still live there. Carnegie Mellon made me feel very welcome, both teachers who knew me and the new faculty and staff. It has many memories for me: it’s the city where I rented my first apartment, where I learned to drive, where I earned my first degree. It’s the city where I was hurt, and also the city where people helped me.

Author Interview: Cara Black

Cara Black has written her Aimee Leduc series since 1999, when she introduced the scooter-riding, high-top-wearing Parisian Aimee who is always in a different quarter of Paris for her investigations. Cara herself is delightful and interesting, and I think you’ll enjoy meeting her via this interview.

Cara BlackQ: You now have a very long running and successful series set in Paris, though you yourself are American.  Can you talk about your affinity for France, and the reasons for setting your books there? 

A: Paris intrigues me. You know Benjamin Franklin said “all Americans have two countries, one of them is France.” I grew up near San Francisco with a Francophile father who loved good food and wine. He sent me to a French Catholic school with nuns who taught us archaic French and gave us summer subscriptions to ELLE magazine (in the 60’s). Even now people show surprise at my arcane knowledge of 60’s French fashions, models and pop stars. When I did make it to France everything felt familiar yet I was always an outsider. In Murder in the Marais, my first book, I just wanted to tell the story of my friend’s mother, a young Jewish girl who hid in the Marais during the German Occupation of Paris in WWII. My friend’s mother was 14 years old and came home from school one day to find her family gone. She stayed in the apartment, went to school, hoping they would return. A year later, in 1944 at Liberation, she searched for them at the train stations, at the Hotel Lutetia on the Left Bank where the Red Cross had a terminus center for returning deportees and she found they’d gone to Auschwitz. My friend told me this story one day in the Marais, on the street where her mother had lived, and it touched me. Years later when I returned to Paris in the mid 1990’s the story came back to me and I wanted to explore these issues of the past, lingering anti-Semitism and how war still touched every generation. Paris cast a spell on me and it hasn’t let go. 

Q: How much time do you spend there?

A: Never enough, Robin! Seriously, I’m very lucky to have good friends there who let me couch surf and cat sit. So far, with cheap air fares, I’ve been managing twice a year a few weeks at a time. It’s important for my stories to get the setting right, from the light to the trees in bloom and meet up with flics/police who help my research. I just got back from staying with my dear old friend in Belleville where I stayed (years ago) and started writing my second book, Murder in Belleville… so much has changed since then and yet, a lot is the same. That’s what I notice about going back to Paris. My trips to Paris give me the chance to explore for hidden places, discovering off the beaten track passages and hear tales from the Paris flic I take to lunch by his Commissariat and hanging with a member of the vice squad whose beat are the clubs behind the Champs-Élysées.

Q: Your series is set slightly in the past which has always intrigued me.  Can you talk about the reasons behind that choice a little bit? 

A: This was never a conscious decision nor an organized plan on my end, it evolved organically. I was so thrilled to publish my first book that I hadn’t thought of anything else. When my editor asked me where Aimée was going next in Paris, what would be happening with the man she met, etc., I got tongue tied… then she said..”Wait, you are writing a series, aren’t you?” ‘Of course,” I lied. So, I started writing about Belleville, the street life and found a story. It’s been like that with all the books. I’ve just moved Aimée a few months ahead in time (this was the 90’s) and so the stories have stayed in that era (1993-1999 and now the prequel in 1989). I’m so glad too because, while Aimée has a cell phone she doesn’t have to worry about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or texting. There were few CCTV cameras and everyone paid in francs—much sexier than the Euro. Oh and you could still smoke in the cafés.

Q: Your new book is a prequel, which I am thoroughly enjoying—origin stories are always fun.  Is it freshening things up for you after writing so many books about Aimee?

A: Yes, it’s a challenge too! Pushing my mind back to what it was like for her when she young, more innocent. Actually at the end of Murder on the Champ de Mars life changing things happened to Aimée Leduc and to someone close in her life. I couldn’t see much further ahead for her except from the Emergency room in the hospital where this person close to her, who betrayed her (she believes) and had shot, is fighting for their life. Conflicted, heartbroken, all I knew was that Aimée was at a crossroads. I didn’t know where she’d go from here. My editor asked me what would happen to Aimée, I think I mumbled I hadn’t much of a clue where Aimée’s life would take her now. Perfect segue for a prequel, she said in that brilliant way she has. She said she’d always wondered about Aimée’s origin story, on her younger days, what made her into the private detective (apart from inheriting the agency from her father) she’d become. Where did her dog, Miles Davis, come from and how did she find her partner, René Friant, and how did her vintage Chanel style emerge. Also, she asked, couldn’t we have a chance to meet Aimée’s father, Jean-Claude, who we’ve heard about for 15 books and see him together with her mother and glimpse that love and attraction that drew these two very different people together. So we get to meet her father whose death has affected her in the rest of the series. We also meet her grandfather, Claude, who I’ve sort of fallen in love with—he’s a bon vivant, loves good food and haunting the art auctions and has a mistress. Plus the music! I made a playlist to take me back to 1989 including some songs which Aimée hears in the story: “99 Luftballoons,” “Oh Champs-Élysées,” “Love Shack” by the B-52’s, music by Duran Duran and Madonna. Also hearing wonderful old Parisian songs from the 1940’s by Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Charles Trenet that brought to me another era and dancing around the laptop.

Q: Do you even think you might write something else—a standalone, a pure historical, or even a different series? 

A: Yes, a historical standalone is running through my mind.

Q: Aimee is such a great, kick-ass character—she really takes no prisoners.  Were you influenced by any other mystery characters?  Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton started such a revolution when they began their careers and you are continuing their tradition, as far as I’m concerned.  Do you have a plan or agenda in mind when you write about her?

A: Both these writers influenced me tremendously. I love V.I. and Kinsey who inspired me to think of writing, as you say, a kick-ass character who’s also vulnerable, likes bad boys and has a much better fashion sense than I do. I wanted to read about the hip young French women who I saw on the streets, the contemporary Paris I was experiencing, the shadowy past of the war years and history on every corner, the social issues, immigrants, ministry intrigues and legacy of a French colonial empire.

Q: And the vintage clothes, shoes and bags—what a fantasy to read about.  What treasures have you found scouring Paris second hand shops?  

A: My favorite flea market is at Porte de Vanves, there’s a woman who has a stall with vintage couture and sometimes Chanel. But I also haunt the vide greniers, local street “garage” sales as we’d say, held on the weekends where I’ve discovered i.e. old Limoges, a Lalique perfume bottle, a Cacharel silk blouse. Or the church near Pigalle that has a rummage sale in their crypt every May and it’s amazing.

Q: What’s next for Aimee, now that you’ve written a prequel?

A: She’s going back to 1999 and the Left Bank and investigating in Saint Germain, an area I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. The story came from a retired female Brigade Criminelle (elite homicide squad in Paris) officer who’d been seconded to the Hague to investigate Serbian war crimes for the Hague’s tribunal.

Q: What book was “transformational” for you?  It can be a book you read in 5th grade, as long as it had an impact on your reading life. 

A: Robinson Crusoe. It was an old copy with etchings that had been in our family a long time that my father would read to me and my brothers (who were much littler and went for the pictures) on Sunday afternoons. The adventure story thrilled me, I loved that tree house, how he had to be self-sufficient. But it was also that warmth of sitting on the arm of my father’s chair, leaning on his shoulder as he read, my squirming brothers and the oohs and ahh when exciting things happened. And how my father would always leave it on a cliffhanger that hooked me. I think in some way that was the closest time we were a family, too. So that’s in the mix. An adventure book wasn’t only an escape but a way to figure things out together and such a positive, fun way that it impacted me.

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers take away from your books—what’s most important for you to get across? 

A: I hope readers feel like they’ve taken a trip to Paris without the airfare. That they feel like they are in Aimée’s high heels on that street, smell the butter scents from the bakery, see a Paris that’s off the beaten track, the art, history and the issues facing a multi-cultural Paris today.

Author Interview: Allison Leotta

allison-leottaAllison Leotta is the author of the Anna Curtis series, about a DC-based U.S. Attorney who specializes in sex crimes. The first three books were set in DC; last year, Leotta brought Anna back to Michigan (A Good Killing) and in her new novel, Anna is in a town that sounds oh-so-similar to Ann Arbor. Leotta, a native Michigander who also worked as a sex crimes prosecutor in DC, brings real life chops to this wonderful and engaging series. I read her new book, The Last Good Girl, in one sitting, and was thrilled she agreed to an interview.

Q: Obvious question first: how did you turn to writing, away from, I’m assuming, your busy and compelling job as a prosecutor?  How does your work inform your writing?  

 A: Writing was cheaper than therapy. Prosecuting sex crimes was a crazy, stressful, haunting, rewarding, heartbreaking, enlightening, engrossing experience, and I never stopped thinking about it, could never leave the job at the office. Every prosecutor I know has some hobby they turn to for their mental health, from ultra-marathon running to ultra-marathon shopping. Writing was my way of processing everything.

Q:  Did you always want to write suspense/thrillers?  Or is this the form that came naturally to you as you started to write?

A: I wasn’t aiming for a particular genre, I just wanted to tell an authentic story about a sex-crimes prosecutor.  Turns out, the life of a sex-crimes prosecutor plays out a lot like a thriller.  Every day at the USAO, I’d walk the halls wondering what would happen next.  Every time I thought I could no longer be surprised, something surprised me.  That makes for a lot of good raw material, and for a naturally suspenseful story.

Q: I like that your novels often address a very timely issue.  How do you choose what you’d like to write about?  

A: Unfortunately, there’s always some bad man doing some bad thing in the world (sorry, it’s almost always a bad man in my line of work).  There’s plenty of “inspiration,” and I always have several ideas percolating. When it’s time to pull the trigger on a book idea, I talk to my editor, my agent, my husband and a few trusted friends about these ideas, spinning out how they’d work.  After several conversations, I start to get excited about one in particular, and that’s the one I write.

Q:  This new book and the last one have taken Anna from Washington, D.C. back to her home state, Michigan.  What do you feel makes telling a story in Michigan an important part of Anna’s story arc?  (As a Michigander, I’m all in favor!)

A: I’m from Michigan, too, so it’s easy for me to write about!  And I’ve always been fascinated by Detroit.  The city has represented the very best and the very worst that America can be.  And where it is now – poised between desolation and renewal – is such an intriguing moment.  I love the people who are working to find creative ways to bring it back, and I try to highlight that spirit in my books.

Q: I really like the way Anna’s gender is portrayed in terms of how she’s treated by the general public.  I don’t see the people she works with as sexist, but she certainly encounters sexism, and it’s especially vivid in this novel. There’s a sentence toward the beginning “Being underestimated could be a power in itself.”  I felt like that really illustrated the way Anna has adapted and used possible negatives as positives as far as her work is concerned, and it stuck with me after I’d finished the book.  Do you want to comment on that?

A: When I first started at the Justice Department, I was twenty-six years old with unlawyerly long curly blond hair.  I’d walk into a conference room filled with a bunch of older male lawyers, and they’d look behind me to see where the attorney was. One guy ordered coffee from me.  (To his credit, he was embarrassed when he learned I was the prosecutor, not her assistant.)  I was underestimated pretty much every time I got a new case. It didn’t take long for me to learn how to use that to my advantage – to out-prepare, out-research, and out-strategize the other guy – and enjoy the look on his face when he realized he’d been bested by the girl he thought was going to fetch him a half-caf.

Q: I’m interested in the way you approached the research in this book which involves the way students live on college campuses now, and their attitudes toward one another.  It seems very “right” – how did you achieve that?

A: Thanks!  I’m so glad you think so.  This didn’t come naturally to me – it’s been twenty years since I graduated from Michigan State. I hung around campuses here in DC, watching students interact and checking out the new scenery, like vending machines offering condoms and lube.  I spoke to college students about their take on modern campus life.  And I watched a lot of vlogs – video logs – of college students on YouTube.  I took notes on how they were talking, and, you know, kind of, gave that to my characters.

Q: A technical question: your books are brilliantly paced. How do you achieve that in the writing process? In a way I think writing a good suspense novel is like writing a good poem, as it can’t have anything extraneous that drags it down. It has to be lean and mean!

A: Thanks again!  I agree that a good suspense novel has to be lean and mean.  I definitely don’t achieve that in the writing process – that happens during editing.  My first drafts are sloppy and oversized.  I spend as much time editing my books as writing them.  I try to carve away everything that isn’t essential to the story or entertaining to the reader. If a paragraph can be expressed in a sentence, I use the sentence. I kill a lot of darlings.

Q: Who are your writing influences/inspirations?  

A: Too many to list!  I’m a lifelong bookworm, always reading when I should have been sleeping.  Two of my favorites are Jane Austen and George Pelecanos, and I like to think of my work as Pride and Prejudice meets “The Wire.”

Q: What read for you in life was “transformational”?  The book you read that opened your eyes or changed your life?  (It might be a book you read when you were 10).

A: This has nothing to do with my genre, but the non-fiction book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond changed the entire way I look at the world.

Q: Finally what’s next for Anna?  Any tidbits you’d care to share about what’s coming up for her?

A: Poor thing, I’ve put her through a lot the last few years. She might need a little rest while I look into writing something new. I’ll keep you posted!

Interview: Jamie Agnew

Recently Jamie was asked a few questions about mysteries by a reporter at The Michigan Daily, Rebecca Lerner. She agreed that we could publish the questions & original answers here. (An edited version was published in her column.) He gets to the heart of why mysteries are so great & why we love them so much.

Q: Why did you open/run a bookstore specifically devoted to mystery? 

A: Most of all because we love mysteries.  Of course, we also thought it would be economically feasible. Mystery readers are very loyal, and mystery books have only grown in popularity. Many authors write in series with a continuing character, and specializing allows us to carry their backlist as well as the current bestseller. We’ve been here twenty-four years now, so we must be doing something right.

Q: Do you think that the mystery genre opens itself to being serious and literary?

A: My first response to that question would be “God forbid.” I know that many people, especially in a place like Ann Arbor, think that slogging through a painfully “serious and literary” book is somehow more virtuous than reading a book that is entertaining, but to me that’s a fairly recent attitude. The great novels of the nineteenth century are both profound and enjoyable to read, and quite a few of them had to do with the themes of modern mystery such as identity, guilt and murder. If Crime and Punishment came out today what section of the bookstore would it be shelved? I’ll add that I think “literary fiction” is a genre like any other, with just a many artificialities and strictures.

Q: Where do you think the mystery genre is moving toward in terms of literary gravity? 

A: Edgar Allan Poe was the author who, for me, set the template for the modern mystery, so as far as I’m concerned it’s been heavy all along. Surely there’s no character more memorable than Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot in modern English literature. Character is revealed most truly in life or death situations, which is, of course, our stock in trade. Most crime novels, then and now, are far more than puzzle books, but incisive looks at how the web of society is torn by antisocial acts and the attempts of that society to somehow make itself whole again. The movement I have seen the most is from static protagonists like Poirot or Philip Marlowe, who change little over the course of many series books, to more nuanced figures like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight or William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, who over the course of succeeding installment achieve a depth of characterization impossible in any single novel. Lately, it has been the vogue for “literary” writers to attempt thrillers, presumably seeking the vitality and popularity lacking in their own genre, but not all of them have the skills to pull it off.

Author Interview: Carrie Smith

Carrie SmithI was delighted to be able to interview Carrie Smith, a real discovery. I loved her first book and loved her answers to my questions.

Q; Let me say up front I’m a big fan of police procedurals, especially police procedurals written by women.  I’ve loved books by Lillian O’Donnell, Lee Martin, Margaret Maron, Barbara D’Amato, Leslie Glass and more recently Theresa Schwegel and Karin Slaughter (the excellent Cop Town) and ALL of them deal with the way women are treated in the workforce and how they must adapt to deal with it. Sadly, I think your book published in 2015 is dealing with some of the same issues that Lillian O’Donnell was writing about in 1972.  All that being said, was this something on the top of your list when you started your novel?

A: Writing about a strong female character was definitely at the top of my list. Claire’s Lieutenant, Dennis McGowan, does not like this strong, competent woman in his squad, and Codella constantly has to find strategies to deal with that. In much the same way, her second on the case, Detective Muñoz, a gay man, has to find ways to deal with the bullying of male colleagues in his unit. In a subculture built on the “fraternal bond,” both women and gay men are outsiders that threaten the order. At best, they are tolerated, and they have to work much harder than others to prove their worth. Claire’s childhood—revealed in Book 2—provides greater insight into where her toughness and determination come from.

Q: I loved the panorama of female characters here as well—there’s Marva, who I found very interesting, as she is a meek person, not as aggressive as some of the other women in the story, notably Claire and Margery, and to an extent, Dana Drew.  What are your thoughts about Marva’s character?

A: At first, Marva seems a bit unlikeable and unhelpful in the investigation, but my hope was that readers would ultimately see her complexity and sympathize with her. She’s had a tough life. She’s a single black woman who has risen to the role of assistant principal. But the people around her do not value her, and because she lacks confidence and self-esteem, she allows others to make her their pawn. Her mother has cast her into the role of primary caregiver to her. Hector Sanchez, her boss, expects her to do the school’s administrative dirty work while he takes all the credit for the school’s turnaround. Marjorie Barton completely discounts her abilities. Marva tries to take comfort in her religion, but she yearns for something more fulfilling in her life. The events in the novel bring her to a new place. She receives a major blow, but she also makes a breakthrough.

My goal in Silent City was to create a vivid cast of diverse suspects who all have very different and believable motives for wanting to murder the victim, and this requires the characters to be multi-dimensional. I want each of them to—even if they play a supporting role—to be memorable and real.

Q: I very much liked the school setting and the tie-in of the educational software into the plot (it sounds like a great idea).  Does this reflect the kind of work you do in real life?

A: Yes, it does. I am the publisher of Benchmark Education Company, a developer of core and supplemental curriculum resources for grades K-8. In that capacity, I have worked closely with teachers, principals, and district leaders. Regarding the tie-in to educational software: Educational publishers are at a crossroads. As more and more instruction is delivered digitally and adaptive software becomes widely available, print-only publishers will have no place. Over the last decade, I have experienced my company’s growing pains as we essentially transform ourselves into a technology provider in order to stay in the game.

It was hard not to use this rich context at my fingertips. I love it when a book I’m reading reveals a little world I knew nothing about (P.D. James is a master of that). I wanted to use my “insider” knowledge to create a setting and circumstances that would take my readers someplace they had never been.

Q: Of course making Claire a cancer survivor is so striking, it stays with you, and you are thinking about it as you read.  You’re worried about her running around and working too hard, not eating right, etc.  It added a lot of depth to her character and you seemed to have some inside info on cancer treatment.  Is that anything you want to talk about?  If not, please talk a little about the development of Claire’s character in general.

A: Claire’s backstory as a cancer survivor was definitely influenced by my own experiences, and I don’t at all mind speaking about that. My partner Cynthia developed an aggressive lymphoma six years ago. She was diagnosed on a Tuesday and in the hospital for her first treatment on Thursday. Lymphomas can be cured, but you have to hit them hard, so the treatment is particularly brutal. It usually involves six rounds of intensive chemotherapy. You’re in the hospital for three to four days at a time receiving a continuous infusion of drugs. When you come home, your platelet count drops. Your immunity is virtually non-existent. You usually end up back in the hospital a week later for transfusions. You develop infections and end up back in the emergency room between treatments. You are basically the walking dead. While it’s incredibly hard on the patient, it’s also really hard to be the firsthand observer of a loved one’s treatment. I wrote the first few sentences of what became Silent City as I left the hospital in tears one day. Looking back, I needed some way to objectify and transform the whole experience, and so I came up with this strong character used to chasing murderers who now is being chased by her own killer.

Q: I liked the way the book kind of unspooled the way real life does—eating late or on the run, driving all over the place for something that doesn’t always work out, calls at work you don’t have time to take, etc. and yet you kept the pacing of the story snappy.  I found it hard to put down.  Any tricks of the trade there that you’d care to share?

A: Let’s see…Always end a chapter leaving readers guessing or wanting more. Make sure that the dynamics between characters are interesting and real. Manage the output of information carefully. Vary the settings. Use dialogue to its best advantage. Writing a mystery is a balancing act between character development (backstory) and plot (the action that drives the mystery forward). You need both, and one can’t overwhelm the other.

Q: I also liked Claire’s counterfoil, Haggerty—will he be appearing in future books?  

A: Absolutely. In fact, readers learn a lot more about Haggerty’s past in Book 2—his childhood and some key moments he has shared with Claire. Their relationship will definitely continue and develop.

Q: How about Munoz?  I thought they worked well together.  

A: Muñoz is an important part of the Claire-Haggerty-Muñoz triumvirate. As the series progresses, his character will also come more sharply into focus. He is someone Claire has come to trust (and she doesn’t trust that many people). And he is devoted to her because she stood up for him when no one else did.

Q: How much research did you have to do on police procedure to write the book?

A: I spend a lot of time researching esoteric things as they come up. I have a few NYPD sources who answer some questions for me. And I have my forensic investigation manuals that I pore over continually.

Q: What book is a “transformational read” for you?  The one you read (maybe when you were 5 or 10 or 15) that has always stayed with you?

A: In terms of transformational reads, the first titles that come to my mind are Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. Those probably don’t sound like the titles a crime writer would name, but there it is. In my “formative” years, I imagined myself becoming a literary writer, not a genre writer (my first novel Forget Harry was definitely in the literary camp). What I have come to understand is that the best genre writers are literary writers as well. They bring a depth to the genre that allows them to develop memorable three-dimensional characters. In the crime genre, P.D. James is the writer who has most influenced me. I think that her books elevate the mystery genre because her writing is superb and her observations on human behavior are so insightful.

Q. What’s next for Claire?  Is this going to be a series?  (Please say yes!)

A: Absolutely! I’m doing the final edits on Book 2, Forgotten City, right now. Here’s a little synopsis:

Forgotten City:

NYPD Detective Claire Codella is chomping at the bit for a new case. Lieutenant McGowan is determined to keep her out of the news, but she’s about to be back in the public eye in a big way.

Broadway dance legend Lucy Martinelli Merchant has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For eighteen months she’s been languishing in the dementia care unit of exclusive Upper East Side Park Manor, the final home for many of New York’s aging and infirm “gentry.” When a night Park Manor caregiver finds Lucy Merchant dead, her daughter is convinced she’s been murdered and she seeks Codella out.

The complex investigation throws Codella into the path of a warring family, big business battles, and the administrators, nurses, and undervalued caregivers who serve Park Manor’s privileged clientele. Everyone has a motive for murder, and solving the case will force Codella to dig deep into their ugly pasts—as well as her own.

Author Interview: Steve Miller

Steve MillerSteve Miller is a highly regarded journalist who has lately turned his hand to true crime; he’s now written four and this one sparked my interest so much I wanted to hear what he had to say about it. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Q: True Crime as a genre is kind of looked down on—but to me it shows a real true side of human behavior; maybe not a nice one, but a true one.  What motivates you personally to write true crime?

A: True crime is the pornography of non-fiction. Literary agents steer you away from it and publishers treat it like a place for castoffs. Yet you see how many titles come out every year, and you see these TV shows in Investigation Discovery and truTV and the other networks. Someone’s digging it. And someone’s making money.

I come to it as a journalist, and it presents this opportunity to really dig into a case that I wouldn’t have in any other venue. There’s a bit of a puzzle in deciphering each case, and a challenge in bringing it to the reader in 80,000 decent words with structure.

Without true crime, I don’t think fiction crime and mystery writers would be able to feel so superior. I’ve been run down by housewives at book fairs who climb over me to get a chance to converse with a fiction crime writer. I mean, butt-in-face, push past me, it was pretty funny. They sure don’t want to talk to the scary guy who writes about things that really happen. That’s the stuff you read or watch in the privacy of your own home. And you don’t tell anyone.

Q: How did you decide to write about this case?

A: I was doing interviews for another book, Detroit Rock City, that placed me in the city a lot. I live about 70 miles from Detroit. It seemed every day that summer 2012 there was a twist in this case and I couldn’t avoid it. In the course of my interviews for the other book, I came across a couple people who were connected to the Bashara case and had some pretty good information and insights. So that fall I reached out to Bashara and we began to converse. He felt he was being railroaded and hoped that I might uncover some flaws in the prosecution’s case regarding the murder charges. With that kind of access and with the case having that BDSM twist, I felt it would be interesting. Especially if he was not guilty and the Wayne County prosecutor’s office was wrong. As it turned out, the office was not so far off base.

Q: You mention in your introduction that the victim’s family wouldn’t talk to you—was that a huge hindrance as you were putting the book together?

A: No, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t talk to a journalist if I were in their shoes. 

Q: I thought this book was especially excellent as it gave the reader a real picture of an actual killer.  I was saying to my husband, “He’s not exactly evil,” then described what he’d done, and he said “that’s evil.”  Maybe what actually makes people so uncomfortable with true crime is that it shows how absolutely banal bad and criminal behavior actually is.  What are your thoughts on that?

A: Evil is a funny thing. I can’t say Bashara is evil but he certainly made some choices that hurt people all around him. That’s some bad shit to carry around. It’s interesting how once people find out someone did some reprehensible things, they’re judged immediately. But before knowing those things, that individual was okay. Like the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club. Bashara was president of that club for some time, so someone must have thought he was ok. He raised money for a lot of causes around the Pointes, and no one handed back any of that money, that I know of.

But yea, a lot of people don’t want to know about the objectively immoral/indecent actions of those among our species, of which murder leads the pack. I understand that. I don’t even like to think about the subjectively amoral actions. I take news blackouts, where I don’t read any news for a 48 hours period to keep away from the noise, like the work of politicians who actively work to do bad things to the public in order to stay in office. So people avoiding true crime are taking on a strain of that avoidance. It hurts your spirit sometimes.

Q: Was it ever uncomfortable exchanging e-mails with Bob?

A: No. He would get angry on occasion over a question, but that’s cool, I understand. But I notice that he has never wavered in his stand that he had nothing to do with this. I’ve watched his post-conviction testimony and it is exactly what he told me at all times. That consistency is scary. I can think of nothing worse than being locked up for something I didn’t do, and that never really leaves the picture as I cover a case.

Q: When you start a book do you have to check your preconceptions at the door, or are there some that hold true for every story you write about?

A: I never have any preconceptions. Every case unfolds differently as all the players are different. If they start to look the same, it’s a bad sign. I try to approach each story differently, knowing that this is going to be a long exercise and I have some time to develop the story. Unlike fiction, though, these are real people and the only thing I aim at doing is ensuring I deliver an accurate portrayal of them. Of course many people make it hard to do, but that’s part of chronicling crime.

Q: I know Ann Rule became very focused in her writing on the investigative process, and on the police detectives, who she wrote about in glowing terms.  The cops in this book are a bit bungling.  Do you feel they could actually have nailed Bob sooner with a tighter investigation?

A: Rule’s books were tributes to law enforcement, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that. Or her books, for that matter. That kind of soft treatment of the cops sits really poorly with me. Some cop beat reporters today give the cops plenty of love because they are afraid that if they don’t, the cops won’t give them info. It’s a game that poorly serves the public, as we can see how corrupt cops can be. This is why it’s no surprise to see the recent emergence of citizen-recorded videotapes of shootings. These are not the only instances of cop abuse, they’re just the once that happen to get recorded. We can go back to Rodney King to see the impact of that.

In this case, the local cops had no idea what to do. They failed to get the security videotape outside the Hard Luck, where Bob was the night of the murder, before it was erased. In fact, that was one of the factors that got me interested early on in this case, when I was told about the video in an early conversation with a source in Detroit. The section in the book, the trial section, where the Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor lays into the Grosse Pointe cops during trial for their shoddy work and failure to meet deadlines and work with the prosecutor’s office tells a story of classic cop stupidity. Yes, the case would have been broken sooner with good cop work, although I don’t think there was a lot of damage done to the public overall due to the lag. Surely Jane’s family must have been aware that this was taking too damn long.

Q: Was there part of this story that just broke your heart and made it hard to write?  Often when I read a true crime book I feel so terrible for the victim it’s almost hard to read about.  I thought you were quite respectful of Jane Bashara, the victim in this case.  

A: In my first book, A Slaying in the Suburbs, it was a case in which both the killer, Stephen Grant, and the wife he murdered, Tara, were miserably angry at each other and really vicious at times. I had people tell me, ‘well, you know, I can almost see a guy getting so angry…’ But in this case, Jane Bashara was truly a good woman who did the right thing, walked a strong path and was absolutely a kind wife and good mother. Of course no one is perfect, and domesticity is a sticky, complicated thing that at times brings out the worst in people. But feeling, how decent she was really hurt me some nights when I would sit and think about justice in the universe. The justice system says Bob Bashara was responsible for the murder, but I couldn’t gin up the hate for him on the same level I could the sadness for Jane. 

Q: This is your fourth true crime book—what are you learning as you write each book?  Do you feel your investigative and writing skills evolving?

A: I hope so. I wish I could tell, but I can’t. It never gets easier, and I write a lot over the course of a year, articles for different magazines and news outlets. Sometimes it moves, sometimes it’s a struggle. I like reporting more than I like writing because it keeps you moving and takes you places, literally and figuratively. I can stay up all night researching a string of an investigation—an errant public official, or agency usually—if it’s hot. Crime is a lot like a football game; it unwinds in front of you. Things happen. That’s why you see a lot of crime on the news. It’s easy to report, people like to know when it happens in their community and it goes away as quickly as it comes when it’s just a news item. The books, well, that takes some dedication to get the whole story as both a reader and a writer.

Q: What’s next?  Do you have another case in mind you are planning to write about?

A: I have a book, Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Created (Da Capo) coming out in the summer. It deals with the Juggalo culture but also the FBI’s mislabeling Juggalos as a gang in a national report in 2011. That led to a lawsuit by ICP against the Justice Department, which alleges among other things a First Amendment infringement. It’s the first time a fan base has been officially deemed a gang, which is quite an interesting direction for the feds to go in.

As far as crime, I’m watching a case in Florida. I don’t know that I will write a book on it, but I am close to it and have good sources. That’s how it starts. Maybe it won’t be a book next time. There are a lot more ways to get this stuff out there than the traditional true crime books, which are ignored by the marketing people for the publishers. I think about that next time I hear of layoffs at a book publishing house; they don’t support a genre because they feel it’s unseemly. But they do so at the expense of profits. And ultimately, jobs. 

Thank you so much, Steve!