Archive for Interviews

Author Interview: Owen Laukkanen and Nick Petrie

Owen Laukkanen and Nick Petrie are two of the most talented and original thriller writers at work at the moment. Owen’s latest book, Gale Force, is a bravura tour de force set on board a salvage ship; Nick burst on the scene with The Drifter and hasn’t made a wrong move since.

Q: I’ve been reading and selling mysteries for so long now I’ve started to feel like a biologist, making categories. I had just read a bunch of cozies before I read your books and started thinking about how thrillers and cozies have some similarities. Certain tropes are expected. Can you talk about how you utilize tropes to structure your books?

Owen LaukkanenOWEN: Wow, what a great question, and not one that I’ve ever been asked before! I think readers expect certain things from a thriller, just as they do a cozy, and honestly I’ve found that thrillers just seem to work better if you adhere to certain tropes while looking for ways to put your own spin on them.

When I’m asked to do a reading, I typically read from the prologue or first chapter of my books, and that’s not an accident. I’m looking to do in a reading the same thing I’m aiming to accomplish with a reader who’s just picking up the book for the first time: draw the audience in and make it impossible for them to walk away (or not buy the book, as the case may be).

So I look to create a kind of self-sufficient capsule of a scene that’s going to establish what the book is about, illustrate whatever crime we’re going to be dealing with, and leave the reader with at least one burning question he or she simply cannot let go unanswered. And we’ll spend the rest of the book trying to answer that question, or dealing with its fallout. We’ll build to some kind of climactic showdown between the series characters and the bad guy, and hopefully by the end of the book we’ll have answers to some but not all of the questions we raised.

For me, the fun is using any kind of familiar thriller structure and using it to say what I want to say about social issues and the world at large while couching all of the preachy stuff in a fast-moving and entertaining story that ticks all the boxes a thriller fan is looking for.

Nick PetrieNICK: I read a lot, so I’m certainly aware of crime fiction’s many tropes, but I can’t say I consciously begin a Peter Ash novel with those in mind. Instead, my goal is to tell a specific, interesting, and exciting story featuring characters I—and hopefully the reader—come to care about a great deal. As I blunder through the first draft, though, certain themes and tropes begin to bleed into the narrative and structure without conscious planning. In part, this is driven by the kinds of stories that interest me, but it also comes from the influence of writers I’ve loved and read over many years.

Q: You both kind of write non-series series. You have connecting characters, but each book is so different from the one before. Can you talk about that a bit?

OWEN: I think one of the difficulties of writing a series is that the audience knows, by and large, that your main characters are going to survive (unless you’re George R.R. Martin, of course). So you automatically lose a lot of the tension when you thrust your series character into a dangerous situation.

I’ve found it’s pretty effective if you have kind of “surrogate” main characters, whether they’re bad guys who have enough humanity to them that we can relate and empathize, or victims/potential victims who we can see wandering inexorably into harm’s way but can’t do anything to help. We’re not sure, as readers, what happens to these characters, and it keeps us turning the pages and rooting for our series characters to hurry up and save the day.

I also find the most rewarding thing about writing crime fiction, as I mentioned above, is being able to write about social issues while still giving readers an entertaining story. I’ve been fortunate enough that my publisher allows me to write about whatever interests me, and my interests are pretty varied, so I’m always looking for a new direction to take.

I’d go insane if I could only write, say, serial killer procedurals. It’s just not why I got into this game.

NICK: Peter Ash, my series protagonist, is a lot of fun to hang out with, and I hope to be writing about his adventures for a long time, but I didn’t want to be stuck writing one kind of story. Writing about a rootless man, I can put Peter in a wide range of stories with essentially unlimited narrative, geographic, thematic, and stylistic possibilities. Also, each novel can be different in scope, with some books telling big stories, and others telling smaller, more personal stories. So far I’ve written about veterans’ lives in The Drifter, emerging technology in Burning Bright, the newly-legal cannabis industry in Light It Up, and race and class in my upcoming book, Tear It Down (January 2019)—although all the books deal with veterans’ lives in one way other another. Also, with just a few connecting characters, I can spend time developing “guest stars”—then do terrible things to them!

Q: There are some obvious questions for you both. Owen, why a ship? What kind of research did you have to do? Are you a sailor yourself? 

OWEN: I come from a maritime family—my grandfather was a boat-builder and a commercial fisherman, my uncle a commercial fisherman, and even my dad, who’s a doctor by trade, fishes commercially for lobster during the summer. I’d even applied to maritime college to go to work at sea, but it turns out I’m colorblind, and you really need to be able to differentiate between red and green if you want to navigate at sea.

So I’ve always felt drawn to the sea, and as a reader, to the literature of the sea. Since I couldn’t work on ships myself, I’d always wanted to write books set aboard them. The oceans are still so very lawless to this day, so they’re the perfect environment for a thriller writer. 

In writing Gale Force, I drew a lot on my own experience on the water. I worked summers on my uncle’s prawn and salmon fishing boat in the North Pacific through my twenties, and they were some of the happiest summers of my life. A lot of the maritime environment in the book comes from the people I met and places I experienced on the job.

And then, obviously, I did a fair bit of research about the deep-sea salvage industry, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; it’s essentially a gold rush with tens of millions of dollars on the line, and highly-specialized teams of seafarers braving monster storms as they race each other out to shipwrecks. Like I said, the perfect thriller environment.

Q: Nick, I don’t think you are a veteran yourself but your veteran character is a very powerful one, and I have customers who are vets who really appreciate Peter. Can you talk about why you made that particular choice?

NICK: No, I’m not a veteran, but I made my main character a Marine Corps Iraq War veteran for very personal reasons. I ran a building inspection business for fifteen years, and after the Surge, I had many clients who were coming home from war. I’m a curious guy and I’m interested in people, and in talking with these men and women, I found myself profoundly moved by what many of them had experienced, as well as the significant and often unacknowledged price many of them had paid in the process, and would be paying for the rest of their lives. It also seemed to me that, with our all-volunteer military, most Americans truly had no idea of what we’d asked of these young men and women, and I wanted to share their stories. Like you, I get a lot of feedback from veterans who tell me that Peter really resonates with them, which is the best compliment this writer could ask for. My ongoing conversation with vets is honestly the best part of writing about Peter Ash.

Q: I was talking to some authors at Malice Domestic about how technology has changed things up—you can’t have a character not have a cell phone, for example, which sometimes makes things tricky in terms of plotting, I would imagine. These authors were older and you guys are kind of the new wave. How do you factor in/avoid technology when you’re structuring your novels? 

OWEN: I think technology gives a lot more than it takes away, as a writer. A lot of the inspiration for my stories comes from weird technological quirks and developments that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

The Forgotten Girls, for instance, was inspired in part by the crazy, real-life story of quote-unquote Brother Orange. Essentially, some guy in New York had his iPhone stolen. A few months later, he started getting weird pictures of a Chinese man in an orange grove showing up on his new iPhone.

What he figured out was that the old phone was still connected to his cloud, and was uploading the pictures to both phones. The craziest part is that he tracked down the orange grove guy (“Brother Orange”) all the way in China, and the two men became Chinese celebrities and did a six-week tour of the country, opening restaurants and doing photo ops and stuff. Just weird.

But as soon as I read the story, my crime writer Spidey sense started to tingle. Because what if it wasn’t just someone else’s selfies that showed up on your phone, but pictures of a dead body?

And that’s how The Forgotten Girls begins, with some poor sap finding pictures of a dead woman on his phone, and the police all believe that he killed her.

NICK: I’m fascinated by technology, and also by the varied ways people use it. Some live on the bleeding edge, some are Luddites, and some, like me, live on the spectrum between those extremes. Similarly, certain characters, and certain books, require more extensive use of technology than others. And I have to say, for all the plot challenges brought on by modern technology, it also offers many opportunities. But because even a basic smartphone can made plotting problematic, I accidentally evolved a simple cheat. One of the running gags in the series is that Peter has trouble hanging onto a working phone—they get lost, broken, stolen, even eaten by a bear. And it’s part of Peter’s character that he doesn’t much care.

Q: What book/books did you read that made you think, wow, I want to do that? What book or books really changed your path as readers/writers? 

OWEN: The book that really changed my path as a writer was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which we read in grade eleven English class. I had moved to southern Ontario and was really missing the ocean, and Steinbeck’s description of the tuna boats setting out from Monterey made me yearn almost unbearably to go back to the west coast. Since I couldn’t get out there, I decided I wanted to be able to evoke that same kind of image with my own writing, and it was about then that I realized I wanted to be a writer—and also, that writing and the ocean became inextricably entwined for me.

More recently, I picked up Don Winslow’s Savages and it rocked my world. I was working on a Young Adult novel and it wasn’t really working as written, but the way Winslow plays with language and structure really inspired me to try something similar with my own book, and it was an extremely rewarding and fun exercise, and it wound up launching my YA career. (I publish under the name Owen Matthews.)

NICK: Oh, man, there are so many! Although for me, it’s more about authors than specific books. I grew up inhaling science fiction and adventure stories, gobbling down stories as fast as I could. It wasn’t until high school, reading Hemingway, that I realized that “literature” could be both exciting and beautiful, with very high stakes. In college, reading Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and Elmore Leonard, among many, many others, I saw the varied ways that crime fiction could also be gorgeous and profound. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was perhaps the biggest revelation for me—lush, violent cowboy novels masquerading as serious fiction, or maybe the other way around. I hoped I could do that same magic trick writing crime, and that goal is what keeps me going every day.

Q: What makes you excited to start your writing day/a new book?

OWEN: For me, it’s the feeling that I can’t rest until I get the story in my head on the page. There are days when I just can’t stop thinking about a story, plotting out scenes, chapters, places, characters, to the point that it’s impossible to even sleep unless I get something written out. That’s the best place to be; it’s that sense of urgency that made me sure I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and any time I can get that feeling back and harness it, I know the writing’s going well.

NICK: Coffee! An essential part of this writer’s toolkit. Actually, I have two favorite moments in the life of a book. The first is that electric jolt when my tentative attempts to find the opening of a novel finally result into my falling headlong into scene and story, and the book begins to unfold. The second is toward the end, when I’m writing full-tilt and I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words in my head. It’s the slow, ugly middle that’s always a struggle—when it’s important to remind myself that it’s not my fault, it’s just the ugly middle, and if I keep writing, eventually the book will gather momentum again. (Some days, I’m tempted to write that reminder in reverse on my forehead, so I see it every time I look in the mirror.)

Q: How do you avoid being predictable?

OWEN: That’s another good question. I think it starts with being aware of the tropes in the genre, and that comes with reading widely and being aware of what other authors are doing. And then, I think it continues with having a desire to surprise the reader, which is something that I’d wager most thriller writers have in spades. I get a kick out of subverting expectations, so I try to lead the reader into a situation that they think is predictable, and then turn it on its ear.

NICK: Thank goodness, I’m not predictable! I actually work hard to keep things fresh, try new things, and stretch myself as a writer. This is part of why I’ve built the series the way I have—my vast looming dread of boring both myself and my readers. I think changing the setting really helps give each book a unique feel and flavor, and bringing significant new characters into play can really shape the form and path of a novel.

Q: Do you feel like you are having a conversation with readers as you write, or are you writing a story and just hoping someone will eventually enjoy it? 

OWEN: Obviously, I hope that the reader comes away from my books with a new perspective, or something unexpected to mull over, but for the most part, it’s the latter. I’ve found that my most successful and enjoyable writing comes when I forget about everything but the fun I’m having putting words on the page. I try to write the kind of book that I want to read, the way I want to write it, and then have faith that when other people pick it up, my excitement and enthusiasm will shine through.

NICK: Selfishly, I begin writing to entertain myself—to write the book I want to read next. I feel very lucky that the stories I want to tell also interest my readers. It does eventually turn into a conversation when I show sections to my wife, Margret, or to my editor or agent. They react to the work, and I internalize that feedback for the following drafts. 

Q: What’s next for you both?

OWEN: I have a new series coming out next year; I pitched it as Jack Reacher with a rescue dog, which is pithy but not entirely accurate. Essentially, it’s about a rescue dog who is trained by a convicted murderer in one of those prison outreach programs, and who is then assigned to a US Marine with PTSD.

The Marine gets into some trouble, and the dog is taken from her, and when the murderer is released from prison at the end of his sentence, he learns that the dog is in trouble and goes to see if he can save it.

In the process, he gets mixed up in the Marine’s troubles, and the two of them have to team up to save the dog and, ultimately, clean up the corrupt little town where the Marine is living.

The murderer kind of fancies himself as the Reacher character, but the Marine isn’t quite the damsel in distress. So it’s fun and hopefully a new twist on that trope. And as a bonus, the rescue dog is based on my own rescue pitbull, Lucy, who’ll be hitting the road with me to promote the book and who will actually be in Ann Arbor for my event with Nick!

NICK: My new book, Tear It Down, hits the shelves in January 2019. Peter travels to Memphis to help a photojournalist who’s being harassed. By the time he arrives, someone has driven a dump truck into her living room—and things get much worse from there. The story brings Peter into close contact with a gifted street musician, a neighborhood warlord and his enforcers, and a pair of hog-butchering brothers with an ugly agenda. The book was a blast to write, and it’s saturated with great Memphis music.

Author Interview: Nancy Herriman

Nancy HerrimanNancy Herriman has written several novels, and has now turned her pen to Elizabethan England and a new character, herbalist Bess Ellyott.

Q: Can you talk about your career a little bit? Looking through your publishing output, I see you had two earlier books that seem to fit the romance category and then you switched it up to writing mysteries. Can you talk about that trajectory?

A: I can, and it was a lengthy trajectory! For ten-plus years I tried my hand at various genres—sexy historical romance, historical young adult fiction, contemporary women’s fiction and romance—to no avail. At last, though, my agent found a publisher interested in a “sweet” historical romance I’d written that was set in 1830’s London. The Irish Healer was my first sale. Unfortunately, the publisher closed its fiction line a short few years later, leaving me searching for a new direction to go. Knowing my love for mysteries, my agent suggested I work on one. I did, and she succeeded in selling my first mystery series, “A Mystery of Old San Francisco,” to Penguin Random House. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Q: Your new novel, set in 1592-93 England, takes place mostly in Wiltshire. Why did you choose that area, instead of the more familiar (to readers) London?

A: I suppose I simply wanted to do something different. Wiltshire is a lovely part of the country, and its ancient history of henges (Stonehenge is located in the county) and mysterious “druid” mounds will come into play in the next book in the series.

Q: Why did you make your central character an herbalist?

A: I don’t seem to be able to help myself! The central character in my first novel is a healer. The female sleuth in in my San Francisco books is a nurse. And Bess Ellyott is an herbalist. A woman with medical knowledge and who regularly encounters death—sometimes suspicious death—seems, to me, to make the perfect sleuth. Plus, I am fascinated by historical medical practices, which I can’t explain.

Q: You are really good at creating an environment, with many of characters of varying degrees of importance to the story as well as the setting itself, down to the food and smells. Can you talk about how that works a bit, or is it simply unexplainable writerly magic?

A: I’ll take “writerly magic” as an explanation! I delight in trying to recreate the sights and sounds and smells of a place, hoping to make the setting more real, more palpable. Admittedly, that requires some imagination on my part, but it’s certainly the aspect of writing I most enjoy. I’ve been lucky to discover contemporary descriptions that help with the task. I do think, though, that Tudor Wiltshire was a tad more stinky than I’ve so far indicated. I need to fix that.

Q: Have you always read mysteries? And if so, what writers have been a particular influence on your work?

A: I’ve been reading historical fiction and mysteries since I was a teenager. Some of my favorite authors are Agatha Christie (of course!), Lindsey Davis and her witty Roman mysteries, the incomparable and much missed Elizabeth Peters, as well as Ruth Downie’s fabulous Medicus series. If I could write even half as well as those ladies, I’d count myself fortunate.

Q: You seem to be setting up threads to follow through for the next book, particularly relating to Bess’ first husband and how he met his death. Can you share any details without giving anything away?

A: In Book 2, Bess will continue to be forced to confront, albeit remotely, the man she believes murdered her husband. Believe it or not, even I have yet to understand the circumstances surrounding Martin Ellyott’s death. For me, the true magic of writing mysteries is allowing the characters to reveal their actions as I write. I’ve more than once discovered that the real killer was not the person I originally intended. Which does force a lot of editing.

Q: Elizabethan England was a particularly brutal time. The way laws were enforced, and the things that were punished (and the degree of punishment) are so different. You illuminated that especially well with the scene with Bess and Richard Topcliffe, who you mention in an afterword was a real person. Can you talk about what drew you to the time period?

A: I have always been intrigued by the Medieval and Tudor periods. Since the common assessment seems to be that their lives were nasty and brutal, I’ve sought to understand that assessment. Are we really today so different or so much better? People then lived on the razor’s edge, wary and fearful of what tomorrow might bring and with precious little resources to protect themselves against that uncertainty. They could ill afford any disturbance that might upset the precarious balance of their lives and their neighbor’s’ lives. If we were put in the same situation, might we not behave similarly? I long to give them the breath to speak to us about who they were. I’m convinced we’d find them not so different from ourselves.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you? Can we look forward to another Bess book?

A: Another Bess book is indeed in the works. It will be out in March of 2019, if everything goes to plan. A traveling actor is found murdered on the summit of a mound long thought to be a druid temple. Rumors of witches and mysterious doings follow.

Thank you, Nancy!

Author Interview: Emily Littlejohn

Emily LittlejohnI had meaning to get to Emily Littlejohn’s books for awhile – mainly thanks to a blurb from Deborah Crombie – and with a rare “free reading moment,” I picked up the second book and was immediately smitten. The blend of the Colorado setting, indelible characters, twisty plots and a haunting overlay of folk tales in her now two novels, got me completely hooked. She was nice enough to answer a few questions.

Q: I just finished your first book, and had a hard time believing it really was a first book, as you write with such a mature and nuanced voice.  What led to this first book?

A: I have always been a huge reader, especially of mysteries and horror fiction. After working in public libraries for over a decade, I felt I’d been exposed to enough good (and not so good) literature to have an understanding of what might make a good story! I’d always wanted to try my hand at writing fiction and I tinkered around on a few drafts of some books that will never see the light of day (they are that bad). When I decided to get serious about writing, it came very naturally.

Q: I loved that the main character, Gemma, was heavily pregnant in the first book and realistically dealing with an infant in the second.  I’ve enjoyed many police novels by women through the years (Anne Wingate and Barbara D’Amato to name two) that really dealt with the balance of work and child care in a realistic way.  Was this something that was important for you to write about? 

A: Ironically, I was six months pregnant with my first child when Inherit the Bones was published. At the time I wrote the book, I loved the idea of a strong, pregnant detective. As I’ve gotten further into motherhood myself, it has become even more important to tell Gemma’s story. Like so many women in every industry, Gemma really does struggle to find that balance between career and family.

Q: While these are certainly technically procedurals, they fall heavily into the traditional detective category (to my delight) but I’m assuming you still needed to ground your story realistically,  What kind of research did you do to get the police details right?

A: Does watching Law and Order count as research? I have a couple of reference books that I use when I need to get a particular detail correct, such as the name of a weapon or a point of procedure. I try to include enough detail to be realistic yet not so much that the reader gets bogged down in the minutiae. I joke that if I don’t include too many police details, I’ll have less that I can get wrong!

Q: Another thing I enjoyed immensely, brought out differently in each novel, were the references to folk or fairy tales.  A Season to Lie was especially haunting with the use of the Yeats poem.  What drew you to these references?

A: After including an element of folklore in Inherit the Bones, I knew I wanted to do the same in A Season to Lie. I stumbled upon the Yeats poem while flipping through an old book of poetry that my father gave me years ago. I’d never read that particular poem before and I found it incredibly visual and striking. I love the idea of my fictional characters alluding to other works of literature, so it was fun to place a particularly nasty character into A Season to Lie who happened to have a fondness for quoting great poets.

Q: I thought both books confounded expectations in a good way.  In the first one, you use the circus as a background, with a dead clown, which sounded cheesy but definitely wasn’t.  The circus setting was very effective and I wonder how you came up with the idea for using it as a background?  You really brought “The Greatest Show on Earth” down to reality.

A: As I started to write Inherit the Bones, three things came to me sort of all at once, and those three things laid the groundwork for the story. They were: pregnant cop; small town still living with unsolved trauma; and dead clown in full make-up. To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea where those three ideas came from. A muse? My subconscious? No idea. But the image of the dead clown, especially, was very striking and I found myself wondering who the person was, behind all that make-up. I knew I wanted to write his story.

Q: In the new book, a dead writer is found in the snow, again, almost cheesy.  He even has a note stuffed in his mouth.  But then you ran with it.  I guess what I’m asking is what steps to you take to make the unbelievable not only real, but resonant? 

A: That’s an interesting question and one that I’m not sure I can answer. I only know that as I write, it’s as though a movie is playing in my mind. I can see the setting, the characters, their next moves, all of it. The farther I get into a story, the more detailed and rich it becomes, and the more real it feels. It truly does start to seem as though this really happened. And I’m simply recounting it for the audience.

Q: What do you start with when you begin a story?  Plot, setting, character?  All seemed essential in both books (my definition of a really good book).  What is it that kicks off a story for you?

A: For me, character drives everything.  If I can’t feel something for the characters—positive or negative—I could care less how spectacular or inventive the plot is. What really kicks off a story for me is typically one or two thoughts…or questions. For Inherit the Bones, it was “who is this dead clown and what if anything does he have to do with an unsolved crime from thirty years ago?” For A Season to Lie, it was “why has a famous author been murdered on the grounds of a private school in the middle of a blizzard?”

Q: One of the other things I truly enjoyed was that while Gemma is grappling with the darkness of her past as well as the darkness of the cases she deals with, she’s also trying to see what’s good in life.  What do you see for Gemma, going forward, as she grows as a character?

A: Gemma will continue to try to find that elusive balance between career and family. She and Brody, her romantic partner, will either settle into domestic life… or they won’t (I know what happens, but no spoilers allowed!). Her grandmother’s dementia is of course progressing and I see Gemma representing that sandwich generation, where she’s caring for an ailing parent (figure) and at the same time caring for her child. And of course crime never sleeps in Cedar Valley, so there will continue to be murders and mayhem.

Q: Can you name a book that was transformational for you?  One that truly set you on the life path of reading/writing?

A: I don’t know about transformational, but I read a lot of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton and Robin Cook in my younger years. Real page-turners. I grew up in a house where there were a lot of books, and nothing was off-limits to me. So, from a very early age, I was a voracious reader. But I didn’t have the confidence to take a stab at writing until I was much older. That’s probably my biggest regret… I wish I’d started writing ten years before I did!

Q: And can you give us a sneak peek of your next book, out in 2018?

A: I’d be happy to! Lost Lake takes place over the course of a few weeks in spring. Gemma is called out to the beautiful but isolated Lost Lake after a young woman disappears on a camping trip. Shortly after, a priceless artifact is stolen from the local history museum and the missing woman’s boss—the museum director—is viciously killed. Are these three crimes connected? As Gemma investigates, she learns of the tragic and gruesome history of the lake… a lake that seems to hold secrets worth dying for.

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!