MysteryPeople Interview: HILARY DAVIDSON

Hilary Davidson has become one of those great voices in the new generation of crime fiction. Accessible with an edge, her books, The Damage Done and The Next One To Fall, featuring travel writer Lily Moore have won a large cross section of fans. We can’t wait to see her on March 26th for the signing and discussion of her latest, Evil In All Its Disguises. Until then, here is an interview to tide you over.

MysteryPeople: How did you come to choose Acapulco for the setting?

Hilary Davidson: It was a long, strange process to find the right setting for Evil in All Its Disguises. That’s partly because the premise — a journalist going missing while on a press trip — was based on a real events. I worked for Frommer’s Travel Guides for a decade, and in May 2000, one of the editors, a woman named Claudia Kirschhoch, went missing on a press trip to Jamaica. It’s a heartbreaking story: legally, she’s been declared dead, but her body has never been found.

I didn’t want to set the book in Jamaica, because Evil is in no way a telling of Claudia Kirschhoch’s story. The book reflects certain things that happened in real life — such as the resort’s attempt to pretend there was nothing wrong, and then trying to defame the missing journalist by claiming she was using drugs and being sexually provocative — but it’s a work of fiction. I decided to move it to another Caribbean island, and chose Barbados because it’s such an amazing place, caught between the wild waters of the Atlantic and the serenity of the Caribbean Sea. Unfortunately, that location didn’t work at all. I love Barbados, and my affection for the place got in the way of the writing. It was turning the book into more of a travelogue, which was the opposite of the isolated, Gothic feel I wanted.

Partway through the first draft, I stopped writing and decided to find another setting. I chose Acapulco for two main reasons: it has a very glamorous Hollywood-connected history, which appeals to Lily; and it’s a place where crime is out of control at the moment. The news stories that are in the book, like the headless bodies that turn up on the beach, and the one about a drug cartel trying to extort money from the teachers’ union, are all true. They created such an atmosphere of dread about the place. Lily is claustrophobic, and I wanted to have a sense of the walls closing in around her in this book.

MP: I was glad to see you use the travel writer culture I’ve heard you talk about. What was important for you to get across about those characters?

HD: Travel writing is a particularly strange business, because it puts you in close quarters with virtual strangers and you can’t escape each other. You learn a lot about the other journalists over the course of a few days because you’re on the road together, having all of your meals together, and basically living out of each other’s pockets. Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing — some of my closest friends are travel writers I met on the road. And sometimes you encounter characters that belong in a book. The sexual harassment of female journalists and PR people is an ongoing issue in the business, and it’s an open secret in the travel-writing community who the lecherous photographer is based on. I actually stole some of his best lines for the book.

Travel writing also makes you aware of how kind people can be. There are a couple of older journalists on Lily’s trip who drive her nuts, but who rally around her while she’s down. For better or worse, a press trip is a bit like a particularly neurotic family. The people on it tend to take care of each other if someone gets sick or needs help.

MP: The hotel that Lily finds herself in almost has the persona of a classy evil henchman. How do you approach locations as a writer?

HD: I’m so glad you saw the Hotel Cerón that way! For me, a major location like that is a lot like a character, but one without any spoken lines, so it communicates differently. It has its flashy front, with its elegant lobby and dramatic public rooms. When you get deeper inside — say, into a guestroom — you start to see that it’s worn and less polished than it seemed at first. By the time Lily gets into its hidden places, you know there’s going to be something bad waiting in the darkness. It’s also why you catch glimpses of things that aren’t supposed to be there, like the snake in the first chapter, or the nasty guard who’s watching the grounds. The hotel’s staff make both disappear quickly. The hotel wants you to see its fine furniture and flowers and framed celebrity photographs, not its seamy side. In my mind, it’s a lot like a gangster in an expensive suit who’s trying to mix with nice company and hoping you won’t notice his gun.

MP: While you put Lily through hell as usual, you also have her come closer than she ever has in coming to terms with some emotional wounds. Was that an imperative for you on the third book or did it just simply work out that way because of the plot?

HD: When I was writing the first book in the series, The Damage Done, I knew what the emotional arc of the character would be over the next two books, even though I didn’t know anything about the plots of those books. For me, it’s always been about character first and foremost, and that means going deeper into Lily’s mind and heart with each book. She isn’t a naturally introspective person. Before The Damage Done, she was quite happy to run away from her problems, rather than confront them. But Lily’s life changed dramatically in the course of that book, and that forced her to change as well. In the second book in the series, The Next One to Fall, she was struggling to pick up the pieces of her life. In Evil in All Its Disguises, she’s starting to recover from some of those wounds, but she has a lot of baggage from the past that she’s never unpacked, and she’s just starting to confront it. This is why Lily needs a break for a little while. She’s been through a lot in the past year!

MP: I noticed on a list of your favorite crime novels, you had the highly underrated The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald. Is there anything from that book or the Lew Archer series that you try to apply to your own work?

 HD: The Way Some People Die is a masterpiece, and I wish more people would read it. One of the ways that MacDonald’s work influences mine is the understanding that the main character is carrying around wounds from the past that could split open at any time. Don’t get me wrong: Lew Archer is a cipher compared to Lily Moore, and you have to read several books in MacDonald’s series to get a strong sense of him. But once you do, you realize that Lew Archer has been damaged, and there are hints at physical abuse in his past and a dark cloud of depression that follows him. It’s something that evolves over the course of many books, and MacDonald handles it beautifully. Archer, for all of his world-weariness, cares deeply about people. There’s a lot of pain in him, and a surprising amount of empathy. If Lew Archer met up with Detective Bruxton, I think they’d have a lot of common ground.

There’s also an intensity to MacDonald’s best work that I love. Many of his novels are set over the course of two days. That was something I did with Evil: most of the book is compressed into a 36-hour period.

MP: I know you’re working on a standalone for your next book. Can you tell us anything about it?

HD: I handed it in the week before Evil came out, so it’s very much on my mind. I can tell you that it begins with the kidnapping of a wealthy, adulterous couple, and that things go wrong very quickly… so wrong that one of the kidnappers, in the aftermath of that awful weekend, tries to piece together what really happened. I’m worried that if I say more, I’ll give away spoilers! But I’ll tell you one thing I haven’t told anyone else: the working title is Blood Always Tells.

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