Minerva Koenig’s Nine Days is what you want in a debut. It has a fresh voice, an entirely different perspective, and a truly unique character in Julia Kalas, a woman under witness protection from being part of her murdered husband’s crimes. Described as short, round, and pushing forty, she’s not your typical thriller heroine. Minerva will be joining us this Friday, for a discussion and signing of Nine Days. We got a few questions in early about her creation.
MysteryPeople: Julia is a very unique lead. How did you come up with her?
Minerva Koenig: I grew up with her. She’s based on my younger sister, who has always amazed me with her damn-the-torpedoes approach to life. I like a fantasy character as much as the next gal, but I wanted to see the real women I know and love — highly intelligent smart-asses with low bullshit tolerances, who are built like Russian peasants and not afraid to use it — get a turn.
MP: Were there any challenges about writing a lead who is in witness protection?
MK: Actually, the fact that WITSEC procedures are so closely guarded worked in my favor — since nobody knows exactly how they do all that stuff, I could make a lot up, and I did.
The main challenge was plausibility. If I was going to write this realistic character, then the things that she did had to be realistic, too — she’s a street-smart gal hiding from people who want to kill her, so she’s not going to be taking stupid risks. But stupid risks are what keep a crime story going. So I fell back on the canon tradition of the sleuth being a sucker for a pretty face in order to keep Julia in trouble and the plot moving forward. I have to admit, reversing the genders on that tradition made for some pretty entertaining work on my end.
MP: The book uses the Southwest well, especially with its inhabitants. What do you think makes that area different from the rest of the country?
MK: I’m not entirely sure, but Texas is not like any other place I’ve ever been. It’s neither the West nor the South, but some unholy hybrid. My theory is that the region’s history, so intimately intertwined with Mexico’s, has kept it from becoming completely American, culturally. That tension between a sort of half-foreign social tradition and the remnants of a conquering European frontier mentality produces some really interesting people.
MP: This being your debut, did you draw from any influences?
MK: Night Train by Martin Amis blew my socks off about a year before I started Nine Days. It’s one of the few crime books I’ve read where the female lead is not sexualized in any way, and it fascinated the hell out of me. Amis does it by making Mike Hoolihan (who is female, despite the name) essentially a man in a woman’s body, and it made me want to try doing the same thing without that shortcut — creating a character who was more realistically female, but taking out the sexual titillation factor. Not removing *sex*, but having a female lead who wasn’t defined in some sexual way — i.e., not an ex-stripper or rape victim, who doesn’t get sexually tortured or menaced, who relates to men from a position of personal sexual power without being made to pay for it later. Some other crime writers who have also impressed me in this regard: Margaret Millar, Sara Gran, Patricia Highsmith.
As far as style, not that I put myself in any kind of literary category, but the first time I read Hemingway was a revelation. I
started writing around 9 or 10, and was reading Ray Bradbury and trying to imitate his style, which should make you laugh. Nobody can imitate Bradbury. He’s a very lush writer, very good with imagery and metaphor and uses language in a way that just makes me grind my teeth with envy — and I just am not that kind of writer. So when I found Hemingway, I realized that I didn’t have to be; that vast things can be said with very few words. To me, this is what defines what we call ‘noir’ — that sort of clipped, oblique, acerbic voice that points at things rather than describes them in detail. That’s the kind of writer I want to be. I love a short sentence.
MP: One thing you’re incredibly skilled at is the timing and revealing of information. How much of the plot is mapped out before you start writing?
MK: Wow, thanks for the compliment! If you knew what I went through getting that plot firing on all cylinders… there were long stretches of time where I would sit and look at the manuscript and literally cuss myself out for the corner I’d just painted myself into. I’m not by nature a planner, but things got hairy pretty quickly, plot-wise, and so I devised my own method of outlining: I would write along on the manuscript until I got stumped, then I would turn to this running synopsis I had going alongside the manuscript. I’d use that to do a quick and dirty narrative of where the book might go next, to see if it would work. If it looked like it would, I’d go back to the manuscript and keep going until I hit another road block. Then back to the synopsis to work that one out — lather, rinse, repeat. And I did a complete edit of the book eight times. I wish I was making that up.
I tried doing a traditional outline, but I couldn’t stick to it. Things occur to you as you’re writing that you just can’t plan. I’d be
going along, and suddenly think, “wait, what if she did THIS?” I’d map it out on the synopsis to make sure I wasn’t insane, then go back to the manuscript and write it in. Really, it was madness. That’s probably why it took me a little over four years to write the thing.
MP: Can you tell us what the next book is about?
MK: South of Nowhere finds Julia mouldering around in Azula and getting restless — John Maines, the county sheriff who drove her nuts in Nine Days
has become a private investigator, and talks her into helping him with a missing-persons case on the Texas-Mexico border. There will be more cartel bad guys, mistaken identities, further goings-on with the Aryan Brotherhood (the people Julia is hiding from), and some truly scary women. And another stupidly complex plot, I’m both sorry and happy to say. I’m not planning on it taking me four years to finish, but I’m in that cussing-myself-out stage with it right now, so stay tuned.