MysteryPeople Q&A with Lisa Sandlin

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

We’re happy to have Lisa Sandlin joining us next Thursday, June 23rd, at 7 PM. She’ll be joined by Cara Black, author of the Aimee Leduc series, set in Paris. Lisa Sandlin’s novel The Do-Right made the list of our Top Five Texas Crime Novels of 2015. The Do-Right follows Delpha Wade, just out of prison, as she rebuilds her life and finds a new career in Beaumont. She starts working for a former oil worker turned PI, Tom Phelan, and the two take on cheating husbands and corrupt oilmen, all against the background of Texas during the Watergate hearings. We caught up with Lisa earlier to talk a little about the book, her characters, and Texas.

“The wax-and-wane chorus of tree frogs, crickets, cicadas was our soundtrack afternoon and night, and everybody’s bread and butter was the refineries.”

Molly Odintz: Your book is so Texas. How did you capture such a strong sense of place?

Lisa Sandlin: Born and raised in East Texas, except for three years in Italy. Long as I can remember, there was the surround of tall pines, filtered sunlight, brown pine needles underfoot, logging trucks on two-lane. My grandmother lived in Livingston close to the Big Thicket. (My other grandparents lived for years in Gatesville.) The wax-and-wane chorus of tree frogs, crickets, cicadas was our soundtrack afternoon and night, and everybody’s bread and butter was the refineries.

MO: You’ve talked about how you wanted to shake up the typical dynamic between secretary/assistant and private eye. Can you elaborate on your inspiration for Phelan and Delpha’s working relationship?

LS: Simple. When I first accepted the invitation to write a noir story about Texas from Akashic Press and Bobby Byrd, editor of the volume, I was talking about the stereotypes of noir to another woman. I wasn’t required to use the whole Philip Marlow-like character scheme and plot; I could have just written a dark, goose-bumpy Texas story. But I wanted to use the familiar detective elements, and the woman I was talking to said, “Make the secretary the star.” I instantly loved the idea. Elements fell into place with that choice.

“I wasn’t required to use the whole Philip Marlow-like character scheme and plot; I could have just written a dark, goose-bumpy Texas story. But I wanted to use the familiar detective elements, and the woman I was talking to said, “Make the secretary the star.”

MO:  The Do Right has a number of intersecting characters and cases. How much is that the genre, versus the realities of semi-small-town life in Texas, where folks are bound to know one another and to be tangled up in each others’ business?

LS: Beaumont is not that small. The genre and my own head, which is busy all the time making connections, are responsible for the intersections/coincidences. Which a couple of reviewers, including one in Austin I think, have whacked me for. I like connecting elements with each other. Sometimes happens in real life, and, of course, sometimes not.

(**A p.s. story: I’ve lived in small-town Nebraska, where, moving in, you tote your ’03 Springfield on a shoulder strap into your new basement apartment, along with the book boxes and suitcases. There’s a kid next door shooting baskets. In an hour, by the time you drive to the P.O. to get a box [no home delivery], the basketball shooter’s uncle, who is the postmaster, wants to know what kind of rifle you have.)

MO:  What’s next for Phelan and Delpha?

LS: A sequel! I’m working on it. Some consequences arise from the end of The Do-Right. Then there’ll be man who wants to be invisible, larceny at a big-box store, a wife who’s out to keep her devastatingly-handsome but not smart husband from the claws of the laws. The minor characters: Mrs. Bibbo, the Watergate expert, and her quarreling cohorts, also reappear. So far.

MO:  Delpha is such a perfectly feminist character – she wants what she wants, she does what she has to do, and she doesn’t let herself feel guilty. Can you tell us about the origins of Delpha Wade?

LS: You know, I think that’s a secret.

“Jorge Luis Borges, the wonderful, almost-blind Argentine writer (who taught in and wrote about Austin), was enchanted by a refinery at night. All lit up, diamond-bright enough that he could see it. Refinery lights enchanted me, too—the East Texas version of Fairyland.”

MO:  You’ve been writing for a number of years, but this one’s your first mystery novel. How did it feel different to craft than your previous work?

LS: The Do-Right had parameters. I’m a writer who wanders along not knowing what happens next. Things appear and surprise me and I go with them. That’s the fun of it: no outlines here. But with the mystery novel, I had to have certain elements: crimes of various kinds, characters both stalwart and craven, and, as a librarian-friend cautioned: “regular and early intimations of dread.” That last part is easy.

MO:  Not to give too much away, but did you already know you were going to bring in the oil industry when you first started The Do-Right, or was it a natural progression based on your chosen setting?

LS: The latter. Inevitable the oil industry would show up. My father worked for Mobil for 40 years, my brother, too, all over the world on deep-sea rigs. It’s the economic engine of our particular world. And the landscape: the pipes, the tanks, the flares burning, smells in the air, pump-jacks in the fields. Jorge Luis Borges, the wonderful, almost-blind Argentine writer (who taught in and wrote about Austin), was enchanted by a refinery at night. All lit up, diamond-bright enough that he could see it. Refinery lights enchanted me, too—the East Texas version of Fairyland.

You can find copies of The Do-Right on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by BookPeople on Thursday, June 23rd, at 7 PM, for a fantastic evening with Lisa Sandlin and Cara Black.

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