Tense and Tightly Coiled: MysteryPeople Q&A with Attica Locke

Attica Locke’s latest crime novel, Bluebird, Bluebirdis a timely narrative of justice, murder and taking a stand. African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, suspended after helping a friend hold off white supremacists, is thinking of leaving the Rangers and joining his uncle to practice civil rights law. His marriage is on the rocks, his superiors won’t let him bring race into the equation when tracking the criminal activities of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he’s getting sick and tired of East Texas.

When Darren drives through a small Texas town and stops at a small cafe that functions as a safe haven for African-American travelers, he learns of two suspicious murders committed within a week of each other. Neither is the subject of a proper investigation, and Darren knows that without his intervention, consequences for the town’s black community loom large. As Darren looks into the murder of a prosperous black lawyer from Chicago and a local hard-living white waitress, he faces opposition from the small-town sheriff, the Aryan Brotherhood, and a cheerfully corrupt good ol’ boy. 

Bluebird, Bluebird is our Pick of the Month for September. Attica Locke was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, its context, and her crime-writing career. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Bluebird, Bluebird is your fourth crime novel, and you’ve spent time writing for a TV show that, while not a crime series, has some crime elements and is certainly all about power. You’ve written a straight-up mystery, a political thriller, a legal thriller, and a rural thriller – what draws you to the genre, and what subgenre do you want to tackle next?

Attica Locke: I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories, probably since I read The Westing Game as a kid. I’m drawn to intrigue and and am curious about people who lie. I’m drawn to the (heavily paraphrased here) Flannery O’Connor quote about violence: when we’re confronted with it; it reduces us to our most essential selves.

MO: Darren Matthews, as a black Texas Ranger, is torn between his community and his profession. The Texas Rangers are dedicated to fighting the Aryan Brotherhood as a drug-smuggling operation, yet refuse to address hate crimes as a reason to target the white supremacist gang. Darren is placed on administrative leave after helping an old friend protect his granddaughter from a racist attack, in a state that fully embraces the right to shoot trespassers. What did you want to explore about the constraints and ambiguities faced by minorities in law enforcement?

AL: I definitely wanted to reclaim the idea of “Stand Your Ground” from the awfulness of the Trayvon Martin or the Jordan Davis murders. There is another aspect of stand your ground which is about black (Texans, in this case) saying this is my state too (my country too), and I’m going to stand up for right to live peacefully and safely in it. I also wanted to portray a black man with a badge who wants to protect black life in Texas.

MO: Your Jay Porter novels contrast sharply with The Cutting Season, set on a plantation in Louisiana, and Bluebird, Bluebird, set in rural East Texas. What draws you to writing about the complex machinery of the city, and what inspires you about the frozen-in-time backwoods?

AL: I’m from Houston, so truth is, I’m a city girl at heart. But all of my people are from rural towns along Highway 59 in East Texas, so the rural is in my blood too. It’s fun to write both.

MO: I am so happy you returned to writing crime fiction, but I’ve also enjoyed the show Empire and your work on it. How does writing television compare to writing a novel?

AL: They could not be more different. One is done by committee, essentially – and by that, I don’t just mean the other writers on the show, but also the actors and set designer and director of photography and the editor. Through every stage of the process, the storytelling is being tweaked – either by a performance or a lighting choice, etc. It’s fun to be a part of it. It feels like playing. And I do like the social aspects of it. But it’s also lovely to be alone in your own story and following your own story compass. I’m one of those gregarious introverts. I like people. But I also really like being alone.

MO: To piggyback off that last question, Bluebird, Bluebird felt more cinematic than the previous volumes I’ve read from you, especially the shootout at the cafe. How did you bring that cinematic urgency to your latest, while exploring power politics as much as in previous volumes?

AL: I used to be a screenwriter before I was a novelist, so I’ve kind of always had the ability to write visually. It may be that a few years on Empire reminded me of the pleasures of writing visually. Or it’s just that I set out to want this book to feel tense and tightly coiled. So I tried to find urgency in lots of places.

MO: Although I found all the characters compelling, the tough cafe owner was my favorite. That cafe felt so real. What was your inspiration for the diner and its complex owner?

AL: There was a cafe called Geneva’s in Lufkin, Texas, when my mother was growing up in the 50s. Also, my great-grandmother had a cafe in Corrigan, Texas. These were both places that mainly catered to black folks during the Jim Crow years. And I guess the idea of women running their own businesses, just kind of stuck with me. Geneva’s strength, particularly the way she never gives in to a bully like Wally, comes from my grandmother.

MO: Darren’s uncles and their vastly different advice fascinated me – one uncle, a former Ranger, represents the voice of working within the system, and the ultimate image of Texas tough, while his other uncle, a career lawyer, constantly urges Darren to fight the good fight from outside the governmental system. Can you tell us a bit more about the paths Darren’s uncles represent, and Darren’s choice to drop out of law school to become a Texas Ranger?

AL: Well, they’re identical twins, so they quite literally represent a fracture in the black psyche. Do we follow the rules (i.e. put your hands in the air when the cops says to)? Or do we not bother because we’re going to get shot anyway? That’s a macabre example, but it suggests the ways in which black folks are never quite sure if it’s safe for us to follow the rules. And the two uncles represent that philosophical question. I know there are a lot of officers of color who consider protecting all life as a part of their duty. Just as I know a lot of black folks who say they will never trust a cop.

MO: Darren’s separation from his wife, and his grief over their potentially permanent parting, mirrors the grief felt by the murdered Chicago lawyer’s wife. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for their relationships with their spouses, and their bond with each other?

AL: No inspiration per se, just as I was writing I could see the parallels between Darren being a Ranger (literally a man on the range) and having a wife who wants him to stay put, and Randie whose marriage was the opposite. It truly just came out in the writing.

MO: You’ve so far written exclusively male protagonists for your crime novels – what draws you to the male voice?

AL: Don’t forget my sweet Caren in The Cutting Season. But, yes, it’s true, I’ve mostly written male protagonists. Jay is a sketch of my dad and even still, he’s a part of my psyche; and of course Pleasantville continues with him. With Bluebird, Bluebird, I made a choice to choose race over gender to tell this story. There are so few female Rangers that the story would have taken on a different tone, held different responsibilities. Maybe I’ve got a lot of work to do on intersectionality, but I consider myself black first and a woman second. No right or wrong to it, it’s just my truth. It was easier for me to say what I wanted about race and law enforcement without layering on the gender politics of being one of only like four female Rangers. And black. But that also sounds like a hell of a book. So maybe that’s coming.

MO: I loved your latest, but I would also love to see another Jay Porter novel; maybe even Jay Porter in LA, given your time spent there (although I read in your interview with Rachel Howzell Hall that you are wary of writing a story set in LA) Will Jay Porter ever return?

AL: I hope so. But I’m waiting for a story that demands Jay be in it. I’m waiting for him to tap me on the shoulder.

MO: The Rangers are an ambivalent force in the novel – instead of the straightforward racism expressed by Lark’s small town sheriff, the Texas Rangers refuse to acknowledge race at all, thus perpetuating racism in ways more subtle but just as persistent as any generation before. Darren must manipulate his superiors down to the local sheriff to get any law enforcement to do what he wants – did you set out to explore supposedly “colorblind” law enforcement and its limitations, or did that simply follow naturally from your initial plot idea?

AL: Anything “colorblind” is a problem. One, it’s impossible. And two, it’s offensive. People shouldn’t have to lop off parts of their identity to be accepted, or to do their jobs. But I should be clear that though I based my portrayal of the Rangers on research and talking to at least one Ranger, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a Ranger. Their desire to take down the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas on drug charges (not race) is a tactic. But I think in any law enforcement unit or in the military there is an emphasis on unity and sameness. Part of me understand the need for that. But a larger part of me feels for the black or Latino man or woman trying to navigate the culture when they clearly aren’t the same as everyone else.

You can find copies of Bluebird, Bluebird on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Advertisements

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jane Robins

– Interview and Introduction by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

With White Bodies, Jane Robins has written an intricate story about two sisters and one sister’s boyfriend, full of suspense and plot twists. Fans of Girl On a Train and Gillian Flynn’s novels will definitely want to check out this book. Intense and dark at points, White Bodies makes the reader wonder if they are getting the full story from a credible perspective. To say more would be to spoil and that I won’t do.

When I received an advanced copy I was intrigued and arranged for an interview before even reading the book, a risky request. I enjoyed the book even more than I expected – White Bodies  is quite the tour de force. Part of my initial interest stems from Robins’ diverse writing background. Robins began her career as a journalist with the Economist, the BBC and The Independent. She has written three non-fiction books but this is her first published novel.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with the idea for White Bodies?

Jane Robins: I have written two historical true crime books, and I found that the part of the work I liked best was digging deep to get under the skin of both the victims and the perpetrators in murder cases. I wanted a new challenge and, based on my past work, decided to write a murder story that was driven by in-depth character portrayals. Then, one day I was watching the classic movie Strangers on a Train with my teenage son, and I thought – ooo!… I could do something with the idea of swapping murders… give it some new twists and turns, and make it my own. That’s how it began.

SB: Which came first, the plot or the characters?

JR: Once I had the idea for the concept of the novel, I started to think about characters. I knew that I wanted to write something with two main female characters – one of whom is becoming increasingly obsessed with the other. I started with the concept that the narrator is more introverted and less sure of herself than the object of her obsession – and that’s how I started constructing the character of Callie. Then I worked on the plot and the characters pretty much simultaneously.

SB: Marketing compared your book to The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn books. Do you view your book as being in that vein?

JR: I certainly wanted to write a psychological thriller – meaning that the reader has to become immersed in the psychology of the main characters – and to be in a sort of game with the writer, trying to work out which characters can be trusted, who’s up to what, and what’s going to happen next. From the writer’s point of view – I think it’s my job to drop clues for the reader – but also to ensure that the twists are not predictable. I have to win the game, for the reader’s sake, otherwise the novel will have failed! In that sense, I do see myself in the same world as these books. I’m a massive fan of Gillian Flynn’s work, in particular. Her writing is inspirational.

SB: One of your themes is obsession. What are you trying to tell readers about the topic?

JR: I guess I’m fascinated by the way that we are all capable of misunderstanding each other and misinterpreting events – especially when we fear that somebody will hurt us in some way. It happens all the time – people checking out their lovers for signs of rejection, employees worrying that their boss doesn’t appreciate them… And obsession is a sort of madness, making you hyper-sensitive to signals of all sorts, and prone to drawing to extreme conclusions, then doubting your own judgement. Most of us have probably experienced this at some time – and it felt authentic to me to have the theme of obsession running through the novel. Also, that heightened state in Callie helps towards creating a suitably creepy atmosphere.

SB: Why did you make the switch to fiction?

JR: I’ve come to realise that I become extremely restless if I’ve been doing the same job for a few years with no new challenges – and I just love to learn new skills! As a journalist I changed my job several times – I was a news reporter, then a foreign correspondent, then a media policy adviser, then a radio programme editor, briefly a tv reporter, then a political correspondent, then a media editor. I often took a massive cut in salary to try out a new thing – and never stuck around long enough to move up the greasy pole or have a pension! As an author, it’s the same. After three history books, I was up for learning something new.

SB: How has your past work as a journalist helped or hindered you when writing White Bodies?

JR: On the helping side – being a journalist for decades has made writing second nature to me. There’s a great moment in one of my favourite movies, Broadcast News where a reporter is phoning-in commentary for an anchor man (magnificently played by William Hurt) to read out on air. The reporter, watching Hurt on tv, says to himself I say it here. It comes out there. (or something very similar).

Writing’s like that for me.  I think it – It appears on the screen. My fingers just naturally type my thoughts. So that’s good – especially for just getting a first draft written.

Also, I’m pretty good at setting my own deadlines – because I need deadlines. And I’m addicted to editing. I edit the whole time – as I go along. Also, I believe in structure, structure, structure. I think that’s thanks to journalism.

On the hindering side – I’ve had to unlearn journalistic style. I used to regard most adjectives and practically all adverbs as the devil. Now, I’m chilled out about them. And, as a journalist, you tell your story up front – as clearly as you can. As an author – all you want up front is a good hook, some great characters, a clear sense of atmosphere, and a couple of reasons to entice the reader to turn the page. It’s very different.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this story?

JR: I hope they get that lovely sense of satisfaction that you have when a novel has really drawn you in, and kept you engaged. And I hope my readers love my characters as much as I do. Tilda, Callie, Felix and Liam have stayed in my head long after I’ve finished writing; they’ve become kind of real to me.

SB: Are you a fan of Hitchcock? I noticed Strangers On A Train was mentioned early in the novel.

JR: I love the intense atmosphere of Hitchcock movies – he really was the Master of Suspense. When I’m writing, I think in scenes rather than chapters; I see the scene in my head and try to transfer it to the page. With White Bodies, I wanted it to be the sort of novel that Hitchcock would have turned into a film!

SB: What did I (and other interviewers) not ask that you wish folks asked? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

JR: I’m often asked about where and how I write but am very rarely asked about where I do my thinking. For me, thinking is equally important as writing and I do it best where I am very peaceful. For example, walking in the park or swimming in a London lake, or being by the sea in Cornwall, in Southwest England.

You can find copies of White Bodies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

Shotgun Blast from the Past: CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781944520199Lionel White is one of those classic hard-boiled authors more people should know about. He was the master of the caper. Well-planned heists, robberies, and kidnappings and the place of fate (or more often human emotion) that unravels the best-laid plans were his specialty. His novel Clean Break is a prime example.

Clean Break concerns the planning, execution, and aftermath of a race track robbery of close to two million dollars. Almost every perpetrator is a “normal citizen” acting as an inside man. Aside from the fresh-from-prison master mind, Johnny Clay, they only know their particular part of the job. One of the men’s wives is seeing a hood on the side, and the two of them hatch a plan to rob the robbers.

The heist is the major character. The planning and execution is shown down to the detail. White uses an innovative technique in rewinding time to follow each participant in their part of the job. Critics often give credit for clarity to Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation, The Killing, yet White’s clean and lean style allows him to tell a complex tale without the reader without ever being lost. The execution is so sharp, the inevitable unraveling hits you in the gut.

That’s not to say the characters aren’t indelible – Johnny Clay is a stick-up man with ambition. This is his first big-time score, a factor that creates suspense by keeping us in the shadows as to if he can pull it off. Other than his attachment to contacts in the underworld and his honor-among-thieves morality, he makes Stark’s Parker look like Mr. Personality and probably sizes everyone he meets as a partner or a victim. Even the “normal citizens,” including a cop with mafia connections and a degenerate gambler-turned-track-bartender, are morally compromised. Clay says they all have a little larceny in them. Not only did White not bother to make his criminals sympathetic, he offered very little to understand them. He knows you don’t read heist novels for heroes.

i was happy to discover that publisher Stark House has recently brought Clean Break back into print. Clean Break is available in an omnibus edition with White’s novel The Snatcher that also includes a great introduction by crime fiction writer and historian Rick Ollerman. The Snatcher is a kidnapping story with such a detailed crime, a French desperado was able to use the plot to execute a successful kidnapping of his own. Both show White’s expertise in criminal operations. It makes you wonder if Lionel White did something on the side to supplement his writing income.

You can find copies of Clean Break/The Snatcher on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Glen Erik Hamilton

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Every Day Above GroundGlen Erik Hamilton’s latest novel to feature Afghan vet and “retired” heistman Van Shaw, has Shaw pulled back into one last score, but soon learns the gold bars he was to steal were bait for a trap. With military trained killers after him, Van must find out who set this up and if he’s the intended victim. Mr. Hamilton was kind enough to take a few questions about the book.

MysteryPeople Scott: This was the first time we’ve seen Van fully commit to a heist. What made you decide to have him commit to his old life with less life-or-death circumstances in the balance?

Glen Erik Hamilton: Although Van and his partner are technically committing burglary (along with a scattering of other light felonies), Van has convinced himself that it’s not harmful. The building is abandoned, and the safe they are cracking is thought to be long forgotten, its owner having died in prison. Van’s friend Hollis uses the analogy of a penny on the sidewalk – does it really belong to anyone? Combine that morally gray area with the fact that Van will lose his home unless he finds a way to pay the taxes and other money owed, and for him, it’s a one-time bending of his rules. How many of us wouldn’t make the same choice?

MPS: This book has shoot outs, car chases, and an underground fight match. Did you set out to make a more visceral, action-oriented book?

GEH: Not initially, but I’m glad it got there! Most of that action comes from Van being caught between two equally ruthless factions. Neither group – whether high-end enforcers or street-level thugs – is likely to balk at violence. Having set up that situation for Van, I enjoyed having him scramble and scrap just to keep from getting crushed. The best defense is a good offense.

MPS: In your latest, you introduce the character of Cyndra, a young daughter of Van’s partner. What did you want to do with a character who is a mirror of Van’s youth?

GEH: Van certainly sees echoes of his own past in Cyndra. They have both been in the foster system, and both have had parental figures in prison. Cyndra, if anything, has had it harder than Van did. Despite that, she’s a different generation, and her experience isn’t his. She’s not being raised as a criminal, as he was. So he cautions himself not to over-identify with this kid who shows up, or assume that she can deal with tougher situations than a thirteen-year-old should have to handle. That said, she’s a tough kid, and he admires her guts.

MPS: A subplot of Van’s childhood has been woven through all the books. What do you believe that adds to the books?

GEH: Besides the fun of writing them – I really enjoy creating short vignettes showing Van as a kid – I think those interstitial chapters give both me and the reader a deeper understanding of Van’s motivations. He’s not the most introspective adult, especially in his communication with those close to him. Seeing him as a vulnerable and brash boy of twelve helps us understand him. I include myself in that, because a lot of writing happens subconsciously. Those scenes in the past help me decipher the theme I may have been unaware of when writing the larger story in its first draft.

MPS: As a writer, what makes Van Shaw a character worth coming back to?

GEH: He’s a curious cat. On the surface, he’s a tough, highly experienced former soldier capable of handling any crisis. But his upbringing gives him a very flexible view of right and wrong, and a suspicious eye toward the law’s ability to protect and serve. Add the fact that subconsciously (there’s that word again) Van never expected to live as long as he has. Emotionally speaking, he’s behind the curve. He’s got a lot of growth ahead of him. From what readers have told me, they love all the action and the thrills and the mystery, but it’s the character relationships that keep them coming back. They want to know what’s next for Van and the people in his life. So do I.

You can find copies of Glen Erik Hamilton’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

 

Hard Word Book Club Reads Zoe Sharpe’s RIOT ACT

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery 

9781631940750Admittedly The Hard Word Book Club can also be a bit of a boy’s club, due to the genres we read being considered “male oriented”. I’m happy this month to put the spotlight on one of the best action/adventure writers out there  her kick-ass heroine with our upcoming discussion of Riot Act by Zoe Sharpe. It is the second book in the Charlie Fox series. Fox is often referred to as a female Jack Reacher, but like her author, she has a voice all her own (a voice we appreciated at last September’s hell-raising Noir at the Bar).

Riot Act has Charlie apartment and dog sitting for a friend. The first paragraph literally kicks things off with her fighting a bunch of hoodlums in front of the complex. In response gang threats, a security force is hired who turn out to be a pack of thugs no better than the hoodlums. Charlie finds herself caught between both, as well as the police. Of course Charlie’s training in The Queen’s army gives her a special set of skills.

Riot Act is an entertaining book providing strong characters and action, a finale that lives up to its title, and much to discuss. Be ready to talk about gender and class in crime fiction and well as the British take on genre writing.

We’ll meet Wednesday, August 27th, at 7PM on BookPeople’s third floor. Books are 10% off to those who attend. Our November book will be The Killing Kind, the third book in John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series.

You can find copies of Riot Act on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Hard Word Book Club meets the last Wednesday of each month at 7 PM. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Stephanie Gayle

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz 

Molly Odintz: With your latest, Idyll Fearsyou’ve got kind of a ransom-of-red-chief scenario going on – an attempt is made to kidnap a child who is notoriously difficult to care for, and the police are a bit flummoxed as to why. What was your inspiration for Cody, his condition, and his rambunctious behavior? 

Stephanie Gayle: Ever since I learned of the medical condition that Cody has, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA,) I’ve been fascinated. This rare neurological disorder means that the person affected can’t feel pain, at all. It’s extremely dangerous. We take for granted how pain actually saves us, on a daily basis, from harm. It teaches us not to touch hot things that can burn us and to stop playing if we break a bone. I wanted to explore how a child with CIPA would react to both the ordinary and extraordinary. There’s a documentary called “A Life Without Pain” about young kids with CIPA and the most interesting thing I found is that the kids featured with the condition are quite bratty and that all of them had suffering older siblings without CIPA who were expected to care for their younger siblings without complaint (and they did). I loosely based Cody on a pastiche of those children and from imagining what a boy who couldn’t feel pain might be like: a daredevil with no sense of consequences.

MO: Your first mystery to feature Thomas Lynch has the detective hiding crucial information about a case in order to keep a personal secret, and it seems to me that his personal dilemma drives the narrative. Your second book to feature Thomas Lynch is much more of a race-against-time thriller, in which a vulnerable child must be found before a winter storm – or his captors – make sure he’s never found again. How did the two books compare, in your writing process? 

SG: When I wrote the first book, Idyll Threats, I didn’t know who the killer was, which is not a writing method I recommend, though it helped the final reveal feel organic and unexpected. With Idyll Fears I knew who the culprit was behind the kidnap attempts and in the first draft I all but pointed neon signs at the guilty party, so that had to be made subtler in future drafts. I expected Idyll Fears to be much easier because I’d already established the setting and a lot of the core characters, but it wasn’t. Maybe because I kept adding complicating factors. I’m not a nice god, to my characters or to myself, it seems.

MO: In your first book, Thomas Lynch is closeted for much of the novel; in Idyll Fears, Lynch is out to his department and his community, and he experiences both more hate and more acceptance than he expected. Tell us a bit about Thomas and his complex relationship with his town. 

SG: Ah, Thomas and Idyll. Thomas grew up and lived in New York City before coming to Idyll, Connecticut. He finds simple rituals, like grocery shopping in giant supermarkets and the lack of after 10:00 p.m. entertainment options baffling. He also finds everybody having their nose in each other’s business annoying. There can be an anonymity in cities that’s hard to find in small towns, and in such a place where you’re the gay chief of police, it’s impossible. He values his privacy but he is also, at heart, someone who craves camaraderie. He wants friends, but he doesn’t want to appear needy or lonely. He also makes the mistake of seeing enemies where sometimes there are allies, and vice versa. His relationship with Idyll is going to evolve, but not always in a forward trajectory, and part of that is due to his own behavior.

MO: Thomas Lynch is quite the appealing leading man, all grumpy, complex and capable – what kind of reader responses have you gotten in regards to your main character? 

SG: Well, my agent is head over heels in love with him. I’m fairly certain some readers are too. I think most of the feedback has been that he’s the right mixture of complex. Readers like flawed characters, so Thomas seems to be amassing fans.  

MO: I deeply enjoyed reading a novel set in such a wintry landscape while I’m in the midst of a Texas summer. Did your research include hopping into a snowsuit and getting lost in a winter storm?

SG: If only snow were novel to me! I live outside Boston and a few years ago we had a winter drop nine feet of snow on us that then refused to melt because it froze every damn day for months. My snow shoveling chant of “It could be worse. It could be Buffalo” didn’t work that winter because it wasn’t true! However, I was taking notes for Idyll Fears. After suffering outside, I’d come in and write notes like “frozen boogers” and “painful, red fingers” and “teeth hurt” so I’d have these sensory details ready for the blizzard scenes in the book.

MO: I like the late 90s setting, full of transitions from landlines to cellphones and typewriters to computers. Why pick this time period in particular? 

SG: The time period is a holdover from a prior draft of Idyll Threats that dealt with police brutality against a black man. Sadly, that’s as timely a storyline today as in 1997. I kept it in the late 90s because it’s a great time period: cops still used Selectric typewriters and landlines instead of search engines on computers and cell phones. The late 90s and early 2000s also saw big changes in the area of GLBTQ visibility and that impacts Thomas, as a gay man, though not always as people may predict. I can’t wait until we reach the age of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy! Thomas is going to have thoughts about that show.

 MO: You’ve used the town of Idyll to explore small town secrets and petty cruelty – what draws you to the remote setting? 

SG: I grew up in a fairly small town, and then I moved to New York City (the reverse of Thomas). I briefly moved back to the small town I grew up in and saw it through new eyes. It helped me see what Thomas would when he moves to Idyll. There is a claustrophobia in small towns. In fact, originally I’d planned to set Idyll Threats in Naugatuck, CT, but it proved too large and the police station too big. I wanted something smaller, where you can’t escape gossip. Plus, I consider myself a “woods girl” and nature can be both beautiful and awful. I see that within Idyll: very pretty but potentially very dark.

MO: What’s next for Thomas Lynch? Do you have any plans to take him back into New York City? 

SG: I have toyed with the idea of sending Thomas back to New York, but so far he’s resisted. What’s next is featuring secondary characters, like his detectives, Finnegan and Wright, in more prominent roles and moving outside of Idyll to other New England locales. He’s also rehabbing that old house of his, one odd room at a time.  

MO: This question’s a bit of a mouthful – it seems your series is one of the only contemporary, widely distributed mystery series to feature a GLBTQ protagonist (in print, anyway, there are certainly plenty of ebooks to feature gay protagonists) yet the genre used to be much more diverse in its representation of GLBTQ characters.

When GLBTQ characters do show up in a mystery series lately, they frequently show up as the victims, not the investigators. Why do you think the genre is currently so heteronormative? Or is it just that the books in print, and widely distributed, tend towards the heteronormative? 

SG: It’s odd. There used to be GLBTQ imprints, such as Stonewall Inn Editions (St. Martin’s), and there was a time in the 80s and 90s when detectives and investigators were not so overwhelmingly heteronormative. We seem to have backslid. Why? My first guess is money. Somebody decided the GLBTQ books weren’t earning enough. Was that true? I don’t know. Whatever the case, the stories published today are overwhelmingly heteronormative. And the trope of using the sole GLBTQ character as the victim is one I think we can do without. YA fiction and mysteries are much more diverse in terms of characters, so perhaps when those readers grow up they’ll want and demand LGBTQ mysteries.

You can find copies of Idyll Threats on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with James Ziskin

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana 

James Ziskin’s latest Ellie Stone novel, Cast The First Stone, has the 1960s reporter traveling to Hollywood to interview a hometown boy done good by getting a part in the latest beach picture. When he goes missing and the producer ends up murdered, Eliie realizes she has a different story all together involving black mail, power, and the city’s underground gay community. Our Meike Alana got in touch with James to talk about the book and its subject matter.

Meike Alana: Cast the First Stone finds Ellie traveling to Los Angeles, but it’s not the sunny place she has always heard about–her visit coincides with an unusually dismal period of daily heavy rainfall. This is a vastly different setting than the last Ellie Stone book, which was set in an idyllic Adirondack lake-side resort during the dog days of summer.  What inspired the dramatic shift?

JWZ: I’ve always wanted to write a story about a failed actor from a small town. The expectations of the home town weigh heavily on his shoulders, and he is devastated by his failure. That’s the idea that sent Ellie Stone to Hollywood in February 1962. The dismal weather came about as I researched the book. I always look into the news stories of the day, and, by chance, I came across the heavy rains of February 1962. It rained for two weeks straight that month, including one day when 3.91 inches fell, and all Los Angeles public schools were closed. For rain. I incorporated the weather into the plot, which I think gives it some noirish atmosphere.

Another reason for the drastic shift in settings is that I like to make the Ellie Stone mysteries as different from one another as I realistically can. I don’t want them all to be structured the same way, either thematically or narratively. I like different settings, different places, different times of the year. And I like the crimes Ellie investigates to be different each time as well. Maybe someday I’ll write a mystery where no crime at all was actually committed.

MA: Ellie is one of my favorite fictional characters and I’m continually amazed and surprised by her many layers.  There’s a certain loneliness about her–she has no close family and really only one close friend–yet she doesn’t give into self-pity; she’s brave in spite of a certain level of insecurity typical of any young person; she chafes at the sexism she encounters on a daily basis but is smart enough not to allow that to hold her back in any way.  What was your inspiration for Ellie and how do you continue to develop and uncover new layers of her persona?

JWZ: I based Ellie on the best traits I admire in many women. And a couple of the worst traits as well. How dull a characters would be if they were perfect. Who doesn’t think Scarlett O’Hara is ultimately more interesting than Melanie Wilkes? So when I set out to create Ellie, I wanted to make her damaged by some personal tragedies, but never defeated. She is brave, as you say. On so many occasions, especially when confronted by angry, dangerous men, she is literally trembling in her boots. But nevertheless she perseveres. She never backs down, even if she is physically unimposing. Yes, Ellie has her foibles, which she readily acknowledges, but cowardice isn’t one of them. As for her development, we’re on a journey together, she and I. From book to book, she grows in ways that inspire and energize me as a writer. I see my better instincts in her character, and I try my best to follow them.

MA: What challenges do you face in writing in the first person as a young woman living in the 1960’s?

JWZ: There are many, of course. First, writing a first-person female narrator presents challenges at every turn. Have I struck the right tone? Are Ellie’s thoughts and actions believable? Have I unwittingly tripped over my own gender biases? And most important, have I dressed her properly? Just kidding.

Another obvious challenge is the historical perspective. Not only do I have to depict a believable and compelling time period, without anachronisms and present-day sensibilities, I must also tap into the spirit of those times. Attitudes, prejudices, and world views.

“I like to make the Ellie Stone mysteries as different from one another as I realistically can. I don’t want them all to be structured the same way, either thematically or narratively. I like different settings, different places, different times of the year. And I like the crimes Ellie investigates to be different each time as well. Maybe someday I’ll write a mystery where no crime at all was actually committed.”

MA: Each of the novels in your series is both an intricately plotted mystery and an analysis of an important social issue of the time. Your last book, Heart of Stone, placed Ellie among a group of Jewish intellectuals and features some great arguments about God and religion.  In Cast the First Stone, Ellie faces the homophobia of 1960’s Los Angeles and is forced to examine her own views on homosexuality–an issue that is still so important today.  Can you talk a little bit about your decision to make this a focus of this book?

JWZ: I do strive to include important social issues of the day in these books, and not for nothing. The 1960s were a period of intense social and political change. Everything from the Civil Rights Movement to feminism to the sexual revolution. In Cast the First Stone, I chose to deal with the heartbreaking tragedies of closeted gays in a time when discovery could spell ruin for a career, violence, ostracism, abandonment, and shame. Even jail. The daily struggle to hide one’s true self from the world just screamed for a part in this book. And it compounds the difficult of Ellie’s investigation. Everyone in the closeted gay Hollywood community is lying to her to protect their secrets. Even those who consider themselves her friends. It actually makes unreliable witnesses of virtually every character. And that makes for a tough mystery.

As for Ellie’s conflicted feelings in this book, I struggled mightily to strike an appropriate balance between the depiction of believable attitudes toward gays in the early 1960s and the needs of maintaining the likability of Ellie as a character. I couldn’t in good conscience give her an enlightened twenty-first-century mindset when it came to a lesbian making a pass at her. But at the same time, I wanted desperately to protect her as a character. Not give readers reason to hate her for her backward views, no matter how progressive she is for the early sixties. I did a lot a rewriting and soul-searching on that score, and I believe Ellie comes out of her fifth adventure better than ever for it.

MA: Your books are deeply evocative of the 1960’s.  Can you tell us a a little bit about your how you research the time period and the topics you address?

JWZ: I’ve spoken quite a bit in the past about getting the historical details right. And trying to replicate something of the Zeitgeist. Those are important to creating a believable sense of a different time. But I believe the most effective tools for conjuring the past are what I call my madeleines, the little cakes that Proust wrote about. The ones that unleashed a flood of remembrances of things past. In my stories, I pepper the narrative with everyday items that evoke the past by their very mention. Fiddling with the vertical and horizontal hold buttons on old televisions; sitting down to type on one of the first IBM Selectrics; dictating concise telegrams; pulling the choke knob when starting the car on a cold winter’s morning. These work like charms to transport readers to another time.

MA: You are a linguist by training, and that’s apparent in your lyrical writing style.  One can easily imagine that you would be a writer of poetry or linguistic history, but your chosen genre is mystery.  How did you hit upon that as your literary playground?

JWZ: Crime fiction, mysteries especially, are my favorite place to be. The variety of styles and sub-genres are enough to keep any reader entertained for a lifetime. The themes and puzzles provide both emotional and intellectual satisfaction. And I have no patience for people who dismiss this genre—or any other for matter. Why rain on someone else’s parade? Read and let read.

MA: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?  Plotter or pantser?  Home office or coffee shop/library?  Silence or background noise?

JWZ: I plot. I outline. Then I write. My outlines are not super detailed. I’m no Jeffery Deaver. But a good five pages’ worth of “this happens, then this, then that” keeps me on target during the writing stage. I never change the ending. At least I haven’t so far. I like to think that knowing the ending in advance helps focus every word along the way on reaching that ending honestly and without forcing. Every red herring, every clue leads to the resolution or to the putting off of the resolution. I believe that writing a novel of any kind is an exercise in delaying the ending for as long as possible in an entertaining manner.

I do all my writing on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard. That means I can write anywhere anytime. I write at home, in coffee shops, even with the cat on my lap. And while I write very easily to music, I need silence when editing.

MA: You’ve been nominated for a slew of awards including the Edgar, the Lefty, the Anthony, and the Barry.  Have the nominations led to feelings of increased pressure in your approach to writing?  Or does the critical acclaim lead to a more relaxed approach?

JWZ: I always feel pressure to write the best thing I can. Every time I sit down to work, so I wouldn’t say the mentions have increased the pressure. At the same time, the nominations certainly don’t relax me. I’m thrilled that my books have been recognized, but that also scares me a little. What if they find out I’m a fraud? What if this is all a dream? What if it goes to my head? Never mind. I’m doing what I love, what I’ve always wanted to do. And some people have felt my books were not bad. I’ll take that.

MA: What’s next for Ellie?  And will we see more of her best friend Fadge? (I’ve missed him!)

JWZ: Then you’re in for a treat. Ellie Stone six, A Stone’s Throw, out in June 2018, is Fadge’s book. He and Ellie team up to get to the bottom how a man and a woman came to die in barn fire on a derelict horse farm near Saratoga Springs. Fadge is, of course, an inveterate horseman, notorious plunger, and gambling addict. That makes him the perfect partner for Ellie as she navigates the (mineral) waters of Saratoga during the August 1962 thoroughbred meet.

MA: I always like to ask my favorite writers for reading recommendations.  Read anything great lately?

JWZ: Right now I’m reading Shannon Baker, Jess Lourey, and Jennifer Kincheloe. Each one unique and so talented. Three marvelous writers. And notice that they’re all crime writers.

You can find copies of Cast the First Stone on our shelves and via bookpeople.com