S.J. Rozan’s Paper Son is a perfect return for PI’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. The two travel to Mississippi to clear Lydia’s cousin of a murder charge. S.J. delivers both a compelling private eye story and a look into the culture of Chinese Americans in the south and its history. S.J. was kind enough to take a few questions from us.
1. How did returning to Lydia and Bill after almost a decade feel?
Well, the seed for Paper Son started to grow in 2014, the first time I went to Mississippi, which was only three years after Ghost Hero came out. So I never felt as though I’d left Lydia and Bill, even though I’d written other things. And I’d done a couple of short stories with Lydia’s mom, so I’d been in and out of that world. I found I could just slide right into Lydia’s voice; I didn’t feel rusty at all.
2. How did you first come across the Chinese culture in Mississippi?
I went to Clarksdale to visit my friend Eric Stone, a writer and photographer who’d recently moved there. He showed me Clarksdale’s Jewish cemetery, which was beautiful, and promised to show me the larger, older one in Greenville the next day. And then he said the magic words: “It’s not far from the Chinese cemetery.” I hadn’t known the Chinese had enough of a community in the Delta to have a cemetery. “Sure,” Eric said. “You know, the grocers.” I did not know the grocers. But the more I learned, the more fascinating the story seemed. When I got back to NYC I did some research, then went back to Mississippi to talk to some of the remaining Chinese folks. Then more research, then a third trip. Then I started the book.
3. What is most fun about putting your characters in a new environment?
Lydia’s reactions to the South were pretty much mine. Everything that knocked her for a loop had thrown me, too. I enjoyed being able to articulate those things. Sweet tea? The one-drop rule? Football worship? These are real things in Mississippi.
4. Was there anything to keep in mind when writing about the South?
I worked hard to portray the people accurately, dialect and all, but without slipping into parody. It’s easy for us in the rest of the country to patronize and dismiss the Deep South but that’s a cheap trick and not worthy of the people I met. Even the bad people — and, like anywhere, there are many — are whole people and deserving of full portraits.
5. Captain Pete, Lydia’s cousin who serves as a guide, is a fun character. How did you go about constructing him?
All I knew when Lydia and Bill went to Clarksdale was that Pete was a former Navy man and a professional gambler, raised in the back of the store. He’s one of those characters who opens the door and is there fully formed. It doesn’t always happen but a writer knows when it does. In these cases all the writer has to do is get out of the way. I’m sorry; I know that sounds sappy. But it does sometimes happen — Lydia’s cousin Linus is the same — and it’s a writer’s greatest joy when it does.
6. Will there be a shorter wait for the next Lydia and Bill book?
Absolutely. It’s a Bill book and I’m wrestling it to the ground now.
Buy your copy of Paper Son here.