WRITING AT A DETAILED LEVEL: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL POTENZA

Caror Potenza won the 2019 Tony Hillerman award along with a book contract for her novel Hearts Of The Missing. It also made MysteryPeople’s top five reviews of the year. It introduces us to Nicky Matthews, an officer in New Mexico’s Fire-Sky reservation’s tribal police. When she catches a body with a heart missing it leads to a deadly conspiracy on the rez, involving money, class, and tribalism. Carol was kind enough to answer some questions from us.

Hearts of the Missing: A Mystery Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: The first time I ever heard of The Fire-Sky tribe was in your book. What makes their tribe unique?

Carol Potenza: After much thought, I decided to create a fictional New Mexico tribe: the Tsiba’ashi D’yini or Fire-Sky. I did this for a couple of reasons: one, I didn’t know any of the individual Native Pueblo cultures well enough to select a specific tribe; and, two, I have sources on a couple of pueblos who helped me out with things like traditional practices, Native American sovereignty, and police procedures, but who preferred to remain anonymous. I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider to Native culture so I could emphasize both differences and similarities between the people in my book. In the end, I decided I’d use known elements—details I could find already published or shared, for example—from the nineteen New Mexican Pueblos, and not dig into anything these tribes wanted kept private.

MPS: Nicky Matthews is fresh take on the police protagonist. How did you go about constructing her?

CP: Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment. I think a lot of authors live in their heads. I know I do. As Nicky’s character evolved, I realized I had a little bit of a “Walter Mitty” syndrome. I’d fashioned my protagonist as someone I admired, someone I wished I could be. Nicky is younger, in great physical shape, has straighter hair, and is much braver than I am. She stands up to bullies and knows what to say to them in the moment, while I always craft that perfect come-back after a confrontation is long over. She’s willing to do the right thing no matter what, even if it means she might lose her job—or her life. Nicky has flaws and personal problems, too, but they’ve come about because her character isn’t afraid to push boundaries, be fearless, expose herself.

Nicky also has “visions”, something she says she’d never had until she started working on the Fire-Sky reservation. I gave her this ability because some of my contacts on New Mexico Pueblos actually saw and experienced the things Nicky sees in the novel—like the old Native woman in the glass. I used their true stories to make Nicky different from any police protagonist I’d read. And I have a lot more ghost stories to weave into my books.

MPS: You use the mystery theme of identity in a wonderful way that is tied to the culture. What did you want to explore about tribal identity?

CP: In Hearts of the Missing, I wanted to explore not what makes people different, but what makes people the same. To do that, I needed a sequestered or separated community. Living in New Mexico, I had a number of cultures to choose from—we are a minority-majority state. I chose Native American Pueblo culture because I had friends, family, and contacts who worked and lived on reservations and pueblos, and, like a lot of Americans, my family lore included Native American ancestors. Then I flipped everything on its head. I wanted my European-American heroine to be an outsider in a Native American sovereign nation. In the Tsiba’ashi D’yini pueblo, ancestry and genetics defined who an individual was. Because of her ancestry, her genetics, she will never be a member of the tribe she’s come to love. Even if you’d lived on the pueblo all your life, like my Ryan Bernal character, you can’t become a tribal member if you had the wrong genetic ancestry. I wanted to explore how the notion of genetic belonging could be both exclusive and destructive as well as inclusive and protective.

MPS: As a debut author, did you pull from any influences?

CP: Oh, yes. I love stories that use science in their plots, whether it’s pandemics or epidemics, forensics, DNA, genetics and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, ancient cultures, archeology, paleontology, and the list goes on. As I started to gather the pieces of Hearts of the Missing, I wanted science to play a major role. Books like Preston and Child’s Relic, Thunderhead, and Fever Dream, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Congo were inspirations because they took believable science and twisted it into such amazing, complex, and satisfying stories.

Probably the biggest influence is the writing group I joined when I first decided to write, along with its members. The Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA) in Albuquerque taught me how to craft an emotionally engaging story, one where the reader truly cares for the characters, becomes buried in the pages, and has a stake in the outcome. Romance writing is about emotion and character connection. I took what I’d learned from romance writing—what I’m still learning—and used it in Hearts of the Missing, even though it’s a southwestern mystery with supernatural elements.

MPS: You won the Tony Hillerman Award and I felt some echoes of his work in yours. Is there anything you admire about his writing?

CP: I admire Hillerman’s sense of setting and his description of the desert southwest, so spare yet so evocative. I admire the respect and fondness he had for the Native American cultures he wrote about. And I loved the way he butted cultures into each other: Navajo and whites; Zuni and Navajo; Navajo and Tano—a fictional pueblo culture in Sacred Clowns. He used the outsider/insider themes so deftly to add tension and conflict.

MPS: I noticed you have a background in chemistry and biochemistry. Can you see any way those skills are applied to the way you write?

CP: A scientific PhD trains you how to approach unsolved scientific questions. It teaches you how to gather evidence, assemble it into a coherent story, present it to your peers in the form of written, reviewed publications. It demands huge amounts of background reading and research, the linking together of sometimes-disparate ideas for new revelations. A science background dictates an understanding—at a detailed level—of how techniques work, the ability to find and tie up loose ends. It pushes you not to do derivative work, but to explore some new and unique property or direction to prove your hypotheses. Sound familiar? I think it parallels what an author has to do when writing a police procedural mystery.

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TOP FIVE DEBUTS OF 2018

There was an interesting year for fresh voices in crime fiction. While there were many first timers, some folks came from other genre, mixing what they learned from the others in their tale of crime and punishment. All brought a fresh perspective. Here are my top five.

Bearskin: A Novel Cover ImageBearskin by James McLaughlin- McLaughlin gives us a set up for suspense and emotion with a man hiding out from a drug cartel in an Appalachian wilderness preserve, going up against a bear poaching ring. He then has it delivered with nuanced characters and a great sense of place and its people.

Charlesgate Confidential by Scott Von Doviak – Three stories, three periods, and three sub genres dovetail perfectly into this highly entertaining crime story involving an art heist, college friends, and Boston’s Charlesgate Building. where most of it takes place. Von Doviak’s craftsmanship and skill with character takes it beyond a novel experiment.

Blood Standard (An Isaiah Coleridge Novel #1) Cover ImageBlood Standard by Laird Barron – Barron, mainly known for his horror and weird fiction, tackles the hard boiled genre head on with an exiled mob enforcer search for a kidnapped girl. All the tough guy tropes are here along with a the feel of unsure footing from the horror world.

Little Comfort by Edwin Hill – Hill proves librarians aren’t just for cozies in this psychological thriller/detective tale featuring Hester Thursby who moonlights as a finder of missing persons, tracking down someone who will kill not to found. Hill displays a wonderful sense of mood and character.

Hearts Of The Missing by Carol Potenza – Potenza introduces us to Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky New Mexico’s Fire Sky Tribe. She uses the mystery theme of identity for a cultural exploration of the idea. Tony Hillerman fans will enjoy.

Interview with “The Pictures” author Guy Bolton

Guy Bolton’s The Pictures made my list of the best debut novel of 2017. It is a moody Hollywood thriller with making of The Wizard Of Oz as it’s backdrop.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did The Wizard Of Oz get to be the movie that served as backdrop for the story?

Guy Bolton: Over a decade ago when I was a film student I was supposed to be doing a class on film noir. At the last moment they replaced it with a class on MGM musicals. I was devastated at first but one of the films we studied was The Wizard of Oz, a film I watched on repeat as a child. As I started researching the film I found out all this incredible trivia— it was most expensive MGM movie ever made and took fourteen writers and five directors to bring it to the screen. Then there was a young Judy Garland hooked on drugs, rumors of ‘Munchkin’ sex parties, a Tin Man who almost died from blood poisoning and a Wicked Witch with life-threatening burns from an on-set fire.

It struck me that the making of the movie was almost as interesting as the film itself. And I knew it would make an engaging and unexpected backdrop for a noir thriller.

MPS: Even though you are dealing with a different era, what from your own experience in the film industry did you pull from for the book?

GB: I can promise you none of my experiences have ever felt at all glamorous! In fact the main thing I took from working for ten years (predominantly in television) was bureaucracy. I love David Simon and how he infuses layers of bureaucracy in every strand of “The Wire” and I felt the same experience working in TV. At times it felt to me that decisions were being made by a handful of people at the top that affected everyone below. I brought that over to this Hollywood world of police and studios, as if the major Hollywood players were playing a giant chess game and everyone else were the pawns.

MPS: Jonathan Craine is a very unique protagonist in the sense he is not easy to read right off the bat. How did you go about creating him?

GB: It was important to me that I break convention. Most noir heroes are jaded underdogs who drink scotch and chain-smoke cigarettes. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder but an innate sense of right and wrong. They’ll do anything to uncover the truth. They’re heroes.

For Craine, I wanted to invert expectations on every aspect of his character. He’s a debonair investigator who doesn’t smoke and whose drink of choice is a Champagne cocktail. But more importantly, he’s not a hero. He’s a very flawed man who has spent the best part of his career as a Hollywood ‘fixer’ working for the studios. Only when he’s tasked with covering up the apparent suicide of the producer of The Wizard of Oz does he start questioning his conscience. He discovers inner strength; he finds his resolve.

It was important to me also that this novel also be about fathers and sons. Craine’s wife has recently died and he has a difficult relationship with his little boy. Craine coming to terms with his responsibilities as a father is very much at the core of the narrative too. The Pictures is really his journey of redemption.

MPS: You have your fictional characters interacting with the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Joan Crawford, and Frank Nitti. How did you approach the fictional mixing with the historical?

GB: Almost all of the characters are either based on or inspired by real people and events. I changed names where I felt necessary but I wanted to have genuine Hollywood icons like Louis B. Mayer in there to help my fictional characters come to life. It was crucial to me that my protagonists like Jonathan Craine and actress Gale Goodwin felt like they were real people in a real scenario. So much of what happens in the book is close to what really happened.

However, I had an important rule: beware of featuring real movie stars too heavily. People like Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable have such a strong presence on the silver screen. They’ve taken on an almost mythic quality in people’s lives. So I didn’t want readers to lose their suspension of disbelief by bursting that bubble.

MPS: This being your first novel, did you pull from any influences or did you simply expand on your script work?

GB: I was heavily influenced by films like LA Confidential and Chinatown; I also have a background in screenwriting and I’ve noticed people often say they feel it’s “cinematic”. I like the pace and narrative structure of screenplays.

But for me, what was most important was that I avoid cliché. The archetypal detective story is told in a first person narrative in a hard-boiled style. I wanted to tell my story from a few different perspectives (especially female) and write it in a more classic style. I asked myself: “How would John Le Carre or Sebastian Faulks have written a 1930s detective story set in Hollywood?”

MPS: What can you tell us about your next novel with Craine?

GB: (you’re the first person outside of my publisher hear this…!)

The Syndicate is almost finished and should be out later this year.

Eight years have passed since the events of The Pictures. Jonathan Craine has left Hollywood behind him and he and his son are now living on a farm in rural California.

But when infamous Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel is murdered in Beverly Hills, Craine finds himself tasked by the mob to find out who killed him…

 

Top 6 Debut Novels of 2017

In 2017, Native American culture became a larger part of crime fiction with some stunning debuts. Also, there was no fear in presenting damaged heroes and families. All of these authors’ first forays into the crime novel were fresh and attention-getting.

 

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

After proving his mastery of the short story with his collection, Love And Other Wounds, Jordan Harper proved to be just as skilled in the long form, this rough, violent, and gritty road trip of a criminal father and his fourteen year old on the run from an Aryan gang. A pure crime novel, both beautiful and brutal, that has you caring for its characters on their own terms.

 

Nail’s Crossing by Kris Lackey

Lackey introduces us to Bill Maytubby, a smart, deceptively self-deprecating officer for the Lighthorseman of the Chickasaw Nations. This first investigation has him and his pal, County Deputy Hannah Bond traveling through their hard scrabble Oklahoma and into Cajun country. An intriguing procedural with humorous characters that balance out the noir-ish plot.

 

Murder On The Red River by Marcie R. Rendon

Cash, an orphaned 19 year old Anishanabe Indian woman truck driver and pool hustler, helps her guardian the local sheriff when the an activist member of a tribe is found in a wheat field. Rendon, mainly know for her YA work, gives us a detailed life on the Nebraska/Minnesota border while delivering a solid whodunit with one unique, smart heroine.

 

The Pictures by Guy Bolton

A moody Hollywood thriller with a tarnished cop looking into a producer’s apparent suicide that puts him up against the studio bosses who pay him, the mob that’s muscling in, and his old love. Set against the release of The Wizard of Oz, Bolton creates a time and place both accurate and dreamlike as he delves into wounded men looking for a shot to be better.

 

The Midnight Man by David Eric Tomlinson

A thriller rich in history, place, and people. Using the legal thriller to build suspense and reveal character over a year in a Choctaw community and delve into the fateful history before it, Tomilson deftly crafts a unique story of incredible yet subtle depth.

 

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

Lepionka knows that the most important thing in a PI series is the PI, giving us Roxanne Weary, a tough woman with a lot of complexity and baggage and sharp humor. She also gives a great hook for an investigation with weary on the hunt for the rich, white girlfriend of a black man on death row for killing her parents, who went missing around the the time of the murder of a decade ago. I can’t wait to see more in this series.

MysteryPeople Review: THE GIRL BEFORE by Rena Olson

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9781101982358I read this all in one night, when I was looking for a book disturbing enough to distract me from the results of the election. The Girl Before delivered! Rena Olson works as a marriage therapist, evident in her realistic portrayal of the most f*&^ed up marriage in fiction since Gone Girl. As The Girl Before begins, her protagonist Clara is ripped from her husband and daughters as law enforcement raids their home, and told by her husband to keep her mouth shut. Depressed and in denial of the reason for her arrest, Clara initially refuses to cooperate – she insists that her marriage has been defined by love, rather than control, and refuses to accept any information to the contrary.

Through flashbacks, we’re introduced to what appears to be a finishing school, where young girls, isolated from men, are taught obedience, languages, and various other ‘womanly arts,’ or face violence or expulsion. We slowly learn that what Clara conceived of as a happy childhood at an exemplary school was actually a life spent in a bordello training facility for underage girls intended for the international sex trade.

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Rugged Adventure: MysteryPeople Q&A with Erik Storey

  • Interview and Review by Scott Butki

Readers may find it hard to accept that Nothing Short of Dying is Erik Storey’s first novel – it has the kind of action and adrenaline that will make you feel like you just went on a caffeine bender. Plus, it is that rare action novel that has both an excellent plot AND well developed characters – rare for any thriller, let alone a debut novel.

“He’s a rugged wandering adventurer. He’s spent almost two decades roaming the third world, making his living with a rifle, trying to help the little guys. He considers himself outside of any law other than Nature’s, so he is able to do things you and I can’t.”

Nothing Short of Dying, set in Colorado, is the start of a series, and I will definitely be looking forward to what happens next to its protagonist, Clyde Barr. As the series begins, Barr has just been released from a Mexican prison. He hopes to stay out for a while, but a call from his sister, who has been kidnapped, pulls him back into his old pattern of breaking laws and fighting bad guys. Clyde is aided in the quest to find Jen by Allie, another well-rounded character who has gotten out of a jam or two, who he meets while hunting for his sister. Allie’s character and their interactions help keep the story sizzling.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Beth Lewis

Beth Lewis stunned us all with her forceful debut, The Wolf Roada psychological thriller that follows a Elka, a half-wild girl, as she flees from her evil guardian across a post-apocalyptic landscape. As she flees through a Black Forest fairytale version of British Columbia, she works to come to terms with her own part in her guardian’s crimes. New friendships with a protective wolf and a sassy female traveler help Elka clarify the horrors of her past, reclaim her identity, escape the long arms of her psychotic guardian, and build the future she wants. We caught up with Beth Lewis about the perfect crossover read that is The Wolf Road. 

 

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Some reviews of The Wolf Road have focused on the relationship between Elka and her dangerous woodsman savior, rather than the equally important dynamic between Elka and her female companion on the last leg of her journey. I spend a lot of time thinking about representations of female community, and I loved that Elka got a chance to form a healthy friendship with another woman as a counter to her previous replacement family unit. What did you want explore in the novel’s depiction of female community?

Beth Lewis: I love depictions of strong female friendship. Too often in my opinion female characters seem to be shown fighting over a man or competing in some way, otherwise the friendships are written as quite superficial. There aren’t enough deep and abiding friendships, ones with life and death stakes, and I wanted to write one that felt real and almost unconditional. Elka and Penelope save each other, physically and emotionally, multiple times and as such, their bond becomes iron. This is going to sound a bit precious but I’ve always felt that, when I’m writing, the characters appear. I don’t decide on their gender or appearance or voice, they just are, as if I’m meeting a real person for the first time. I didn’t consciously set out to write about these two women but I knew that I wanted them both to have ultimate trust in each other, which is something neither of them had before. It’s something special to trust someone so completely, it’s powerful and rare to know without a doubt that if you put your life and your safety into this person’s hands, they wouldn’t let you down.

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