My Head is a Choir and All the Singers are Singing Different Songs: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joe Ide

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Joe Ide burst onto the mystery scene last year with his debut Isaiah Quintabe mystery, IQ, a Holmesian puzzler set in South Central LA. A bunch of us quickly blazed our way through IQ – with its well-rounded characters, stylish action sequences, clever heists, weaponized pit bulls, and foggy-minded celebrities, what’s not to love?

Now Ide is back with the second in the series, Righteousin which IQ and his reluctant side-kick Dodson go on a wild road trip to Vegas to try and rescue a deep-in-debt DJ and her doofus boyfriend after they mess with forces beyond their clearance level. IQ wants a chance to rescue his brother’s ex-fiancee’s wayward little sister, while Dodson just wants a break from home before his new baby is born, but both get more than they bargained for as gangs, gamblers and grim-faced traffickers all converge on the lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-gambling Vegas couple and their LA protectors. Interwoven are new developments in Isaiah’s understanding of his brother’s untimely death. 

Joe Ide mixes his choreographed action sequences with meditations on love, isolation, and friendship, for a surprisingly moving story that we’ve chosen as our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. Thanks to Joe Ide and the folks at Mulholland, we got a chance to ask a few questions about the book and the series.

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: I loved the madcap adventure that Isaiah and Dodson take to Vegas. What was your inspiration for the Vegas setting and their road trip through the sleaziest of cities? What kind of research did you do for the Vegas parts?

Joe Ide: I wanted to take Isaiah out of the hood and put him someplace where he have to deal with new situations and different kinds of characters. The more he’s a fish out of water, the more obstacles he has to overcome. There’s that old adage, no conflict, no story. Putting it in another location is a challenge for me. How to use the enviroment to advance the story. Embarrassingly, I did very little research on Vegas. For me ( like Isaiah) the town is “Too bright, too loud, too colossal.” Also like Isaiah, I bought a dog for 99cents and it was as big as a cat. The visuals I took from photographs and videos. As an aside, my Mom loved Vegas. She enjoyed being up at two in the morning, going anywhere she wanted. She had secret pockets in her pants to keep to her money away safe and foil the pickpockets.

MO: Dodson’s romance is unlikely, but the story of his courtship makes his successful wooing of his practical girlfriend believable. Which came first in the writing process, Dodson’s part in Isaiah’s adventure, or his new romance?

JI: I knew Dodson would be involved. He’s Isaiah’s Dr. Watson after all. But I like characters with full emotional lives. I want them to deal with the same problems we all deal with – like relationships. Giving him a romance seemed natural and the book is structured in a way that I that I could write about it.

MO: Both IQ and Righteous initially destabilize the reader’s expectations with two seemingly disparate plots, but then bring them together at the end in just the right way. Do you have extensive outlines before you even start writing? How do you tie it all together?

JI: I start with vaguest idea for a story and then I ask myself questions: Where does this take place? Who are the clients? Who are the bad guys? What do the bad guys want? What are the major problems Isaiah has to confront? And so on, and while I’m figuring these things out I’m making vague, random notes. About a character’s looks or a possible scene or piece of dialogue or whatever occurs to me. Think of it as a pointillist painting. I’m putting dots on the canvas and after I have lots and lots of them, the canvas starts to take shape, and at a certain point, I have to decide, is this a book or isn’t it? I’ve thrown a few away and started over, but when I have the makings of a book, I start writing as fast as I can. If I don’t know something I skip it and keep going until I have the creakiest skeleton of a story with missing limbs. But when I’m done, I have a structure on which I can build. Subplots occur to me as I’m writing and become more dots until they’re little canvases themselves and I see ways to knit them together, things I didn’t know when I started. I’m always thinking ahead, asking myself, where will this go? How will it be resolved? I’m making the process seem much more linear than it is. My head is a choir and all the singers are singing different songs. It takes them a long time before they’re on the singing the same tune. I recommend my methods to no one.

MO: I’ve heard there’s plans for a TV series in the making (which I will absolutely watch and hopefully binge watch!). What stage is the planning at? Who are your ideal casting choices?

The TV world moves at its own pace. I don’t know what they’re actually doing and where they are in the process. Every time a production makes an advance, another compromise is made with the original material. It’s too aggrevating and time consuming to worry about that stuff. I’ll stick to writing books.

MO: So I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love that you’re inspired by the stories, but not beholden to them. In particular, at the end of Righteous (and I promise there are no spoilers in this question) Isaiah is helped not just by his grasp of logic, but by (it seems to me) perfectly timed random fate. How much do you draw on the Sherlock canon, and how much do you like to change things up?

I’m not conscious of drawing on Sherlock. His influence is mixed in with a dozens, hundreds of others, including my own life experience. I don’t really decide how much of this and how much that. It just comes out that way. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. It’s the result of everything that’s ever happened to me put in a blender until it’s all unrecognizable and poured on to the pages.

MO: You have a love of South Central LA drawn from your experiences growing up in the area – tell us about your setting. Which came first to you when you were developing the series, the character or the area?

Chicken and the egg. As you say, I grew up in the hood and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I read all fifty six stories and four novels multiple times. When I decided to write a book there was never any question it would be Sherlock in the Hood.

MO: You have such perfectly choreographed shootouts and fight scenes – how do you plan out the action in your books?

It helps that I was a screenwriter. A set piece in a movie is structured the same as a set piece in a book. It has three acts. Act one lays out the premise, the situation. Act two is the action playing itself out, escalating in intensity until the end of the act where all seems lost for the good guys. In Act three, the good guys rise again and justice wins the day. Maybe. Having that as a base, I start my planning by thinking about outcomes. What do I want happen during the sequence? How do I want it to end? Then I identify the players and what each of them wants. I pick a location that serves these purposes and then I play chess with the pieces. If so and so does this, what’s so and so’s response? How does so and so get from A to B? What’s the most surprising, creative way for these things to happen? Sometimes I draw annotated diagrams. It’s about being specific and patient. Again, the process isn’t close to being that logical or organized.

MO: Obviously Arthur Conan Doyle is one of your writing inspirations, but you seem to draw from a diverse array of genres, and your voice is all your own – tell us about your influences.

All the writers you’d expect. Walter Moseley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chester Himes, John LeCarre (spy novels are just crime novels in another country) James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Octavia Butler and on and on and on. Other kinds of books as well. Chris Cleaves, Donna Tart, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Janet Fitch, Amor Towles, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy – also on and on and on and on. I like storytellers and interesting writing.

MO: Poor Sherlock. His love life is in shambles. Will he ever find love?

Yes, he will! But he will tormented, frightened and flummoxed, (like anybody else that’s in love).

MO: What’s next for the series? It seems like Isaiah’s resolved some of the lingering questions about his brother’s death and is ready for the bigtime in terms of investigations.

My original plan was for the characters to grow from book to book. In IQ, Isaiah is very isolated because of a tremendous burden of guilt. At the end of the book, he sets the guilt aside. In Righteous, he realizes he’s lonely and makes his first awkward attempts at reaching out. In IQ, Dodson learns that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. In Righteous, he has to deal with fatherhood. IQ3 will continue that growth. Of course, there will always be new bad guys and adventures but I don’t know as Isaiah ever take on really big investigations, ones of say, national importance. There are many other writers, like LeCarre, who do that way better than I could ever hope to. Isaiah’s cases will remain in the middle in terms of size. That’s where he (and I) feel most comfortable.

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

Advertisements

MysteryPeople Q&A with J. M. Gulvin

J. M. Gulvin’s new novel, The Long Countis one of our picks for October. Gulvin was kind enough to answer a few questions about this new series featuring Texas Ranger John Q.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery 

 

MysteryPeople Scott: Family is an element in both of your protagonists’ lives. What did you want to explore in with the idea?

J.M. Gulvin: You’re right, family is very important for this first novel and the rest of the series. My intention is to create as real a feel to the stories as possible so it’s important to me that all the characters are rounded enough that they could actually have existed. Family, dependents, loved ones and responsibility are all part of that. It’s been my experience during thirty years of travelling the west, that family is extremely important. I believe it is still an integral part of the make-up of the people that we’ve lost just little of in Europe and the UK. I wanted to be true to my understanding of the American spirit, particularly given the fact that I am not a native and am coming at these books from a different perspective altogether.

I don’t know anyone in the US (friends or business acquaintances) who don’t appreciate the fact that their nearest and dearest both present and past are an intrinsic part of their identity. Familial ties bind so much more tightly than any shared ideology and I find this whole sense of belonging fascinating. As a mechanism within the plot, it helps to establish context and character history. I learned very early that family isn’t just blood ties, however, it’s a bond that extends to friends, neighbors, and members of a given community. When I first went to Idaho in 1997, I saw how the 1534 inhabitants of a town called Bellevue, made sure that the rent and medical bills were paid for a man named Jeff Farrow, who had been involved in a snow mobile accident and took six months to recover. That sense of responsibility and purpose, of shared community and familial care, is exemplified in the personal response of ordinary Texans to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey. I’ve tried to identify with this (in some small way) in the relationships forged between John Q and his friends and neighbors on the ranch in Wilbarger County.

MPS: You are a Brit who now lives in and writes about the American West. What draws you to it?

JMG: I used to own a cabin on a lake in southern Idaho but had to sell it for various reasons. As soon as I’m able I plan to buy something in Texas or New Mexico. As you so rightly point out I am drawn to the west and always have been. I grew up watching westerns and something about the pioneering spirit, the can-do – have-to, approach to life really struck a chord with me. The first book l I ever read was “Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims” and from that moment I was transfixed. I started to read western novels and then later Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and various true-life accounts of mountain men who lived with Native Americans. A lot later I worked on a ranch close to the cabin where Vardis Fisher wrote “Mountain Man”, which was partial inspiration for the Robert Redford/Sidney Pollack movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. Prior to that I discovered Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

That pioneering spirit I mention is still very much in evidence today and I see it in my American friends. I love it, the lack of cynicism, the zest for life; when it’s coupled with the landscape of Texas or New Mexico it just seems to draw me. What’s interesting is that I find writing about the west at my house in Wales UK, to be more inspirational than if I was on the ground. As you’ll know better than me the Texas I’ve tried to create is a landscape from fifty years ago so it’s very different now and I find the physical distance allows my imagination to overcome some of the hurdles of reality.

MPS: What I like about John Q is that he has a sensitive side and a less self assured swagger that you see in most portrayals of Texas Rangers. How did you go about constructing him?

JMG: Man, I could wax lyrical about this one. How long have we got? Seriously, I’ve been working on John Q as a character since 2009. Initially he was loosely based on Ed Cantrell a Wyoming cop in the 1970’s who was actually tried and acquitted of murder after outdrawing another cop Michael Rosa, in a Rock Springs prowl car. Cantrell was the inspiration but gradually John Q morphed into a much younger man and a Texas Ranger. I made the real life Ranger Frank Hamer (Bonnie & Clyde) his god-father deliberately to engender a sense of veracity. Ironically. I had no idea that there was an expression in the US “John Q public”, in the UK we say “Joe Public” and even my New York agent didn’t pick up on the connection. I really like the connotation, inadvertent as it is, because I’ve tried to make Quarrie “a man of the people”.

Having spent so much time developing both him and his relationships, I feel that I know him very well and hopefully that comes across. I gave him the background I did, his son James, Pious and all the folks on the ranch etc to make him as true to life as I could. Yes, he’s tough, and he’s good with firearms because I wanted that old west lawman feel; honesty, a moral compass and overriding sense of integrity. I wanted an unequivocal hero. No navel gazing, a “what you see is what you get” kind of Texan, but also someone who displays the level of humanity you picked up on. I know a lot of cops, both in the US and in the UK, from FBI agents, to county sheriffs, city detectives etc and – I think – that the nature of the job is such that one has to be able to see all sides of the story.

I chose Frank Hamer to be John Q’s godfather for a very specific reason. When WWII broke out Hamer wrote King George VI of England offering a personal bodyguard of retired Rangers in case the Nazis rolled into London. As a Brit, I was hugely flattered by that, and perhaps writing about Texas Rangers is some sort of homage. I don’t know why but there’s something about them as a law enforcement agency that just hits a note with me. That old west toughness, the ability to work alone in inhospitable terrain and extreme circumstances. It’s an important element of the book given how they evolved as a police service. It’s said they’ve been shaped by the enemies they’ve faced and that had to be part of the narrative, but it was vital John Q did not become a caricature hence the sensitivity you pointed out and his ability to empathise with not only victims but those he’s hunting. Hopefully it creates the kind of real-life feel that I mentioned above and it will be an enduring feature of this series.

MPS: How did you decide the period to be the early seventies?

JMG: I chose the 1960’s because at that time there was still much of the old west feel about the Rangers though they were evolving into the modern outfit they are today, and I was able to set that juxtaposition against a backdrop of massive social change in the United States. On a simpler note, though, I’m no lover of technology and computer deduction. I long for the silences that John Q can experience when he’s alone in his car with no cell phone and out of radio contact. One of the things that’s struck me since embarking on this journey however, is how so much of what’s happening today mirrors the time I’m writing about. Someone at the Edinburgh Book Festival pointed out the prescience of my narrative, and I think they have a point given the current political situation.

MPS: One thing that struck me about the book was it’s mood. Are you aware of creating that when you’re writing or is it simply the result of your writing?

JMG: That’s a really interesting observation. The mood is as important as the voice I use and the way I try to create a sense of rhythm within the narrative. To that end I do work on it, yes. It’s not subconscious, it’s a skill I’ve been trying to hone for a very long time in an attempt to bring as much originality to the page as I can. A lot of people pick up on it and again, the fact that I’m not American, and am coming at this from a slightly different perspective, might be part of why it is so apparent. Hopefully, that’s a good thing and the more I write the character the more that sense of mood will develop.

MPS: From what I can tell, this is your first crime novel. Did you draw from any other writers in the genre?

JMG: Actually, It’s not my first crime novel. I’ve written a few under Jeff Gulvin, all of which are available in the US through Open Road Media. This is the first in this series however, and the first under JM Gulvin. The truth is I don’t read a lot of crime and never have. In my youth, I read the masters Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, etc because I wanted to be the best craftsman I could. They are my influences along with the genius of McCarthy. Rather than reading crime, I watch a lot on TV as some of the current US series are astounding. Steven Zaillian’s “THE NIGHT OF” for example, blew my mind for feel, atmosphere and subtlety of suggestion, and I devour anything Dennis Lehane is involved with. After a long day at my desk I find it easier to soak up something visual rather than sit down and read.

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

MysteryPeople Q&A with Adam Sternbergh

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I’ve often described Adam Sternberg’s The Blinds as if Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction was Twin Peaks. The Blinds is a small Texas town that contains former criminals whose memories have been erased and and who’ve been given new names. The law is Sheriff Calvin Cooper who has to solve the town’s first murder that occurs after another resident commits suicide. I talked with Mr. Sternberg about building this world.

MysteryPeople Scott: The Blinds is such a unique novel. How did the idea for it come about?

Adam Sternbergh: The Blinds was the culmination of three different ongoing obsessions of mine: 1) The idea of the Witness Protection Program, and how you go about starting a new life after a life of crime; 2) the notion of insular communities that live by their own moral code, whether it’s the Western town of Deadwood or the Branch Davidian compound at Waco; and 3) the ongoing research into changing, or even deleting, certain memories for victims of trauma — and what kind of memories each of us would choose to change, or erase, if we could.

MPS: How did you tackle the challenge of building the town of the Blinds?

AS: In thinking about a community of this size — less than 100 people — that’s cut off from the world, I had to decide: What’s important to its survival? Would the town have a sheriff? A mayor? A library? A dance hall? What kind of things can people live without, and what is absolutely essential? A big part of the allure of the Blinds to me is this fantasy of being completely unplugged — in a sense, they’re free of all the online obligations and distractions that many of us (me, anyway) struggle with everyday.

MPS: Was there something you always had to be aware of as a writer when dealing with this community?

AS: I spent a lot of time thinking about what a community in which every member essentially arrives with little or no past would be built on. For example, what do people talk about? How are relationships formed? But I realized it’s not so different from many situations we find ourselves in, when we have to find common ground with people of various, or even mysterious, backgrounds. There’s mystery to not knowing someone’s backstory, but a kind of freedom to — you can be whoever you want to be, or whoever you can convince people you are.

MPS: Each member of the Blinds has to pick the name of a movie star and one of a vice president to come up with. Do you have favorite one you came up with for a character?

AS: There’s a minor character named Errol Colfax — a combination of Errol Flynn and Schuyler Colfax, our 17th Vice-President — and I really loved that name when I came up with it. To me, “Errol Colfax” was the proof of concept for the whole naming idea. Movie star names have a natural charismatic aura to them — whether its Humphrey or Errol or Marilyn — and the Vice President names tend to have a whiff of historical formality, like Colfax or Burr or Calhoun. So I really loved that combination —Bette Burr or Orson Calhoun.

MPS: While the book is literary in nature, it also has a style and tone that I associate with film and music as well. Are you inspired by media outside of novels?

AS: Absolutely. The book was definitely inspired by the look and feel of films from Unforgiven to No Country for Old Men. And when I was writing, for a stretch I listened exclusively to the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack for There Will Be Blood, which evoked a feeling I found really inspiring. I’m very interested in cultural mythologies — the rules and tropes and familiar elements that appear in different genres, and why they are resonant — and possibly no genre is more rich in that kind of mythology than the Western, whether it’s the old John Wayne films or the more modern, more bloody iterations.

MPS: I hope this doesn’t become a question you’re going to get sick of, but I am curious. What name would you pick for yourself in The Blinds and do you have any idea of what your crime would be?

AS: My publisher, Ecco, rather ingeniously put together a website, welcometotheblinds.com, that will automatically generate a Blinds name for visitors. On my first visit, playing around with it, I got the name Harry Harlow after a minute or so — a combination of Harry Truman and Jean Harlow — and I immediately wished I’d used that name somewhere in the book. Who knows? Maybe Harry Harlow will turn up in the Blinds in some future continuation of the story. As to my crime: We all have things we regret, or choices we wish we’d made differently. To me, the most appealing thing about a place like the Blinds is leaving those regrets behind — which is not an option we have in regular life.

You can find copies of The Blinds on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Revealing Only a Very Small Slice of Yourself: MysteryPeople Q&A with Leah Carroll

Leah Carroll’s true crime memoir Down Citythe story of her mother’s murder, her father’s early death, and her own difficult childhood, came out this past March to much acclaim. Our contributor Matthew reached out to interview Leah in what may be the best and most personal interview we’ve ever had on the blog. Thanks to Matthew and Leah for a beautiful conversation that we have the privilege of sharing with our readers. 

  • Interview conducted by writer and blogger Matthew Turbeville

 

Matthew Turbeville: First off, I want to start off by saying I am a fan.  I was astounded by your book in more ways than one, and the seemingly effortless way you portray your parents’ struggles through life is not only surprising, but inspiring.  Where do you get the inspiration to write such a brilliant memoir? What are your favorite memoirs, works of fiction and nonfiction, movies, television shows, etc?

Leah Carroll: Matthew! I am a fan of yours! Thank you for your kind and generous assessment of the book. My parents were, in a way, inspiration to me. They were both photographers and my father was a voracious reader and cinephile who shared those passions with me. In college I read James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart back to back and they opened a completely new world for me. I had a similar experience reading Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard – I loved this book so much that at one point a mentor had to tell me, “Leah, your book is not going be Boys of My Youth, so stop trying to do that.” Beard has captured the essence of “funny/sad” (surely there is a word for that in French) and her book is…magical.

More recent memoirs that I’ve loved are Lacy Johnson’s The Other Side, Jeannie Vanasco’s forthcoming The Glass Eye, and Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse.

The two nonfiction books I recommend the most are Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Although now that I think about it, I also recommend Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc basically once a day and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey I decided to re-read the excellent Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

I love every single book by Megan Abbott. I loved History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter. My favorite contemporary novel is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

I think I have to stop with books or this list is going to get reaaaaaallly long (although I would be remiss not to mention how excited I am for the Deuce and what an absolute masterpiece OJ: Made in America was. Oh and also every Thirty for Thirty that’s ever been done. And The Knick.)

MT: This book must have been incredibly difficult to write. What was the greatest struggle you’ve had to overcome in putting your own life to words?

LC: The book took me ten years to write. I started in my early twenties and finished in my early thirties. A lot of that time was spent researching but I also produced an earlier draft that was about twice as long as the Down City that exists today. I’m so glad that early draft never saw publication. My mother was thirty when she was murdered. I needed to get to get to that age, to really understand how much of her life was stolen to be in the place where I could tell her story and where I could see her as a woman, independent of me. It was also hard to let go of much of the research. These documents – affidavits, grand jury testimony, war records – they had a real hold over me. I thought there was such poetry in the way they were written, even the way they were formatted on the page. But I realized that, in a vacuum, they wouldn’t have the same effect on a reader. I realized that I needed to tell a story that (hopefully) gave the reader a similar feeling through prose.

MT: I feel I’d be doing an injustice without relating a bit of my own story to you. One of my grandfathers was a “drug lord,” and took numerous lives. He’s someone I’ve always been ashamed of, but examined with empathy and as much understanding as possible. How were you able to write with such compassion and understanding of your characters, even those you didn’t know? Which person was hardest to write about?

LC: Writing about organized crime is so fraught. I wanted to show another side of the story that didn’t fetishize that life but in order to do that I had to show how so many of these men were broken down, uneducated, and really pitiful in so many ways. You can search for that and find hatred within yourself or you can search for that and just try to understand the overwhelming complexity of human life.

And I had anger, not just at the drug dealers and mafia associates who murdered my mother but also the police force and local politicians who saw her life as disposable and treated it accordingly. There is a point at which their ineptitude and negligence became criminal, in my opinion. And I remain angry at the corporations (and the the corporate greed) that eliminated institutions like the Providence Journal – these places were so necessary to men like my father. And so realizing that our ideas of who is “good” and who is “bad” made me rethink a lot of the ways society simplifies so much in order to avoid having difficult conversations. So I had those conversations with myself, or tried to.

It was very hard to write about my grandmother. It was hard to think about her being in any kind of pain because she is the most loving, courageous, strong and kind person I know. I try everyday to be the kind of woman she is.

MT: Mental illness has always been a cause I’ve fought for and I find it’s prevalent throughout your novel. Struggles with addiction, depression, manic depression, and so on come up time and time again. How have you managed to overcome the struggles you’ve faced with mental illness—your parents’, your husband’s, perhaps even your own—to be the extraordinary success you are today?

LC: My mother tried VERY hard to quit using. My father tried VERY hard to quit drinking. It would be unfair and uncharitable to behave as if addiction is something people choose. My husband and I are very open in our discussions about his sobriety – I can’t understate how valuable that dialogue is to our relationship. What think I find very upsetting is the utter lack of compassion around the current opioid epidemic. Shame and cruelty are not how you root out addiction.  

And I have certainly had my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I feel lucky that one lesson I learned, particularly from my father, was that psychological treatment is necessary, that it is in now way indicative of weakness, and is actually a very powerful way of owning your space in the world.

MT: Your book is frankly heartbreaking but in the best way. It does what the greatest novels do: rips you apart and sews you back together again.  What were your intentions when beginning this memoir?

LC: I wanted to tell people about my Mom and Dad. I know that sounds simplistic but it’s the only real honest answer. To me, they were exceptional, but to the world they were forgettable. Most of us are.  It was very important to me to discuss their flaws because we ALL have flaws and the only way to do a human life justice, I think, is with absolute honesty. I wanted people to know about them, to understand the weight of their humanity. I don’t think of the book as a “tribute” to them. I think of it more as an artifact that will live on. And the book is as much about me as it is about them. It took a very long to time for me to admit that in order to tell their stories, I had to tell it through my experience. I’ve never been able to let them go. I don’t want to. They made me a writer. So the whole thing is their fault, really.

MT: What advice do you give to people who feel they have a story to tell? Their own story, or a story that relates to them? How do you begin approaching the topic of writing about your own life?

LC: Publishing a memoir is … weird. But great! But also you are exposing yourself in a very unusual way. In a memoir you actually revealing only a very small slice of yourself. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. Nobody would ever want to read my autobiography because I’m wholly unremarkable. But I’ve had a “remarkable” experience that I wanted to tell to get at the heart of a larger truth.  It’s tough sometimes to try to explain this or to just accept the idea that people believe they know everything about you. So one thing I tell people is that they must own their narratives and not let anyone tell them their stories are small. I also encourage everyone who has a story to tell interrogate what that story means. A memoir is not an anecdote.

I also feel very strongly nobody has ownership of a certain story or narrative. If there is something that has resonated with you very strongly, that you keep coming back to, that has shaped you in any way no matter how peripherally you may have been a participant, tell that story. If it matters to you, if you feel compelled to turn into art, to try to explain the hold it has over you, then do that.

MT: How has this history of violence defined you past the boundaries of the book? In what ways are you limited—or, possibly, more open—to new possibilities in life, in love, in art?

LC: I think I have seen the worst in people and I have seen the best in people.

MT: What’s your favorite memory of your father? If you had to choose just one? And do you believe the best memories are crystal clear and perfect, or tainted—imperfect, scarred, but memorable for these reasons?

LC: One of my first memories of my father is from when my mother was still alive and we were all living together so I have to be no older than 3. He had shaved his mustache (the only time I can remember it ever happening!) and when he tried to pick me up I wailed in terror. I remember him trying to comfort me and telling me he’d grow the mustache back.

I believe that I have a very good memory, particularly of my childhood and teenage years. (I think they call this the nostalgia bump). However memory is very slippery things. There are certain moments I recall with absolute clarity, like going to the Vietnam Memorial with my father when I was seventeen. I have a much more difficult time remembering the year immediately after his death.

MT: How did you decide when to begin and where to end your memoir?

LC: I knew the story would begin with the details of my parents’ deaths. I didn’t want to use those as any narrative mechanism for suspense. Figuring out the ending was far more difficult. I relied a lot on the advice of my wonderful editor, Libby Burton who helped me so much with the craft and shape of the book. I’m not sure I could have ever actually ended it without Libby’s guidance.

MT: Another experience we share is a troubled high school career, followed by an interesting path to success—and yes, I think you are an amazing success. What thoughts, images, ideas, etc drove you through these years to get where you are now?

LC: I was such a child of the nineties. I think I was really lucky to be a teenager then. I idolized Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love – these smart, aggressive women who stood out, who were smart and who were difficult. Most of my pop culture icons were strong women and that certainly helped give me the sense that I could achieve something outside of the typical paths of “success”.

I was a monstrous teenager! I’m not sure how anyone put up with me but in retrospect, even as I was failing every class, I had teachers and mentors who encouraged my writing, who gave me books, and who supported me. In the book I write about an experience I had in community college (by the way, I am a proud alum of the Community College of Rhode Island – it saved my life in many ways. The Community College system is something we really need to support – I take every opportunity to make this point) where a teacher recognized my father from an essay I’d written. I wrote about how shocking that was – that this professional man had recognized in my writing something we shared. It was a moment that drove me forward in terms of seeking an education, and doing whatever I could to keep writing.

MT: What’s next for you? Please tell me there’s a novel or memoir in the works.  The world would be a waste without your genius.  

LC: *whispers* I’m working on a novel. Don’t tell. It might take me another ten years.

MT: Thank you, Leah, for sharing your thoughts and insight into these questions.  I look forward to your future work, and just know you’re welcome any time at MysteryPeople.  

You can find copies of Leah Carroll’s Down City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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

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

 

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.