Scott Montgomery: More Better Deals is an homage to one of your favorite writers James M Cain. You once described him as a “clean writer.” What does that mean to you?
More Better Deals is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.
Scott Montgomery: More Better Deals is an homage to one of your favorite writers James M Cain. You once described him as a “clean writer.” What does that mean to you?
More Better Deals is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.
Russ Thomas has created a much talked about debut with Firewatching, featuring D.I. Adam Tyler. Tyler catches a high profile case when the body of a loathed businessman is discovered walled in his own estate. Tyler was picked up by the man’s son the night before. Paired with the funny and feisty Det. Amini Rabbani, Tyler pursues the case his lover could be a part of that is also connected to several fires being set around Sheffield. Thomas will be at BookPeople on March 3rd at 7PM to sign and discuss Firewatching, but was kind enough to volunteer for this advance grilling about this character driven and moody police thriller.
Scott Montgomery: Firewatching is a very unique police thriller and very character driven. Which came first, DS Adam Tyler or his adversary?
RT: Hmmm. Interesting question. Stories always start with character for me but in this case it was the character of Lily which came first. I wrote a short story about her many years ago, and she stayed with me. I think I always planned to revisit her and try and tell more of her story. Then, when I realized I was writing a police procedural novel, the rough idea of DS Adam Tyler was formed. It took a long time, many, many rewrites, and a name change or two before I got him right. The book was called Firewatching from very early on though and the concept of an arsonist setting light to various places around the city hasn’t changed all that much. So I suppose the concept of Tyler came first but it took me a while to fully realize him.
SM: The way you deal with Tyler’s homosexuality is deft. It’s definitely a part of him and he has obstacles because of it, but it doesn’t define him. What did you want to explore with that aspect of the character?
RT: I always saw Tyler as a gay character, right from the start but I really didn’t want the story to be about the fact that he’s gay. Growing up gay myself in the 1980s and 90s I always wondered why, when they included gay characters in TV shows/books/films (which was rarely), the story always had to be about them struggling with their sexuality or coming out. I’m not saying those stories aren’t important, I just feel they’ve been very well-explored and that there are other gay stories to tell. After all, LGBTQ+ people are also husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons; they are police officers and fire-fighters too. I wanted to write a story with a gay character where his sexuality is just one part of who he is and not necessarily the driving force of the plot. Yes, he has issues with his sexuality in the workplace, and his love life puts him in a very tight corner in this book, but his bigger problems stem from his past and who he is as a person. If he’d been a straight man in this story I think the outcome would have been the same, pretty much.
SM: Rabbani is already a character readers of the book love. How did you construct her?
I didn’t really construct her, she just turned up fully formed. I wanted another voice in the book, someone who could show us a side of Tyler he perhaps doesn’t see himself. And someone who would be his ally in the novel, even though he doesn’t necessarily think he needs one. So I wrote the scene near the start of the novel where he turns up at the crime scene and the officer on duty tells him he isn’t allowed in. I made her a woman, for contrast, and Asian for much the same reason, and also because there’s a large Asian community in Sheffield, much as there is in most major cities in the UK and it felt right to reflect that. But other than that I didn’t plan her character. She just turned up, got in Tyler’s way and suddenly began to steal the show. I love her so much.
SM: History plays an important part in the novel. Where there any challenges of dealing with the past?
RT: I had one major problem, which was Lily and Edna’s ages. Without giving too much away, it was crucial that they met during World War II but that made them a little older than I would have liked. It’s one of the reasons the book is set a few years in the past. Some people are very fit well into later life but Lily has to be quite able-bodied in the story and I was stretching credulity a little bit. Other than that, not really. I did some research of course but mainly into the famous fires detailed in the blog posts. The flashback scenes with Lily and Edna came almost wholly from my imagination so if I’ve got some historical detail wrong it’s entirely my fault.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
RT: I’m sure I did in all sorts of ways both conscious and unconscious. There are definitely shades of the Golden Age of crime here. I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie when I was young and I love that way she had of presenting a small cast of characters as suspects in a locked-room mystery. That’s much harder to do across a city landscape but I’m sure there are reflections of that, especially in the village of Castledene and its dubious residents. I read a lot of Lee Child and I’m in awe of his ability to leave you breathless as the story rattles along. If I’ve managed to echo that even slightly then I would be happy. Finally, there’s a definite nod to Chandler and the gumshoe detective. I like to think of Oscar as an homme fatale, dangerous and seductive, with an agenda the reader is not quite sure about.
SM: Do you have another case for DS Tyler ready?
RT: Yes, indeed. The second book is already written. Nighthawking picks up a few months after the end of Firewatching and we discover that Tyler is a little preoccupied by something Doggett has told him about his past. Then a body is dug up by a metal detectorist in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens and… well, I’d better leave it there for now.
While Cross Her Heart was my first time reading a book written by author Sarah Pinborough, it definitely won’t be my last: Her plotting, pace and twists were amazing.
Amid best selling authors like Gillian Flynn working with unreliable narrators I find myself wondering, when reading new books with female protagonists, if THIS is an character I can rely on. And this one avoided the clichés, the predictable twists of many other authors and instead provided a completely original book that will keep you reading all night.
As the Independent wrote, “Once the first reveal hits you in the face, you’ll be lucky if you can put the book down to go to bed.”
The author, who has also written 20 novels and novellas and written for the BBC, was nice enough to let me interview her via email.
Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?
Sarah Pinborough: The central subject matter – which I can’t really talk about without giving away the twist! – has always fascinated me, especially the fallout and how people continue to live their lives in the aftermath. In the UK in particular we have a fascination with these cases and I always wanted to write something that explored it. God, this is so hard to answer 😉 But once I had that the core twist in place, the rest of the story came easily.
Scott: Which comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
Sarah: Often I’ll start with a situation, or a scene, but the characters are very close behind. It’s very symbiotic. But when writing thrillers you need to have the engine of the plot and then house it with characters that people will care about. They don’t have to be likeable for me, but they have to like themselves, even if that particular character is an awful human being. Then you have half a chance that the reader will root for them.
Scott: How do you come up with so many disturbing ideas for novels?
Sarah: Ha! Sometimes I think I’d love to write something funny but my brain tends to go to darker places! When I was a kid I never slept because I was always scared of the monsters in the dark, and that endless death-like quality of night, so I figure I’m just destined to think of the terrible things rather than the fun ones. I hope that there are some uplifting moments in my books, though!
Scott: Am I right in guessing that you outline your books? I would think you would have to do in order to plan the twists and keep the pacing at atmosphere going.
Sarah: Yes, I definitely plan. I don’t always stick to them but they help point out the problems if nothing else. I always have to have the end solidly in place before I begin and that never changes once it’s locked in. If the ending doesn’t feel right I can’t really start. I do screenwriting as well, and there structure is everything, and that has carried over into my novel writing. I kind of get key beats in place but they often change as ideas or characters change!
Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
Sarah: Mainly, I hope they just have a few hours entertainment. Entertainment is much under-rated in this difficult world we live in, and I love to get lost in a story, and forget about any problems I have, and hope that my readers have the same experience. But, also, the story stays with them for a while, or makes them think about people in a different way, that’s good too.
Scott: You have quite the collection of past works. What prompted you to write modern re-tellings of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?
Sarah: Well, that was actually my old editor at Gollancz’s suggestion! We’d both been watching the first scene of Once Upon a Time and loving it and she asked if I’d ever consider re-telling fairy tales and they’d want to publish them if I did. I didn’t think I’d be able to write something like that but then I was thinking about Snow White and wondered what kind of man would fall in love with a dead girl in a glass coffin, and then I had my way in. I’m very proud of that trilogy, and it was fun to be able to write dark, saucy humour.
Scott: I understand Stephen King was one of your earlier writing influences. What’s it like to have King, along with Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Harlan Coben and others, praising you?
Sarah: Oh my gosh, it’s just amazing. There’s always lots of fear in this business (I mean, I’m not bigging up writing, it’s not brain surgery or saving people from fires etc, but we have fragile egos and always worry) and whenever i have a moment of wondering if I’m making a mess of a story or if it’s all going to go wrong I think, ‘Well, at least all these people I admire have at some point enjoyed what I’ve done.’ It’’s a great way to calm down. 😉 I love all of them, but having grown up in total awe of Stephen King his words almost made me cry!
Scott: What are you working on next?
Ah! Well, I’m describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s fun and sexy. It’s set in America, and it’s lots of terrible, wealthy people doing terrible things to each other … but I love them. Especially the main women characters. It is a change because it’s third person past rather than first person present and it doesn’t have past chapters like the last two books but thus far, I’m pretty pleased with it. I think it will be a bit different.
Ruth Ware’s fourth book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is another one of her great psychological thrillers.
Ware previously wrote three excellent novels: In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game. The latter two were on the top ten bestseller lists of The New York Times and the U.K.’s Sunday Times. All three books have been optioned for screen.
This book is good, similar fare full of twists and suspense. The story revolves around Hal, a young tarot card reader, down on her luck. She attends the funeral of a woman who has left her a mysterious inheritance. But it appears Hal was not truly the intended recipient which leads to many complications, plot twists and difficult situations
Ware was nice enough to let me interview her by email. My sister, Ellen Butki, helped me formulate the questions. Thanks to both of you.
Scott Butki: How did this story about this young woman develop?
Ruth Ware: I always find it hard to unpick all the threads that come together to make a story, but I suppose that having written three books about women who found themselves in a life changing situation mostly through no fault of their own, I wanted to write something about a character who brings the action down on themselves – someone who sets out to commit a crime. But I found it impossible to write Hal as a true anti-hero. She makes some questionable decisions, but I liked her more and more as the book went on.
SB: What do you think of those who compare you to Agatha Christie, as both of you not only are famous for twists but also for putting characters into situations that can lead to paranoia and violence?
RW: I take it as a huge compliment! I’m a big fan of Christie and I think her plots are pretty much second to none – so many of the features we take for granted about the genre today, she more or less developed. I would be very happy if I wrote something even a quarter as twisty and genre-defining as And Then There Were None.
SB: In your writing process, which do you see first: the overview (characters/setting/plot), the ending, or the major twist? Do you add more twists while editing?
RW: It’s really hard to pick apart because they all come together more or less at the time, and different books develop differently. With Cabin 10 I had the ship first of all – the first image that came to me was of a woman waking up in the middle of the night in a locked cabin and hearing a splash. But who that woman was and what happened next developed at the same time, because the one influenced the other.
In a Dark, Dark Wood the physical entity of the glass house only came to me quite late on, about a quarter of the way into the book – but again the motives of the protagonists and their particular characters developed hand in hand. Character is plot, and plot is character. What we do and why is shaped by who we are – and vice versa. The twists are a bit separate – I have to figure those out as I go. Sometimes the pieces don’t fall into place until really quite late.
SB: Identity seems to be a common theme in your books. Is that intentional? Do you want readers to take away something about identity or some other lesson while reading your books?
RW: Do you know, I had never really thought about this before, but you are right! I am not sure why that is – except that I’m endlessly fascinated by people and the versions of themselves that they show to the world versus the people they are inside. I guess it’s that fascination showing. I don’t really write with an intentional lesson or message in mind – I would never presume to dictate to my readers what they should or shouldn’t find in my books, though of course there are always subjects I’m interested in, and I suppose I do often hope to make people think and question some of their assumptions.
SB: Do you believe that deeply buried secrets will/must always be revealed (in books and/or in life)? Where does this belief stem from?
RW: Actually, I am a firm believer in healthy repression 😉 Of course in books secrets usually come out – it’s back to that Chekovian idea of a gun above the mantelpiece. If you reveal that a character has a deep dark secret, there’s no point in putting it in the plot unless it’s going to come out at some point, otherwise you may as well not bring it up at all. In real life, though, we all have secrets – large and small – and bringing things out into the open isn’t always the right course of action. I think my books often show the enormous damage that can be done when secrets surface.
SB: What are you working on next?
RW: Another book of course! It’s a bit too early to talk about it though – I don’t want to jinx myself.
The real emotion and strong sense of place made William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness our Pick Of The Month for June. The book concerns his character Amy, who played a smaller role in his debut novel Gravesend, who has put her wilder ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut ins in her Brooklyn neighborhood. The job leads her to witnessing a stabbing and dealing with it in a way that both puts her in danger and has her flirting with her past life.
Bill was kind enough to let us ask him some questions about the book, it’s location, and influences.
MysteryPeople Scott: When you were writing Gravesend, did you know Amy had a bigger story in her?
William Boyle: I wasn’t thinking about a bigger story involving Amy as I was writing Gravesend but when I finished it she was a character that I really wondered and worried about. I named her Falconetti after the actress Renée Maria Falconetti from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of my favorite films, so that—just that great name—was a draw to return to her. Pretty soon after I finished Gravesend, I was thinking about the poster for Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, that iconic shot of Parker Posey, and I imagined a book called Falconetti. I didn’t know exactly what my approach would be—I didn’t wind up starting work on the book (which became The Lonely Witness) until early 2017—but I saw Amy as some kind of cross between Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and Willy Vlautin’s Allison Johnson. I liked the idea of her and Alessandra having had this whole relationship that we don’t see and then she stays behind in Alessandra’s neighborhood. My grandmother’s 90 and she was getting communion delivered at home, and I just started to see that this was what Amy’s life had become. I knew some things about her past from Gravesend; others revealed themselves as I wrote.
MPS: You dig into that noir concept of the past coming back in a unique way. What did you want to explore with that concept?
WB: In a lot of ways, I think the book is about the ghost of past identities, how we can be all the versions of ourselves we’ve ever been simultaneously. I like the double action of the title. Amy witnesses crimes, but witness also has religious connotations. The book is haunted and even driven by Amy’s tortured spirituality. It’s not just that she was shaped by the crime she witnessed as a teenager; she was shaped by her mother dying, by her father leaving, by her Catholicism. All of these things are ghosts she can’t shake, which leads to a life of trying on new versions of herself, seeking something that fits. I love the idea of having a character like her driving a noir narrative—someone that’s neither one dimensionally good or bad, but who is a complicated and confused yearner. I just watched this great film, Christina Chao’s Nancy, and Andrea Riseborough’s character in that film really brought me back to Amy in a good way. Nancy does worse things than Amy, but they’re both searching for meaning, trying to understand how to exist in the world. They’re outsiders, on the margins of normal existence.
MPS: Besides familiarity, what does Brooklyn provide for you as a writer?
WB: It’s the landscape of my imagination. I spent—and continue to spend—so much time there that I can just think of a battered house on my block, and it’ll spark a story. It’s familiarity, definitely, but it’s also the mythology of it. To think of all the stories, the way it’s changed and changing. My part of Brooklyn is not the hyper-gentrified part people think of—the changes are interesting and really speak to a lot of what’s still great about New York City. I also like the idea of the way things change around people. My grandparents were in their house for sixty years, and everything changed around them. The house tells those stories. The sidewalk out front tells those stories. The weeds in the backyard tell those stories. I like walking around and seeing old signs that have been covered up or faded away. I also feel this melancholy when I’m back there that, I think, informs everything I write. I’m interested in people who are trapped in the neighborhood, chained to it, who live—essentially—a small town life in a big city.
MPS: Scott Phillips once told me you can only really write about a place once you left it. Does the distance help you in any way?
WB: That’s definitely been true in my experience. But there’s also something about returning to a place a certain way. I’m back in Brooklyn a lot, probably two months a year, and when we’re there we stay with my mom and we visit my grandma in her nursing home in Coney Island (where she’s been about a year), and there’s something about being there that way that’s so intense, that brings me back so fully to my childhood and formative years, that really feeds my imagination. I’m hanging out with my mother, visiting her at work, meeting people at my grandma’s nursing home, seeing neighbors, taking lots of walks up to the avenue for groceries and coffee and to-go food. I’m back on the ground. I’m seeing all the same religious statues in yards, I’m seeing the same houses, the garbage in the streets, the El rumbling by, and I’m thinking about time in a way that I never quite have. I don’t know what it’d be like if I was totally removed from it—that’s just distant to my personal experience. Frankly, it scares and saddens me to think that someday my connection to Brooklyn might be more tenuous.
MPS: All your characters are vivid, even someone at the end of the bar for one page. Do you have a particular approach when writing those “smaller” characters?
That’s one of the real joys of writing for me. There are many writers and filmmakers I admire who make the most of every bit part, but I don’t know if anyone does it as meaningfully as David Lynch. Look at Twin Peaks: The Return. You’ll meet a character once—like Max Perlich in his brief cameo—and you wonder about him and marvel at his existence in the show. That’s the kind of thing a lot of people would cut—there’s no purpose, they’d say—but it adds layers of mystery and builds the world. You can have this whole story-within-a-story that’s moving and unexpected. I think my approach with those characters is just to see them as fully as I can, to try to witness their pain, to have this whole other story under the surface that brings the world to life. In The Lonely Witness, one of my favorite minor characters is Lou, who hits on Amy at Homestretch. He wasn’t there until he was, and that’s part of the joy, too. Painting away from the edges of the scene in the name of discovery.
MPS: Will the next book be in the shared world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness or something completely different?
WB: The next book is set in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods with some parts in the Bronx and even a stretch up in the Hudson Valley. It takes place in 2006. It’s pretty much the same world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, but there are no direct connections beyond place. It’s really inspired by Jonathan Demme’s great screwball noirs, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, with maybe a little Shane Black mixed in there. It’ll be out this time next year, maybe sooner. The new book I’m working on is set in my neighborhood in 1991. The one I’m thinking about for after that will take place in the ‘80s. Again, the connection there will just be the place, though there might be some very minor character crossovers here and there.
In The First Order, Jeff Abbott has written yet another great thriller about his protagonist hero, Sam Capra, and his continuing adventures and mishaps.
This is Abbott’s fifth novel in the Sam Capra series and I keep thinking one of these is going to be a dud – no offense, Jeff – but he keeps pulling it off. Each has enough excitement that it should come with a warning: Don’t read before going to bed… because there’s enough adrenaline to keep you awake.
“Usually when an idea with this many facets comes to me, I know it’s one good enough for a book.”
With his new book, The Truth and Other Lies, Sascha Arango has set and surpassed a high bar. His plot and style remind me of the great Patricia Highsmith.
The protagonist, as the book starts, has a problem: His wife has been secretly writing the popular novels that he claims to pen. And his mistress is getting in the way. When he tries to kill one but perhaps kills the other, things go crazy and your blood gets pumping. If you like good plot-driven mysteries, give this book a chance. You can find copies of The Truth and Other Lies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
– Post by Molly
All month long here at MysteryPeople, BookPeople’s mystery bookstore-within-a-bookstore, we’ve been celebrating International Crime Fiction Month in a variety of ways, including book club picks, internationally-themed Crime Fiction Friday posts, and a film screening of Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic noir novel, Pop 1280. We also brought you an interview with Danusia Stok, who has translated Marek Krajewski’s Inspector Mock series, among many others.
As June wraps up, we’ve got another interview for you. Molly asked Ilan Stavans, publisher at Restless Books, about what it’s like to work in international publishing. Mr. Stavans was kind enough to send some answers along. Ilan Stavans has had a variety of literary occupations, including essayist, translator, publisher, and short-story author. He is a prominent cultural commentator and public intellectual who is known for his analysis of American, Mexican and Jewish culture, as well as Latino and Jewish identity.
Mr. Stavans has worked as the publisher for Restless Books for the past two years. According to its mission statement, Restless Books is “an independent publisher for readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives…committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, poetry, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.”
Restless Books works to publish great international literature, and that includes science fiction, crime fiction, nonfiction, and a soon-to-be-launched classics line, Restless Classics. Don Quixote, Restless Classics’ first release, comes out in October in a special 400th anniversary edition. Restless Classics will add two titles to the line each year. The next four classics are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz’s Poems and Protest.
Restless Books has also recently reissued one of my favorite detective novels, Four Hands, by Mexican crime novelist, historian, and prominent left-wing activist Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Four Hands is available as an ebook only and you can find it on your Kobo reader, the e-reader that supports independent bookstores. Read the interview below to find out more about Ilan Stavans, Restless Books, and the world of international publishing.
Molly O: What are your thoughts about translating crime fiction, and genre fiction, in particular?
Ilan Stevens: I’m a lover of genre fiction: a voracious reader of detective and crime novels as well as SF. Restless Books has just published two extraordinary Science Fiction novels from Cuba, Agustín de Rojas’s Legend of the Future and Yoss’s A Planet for Rent. As you know, SF often focuses in the dystopian future as a metaphor of the exhausted present and these two novels are an extraordinary opportunity to understand the way the future has been approached in Cuba, a place that for over fifty years has stubbornly proposed an alternative, if equally imperfect and mendacious present.
Genre literature is often criticized as formulaic. But there is great talent in bending the formula, making it elastic, more idiosyncratic. That is the impression one gets when reading genre fiction from across the world. Dashiell Hammett is better appreciated against a background of hard-boiled novels from Pakistan, Bolivia, Israel, and Poland. Thus, translating their hard-boiled books is not only entertainment and a good investment(because genre fiction comes with a built-in-audience), but also culturally enriching.
Restless Books will bring out more SF next year. It has already published Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a master of the hard-boiled in Mexico. And it is preparing more detective novels.
MO: Low numbers of books are translated into English from other languages each year, compared to the number originally published into English. What accounts for the low numbers?
IS: The United States, the world’s superpower and a country made of immigrants, is embarrassingly parochial when it comes to literary translation: according to estimates, only around 3% of new books published annually are translations. This is in contrast with countries like Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, and Norway, where the percentage can sometimes reach above 50%. The empire is insular, the empire is shallow at its core. We appear to say to others: gives us your poor, your huddled masses, but once they are here, we’ll make sure they don’t look back because we believe we are better than everyone else. What accounts for this pitiful allergy, this meager literary diet? It also has to do with the dominance of English as a global language. And with the way literary markets work, giving others the impression that what gets translated into other languages is proof of success in English. Restless is part of a small but significant group of small publishers of literary translation in America (Archipelago, Other Press, Melville…) eager to bring change.
MO: What do you think are the languages easiest to translate into English? Which are some of the hardest?
IS: Translation is never easy, no matter the language, although it might appear deceivingly simple in some cases. There are books that have been translated into English twenty times (one example is Don Quixote) while thousands of others merit the journey but linger in oblivion. When translating a book that has already been done, it is important to pay tribute, even to draw from one’s predecessors. And when the effort is the first in line, it is crucial to remind the reader that the work at hand comes from elsewhere, that there is an element of foreignness in it that is essential.
MO: When a book has appeal across many different languages and cultures, what, do you think, accounts for this appeal? What themes and genres translate most widely?
IS: Ours in the twenty-first century is a global culture: we want to know what others in remote places of the planet thinking, what they dream. We want to feel that they are our contemporaries, that we live the same present moment in different ways. Global culture, to exist, depends on an emphasis in local elements. Truth is, books that become universal have a way of emphasizing regional aspects. This is a difficult line to walk: how to reach others beyond one’s confine by focusing on what we know best, our own little corner, our home. Audiences are rather open to genres and themes as long as the author, they feel, is at once original and authentic. The translator’s challenge is to preserve that originality and authenticity while also reminding readers that what they have in front of their eyes is foreign.
MO: This one is kind of a broader question – what is it like to work in the world of international publishing?
IS: It is enormously inspiring. As an essayist, translator, and cultural commentator (born in Mexico), for years I complained that American readers have a disturbingly constrained literary diet. A few years back, when I turned fifty, I decided to stop complaining and do something about it. This has taken me from one side of the page (putting words on it) to another (producing that page). I have been able to understand, from within, the laws that govern international literary markets, to appreciate how fashion is shaped, and, hopefully, to look for the courage to make a difference.
James W. Ziskin has created an engaging character with Sixties-era “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. The series takes a subtle look at its historical period; in particular, Ziskin uses Ellie Stone’s character to expose sexism in the male dominated town she works in. Before James joins us for the Seventh Street panel on Saturday, June 20th, he was kind enough to take a pre-grilling about his latest book, Stone Cold Dead, and what it’s like to deal with a Sixties setting.
MysteryPeople: You have Ellie looking into the disappearance of a teenage girl and she interviews many of her peers. What did you want to explore about that age?
James W. Ziskin: Teenage passions, angst, love, rebellion. The whole gamut of intense adolescent emotions. These feelings are real and extremely potent, but teens are usually not prepared to deal with them. It’s hard enough for adults. But when you’re little more than a child, it’s a melee going on inside your head and a jamboree in your body. Conflicts with parents, pressure from peers, hormones, budding sexuality. A very vulnerable time of life. And, of course, there are those who would exploit that vulnerability. For some kids, it’s a dangerous time as well.
MP: What does a writer have to keep in mind about dealing with that age?
JWZ: I think we should remember what we were like at that age. How headstrong and insecure at the same time. We were certain of our convictions, and there was no room for compromise. And our first love. How powerful and crazy and undisciplined it was. We spend most of our lives trying to control our emotions, learning how to be a proper, well behaved person. Maybe adolescence is the last stand of purity of heart and innocence. I tried to keep all of that in mind when writing Stone Cold Dead.
MP:It seems that next to the Civil War, or World War II, the sixties are the other period our culture always wants to experience. What do you think draws us to that period?
JWZ:That’s a good question, but I’m not sure I know why. I can’t speak for the Civil War buffs, but for the sixties, it may be that as the huge generation of baby boomers age, they look back with nostalgia at the years of their youth. That’s more than 70 million Americans who were born or grew up in the early sixties. It might also be because the sixties were such a period of change. You had everything necessary for a good story: sex, the Cold War, great music, and tail fins on cars. What’s not to love?
And the early sixties bridged the old and the new. The conservative, prosperous fifties of Eisenhower and the raucous, modern world of the late sixties and seventies. Jet travel was new and exciting. Modern superhighways and electric appliances made life easier in quaint, naive ways when considered next to today’s mad, connected world.
MP:What is the biggest misconception of the time?
JWZ:That the world was innocent and safe. A nice place, a better time. That nice girls didn’t have sex. In 1961, the sexual revolution was still a few years away, but we shouldn’t forget either that Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and The Single Girl came out in 1962. It’s a safe bet that there were many “modern girls” like Ellie Stone at that time. I think the mystery writer Cathy Ace said it best about Stone Cold Dead: “Revel in the early ’60s nostalgia, but throw away the rose-tinted specs.
MP:You’re one of the few authors who has, at least on the surface, little in common with your protagonist. How do you approach this challenge?
JWZ: With great caution. My protagonist is a mid-twenties woman of liberal — some might say libertine — sensibilities. I, on the other hand, am a man of a certain age. But Ellie and I share what’s important at the core of a character: values, sense of humor, honesty, and morality. And a fondness for Dewar’s Scotch. She’s smarter than I am by half, better organized, and better looking. I’m taller.
I approach the writing of Ellie from the perspective of an admirer and a co-conspirator. She’s endowed with the best qualities I’ve observed in the women I admire. Intelligence, determination, a wicked wit, and a playfulness that has survived the tragedies of her life. I’ve learned a lot about empathy writing a female narrator, and I hope I’ve achieved some measure of success in painting her complex character.
MP:You set a lot of challenges for Ellie, not only with the plots, but in the place and time she exists. Have you ever had trouble working her way out of a situation?
JWZ: Ellie bumps her head against male condescension, bias, and boorishness every single day of her career. I’m amazed when people tell me that things weren’t that hard for a working woman in 1960. It was a constant struggle. Ellie is underestimated and under-appreciated at every turn. And that’s just in the office. She’s also feisty and occasionally reckless in her pursuit of a story. That sometimes lands her in trouble with the wrong people. Ellie’s not going to punch her way out of a jam; she’s rather small and physically unimposing. She doesn’t carry a gun and wouldn’t know how to use one if she did. So she must get by on her wits and her charm. Ellie may not be able to beat up the men who threaten her, but she’ll fight like a hellcat to protect herself.
You can find copies of Stone Cold Dead on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. James Ziskin joins us this Saturday, June 20th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. He will be speaking and signing with two other authors from Seventh Street Books, Mark Pryor and Terry Shames.
Mike Blakely is an accomplished traditional western singer/songwriter as well as an award winning novelist. His latest, A Song To Die For, uses the Austin music scene of the Seventies as its backdrop. Vietnam vet guitar picker Creed Mason is in the midst of building a band for the comeback of country legend Luster Burnett when he gets in between a Texas Ranger and a mob hitman as they prepare for a showdown. It’s a fun, rollicking tale that oozes with the twang, humidity, and barbecue of its place and time.
MysteryPeople: This is your second book dealing with the Texas outlaw music scene of the Seventies. What drew you to that era?
Mike Blakely: I began performing professionally in a garage band in 1976 at the age of 18, so I experienced the real deal firsthand. I was able to use quite a few of my own experiences in A Song To Die For.
MP: Are Creed and Luster based on any particular performers of that period?
MB: Both are composite characters based on some famous legends and some lesser-known artists I have worked with over the years.
MP:This is also the fourth book you’ve written with a musician as the central character. What do you want to get across to readers about those folks?
MB: The musically-inclined characters I create are all “lifers.” They know they can never completely give up making music. I hope my readers understand through these characters that it’s a tough life and a hard way to make a living but also an endeavor full of occasional rewards and moments of deep satisfaction.
MP: What do most writers get wrong about the music life?
MB: I’m not sure there’s a way to get it wrong in a business where anything can happen. There are so many paths a musician can take. Some get lucky breaks early on and ride the wave of success for decades. Others who are just as talented may work for years without much notice. The music scene can be just as wholesome or as seedy as an individual wants to make it. It can be a wild romp or a methodical climb to success. It can be all about the money or all about the music or anywhere in between.
MP: How do you prepare to write a story set in the past?
MB: It starts with historical research, of course. I read about the era. I read things written during that era. I seek out objects from the time period so I know how they look and feel. Every time I sit down to write, I time travel in my mind to the era I’ve chosen. When writing, I try to assume nothing. I strive to verify that every detail I insert into the story is authentic.
MP: Do you think the musician influences the novelist side of you and vice versa?
MB: The two disciplines are very different, but they do influence each other. I’ve written songs about some of my characters in my novels. I have also had characters from my songs find their way into my books. There’s no reason to keep the two creative endeavors completely separated though they are very different in many ways. When I finish a novel, it may take a couple of years to start getting feedback from the public. But I can write a song in the morning and play it for an audience that night.
Mike will be joining author Robert Knott on January 14th to talk about writing western fiction and their latest novels (Mike will also be performing a couple of his songs), but we got a head discussing the book and the music life.