Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with Joanna Challis

If you like cozies, especially those with a gothic twist, then Joanna Challis' new series is for you. With an appealing protagonist -- the author Daphne du Maurier as a young woman -- it's sure to gain a following. Here's an interview with Challis about why she likes gothics so much:

Q. In your new series, the protagonist is Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca and other novels. How did you decide on her, and how much of what you’ve written is taken from her real life?

A. Because of my love for du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and the Brontes, my agent came up with the idea of using Daphne du Maurier as a heroine in a new mystery series. Daphne appealed to me instantly -- she came from an upper-class family with good connections - an ideal starting point to build plots upon and the era -- late 1920s -- I grew to love with Agatha Cristie's Hercule Poirot. Combining the two together was an exciting concept.

Q. How do you take an iconic novel like Rebecca, and work backward, in a way, crafting a story that could have been the inspiration for Rebecca?

A. I've read Rebecca so many times I feel I know it backwards. In MURDER ON THE CLIFFS I started with a murder and built the story form there. Often, the characters determine the direction of the story and it was easy to weave the REBECCA theme into MURDER ON THE CLIFFS. The location and the setting, a grand mansion by the sea, also helped!

Q. For me, Murder on the Cliffs led me to reading Rebecca, which I had never done (although I love gothics!). What has the reaction been from other readers to your use of this wonderful gothic novel?

A. I've heard from many readers who love the connection. REBECCA is an all-time favorite with many, however, like with every book, there are critics. As a reader, I adore the old gothics and here was a chance to re-create those classic elements into new mystery with a great heroine and a great setting - beautiful Cornwall.

Q. At least one of your other books has been described as a romance. How would you describe your books -- are they gothics, mysteries, historical fiction, all of the above?

A. Historical mystery with a touch of gothic.

Q. You obviously love gothic novels. What about them appeals to you?

A. Location, location. Setting an entire novel around a grand old house. An intriguing mystery. Interesting characters. A happy ending.

Q. Your website says you started writing at 15. When did you begin achieving success as a writer, and how has your work evolved over the years?

A. I was 20 when SILVERTHORN, my first book, was published. I wrote two others (they were all e-published). SILVERTHORN became a quick favorite and was short-listed for Romantic Book of the Year in Australia. EYE OF THE SERPENT came out next (Robert Hale, UK), my first hard-cover, and also was loved by readers. For an attempt to hit the commerical market, however, my agent and I worked on the Daphne series. We knew it was a great concept and St Martin's thought so too. I have a wonderful and supportive editor at SMP. Together I hope to continue the series.

Q. Your second Daphne du Maurier book is coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about this book, and will this series continue?

A. PERIL AT SOMNER HOUSE will hit bookstores from the 26th October. I'm very excited about it. I love any book set on an island -- this one is an island off the coast of Cornwall in England. It's also set in Winter -- a house party murder-mystery.

Q. And the question I ask everyone -- who are the authors you like to read?

A. Agatha Cristie. Victoria Holt. Jane Austen. The Brontes. Any mystery really. And, of course, Daphne du Maurier!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Murder on the Cliffs by Joanna Challis

Protagonist: Daphne du Maurier
Setting: Cornwall
Rating: 4.0

Sometimes you're in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery. This is it -- with a twist. The protagonist is a young Daphne du Maurier, the real-life gothic author. And the events in this novel form the inspiration for her masterpiece, Rebecca. Daphne -- or the fictional version, at least -- is 21 and not interested in finding a husband, despite the pleas of her parents. Instead, she wants to go to Cornwall and explore the old abbey, the manors and the medieval inns. Her family insists she stay with Ewe Sinclaire, her mother's old nanny. But even safely ensconced, murder finds Daphne as she walks the cliffs of Cornwall.

She hears screams, and comes across the body of a young woman, who turns out to be the fiancee of Lord Hartley of Padthaway, a gothic mansion full of secret passageways and closed rooms (think Manderlay). Is the killer Lord David Hartley himself, his strange sister Lianne or their icy-cold mother? And what about that creepy housekeeper? As the person who found the body (and a person of society), Daphne is welcomed to Padthaway, becoming friendly with Lianne and catching the eye of the brooding Lord Hartley. But what interests Daphne the most is solving the mystery. Rather than being afraid of the gothic mansion, she eagerly embraces the secrets of the old house -- and the family. She's fearless, outspoken and confident -- quite unlike the main character in Rebecca.

You don't need to have read Rebecca to enjoy Murder on the Cliffs, although there are a few lines that will resonate if you've read the classic. This is a modern gothic, with an engaging heroine. Challis' second book, Peril at Somner House, will be out in October. It's one I eagerly await.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Interview with Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is the author of three crime fiction books: On Edge, In the Wind and the recently-released Through the Cracks. Below is what she has to say on writing:

Q. In addition to being an author, you’re a librarian at a liberal arts college. Why did you choose that field and have you always had ambitions to be a writer?

A. “Choose” implies actual planning was involved. In fact, I sort of fall into things. I went to library school after enjoying part-time work in the university library when I was an undergraduate and not particularly enjoying the other graduate program I was enrolled in. I applied for a job at a school that I’d never heard of and had to quiz everyone who interviewed me for the job on what is distinctive about liberal arts colleges, since my education had been at research universities. I didn’t really expect to become a professional writer, though I impressed myself in the fifth grade by writing a story about a horse that was a whole eight pages long; when I was an undergraduate I wrote a novel to see if I could do it (a whole 300 pages long!) but I was wise enough to know it wasn’t any good. I didn’t write fiction again for years, until I reached a point in my life when I needed a creative outlet to balance the rest of my life. Making up imaginary worlds is fulfilling in a way that other kinds of writing is not. I’m sure I was also influenced by my father, who was a journalist, and my mother, a self-taught polymath who read mysteries constantly.

Q. How did you come up with the character of Anni Koskinen? She seems far removed from a university librarian.

A. That’s why I like hanging out with her - though oddly enough I’ve had some librarian friends say “she’s such a librarian!” I think that’s because she has an orientation toward politics and civil liberties that maps more closely to the average librarian than the average cop. And she’s a bit of a geek. At one point in Through the Cracks, when she’s looking for connections among cases, she inputs data to create a relational tag cloud - total librarian geekery. She also has a background that provides her with street smarts from early years in the child welfare system, but with a foot in a world that looks more like mine, having been adopted by a college professor.

Q. Much of your first book in the Anni Koskinen series, In the Wind, concerns civil liberties, especially those of underrepresented groups. Why did you address those issues?

A. When I was writing In the Wind I was angry about the ways our government was responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including the passage of a law that in many of its sections is an insult to the Constitution. I was struck by the way that law enforcement practices that were exposed by the Church Committee in the 1970s and repudiated by Congress were suddenly being made legal, or as legal as a law that is in conflict with the Constitution can be. And just as the civil rights movement became the target of illegal surveillance and suppression in the 1960s, even though “communism” was the supposed enemy, the fear of foreign “others” has been expanded to include immigrants of all kinds, both legal and undocumented.

Crime fiction deals with issues of justice, but often it’s justice in the abstract, a duel of wits between a clever hero and an evil antagonist, with victims scattered here and there to create tension. I’m more interested in the ways crime fiction can take a four-inch news story in the paper and imagine the world around it, and I’m fascinated by the ways anxiety (the engine for crime stories) shapes our priorities as a society.

Q. The American Indian Movement, which is a big part of that book, is a real-life group. Why focus on AIM, and were any of the events that occurred in the novel taken from real events?

A. The seed that grew into this story was planted when FBI agents arrested Sarah Jane Olsen, a completely ordinary middle-class woman in St. Paul, and charged her with being an accomplice in crimes committed by a bizarre radical group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which she had joined decades ago. I wondered what it would have been like to lead a dual life like that, living quietly after being involved in violent radicalism. When I started mulling over a storyline, though, I didn’t want to focus on a group as peculiar as the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was stranger than fiction. Instead, I invented a radical offshoot of the American Indian Movement. AIM was formed close to where I now live and was targeted by the FBI, which made every effort to dismantle and discredit the movement.

I may also have been influenced by the fact that my house is on Dakota land taken from them in the treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Conditions got so desperately bad for the tribe a few years later, they rebelled and there was a terrible slaughter on both sides. On December 27, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in the nation’s history just twelve miles from where I live.

Q. In addition to writing characters who are people of color, you have characters who are autistic and bipolar. What drives you to create these types of characters?

A. I’ve always wanted to write something about the experience families have with mental illness, partly to offer an alternative to the fairly common depiction of mental illness in crime fiction as a convenient label applied to monstrous villains who commit extravagantly nasty crimes. My brother Paul was bipolar and, like most people in his situation, was not violent but had frequent run-ins with the law. I know a lot of people with serious mental illnesses, and the problems they and their families have while dealing with any chronic illness are exacerbated by the social stigma involved. Bipolar disorder usually presents during late adolescence or early adulthood, just as people are forming their adult identities, and it can make it very difficult to get an education, develop a career, and form attachments. It’s also frustrating for families, because getting help during a crisis is often impossible. So I invented a heroine whose job in part involves dealing with such crises. Wish fulfillment? I’m not sure.

Anni’s brother is autistic, and I’m not sure where he came from. In the first draft of the book, I never used the word and didn’t really have a “diagnosis” for him. That very messy first draft had a lot of things that needed fixing, and one of the recommendations my agent made was to cut back on the number of characters. I tried to write him out of the story, but I couldn’t make sense of Anni’s character without her brother, so he stayed and I’m glad, because I like him. I think her ability to understand his perspective even though he’s mostly non-verbal has helped make her a good detective and a compassionate person.

Q. You also set your books in neighborhoods that aren’t usually seen by the tourist. What about these settings appeals to you as a writer?

A. Man, I love Chicago, and the city is all about its neighborhoods. As a quintessentially American city, it offers the kinds of contrasts that give you lots to work with, including vibrant African-American and Latino communities as well as the lingering imprint of waves of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. The busiest retail areas in Chicago apart from the better-known Magnificent Mile are 26th Street in Little Village, a Mexican neighborhood, and Devon Avenue on the far north side, which is primarily Indian/Pakistani but with smatterings of Russian, Georgian, and Hassidic Jewish businesses. How cool is that? And of course there’s enormous economic diversity. Many of the city blocks in parts of the South and West Sides would be right at home in the third world. Anni lives in a neighborhood that’s traditionally Puerto Rican, but also has lots of black and Mexican residents. It’s right in the path of gentrification but is also home to some pretty violent gang disputes. If fiction needs conflict, there’s plenty of it right at her front door.

Q. You now have two books in the Anni Koskinen series. Are you working on a third, and any ideas on where this series will head?

A. Yes, I am, but no, I have no idea where it might go, though at this point it involves two stories, those of a young schizophrenic client accused of murder and an outsider artist whose rather unsettling work may provide clues in a case Anni investigated years ago. I am one of those writers who works with a concept and sometimes an idea of how the crimes will be solved in the end, but otherwise no outline or plan. I’ve never been able to plot a story in advance of writing; I have to be writing to discover the story. Don’t try this at home.

Q. You’ve been active in the mystery reading community for years, especially as a moderator with the online group 4Mystery Addicts. Any surprises in going from being a reader to being a writer?

A. I think at heart I’m more a reader than a writer. When I’m making up a story, I’m thinking like a reader. What’s going to happen next? How will this character respond? I was completely ignorant of the book business, and while it has been a good education for me as a librarian to see the sausage factory up close, particularly at a time when so much is in flux, I have been surprised at how much time and energy the business angle of writing occupies writers and how much of the creative energies of writers gets sapped by anxieties surrounding publication, particularly when so little is under their control. While I enjoy the craft aspect of writing, I’m not as interested in the business end, especially sales and self-promotion. Fortunately, I like my day job.

Q. You’ve written both male (On Edge, your first book) and female protagonists. Which do you like writing the best?

A. I actually found it harder to write from a female perspective. Readers tolerate a certain intensity and edgy behavior in men that would seem obnoxious, unrealistic, or simply disturbing in women characters. Men can drink too much, but not women. Men can get obsessed and neglect relationships, but women who do that are selfish and overly ambitious. When you put a female character at risk, it’s easy to fall into that annoying “be very afraid” kind of suspense that I find oppressive. I had fun with Slovo in my first book, and I’d like to bring him back and see how he’s doing after all the high-tension drama and his slightly unhinged state of mind, but I also have enjoyed trying to develop a female character who can be the kind of hero Chandler wrote about – honorable, not afraid, fit for adventure while remaining solidly human and rooted in reality. I think with Anni I’m trying to figure out what a hero should be when the hero is a woman in the 21st century.

Q. Finally, the question I ask all authors -- which authors do you like to read?

A. My favorite question! I have been enjoying Scandinavian writers lately – Arnaldur Indridason, Johan Theorin, Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum among them. I also love Denise Mina (Scotland), Timothy Hallinan (Thailand), John McFetridge (Canada), and Deon Meyer (South Africa). For great writing I can always turn to David Corbett, Jess Walter, and John Harvey. Oh, and Sam Reaves and Sean Doolittle and Don Winslow and Minette Walters and Alex Carr and Adrian Hyland and . . . it’s impossible to know where to stop. Whatever you think of the future of publishing, there is no shortage of great books.

In the Wind by Barbara Fister

Protagonist: Anni Koskinen
Setting: Chicago
Rating: 4.6
In this first book in a new series, we meet Anni Koskinen, a former Chicago cop who left the force after she testified against a fellow officer who beat a kid, leaving him brain-damaged. While she may have done the right thing, other officers made her life difficult, so Anni's gone the private investigator route. She's not been at it long when a neighborhood priest asks Anni for help. Within a matter of hours, she's involved in a high-profile case, helping defend a woman, Rosa Saenz, a grandmotherly church worker the FBI says killed a federal agent in 1977. Saenz is really Verna Basswood, a former radical with an offshoot of the American Indian Movement and a fugitive since she was accused of the crime. But her lawyer, Anni and most of the community -- with the exception of law enforcement -- believe Basswood is innocent. To complicate matters, the man she's accused of killing, Arne Tilquist, was the father of one of Anni's closest friends.

Fister has been compared to another Chicago author, Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawsky). This is not overblown hype. Both have tough female P.I. characters, gripping writing and use the city to great effect, exploring the neighborhoods of the working class. In the Wind also tackles the subject of civil liberties, especially those of underrepresented groups, deftly. And Fister deals with issues of autism and bipolar disorder with sensitivity -- Anni's brother is autistic and another main character is a teenager with bipolar disorder. There's a lot, in fact, packed into this novel, but it doesn't slow down the plot.

The second in the series, Through the Cracks, was released this year. Hopefully, Fister will become another Paretsky -- with a long-running series to her name.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

Protagonist: Harry Hole
Setting: Oslo
Rating: 4.9

Following the events in The Redbreast and Nemesis (and I highly recommend you read at least The Redbreast first), police detective Harry Hole has slipped into alcoholism. He hardly appears at work and is about to be dismissed when the department is faced with a big case -- a serial killer who is leaving pentagrams and red diamonds at each scene.

Amid his alcoholic haze, Hole has also been trying to prove that colleague Tom Waaler is corrupt. Not surprisingly, no one will listen to him. The only reason they haven’t fired Hole yet is because he’s so good at solving complicated crimes. And this is one complicated crime – what is the killer trying to tell police with the clues he leaves behind? They don’t seem to be sex crimes and there’s no link between the victims, so what is the motive?

The more Hole investigates, the more suspects there seem to be. In the end, the pieces fall together rather well, although Nesbo has weaved a complicated plot. It’s a pleasure to read crime fiction like this – with well-developed characters, a not-always-likable but intriguing detective, and a plot filled with twists and turns. In fact, if I were to recommend a Scandinavian author, it wouldn't be the flavor of the month (The Girl Who books), but Jo Nesbo.