In: Featured, Interviews
1. Why did you choose the mystery genre?
I’ve always read and liked mysteries. Now it probably seems hard to imagine, but when I started writing my first book, Death by the Riverside, there just weren’t that many lesbian detective novels out there, (certainly none that used the name Cordelia). I just wrote the book that I wanted to read. I wish I could say that I had some grand scheme, that this was all thought out and analyzed, but I really just followed the words on the pages. I’m as surprised as anyone at what came out.
2. Are GLBT mysteries as popular now as they were in the mid-nineties? Or has the interest in them cooled off.
I think the readers are still out there, still reading, but perhaps some of the media and publishing attention has waned. My feeling is that a good mystery is a good mystery. I try not to get too wrapped up in what’s hot, what’s not (which is perhaps why I still have a day job) and just concentrate on what interests me to write.
3. How do you begin the process of writing a novel? Do you outline?
A novel starts in my brain and it has to ramble around there for a while, with the conscious and the subconscious both adding their bits. At some point, it feels ready to write. That’s when I finally sit down to do it. For a long time I wrote in long hand–I know, I know, it makes me sound like a Luddite, but I was the student who mistyped DUCK in Sister Mary Magdalene’s typing class, I’m just not coordinated at the keyboard. Only after entering the longhand of my first four novels, am I finally fluent enough at the keyboard that it doesn’t (much) interfere with the flow of the writing.
No, I don’t outline. I did for the first book and then promptly diverged from it, never to go back again–the book just went in a different direction. I’m very much what I call a ‘head’ writer–I really keep most of it in my head. I have a notebook handy and occasionally scribble down ideas, but that’s about it.
4. Mysteries often revolve around social issues. Is this particular to GLBT writing, or to the genre as a whole?
I think we sometimes forget that social issues are people’s lives. I’ve never consciously set out to ‘tackle’ a social issue, I’ve always been interested in how people live their lives and often those lives intersect with social issues, child abuse, drug use, alcoholism, adoption. I think mysteries as a whole do a good job of looking at various issues, but GLBT writing comes from a unique outsider perspective. We’re both reviled and invisible–we still lack some pretty basic civil rights in this country, but we can also go to the grocery store, drive through Mississippi (I grew up there, I can malign it), get on an airplane and not be seen as gay or lesbian. Just by being a GLBT writer, and writing a character who is gay or lesbian is a social issue. (As it is for many other writers who are taking the icon of the detective hero and recasting her or him as black, disabled, female, etc.)
5. Are there areas where you cannot go as a gay writer — scenes or subject matter?
I just can’t do those heterosexual sex scenes . . . .No, I don’t think anything is off limits. Some things are hard–like how do I as a white woman write about characters of other races, other cultures. But if we can’t imagine it, how can we ever get to living it?
6. What writers have influenced your work? Who do you read?
I am a reading slut. I will read most anything, including cereal boxes in the morning. (It really is very mysterious what some of those ingredients are.) I majored in theatre in college and I think having to read all those plays taught me a lot about dialogue. I worship Chekhov, the worlds he could convey in nuance. The desert island author is Jane Austen, I love her stuff, she manages one of the hardest things in writing–the believable happy ending. George Elliot, I’d die happy if I had written Middlemarch. Sarah Waters, Dorothy Allison, Jeannette Winterson, Adrienne Rich, we have a great wave of contemporary lesbian writers. Louise Erdrich, Michael Cunningham, Barbara Kingsolver, Pat Barker, E. Annie Proulx, Jim Grimsley, Keri Hulme, Octavia Butler, others I can’t think of at the moment. Okay, as for mysteries, Dorothy Sayers is the mother of us all, and Barbara Wilson and Katherine Forrest are our lesbian mothers. In no particular order: Sara Paretsky, P.D. James, Amanda Cross, Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, Michael Connelly, Michael Nava, Ellen Hart, Manda Scott, Laurie King, Julie Smith, Greg Herren, Nicola Griffith, Kevin Allman, James Sallis, Ian Rankin, Pat Welch, Jaye Maiman, Abagail Padgett, Sandra Scoppettone, Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid–like I said, I’m a slut.
7. What are the most important themes running through your books?
Power, how people use and how they abuse it. Evil isn’t just intent, it’s also having the will and means to carry out.
I’m also interested in the way the past twines around the present and the future, how our memories and experiences can either imprison us or free us. Shakespeare said it, “The past is prologue.” So did Falkner, “The past is never gone. It isn’t even past.”
8. Which element or elements of writing do you find the most challenging?
Sex and violence. They are so innately physical, beyond the realm of language and into the land of the body and touch and sensation–pain and pleasure. It is very hard to capture those two with only words and paper.
It’s also a challenge to capture the ‘small moments’ of life. The stray thoughts, noticing something minor at the time, or just a quick conversation with meanings under the words.
9. Does it bother you that you’re writing about murder as entertainment?
No, because I don’t think that I’m writing about murder as entertainment. (It does however bother some visitors to my house if they stumble over that forensic pathology textbook.) I’m writing to change the world, not in a great flash, but like water wearing away stone. I think we all are. By we I mean all the writers who are telling our stories, especially those of us only now being allowed a voice, women, gays, blacks–all those ‘others’ who have so long been silent.
I don’t think mysteries are about murder as entertainment, but about the search for justice. Often in real life, it’s tainted and obscure–he said, she said, they said–no way of really getting to the truth. Fiction can bring us to justice, to resolution, to finally knowing in a way that real life rarely does. I think that’s the real appeal of mysteries, the triumph of a moral universe.
10. Is your main character based on you?
No. However, I will confess that there are two continuing characters that, while not really based on me, I can go to myself and say, what would I do in that situation, and that often works for them. But I can’t do that with Micky Knight. I have to get in her head and out of mine. (No, I’m not going to tell you who the two characters are, but if you’re really obsessive, I’ll drop some clues. One went to the same college I went to and the other looks like me–I’m a big boned descendant of German farm stock, so if you haven’t transmogrified this character into a willowy blond, as one reader told me she did, you might be able to guess.) I don’t think readers realize what scavengers we writers can be. I’ve only got my life to draw on, yet in a novel I’ve got wide range of characters, all with their own backgrounds and experiences–not that that all has to appear in the book–but still I have to come up with some reality for them. Stealing something from my own life and experiences is much easier that making something up, doing the research or trying to imagine something I’ve never lived. So, even when stay pieces of who I am pops up in the books, it well may not mean that I’m barring my soul fictionally, it just may mean that I needed a street like the one I used to live on, so I used that one instead of re-inventing it.
11. What are you working on now?
I’m in a position of creative flux, working on two novels more or less at once. These are not Micky Knight novels, but a whole new set of characters and, to make it short (as opposed to novel length) I discovered that I had to write the second book in the series to get to the where I needed to be to write the first book. The day job does make it take a while for me to write a book, so I’m not anticipating having anything anywhere near a bookstore for a while. I was collaborating with another mystery writer on a book that featured her character and Micky. We got ten chapters done, but then she was consumed with other things, so the project is just sitting in the shelf.
12. We all have preconceived ideas about what the writing life would be like. What surprised you — both negatively and positively?
That it’s ongoing, there is no moment when you’re a ‘success’, there’s always another book to write, to re-write, to edit, etc. This is a crazy life and the only reason to do it is for the words on the page, those lonely moments when it is just you and your writing. Everything else, being published, reviewed, winning awards (or not winning them) is capricious and ephemeral, and finally outside the writing.
Even though I don’t expect to ever make it to fame and fortune, writing has opened some amazing doors for me, including things like traveling to Australia and Europe, meeting people who have become great friends, having a far flung network of writing buddies. I even get invited to make a fool of myself answering questions on other people’s web sites.