Sue Grafton is best known for her alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi, etc.), with her feisty protagonist Kinsey Millhone. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan said the forthcoming conclusion of the alphabet series “makes me wish there were more than twenty-six letters at her disposal.”
Sue has won nearly every award in the crime-mystery lexicon, and her bestselling novels are published in 28 countries and in 26 languages.
Breaking with the tradition of summing up each novel’s storyline by use of a letter and accompanying word, in Sue’s latest release, X represents the “unknown.” Within its pages are three separate mysteries: an art theft; an elderly couple involved in graft; and a sociopathic serial killer on the loose who is zeroing in on Kinsey as she struggles to unravel and resolve these cases without becoming the next victim of this ruthless killer.
Most obvious first question: this is the twenty-fourth Kinsey Millhone novel, and the first one that doesn’t have a defining alphabetical word in the title. How come?
Originally, I thought X would be for xenophobe, but as I wrote the book, I realized there wasn’t a foreigner to be seen. Wherever possible, I used x-words; but at the end of the book, I couldn’t see any of these x-words encompassing the entire story. I think it’s best if X represents the unknown.
In X, the serial killer is identified early on. Will you discuss that device in contrast to the reader not knowing the killer’s identity, which seems to occur far more frequently in mysteries?
Technically, there are two kinds of mysteries: one is called open and the other is called closed. In a closed mystery, the reader is in the same position as the detective, sorting through clues and interviews, trying to arrive at the identity of the culprit. In an open mystery, the identity is a given. The reader knows early on who the culprit is; and the question becomes, how is the sleuth going to nail him? A good example of an open mystery is the old Columbo TV series.
You once stated the last novel in the series will be Z is for Zero. What does that mean?
I used to say, ‘Z is for Zero, and then I’ll use numbers.’ But Janet Evonovich started using numbers, which she’ll greatly regret because you can never get to the end of numbers. I’m limiting my run to twenty-six novels. I’m now trying to catch my breath so I can gear up and write the last two. It takes me two years per book. So we’ve got four years to go before I sign off.
When you say ‘sign off,’ do you mean you will no longer be writing mysteries?
I’ll no longer be writing them with alphabet titles. Miss Millhone dominates my life. It’s both a curse and a blessing. We’ll see what she comes up with. I know I’m not going to be allowed to write about anybody else. She’s a very jealous mistress. If I continue with the series, I think I’ll do standalones. I may at some point get bored or burned out, and stop.
I’m sure you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off.
I’ll never get sick of Miss Millhone. She’s largely based on me. Who can get sick of one’s self?
Much like Kinsey Millhone, you’re known for having paved your own independent career path: writing screenplays, TV movies, and of course, novels. Will you talk about that?
I got to Hollywood because of two novels I had published early on in my career. One was sold to Hollywood. I worked there for fifteen years. Toward the end, I became very unhappy. I cannot write by committee. I felt it was undermining my autonomy and authority as a writer. I knew I’d better get back to solo writing before I was ruined. To get back to writing alone, I decided to do a mystery because my father had published mysteries back in the forties.
It just turned out to be what I was born to do. A is for Alibi was the first mystery I ever wrote. Reaching publication was a miracle in itself. At the time, I had no notion there would be other novels thereafter. I was very fortunate to have been picked up by a great editor, Marian Wood, at Henry Holt & Company. She had never before edited a mystery novel, so it was a fresh turn for both of us.
What has surprised you most about the writing life?
I’m an introvert. I love that about my life, but it’s part of my job to get out in the marketplace and promote my books. It surprised me to learn it was expected of me; and it surprised me even more that I’ve become quite good at it.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
I’ve learned to operate out of shadow. The term is part of Jungian psychology involving the juxtaposition of shadow and ego.
Shadow is the unconscious—our wants, our needs, our intuition. It’s the melting pot of all our venom and it’s the dark part of our natures. In that stew of petty jealousies and homicidal urges lie all the creative energies.
I reached a point in writing J is for Judgement, where I drifted into ego. I got too worried about whether the critics or my editor would approve. And, it shut me down. So, I spent some time learning to get out of my own way. The problem is I lose sight of that lesson whenever I start a new book. I have to go back with each new novel to relearn the technique of writing from the soul—from shadow. It’s also the equivalent of learning to write from the right side of the brain as opposed to the left; the right is the creative part, while the left is the bean-counter.
Another thing I’ve learned is I can write really bad sentences. (Laughter). When I first write them, I think they’re wonderful. But when I go back the next day, I’m appalled. Writing is really all about buffing and polishing what you’ve written. Actually, writing is re-writing. That’s been an important lesson for me.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Toward the end of a book, when I am totally engaged, I will wake in the night. It’s like I’m having a visit from shadow. I can hear lines of dialogue. I get up and go to the bathroom with a flashlight and write them down. I’ll get back in bed, and the next thing I know, shadow says, ‘Wait. I have another really good suggestion.’
There’s something exhilarating about that process—about operating from that place. That voice in the night gives me cogent bits of information, like breadcrumbs in a forest. It keeps me on track.
Has that experience ever changed the trajectory of a story?
It has caused me to dump stories. There were a couple of books where I had a few hundred pages written, or maybe fifteen-thousand words done, and shadow would say, ‘I don’t like this.’ I always argue with shadow, but she always wins. The hardest thing to do is dump a book; but if it’s not working, there’s no point in wasting time on it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffer from writer’s block every single day.
I used to fear and fight it. Now, I consider it shadow giving me the message that I’m off track. So, instead of complaining, I listen very carefully and start backtracking in the manuscript’s narrative to figure out where I went astray. I think writer’s block is a gift. It’s dreadful when you’re in the midst of. You just think you’re going to die. But, as a rule, you don’t. The answer is always there—somewhere within the manuscript—and you must have the patience to pursue it.
As an eminently successful writer, what advice would you give to writers starting out?
I would say learning to write well takes years. In this day and age where there is so much instant gratification, people sit down to write thinking it will be smooth, easy, and effective. Generally, we speak fairly well and tend to think writing isn’t that hard. People surmise, ‘I’ll just write what I would say.’ But the truth is what happens on the page is very different from what happens in the brain. The translation process is very tricky, and it doesn’t come easily. Some writers starting out get discouraged and are impatient. They can fall victim to unscrupulous people who will take their money with promises to edit the manuscript and get it published. I don’t believe in short-cuts. Novice writers must accept it will be a struggle. They need patience, and must be willing to persevere.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people from any walk of life, living or dead. Who would they be?
I’d invite Mark Twain. Then, Nora Ephron, a heroine of mine. I adore Anthony Trollope and would want him, too. I’d be very tempted to put H.L. Menken on the list. And, I’d love to invite Raymond Chandler.
All are writers. What would you be talking about?
I hope we would be talking about our suffering as writers, sharing our misery, and giving each other a little comfort. (Laughter).
Congratulations on writing another Kinsey Millhone novel, the 24th in a series about which The Wall Street Journal said, “Millhone’s complexity is mirrored by the novels that document her cases: books that nestle comfortably within the mystery genre even as they push and prod its contours.”
Over the last few years, I’ve been writing fiction. For decades, I’ve been a psychiatrist. As a novelist, I now write with a reader’s sensibility, and read with a writer’s eye. I’m struck by the degree to which fiction and psychology share certain crucial elements.
Human functioning can be conceptualized as involving thinking, feeling, and behavior. These three elements are the very pillars of being.
Fiction taps into these foundations of existence by using the written word to evoke mental images, which in turn, beget thoughts and feelings. A novelist creates a world for the reader to enter, and to which the reader relates. This is the essence of storytelling.
If the connection is a positive one, the reader is drawn into the tale. The reader must relate to the story’s protagonist for the read to be enjoyable. It’s somewhat akin to meeting a person for the first time. If there’s chemistry, a relationship begins.
To fall under the novelist’s “spell”, the reader must experience and relate to how the protagonist thinks, feels, and behaves. Without that connection, there’s little motivation to continue the relationship. The book is cast aside.
The element of plot is important. But, if the character’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are vapid, the plot is nothing more than a linear series of events with little meaning.
So, the first questions a writer must answer are: who is this character, and why should a reader care about what befalls the person? To put it bluntly, character counts. It’s nearly everything. Essentially, the psychology of fiction is the psychology of life. The reader must care about the character for the novel to strike a responsive chord. The goal is to immerse the reader into the commonality of life experience, establishing oneness with the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, and situation.
Think about the tsunami of some years ago. In that disaster, 250,000 people lost their lives within the span of a few hours. While we were horrified by the magnitude of the event, most of us went about our day, as usual. But, if one person who died had been a loved one, our reactions would have been profoundly different.
Caring about someone counts. Very deeply.
While all people are different, in some respects, we share the same cognitive and emotional repertoires. We all can feel horror, fear, lust, humor, anger, guilt, love, hate, and every other emotional variant. And when we pick up a novel, we want to experience the mental and emotional lives of the characters, living vicariously through them.
Think of today’s bestsellers, those that remain at the top of the charts for many weeks or months. They all have thought-provoking characters who rivet us. In Gone Girl, Nick and Amy Dunne capture us with their marital difficulties and myopically self-serving distortions. The Goldfinch focuses on Theo Decker, a troubled youngster struggling with the loss of his mother, dealing with a remote father, and trying to find his way through a duplicitous world. Whether it’s All the Light We Cannot See, or The Nightingale, each story plumbs the pillars of existence: how and why the characters think, feel, and behave as they do.
This is true for all fiction, whether it’s literary, romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, or any other genre. Whether you’re reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and rooting for Bill Hodges; Don Winslow’s The Cartel, worrying about Art Keller; a Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly; David Morrell’s stunning Victorian novel, Inspector of the Dead, where Thomas De Quincey works Sherlockian magic; Jon Land’s Strong Darkness, featuring Caitlin Strong; or any Linda Fairstein novel with Alex Cooper—the protagonist’s character is crucial. It marries the reader to the novel. And, that connection can linger long after the book has been read.
Psychology is everything in life, and in fiction.
For more than 20 years, Linda Fairstein was a prosecutor and Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She’s considered America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence.
When she turned her talents and impressive background to writing novels, Linda created Prosecutor Alex Cooper, and her team of attorneys and police officers, including Detective Mike Cooper. Their exploits in 16 previous novels have made Linda’s books international bestsellers, translated into more than a dozen languages.
Devil’s Bridge, the 17th in the Alex Cooper series, finds Alex facing a grueling day in court, prosecuting a rapist who is also involved in human trafficking. Amidst threats coming from various quarters, in a terrifying twist, Alex suddenly disappears. Mike Chapman takes the lead to find her, in a frantic race against time, compounded by the human capacity for evil.
As in all your other novels, Devils Bridge seamlessly includes fascinating details about a New York City landmark. In this book, the George Washington Bridge is a key location. Tell us a bit about that structure.
It opened in 1931, spanning the Hudson River at the narrowest point of that part of the river. George Washington used that projection, Jeffrey’s Hook, to try blocking the British from going up the Hudson.
I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and the George Washington Bridge was my gateway to the rest of the world. In the 1950s, the lower level was built and was called ‘Martha.’ It was fascinating to watch the construction. It’s one of the most majestic bridges ever built. More vehicular traffic crosses that bridge than any other in the world.
Will it be a spoiler if I ask you about the change in the relationship between Alex and Mike?
I don’t think so. There have been sixteen books of emotional foreplay between them. Terminal City ended with them declaring they were going to a new place together. I must say that over the years, I’ve had more fan-reader questions about their relationship than about anything else. ‘When are you going to get them together?’ is invariably one of the first questions I’m asked at signings. The readers have waited a long time to see this, although only three years have passed in the characters’ lives. So, Alex and Mike are trying to work out the tension in their relationship; and just as that happens, she disappears.
In a unique turn of events for an Alex Cooper novel, page 71 of Devil’s Bridge begins with a first-person narration through Mike Chapman’s point of view. From then on, Devil’s Bridge has a completely different voice. Tell us about that.
I’ve wanted to do this for so long. Alex and Mike have been professional partners who became friends in the very first book of the series. I never plotted a romance for them. Of course, I never dreamed I’d have a series go on this long. Then, readers began demanding that something happen between them. At nearly every signing over the last ten years, people have asked, ‘Do you want to write anything else?’ I’ve long felt I’d like to write a book from Mike’s point of view. I want to see how he works a case; explore what he loves about Alex; and what keeps him at a distance from her. Last year, when Terminal City made its debut at Barnes & Noble, my editor Ben Sevier was there and invited me to go to lunch the next day. Over lunch he asked, ‘Why don’t you give it a try? You keep saying you want to do it. Can you?’ I told him, ‘I’ve lived in Mike’s head for sixteen books. I know him as well as I know Alex. I’d love to try it.’ Once Ben gave me the green-light, it became our secret. I didn’t tell my agent. I just set out to write it.
I think telling the story through Mike’s perspective makes it a more muscular one. I channeled him instead of Alex, who is so like me professionally, yet personally, is very different. I thought it would be good to get out of her head and see Alex through Mike’s eyes. I think Mike will bring more men to my series; women seem to really like him and ask about him.
It was very different and great fun to write from his prospective.
I felt through Mike’s point of view, Devil’s Bridge took on a gritty, police procedural tone. Was that difficult for you?
That’s a great question. Police procedurals are my favorite genre. When I created this series, it was a prosecutorial procedural, since Alex has the job I once did. Devil’s Bridge was meant to be as close to a police procedural as possible, with Mike working the case on an unofficial basis.
So, in effect, Devils’ Bridge became for you a literary and romantic excursion.
Yes, it did. (Laughter). I was staying in the series, but writing a different kind of book. That was a literary excursion for me. And for the reader, we get into Mike’s head; see what he’s thinking; and understand how and why the relationship with Alex changed. You know, when I wrote the first book in the series, my editor told me, ‘Mike is the only person who calls Alex, ‘Coop’ in the book.’ I didn’t realize it until it was pointed out to me.
Well, Mike was probably attracted to Alex and had to keep his distance by calling her ‘Coop.’
(Laughter). See, my unconscious mind was working overtime, even back then.
The courtroom tension in Devil’s Bridge is palpable, as it is in many Alex Cooper novels. What about the courtroom makes it such a great setting for drama?
Alex deals with the darkest and most depraved acts of human nature. The uncertainty of a trial’s outcome makes it dramatic. You can prep witnesses for hours, but if you neglect to ask one question, the entire narrative can be thrown off. My own mistakes as a young prosecutor taught me if you leave the door open even an inch, a witness can kick it wide open. Anything can happen. A great adversary can cross-examine your witness, and undo the entire narrative of a case.
You mentioned an adversary. Of course, our system is an adversarial one which seems ready-made for conflict.
Absolutely. Conflict is the heart and soul of drama, which is why the courtroom is such a good venue for stories.
After 17 novels in the Alexandra Cooper series, you probably have many thoughts about the advantages and difficulties of writing a long-running series. Will you talk about them?
You want to keep a series fresh and interesting, so readers will anticipate the next book. You must create interesting characters, because readers become attached to those they like. The series must evolve in other ways, beyond characterization. The protagonist—in this case, Alex—must learn something from her work. This particular novel will probably shake readers up a bit because you get to see things from Mike’s perspective—from another angle. It’s a fresh twist that allows readers to see the characters in a whole new light. That’s part of how I moved the series onto new terrain.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
I’ve learned writing requires intense discipline. My job as a prosecutor was overwhelming, since people’s lives were at stake. It kept me up at night. I thought, in a somewhat cavalier way, that anything would require less discipline than the law. Writing requires an entirely different kind of discipline. The writing life means you go into a room; close the door; friends and family stay out; and you create a new world. You must stay at it for long hours. It’s solitary work, and I can’t imagine doing it if you don’t love being in words and telling stories.
You write a book a year. How do you handle the nearly universal tendency of writers to procrastinate?
I’m a world class procrastinator. I can find things to do that boggle the mind. The hardest point in the process of writing a book is the beginning—the first hundred pages. There are so many diversions. I become more attached to the work about a quarter of the way in. Then I really get into it and it’s a race to the finish for the last three-quarters.
While writing Devil’s Bridge, I had a particularly delightful problem with procrastination.
I was widowed in 2011, and last September, eloped with a man I met on my first day of law school. In a weird parallel, turning a friendship like Alex’s and Mike’s into a romance was scary, because if it didn’t work, they would each lose their best friend. Devil’s Bridge is dedicated to my best friend, who is now my husband.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I’m still a lawyer, so I do pro bono work on projects that interest me. I’ve helped the NBA with some domestic violence issues and I could always continue working for victims of violence.
I’ve also started a second series. As a kid, I loved Nancy Drew mysteries. In a way, they introduced me to both my careers. I’ve always wanted to write a series inspired by those novels. So, before I begin my next Alex Cooper book, I’ve started a novel geared for middle-school kids. My character’s name is Devlin Quick. She’s a New York kid with lots of attitude, whose mother is the first female NYC Police Commissioner.
I’m hoping the Devlin Quick books will become an updated version of the series that both entertained and influenced me years ago.
What advice would you give writers just starting out?
You have to love writing. And then, you must read to see how stories are told. It doesn’t matter what genre you choose to write, you should read both literary and genre fiction. I go back and read Trollope, Dickens, George Eliot; and then I read my competition: Connelly, Coben, Scottoline, and others. I read them all, just to be in words and to immerse myself in great storytelling. It lifts me up to the challenge of telling stories.
And of course, you must write every day, whether it’s two paragraphs, or a journal, or a log of books you’ve read. Just write.
Congratulations on writing Devil’s Bridge, another riveting Alex Cooper novel, justifying Lee Child having called you “The queen of intelligent suspense.”
Linwood Barclay’s thrillers have been international bestsellers. Trust Your Eyes, an intriguing novel with a unique premise, has been optioned for film. The Associated Press said, “Linwood Barclay has established himself alongside the masters of suburban fiction.”
In just-released Broken Promise, unemployed journalist David Harwood, grieving his wife’s untimely death, moves with his young son back to his parents’ home in Promise Falls, New York. One morning, David visits his cousin Marla, who has been acting strangely since having lost her baby during childbirth a year ago. Shockingly, David discovers Marla holding a 10 month-old baby boy who Marla says is her son. David begins investigating the child’s true identity; nothing is really as it seems, and Marla’s mysterious child is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Quoting from the opening lines of Broken Promise: “A couple of hours before all hell broke loose, I was in bed, awake since five, pondering the circumstances that had returned me, at the age of forty-one, to my childhood home.” You once talked about the importance of a “hook” in a thriller. Tell us about that.
The last thing I’ll ever do is write a novel that opens with a long-winded description of scenery. I want to get the reader interested, right away. In this day and age, with people’s limited attention spans and distractibility, you have less time than ever to grab someone’s attention. You need to get people hooked. You can do it with an opening line or the situation in the book—the ‘What if’ element that will make someone read on.
Broken Promise has intriguing twists, as do all your novels. Talk about the role of twists in thrillers.
I love to constantly pull the rug out from under the reader, and also, from under the book’s characters. I’ll often get to the end of a chapter and ask myself what the most logical thing to happen next would be. And that’s what I won’t do. I’ll do something different, even if it’s not a huge twist, just a small surprise here and there throughout the book. I think it’s a way to maintain interest—by throwing the reader off balance. One of the appealing aspects of reading crime fiction and thrillers is thinking you know what’s going to happen next, only to find out you’re wrong. It’s a more satisfying book if the reader is surprised by the plot twists; and it’s a great way for me to have fun with readers in the thriller format.
I understand Broken Promise is the first of a series set in Promise Falls.
It’s the first of three books. There are some unresolved issues in Broken Promise. They’re not completely sorted out by the end. There are two more novels coming. The backstory will play out in book two and explode in book three. The other two books are already written. When I had the idea of writing this trilogy, I worried that when I got to book three, I might have a really great idea that I’d missed in book one, which would already be in the stores. So, I wrote them back-to-back in fifteen months to maintain the linear flow of the trilogy.
Many writers find themselves dealing with the tendency to procrastinate. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.
I’m virtually the opposite. I’ve never been a procrastinator. Once I’m working on a project, I just want to get it finished. I find if I take too long writing a novel, I lose my sense of continuity and the flow suffers. I prefer to get immersed in it and keep going until it’s done. If I write continuously, with no significant breaks, it becomes almost a seamless story. Here, I did it with three books, which I wrote in a relatively short period of time.
From 1981 to 2008 you were a journalist with the Toronto Star. How did this impact your writing life?
I started in journalism in 1977 and got to the Star in 1981. I was an editor and columnist. Newspapers have shaped how I write in ways that tie into your previous question. I have a huge appreciation for deadlines and getting work done. For me, writing is not a romantic thing; you know, some people wait for the ‘muse’ to strike. To me it’s a job, one I want to do because I love it. But, it’s still a job. When I sit down in the morning, I plan to get two-thousand words written that day. That’s the plan. With newspaper work, there was never the luxury of calling the editor and saying, ‘I’m just not feeling it today. The muse hasn’t struck.’ (Laughter). I think newspaper work trained me to get the work accomplished. Also, it impacted how I write. I’m not a flowery, descriptive writer. I don’t try to impress people. I want to tell them the story.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
The biggest surprise I think is that becoming an author has afforded me the opportunity to experience humiliation in ways I did not know existed. (Laughter).
Care to elaborate?
Sure. You think, ‘Wow. I’m a published author, now.’ Then you go to a bookstore event, and absolutely nobody comes. The only thing worse than nobody coming to an event, is if only one person shows up. If nobody comes, you just go to the nearest bar. But if one person is there, you have to talk, and maybe even sign a book, if one manages to get sold.
When I first started writing, I went to a chain bookstore. My book was on the shelf with a card sticking out, saying it was recommended by Jay, a store employee. So, I go to the counter and see a guy wearing the nametag, “Jay.”
I said, ‘Thanks so much for having read my book and recommending it. Would you like me to sign a copy?’ He looks a little baffled, but says, ‘Sure.’ So we walk over to the shelf where I point to my book with the card sticking out beneath it. He says, ‘Oh, somebody moved it.’ And he slides the card over beneath the book next to mine: it was Dave Barry in Cyberspace. This was my welcome to the ‘glamorous’ world of being an author.
Another time, I went to a huge bookstore in Toronto for a book-signing. The manager said, ‘Have a cup of coffee on us,’ and signaled the barista at the in-house Starbucks. At the counter, I ordered a coffee, and decided to have a cookie. The barista looked at me and said, ‘I know I can give you a coffee, but I don’t know if the cookie’s free.” I laughed and said I’d pay for it.
The other big surprise is that I’m doing okay at this. I never dreamed I’d be doing as well as I am.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
The biggest lesson is that I still have things to learn. I think I make some kind of mistake in every book I write, whether it’s a problem with structure, point of view, or whatever. I think to myself, ‘I won’t do that again.’ I learn from that mistake and write the next book, and don’t make that mistake, but I make a different one. I find no matter how many books I write, it’s always a learning experience.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
It echoes the advice Stephen King gives: you must keep reading— a lot. The second one is, if you’re a writer, you’re doing it because you don’t know how not to do it. You can’t stop. The third piece of advice is you just have to keep at it. I wrote three novels in my late teens and early twenties; thank God they weren’t published, but I was trying. I wrote novels until I was about twenty-seven, and then got so busy at the Star, I gave it up, but eventually came back to it. The real takeaway is: read a lot, write and write even more, and just keep at it.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who are they?
The first one would be my dad, who died when I was sixteen. I would also invite my wife and two kids so they could meet my father. I would be the caterer.
Congratulations on writing Broken Promise, another novel destined to fit Lisa Gardner’s description as “One of the best thrillers of the year—where nothing and no one is all that they seem.”
Sara Paretsky is the award-winning author of the V. I. Warshawski detective novels. In 1982, when Sara wrote Indemnity Only, she revolutionized the mystery novel by creating a hard-boiled woman investigator.
Growing up in rural Kansas, Sara came to Chicago in 1966 to do community service work in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King was organizing. Sara felt that summer changed her life; and after finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas, she returned to make Chicago her home.
She received a PhD in American History and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Sara shares her heroine’s passion for social justice. In 1986, she founded Sisters in Crime to support women mystery writers. She established a foundation to support women in the arts, letters, and sciences; and has endowed scholarships at the University of Kansas, as well as mentoring students in Chicago’s inner city schools. She serves on various advisory boards for literacy, and for supporting the mentally-ill homeless.
Having received many literary awards, her novels have been translated into nearly 30 languages.
In Brushback, V.I. is visited by an old flame, Frank Guzzo, whose mother, Stella, served 25 years in prison after being convicted of bludgeoning her daughter to death. Stella loathed the entire Warshawski family, especially V.I.’s mother, Gabriella. Feeling sympathy for Frank, V.I. agrees to ask around in an effort to possibly exonerate Stella. Her efforts land her in a scorpion’s den of duplicitous Illinois politics, and V.I.’s primary question soon becomes whether she will live to find the answers.
In reading Brushback, I was struck by your vivid descriptions of Chicago. Your integration of character with environment has been compared to that of Hammett and Chandler. Will you talk about setting in your novels?
Chicago is the city where I came of age. The summer of 1966 was probably the most intense experience of my life. I got very involved in the neighborhood and the city. Even though it was a violent summer, I always think of it as the summer of hope, passion, and the summer when I grew up. I think that’s why Chicago plays such a big role in my books. For me, it’s an emotionally important place.
Chicago is like a set of small towns and neighborhoods. When I worked with kids who had never been downtown, they weren’t terribly impressed by the big buildings or Christmas lights when we took them there. The details they saw through children’s eyes were drunks passed out on rooftops, or wildlife running along the elevated train tracks. I learned from them that what makes a scene come alive is close-up detail, and that’s found its way into my books.
How has V.I. evolved in Brushback as compared to Indemnity Only, the first novel in the series?
When I wrote Indemnity Only, there weren’t women, either in real life or in fiction, doing what V.I. was doing. The year it was published, 1982, was the first year women could serve in Chicago’s regular police force instead of merely being matrons at detention centers. So, V.I. had a chip on her shoulder and was much more in-your-face than she is now. V.I. had to prove her worth, but now, she’s dealing with other problems. She and I are both older, more mature; and I guess, more worried about things. I’m a self-taught writer and don’t think out what a protagonist should or shouldn’t be doing. V.I. tends to reflect more of my own emotional life at the specific time I’m writing.
As you pen more novels about her, how do you find different issues to challenge V.I.? I know my books are described as issue-driven, but they don’t come to me that way. They unfold for me as stories. Brushback started when I met someone in charge of arranging tours for Chicago Cubs fans. He told me about the underbelly of Wrigley Field. That sparked the idea for Brushback. I had to build a story, and it evolved out of V.I.’s old neighborhood. Even though I’m not a native of Chicago, stories from the old neighborhoods grip me. I get letters from people from these neighborhoods, and they often drive my thinking about the stories.
You’ve been noted for writing crime novels with a feminist perspective. Will you tell us about that?
I grew up in Kansas, a very conservative state. My parents were old-fashioned in their views about what girls should aspire to. I have four brothers, and it was a struggle for me to have the same opportunities life provided them by birth. These issues mattered very much to me personally. When I began writing crime fiction for publication, I was part of the first generation of women to do so, and had to deal with a certain amount of resentment. Sue Grafton and I were writing hardboiled books in what had been a masculine genre. That personal history has always shaped how I see the world, and it goaded me into starting Sisters in Crime.
As president of the Mystery Writers of America, what, if any trends do you see now in mystery fiction?
Publishing is in freefall. Nobody knows where anything is going. Will e-books transform everything? Will self-publishing be the fate of all writers except for James Patterson and a few others? The big casualty in this brave new world has been the loss of opportunity for African American, gay and lesbian writers; and to a lesser extent, for women writers. Back in 2000, there were probably twenty-five black writers published by the big houses. Today, there are three or four. We’re trying to develop ways to bring all writers to the attention of readers.
With nineteen V.I. Warshawski books, do you have a favorite?
Hardball is right up there. It deals with torture done by the Chicago police, which went on in real life for about twenty years. I think in some ways, it’s my strongest novel because it drew on my personal history.
My favorite is the one published last year, Critical Mass. Everything about it was so very personal for me. It’s about a scientist whose life was derailed by the Nazis in a way similar to how my family’s world was upended. Actually, they were all murdered. The only people in my family to survive were my grandparents, who came to America before war broke out.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Way too many things do that. (Laughter). I worry my career’s disintegrating. I worry whether people will buy my books, or if I still know how to write a book. I have to start a new book, since I’m under contract. It just never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder as you go along.
Ruby Rich, who used to review for the Village Voice, said, ‘Writing is a form of auto-sadomasochism—first you tie yourself to the bed, and then you beat yourself up.’
While Brushback has gotten some great pre-publication reviews, I think, ‘Oh no. I can’t do it again. They’ll hate the new one.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That there’s such good will among crime writers. There’s really a great deal of mutual support. In the world of the important literary writers, there are always feuds and endless quarrels, such as the classic one between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Crime writers fly below the radar. We’re not viewed as being as important as so-called literary writers; that creates a different and more collegial atmosphere. It’s been a surprise to me, and I feel very happy to be where I am.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d invite P.D. James. I didn’t know her well, but she was one of the wittiest, liveliest people I’ve ever encountered. Politics notwithstanding, our core values were very much alike. She once took me to the Atheneum Club in London. She was the first woman to be admitted as a member. We had such a great time making all the old stodgy members go, ‘tut-tut.’ Another person I’d invite would be the historian Daniel Boorstin, who was appointed Librarian of Congress. To please my husband, I’d include Galileo, his favorite scientist. I’d invite another beloved crime writer who died last year, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. I was with her when she was dying. She was born Catholic and said, “I know which saint I want to greet me when I cross the river—St. Teresa of Avila. I want her because if God could put up with her rebellious spirit, he could put up with me.’ And I’d include Teresa of Avila along with Dorothy. And, I’d include Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis competitors of all time.
Congratulations on writing Brushback, another novel by an author about whom The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio said, ‘There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues.’
Brad Parks is the only author to have won crime fiction’s Shames, Nero, and Lefty Awards. As in his five previous novels, his protagonist, Carter Ross, is an investigative reporter for Newark’s Eagle-Examiner.
In The Fraud, a rash of carjackings is terrorizing Newark. When one theft results in the murder of a banking executive, Ross begins investigating the case. He soon learns that a Nigerian immigrant was also killed in another carjacking only days apart from the executive’s murder. Carter discovers the two victims knew each other, and finds himself on the trail of a deadly band of car thieves. Nothing is really as it seems as the stakes rise, threatening Carter’s life and that of his unborn child.
You were a reporter for The Washington Post and the Newark Star-Ledger. Are the Carter Ross mysteries spinoffs from actual events you investigated as a reporter? I rip off shamelessly from real life. One year in the newsroom gives you enough material for twenty novels. I spent a dozen years in various newsrooms and it’s provided me with a wealth of stories.
The Fraud begins with an intriguing sentence: “It’s a hypothetical question every parent considers at some point: Would you give your life for your kid?” Will you talk about the importance of a novel’s opening lines? I think the patience of readers everywhere has changed in the last thirty years. Once upon a time, a novel had twenty pages to hook someone. I don’t think anyone gives a book that much time anymore. If you can snare a reader on the first page, that’s great. If you can do it with the first sentence, it’s even better.
The Fraud paints a frightening picture of the dangers of carjacking in Newark, New Jersey. Describe what the novel calls “the Newark cruise” in relation to carjacking? The “Newark cruise” is an example of street-smart civil disobedience as practiced in Newark, New Jersey. Coming to a full-stop at a red light late at night is an act of folly. If you do, you make yourself a target for someone to walk up to your car wanting to sell you drugs. There’s a more dangerous risk—carjacking. When you see a red light off in the distance, you slow down well ahead of time, giving yourself leeway to slowly cruise up to it. You inch up to the red light. If you reach the intersection while the light is still red, you look around, and if nothing’s coming, you gun it, and go right through the intersection.
That being said, I don’t want to portray Newark as a crime-infested city. When I worked for the Star-Ledger, I knew two Newarks: there was the Newark during the day and the one at night. They were virtually different cities. There are many wonderful people in Newark working very hard to make it a better place to live.
Carter Ross says some humorous things in The Fraud. What role can humor play in a mystery or thriller? As a writer, I try to reflect the world around me. The journalism world, and particularly the newsroom, is a place where people always make wisecracks. Journalism isn’t unique in this regard: hang around with cops, ER people, nurses, social workers or any other profession where people see the more difficult aspects of life, and you’ll find gallows humor. It helps us get through things we might not otherwise handle as easily. I want Carter Ross’s world to reflect that reality about journalism. While some people feel you can’t have suspense and humor together in a novel, I think humor can be a bit of a tension-reliever before the next suspenseful event occurs. Humor can give a thriller peaks and valleys. But I don’t inject humor into my books in a calculated way. The world I lived in—journalism—was filled with humor.
How and why did you decide to become a full-time novelist? It’s sad, but also lucky for me. The newspaper industry is dying. It wasn’t going to be there for me into the future. My wife and I were starting a family, and it was very clear I wouldn’t be able to ride the dinosaur—the newspaper industry—to the finish line. The positive thing is this: I would never have done something as risky as quitting my job to write novels. I’m just not wired that way. Facing the impending demise of the papers, I ended up taking a gamble I might not have otherwise attempted. It forced me to follow a dream.
You’ve said your writing process involves “pantsing.” Explain what this means to our readers. “Pantsing” means you have no idea what the ending is when you begin the novel. It means flying by the seat of your pants. It can even mean I have no idea what the next sentence will be. It’s like jazz improvisation at the computer keyboard. It’s both terrifying and wonderful fun. I literally have no idea what’s going to happen each morning when I sit down to write. There are times when I’ll come home to my wife and say, ‘Honey, you’ll never guess what Carter did today.’ (Laughter) It’s as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone. If it’s a delightful surprise to me, it’s going be that way for the reader. I don’t plot out or outline my novels in advance.
But you do have some concept of the story you’re about to tell. As a newspaper guy, I always start off with questions: What issue do I want to write about? What is my topic? Then I ask myself, what crime might derive from that topic? And who might have cause to commit that crime? Who gains from it? I usually begin writing before I have all those questions answered. Much of it gets discovered along the way, during the writing process. Yes, at times, I write towards a destination, but I try to be flexible enough to accommodate the element of surprise.
I once tried to outline a book. I wrote an eighteen-thousand word outline. It was choreographed to the last nanosecond. I woke up every morning knowing exactly the scene I would write. It was like painting by numbers. There was no joy in the writing. I ended up throwing out that novel.
What has surprised you about the writing life? Simply put, what surprises me is how much about the writing life I still don’t understand. The creative process remains a mystery to me, and perhaps to everyone else. The number one question we’re asked at book-signings is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I still don’t have the foggiest clue where these things come from. I do a lot of running, but the real benefit of running is that’s when ideas come to me. It’s a particularly fertile time for me. Creativity is still a mystery to me.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing? My buddy Reed Farrell Coleman says, ‘Fall in love with writing, not with what you’ve written.’ It’s really about finding a process for your art, and sticking with it. You have so little control over the results of your efforts. You send a book out into the world and have no control over what happens to it. But you can control what you put into that effort—the very best in yourself. I try making sure I’m giving the best of what I have to offer to the reader. I don’t drink when I’m in the middle of a draft; I get rest; I write early in the mornings, and know how the process works best for me.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night? All the other stuff that’s not the process of actually writing. (Laughter). I used to worry I’d run out of words; that one day I’d wake up, and the words wouldn’t be there. Sometimes a particular turn of phrase just materializes in my head, and I wonder if someday that will stop. What if that magical creativity vanishes? Because, I have to be honest: Besides writing, I have no other marketable skills.
Congratulations on writing The Fraud, a witty and gritty novel about which Library Journal said, ‘Parks, a gifted storyteller (with shades of Mark Twain, or maybe Dave Barry), shows his mastery of the comic absurd behind serious journalism.’
Brian Panowich is a firefighter and former musician. As an army brat, he grew up in Europe until the family settled in East Georgia. His debut novel, Bull Mountain, has received extensive praise from James Ellroy, C.J. Box, Wiley Cash, John Connolly, among others.
Bull Mountain is set in the backwoods Georgia hills and spans the decades between the 1940s and today. This story of multigenerational crime and retribution is told from multiple points of view; and the acts of vengeance that have kept the Burroughs clan in complete control of the surrounding community are described in rich detail.
This is your first published novel. How and when did you decide to become a writer?
When I was a kid, I wanted to write comic books. I was a junkie for them. My father was a big reader and there were always books around the house. As I got older, I realized writing comic books wouldn’t attract women (Laughter), so I forgot about it. In college, I studied journalism. After that, I spent 15 years playing music—everything from punk rock to Southern country—in a band. Once I got married and we had a baby girl, the music business, with all its road-trips, ended for me. We settled in Georgia, and I became a fireman.
I needed a creative outlet of some sort, so I started writing again. I wrote short stories, and some were published in journals. A couple of them caught the attention of Nat Sobel, an agent in New York. He asked if I’d written a novel; I hadn’t, but he said if I ever wrote one, to give him a call. It took me a year to write this novel, and I wasn’t even sure he’d remember me when I called. But, he did. He loved the book, and when it was completed, he sold it in a month. It’s been a whirlwind experience. What’s happened to me just doesn’t happen. It seems to have fallen into my lap.
If you had to describe Bull Mountain in one or two sentences, what would you say?
It’s primarily a family saga about Southern people and the way they do things, as opposed to the rest of the world.
Your portrayal of various members of the Burroughs clan is quite compelling. Clayton Burroughs is certainly the most interesting. How would you describe his conflicts and challenges?
He’s clearly tormented. He’s come to terms with the heinous crimes committed by his family. As the county sheriff, he knows he’s not following in his father’s or older brother’s footsteps. His choice doesn’t fit well with a family whose crime history goes back for generations. He’s haunted by the fact he’s turned his back on his family. That’s his primary conflict and he must deal with it.
Bull Mountain describes the evolution from moonshine production to raising marijuana, and now to the production of methamphetamine. Tell us about your research.
West Virginia and Kentucky were known for moonshine production. It took a great deal of intelligence for the guys in those north Georgia foothills to stay off the police radar.
Once Prohibition was over, all the elements were in place for illegal drug production. Liquor would no longer make money, so they had to progress to a more profitable product.
Today, those hills are a gateway to drugs everywhere else.
Actually, most of my research came from folks living in north Georgia. I don’t know how much of what they told me is true, and for sure, I dramatized quite a bit of it.
Bull Mountain has been described as crime fiction, literary fiction, and as Southern noir. How would you characterize it?
I wanted to write an interesting story dealing with a Southern family. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel, but since I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan, I think his influence was somewhere in the back of my mind to do that. I just let the characters take the story where they did. I love being told I’ve written in these various genres, but I honestly don’t have any idea in which genre Bull Mountain belongs. To me, it’s like The Godfather, a family saga, more than anything else. The exact nature of the Corleone enterprise isn’t nearly as interesting as the relationship between the family members.
John Connolly is one of my literary heroes; anything he says is gold to me, so when he called Bull Mountain ‘Hillbilly noir,’ that’s fine with me.
You’re a full-time firefighter, husband, and father. How do you find time to write?
I can’t write unless I’m at the fire station. My shifts are twenty four hours “on,” and forty eight “off.” My time at the fire house is almost like a day off compared to being at home with four young children. Nothing much gets accomplished at home outside of caring for the kids.
When I set out to write this book, I wrote every third day during my shift at work. So, if there wasn’t something burning in the county, I was holed up in a closet, writing. My co-workers were one-hundred percent behind me and said, ‘Go for it.’
What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
A book is never done, never finished. When you think it’s done; it’s not. Eventually, I had to learn to let go of the manuscript. When I turned it into my agent, I thought it was finished, but he had some significant ideas to improve it. I’m very used to doing things on my own, and had to learn to trust other people and let them have a hand in my work to make it better.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
The accolades I’ve received keep me up at night. To have a literary journal like Booklist compare me to John Steinbeck is surreal and frightening.
Are you worried the level of expectation has been raised too high?
Yes. How could something I did every third day at the firehouse be compared to the work of an author who’s an American icon? I’m just worried when the book hits the shelves, people might be disappointed. There’s an awful lot to live up to. It spooks me. There’s a lot of pressure and that keeps me up at night.
Bull Mountain has such a rich and multigenerational cast of characters. Is there a sequel coming?
In a way, yes there is. The next book is set on Bull Mountain. I’m not a fan of series, but I like building a world. As an example, Elmore Leonard would write a book, and some two-bit characters in that book would be main characters in a following novel, or the one after that. I’ve built a world on this place called Bull Mountain, and I want to expand on it. I like the idea of telling stories about different characters living in the same setting. So, the second novel is set on Bull Mountain, but it’s mostly based on different characters.
Congratulations on penning Bull Mountain, a novel C.J. Box described as “a sprawling, gritty, violent, tribal intergenerational crime epic with a deeply rooted sense of place and a gut-punch ending I didn’t see coming.”
Author of The Lovers’ Tango and Return to Sandara
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
—The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump. To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police in Basalt County would be hunting him down.”
—First Blood by David Morrell
“Keller thinks he hears a baby cry.
The sound is just audible over the muted rotors as the helicopter comes in low toward the jungle village.
The cry, if that is what he’s hearing, is shrill and sharp, a call of hunger, fear, or pain.”
—The Cartel by Don Winslow
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.”
—Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Though written in diverse styles, varying tenses and with different points of view, these first few sentences or paragraphs penned by immensely gifted authors have much more in common than just superb writing.
Each sequence of sentences hooks the reader instantaneously by its masterful use of language; and as importantly, delivers an undeniable aura of mystery and foreboding.
“Something portentous is about to happen here,” each boldly declares.
As a reader, your curiosity is aroused, impelling you to read on, surrendering yourself to whatever the author has planned for you.
The power of the first few sentences leads you to follow the writer’s beckoning, seducing you to enter his imagination. They seem to say, Come on this journey with me.
No matter the genre, a novel’s opening lines are crucial in determining your interest in what the author has in store for you. Those first few words set the template for your willingness to travel along the story’s path.
Writers from Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to Melville (“Call me Ishmael”) knew the power of first impressions. And that’s true for contemporary writers, as well.
I invite readers to comment by submitting opening sentences or paragraphs exemplifying the adage that the first few lines of a novel are like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: everything else follows from them.