I'm forever talking about the authors blogging over at 7 Criminal Minds, and many of those folks have contributed to the 6-Word Memoir project. One of those contributors is my interview guest today, Kelli Stanley. As a matter of fact, Kelli and I had such a blast talking that we need to take two days to share this interview with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed talking with Kelli. I think you'll find, she's absolutely fascinating and just a lot of fun to be around. Kelli is the author of the award-winning novel NOX DORMIENDA and the upcoming CITY OF DRAGONS. I won't tell you about them because Kelli will do that herself. She was extremely generous to make time to chat with me so we could have this interview to share with you in honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week. So, golly, let me quit blabbin' because you can hear me blab whenever. Let's talk to Kelli!!
Q: Your first two books are both historical fiction mysteries. And writing a historical fiction novel involves a whole different layer of research. How do you go about that research and how far do you go with it? For example, I once heard an author say he (I think it was a he) was criticized for saying it was raining at a point in his book and a reader wrote to tell him that it wasn’t raining in that geographic location on that day in history. So at what point do you say, “I’m writing fiction, it’s o.k. for me to use creative license here”?
Kelli: Well, before I respond, Jen, let me just say “thank you, thank you, thank you!” for hosting me on your wonderful blog! I feel completely at home, like we’re just putting up our feet (complete with slippers) on a stool and talking about books. That’s how comfortable and positive and just plain fabulous you’ve made your home away from home! :) I’m very honored – and happy – to be here!Q: With your first novel, NOX DORMIENDA, you created a new subgenre of hardboiled crime fiction and you called it “Roman noir.” So let’s talk about that for a minute. How does “Roman noir” fit into the hardboiled crime fiction genre, and on the other hand, how does it differ so that it establishes its own subgenre?
Now, as to the answer … it all depends on the book. Given the huge pile of student debt I worked up while earning my Master’s Degree, I wanted to put that education to work—and I thought Roman Britain [for NOX DORMIENDA] was a good place to start, as it’s not a terribly common locale. My accuracy mantra was “go for the probable, but if it’s possible—and it works—then use it.”
And there is a lot of wiggle room in archaeological reports, plus outright contradictory testimony between different kinds of data—physical versus the literature of the period, for example. So for the Arcturus Series, it becomes a very selective process … which of the historians do I believe? Does Archaeology Site X really represent a commonality in the culture? That kind of thing.
I rely on the many years I invested as a Classics scholar to help me make these determinations, but ultimately—as long as, say, the existence of a temple or tavern is a possibility—I’ll use it, if it helps the story. That said, I am very careful to make everything as accurate as possible, and paint as complete a picture of first century Roman Britain as is necessary for the story to move ahead. I also use actual historic personages when I can—Arcturus’ father and step-father, for example, were both real, and their graves are displayed in two English museums. But I’m not writing
historical travelogue or even a historical novel—first and foremost, crime fiction has to move. So the detail is there, but still a backdrop.
With CITY OF DRAGONS, it’s much the same—layer, layer, layer of historical detail, make the setting come alive, as vividly as possible. But now we’re dealing with February, 1940—and the issue is too much data! Film, radio, newspapers, ads, there’s a great deal known about every given day of most of the twentieth century. And I try to be true to all of it. Locales, businesses, personalities … even the phone numbers in the novel were the actual phone numbers used by, say, the Oceanic Hotel in 1940. Prices of liquor? Real. Menu prices? Real. Routes of the streetcars? Real. Headlines in newspapers? Real. And yes, I actually rewrote a scene early on when I realized that the weather was wrong. That’s not to say that everything is right—but I’ve tried damn hard to make it as actual, real, and consistent as I possibly could.
I use a lot of ephemera to inspire me—stuff I find at flea markets or on ebay.
Why? For one, because I think I owe it to people. It’s my job to divert you, to take you to another place and time, and by concentrating on details—by knowing in my heart that this was real, these places did exist—I think it adds to the authenticity of my writing and makes it more entertaining for the reader. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s also very rewarding.
Kelli: Well, “Roman noir” was intended to help differentiate my book, and it’s also a playful and accurate description of the genre, since it’s a pun on the French term roman noir, or detective novel. I have a lot of diverse and, I guess, surprising interests—an MA in Classics, I’m a former comic book retailer and industry expert—a 30s and 40s pop culture fanatic. I wanted to write about Roman culture in a way that would deemphasize the strangeness of it and reinforce the common thread of human behavior through time. We haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. And my love of the hardboiled and noir crime fiction genres seemed to be the natural medium.Q: The Roman noir angle doesn’t come as much of surprise given you studied in Italy, majored in the Classics, etc. But what triggered your initial interest in this element of time and literature?
At the time I wrote NOX—and even after it was published—there wasn’t another mystery novel, to my knowledge, with a Roman doctor (though Arcturus is half-Roman, half British) as a protagonist. Then I found out about Ruth Downie’s MEDICUS … which was set in Roman Britain … had a Latin title … and starred a doctor as the hero! I was afraid my career was over before it started! So I thought hard about what really distinguishes NOX—and I’d say it’s the very conscious homage to Chandler, Hammett, and other classic hardboiled writers, both fiction and film. And we decided to call it Roman noir, because it was really the sensibility of THE BIG SLEEP transferred to first century Londinium. Even the title is a tribute to
Chandler’s first book—he took that metaphor, “the big sleep”, from the same source. Chandler was a classicist—and he was always proud of his knowledge of Latin and Greek.
Kelli: I was born with a noir gene, I think. Not that I’m at all not a happy, positive person—I am!—and most noir people are, I think. But there’s something about the overall genre of hardboiled that is so evocative, so beautiful. And irresistible to me as a writer. I wrote my first play when I was eight, starred and directed, and it was a noir set in the 1930s. So there you go! :) Even when I was a kid, it was as if I were nostalgic for an era I never knew.
Q: Your new book coming out, CITY OF DRAGONS, changes geographic location and moves a tad bit closer to the present. What are some of the changes you have to make as a writer to allow the shift in your books to occur as seamlessly as possible? Do you find one era easier to write about than the other?
Kelli: I’m not sure if easy is the word to use … maybe fluent. I find that the Miranda Corbie books tend to flow more powerfully—maybe because I don’t have to withhold so much. Arcturus and company are wonderful to write—they’re a lighter break from the other books, and right this minute I’m crossing my fingers and toes and waiting to hear news on where MALEDICTUS, the sequel, will be going—but Miranda reaches into the depths of my soul and doesn’t let go. I originally studied drama, and as an actress, I always preferred to play darker parts—Greek tragedy, or Lady Macbeth. Comedy is tougher—you need to have more of yourself outside the character, watching the timing. And while the Arcturus Series is not comic, it has a lighter touch, and a good deal of humor. In some ways, that’s harder for me to do. So I find them strangely complementary. I’m probably harder to live with when writing Miranda, however, because the books are psychologically darker.Q: What are some of the distinct challenges of writing in each time period?
Kelli: With Rome, it’s what information to privilege, and what to omit. There were so many concepts in the culture that are, to modern sensibilities, completely barbaric, that I have to be careful … my goal, remember, is to maintain a continuum of human behavior across time. I think that’s an important goal for an author, one of the messages, if you will, of the series. Not that I try to deny anything … it’s a matter of selection, of emphasis.
For 1940—well, as I said, we have an opposite situation. It’s an era that falls within living memory, and was fully documented. But the biggest challenge for me is to make sure that I capture both the beauty of the period—the slower pace, the clean streets, the kids playing on the corner, Art Deco makeup compacts and Glenn Miller swing—and the ugly realities. The Great Depression. Racism and segregation. Corruption. The narrow definitions of what was acceptable for a woman to do, to wear, to be. There was a breathtaking beauty about 1940. There was also a sort of casual brutality, a conspiratorial acceptance of the ugliness behind Jim Crow and back alley rapes. Giving both sides their due is a challenge.
Q: Alright Kel, let’s be a little philosophical here. We know that Raymond Chandler is a major influence on you as a writer. You’ve also credited some other heavy hitters from literature: Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy…And your true love in writing is, of course, noir. How do you think the genre has changed (as any living entity is going to do)? What changes do you think have improved the genre? What changes do you think it may have been better off without? And finally, are there changes that you’d still like to see happen, maybe even through your own influence?
Kelli: Jen, you ask the most fascinating questions! I think the biggest change is more to choose from … more subgenres, more styles, more fusion than ever before. Entertainment, in general, has moved toward personalization since the 80s and the Sony Walkman. Books are the same way. You can really fine tune your likes and dislikes. I think we need to encourage smaller presses, because they take chances, and that diversity of choice helps keep the crime fiction genre fresh and moving ahead.Do you guys see why I adore this woman? Huh?
Within noir, I think fusion is a good thing, obviously, because it can introduce a new audience to the genre—and that’s what really propels growth. One change I’m not happy with is that I feel we’ve become a very desensitized society, and I’d like to see books back away from the trend toward the grotesquely violent—you know what I mean, if serial killers sell, then cannibal serial killers will sell more. But really, sensationalism has always been there. Mickey Spillane outsold Chandler big-time in the ‘50s, because of the sex and violence. So in a sense, that’s a chicken and egg question.
I think a really fabulous change is more women in the writer’s seat … Megan Abbott and Vicki Hendricks and Christa Faust, to name three. There’s a lot of misogyny in classic noir, and because of the stature of the writer—Jim Thompson or Cain, for example—it has become accepted over the years, and then emulated. And I’d like to see that change. One of my goals with CITY OF DRAGONS—one of the ideas that propelled the novel—was to take a female character with all the attributes of a femme fatale—the beauty, the toughness, the ability to use her sexuality as a weapon or survival tool—and instead, make her the hero. Put her in the shamus suit, and let her tell the story. If I could ever even imagine wielding any influence—and I think a legacy is what every writer dreams of—I’d be very proud if Miranda contributed to a reinterpretation of the femme fatale … and maybe female protagonists in general.
Q: Who is writing now that you think will ultimately turn into major influences for noir’s future writers? – And you don’t have to say yourself because we’ll just take that as a given.
Kelli: Most certainly Megan Abbott. She’s enormously, enormously talented and an instant classic—one for the ages. There’s so much good stuff out there right now that I’m afraid I’ll forget someone. Christa Faust. The books coming out of Charles Ardai’s Hardcase Crime. George Pelecanos is already a legend—so is Ken Bruen, the dark poet of Ireland—Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy. Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer was just incredible. I think Declan Burke is going to have a big impact, once his books are more widely available here. Reed Farrell Coleman, a writer’s writer. David Corbett, another stellar example. Michael Koryta is so young and absolutely terrific. And I can’t not mention two of my supremely talented grog mates who also write on the noir side, Rebecca Cantrell and Sophie Littlefield. Watch these women soar!Aren't you totally intrigued now? Well, you have to come back tomorrow to check out the rest of our chat. There's a lot more fun to share, so I will see you then! And I'll see you then, too, Kel!
As for me, thank you immensely for the vote of confidence, Jen! I have to tell you—I’ve been very, very lucky. The fact that some of the people I most admire—Pelecanos, Bruen, Koryta—blurbed CITY OF DRAGONS—well, sometimes it makes me dizzy.
Happy Reading and Happy Book Blogger Appreciation Week!
Bouchercon Countdown (Kelli's going to be there!): 27 Days!