Friday, August 27, 2010

Up Close and Personal with Joe Wallace

A short while back I reviewed a book that I mentioned wasn't marketed as a crime novel but crime played a very central role to the novel. That would be DIAMOND RUBY. And it just so happens that DIAMOND RUBY's author, Joe Wallace, took some time out to chat with me and I'm very excited to get to share that interview with you today.

A native of New York, Joe Wallace has been making a career of writing for awhile now, but DIAMOND RUBY is his first novel. Joe is definitely not new to the crime fiction genre as he's been writing short stories for various anthologies and magazines, including the upcoming 2010 BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. He's also written non-fiction and children's books. Joe is a super individual, a talented writer, and one of my Twitter pals. I had a lot of fun with this interview; I hope you enjoy it.

Q. Joe, you received an electric typewriter as a gift when you were thirteen. Was that something you had asked for? Were you planning to write and that was the catalyst for the gift or did the gift encourage you to write?

Joe: I think I must be hardwired to tell stories, because I’ve always wanted to write. (I was submitting stories to magazines when I was ten, which must have made the editors shake their heads!) That Olympia electric typewriter was something my parents knew I wanted as a gift…I can still remember the sound of its keys hammering against the roller, the smell of carbon paper, and how excited I was when I got to the end of the story.
Q. And when you were young, you were trying to write a science fiction novel. First, what led you from sci-fi to children’s books? And then what took you to crime fiction short stories?

Joe: I’ve always preferred reading mystery stories. As a child, I read a ton of science fiction—as almost everyone I knew did back in the 1970s—but I was always most taken by mysteries, by the realistic human element and the puzzle. I read everything, from Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie to Chandler and Hammett. Most of the stories I wrote as a teenager were thrillers as well—the sf novel I tried was an exception.

My published children’s book (Big and Noisy Simon) came about entirely because I was reading armloads of picture books to my young children. I thought, “Hey, I can do that!” and then, amazingly, I did. I loved the process, seeing an illustrator take my words and put them to his imagination, but I always knew it was a one-off.

When I finally broke into publishing fiction for adults, it was natural that I’d try mysteries and thrillers. In writing, that’s where I was most comfortable.
Q. How do you feel about writing short stories versus the full-length novel? What are the pros and cons to each?

Joe: I adore writing short stories, especially noir. I think it’s the closest I’ll ever come to knowing what it feels like to compose a piece of music or make a sculpture. Every word does count, and you can get close to your own idea of perfection in a story. A couple of my published pieces depend on twists, on sleight of hand, and this is much more possible in a short piece than in a novel.

On the other hand, I loved writing Diamond Ruby because I became totally immersed in the 1920s New York world where the story takes place. Ruby and the other characters felt real to me, truly three-dimensional, in a way that doesn’t happen in a shorter piece. Still, in a novel, you can always see places where you wish you’d do something differently—novels, by being bigger, are inherently works in progress even when you’re done and they’re published.
Q. Then add children’s books into that. How does your thinking and processing have to differ from short stories and novels, plus themes aimed at an adult audience versus themes aimed at children?

Joe: I’m currently working on a side project in Ruby’s world: A story aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12) written from Ruby’s niece Amanda’s point of view. I think young readers can understand and handle more than many writers give them credit for, and I love their enthusiasm and open-mindedness. That being said, it’s important to make the narrator’s voice sound convincing, and far too easy to make your characters too grown-up. Amanda is extremely grown-up for her age—she’s ten when the book takes place, and has been through terrible hardships—but she is still a child, and I can’t forget that in writing from her perspective.
You're absolutely right. I had a couple of young guest reviewers this summer; I was totally astonished at their grasp of the stories and what they got out of them.

Q. You run storytelling and creative-writing workshops for school-aged students, and you’ve said that you share “bizarre and funny” stories from your own life with them. What is one of the stories you most like to share?

Joe: My storytelling/creative-writing classroom visits (most to the fourth grade) are highlights of my year. The students are wonderful and bursting with their own stories to tell. They love my story about a trip to Africa I took when I was fifteen, when I was almost being trampled by….well, you’ll have to hear the story. Their favorite, though, concerns the time I was locked in a bathroom (a door with no lock on it!) and missed the chance to say goodbye forever to the girl of my dreams. Since every ten-year-old has been stuck somewhere, or left behind, and understands that feeling of helplessness, this story strikes a real chord with them.
Fun stuff. Fourth grade is a great age, too.

Q. So, you wrote this pretty fabulous book and it was published this year. You achieved your life-long goal! How does that feel?

Joe: Thank you! I feel wonderful—and exhausted! Even after more than a dozen nonfiction books, I never understood how…exposed and vulnerable…I’d feel when I had a novel on the bookshelves. It really does feel like there’s part of me out there. I’m thrilled, of course, by how enthusiastic so many readers have been. Ruby as a character is very precious to me: Tough, uncompromised, not necessarily the smartest person in the room but someone who will never stop working to protect the people she loves. I hoped so deeply that people would care about her as I do—and they seem to.
Q. And you decided to write about Ruby, this young girl who has a special baseball talent. And we know that Ruby is based on an actual woman by the name of Jackie Mitchell. How did you come to know about Jackie Mitchell and why did you decide you wanted to create a character based on her story?

Joe: I found a photo while researching a nonfiction book at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It showed this slightly built teenage girl in a baseball uniform, shaking hands with Babe Ruth while Lou Gehrig looked on. This was my introduction to Jackie Mitchell, the girl who struck out Ruth and Gehrig and was then banned from professional baseball, along with all women. I think I knew right away that a character based on Jackie—but one given the chance to fight back against those who would stop her—was one I wanted to write about.
Q. It’s very interesting to me that you chose to take on a theme dealing with essentially gender prejudice. And you obviously have quite a passion about that theme. Why do you think that is?

Joe: Jackie’s story infuriated me. I want to know what would have happened if she’d been allowed to keep pitching! This kind of gender prejudice is something I’ve always been aware of: My mother, born in 1927, was a physician, a very rare thing in those years. She fought her way through prejudice to become a leading physician and educator, including being the first-ever female chief of medicine at a Veterans Administration Hospital.

I also have a teenage daughter and niece and have worked as a writing mentor to many teenage girls as well. They all deserve to aim as high as they want without being stopped because they’re women. Jackie Mitchell deserved the same thing.
Q. After finishing DIAMOND RUBY I felt that sense of place was powerfully strong in the novel. You were born and raised in Brooklyn, you live in New York City now so you have the benefit of knowing the current New York City, but what kinds of things allowed you to bring 1920s New York City to life in your book?

Joe: I think that the sights, smells, and color of light in the Brooklyn I grew up in during the 1960s wasn’t that different than Ruby’s Brooklyn. To really bring the time to life for me, though, I read day by day through about half a dozen New York City newspapers from 1923, when most of the book takes place. By learning about the big issues of the day and also the small concerns, I felt like I was entering that world, writing about it from the inside. Sometimes it was hard to return to the real world!
Q. I think it’s kind of ironic that as a child you wanted to visit the “far corners of the world” and capture them in your writing. You have done that in some of your other writing, but why choose to return home for your novel?

Joe: Great question, and I don’t know! Perhaps it was partly the comfort level of writing about a place I knew…but mostly I think it was because NYC in the 1920s was an amazing, vibrant, terrifying, violent place to live. In other words, a perfect place to put my 18-year-old main character and see what happened next.
Q. I’m guessing that your travels have affected your writing in more ways than just being able to describe the “far corners of the world.” How would you say that they’ve influenced your writing – or am I totally off base?

Joe: No, I think you’re right. I feel like I’ve gained a perspective on the world—and on my hometown—that I’d never have gotten if I hadn’t been lucky enough to travel across the U.S. and to Africa, South America, and elsewhere. I feel like I’ve learned to walk more slowly, to really look around, to understand, in a way that I never could when I was growing up. I’ve been very fortunate!
Q. I’m always fascinated with historical fiction. How do you decide what to stay true to and what to fictionalize?

Joe: I wanted everything in Ruby’s world to be real, an actual world spinning around her and her family. The Roaring Twenties made that easy—between the parties and dance marathons and rum-runners and gangsters and the KKK and other vivid people and events, I barely had to make up a thing. For me, at least, that’s the key to historical fiction: Create vivid central characters and a compelling plot, but make sure the real world you choose can support it, bolster it, add its own tension to the story.
Q. You’ve also written non-fiction, how does that compare to this novel? Are the research tactics similar? Do you have difficulty at all veering away from fact and allowing yourself to write fiction?

Joe: In nonfiction (I’ve written often about baseball history and natural history) I try to find the most vivid, unusual stories and tell them in a fresh, compelling manner to a new audience. In that way, my research for nonfiction and novel are similar: I try to keep my eyes open for unexpected details, revealing moments. I have to say, though, that I loved getting to take off from the real story in writing Diamond Ruby, to make things happen the way they should have, not the way they did!
Q. DIAMOND RUBY was not marketed as a crime novel, yet crime is essential to the plot of the novel. Were you writing this book with the intention that it would be a crime novel or what exactly moved it out of that realm for marketing? How is that decision made?

Joe: In fact, Diamond Ruby first saw life as a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—so crime is definitely essential to it. Still, I wasn’t thinking genre when I was writing it, and wasn’t surprised when it was bought as “mainstream” fiction. But I think what my experiences show is how silly those genre boundaries are. Some of the greatest novels I’ve read in recent years (by authors as diverse as Lawrence Block, Don Winslow, and Kate Atkinson) have been considered “crime novels,” but to me a great book is a great book. However, I would hate if people stayed away from Diamond Ruby because they thought it was “just” a historical.
Q. We met awhile before DIAMOND RUBY hit the bookstores, and we met via Twitter. You make use of the social networks quite a bit, but there are others on the flip side that complain about it or say they don’t understand it. What brought you to Twitter – social networking in general – and can you talk a little about your experiences with it?

Joe: I guess I was intrigued by Twitter from the start, so I joined the conversation about a year before Ruby came out. Yet I never knew how extraordinary it would be, to meet readers and bloggers and reviewers and other writers there! The level of support and enthusiasm has been astounding to me—and I’ve been thrilled to offer it to writers publishing their own books and bloggers whose writing is equally important and valuable in the world today.

Yes, social media can be time-consuming, but whatever success Diamond Ruby has had owes an enormous debt to social media.
Q. Now you’re still going strong with RUBY, but looking into the future, what’s next for Joe Wallace and Ruby Thomas?

Joe: I mentioned the middle-grade book I’m working on above. I’m also midway through the first draft of a direct follow-up to Diamond Ruby, set about three years after the first one ends and in Southern California, not Brooklyn! From the start, I imagined three books about Ruby, the first with her as a teenager during the Roaring Twenties and the last with her approaching thirty during the Great Depression. I hope I get the chance to write them.
Well, I for one will definitely be waiting on those! Thanks so much for taking time out to talk with me, Joe. Best of luck with your next books. If you have questions for Joe, I'm sure he'll be by, so feel free to leave them in the comments. As always, thanks for hangin' out with us today! Happy Reading.

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Thoughts of Joy August 27, 2010 at 8:49 AM  

Another fantastic interview, Jen! I think having some background on your subjects truly makes all the difference. You've done a great job of pulling out Joe's personality and his passion for writing. I love the fact that he has written non-fiction prior to Diamond Ruby. I prefer realistic, believable novels (I do venture out, though), and I think his background will lend more towards that end. I'm eager to pick it up. Thanks for sharing!

All the best to you, Joe! :)

dining tables August 27, 2010 at 10:04 AM  

I am so lucky that I found your blog. I always find a very fantastic interview just like this post. I can see that everything goes well. Well done job.

Bridgette Booth August 27, 2010 at 10:39 AM  

This was a great interview! I don't know which intrigued me more - your questions or Joe's answers. I'm looking forward to reading Diamond Ruby. Thanks.

Joe Wallace August 27, 2010 at 1:29 PM  

Wow--thank you for doing such a wonderful job with the questions, Jen. This is one of the best interviews I've ever been part of.

If anyone has any follow-up questions, I'll be glad to answer them here.

Thanks! --Joe

Beth F August 31, 2010 at 7:24 AM  

Great interview (as always) and I was glad to get to know Joe a bit better. I have Diamond Ruby at the top of my reading list.

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