It was a treat to go to Tempe Public Library to hear and meet three authors yesterday. In fact, I met Libby Fischer Hellmann, Cara Black and Sharan Newman in Tempe Connections Cafe, and talked with them for about twenty minutes before their actual appearance for the library. Sharan Newman is definitely a researcher. She spent most of that time asking about me and my blog, and I didn't get the opportunity to ask them many questions.
After introductions to the audience, Libby acted as moderator, and asked the other authors to talk about their current books. Sharan Newman said The Shanghai Tunnel is a departure for her. She has been a medieval historian since the early 70's. Her earlier books are set in 12th century Paris or early England. She said she had ranted and raved against Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, until finally she sold a proposal in three days to write The Real Story Behind the Da Vinci Code. She's now written another nonfiction book, The Real Story Behind the Templars to show the actual history of the Templars. She became interested in the history of Portland, Oregon when she read about a Chinese cemetary from the late 1800s that was found under a road. In fact, people can tour the Shanghai tunnels. She researched the shipping industry in the late 1860s, and had to go out and learn something out of her medieval field. She researched in the city archives and the private collections at Reed College. In fact, she admitted she gets carried away when talking about her research.
Cara Black is married to a bookseller in San Francisco , and has a son who is a freshman in college. She talked about her mystery series, set in Paris, featuring Aimée Leduc, who is half American and half French, and has a penchant for bad boys. The series is set in the mid-90s. Aimée's partner is a dwarf and a computer hacker. The series begins in 1993, and is now up to August 1995. That period was a fascinating period in French history. There was an airliner hijacked in Marseille. The government had to come back from vacation to deal with it. The country that had been a shelter for immigrants experienced a period of unrest. Cara uses that unrest as a background for her latest book, Murder in the Rue de Paradis. Aimée, who is unlucky in love, has just returned from a boring date when investigative reporter, Yves, returns from Egypt, and proposes. She accepts, but her short engagement ends in tragedy.
Libby Fischer Hellman said her new book is her fifth novel. She writes a series featuring Ellie Foreman, a single mother whose mysteries are part "Desperate Housewives" and part "24". Those mysteries have some humor. One character in that series, Georgia Davis, is a cop who captured Libby's attention. She's the dark to Ellie's light.
Easy Innocence is Georgia's own book. It was a book started from fear. Hellmann's daughter had just started high school, and Libby was just recently separated. She knew about the hazing incident that had happened in a suburb of Chicago, one that involved a number of girls. She thought, what if a girl was murdered during that hazing? She knew how great the peer pressure was on kids who lived on Chicago's wealthy North Shore. What do you do if you can't afford everything, and want to fit in? Easy Innocence is about what girls do to get money to get acceptance by their peers. Libby said it's based on the truth. It's a dark book. Libby wanted to write about Georgia, but knew she couldn't write a police procedural because she didn't have the background. So, Georgia was suspended from the police force at the end of the third book in the Ellie Foreman series. She's now a private investigator. Ellie does make a cameo appearance in Easy Innocence.
Libby asked the other writers what came as a surprise to them in writing this book. Sharan said when researching The Shanghai Tunnel she was surprised how many conveniences there were in Portland in the 1860s. In contrast to the city where they discussed whether to use macadam on the roads, there were still bears in the woods nearby.
Cara said while investigating the Turkish community of Little Istanbul in Paris, she discovered that the Kurdish Cultural Institute was just around the corner. Knowing that the Kurds and Turks usually don't get along, she was intrigued.
Hellmann noted that crime fiction is a great platform for exploring politics and social issues while still including suspense in a book that keeps you up at night. They all agreed that credibility is important. Libby said she does ten times as much research as she actually uses in her books. Cara said she has a friend who is a retired French police officer who helps her. When asked why, he said he wants her to get it right. She may spend days doing research and talking to people, and it ends up in three lines. But, she now can make files of her research and keep it on the computer for future reference.
According to Sharan, sometimes her research exposes errors made in other books. She mentioned her book, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code. Sometimes she's found errors in her own books, and had to change plots when she found out the facts were wrong. She said people remember better when they learn from fiction, so it's better to get it right. You have to get it right when you know the truth, even if you're the only one who knows it.
Libby asked, why do they write, and why crime fiction.
Cara responded, she came from a Francophile family. Her father loved good food and wine. He had gout and was proud of it. She went to French schools, and learned archaic French from the nuns. She found that out when a kindly man in France told her the words she was using hadn't been used in centuries. She lived in Switzerland for a while. In 1984 she went back to France, and friend took her to the Jewish ghetto. She said that was where her mother had lived. At age fourteen, during the French Occupation, she came home from school, and found her entire family gone. The concierge allowed her to live in the apartment for one year, and fed her. After the occupation, she stood with others, holding a sign saying, "Have you seen my family?" A former neighbor said she had seen her sister getting on a train in Auschwitz. Ten years after that conversation with her friend, Cara went back to France. She wanted to tell the story about a young child during the Occupation, and decided to tell it as a detective story. It took her three years to write the story set in Paris.
Libby said she started writing fiction ten or eleven years ago. She had written nonfiction, but she read espionage, Len Deighton, John le Carré. After her father died, she went into her basement, and three months later emerged with her first mystery novel. It was lousy, and is locked away. However, she got an agent in New York, who couldn't sell it. He told her she needed a new character, a new plot, and a new agent, and he quit. She learned the value of writing short stories, though. She wrote one set in the 1930s in a Jewish suburb of Chicago. An undercurrent in that story led to the character of Ellie Foreman, and her first published book. There are four books in that series.
Sharan's three younger sisters take credit for her writing. She made up stories to entertain them. At twenty-three, she wrote her first novel, a young adult novel that grew from an academic paper. She went on to say there are writers, and people who want to say they've written a book. A real writer is obsessed with getting it down, not even willingly at times.
Cara agreed, and said she will sit at the computer for hours, and obsess over the right adjective. Libby said she works at it, and always second guesses herself. Cara said she took a class for poetry writing in which people obsessed over commas and metaphors. She said mystery writers are jugglers, of dialogue, characters, plot and red herrings.
Libby Hellmann said she likes editing. When she edited the anthology, Chicago Blues, she felt very confident. She mentioned that "Blue Note," Stuart Kaminsky's story in the book, was nominated for an Edgar.
They were all asked about their characters when an audience member said, Sharan said she was in love with Solomon, one of her characters. You all talk as if your characters were real. Sharan responded that characters do unexpected things. Cara agreed, and said she had a killer change on her. They all agreed that killers may change as they write.
Libby asked about outlining, and Sharan said she takes notes, but doesn't outline. She researches and absorbs things, but doesn't outline. She writes by the seat of her pants. Cara starts with place. She looks for a place to speak to her. What kind of crime would take place there? What would Aimée be doing there? She reported that Peter Lovesey outlines with hundreds of pages, and then takes two to three months to write the book.
Libby responded, "If I outline, why write the book?" It would be stale by then. Once you're in the character's head, they lead the way. Ellie is the light side; Georgia the dark.
Cara writes in alternate viewpoints. While her son was young, she wrote in sweats, and drove carpools. Writing was a way to get out of yourself and go somewhere else. She escaped to Paris.
They were all asked, what did you think you'd do when you grew up? Sharan wanted to be an archeologist, but her allergies were too bad. So, she went into history. Cara wanted to be Eloise from the children's books. Then, she wanted to be Christine Amanpour, an investigative reporter. Libby wanted to be a filmmaker, and has a degree in film. However, as a writer, she has complete control, unlike in films.
They closed by telling what they were working on. Cara said Aimée finally goes to the Left Bank in a book scheduled for March 2009, Murder in the Latin Quarter. Sharan is working on a couple nonfiction proposals, and a sequel to The Shanghai Tunnel. In that one, a Chinese widow comes to Portland, and discovers what a bad man her husband really was. Libby's next book is a standalone thriller, Set the Night on Fire. It's set in the period of the 1960s that begins at the Democratic convention in Chicago and goes through Kent State.
Libby Fischer Hellman, Cara Black, and Sharan Newman are all passionate about their work. If you get the opportunity to hear any of them, grab it. Thank you to all three of them for the time they gave me. It was a pleasure meeting all of you.
Personal notes: Yes, I have a picture of Sharan Newman, but she asked that I use the book cover instead.
And, thank you to all three writers, who donated copies of their recent books and autographed them so I can offer them in future contests. Check out the cover of Cara Black's new book. She took the photograph used on the jacket.
Libby Hellman is a terrific moderator. If you need a panel moderator, you won't go wrong in asking her.
It's wonderful to see how authors support each other. Despite her busy schedule, Donis Casey, author of The Drop Edge of Yonder, was in the audience. It was nice to talk to Donis again.
And, thank you to librarian and mystery fan, Patti O'Brien, who attended and went to dinner with me. It's always fun, Patti!
Libby Fischer Hellmann's website is www.hellmann.com/mystery-author
Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann. Bleak House Books, ©2008. ISBN 978-1932557695 (hardcover), 396p.
Chicago Blues - editor Libby Fischer Hellman. Bleak House Books, ©2007. ISBN 978-1932557497 (paperback), 424p.
Cara Black's website is www.carablack.com
Murder in the Rue de Paradis by Cara Black. Soho Press, Inc. ©2008. ISBN 978-1569474747 (hardcover), 305p.
Sharan Newman's website is www.sharannewman.com
The Shanghai Tunnel by Sharan Newman. Forge Books, ©2008. ISBN 978-0765313003 (hardcover), 336p.