When Denise Hamilton appeared at the Velma Teague Library for Authors @ The Teague, I introduced her as a lover of libraries and books. She said one reason she loves libraries is because she’s married to a librarian. And, she has two sons who are readers. They call her oldest son the “Book Anaconda” because he reads a book a night, more on the weekend. At the price of a YA book, that’s $18 a night, so she can’t afford all the books he goes through. She loves libraries, and donates books to them, and makes appearances at libraries. This time, she came to promote her latest book, Damage Control. It received a starred review in Library Journal, and is already in its second printing.
Denise began by giving a little personal background. She’s an LA native, married to an LA native, but they spoke different languages at home. Her mother was French while his parents were from Mexico. Hamilton worked for ten years as a journalist for the LA Times.
Although she always loved words as a child, she didn’t think she could make a living writing. So, she majored in business. Then, she found herself working with numbers when she wanted to work with words. She felt old and washed-out at 24. Fortunately, she had a boyfriend who was studying journalism, and he’d discuss his assignments. She thought they sounded interesting, so she decided to take an extension course at UCLA. Then she went back to get her Master’s in journalism. The woman who ran the program was married to the suburban editor for the LA Times. When she had a promising student, she’d say, “Bob, give this student an internship.” And, he did, which is how Hamilton started work with the LA Times.
Hamilton would submit articles, and when they were edited, she’d say, that turned out much better. She learned quite a lot on the job. And, she’d watch the big reporters argue with the editors. They liked her because she never argued. She was young and pliable. She’d cover any story. She was just happy to be there as a summer intern.
When the summer was up, they asked if she could stay a few more months while someone went on maternity leave. Then, when an opening came up, they asked her to hang around until they hired someone, but don’t apply for it because you don’t have enough experience. Two years went by before she was hired permanently. Then, she was sent to Ventura, a beachy suburb where nothing happens. She was bored, and decided to apply for a fellowship in Eastern Europe. It was just before the fall of Communism, although no one knew that when she left for Budapest, Hungary for six months. Hamilton ended up staying six months while Communist governments all around were collapsing. She wrote lots of articles for the LA Times, covering Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other countries.
When Denise returned to California, they told her, we have this great bureau in a mini-mall in San Gabriel Valley. She debated as to whether she should leave and go to Russia, because she spoke some Russian, but ended up going to the San Gabriel Valley. She covered lots of immigrant Chinese stories. For the first time, large numbers of Chinese were not settling in Chinaton, but moving to the suburbs. Monterey Park became the first majority Asian suburb. She covered stories about the community; organized crime, schooling. She pretended China came to her.
It was while covering the Chinese community that Hamilton found the background for her first Eve Diamond mystery, The Jasmine Trade. She learned that Chinese families come to the U.S., buy houses, enroll their kids in school, and then they go back to China, and the kids live by themselves, sometimes with an older sister or their mother, sometimes a nanny, sometimes just by themselves.This came to light when a boy was kidnapped, and held for $1 million ransom. Instead of paying, his father in Taiwan went to Interpol, and the boy was found and returned. Hamilton's editor thought she made up the story.
Hamilton admitted some reporters do make things up. But, she's always thought there are plenty of bizarre stories out there, so there's no need to make them up. She said she felt like a PI, tracking down stories. She felt like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, only "Philippa Marlowe," tracking down stories. People will talk to reporters when they won't talk to cops. She felt glamorous and gritty. It felt like she was starring in her own movie.
After ten years as a reporter, Denise felt constrained. It was always, "Who, what, where and how." Sometimes, the stories were eliminated or the best part was cut by the editor. Or, there were amazing stories she just couldn't cover. She had thousands of stories that didn't fit in the paper.
Denise joined a writing group, nine ladies who met on Sunday night. They all read from their latest work, and then they'd critique it. Hamilton decided to write about a female reporter at the LA Times, working in a multicultural city. She wrote about the Chinese "parachute kids." They were called that because the whole family dropped in, bought a house, and then left the teenage kids there." Dads were often called "astronauts" because they were always on planes back and forth. Her writing group always asked what happens next, and she told them they'd have to wait until the next group. She'd go home and write the next chapter. The Jasmine Trade was written as a series of chapter installments over three years for her writing group. Hamilton wrote it as a mystery with a fast pace. Mysteries have the same pace as newspaper journalism. She focused on moving the action forward.
Hamilton called LA a noir and surreal place. Seventy years after Raymond Chandler, it's still a glamorous city, even with the grit and crime. LA is like a bad boyfriend. Denise tries to break up, but it keeps drawing her back. LA is her muse, the ultimate femme fatale. She's still documenting her corner of LA, trying to make sense of it.
Denise wrote five books in the Eve Diamond series. Then she was called by a publisher asked her to edit a short story collection, Los Angeles Noir. They wanted the stories set in different neighborhoods with seventeen different authors, including Hamilton. She knew she wanted Michael Connelly, the dean of LA crime stories. The first volume had seventeen contemporary crime and short stories about LA. Susan Straight, a literary writer, even won the Edgar Allan Poe award for her contribution.
The second volume was a reprint of classic stories, including ones by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler. It covers the '20s and '30s to the '90s. Hollywood always lured big authors, and they wrote stories about it. But, Hamilton needed stories about other neighborhoods, not just Hollywood. She poured over books, and found a woman pulp writer, Leigh Brackett. No one knew she was a woman. Howard Hawks wanted "him" to write the screenplay for "The Big Sleep." Brackett floored everyone when she showed up. She did co-write it, and got a screen credit. She went on to write more novels and short stories. And, she finished her career by co-writing the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back." George Lucas was a big fan of her science fiction.
When Hamilton was writing her latest book, Damage Control, the John Edwards scandal was in the news because of his affair and his love child. For a while, his campaign said his aide fathered the child. It was a media political scandal. Denise wondered how far someone would go if they could silence someone to keep the scandal from coming out. What if someone on staff could "get rid of the problem?"
Damage Control involves a politician whose new social media expert is found murdered. He didn't kill her, but he was the last one seen with her. They had a meeting to discuss Twitter, and then he drove her to her apartment. He was the last one to see her. He hires a PR firm, the top damage control firm in LA, not because he did it, but because he needs guidance so he doesn't say the wrong thing.
Hamilton's protagonist is a young woman who grew up in LA. She's divorced, in her 30s. Her mother is a cancer survivor who moved in with her while going through treatment. Now, Maggie Silver would like her mom to get her own place. But, her mother is content there, and she likes to set Maggie up with dates, which drives Maggie nuts. Maggie's under a great deal of pressure, trying to make it. She's afraid she would lose her house if she loses her job.
Maggie is in Malibu, counseling a movie star who was accused of sexual harassment by the au pair. She stole jewelry from his wife, and when she's accused of it, she accuses him of sexual harassment. While working on this job, Maggie is called back to the office for a bigger crisis.
When Maggie sees the politician in the office, she realizes she knows him. He's the father of her childhood friend, Anabelle. She almost lived at their house for two years in school. She and Anabelle bonded. Maggie idealized their family. They had a huge house, art, classical music. She was beguiled by them. But at sixteen, something bad happened at a beach party. They haven't spoken for fifteen years. Maggie is assigned to represent Anabelle's dad.
Hamilton said she wrote Damage Control as a political sex thriller. It's also about the dark side of beach culture, what she calls surf noir. She loved the beach and parties, but there was a dark side, too. There is the cult of body, drugs, and drinking. Twenty or thirty years after their teens, some people are still on the beach. Crime fiction sees the dark side. Hamilton sees the shadow and light.
Denise also wanted to write about the intense emotional friendships between teenage girls. They share clothes, talk about boys, party together. It's all important, raw and intense. In the course of the book, readers learn the backstory for Maggie and Anabelle. Denise told us she found it intense being in the heads of teenage girls. Everything is embarrassing to teens. Hamilton has two teenage boys, and the oldest wants her to drop him off down the street.
Hamilton summarized herself as someone who takes care of her kids, writes crime fiction, and takes her dogs for walks.
Asked what she was working on, she said she's working on three things right now. She's writing another Eve Diamond, and two more standalones. She has a draft of a YA urban fantasy set in LA. There's crime in the urban fantasy, too. She doesn't have a problem with lack of ideas. She has so many ideas. She works with her publisher, Scribner, to narrow it down. They say, "We think you should be doing this." Denise said the best job in the world is to sit around and tell lies, stories.
One question mentioned Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. Is Denise aging Eve Diamond? She said, not really. She's around thirty. But, Hamilton is going to have to deal with the reality of the newspaper business. If she's writing in the present, she has to reference things that are happening. And, her boyfriends change, but she stays around thirty.
As an author, how does she feel about ebooks? She answered that it's great people are readings. But, she likes to read a book, the artifact. She just read Mark Twain's short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," to her thirteen-year-old son, and it was hard to read on her cell phone. Hamilton says the publishing industry is going through the same revolution as music did ten to fifteen years ago. But, there's always room for storytellers in whatever form.
The last question had to do with her experiences in Europe. She said publishers don't want the stories set there. They want them in LA. But, she would tell one story about her adventures. She was a Fulbright scholar in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War. She was in Macedonia, where it was calm and quiet. She could walk home at 2 a.m. The Balkan cafe culture mentality was alive.
At a conference of journalists in Yugoslavia, she met an Albanian journalist. She had never met an Albanian before because they were shut off from the rest of the world. For forty years, no one had been allowed in or out. She asked questions, and was invited back with them, traveling in their van with an Albanian-American guide. As they traveled the mountains, they could look down and see the carcasses of other trucks and buses that had fallen off the road. They dropped her off at the US Information Office, and they put her in touch with some Fulbright scholars. She crashed with them for three to four days, but needed to get back to Macedonia. There were no flights and no trains. There were private buses. She originally had the chance to go back with a man who had a private car, but he told her he couldn't take her. She ended up on the private bus. But, she was told later she was lucky that she hadn't ridden with the man in the car because he was the biggest heroin dealer in the area.
And, we were lucky she didn't end up riding with him, and ended up in Glendale, Arizona, discussing her books, including Damage Control.
Denise Hamilton's website is www.denisehamilton.com
Damage Control by Denise Hamilton. Scribner. ©2011. ISBN 9780743296748 (hardcover), 384p.