Friday, September 09, 2011

Interview with Denise Hamilton

I've read Denise Hamilton's Eve Diamond books since the series started, so I jumped at the chance to host her for Authors @ The Teague Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. She's on tour for her latest standalone, Damage Control. It was a little intimidating, though, to agree to interview a journalist.

Lesa - Thank you, Denise, for taking time to answer some questions. I know your first crime novel came out in 2001, however I'd still like you to introduce yourself to my readers, please. Tell us about yourself.

Denise - Hi Lesa, and thanks so much for inviting me to chat on your blog and also to visit your library.

I'm a Los Angeles native who worked as a reporter before having kids and becoming a crime fiction writer. I've got two teenaged boys, two fat sassy cats, a rascally huskie/lab mix dog with spooky blue eyes and a husband who is a .... librarian. We are a very bookie household, there are books in every room because we're all avid readers and collectors.

I’ve always loved reading and writing. As a kid, I made up stories, I was almost obsessive about writing. As for reading…I'd ride my bike to the library twice a week. I was that weird dorky kid who read every book in the elementary school library and was always huddled at the picnic tables, engrossed in a book while everyone else was playing. I'm lucky I stumbled into journalism, a profession where I got paid to be nosy and ask a jillion questions then write a story about it. But after 10 years at the L.A. Times, I started feeling constrained by the limitations of daily journalism. I wanted to crawl inside the heads of all the tragic and wonderful and villainous and fascinating people I met and imagine life through their eyes. I wanted to tweak their quotes to make them even better. I wanted to cover murder stories where the bad guy was arrested and tried and found guilty, and we all knew whodunit.

Unfortunately, in real life, something like only half the homicides are ever solved. So writing crime fiction was therapeutic for me, because by end we knew who did it and the bad guy was lead away in handcuffs or got killed, and that helped me order my world and make it feel like it was a safer place. Because the crime that seemed so random and senseless in the first chapter turned out to have motive and suspects and secrets and an entire backstory.

By the way, let me just say that I don't know why any reporter would ever make up a story. Real life is just too strange and bizarre and unpredictable and surreal. I also found that being a reporter is a little bit like being a private eye. You have to pound that shoe leather out in the street and chase down clues and convince people to talk to you and the piece the information together. Especially in a gigantic, Pacific Rim megalopolis like Los Angeles, any crazy thing you can imagine in fiction is already happening somewhere out there. You just have to go find it.

Lesa - I didn't know any of that background, Denise. I'm looking forward to meeting a fellow book nut, especially one married to a librarian. But, now I want to talk about your latest novel. I won't say your latest book, Damage Control, is "ripped from the headlines" because your story goes so much deeper. Would you tell us about Damage Control?

Denise - Thanks for saying that!

Damage Control is a political thriller about a female PR executive who finds herself representing a U.S. Senator whose beautiful young aide has been found strangled. It deals with celebrity culture, surf noir, and the powerful bonds between two high school girls whose friendship is destroyed when something awful happens on a beach one night. Fifteen years later, my protagonist walks into the high-rise conference room at her firm to meet her new client the Senator and realizes he's the father of her long-lost friend. And then the plot thickens.

Lesa -  Your protagonist, Maggie Silver, is in an unusual profession, but perfect for this story. Tell us a little about creating Maggie.

Denise - Yes, Maggie is a crisis consultant. She does high-profile PR for celebrities, athletes, politicians, bond traders and the like. Maggie's divorced, she's ambitious, she's got an upside-down mortgage on a bungalow in an older, hilly part of Los Angeles and she lives with her mother, who's just been through cancer and is now living with her. The stakes are high because Maggie needs this job or she'll lose her house. But she’s in her 30s and single and doesn’t really want her mom for a roommate, especially since she’s bossy and a bit self-destructive and keeps trying to fix Maggie up. So there’s some conflict at home. And strange things are happening at work. Is her firm above board, or are they involved in criminal activities on behalf of their clients. Who can Maggie trust? Maggie also has to figure out if her old friend's father - now a Senator - is telling the truth about the dead girl. Along the way, she will reconnect with her old friend Annabelle, face down her darkest fears and learn a lot about herself.
Lesa - You wrote five books in the Eve Diamond series before switching to standalones. Why did you switch? Which do you prefer? Do you have plans to bring Eve back sometime?

Denise - I like it all. The problem for me is never coming up with ideas, it's figuring out which idea to write next. After the fifth Eve Diamond novel, Scribner and I decided it was time for a standalone and so I wrote a 1947 Hollywood novel called The Last Embrace inspired by the real-life murder of starlet Jeanne Spangler. That was so much fun to research!! Around that time another publisher, Akashic Books, asked me to edit two volumes of Los Angeles Noir, which are short story anthologies of noir fiction in which each story is set in a different L.A. neighborhood. I’m a bit of a perfectionist – for almost a year, short stories with a crime set in L.A. from the 1920s to the present were my bedside reading. I must have read 100 collections! So that took way more time than I’d imagined. Then I presented Scribner with the idea of Damage Control and they said to go for it. I would love to go back to Eve, but I also have several other ideas that are calling my name, and they clamor loudly. So we’ll just have to see.
Lesa - You are a journalist, required to write facts. What do you enjoy about writing crime fiction?

Denise - Ah, that's exactly what I enjoy about crime fiction - not sticking to the facts. It's glorious to make stuff up. In my first couple of books, I used characters inspired by real life people I'd interviewed. One was a Chinese immigrant father and I remember flipping madly through old reporter notepads, looking for the interview to find his quotes, because he’d spoken with such poignancy. But I couldn't find it. And I was devastated. Then, sitting amidst this stack of notebooks, the light bulb suddenly went off. And I realized I didn't have to quote him verbatim. It didn't matter what the guy had said. I could put words in his mouth now. I could even make the quote better! And that was a huge revelation. But it’s true. And in general, you can't take a newspaper story and dump it between covers to make a book. You have to change things. Add characters. Create subplots. Red herrings. Blind alleys. Sometimes you change the killer. Everything you write has to be in the service of the plot, and developing the characters, so everything changes. And that's OK. That's what makes it fiction.

Lesa -  Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?

Denise - I've got several projects on tap, but I am not ready to discuss them yet until I get the green light from my editor. I guess I'm a little superstitious that way.

Lesa - I understand, Denise. Now, is there anything you'd like to tell readers that I might have missed?

Denise - You've been very thorough!

Lesa -  I have a final question I always ask since I'm a librarian. Do you have a story to tell us about libraries or librarians?

Denise - Besides being married to one, you mean? I guess I'm lucky because I can ask my husband to do bits of research for me and he's quite helpful. He also doesn't mind when I come home with stacks of new books that we don't have room for! He’ll just tell me we need to get another bookcase.

As for librarians in general, they were always these benign fairy godmothers keeping an eye on me because I spent so much time inside their kingdoms when I was a kid. I was way too shy to ask for recommendations from them, but I always felt a silent encouragement. The secret signal that passes between two strangers who share a passion for books. For that reason, perhaps, I love librarians and speak at as many as I can.
I also donate tons of books to the school libraries near me because they are so strapped for funds.  I'm a big supporter of literacy in the schools and I’ve been known to stalk kids at the school book fair (where I always volunteer) and recommend individual books to them. The new Warriors cat book! The Artemis Fowl graphic novel! The future dystopia plot of House of Stairs. Giant robot spiders, you’ll love it! I’m that slightly wacky mom who is always shoving books in the hands of her friends’ kids and saying what a good read it is.
Thanks again for the visit, Lesa. It’s been a pleasure.

Lesa - Thank you, again, Denise. I'm looking forward to finally meeting you on September 14.



Denise Hamilton’s crime novels have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Willa Cather awards. She also edited Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, which spent two months on bestseller lists, won the Edgar Award for “Best Short Story” and the Southern California Independent Booksellers’ award for “Best Mystery of the Year.”

Denise’s new novel, Damage Control, will be published by Scribner on September 6, 2011 and has already received a starred review in Publishers Weekly (excellent), a rave advance from Kirkus (In a novel that marries celebrity culture, surf noir and the bonds of friendship, Hamilton is at the top of her game) and kudos from James Ellroy (A superb psychological thriller).

Denise has five books in the Eve Diamond series and her standalone book The Last Embrace, set in 1949 Hollywood, was compared to Raymond Chandler.

Denise’s debut, The Jasmine Trade, was a finalist for the prestigious Creasey Dagger Award given by the UK Crime Writers Assn. Her books have been BookSense 76 picks, USA Today Summer Picks and “Best Books of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Toronto Globe & Mail.

Prior to writing novels, Hamilton was a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Her award-winning stories have also appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She covered the collapse of Communism and was a Fulbright Scholar in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War. Hamilton lives in the Los Angeles suburbs with her husband and two boys.

She also writes a perfume column, Uncommon Scents, for the Los Angeles Times.
Denise Hamilton's website is

Damage Control by Denise Hamilton. Simon & Schuster. 2011. ISBN 9780743296748. 384p.


Liz V. said...

Great image, stalking students, book in hand. Hope you succeed in getting some to read.

Lesa said...

Isn't that a great image, Liz? I hope she gets some to read, too.

Beth Hoffman said...

Wonderful interview! Love that Denise donates books to libraries. I do too and it's something I enjoy.

I'll add Denise's book to my ever-growing list!

Mary Beth said...

I've read all the Eve Diamond books and look forward to reading Damage Control. I enjoyed the interview, Lesa and Denise!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Beth. And, thank you for donating books to the library.

I can imagine how large your list is! Since you're in the middle of your own book, I doubt if you have a great deal of reading time right now.

Have a good weekend, Beth. Hugs!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Mary Beth. I hope you enjoy Damage Control.

Denise Hamilton said...

Hi Everyone,
Thanks for having me here today, Lesa, and it's fun reading the comments. Mary Beth, I'm so glad you've enjoyed the Eve Diamond books.
I confess that I both donate books to libraries and buy books from the Friends Bookstores! Sometimes I leave with a heavier bag then when I walked in.
I feel I'm in training to visit PHX as it's been above 100 degrees here in LA almost all week.

Kari Wainwright said...

I've had to quit going to library booksales because I wind up bringing more books home than I donated in the first place.

gkw9000 at gmail dot com

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Denise! You need to train to come here, so it doesn't wipe you out. Happy to know you'll be ready when you get here. (smile) And, thank you again.

Lesa said...

I get it, Kari. Do you know what it's like to work in the library? Constant temptation!

Karen C said...

Great interview! I think I'll start with Damage Control (sounds so good!) rather than try to catch up on all the Eve Diamond books right now.

Lesa said...

No reason why you shouldn't, Karen. It's a standalone, so you don't need any background. I hope you enjoy it!

Beth Hoffman said...

Lesa ... you are absolutely right. I have so little time to read but my list is now officially out of control. LOL!

Happy weekend and hugs to you and the furbabies!

Anonymous said...

This was so totally interesting. THANKS! I always love reading about other book lovers and when they love books so totally and write, too, well off to the top of the TBR.

Lesa said...

You're welcome. I'm with you. I love other book lovers! And, it's always fun to learn how much an author loves books. I liked to read about Denise pushing kids to read.