Friday, October 21, 2011

Kelli Stanley at the Poisoned Pen

Patrick Millikin welcomed Kelli Stanley to the Poisoned Pen for her City of Secrets tour. He introduced her by mentioning Treasure Island, and anti-Semitism. He said City of Secrets is a multi-layered book. Kelli said, well, she has lots of interests. She covered issues such as causes of the Holocaust. Kelli told us anti-Semitism manages to surface in various times and places.

Stanley said she was doing research after finishing City of Dragons, while she waited for Miranda Corbie to tell her what she was up to in the next book. She discovered that, in San Francisco, known for its diverse population and progressive politics, there was an anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist group in 1937, known as the Musketeers. In fact, a lot of those groups sprung up on the West Coast during the Great Depression. It wasn’t a surprise that they flourished in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. But, the groups also flourished in smaller cities, such as San Francisco, Tacoma, Seattle, San Diego. That’s how Miranda got involved with the group in San Francisco.

As a side note about the political aspects, Stanley said she didn’t know her book would be so topical and contemporary. But, she said she saw an article about the Occupy Wall Street protests, and some protesters using anti-banking propaganda, had signs and posters that were anti-Semitic. With, the populist movement of 2011, anti-Semitism is happening again. Stanley said she was uncomfortably aware that it reminded her of the connection of past and present.

City of Secrets also involves eugenics. Eugenics is the pseudoscientific attempt to control the quality of a population. Practitioners wanted to control who should breed, who should have children, and who shouldn’t. But, who should make that decision?

In fact, there were laws passed that supported eugenics. California has some of the toughest ones. Involuntary sterilization was legal for those deemed to be unfit. California's laws influenced Hitler's scientists. They acknowledged a debt to California eugenics. Those laws indirectly led to the Holocaust.

At the same time, City of Secrets is a tribute to motherhood. The book is dedicated to Kelli's mom who has cancer, and is undergoing treatment. Kelli had one of the proudest moments of her life this year at Bouchercon. City of Secrets was up for a number of awards, but her mother saw her win the Macavity for it. Asked if her mother was supportive, Stanley said both of her parents were. She was an only child. They never imposed a limit on what she could do. Instead of buying her a nurse's kit, they bought her a doctor's kit when she was young. Her mother sells books to every doctor she meets. She thinks she singlehandedly sells more than anyone else.

The book is set during San Francisco's World's Fair. World Fairs have always fascinated Stanley. They were like the Olympics. They were cultural Olympics. London's World's Fair in 1850 was the first. Countries showed off their culture, art, and even their colonial possessions. They stigmatized the colonial non-white people. The 1939-40 World's Fair in San Francisco on Treasure Island was called the Golden Gate International Exhibition. There was a Pageant of the Pacific on the Gay Way, the midway. Along with Ripley's Believe It or Not and Sally Rand's Nude Ranch, there was a Midget Village.

World Fairs contributed a lot to Western culture. Picasso first saw African Art at the Paris World Fair, and was inspired to do Cubism. African art sparked modern art. TV, ice cream, the electric light bulb all came out of the World Fairs. 

1939 was the last gasp for the World Fairs. San Francisco's Treasure Island was four hundred acres of fair on a man-made island. 

Pandora Blake, the first victim, was a blond with stars in her eyes. From Lima, Ohio, she was in pursuit of fame and fortune. She appeared in a peep show. Miranda Corbie was working as security at Sally Rand's Nude Ranch. Sally Rand's show was the only one that actually made money at the World Fair. Pandora worked across the midway at a similar show called Artists and Models. On May 25, 1940, Pandora was found stabbed to death before the show opened, with anti-Semitic slur on her stomach. She had been stabbed with a souvenir ice pick.

Ephemera, such as the souvenir ice pick, inspires Kelli. Miranda finds clues that cops ignore, clues from "women's stuff." She found a matchbook, one that Stanley actually bought on eBay. There was a message with the matchbook, "Happy Dreams, Annie. P.S. I found my license, too." There was a mystery about those matches.

Millikin commented that the past has been romanticized. There was a lot of ugliness in American history, and people pretend it didn't exist. He quoted author Philip Kerr as calling it the "Bullshit story America tells itself."

Stanley agreed, but said she feels the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. But, you can't blame people for being trapped. Education used to be the way out. Now, people are saying if you're poor, it's your fault. It's easier to blame the poor. It's reminiscent of the 19th century when the robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie had all the money. People lived in tenements and squalor. Labor unions fought for better conditions, and actually died for them. Now, there seems to be a desire to return the country back to that era. And, the 19th century wasn't pretty.

Kelli Stanley tries to write about history, but said she feels as if history is repeating itself. She sees that, but she does romanticize the past. She never forgets the price of beauty. San Francisco is so beautiful at times, but she owes it to readers to show the other side of the coin. It's a dichotomy. Good things and bad things are happening. 

Patrick said there's an anti-intellectual climate now. Kelli agreed, saying education starts with books, bookstores, such as the Poisoned Pen, and libraries. It's important to get books into the hands of children. Millikin said they need to learn critical thinking. Everyone laughed when Stanley credited MAD magazine for making her think, but she said MAD made her challenge ideas.

They both agreed that polarization has caused the middle to disappear in society. The lunatic fringe is mid-stream. People need a scapegoat to direct their fear at. Stanley blames the media. She said there are six major publishers in the world, and they own everything else. Independent voices, such as Poisoned Pen Press, are needed. The press is now out to entertain, so they give voice only to the extremes. She thinks the vast majority is bewildered, and doesn't know what to think. But, media conglomerates are out for ratings instead of what journalism should be.

Kelli read a chapter from City of Secrets. Then, Patrick asked her if she had any advice for writers in the group. She stressed perseverance. It's important in completing the book, and knowing you can do it. Get a large amount of time. Write daily or every other day. She also said, "Don't follow trends." Follow your heart. It's important for authors to go with their thoughts, and get what you think out there. When Stanley wrote City of Dragons, the PI novel was predicted to be dead. Kelli didn't care. It was what she wanted to do, and she was committed to it. She said you'll feel better about what you write, if you write what you want.  She said getting published is one thing. Then, there's staying published. Novels need to come from the heart. That leads to better books, and a happier writer. 

Patrick went back to an earlier comment Kelli made; Miranda told her where the story was going. Stanley said she starts with character. Miranda dictates what happens. In City of Dragons, Miranda was thirty-three. Readers discover more about her with each book. She is in a process of discovery herself, learning about her own identity. She's rebuilding herself after Johnny died. She was an escort. Then, when she got her PI license, she was a little stronger, and a little more confident, as many women become. Miranda comes with a backstory. Where is Miranda mentally? That's always on Stanley's mind. The stories are really all about Miranda.

Asked about research, Stanley told us she does lots of it. While working on the third book, she was at the library researching dates in newspapers. She always checks newspapers to see what else was happening on the dates she wants to use. She learned about a Picasso exhibit in San Francisco, and it fits perfectly with the book.

Kelli said crime fiction needs to have the reader turning pages. Her chapters are short, eight to ten pages, and she uses a five-act structure, with no more than 100 pages in each act. And, she starts to unravel the mystery in part three. Stanley tries to write a thick and juicy, layered thriller. In act three, she starts to gather together some of the loose threads. She doesn't want to cheat the reader. The books have a quick pace, but a lot of things happen. She's orchestrating a lot.

Millikin asked her if Raymond Chandler was an influence because her tone and rhythm of language reminds him of Chandler.  Stanley answered that he was her biggest influence. She credits him with the reason she writes crime fiction. She started out writing screenplays, but didn't want to live in LA. She was a drama major before she switched to classics, and she acted in places. Kelli said she writes as an actress. She thinks of herself in the roles. Other influences were Tennessee Williams, and poets Tennyson, Byron, and Coleridge. And, she's a classicist, and there's a kind of rhythm to classic languages.

Chandler defined principles of writing crime fiction. He's been imitated, but he still sounds fresh. Stanley told us that Chandler studied Erle Stanley Gardner to learn to write crime fiction. And, Chandler was also a classicist. 

One of Kelli's prized possessions is her own "Maltese Falcon," a book given to Chandler by John Houseman after Chandler wrote the screenplay for "The Blue Dahlia." The hand-written dedication says, "To Ray in the year of the Dahlia." It's a hardcover book that Stanley got on eBay.

She also said she was thrilled to sign a book to Dashiell Hammett's granddaughter at the LA Book Festival. She said there would be no Chandler without Hammett, but Chandler gave the PI heart.

And, before she signed books, Kelli told us she asked Robert B. Parker to blurb her book, which he did. She never met him in person, but she felt as if she had a blessing from Parker, the heir apparent to Chandler.

Kelli Stanley's website is

City of Secrets by Kelli Stanley. St. Martin's Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780312603618 (hardcover), 290p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great point about history repeating itself. Sounds like Kelli puts a lot of research hours into her books. Thanks for making me feel like I was at the Poisoned Pen, Lesa!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth! My pleasure!

Kay said...

Always enjoy these. Kelli Stanley's books have been on my radar for a while. Off to find my copy of the first one in this series.

Liz V. said...

So many signs of impending war were missed by most. Interesting reprise.

Beth Hoffman said...

I so enjoyed reading this post, Lesa. It sounds like a fun and informative event.

Happy weekend to you and the kitties!

Lesa said...

Oh, good, Kay. I love Kelli Stanley. I hope you like her books.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Liz. Kelli is a fascinating person to listen to. She knows her subject, and does a great amount of research.

Lesa said...

It was a fun event, Beth. And, I went to dinner with Kelli and a couple other friends beforehand, which is was really fun.

Happy weekend, my friend!

Karen C said...

Thank you for such a detailed recap of the event; I really enjoyed it. I had not heard of Kelli Stanley, but am intrigued enough to add her to the TBR list. Thanks.