Mystery authors don’t always know whodunit
Editor’s note: Literature Alive board of directors’ member Judy Crowe interviewed four mystery writers to be featured Saturday at the Wordslingers Festival at Miners Foundry Cultural Center. See page 3 for more details.
Ayelet Waldman is a Harvard Law School graduate who worked as an attorney in the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office. Her three Mommy Track Mysteries are “Nursery Crimes,” “The Big Nap” and “A Playdate with Death.”
Cara Black’s Aimee LeDuc mysteries – “Murder in the Marais,” “Murder in Belleville” and “Murder in the Sentier” – are set in Paris.
Judy Crowe: Do you write about what you don’t know about in your own work?
Black: I write about what I love and what intrigues me, what I want to explore and know more about. When I started writing about Paris, I knew little of the history or the reality of life during the German occupation of Paris. But making “Murder in the Marais” an honest depiction to the best of my ability changed that, and changed me.
Waldman: I write a mystery character, Juliet Applebaum, who is very close to me. It was an easy way to start, and I hope that makes her real. She’s growing more different from me as I grow more confident.
Crowe: Talk a bit about the process of writing your mystery novels. Do you know the ending before you begin? Do you always know ‘whodunit?’ at the outset? Have you ever been surprised to find that some other character was the guilty party?
Waldman: I know the solution to the mystery … although in my latest, I found to my shock and horror that someone else had done it. Right in the last chapter, no less.
Black: I think I do. But then it changes. Their motives work or disintegrate as the characters flesh out. Then, lo and behold, the character takes over, and I just need to obey what comes out of their mouths and actions. The characters surprise me all the time. Midway through one of the novels, I realized the killer could not have been who she or he seemed when I started.
Crowe: One of the afternoon Wordslingers events is the telling of family mysteries. Have (or how have) the events and people in your lives found their way into your writing?
Black: A good friend took me to the Marais district in Paris in 1984. Now it’s much more gentrified, but then there were still crumbling hotel particuliers and decay. My friend showed me a 16th century building and said that was where her mother had lived during World War II. Her mother was going to school when she came home one day and found the apartment empty. The French police under German orders had rounded up her family (they were Jewish), and her family never returned. At the time, she was under 16 and had no ration or ID card. So she stayed in the apartment, went to school, got fed by the concierge, and hoped her family would return.
This story haunted me. I saw the layers of history and wished the cobblestones could speak. Ten years later, I returned to Paris with my young son. We spent time in the Marais, and the story came back to me, especially after seeing 16th century buildings with plaques to Resistance leaders shot against their walls and fresh flowers left there every day. The past never leaves us … so then I began “Murder in the Marais.”
Longtime friends John Straley and Alfredo Vea were also interviewed about their lives and the work that led them to writing.
Straley: I wanted to be a writer since eighth grade, when my English teacher, Joseph Moriarity, allowed me to read my poetry aloud to the class.
I’ve supported my writing by working mostly blue-collar jobs. I’ve been a horseshoer, trail crew boss, packer guide, ranch hand and mill worker.
In 1984, after losing my job with the Forest Service trail crew, a lawyer offered me a job tracking down witnesses, and I found myself well suited for the work. Since then I have been a private investigator in Alaska, sometimes working for the Public Defender Agency and sometimes for my own company. I have worked on hundreds of felonies in the last 18 years, including homicides, arsons, assaults and sexual assaults. For one year, I worked as an environmental crimes investigator in Fairbanks, Alaska, and it was the only time in my life that I was allowed to carry a badge.
Vea: My early years were spent with my Mexican grandmother and Yaqui grandfather in the desert in Arizona. My grandmother helped me to learn English by listening to the recordings of Sarah Vaughn. As a young man, I spent time on the migrant farmworker circuit in California and later found myself with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. After the army, I became a janitor at a famous culinary school in Paris. I got through college by working nights at everything from auto mechanic to forklift operator to probation officer. I attended law school at UC Berkeley.
After working as a lawyer for the United Farm Workers and Centro Legal de la Raza, I worked as a public defender for six years before opening my own law office. For the past decade, I have been a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco.
On mysteries and the mysterious in fiction:
Vea: I have come to learn that writing a literary fiction novel, as opposed to a mystery, is more like sculpture than writing, in that there is no real beginning to a sculpture … and no real end. The beginning of my books is only a hazy sketch until the middle and the end come into focus … they write the beginning. This is a relief in a way, as I am never beholden to an outline or to any particular ending. I get the rare opportunity that few of us are given: the opportunity to surprise myself. Wasn’t it Emerson who said that we mount to paradise on the stairway of surprise?
Reading David Guterson’s book, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” is like reading John Straley’s books. You realize that the old plot-driven mystery has been transmuted into a virtuosity with an unknown at its core.
Straley: I came to writing mysteries from my work in crime, not from a deep knowledge of the genre. I simply want to tell the best story I can. Whether it fits the rules of any given genre or marketing package doesn’t really concern me, though I’ve been told it should.
My stories are pure fiction, but draw largely from my own experience. I sometimes mention my friends in the books, but always in a positive light. For educational charities, I also auction off appearances in my books for people and their pets.
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