Christine's Book List Reviews and News -Books for people who love the mystery of the past. Independent mystery reviews, news and interviews.
First, Jimmy, let me public thank you for your support of Christine's Book List. You have been generous in your support and promotion of my reading list and I am truly grateful. I am happy to have found another avid enthusiast of mystery, history and genealogy. Now on with the interview.
What are you reading right now? What have been some of your favorite fiction and nonfiction books during your life?
The Internet has changed my reading habits, for the worse I'm afraid. I've always been a news junkie, and I now can waste hours reading one story after another, jumping from one news site to the next to catch the latest detail about some breaking event. I keep telling myself, "Jimmy, these things will happen whether you're aware of them or not." No use. Writers are desperate prisoners in a penitentiary of their own making. They dash for any perceived gap in the fence, however illusory. The warden (our compulsion to write) always sics the dogs on us and brings us back to the rock pile, where we swing our sledgehammers and chisels to release the beauty within the boulders we're condemned for life to break.
Let's not even talk about e-mail! I still usually manage to find time to enjoy the local newspaper (the Town Talk--Alexandria-Pineville), the Wall Street Journal, Time, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, and Smithsonian.
In books, I like history, biography, mystery, historical fiction, sociology, anthropology, physical science (written for the layman); in short, just about anything that helps me understand the magnificence and the evil that periodically bubble to the top in our human family. Speaking of our human family, I'm in the middle of Steve Olson's Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins. It's a lucidly written account of the current state of scientific knowledge of human evolutionary history.
My parents have always encouraged me in my continuing education, as they have also done with my writing. Somehow, despite all the marvelous distractions of youth, I managed to form a nodding acquaintance with many great artists and thinkers of the ages. Writers and books that leap to mind at the moment (I'm looking at my bookshelves now): Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Fielding (Tom Jones), Scott, Dickens, Zola, Hardy, Whitman, Yeats, Joyce (Ulysses), the history surveys by Will and Ariel Durant, Robertson Davies (Rebel Angels), Umberto Eco, Ernest J. Gaines, Daniel Boorstin's works, Paul Johnson (The Birth of the Modern), Nicholas Basbanes (A Gentle Madness), Edward O. Wilson (Consilience), Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel), Val Greenwood (Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy), The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Szucs and Luebking, eds.), Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed.).
In addition, I try to read many of the year's award-winning mysteries.
How did you first get interested in genealogy? Can you give us some idea of your own family tree and how far back you have been able to trace your heritage?
Writing is my overriding obsession. Genealogy feeds that obsession. I use the study of my own family history as a vehicle to get "inside" the world of true genealogical believers. Then I turn what I've learned into compelling mystery fiction. I see myself as a tough-skinned reporter piecing the facts of a disaster together, or a doctor with an immunity investigating a strange disease. So, despite the fact that I may not be fully susceptible to genealogical mania, I do understand it and respect it. Because I need to know what I'm talking about in order to expect the approval of family historians, I go to great lengths to make my genealogical mysteries believable and able to stand up to the critical judgment of even professionals in this fascinating and maturing field.
In the early 1990s, I noticed that genealogy was becoming very big, entering the mainstream consciousness of America and much of the rest of the world. Relatives from different sides of my father's family possessed that passion for collecting family data, which all you genealogists out there know about. Several contacts with them and others convinced me that I finally had something to write about, after years of struggling to "find my voice." Louisiana, genealogy, mystery, New Orleans--these would give me plots, characters, themes, and settings that would last an entire writing career and make me incredibly wealthy as the reading public snapped up books by the new fiction phenomenon--yours truly. Well, at least the first part of that pipe dream is proving true: I should live long enough to write all the Nick Herald mysteries I've imagined.
My father grew up among a large family in Texas, and he knows a good deal about these relatives. My great-grandparents on that side emigrated during the mid-nineteenth century from eastern Europe and the Baltic region. His accounts of these eccentric, entrepreneurial folks enthralled me throughout my childhood, and I suppose my genealogical curiosity was born as I struggled to keep straight all the names and faces and relationships of these relatives, whom I seldom saw. It shouldn't be surprising that I started research on the paternal lines. But as I said earlier, my time and energy (as well as most of my shelf and closet space) are devoted to writing my genealogical mysteries. So most of you experienced family historians would chuckle over the paltry progress I've made in ferreting out facts about my ancestors.
I'm learning a lot about genealogical methodology as I dabble in my own lineage. I've taken genealogy courses; read widely; attended conferences, workshops, and lectures; done time in dusty, moldy courthouses; become red-eyed at microfilm readers; braved bugs, heat, cold, and lightning (briefly) in cemeteries. The more I pick up about the science and pastime of genealogy, the more I can seamlessly build realistic details into the structure of my novels.
How will I keep enhancing my genealogical knowledge? One idea of mine is to accompany a professional genealogist for a week, especially 1) in New Orleans, 2) at the Family History Library, and 3) at the National Archives. Any takers out there in cyberspace? I would be happy just to observe projects in progress, or we could undertake some research on the "impossible gaps" in my family history.
What kind of fan reaction have you had to Nick and your mysteries in general?
The reaction generally has been very good. I'm especially encouraged by the positive comments from genealogists, both professional and recreational. For Deadly Pedigree, I did a lot of signings and enjoyed the enthusiasm with which my concept was received by bookstore visitors. The sales were pretty good, too. These are the people I'm writing for, really: readers who are addicted to genealogy, readers who like mysteries in the "traditional" vein, who look with a skeptical eye at the hype machine of the big publishers (oh, how I wish I had that!), who enjoy discovering, without the coercion of slick marketing, new talent and quality fiction.
Some readers have complained that Nick is an "unlikable hero." He's an antihero, actually. In my conception of things, he's closer to the truth of human nature than a fictional paragon would be. Come on, level with me . . . all of you break rules every day, tell lies large and small, have naughty thoughts, calculate personal profit and loss, rejoice over someone's misfortune, hesitate disastrously at a critical moment from fear or apathy or selfishness, right? Nick is all of us, placed in difficult situations. In the clutch, would we conduct ourselves with more integrity and courage, or less? If you don't like your mystery fiction to pose such questions, you're in the wrong neighborhood. And I assure you, my stories aren't nearly as dark and depressing as much of what's being written out there. Quite the contrary. Comedy, often of the sardonic variety, is an essential cathartic part of my novels, and Nick's moral floundering provides many instances that allow us to laugh in a healthy way at ourselves through Nick.
My books have won awards. Professional editors have praised my writing skills. Some agents (a big one actually signed me up once) and publishers have shown great interest, though few have been willing to go beyond encouraging words. Big-name writers (among them Ernest J. Gaines and Tony Fennelly) had great things to say about Deadly Pedigree. Complete strangers have contacted me out of the blue to tell me how much they enjoyed Deadly Pedigree, Lineages and Lies, and Jackpot Blood. But I still haven't gained the momentum I seek.
Whether I sell a hundred or thousands of books, I feel that I've accomplished something important when a reader takes the time to sit down at her computer to express admiration for one of my novels, after having spent several hours or days reading it. Each such individual vote of confidence is the real payoff for me, a royalty that cannot be valued in dollars.
Your new novel Jackpot Blood is filled with the history of Southern Indian tribes. How did you go about your research of the tribes and what genealogical sources did you use?
My usual practice is to find key books and articles that give me a feel for the particular subject of the novel I'm writing. Jackpot Blood took a long time to finish, more than eight years. Why so long? Simultaneously I was writing and rewriting and re-rewriting . . . the previous ones and attempting to interest major--and then minor--agents, editors, and publishers in my outstanding product (most didn't agree with my glowing opinion of my abilities and didn't care a hill of beans about me, though a few generously gave of their time and experience). It so happened that Indian gambling became a very hot topic in Louisiana at the time I was writing Jackpot Blood. The Alexandria-Pineville Town Talk and the Shreveport Times (other state papers, too) did a marvelous job of covering the issue and the typically Louisiana-style controversy (money, politics, power, corruption, racial conflict) that soon became part of it. This aspect of my research was a piece of cake: the facts literally landed at my front door.
In 1999 I finally went online. The Internet has proved to be an invaluable resource. But I did not become a stranger at local research facilities--Rapides Parish Library, Alexandria Historical and Genealogical Library, the libraries at Louisiana State University at Alexandria (LSUA) and Louisiana College.
In Jackpot Blood your main character Nick Herald tries to get his hands on a genealogical source called the Legajos. Have you personally had access to this document and how tightly controlled is the access? From what little I have learned about the Legajos it appears to be pretty important in the research of early southern history.
One of the great joys of writing my genealogical series is hearing from people who are so convinced of the reality of something I've created in my mind. At these moments, I feel that I've done my job as a fiction writer. I am not Nick Herald. The tribes that figure in Jackpot Blood (the Katogoula, Quinahoa, Yaknelousa, Chitiko-Tiloasha) never existed. No word of Mobilian K was ever uttered by any American Indian. The French clerk's journal is made up. The Legajos de Luisiana, as far as I know and as I've described them, are fictitious (though there are certainly many, many documents in the vast Spanish colonial records that relate to Louisiana).
I learned as much as I could about Native American culture in Louisiana and in the Southeast. Through articles and reference books, I familiarized myself with the major genealogical sources of information that are standard tools for researching Indian ancestry. And then I invented what I needed for my story. I don't always remember the genesis of each element of my novels, but I do recall reading a good bit about the Historic New Orleans Collection's landmark project of microfilming the famous Fondos de las Floridas still in Havana, part of the Papeles Procedentes de Cuba. I needed a rare and thitherto unexplored primary source for Nick to work with, and presto! . . . the Legajos de Luisiana came into being. I do this a lot, and it's great fun. You never really know what's actual and what's invented in my work. I want you to be so convinced of the authenticity of my "facts" that, after a few dozen pages, you cease trying to make the distinction between truth and fiction, and start enjoying the show. This method is not a good idea, I hasten to add, for "real" genealogy.
Has your own genealogy presented any tough problems (brick walls)? If so how did you go about breaking them down?
Immigration and naturalization are presenting problems. I haven't been able to locate one of my great-grandfathers for the first years of his new life in America (1870s). Making the jump to Europe for continued tracing of the lines seems a daunting task. I would probably need professional help for that. Also, I'm beginning to look into my mother's family. I'll be faced with new states and new record-keeping practices.
What gave you the idea to have a genealogist try and remove all record of an individuals past in Deadly Pedigree?
I've always been fascinated by history, especially how it evolves with new discoveries and trends of thought. As human beings we have the unique ability to shape an image of the past, either legitimately with new knowledge or illegitimately for unsavory motives. Louisianans, in particular, are storytellers and mythmakers par excellence. We have centuries of momentous events and many cultures as our raw material. We continually reinvent history, sometimes romanticizing it just for a laugh, sometimes distorting it as a form of societal neurosis.
At the time I originally conceived of Deadly Pedigree's story, there were disgusting developments in Louisiana politics. Holocaust-denying types (and worse) were attempting to goose-step into control of state government. Louisiana politics are usually, shall I say, colorful, but this was off the scale. Things were looking grim, and hate-driven, lunatic-fringe historical revisionism was very much on my mind. Ultimately we escaped. The impetus to create Deadly Pedigree came out of this dark time for Louisiana. Over a period of years and through continual rewriting, the immediacy of that close call faded from my mind and the story. Deadly Pedigree changed focus and became more an exploration of larger themes that interested me. I hope it also became more meaningful for a wider audience.
During the formative period for this first mystery, I was reading about infamous genealogical con men, faked historical documents and books that changed history, and about the notorious book thieves and the legendary book lovers and collectors. I continued to accumulate newspaper and magazine clippings recounting the unearthing of previously unknown or "lost" documents, discoveries that proved or disproved long-held beliefs. I ran across in my reading the term "impossible gap," which I thought was in wide usage, but which in fact isn't. For me, "impossible gap" is so much more evocative and poetic than "brick wall" or "dead end."
All of these different elements and more were churning in my mind, and then, late one night as I was trying to fall asleep, it hit me; and I groped in the darkness for my tape recorder to get the thought down before I lost it. Nick, despite his reverence for the sanctity of the records of the past, would allow himself to become involved in the opposite of what genealogy is all about: the destruction of lineages. This important strand of plot provided me with a personal crisis to flesh out Nick's character and with a somewhat humorous caper to move the story into deeper complications.
Have you used real people as models for your characters and if so can you tell us a little bit about them?
Pieces of real people and places must find their way into all fiction. Writers, even science-fiction writers, don't create from absolutely nothing. And if they could, who would want to read that, anyway? Don't we want to see new perspectives of our world reflected in fiction's mirror? The snippets of memories and impressions from my experience in life are the notes I use in composing my word symphonies. Do I consciously use the real world? Not really, only an ear here, a nose and an eye there, a mannerism, a posture, an accent, a feeling, a momentary mental recording of sun, shadow, noise, or silence, each plucked from its context and grafted onto the new plant.
I consider writing novels as being akin to baking bread. In the preparation, it's a simple matter to spot the flour, eggs, milk, and yeast in their respective bowls. Things get more complicated as the baker mixes ingredients and allows the dough to rise. And when the baker proudly pulls the steaming loaf from the oven, slices it, and offers you a taste, what you believe went into the making of the bread is no longer identifiable.
Whatever I use is changed fundamentally, irrevocably in the imaginative process.
While reading about your writing, I discovered you have written some short stories for publication. Can you tell us a bit about your short stories?
My brief foray into short-story writing turned out to be merely a skill-building exercise. In my cocky innocence a decade and more ago, I thought that editors would instantly recognize my huge talent and shower me with praise and offers. My stories now gather dust beside several novels I wrote before my great genealogical epiphany. I don't have active plans to write more short stories, mainly because it's unlikely I'll be compensated adequately for the work I put into them. Now, let someone dangle a big check before me, and then I'll get to work posthaste. We all know the authors who can scrawl the alphabet on a Kleenex and probably get a seven-figure advance. Down here on the factory floor, it's a bit less exciting and a lot more pragmatic.
Lastly, for all of us who love a romance--will Nick ever find a steady girl?
Not before I do! . . . Seriously, in spirit Nick is partly descended from Lovejoy (the wonderful and sadly missed A&E version played by Ian McShane), an incorrigible, self-centered rake, who nevertheless wears his big heart on his sleeve. (Dear A&E & PBS: bring us more Midsomer Murders, Nero Wolfe, and Foyle's War!) Nick also possesses bits of DNA from other great fictional detectives such as Morse, Frost, Poirot, Holmes, Wolfe, and even Sam Spade—all loners by temperament, who alternately rue or treasure their solitary existence. That said, careful readers will remember a reference in Deadly Pedigree to a failed marriage for Nick, a small suitcase in the baggage of guilt he figuratively hauls around on his shoulders. He and his bride were both young and proud and selfish, and when the sexual thrill exhausted itself, they split. Who knows, anything could happen--true love from the past, new love from the future. I keep myriad fragments of plot in my mental filing cabinet; some get used, some will turn yellow and crumble. I don't want to give too much away regarding my plans for Nick's personal life, nor do I want to limit myself by laying out a premature scenario here. You could make a persuasive argument that, on several levels, both the author and the protagonist have a problem with commitment.
Thank you, Christine, for the opportunity to introduce my genealogical fiction to your website's visitors.