Saturday, July 12, 2008

Guest Interview: Jane Haddam

I usually start with the phrase [name of author] is an award-winning author. Boy did I get a surprise from Jane on this one.

Jane Haddam is an award-winning author who … never won an award. No, I'm serious. I never have. Ive been nominated for just about everything, and most of it at least twice, but I’ve never actually won anything. It drives my agent and my editor a little nuts. It reminds me of Larry Block’s joke before he won his first Edgar.

Always a bridesmaid...

You have written two series, as well as short stories, magazine articles, and non-fiction writing. What does it feel like to wear so many writing hats? How do you arrange your writing schedule?

Two series—Pay McKenna and Gregor Demarkian—plus some one-shots. But yes, I do a lot of different kinds of writing.  Less so the last few years because I've had family stuff to deal with. If I didn't do that, I'd probably go crazy.  I know there are people who only write and read one thing, but it would bore the hell out of me. So I write a lot, I read a lot. And I take assignments when they're offered.

Part of that might be that I started out as an editorial assistant in New York, and then as an editor, on magazines. I did that a long time before I ever finished a book.

But these days my writing schedule is simple and uncompromising—I get up around 3:30 in the morning, make a HUGE cup of tea (serious tea, with caffeine that would make a cup of coffee cry), and work until seven or so.  Longer in the summer when I don't have to drive anybody to school.

The trick is to get into the habit of doing it every day no matter what.

Well, okay.  I stopped for three days when I broke my leg a few years ago, and for two for pneumonia once. But you know what I mean.

Your earlier Gregor books were set almost exclusively in Cavanaugh Street, in Philadelphia. In more recent books, you've moved Gregor and Bennis off the street and out into more of the world. How did that move evolve?

I was thinking about this, and I think what you're remembering isn't that Gregor and Bennis spent their time on Cavanaugh Street, but that there was a lot more about them.

Anyway, even the very first Gregor Demarkian novel took place only partially on Cavanaugh Street.  The actual murder was on the Main Line. The second (Precious Blood) takes place in upstate NY, the third (Act of Darkness) takes place on Long Island and the fourth (Quoth the Raven) takes place at a small college in northern Pennsylvania.

After that, I tried to go back and forth, one novel when Gregor could work from his home base followed by one where he had to "go away" to work.

But what the earlier novels had was a lot more time spent ON Gregor and his relationships on Cavanaugh Street.

And that, I think, has to do with what I write detective novels for, and why I read them.

When I was a lot younger, I tried to explain my problem with a lot of detective fiction like this:  hard boiled was gritty and concentrated on the character of the detective; soft boiled was less gritty and concentrated on the character of the detective; classic was gritty or not, depending on the writer, but it concentrated on the characters of the SUSPECTS.

And that, I think, is why the Gregor Demarkian series is what it is. It was never meant to be a series ABOUT Gregor Demarkian, his life and his world. I wanted some of that, of course, but what exists in the novels about Gregor and the people he knows and lives with are a frame for the real purpose of each book, which is to get a look inside the characters who make up the suspect list.

Sixty years ago, there was nothing strange about this—Agatha Christie did this, and P.D. James does it now—but Christie did it because in her day there was no reason to fill out the character of the detective at all. Poirot is a few broad strokes of caricature, and after that he's just there so that she can play games with Lord Edgeware or Roger Ackroyd.

These days, you have to fill out the character of your detective far more realistically. Readers expect it, and they're not wrong. We want our detective novels to be novels first and genre formula second if at all.

But the fact is that any one person is only going to be interesting for so long. There comes a point in most series where you just go: oh, for goodness sake, his wife has left him AGAIN.

Series end, these days, because readers and writers both come to the end of their interest in the detective.

But the interest in the Demarkian novels is, I hope, solidly on the characters who will appear only once, that book—on Marcey Mandret in Cheating At Solitaire, for instance, or Liz Toliver in Somebody Else's Music.

So the amount of time I spend with Gregor and company has gotten less over the years, mostly because the readers already know more about him than they probably want to. 

If that makes sense.

The Armenian Orthodox parish priest, Father Tibor, has always been one of my favorite characters. At times he seems to be almost a Greek chorus, adding depth and perspective, as well as dark humor,  to the story line. What does Father Tibor mean to you as the author?

Originally, Father Tibor existed because I wanted to do two things: talk about what really happened to people in the old Soviet Union, and talk about the Eastern Orthodox religions.

The first part came about because I spend a lot of time in universities—seven straight years in grad school, for instance—in the humanities, where it was the fashion to declare that the U.S. was a fascist state and real freedom existed only under Communism.

Unlike a lot of the people I was at school with, though, I actually knew people who lived under  Communism, or had and had gotten the hell out.

Now, you'd think that we'd all have noticed the obvious—my bottom line rule about international politics is that I never support a government that feels it necessary to pass laws to keep its citizens from leaving—but most people didn't, and that was the seventies.

If I'd started the series today, I'd have even more material, because one of the things I do these days is teach on and off at local colleges—if I don't do that, I go crazy sitting here by myself with the wild turkeys—and lately lots and lots and lots of our students are from Eastern Europe.  The older ones are all like Father Tibor politically. The younger ones were born after 1989, and they're interesting to watch, because they don't actually know what any of that was like.

As to the Eastern Orthodox Churches—the Armenian Church isn't technically "Orthodox," or, rather, it is when the American branches of these churches want to get together to make a statement and isn't all the rest of the time.

But people in the US usually know little or nothing about these churches, about their theology, about their practice. And I thought I could use Father Tibor to explore all that.

And in the end, I didn't.  Or maybe I should say I haven't yet.

You've written a number of stunningly lucid essays on politics, gender, and treating one another with common human decency. How do you find the courage to do that?

Oh, ha.

There's an old Ron White joke that goes: at that point, I had the right to remain silent, but I didn't have the ability.

It's sort of like that.  If you get me really steamed up, I just cannot keep my mouth shut.

Some of my earliest memories are of getting in trouble at school for deliving grand lectures on one thing or another.

And I started early.

In second grade, my teacher explained the military draft to me, and I was furious ALL DAY.  I spent the late afternoon before I was supposed to go home digging my way into a huge sand area, right past the sand to the dirt, harranging myself about how, if I was a boy, I would NEVER let them do that to me, etc, etc, etc.

And then there was the time in sixth grade, I think, or maybe eighth, when we were all required to enter this essay contest for Memorial Day, to be judged by the VFW post in our town. The winning essay would be read aloud at the end of the Memorial Day Parade.

So I wrote an essay about how all wars are wrong and they're just about money and we shouldn't send young men to fight and get killed for money, etc.

And my teacher hauled my father into school and told him I was a Communist.

In a way, that's a funny attitude to have had, because I don't feel that way now at all.  In fact, I tend to be fairly reliably pro-military.

So I can't claim courage for something like this.  I do it automatically, really.

And I'm in trouble all the time, because I'm not reliably a liberal or a conservative, or a Republican or a Democrat. I mean, stick around long enough, and you'll find you hate my politics eventually.

The other thing, though, is that I was never "popular," either in its high school sense or in its strict sense.  I have good friends, just not a lot of them. 

And from the time I was very young, the mere fact of me seemed to make some people angry.  And I don't know why. We can start with my mother, for instance, who was pretty much furious at me from about my fifth or so birthday. 

Lately we've had a much better relationship, because she's got dementia, and she no longer remembers why she was mad at me. Since I never knew, that works.

But I have this weird effect on some people, and always have, and I got used to it. It doesn't bother me much when people get angry at the essays. I just put them in the "one of those people" column and ignore tham. 

And there are lots of other people who think the essays, etc, are wonderful, and not all of those people agree with my positions, either. Maybe it's just a personality thing. 

Whatever it is, I just get things off my chest when I can.

A couple of months ago, I spent a week blogging at St. Martin's Press, in honor of my book coming out, and I found I really liked that.

So I've been thinking of setting up a blog on my web site, to talk about reading and writing, mostly. To talk about murder mysteries and the way they're written, and why we read what we read, and that kind of thing.

But we'll see.

Jane's latest Gregor Demarkian novel

To learn more about Jane and her books, visit her website at


Sandra Parshall said...

Great interview, Jane and Sharon. Very interesting comments on protagonists, Jane. I agree with you. It's awfully hard to keep a character intriguing after a certain point.

caryn said...

Great interview! I got hooked on Jane's series following the holidays, so the early books I didn't necessarily read in order-I read them in the order of the holidays they centered around. (There were several published already before I discovered Jane's books.) I think of all of those, I think the Thanksgiving one set on the boat (I'm sorry I can't remember the title) was my favorite. Of the nonholiday themed ones, the latest, Cheating at Solitaire is my favorite. I love house party mysteries, and this one is sort of, although the characters are stuck on an island, not just a house. Something about it hit me just right.
Anyway, great interview. I love hearing authors I read speak, and if I can't actually hear them, then an interview is the next best thing!

Holly Y Rechel-Felmlee said...

Jane, I feel the need to weigh in -- like yourself, sometimes I can't help myself!

I currently live in Romania and hear lots of discussion about "communism". From what I've learned, "communism" here meant one man telling everyone else what to do. At the time of their revolution, people were literally starving, birth control of any sort was outlawed (thus the Romanian orphans we've all heard about), and all production went to the national treasury. However, everyone had job security and health care (for what it was worth).

I remember those discussions in the 70s about communism being about freedom. I don't recall having an opinion beyond wondering why those people couldn't travel.

Today I believe that "communism" was a handy way for ruthless dictators to get people to cooperate. In truth, they were despots and there was no freedom.

Recently I went to a bazaar in Ukraine. In every direction I saw commerce: microwaves, fabrics, meats, toys, tools, stacks (yes stacks!) of washing machines. I never expected to stand on Soviet soil in my lifetime. I'd be more likely to stand on the moon! Yet I was on former Soviet soil as an American with no surveillance.

Times have changed-- thank goodness for these people!

Darlene Ryan said...

While I like Gregor very much, it is the one-time characters in the books that tend to grab my interest. That's why I still enjoy the series.

Anonymous said...

I've embarked on a series with a frame as well. There are two on-going characters, a psychiatrist and a law enforcement type [depends on the book as to what his current job title is].

I'm having difficulty creating queries because of this. Do I focus on the story target, what I term the 'focal' character, or one or both of the on-going characters? They are written in close multi-3rd pov, with the focal and each of the on-going characters having POV scenes. Suggestions? Maybe I add a line: 'in the manner of Jane Haddam'. :-)

BTW, loved the comments about speaking your mind, Jane. I can soooo relate! But not to the 3.30 writing schedule!!