Saturday, October 18, 2008

Canada Calling: D. J. McIntosh

D. J. McIntosh is a Toronto-based writer of novels and short mystery fiction. Her yet-unpublished first novel, The Witch of Babylon, won the 2008 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel; it was also shortlisted for the 2007 Crime Writers’ Association (U.K.) Debut Dagger award.

The Witch of Babylon has been recognized in both Canada and the U.K. as an outstanding book. Tell us about it.

The Witch of Babylon introduces James Madison, a New York antiquities broker who dances a fine line between the barely lawful and outright crime. After a frantic phone call, Madison discovers his boyhood friend murdered, caught up in the aftermath of the 2003 Baghdad Museum looting. Madison must unravel a web of secrets that tie three apparently unrelated elements together: an original version of an Old Testament prophetic book, the 612 BC sacking of Nineveh, and the science of alchemy as expressed in Hermetic philosophy.

You’re one of those fortunate people who get to lead a double life: part Ontario cottage country and part big-city. How does that work?
From my city wintering spot, in May I head to my cottage near a beautiful crescent of beach on a First Nations Reserve. A part of every day is spent cycling, hiking with my golden retriever pal, gardening. I’ve just come back from an afternoon of gathering wild apples to make cider with dear friends of mine on the reserve. Lake Huron and the great sand dunes covered with frothy grasses are the centerpiece of this part of our country. In the morning the Lake is a silvery flat sheen but in windy afternoons when the sun’s rays tilt through the waves, the water turns the brilliant aquamarine of the Aegean. All kinds of bird life abound – Merganzer ducks with their babies, rare terns, and Great Blue Herons. The Bruce peninsula’s unique ecosystem has many varieties of wild orchids and other forms of plant and animal life you won’t see anywhere else.

Come October, Toronto beckons again. I love both worlds – cottage country and the city - and live right downtown in the thick of things. Close by are the Gardiner and Royal Ontario Museums and the Art Gallery, so I get ample opportunity to indulge my interest in art and antiquities. Writing The Witch involved years of research into the Assyrian culture that reached its zenith in the 6th century BC, centered in what is now northern Iraq, and its relationship to vassal states in Anatolia (Turkey) and Judea (Israel). A gift, really, because the writing gave me opportunity to learn about these ancient cultures.

The book is set in New York and Baghdad. For obvious reasons I had to rely on journalist photos and accounts for the Baghdad portion. But The Witch did supply a wonderful excuse to explore Manhattan. Using New York for a setting offers a real challenge because it’s been written about so much. I had to find offbeat and unique venues to set the scenes. This proved to be lots of fun and great door-opener to really getting to know the place. I found a fabulous bar in the Village, for example, dating back to the early 1800’s whose legendary owner mentored stars like Springsteen and Patti Smith. Which brings me to another love – music. I try to take in as much live music as I can and whether it’s Al green, Santana or Jesse Cook you can count on getting to see them in New York or Toronto.

You’re not only making the big leap into having a published novel, but you’ve been recognized twice for your first book before it’s even sold. What’s it like to be an author at such a major turning point?

From zoning by-laws to crime novels – that’s quite a stretch - but is, in fact, the leap I’ve made. I left my job as a City of Toronto Senior Planner to become a full-time writer of antiquity thrillers. With a degree in English but no professional writing background, like so many others I had to start out at square one and the game board in front of me was vast and full of challenges. What have I learned along the way?

One of the first steps I took was to join Crime Writers of Canada and latterly, Mystery Writers of America and the International Association of Crime Writers. These organizations offer tremendous resources: seminars about how to perfect your writing skills, valuable industry buzz and most of all the opportunity to network with successful authors. In this respect it’s not who you know but all the valuable tips you gather along the way that add up to an important learning experience.

I’ve also come to realize that, as you play the game, there are more supporters than opponents. I think for example of the wonderful Louise Penny and her husband Michael Whitehead who together with McArthur and Company Publishing established the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel. Louise, whose fourth book The Murder Stone is ready to launch, also has a great synopsis on her web site aimed at helping new writers.

The turning point for me actually came a year earlier when The Witch was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association (U.K.) Debut Dagger. The nomination resulted in my work coming to the attention of Helen Heller, a highly regarded literary agent whose professional advice has made a real difference to my writing. The 2007 winner of the Debut Dagger, Alan Bradley, has seen his novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sold in twelve countries; it’s due out this January. The point of all this being that putting in the work to enter competitions can reap big rewards.

I read everything I can in my sub-genre and take time out to read literary work – the most recent being Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game – or classics like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, because the most effective way to learn our craft is through these tutorials by great authors.

I belong to a writers group with four other great gals who offer critiques and much needed support. Lastly, I regularly comb the pages of Publisher’s Weekly, Quill & Quire and the Bookseller. There’s no better way to keep on top of industry trends.

If I can pass on some help to other aspiring writers you’re welcome to get in touch.

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