By Lonnie Cruse
Today I'm interviewing author/musician Susan Fleet. I think you'll enjoy meeting Susan as much as I did.
PDD: You've recently had your first crime thriller released, titled ABSOLUTION. Please tell us about the book.
SF: A twisted killer preys on young women in New Orleans, where everyone has something to hide, including my series protagonist, NOPD homicide detective Frank Renzi. To complicate matters, a black female journalist accuses police of unfairly targeting black male suspects, and a prostitute tells Renzi she escaped the man she believes to be the killer: a white, Roman Catholic priest. After that, it’s thrills and chills to a fast and furious ending. ABSOLUTION was set in pre-Katrina New Orleans. In my next book, an obsessed man fixates on a beautiful female flute soloist 14 months post-Katrina; it also shows some of the difficulties NOPD faced after the storm.
PDD: What inspired you to write this book?
SF: A series of brutal murders in Baton Rouge, LA, occurred around the time I moved from Boston to New Orleans in 2001. In that case, an FBI profiler predicted the killer would be an unattractive white male with “woman issues.” The man eventually convicted of the crimes was a good-looking black man and a known womanizer. My killer is very different, but racial-profiling is one element in my book.
Some of my readers have asked why I chose to create a male police detective as my series protagonist. Maybe it’s because when I was ten, my print-journalist-police-reporter father started taking me with him to the police station. Also, as a trumpeter I worked primarily with men, starting at thirteen. It was a terrific learning experience to watch them interact with one another. Very different from the way most women interact. Thus, I felt very confident about writing a male protagonist. And, let’s face it, all novelists must create characters that are not like themselves: different genders, ethnicities, ages, religions, you name it.
PDD: How did you go about getting published? Do you work with an agent?
SF: After three agents passed on representing my manuscript because “the thriller genre is so competitive,” I decided to publish it myself. ABSOLUTION came out in 2008 and I’m pleased with the results. Readers have been very enthusiastic, and the book has received several positive reviews. I’ve also had great feedback from my “Music & Mayhem” talks at libraries and book clubs in Massachusetts, my home state, and Louisiana, where I now live.
PDD: You've previously written and published several biographies. Please tell us a bit about those works and how you wrote them. I imagine a lot of research was involved?
SF: When I was teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, I wrote short biographies of several musicians for Scribner’s American Biography, starting with their 1970 volumes. They publish updates for each decade to include prominent people who have died. I’ve written entries on pianist Oscar Levant, trumpeter Les Elgart, jazz singer Carmen McRae, jazz pianist Hazel Scott, conductor Antonia Brico, and several others. What fascinating lives they led! Many had to overcome great obstacles. Antonia Brico guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930 but couldn’t get a job in the U.S. due to her gender; she toiled in obscurity until a famous pop singer did a film about her. You can read “the rest of her story” in the Archives on my website, http://www.susanfleet.com/.
In my research I had to be a detective, tracking down facts and phone numbers to contact relatives of the deceased. These weren’t easy to get, but I have a lot of connections in the music world, so that helped.
PDD: In your "other life" you're a trumpeter and music historian. Please fill us in on how you got started with the trumpet and where the journey has taken you.
SF: And what a wonderful journey it has been! My uncle played trumpet. When I was eight, my mother took me to his house and he showed me his trumpet. Wow! When I saw that beautiful bright shiny thing lying in that red velvet case, I said, “Yes! I want one of those.” Fortunately, I took to it naturally. I had some terrific teachers, including two Boston Symphony trumpeters, and went on to play gigs in the Boston and Providence areas for thirty-plus years. My biggest thrill was playing Fanfare for the Common Man with composer Aaron Copland in the audience. This was in 1980 at Brown University, another college where I taught. Copland was getting an honorary doctorate.
PDD: You play a variety of music. Which is your favorite?
SF: Aw, gee, do I have to choose? I’ve played everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to Broadway shows, operas, symphony, chamber brass and solo trumpet recitals. I’m also a big jazz fan. I don’t improvise but I’ve played in a couple of big bands, and I listen to jazz a lot.
PDD: Does your music influence your writing?
SF: Music has been a huge influence in two areas: Self-discipline and self-evaluation. I developed the self-discipline to practice every day, whether I felt like it or not. And the music business requires objective self-evaluation: polish your strengths and work on your weaknesses. It’s a constant exercise in self-improvement. Both qualities serve me well in my writing. No one has to hold a gun to my head to make me sit down and write, and I love to read other writers and learn something new.
Certain elements of music translate to my writing as well. As a musician I’m ultra-tuned to time: the pace of the plot, the rhythm of the words, the dynamic levels of the tension, even the structure. To me, a novel is like a symphony. I discuss this in my “Music & Mayhem” talks.
PDD: Which is easier, the music or the writing?
SF: Both are difficult to do well, of course, but a musical performance occurs in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. If I mess up as a trumpet player, everyone knows who did it. On the other hand, if I make a poor word choice when I’m writing, I just hit delete, insert a better word and no one’s the wiser. In a music performance, there are no second chances. That makes it exciting. It also makes it terrifying! Perfection is every musician’s ultimate goal. I never went onstage to play a solo recital thinking I was going to play a wrong note. Everything was going to be perfect. This carries over to my writing. I revise my manuscripts multiple times. I want everything to be, if not perfect, the best I can possibly make it. Eeek, do I sound too compulsive?
PDD: What is your typical writing and/or musical day like? Any tips for others on either subject?
SF: I don’t gig much anymore, but I still practice every day, in the morning. But not so early as to annoy the neighbors! Then I spend maybe an hour on the writing business that all authors must do. Three days a week I swim laps (a mile) and I often work out plot or character issues in the pool. I write during lunch and through the afternoon, five or six hours, six days a week. I try to take Sundays off. We need a bit of fun to fuel our creative muse. To be a serious writer, I think you need to write almost every day. Sometimes I take time off from my novel and work on one of my female-musician bios for my website. This lets me return to the novel with a fresh eye. And I always revise hard copy. It’s too easy to miss things on a computer screen.
PDD: You've taught classes at college level about music and even created a history course about 20th Century women musicians. Tell us a bit about your teaching life.
SF: For 23 years I taught part-time at Brown University, Berklee College of Music, Wheaton College and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell College of Music. I loved teaching at different places because the students were so diverse. My Brown students weren’t music majors, but they were super bright and excellent players. At Berklee I had incredibly talented students from all over the world, the U.S., Argentina, Japan, Spain, Italy. At Wheaton I formed a chamber wind group so my brass students could play concerts every semester. It became so popular, I added woodwind players. But to me, my greatest accomplishment was creating my Women in Music course. I had to do tons of research, but it was worth it. Until I taught my course, Berklee students had no opportunity to learn about talented female jazz and classical performers. The course also became the basis for the biographies I write for my website.
PDD: Anything else you'd like us to know about Susan Fleet, her writing and/or her music.
FS: Yes: a pet peeve and a favorite tip. My pet peeve: Some people consider crime fiction inferior to literary fiction. I disagree. What could be more important than crime and punishment? Crime fiction is a reflection of society. I’m appalled by the amount of violence done to women these days, and all too often the perpetrator gets away. But not in my books! In the end my bad guy always gets punished.
My favorite writing tip: Never answer the question. Until the end. This is an important concept, one that I had to learn. Always keep the reader wondering, not totally in the dark, but wondering. Then, deliver a satisfying ending.
Thanks for posing such interesting questions, Lonnie. I answered some, but tried to keep your readers wondering! To learn “the rest of the story,” check out Chapter 1 of ABSOLUTION, hear my trumpet CD, and read biographies of my fabulous female instrumentalists on my website: http://www.susanfleet.com/.
PDD: Thanks for joining us, Susan. Terrific interview!