Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
Liz: Why don’t you start by telling us about your new thriller, Other Eyes I’m only one of many mystery lovers who rushed right out to order it as soon as we learned it was coming out. What’s it about, and what prompted you to tell this particular story?
Barb: The central character in Other Eyes is Blue Eriksen, an archaeology professor at Northwestern University. Her recent book Goddess, a scholarly account of female goddesses, became a bestseller, much to her amazement. In Other Eyes she is researching the use of hallucinogens in the development of ancient religions. In the course of this, she has stumbled on evidence that brief use of psilocybin can prevent or cure drug addiction. Although she doesn't realize it, this threatens an international organization dictating the transportation and sale of illegal drugs.
What prompted me? We have a panicky approach to consciousness-altering substances. I would hope someday we come to treat drug addiction as a medical problem, rather than a moral failing or a crime.
Liz: Some of us, including me in my “other hat,” do treat addiction as a medical problem. Unfortunately, there's a big disconnect between treatment and law enforcement.
I read and loved your Cat Marsala books long before I met you or wrote mysteries myself. It’s one of the series that comes up when avid mystery readers talk about characters they miss. Did you end that series by choice, or was it one of those things that publishers do? Do you ever consider bringing Cat back?
Barb: Thank you for liking Cat. After the ninth book, my editor, the wonderful Susanne Kirk, retired, and I think Scribner was considering dropping the series anyway. I don't see any other publisher picking it up. I'm afraid Cat had nine lives.
Liz: You’ve been president of both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and won or been nominated for almost every recognized award, not only for novels but also for short stories and non-fiction. Is there any particular honor that meant the most to you, and why?
Barb: The Carl Sandburg Award for Fiction. Good Cop Bad Cop was an homage to The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh. His book was brutal and utterly non-PC, but the humor in it got me through a tough time in my life.
Liz: How did you get involved with Sisters in Crime? Were you one of the original founding goddesses? How important do you think it is to women writers that this organization exists and remains strong?
Barb: I was not at the Bouchercon where the first meeting took place, but as soon as I heard about it, I said "That's for me!" Sisters has accomplished much, much good. It's still important for what it does, and also for the sense of fellowship it provides. Many of my best friends I met through SinC.
Liz: Both your police procedural series and the private eye books were all set in Chicago. What makes Chicago such a great city to live in and write about? I hope it’s okay to reveal that I had a perfect first visit to Chicago, where I was lucky enough to stay in your fabulous apartment overlooking the lake. Or do Chicagoans say the Lake?
Barb: Probably most say lake. Chicago has everything. Every ethnic neighborhood known to the human race, every kind of ethnic cuisine [this is IMPORTANT], You can eat an English breakfast, a Punjabi lunch and a Peruvian dinner if you have the stamina. Chicago is a walking city, a city of neighborhoods. And that's not including the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, Orchestra Hall, the planetarium, the architecture--I'd better stop now.
Liz: In the last few years, you’ve turned from mysteries to stand-alone thrillers. Has the switch made any difference in your writing process? In how you do research?
Barb: They both take research. I used to hang around a lot with cops, which I loved to do. What's changed in the last few years is the Internet. There are many things now you don't have to go see. I'm not sure that's all good, but it's certainly easier. And you don't have to look for a parking place.
Liz: You once told me how much you enjoyed writing your thriller Foolproof in collaboration with Jeanne Dams and Mark Zubro. Can you tell us about that?
Barb: We went into it thinking if it took each of us a year or so to write a book, surely three together could do it in six months. Nun-unh. It took five years. Part of it was the negotiation. Always friendly, but organizing, combining, and smoothing was a real challenge. We'd each bring in our work and read it and once in a while one of us would have made a double-entrendre so hilarious we'd scream with laughter and my husband would run in from his office asking whether somebody was hurt.
Liz: The bio on your website states that you have “worked as an assistant surgical orderly, carpenter for stage magic illusions, assistant tiger handler, stage manager, researcher for attorneys in criminal cases, and occasionally teaches mystery writing to Chicago police officers.” I want to hear about the tiger handling—and the stage magic carpentry too, if it’s as interesting as it sounds.
Barb: I got picked to help handle the tiger--note it says assistant handler--because the stagehands, usually so careful not to let anybody else touch the props, didn't want to get close to him. As to the carpentry, the big illusions get hard use on stage and need constant repair. I could tell you how most magic illusions are performed, but--
Liz: Among your many talents is as a writer of musical comedies. Did you write all of those with your husband? Was it fun? Do you sing and dance yourself?
Barb: I did write them with Tony. He was the composer. I wrote the book, and we argued over the lyrics. I took dance lessons as a child, tap and ballet, but I don't dance now and you DO NOT want to hear me sing.
Liz: You have a son who’s also a writer, Brian D’Amato, whose brilliant speculative novel In the Courts of the Sun explores the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012. That’s only a year away. Should we be worried? Did your being a writer influence or inspire him? Do you connect as fellow writers? I ask because I know of parent-child writing duos who range from collaborating under a single name to saying they never talk about writing or read each other’s manuscripts before publication.
Barb: His second book in the trilogy should be out in a few months and will tell whether we should be worried. He's been reading my stuff since he was in junior high, and commenting. He used to draw corncobs in the margins where he thought I was being corny. We still read and help each other.
Liz: Would you like to tell us about your grandchildren? Any budding writers in the new generation?
Barb: You mean Best Female Grandchild on Earth and Best Male Grandchild on Earth? One is math and computer oriented and one is science-oriented. But they are still the best.
Liz: Um, I think you mean One of the Three Best Female Grandchildren on Earth. The other two are mine.
What’s up next for Barbara D’Amato?
Barb: I'm working on a book that just isn't responding, either to pressure or to being left alone to simmer for a while. I'm very frustrated with it, but I'm trying to live by the motto I've used before--"Surely something will occur to me."