Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Q & A with Libby Hellman

We interview Chicago author Libby Hellman about her first PI protagonist and the genre in general.

Q: What makes Georgia Davis different from other PI's?
She’s relatively inexperienced -- this is only her first year as a PI -- and she still looks at her work through the lens of a cop (she’d been one for almost 10 years). She realizes she doesn’t have the resources and connections she used to have, and she’s still finding her way. So, for example, she makes a serious mistake during the early stages of EASY INNOCENCE that almost destroys her case. However, she’s a quick learner, and won’t make the same mistake twice. Like most PIs, she’s cynical and apt to see the darker side of human nature, but I wouldn’t call her hard-bitten. She has a soft spot for children, especially, and she’s not ashamed to show it.

There’s one other thing. Georgia is not seeking redemption or atoning for her sins. She wants recognition and respect. In that sense, she is different from other (mostly male) PI’s who sometimes battle their own demons as well as the criminals on the page.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?Can you say cliché? I recognize that PIs need a sounding board -- they’re generally solitary figures, so the sidekick becomes a device for the author through which the PI can analyze the case verbally. Then there’s the muscle component… which is perhaps where you’re going with psycho sidekicks… ie Dennis Lehane’s Bubba…maybe even Robert Parker’s Hawk. They serve a purpose as well. But a little of them goes a long way.

Some PI’s use sources in the police department rather than third party side-kicks to summarize and move the story forward, which, of course, can be a cliché, too. But I have to be careful here, because Georgia is still in contact with her former boss in the police department, and he throws her a bone every so often. He’s anything but a psycho, though.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
Constantly. I have two PI friends whom I call regularly whenever I can’t figure out what Georgia should be doing next. I also have several police contacts on speed-dial who are helpful. Also assistant states attorneys (which is what we call District Attorneys here in Chicago). Plus I’m always doing research about the issues, history, or politics involved in the story. I never want someone to throw my book across the room and say “Oh that could never happen…”

Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
Writing is the most difficult challenge I’ve ever undertaken, and I usually feel unequal to the task. I’m always second-guessing myself -- for example, if I write a sentence, I’ll usually rewrite it several times, trying to make the prose silkier, or more descriptive, or more substantive. However, in terms of how it’s changed, I have learned several mistakes to avoid. I’ve also become bolder, I think, in my pacing. And in experimenting with multiple POVs. And, of course, my writing has turned darker.

Q: How do you promote your books?
Because I’m of the theory that you throw it all against the wall and see what sticks, I do a little of everything. BLEAK HOUSE sent out a number of ARCs for EASY INNOCENCE, which I think is essential for a new title. I supplemented their efforts with some of my own. I’m doing a fair amount of signings, mostly in independent stores, but some chains as well. I’m also doing more online promotion: I contribute to a blog called THE OUTFIT (www.theoutfitcollective.com) with 6 other Chicago crime fiction authors; I also am contributing to other people’s blogs (thank you Jochem), and I hope to get more online reviews. I also conduct several writing workshops: Building Suspense… 20-20-20 (Dialogue, Plot and Research)… and Setting.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Maybe a few Daughters of Spade… see below…

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
As a woman, I have to mention Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. I think they -- perhaps even more than the masters -- have influenced me by giving me “permission” to create a female PI who’s a blend of guts and compassion. I expect they will weather the test of time. I also think SJ Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan are stellar characters. Laura, especially, along with William Kent Krueger (who sometimes writes PI), and James Lee Burke have infused their crime fiction with beautiful prose, which I hope will influence the coming generation.

Q: John Rickards came up with the following question: What do you bring to the genre that few others have?
Because I’ve only written one PI novel, I think it would be presumptuous of me to claim any unique contribution to the genre yet. I will say that Georgia plumbs the affluent suburbs of Chicago known as the “North Shore” rather than the mean streets of urban Chicago. And finds just as much evil, so that might signal something unique down the road.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
I’d like to know why PI writers chose the PI vehicle through which to tell a crime fiction story, as opposed to a police procedural, amateur sleuth tale, or thriller. My answer is I was feeling stifled by the amateur sleuth format (I wrote four novels in that vein). I just couldn’t keep finding credible ways for my sleuth -- a video producer -- to become involved in a case. I knew I couldn’t write a police procedural -- it required too much knowledge that I’d probably never assimilate. So the PI format solved the problem. He or she takes on a case and is paid for it. Simple and efficient. Plus, the PI can do more creative things … and more “off the books” activities… than a cop.

For more info about this author visist http://www.hellmann.com/mystery-author/index.html

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