By Stephen Jay Schwartz
If you’ve been to any writers conferences in the past couple years you’ve almost certainly bumped into the charismatic and exceptionally talented Kelli Stanley. In her fedora hat and 1940s couture, Ms. Stanley can usually be found amidst a crowd of companions. She’s friendly and incredibly supportive to other authors in our genre. And she’s one smart cookie. She’s on the fast-track to success with two published novels and two more coming out this year. Her first novel, NOX DORMIENDA, was a Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award winner and a Macavity Award finalist. Most of us know her from her highly acclaimed second novel, CITY OF DRAGONS, which set the world on fire last year. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, CITY OF DRAGONS introduces the unforgettable protagonist Miranda Corbie—ex-escort and now private investigator. My kind of gal.
2011 will see the publication of two sequels – THE CURSE MAKER, a sequel to her first novel NOX DORMIENDA, and CITY OF SECRETS, sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS. THE CURSE MAKER releases on February 1st, 2011.
Please join me in welcoming Kelli to our family….
Kelli, you’ve got to be the most energetic and optimistic author I’ve ever met. What gives you such enthusiasm?
Massive quantities of drugs and alcohol. Er—that’s a joke, folks!
Seriously, Stephen, thank you. I’m by nature a positive and highly motivated person—type A and all that—and when I see you and other friends I’m generally feeling the high of the community … I’m a people person, and I enjoy the social aspects of the business very much.
What you don’t see, however, is how often I—like every other writer I know—get depressed, let down, disappointed, scared, panicked and question whether or not I should keep writing or whether what I’m writing is any good, or whether I should just cut my ear off and paint sunflowers.
Insecurity should, by rights, decrease as you get older … but we’re in a very odd business with very few benchmarks, which is one of the many reasons why you can easily go mad … as if hearing voices in your head isn’t enough.
I’m like everyone else—I’m extremely insecure, and question what I’m doing here on a daily basis. However—I also yell at myself for doing so, and I try very hard to focus on the positive. My family puts up with a LOT.
You graduated with a Masters degree in Classics. How has that influenced your writing style and do you feel that it has contributed to your success as a storyteller?
Classics is a field composed of many parts—history, archaeology, cultural and gender studies, literary theory, philology. The philology aspect (it literally means love of words) teaches you, in a profound way, how subtle language can be. English is like a light saber as opposed to a surgical laser … it’s strong, beautiful, and comparatively clumsy in comparison to highly inflected languages like Latin and ancient Greek.
As writers, we make choices on every page … but Cicero or Sophocles made many, many more. The possibilities and subtleties of rhythm and diction and nuance in Latin and Greek would take your breath away.
I grew up reading poetry, and have always been drawn to the sound of words, the music of them, and certainly Classics—and learning and teaching and translating Greek and Latin—enhanced that. Chandler was always very proud of his Classics background—he boasts about it in at least one letter—and I think that experience informed his lyricism and precision.
For myself, I believe it strengthened my ability to “hear” the rhythm of a sentence, and taught me how one word, one position of a word, can affect an entire passage.
Can you tell us a little about the history of THE CURSE MAKER? I understand it is the second in a series; the sequel to your Award Winning debut novel, NOX DORMIENDA. Why did you choose to continue the series?
Well, there are pluses and minuses to selling the first book you write. The plus was that I didn’t have to wait. The minus is that I had no “stock” upon which to draw once I was published.
The only book I had waiting in the wings, so to speak, was the sequel to NOX, since I’d always intended it to be a series. I wrote the sequel during the fall of 2006, after a summer trip (and Master’s graduation present) to England. It was my swan song as a classicist, and I gave a presentation at the University of London. Then I traveled to Bath, where the curator of the museum very kindly took me behind the scenes and gave me some hands-on time with the curses—ones not on display.
NOX had not yet secured a contract, but I wanted to write the sequel while the England trip was fresh—and before I lined up a day job. So … flash-forward to 2009. I sold CITY OF DRAGONS in January of that year, and my editor liked NOX, so I thought, “Why not see if my publisher might want to take up my first series?” I rewrote the sequel extensively—a complete revision—and, to my everlasting joy, they bought it. That’s THE CURSE-MAKER.
I’ve been told it’s highly unusual for a publisher to produce two series by the same author—especially this early in my career—so I’m immensely grateful to my editor and the folks at Thomas Dunne/Minotaur/SMP for the support. Because NOX was originally published by Five Star (to whom I will also and forever be profoundly grateful), I consider this more of a relaunch than a sequel.
What is “Roman noir” and how did the term originate?
“Roman noir” came about through marketing cogitation. I was trying to figure out what really set my first book apart. At first, I thought it was the setting and doctor protagonist, but Ruth Downie’s debut novel actually beat me to the punch. I thought my career was over before it had begun, when—like a lightning bolt from Jove! 😉 – I was watching a film at the Noir City film festival in San Francisco, and realized—that’s it! NOX DORMIENDA is an homage to Raymond Chandler (even the title could be translated as “The Big Sleep”)—and “Roman noir” was born. It’s a perfect fit, because it’s actually a tongue-in-cheek pun: “roman noir” is also a French literary term used to describe the hardboiled detective story—exactly the style of writing I was trying to capture for Roman Britain.
So many of us know you from the tremendous success of CITY OF DRAGONS, your hard-boiled tale of a female escort-turned-investigator set in 1940s San Francisco. How is your Roman series different from CITY OF DRAGONS and the upcoming sequel, CITY OF SECRETS?
Thank you, Stephen! CITY OF DRAGONS and the Miranda series is my “dream” work—it’s the root of what motivates me to keep writing. The period, the politics, and my attempt to recapture the past as it was, rather than how we wish it to be, make it a dark journey, but one guided by Miranda’s personal code.
My books generally offer some ledge of sanity or perspective to cling to. When you look around—either in 2011 or 1940—you see so much horror, venality and despair that giving up—relinquishing the fight or giving in to it—would be easy. Writing about despicable people doing despicable things is easy. What isn’t always easy is making readers care about the pain and humiliations of our fellow flawed human beings, about the rules of behavior that can sometimes make us warders of our own souls. This is the kind of noir I try to write with Miranda.
The Arcturus series—as the “Roman noir” tag line implies—is lighter by nature. You’ll find dark corners—some very dark corners—to explore, but because Arcturus himself is a much less despairing individual—and one blessed with a healthy relationship—the darkness isn’t so much at the core of the book. And there’s much more humor … sarcasm tends to be one of his coping devices.
As a writer, it allows me to have fun with the conventions of the genre, pay my respects to it (THE CURSE-MAKER was inspired by Red Harvest, among other titles), and take a small writing break from my 1940 series.
What are the differences and challenges you find in writing male versus female POV?
I think women tend to see themselves reflected in life, rather than straight on. Men—at least straight men—generally don’t. They see out of their own eyes. Gender construction was a particular interest of mine when I was getting my degree, and I don’t just mean the “Venus-Mars” thing. I start with the human being and go from there. Character voice tends to emerge naturally. I don’t find it more or less challenging to write male or female POV, but I do think the female voice presents certain challenges … that aspect of watching yourself being watched that I mentioned before. The idea of vulnerability, the ease with which women can embrace manipulation instead of outright assertion.
It is, as they say, “complicated.”
Is it even possible to write a hardboiled novel with a happily married protagonist?
I hope so, because that’s what I’ve tried to do! I figured if Chandler intended to marry off Marlowe, there’s precedent.
The darkest parts of THE CURSE-MAKER are dark, indeed—Aquae Sulis is a health resort, last chance for the desperately ill—and desperation can make your skin crawl. Brutal murders, the lengths to which people will go to humiliate one another … there are a number of themes that are quintessential noir.
Arcturus doesn’t have to completely experience it himself in order to recognize it and understand it. And some of his troubles concern his wife … he comes to Aquae Sulis because he IS desperate to help her. And frustrated because he doesn’t know what’s wrong.
Again, their relationship is that ledge I was talking about earlier. It’s what we can cling to, sometimes with our fingernails, in a jagged little world.
What influenced you to write such diverse topics as series novels?
I wanted to use my degree—I owe a lot in student debt! So NOX was an attempt to use what I know and combine it with what I feel. The Miranda series does that, too, though my formal education is not in twentieth century history. I’ve always been drawn to the period, though … even my house was built in 1941.
The common thread is noir. My first series uses the style to make the period more accessible, and the second series is a restructuring of both style and period—1940 with the gloves off and not illuminated with a key light.
I love series writing, because I love character. I’m fascinated by psychology, and I enjoy seeing how events shape and change people. They shape and change my protagonists, certainly.
I don’t intend to always write historicals. I’d like to write a thriller set in Humboldt County, California, where I spent my adolescence. And a contemporary stand-alone, and a graphic novel … if I’m very, very lucky!
What has it been like to put out two books in one year? How did this
opportunity come about?
It came about because I’m lucky to have an understanding and supportive editor. And I had the chance, so why not? I didn’t want to wait for a full year before the next Miranda. She’s the constant in my life and career. So we’re launching THE CURSE-MAKER now and CITY OF SECRETS in September, just in time for Bouchercon.
As far as what it’s like … so far, so good, but it is a bit confusing to go on tour and be asked about first century Roman Britain when I’m thinking about CITY OF GHOSTS (the third Miranda that I’m working on).
What’s next for Kelli Stanley?
The paperback for CITY OF DRAGONS should be out August 30th, followed by CITY OF SECRETS. The sequel takes place in May of 1940, just a few months after CITY OF DRAGONS.
A young girl—a model at one of the “flesh” shows on the Gayway at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island—is found stabbed to death with a souvenir ice pick … and an anti-Semitic slur scrawled on her skin. I think Miranda is a bit more confident in this novel—thanks to the events in CITY OF DRAGONS—and she needs to be.
The events take place in San Francisco and Calistoga (another spa town in the Napa Valley), and is based on research on American populist fascism of the era.
Many people don’t realize how strong some of these extremist organizations were, particularly on the coasts. Certainly the anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler radio commentator Charles Coughlin enjoyed widespread popularity across the country.
I’m currently writing CITY OF GHOSTS. I hope to write Miranda forever! And if THE CURSE-MAKER proves to be successful, we’ll see how far we can take Arcturus and Gwyna.
Thank you, Stephen, for having me over at Murderati—you guys are the best, and I’m honored to be here!
Kelli – thank you so much for joining us. I am taken with how well you articulate your thoughts about your work. I love your writing and I’m happy to be one of the voices out singing your praises!