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! πŸ˜‰ – 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!




  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Good to see you "out and about", Kelli. It's no secret I love historical mysteries; I'm looking forward to the new release!

  2. MJ

    Cool! Noir is a first love of mine, and Classics (Latin especially) was and is my first great academic love – I always wish I'd gone into graduate school in that area, even if I'd only later give it up for law. I am definitely going to seek out Kelli's books!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, I needed this! So great to see you, Kelli, I miss you. It reminds me that I can just pick up a books to see my friends, so that's what I'm going to do.

    I'd love to see a thriller set in Humboldt, btw!

  4. Debbie

    Thanks Stephen, Murderati interviews are always wonderful because you can feel the connection between the people. Very enjoyable to read!

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Good morning, all! It's so cool to have Kelli in the house. I think she's got a lot of fans in the Murderati community.
    Kelli – the thing that sticks out the most for me is when you said this:

    "For myself, I believe it strengthened my ability to β€œhear” the rhythm of a sentence, and taught me how one word, one position of a word, can affect an entire passage."

    This is what I struggle with daily. It drives me crazy, because I don't feel comfortable moving on to writing the next chapter until every word has been properly chosen for the one I'm in. So, I spend a week or two rewriting each chapter before moving on to the next. In some ways that's great – I have a very solid foundation to work from. But then the next chapter is first draft stuff and I feel like I can't write worth shit. And then I rewrite that for two weeks. A hell of a process.

  6. Kelli

    Miss you too, Alex! I'm grateful we had a bit of time at Bouchercon. Thank God for conferences! And books and blogs … and anything that brings us all together. πŸ™‚

  7. Kelli

    Hugs back at you, Rob! Glad you like the new covers–I've been very lucky in that department. As for the two series thing, we'll see how it shakes up. Publishing these days is like reading tea leaves … and I'm drinking coffee. πŸ™‚

    And I really, really want to write the contemporary set in Humboldt, so fingers crossed!

  8. Dao

    "City of Dragons" was one of my favorite books in 2010. It felt like fresh air to me after reading so many books that had leading male characters. Also, the setting in 1940s is so interesting. I would never write anything like that in my life. It takes a lot of research and it shows.

    I'm glad to read this interview and congratulations on the upcoming two books. Now, I have to find a copy of Nox and read it!

  9. Kelli Stanley

    Thank you, Twist!

    City of Secrets tackles some explosive issues–anti-Semitism, populist fascism, and the treatment of the mentally ill. It also touches on the themes of what makes up our identities, and the price people are willing to pay for fame … it's a pretty dark thriller. Thanks for reading City of Dragons!


  10. Allison Davis

    Kelly, nice to have you at Murderati and let me echo Stephen's comments that you are incredibly supportive of those of us still writing and not yet published and yes! talented (and fun to hang out with). So glad we have another Miranda book to look forward to…You have your hands full this year, heading up the Northern California MWA (and if you all haven't followed her on Criminal Minds blog, get over there). Love the historic fiction — will you share how did you some of your research with us?

  11. Kelli Stanley

    Stephen, thank you again for having me over and all your support! Friends and community are the best thing about this business … and the one thing you can depend upon. πŸ™‚

    I think all writing processes are brutal … opening up your subconscious like a can of pet food and letting it spill on the page can be incredibly painful! I struggled with City of Spiders. My barometer–or ear–was clogged up with the stress and pressure from writing the second book (which I've been told is the hardest, and I sure as hell hope so). I had to wait awhile on the final final revision in order to get some clarity.

    When something's bothering me, I can't proceed either, though I usually try to go back and edit after about three chapters–or, if under a deadline, after an entire section. The problem is figuring out which element it is, and that's when a trusted reader comes in, who, in this case, is my partner. Particularly if I don't have the time I really need in order to back away from the material, she guides me right to the spot I need to work on. Luckily for me!

    I've heard you talk about how helpful your wife is with your writing process, Stephen … we're lucky to have family members who can help us sort things out, especially under pressure!

  12. Kelli Stanley

    Dao, thank you so much!! Those are words I think we all live for. Writing alone and sometimes in the dark, you wonder–I know I do–whether anyone else will enjoy the world you've created. The best feeling in the world is to know that someone did. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy the Roman series as well!

  13. Kelli Stanley

    Allison, it's so great to see you! And thank you for the kind comments!

    As for my research process … well, it starts on a very sensory level. Objects inspire me; photos inspire me. I set City of Dragons during the Rice Bowl Party–which really gave rise to the entire plot–because of a photo I saw. A souvenir ice pick from the World's Fair helped create City of Secrets.

    Once I have a story in mind–or at least the elements of a story–I zoom in on certain aspects of research. For City of Ghosts, for example, I'm researching trains and certain pre-WWII events. When I can get the plot to hang together (I'm not a detailed outline person, but I do use a general outline), I always pick an actual date with which to open the book. I like to anchor the events in time and place. For City of Secrets, for example, it's May 25th, 1940–opening day at the World's Fair on Treasure Island.

    When the dates are lined up, I go through newspapers to get the weather, news, ads, etc. right. I listen to the music that would have been on jukeboxes and played at nightclubs. I watch films that were playing in theaters, and I buy ephemera from Ebay that helps flesh out the time and place. I've got a huge collection of Life magazines from the era. And I heavily rely on my 1940 San Francisco phone book. In other words, it's like an immersion language technique … I try to surround myself with the past so that I can recreate it for readers. It's like my own personal time machine. πŸ™‚

    That said … I still hope to write this contemporary thriller, which will be immersion of a different sort! But I love, love, love heading back to 1940 … and I hope I can write Miranda all the way through WWII and the Cold War.

  14. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Kelli

    Welcome to Murderati, and great interview, Stephen!

    How do you balance the logisitcs of researching, writing and editing two so very diffierent series simultaneously?

  15. Kelli Stanley

    Hi, Zoe, and thank you for the welcome!

    So far, I haven't had to balance quite everything at the same time. I wrote The Curse-Maker before my first book was published, and rewrote it before City of Dragons was released. It sold in a one-book deal, so I won't really have to address zig-zagging between ancient Rome and 1940 until we see how it does. Recreating Roman culture can be intense, but the long, long time I spent in school sort of branded my brain with it.

    I am, however, working on the contemporary thriller I've mentioned, and so far it hasn't been too crazy. I need a lot of structure as a person and a writer, and I just prioritize everything according to deadlines. And of course, I gave up actually having a life …

    Going from one project to the other isn't as hard for me to balance as going from the day job to writing. One reason (and there are many!) to admire Brett is how effectively and productively he's handled writing full time. I hope to be able to do exactly that one day … I have a lot of stories to tell!

  16. Reine

    Kelly, I'm sold… have to get your books right now! Where to start? Where to start? Ancient hiistory? The 40's? Heh. I might like both.

    Thanks Stephen!

  17. Kelli Stanley

    Reine, thank you so much! πŸ™‚ And no worries on the spelling–Reine is a beautiful name, by the way!

    As far as where to start … well, City of Dragons is the first book of what I hope will be a long-lasting series. It's a reinterpretation of noir conventions–this time, the femme fatale is actually the protagonist (and a PI). And I purposefully try to capture both the brutality and the beauty of the era. I think we're far too used to imagining the past through the lens of censorship … so this is 1940, uncensored!

    The Roman series is lighter, more of an homage. They're very different, but the common element is the use of noir as style and genre. Nox Dormienda was published by a small publisher and is out of print–I'm hoping to see it come out as a paperback, but if not, it will eventually be available as an e-book. I consider The Curse-Maker a relaunch of the series.

    Thanks again for giving one or both a try, and for stopping by! πŸ™‚

  18. Reine

    Thanks, Kelli. I like the idea of reading 40's uncensored. Ebooks, though. I need ebooks or audio– can't hold a real book open or keep my head upright long enough to read more than a page or so at a time. Hate starting a series in the middle. I'll check now to see what I can find. Hey, and great photo of you with the hat!

  19. Kelli Stanley

    Thanks, Reine! πŸ™‚ The fedora thing started by accident–though I've always loved hats–and it became a trademark. Plus it serves the practical purpose of helping friends find me at a conference! πŸ™‚

    City of Dragons is available in both e-book and audio, and it sounds like you'd want to start there. I wrote a short story prequel to the novel that was published in First Thrills–an International Thriller anthology–and that's available in ebook and audio, too.

    Thanks again for giving it a try, and I hope you enjoy it! πŸ™‚ Take care!

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks again for joining us today, Kelli! You've been a fantastic guest author. We're all wishing you success on the releases of THE CURSE-MAKER and CITY OF SECRETS in 2011!

  21. Kelli Stanley

    Thank you so much, Stephen!! You''re an awesome host and a fiercely fantastic writer, and I've loved getting to hang out with you and the Murderati gang–thanks again! πŸ™‚

  22. KDJames

    Nice interview, Stephen — thanks for bringing us a fresh victi– um, I mean, a new writer friend. Hey, Kelli! Sorry to be so late chiming in (recovering from the flu and, while my intentions are good, I've been crashing hard on the couch after work most days this week).

    I'm definitely going to check out your 1940s noir series. I like the sound of your Miranda character. I've done a bit of similar research into the end of that decade, though I'm sure it's not as thorough as yours. My current ms takes place in modern times, but much of it is the result of decisions made and actions taken toward the end of WWII. A different time and different people with vastly different influences, yet it's fascinating (to me, anyway) to consider whether some of those decisions would be (and are) echoed in today's world.

    Best of luck with sales of the new releases this year — I'll be watching for them.

    Anyone else having trouble commenting? I've tried 6 billion times now and am half expecting my comment to replicate out of control and take over the blog sometime during the night.

  23. Kelli Stanley

    Hi, KD! Thanks for the welcome, and I hope you beat that nasty virus! I developed pneumonia before my first book launch … it's miserable, and you don't want the flu to turn into something even worse!

    And thanks for the comment! Let me know how you like City of Dragons … it's always cool to meet another writer with similar interests, particularly in history! πŸ™‚ I've been drawn to this period for literally as long as I can remember. Good luck on the manuscript, and have fun!

    Take care, and feel better soon!!

  24. Fran

    Hi Kelli, oh my it's good to see you here!

    Loved all your history, thanks for sharing!

    And with both your series, you've managed to give me that delightful dilemma of being anxious for both. When I read "Nox", I wasn't at all interested in reading Miranda's story because I so loved Arcturus. But then I read "City of Dragons", and in a completely fickle turn threw over Arcturus for Miranda. But now that I've spent time again with Arcturus, well, Miranda's nice an' all, but what happens next with. . .boy. I'm loving it!

    I'm looking forward to seeing you next month. Congratulations again on a great new book!

  25. Kelli Stanley

    Fran, my dear friend, it's great to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by! πŸ™‚ Can't wait to see you in Seattle in a couple of weeks!!

    And thank you so much for your support of BOTH series …I'm so glad you enjoy them both!

    See you soon, with Arcturus (and MIranda) in tow! πŸ™‚

  26. Darla

    I admit to having been so intrigued yesterday about Kelli and City of Dragons that I downloaded the free chapters to my Kindle! I became so caught up in the story that I had to then download the entire book to read last night! LOL Fabulous! I did feel a tad lost on some of the references so found myself pausing in the book to google (thank goodness for the internet!) and then read flat out again. And I adore the music references since I've always listened to songs from that era. Thanks for the recommendation, Stephen, and thanks, Kelli, for writing such an awesome story!

  27. Kelli Stanley

    Darla, thank you so much!! I'm thrilled you enjoyed Miranda's first adventure!! πŸ™‚

    I love the music from the era, too … and if you want check out the CoD soundtrack, you can do so easily on my website at:

    We've also created a lot of extra material (Google map, photos, ads, postcards, etc.) to help with the references in the book and to give readers an idea of what things looked like. You can find the pages here:

    And (for 1930-1940 in general) here:

    Thank you so much for giving City of Dragons a try and for letting us know you enjoyed it!! πŸ™‚

    All the best,


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