(Please join me in welcoming Cara Black for a return visit to Murderati!
–see you next week, Pari)
At the San Francisco Writers Conference a few weeks ago a woman picked up my book, and said, "You wrote this?" Actually it was more of an accusation.
"Guilty." I smiled, eyeing the coffee urn behind the book display.
"You wrote all of these books with murder?" Her voice rose. I nodded, trying to reach for the coffee.
"Why do you write about murder?"
Nonplussed for a moment I didn't have a short answer on the tip of my tongue or even a long one for that matter. It knocked me for a loop. I was not caffeinated, it was too early in morning and I definitely needed that coffee.
Before I could say, "Well, I write about Paris too. She slapped my book down, frowned and moved away from me like "eeeuw!" Did I have cooties?
Clare Langley Hawthorne's books were next to mine and her books deal with murder and several other mysteries were on the table. I mean this was a writing conference, there were workshops on writing mysteries! But I felt a foot small and snakes of insecurity wound in my head.
True, sometimes I do spend part of my day here. But this woman's behavior flashed me right back to my first ever book signing for Murder in the Marais, my first ever book — ten years ago. Before my first bookstore event, not only was I shaking but I felt about to throw up. I'd spent three and a half years writing this book and now I had to get up and talk about it? Could I really call myself a writer with this one book? What if people pointed, shouted "Imposter" and ran out of the bookstore?
And I wasn't French but my book took place in Paris with French people. I pictured someone saying, "How can you write about Paris? What do you know? You can't even tie your scarf like a French woman," and so on.
"Well I know I'm not French and their chic is not about having the perfect little black dress, red lipstick nor even the perfect red scarf," I'd say. "French chic at its core is an attitude, more elusive than the perfect pump."
Well, I had that memorized but the queasiness didn't go away. Yet here I was at my local bookstore four blocks from my house. There was a room of my closest friends, all my family, my mother, and Tracey, my local bookseller who kept hugging me and saying, "You go girl . . . now get up there and talk." I was paralyzed.
It was my best friend who took me aside and said, "Look, just tell them what you've told me for years about why you had to write this story . . . be yourself. You can't be anyone else. Good God, we all know you and how dirty your kitchen is tonight."
I took her words to heart. And after all, no one would throw rocks with my mom and young son sitting right there, or so I hoped. Here was my chance to give vent to the passion that propelled me to write this story and what it meant, to bring people into the fictive world that I hoped I'd created. I remember I thanked everyone for coming, thanked my bookseller, read a few pages and then just started telling the story of where this book came from. And why I had to write what had been gnawing at me for years based on the true story of my Parisian friend's mother who'd been a hidden Jewish girl during the German Occupation of Paris in WWII.
Then it was time for a quick Q & A. That went fine too. I mean, everyone asked me questions about things I hadn't mentioned or had forgotten to say and I hadn't even paid them.
I'd taken a breath ready to take the last question when a woman stared, then pointed at me.
"Why would someone like you, a normal looking person who I've seen in the sandbox at the park with your son, write about ugliness, sordidness, murder?"
My jaw dropped.
"Your book sounds too dark for me." She shrugged, started to stand.
Well that was a show stopper. I just gulped and stood there speechless, dying, my mind a blank. Then Betsy, a mother in my son's fourth grade class, turned around in her seat, fixed the woman with a look and said, "I'm a district attorney, and, lady, my real work is uglier than this. I meet murderers, rapists and work with them every day. But hell, I don't get to do it in Paris and this book is much more than just about murder. It's a human story. I loved it and still can't believe she wrote this. You don't know how many field trips she's driven on . . . but if you don't read this book, I'm sorry for you."
The woman left after that and didn't buy the book. Fair enough. It wasn't ever going to be to her taste. But I wanted to take Betsy with me to every bookstore I went after that. It really meant so much because Betsy doesn't BS . . . she could have turned around and said, "Lady, I agree with you."
But the experience taught me something, something I'd forgotten until confronted by the woman at the SF Writers Conference. How do you handle the wonder in people's faces when they see a "normal person who seems nice and smiles" and who explores a dark side of human nature in murder mysteries or crime fiction? Maybe the writer's face doesn't match the contents of what's written, but does it matter? Margaret Atwood on wanting to know writers: "Just because you like pate doesn't mean you want to know the duck."
I've always remembered what PD James said; her detective novels are just a structure, a framework to hang a story. It's about the characters, the sense of place, the history of that created world, the relationships that go south, events that go haywire and obstacle after obstacle.
I don't think much about the deep meanings and whys and wherefores of this genre that allows writers and readers to explore the dark side, the uncomfortable things. Well for one, I'm sitting safely at my laptop writing, or reading in bed with my dog at my feet and the covers pulled up tight. It's a ride to uncharted territories that pulls me right in, engrosses me and makes me turn the page. And then the next. People say a crime novel should mirror life and the untidiness, the loose threads, the bleakness. People say a lot of things. I just know that what I write, and the books I love to read, offer some form of resolution, a kind of justice that probably you, me, and the underdog can't always get in real life.
But I'm keeping what the woman said in mind as I begin the tour for my ninth book, Murder in the Latin Quarter. "Always prepare," someone said. "And get ready for a curve ball."
Do I still get that queasiness in the pit of my stomach, feel like an imposter when I get up to talk at a bookstore or library? You bet. But it lasts a few seconds now.
I'll try to remember what Sir Lawrence Olivier said when asked about his great performances, his technique for preparing before the stage, if there was anything he did ie voice modulation, exercises before curtain time.
He laughed. "I'm just trying to breathe and not throw up."
Well, I'm not in the same field or class as Sir Larry, but I take his words to heart.
I'd love to hear about your first time — your first event in a bookstore or in front of a roomful of people. What's your story? Any pearls of wisdom to share?
Cara Black writes the bestselling and award-nominated Aimee Leduc Investigations set in Paris. Murder in the Latin Quarter, the ninth in her series, received a starred Kirkus review and is an Indie Next Pick for April. Murder in the Latin Quarter just hit the bookstores. Look for Cara on tour all over like a cheap suit at www.carablack.com under events.