Today’s interview is with the author of a book I reviewed not long ago called WOLF. I won’t say too much about it as she discusses it a bit in the interview, and you can read the review by clicking here. Now on to the interview.
You are very eclectic in your writings over the years. What lead you to writing fiction?
Since I discovered writing, I’ve relied on it to give my life meaning. I live to write.
As a philosopher, in my nonfiction, I write about ethics and ways to make the world a better place.
But, with fiction, I realized I could create a world. I could create a world and then live in it for a few months or years. I could create a world where women and girls come out on top.
How did Jessica James, a cowgirl, come to life? I understand the philosopher part, but I’m trying to get the cowgirl part.
Usually, it’s the other way around. Folks get the cowgirl part, but scratch their heads at the philosophy part.
Some of Jessica’s story is based on my own experience, a working-class girl who grew up in Montana, Idaho and Washington, going to the big city for the first time to study philosophy, a mongrel amongst pedigreed Ivy Leaguers.
But, there’s a kind of funny story about how I came up with “cowgirl philosophy.” A few years ago, there was a move in the philosophy department to create a “Vanderbilt brand” so everyone would associate the Vanderbilt philosophy department with a special type graduate. I imagined taking a hot iron and branding our students as we handed them their diplomas. I got a bunch of the women philosophers together and joked that our brand should be cowgirl philosophy. One of my students made a logo for us with a really cute blonde long-haired Scottish cow that said “cowgirl philosophy.” I still have that cowgirl philosophy sticker on my office door.
Jessica James and Dmitry Durchenko are very different. In some ways, the brooding Russian janitor is more of a philosopher than the party-girl philosophy graduate student. So, it was easy to keep their stories straight. The harder part was bringing them together organically. I wanted the stories to become more intertwined as the novel progresses, so they’re intimately connected by the end of the book.
When I was sending out various drafts of the novel to get feedback from other writers, some loved Jessica and others loved Dmitry. At one point, when the Dmitry lovers were ahead in the polls, I had started and ended the novel with his perspective. But, in the end, I realized that the ongoing story is really Jessica’s, so I started and ended the novel with her. It just never felt quite right to start with Dmitry, even though he is an important, and hopefully compelling, character. And, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him!
How much of Jessica’s adventures pulled from actual events you’re aware of?
As I said, some of Jessica’s adventures are based on my own experience in graduate school. But I plead the fifth on what parts. I like how you asked about events that I’m “aware of”…maybe not being aware could get me off the hook for some of the more incriminating parts of the story. Jessica’s not the only one who drank too much whisky in graduate school.
You have Russian characters in your book, some are very important to the entire storyline. How did you go about getting the language just right? It was a very smooth transition from English to Russian. I thought it seemed very natural and not intruding at all when I was reading.
Thanks. I did a lot research on Russian sayings, culture, food, and drink, and, of course, the Russian mafia. And, I had a native Russian speaker check my use of Russian words and phrases. It was important to make it authentic.
Just before I started writing WOLF there was a huge FBI sting involving Russian mafia in New York that took in over 30 people on charges of illegal gambling, money laundering, and extortion. Some of my characters are inspired by people pinched in that operation, including a beautiful woman running a high stakes poker game for Hollywood movie stars, and the playboy son of a billionaire art dealer. I also learned that the Russian mafia is alive and well, not only in Russia, but in the U.S.. You don’t want to mess with those guys, so I don’t dare say more about my real-life mafia role models.
You discuss the date rape culture that is so prevalent on college campuses. I’m not sure how much goes on at Vanderbilt but I know cases happen where I’m from. So many even go unreported. What made you think of including that in your book? Did you do any particular research into it with victims? I mean you don’t go too much into details but there are some instances where research seems evident.
As I was writing WOLF, a high profile Vanderbilt rape case was making national headlines. It involved a woman who may have been drugged by something slipped into her blue cocktail, taken back to a dorm room, and then gang raped by a group of football players, instigated by her boyfriend. Because she was unconscious, she didn’t know she’d been raped until the police showed her video recordings the perpetrators had taken “for fun” and sent off to their friends. This case was so stunning, so mind-boggling, and so egregious, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to find out something like that about yourself from a video.
That lead me to write my latest nonfiction book, HUNTING GIRLS: SEXUAL VIOLENCE FROM THE HUNGER GAMES TO CAMPUS RAPE. I was writing that book at the same time as WOLF. It was important to include the issue of party rape in the novel since it has become an epidemic on campus.
You did a great job of hiding in plain sight who the killer of the titular character was. Which is always the way with a great mystery. There were so many possibilities that when it was finally revealed, there was a bit of surprise, unless you were really following all closely. Writing a mystery, do you worry about revealing too much? How do you balance the hidden and the revealed?
Thanks. Yeah, it was a bit like Jessica who had the evidence proving the identity of the killer all along in the bottom of her backpack. The killer is there all the way through, and signs point to him, too. But, he’s not your usual sort of killer.
I was actually surprised to find out from some of my friends and readers who they suspected. I was floored that lots of them suspected Jessica’s love interest, since I never intended him to be a suspect. So, that was cool.
In my second Jessica James Mystery, COYOTE (out in August), the mystery is not so much who are the killers, but what happened in a highway accident eleven years ago that binds all of the main characters together in mysterious ways.
How important are beta readers or test readers for a book like yours? Do you have a target reader who reads your book and you ask, “How soon do you figure things out?”
I have an amazing developmental editor, Lisa Walsh, who reads everything and gives me very detailed feedback. I also have a trusted group of friends whose opinions I trust, and if they tell me something’s gotta go, it’s gone.
A lot of my friends are actually professional literary critics, so they are a tough crowd!
What’s been the reaction of your peers who’ve read the book? Are any of them worried they are the model for WOLF?
Hmmmm….given the continued headlines about sexual harassment by male professors, I don’t think there is too much danger of finding that needle in this haystack.
So far, all of my academic friends who’ve read WOLF tell me they love it! Of course, they get the inside jokes.
How does Tennessee differ from having been a native of Washington State? I’ve been in the South my entire life so all I know is the laid back life.
As I mentioned, I grew up in the Northwest. I go back as often as I can. I miss the mountains. So, I usually spend part of the summer in Idaho near my folks, who live in Sandpoint. And, every winter, I make an x-country ski trip with my brother and sister-in-law to Glacier Park, Montana. Actually, my second novel, COYOTE, is set in Glacier Park. I love it there, especially in the winter when the park is deserted.
To me, the West is dusty brown, with wispy clouds racing across a Robin’s egg blue sky. It’s that sunburnt blister on my nose when I was a teenager dancing til dark at the street dance on the fourth of July. It’s huckleberry milkshakes and stopping in your tracks for a giant moose.
The South is sticky green, with thunderheads sending me into my moldy basement looking for flashlight batteries. It’s soggy turnip greens, deep fried pies, and painting chigger bites with nail polish. It’s the thickening of my waistline, my corneas, and my resume. And, now it’s home.
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