Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two Women Chat . . . Hilary Davidson and Robin Spano

Hilary’s debut novel, The Damage Done, won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and the Crimespree Award for Best First Novel. The book was also a finalist for the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery, and the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel. The novel’s main character, Lily Moore, is, like Hilary, a travel writer. While their personal lives have little in common, they do share a few things, such as a love of vintage clothing, classic Hollywood movies, and Art Deco design. The sequel to The Damage Done is The Next One to Fall, a mystery set in Peru that Forge published on February 14, 2012. The third book in the series, Evil in All Its Disguises, will be published by Forge on March 5, 2013.

Hilary’s claim that she will do anything for a story is something that she’s had a few opportunities to regret. It sounds great until she finds herself diving for shipwrecks in the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River or swimming with sharks in the Bahamas.
She got her start in journalism in 1995, when she moved to New York for five months to intern at Harper’s Magazine. When Hilary returned to Toronto, she joined the staff of Canadian Living magazine as a copy editor. Her first freelance article, “Death Takes a Holiday” — about a New Orleans cemetery — was published by The Globe & Mail. She left her day job to write full-time in June 1998.
Her work as a travel writer has allowed her to visit places such as Peru, Easter Island, and Israel. Ironically, Hilary has spent much of her time writing books about her hometown, Toronto, and her adopted city, New York, where she’s lived since October 2001. She’s written 11 editions of Frommer’s Toronto and the first edition of Frommer’s New York City Day by Day, in addition to co-authoring five editions of Frommer’s Canada. In March 2008, she launched the Gluten-Free Guidebook, a website for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. (Hilary was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004).


Robin Spano’s debut novel, Dead Politician Society, follows Clare Vengel on her first undercover assignment after the major is murdered in the middle of a speech. The sequel, Death Plays Poker follows Clare through her second assignment as she traces a string of poker players who are strangled in their hotel rooms.

Robin grew up in downtown Toronto and now lives in Lions Bay, BC. When she’s not lost in fiction, she loves to get outside snowboarding, hiking, boating, and riding the curves of the local highways in her big black pick-up truck.
Her historical role model is Winston Churchill, more for his independent thinking than his drinking. Her secret dream was to be one of Charlie’s Angels, but since real life danger terrifies her, she writes crime fiction instead.

She’s a founding member of Off The Page Toastmasters – a public speaking group for writers. She’s also active with Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime’s Toronto Chapter.

She is married to a man who hates reading and encourages her endlessly. Which is great, because it’s Keith who drags her away from her computer to do all those fun things outside.


Two Women Chat …
by Hilary Davidson and Robin Spano


Hilary: The highlight of my summer was the week I spent at your house in June. In a way, I still can't believe it happened. One minute, we were talking about doing an event with a couple of other writers, and then suddenly, I was at your house in B.C. with Ian Hamilton and Deryn Collier, and we had a week of events together. All of this after I met you for two minutes at Bouchercon in San Francisco! When I started writing crime fiction, I didn't expect that it would lead to making new friends and having slumber parties at their houses, but it has. Writing fiction has made my real life more surreal. Does it ever feel that way to you?


Robin: Surreal, um, definitely. Maybe because our job description is to go deep into our heads for several hours and write down the things we see in there. And then share those happenings with the world in the most public way possible.


At first I found that contrast hard – and I think I wrote more superficially about my characters, as a form of self-protection. But the more I write, the more natural it feels to pull the truth out from deeper inside, let my characters be more flawed and more real. In some ways, I think the most neurotic parts of ourselves are the most universally interesting to readers.


What really shocks me is how fun I'm finding the public part of the job. That tour with you and Ian and Deryn was a highlight of my summer too. I loved our late night gossip sessions with wine in the hot tub.


I also enjoyed our CBC interview. Kevin Sylvester asked some great questions, like how we handle genre snobbery – that phenomenon where highbrow literary readers dismiss genre fiction out of hand. I find it easy to dismiss any snob back – I feel like they're the one limiting their world by shutting a portion of it out. But I have crime writer friends who get really bothered by being slapped with a philistine label. What's your take?


Hilary: I think "literary fiction" is mostly a marketing term. If a book has an instantly recognizable theme — mystery/crime, sci-fi, romance, dystopian universe — it gets lumped into genre. Calling a book "literary fiction" is, to me, an acknowledgment that nobody can figure out what box it fits into. It's like a big bin of miscellaneous prose, some brilliant and some decidedly not.


Being snobby about it seems silly when you look at the issue from that perspective, but some people are. I got an email a week ago from someone my husband went to school with, saying — I'm paraphrasing here — that she wanted to write a mystery novel because that would be so much easier than a literary book. To my mind, that's even crazier than someone saying, "I only read literary fiction, not mysteries," which I've heard more than a few times. When I hear that, I know I'm talking to a person who wants to be seen as smart and tasteful, and has some insecurities about it.


Talking like this makes me feel like I'm back in your hot tub, wineglass in hand. What surprised me about staying at your house was that I got a lot of writing done that week. I never thought I'd be able to stick to my schedule with other people around. What's your writing schedule like when you aren't taking care of a house full of writers?


Robin: Ha ha. I hope your friend is reading this. I originally thought I'd start with a mystery because it would be easier to write too. (I'm a reformed genre snob, true confession.) But I quickly found that it was harder because not only do you have to make sure the characters have interesting growth arcs and the dialogue rings true and all the other facets of "literary" fiction, but you have to fit in clues and red herrings and suspects in a way that keeps the reader guessing and satisfies their curiosity at the end. I love the puzzle-making aspect of writing crime fiction – for me, the craft is the perfect blend of art and science – but there is no way anyone could convince me a mystery is easier to write.


I had a friend email me last week. He's a literary writer trying his hand at a chick lit novel. Which I totally love – I think it's great for writers to explore lots of genres and formats. But he asked me if he should dumb down (okay, he called it "simplify") his language to cater to genre fiction readers. He's a smart guy, and I understand where his question was coming from, but I told him no way. I give my reader full credit for having a brain. I explained that the only difference between literary and genre fiction is that genre has a specific plot designed to entertain, and literary, well, uh, needs no plot, really.


Normal writing schedule = first thing in the morning, always. Then the day could take on different shapes. This week I have a gardening project I'm passionate about, so after I've worked for a couple of hours I get my grubby clothes on and go out and play with my hoe and the bramble roots. Gardening, I'm learning, is great for mulling fiction. Sometimes I mix in some socializing – I'll meet a friend for coffee or lunch or a walk in the woods. Other days I'm intense and write all day. I think my favorite breaks involve driving – the Sea-to-Sky Highway has these wicked curves and gorgeous scenery; it relaxes me to spend time on it.


What's your schedule like? Living in Manhattan, it must be hard to stay at your desk all day.


Hilary: I remember the Sea-to-Sky Highway from my visit — that was so beautiful. In some ways, New York is full of distractions, but when I leave my apartment, I feel like I'm on a research mission. I walk a couple of miles each day, and things I see and overhear end up finding their way into my work. I also work out a lot of problems with plots while I'm walking. When I'm sitting at my desk, it can be hard to take a step back and get the perspective I need. Letting my mind wander while I walk frees me up to work out knots in the book.


My schedule is pretty steady. I like to write in the morning, partly because I can keep a leash on my social-media usage and web surfing. In the afternoon, I'm much more distractible. I'll have 50 news stories open in my browser, thanks to my Twitter friends. I sometimes write in the evening, too, usually when I'm in the closing stretch of a novel.


I tend to get consumed by what I'm writing. Dan jokes about me wandering into traffic when I'm working on a first draft, especially with a book. I see the story through the main character's eyes and that puts me inside Lily's head for extended periods of time. But it's an odd feeling, because I'm also on the outside of the story, peering in. I know all of these things about her that she would never tell anyone. It's a strange, complicated relationship, because we have some things in common (we're both travel writers) but there's a lot that's different (our family histories and personal lives). What's in like for you, writing about a character that has some of your traits (like your love of motorcycles!)?


Robin: I think you've said it really well – the relationship between Clare and me is strange and complicated.


I have enough in common with Clare that I feel perfectly comfortable crawling into her skin and seeing the world from behind her eyes. Because she's young and hot-blooded, I especially like taking out my real life rage through her fictional temper.


She's also different enough that I don't feel like I'm writing an autobiography. She's more fearless, more confident, she'd prefer watching TV to reading a book. And I really don't understand how Clare can prefer that watery piss they call Bud over the full-flavored IPAs I like to drink, but she is who she is, right? That's the thing about a character – they take on their own life, and you just have to let them be who they are, documenting what you can catch of them.


I think my favorite part of writing about Clare is the vicarious living. I choose her cases based on where I'd like to go undercover – a poker tournament, a ski resort town. I'm thinking maybe Hong Kong next. How do you choose Lily's next destination?


Hilary: It's mostly intuition. With THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, I never had a moment of doubt. I always knew the book would be set in Peru, and I never considered setting it anywhere else. With the third book, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, the process was different because of legal concerns. Even though that book is pure fiction, it was inspired by the very real, and very tragic, story of a Frommer's editor who went missing at a resort in the Caribbean. My agent was worried about the legal implications of basing the novel in a similar setting. I ended up deciding to use Acapulco as the setting, largely because of its Hollywood history — Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra vacationed there, Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd there, John Wayne owed a resort there. Acapulco has a glittering past and a gritty present, which made it perfect, since it's the kind of spot Lily would gravitate toward. The irony: I've never been to Acapulco! I didn't want to pretend that I had, either, so all of the Acapulco scenes take place in a hotel where a journalist goes missing and Lily becomes a virtual prisoner. Being trapped at the hotel ends up giving the book a Gothic feel, which I wanted.


I feel that there are a lot of happy accidents that work their way into my writing, and discovering Acapulco's Hollywood history was one of them. Does that ever happen to you when you're writing?


Robin: Ha ha, I'm glad you didn't write a fake travelogue of Acapulco. I'm looking forward to reading this glass castle third book of yours!


Yeah, happy coincidences happen all the time. Most times when I run into a wall, the creative work-around ends up leading me to someplace much more rich and interesting than if I'd been able to go in a straight line like I'd originally planned. My third book, DEATH'S LAST RUN, was absolutely brutal to write. I'd get one plot line in place then realize I'd just pulled the rug out from under another plot line. I was six months late delivering it to my publisher because I just couldn't get all the threads working together. It was research help from my friend Christine that finally clicked everything into place. The find turned out to be a discussion of the war on drugs from the perspective of Latin American political leaders – a plot thread that's tiny compared with the full story, but a missing link can come from absolutely anywhere.


Okay, so I have to ask. This Stephen Leather guy who initiated the sock puppet scandal by bragging about writing fake reviews of his own work – he claims that all writers do it. He's wrong, right? I mean, am I naively in the dark, or did this guy do a line of blow before the panel where he said that? Have you ever written a review under a fake name? Is it really common practice, do you think?


Hilary: I refuse to believe this is a common practice. Of course, people who do it are going to want to hide behind the "everyone's doing it!" fig leaf, but it takes a particularly pathetic, shameless ego to go down that road. I've never written a review under a fake name. There are some things that would make you lose self-respect, and that's one of them. Though, I have to add, I can forgive authors who have written fake reviews to praise their own work. What I can't forgive are authors who used sock-puppet accounts to trash other writers' books. What R.J. Ellory did is so hateful, it defies description. Finding out that a writer anonymously trashed their competition guarantees that I will never pick up that writer's books.


It's disappointing, because the crime-fiction community overall is such a happy, supportive place. I remember the first conference I went to — that was Boucheron in San Francisco in 2010 — and how astonishingly kind people were. Have you felt that, too?


Robin: Yeah. I was petrified of that conference. My first book had been out for two weeks and I knew no one. But about five minutes in, I was already comfortable. People talk to you everywhere. Readers and bloggers love talking to writers, writers love dishing with other writers. There's no dead room, no loser table – just a bunch of awesome connections waiting to happen.


I attribute that awesome community to two things. First, crime writers can afford to be supportive. Because so many readers love mysteries and suspense novels, the sales pie is big enough that there's a slice for everyone who figures out the magic formula – i.e., how to connect with an audience. Second – and you may have heard me say this before – we take our rage out on the page. All our negative emotions have an outlet, since we're writing about dark things. In real life, that leaves us pretty chill.


I also have to credit social media for keeping writerly relationships alive. I met you for two minutes MAX, and I was totally intimidated by you because you just seemed so polished on and top of the scene (and as you left the room, some hot young guy was asking for your number). But then you Tweeted about seeing my book in a Barnes & Noble in Union Square, and I love Union Square and that made me feel like I was there with you. So I read your book and saw so much warmth inside you that I wanted to know you more. And I mean, from there, there was no stopping us – from wasting time online to being completely inappropriate at dinner parties, you're one of my very favorite friends in this crime writing community.


Hilary: That feeling is completely mutual, Robin. The great surprise about crime writing, for me, is that it’s brought so many wonderful people into my life.



Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, ladies!!

Hilary, it's always a delight to have you here, and thank you for bringing along a friend this time. Robin, nice to meet you.

I have enjoyed reading your chat and learning more about each of you. The connection you made appears to have been immediate for both of you and a lovely one.

Hilary - I cannot WAIT to read "Evil in All its Disguises." oh boy oh boy.

Robin - I was not familiar with your work until now, but fully intend to change that!

Hugs to you both!

Robin Spano said...

Thanks, Kaye, for hosting us. I've been crawling your site and I LOVE your photos. So much variety and quirky slices of life.

Hilary Davidson said...

Kaye, thanks so much for hosting us today! You know I'm a big fan of your blog, so it's a thrill to be here. (And I know you'll love Robin's books — she's a terrific writer.)

Cheers, ladies! *clinks wineglass in virtual hot tub*

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks, Kaye, for having such talented and lovely ladies as guests on Meanderings and Muses. I enjoyed reading their chat. The June gathering sounded like a ton of fun!

I'm fortunate to be a member of the NY/Tristate Sisters in Crime, so every once in a while I have the privilege of seeing Hilary at a meeting, a book signing, and of course, Bouchercon. I'm looking forward to Cleveland ~ it's right around the corner! I hope I get a chance to meet Robin during the conference ~ and of course, see Hilary, too!

Judy Hudson said...

Hi to you both, Great chat - I felt like I was having coffee with you. Writing is such a personal process but writers seem to have so many commonalities. Spending so much time inside your head, then having to emerge into the real world. and what you said about walking into traffic when you're writing the first draft. That's such a fun part of the process.
Thanks Kaye for hosting this chat. I'm learning to love social media.