Hilary Davidson & Joelle Charbonneau
interview each other
Hilary Davidson’s first novel, The Damage Done (Forge, September 28, 2010), has been called a “razor sharp mystery debut” by Publishers Weekly, “Hitchcock writing for the hip Manhattan set” by Ken Bruen, and “a rich, haunting debut” by Megan Abbott. Hilary won the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story for “Insatiable,” which will be featured in the Beat to a Pulp: Round One anthology coming out in November 2010. Her short fiction also appears in Thuglit, A Twist of Noir, Needle, Crimefactory, and Crimespree Magazine, and in anthologies such as A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Pegasus, 2008), Blood, Guts & Whiskey (Kensington, 2010), and the upcoming Crimefactory anthology from Pulp Press. Born and raised in Toronto, she moved to New York City in October 2001. Before turning to crime, she was a freelance travel writer and the author of 18 nonfiction books. Visit Hilary’s website.
Joelle Charbonneau is an entertainer at heart. She has performed in a variety of operas, musicals and children’s theatre productions across the Chicagoland area. While Joelle is happy to perform for an audience, she is equally delighted to teach private voice lessons and spin tales on her computer. Joelle’s debut novel, Skating Around the Law, has been praised by Kirkus Reviews as “Funny and sexy with a teasing mystery. Janet Evanovich fans will find Charbonneau’s debut a good fix while they’re waiting for Stephanie Plum’s latest.” Publishers Weekly says, “Roller skates and crime don’t mix, or do they? In Charbonneau’s fresh, funny debut they most certainly do.” Visit Joelle’s website.
Hilary: As I was reading SKATING AROUND THE LAW, whenever I pictured Rebecca, your image came to mind, and I’m curious about how many traits you share. I know that you both have red hair, but are you a skilled poker player, as she is? How much overlap is there between you and your character?
Joelle: Ha! I was going to ask you the same question about THE DAMAGE DONE. You beat me to it. Funny, but there are some obvious similarities like the hair and my lack of true skating talent (sorry Mom), but Rebecca is really her own person. I do enjoy playing Texas Hold’em, but I’ve never really tested out my poker prowess on real people. Rebecca enjoys baked goods more than I do and is far braver than I. She’s also ridden a camel, something I’ve yet to do. But I plan on tackling that experience as soon as I can swing it.
So, the protagonist of THE DAMAGE DONE, Lily, is a travel writer. While her career isn’t a huge part of the book, it does help set up the plot and makes her feel sophisticated and worldwise. How much did your career as a travel writer inspire this novel? Also, Lily mentions that travel writers don’t always travel to the places that they write about. I thought that was fascinating and wondered — have you visited all the locations you’ve written travel guides for?
Hilary: My travel-writing career definitely parallels Lily’s, but hers is more glamorous than mine. For various reasons — heartbreak, family problems, admiration for Ava Gardner’s wild life — Lily suddenly pulled up stakes and moved from New York to Spain. I’ve visited Spain six times, but I’ve never lived there, so I’m a little bit jealous of Lily. Some of the other trips she mentions — Turkey and Thailand — are places we’ve both visited. But Lily has already been to India, which is a place I’d love to see.
Lily is infuriated by travel writers who author books about places they’ve never visited. She calls it “the travel-guide racket” and feels that it’s a lousy trick to play on a reader. That’s a sentiment we both share. Her travel guidebooks are about Spain, a place she knows well. Mine are about Toronto and New York — my hometown and my adopted city, where I’ve lived since October 2001. I’ve been asked to write guidebooks about more exotic places, but it takes so much time and research to put together a really good guide that I’ve turned them down. I’ve worked in travel publishing for more than a decade, so stories like Thomas Kohnstamm’s don’t surprise me — he was the author of Lonely Planet’s guide to Colombia, and it turned out he’d never even set foot in that country. There are a lot of con artists in the travel business.
I’m curious about Rebecca’s love-hate relationship with her hometown. On the one hand, she does have a lot of people who care about her there, but on the other, she feels suffocated by the fact that everyone knows the tiniest move she makes. Have you ever lived in a town like Rebecca’s, and did you channel your experiences there to give your novel its charmingly claustrophobic setting? (And if not, how did you do that?)
Joelle: Rebecca’s home town phobia is not one I’ve experienced. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and have never had the pleasure of living in a town where everyone knows your name in addition to what you ate for breakfast. My father, however, grew up in a tiny town called Bark River. The town is located in the upper peninsula of Michigan and while I was growing up they still had party lines and an operator instead of individual telephone lines. Rebecca’s Indian Falls is a tad more advanced in that department, but not by much.
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated at the different emotional reactions my aunts and uncles had to growing up in such a small town. Some loved the tangible sense of community. Others were less pleased by the feeling that nothing was ever private and went in search of a place where a person could keep a secret or two. Rebecca left her hometown with a sense of bitterness than my father and his siblings didn’t have. Being the object of small town gossip took its toll on her. Now that she has returned, she gets the chance to see the town through older, more experienced eyes.
Okay — I admit that I am in awe of your ability to write non-fiction, a fabulous novel and award winning short fiction. I find short fiction to be incredibly challenging. Creating characters that a reader can identify with and a plot that is satisfying in only 3,000-6,000 words takes real skill. Do you find that your short fiction prowess helps or hinders your novel writing and which one do you find is more appealing to you?
Hilary: That is so incredibly kind of you. Thank you. I don’t know if I could choose between writing short fiction and novels, because I love both but for very different reasons. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but with short fiction, I’m interested primarily in exploring a scenario. By “scenario,” I really mean some crazy idea that has popped into my head. The overheard conversation at the beginning of “Cheap Bastard,” which Spinetingler published, was based on a conversation I eavesdropped on while on a train between New York City and Long Island. This man sitting in front of me was maybe all of 23, but he was talking on a cell phone about how he was going to take a job that would set him up for life. He kept saying “I’ll have it made!” It was funny in a way, but he had this innocent greed that made me feel sorry for him. You just knew that whenever Life slaps him upside the head, as it does to everyone, it was going to really knock him down. I started to imagine an older version of that man, someone who’d fallen for the same flimsy promises, listening to that cell phone conversation, and that became the starting point for the story.
I could probably explain most of my short stories this way. “Good Bones,” which ran in Crime Factory, starts with a baby’s skeleton being found inside the wall of an old, crumbling house. That was based on something my mother heard on the Toronto news; when I tried to Google it, I found stories about infant skeletons turning up in attics and chests and cupboards from the US to Australia. While I was reading these stories, I was thinking about what it would be like to accidentally find one of those skeletons. Then I started picturing a couple whose marriage was already unraveling under financial stress, and the story came out of that.
Writing THE DAMAGE DONE was such a different process, because the only thing I really knew when I started was the main character, Lily, and how much pain her relationship with her sister had always caused her. Even now, I don’t really understand where Lily came from; unlike the short stories, I can’t really point to an article or a conversation when she started to take form. Unlike the short stories, the scenario was murky to me. All that was clear was the opening of the book: Lily is told that her sister has died, so she rushes back to New York, finds that the dead body isn’t her sister’s, but her sister is missing. Basically, I knew the first 20 pages of the book… and nothing else.
The one thing that was actually easier about writing the novel than a short story was that I knew Lily, and I knew what motivated her — guilt and shame, hope and love — so I understood the choices she makes, even when they’re bad ones. But everything else about it was very, very hard: I tried outlining so many times, and failed miserably at that. I wrote so many scenes that never made their way into the book. My process was — and is — incredibly messy, and the only saving grace that I have is that I write really quickly. I’m good at turning the self-censor off when I write, but then when I look at the mess I’ve made, I’m often horrified by it.
I’m so curious about what other writers’ processes are like. Was there a particular story or event that inspired SKATING AROUND THE LAW, or did you have Rebecca in your mind before you had the story? And what’s your writing style like: do you outline and know how everything turns out before you start writing, or are you figuring it out as you go?
Joelle: I’ll start by saying that I never intended to write mysteries. Not because I don’t love them. I do. It just never occurred to me that I could write one. When I started writing, I thought I’d try my hand at hard-hitting, emotionally driven women’s fiction. Yeah – go ahead and laugh at me. Then one day I was hanging out at the bar at a writer’s conference with an agent and a few other friends. They started talking about my stage career and one of them asked if my parents were performers. My answer was “My mother is a world champion roller skater”. The agent took one look at me and said, “You should write a roller skating book.” I laughed. Ten days later I e-mailed the agent to let her know I had written the first chapter. Rebecca Robbins was born. Now, this agent reps women’s fiction and romance, so I know she meant that I should write one of those, but instead there was a dead body at the end of chapter one and a mystery to be solved. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I’m glad it did. The agent is, too. She actually read the first draft of the book, made some fabulous suggestions and was thrilled when I found an agent who repped mysteries to take it on. She was one of the first people to celebrate with me when the book sold.
As for my writing style – ha! I have no idea what is going to happen throughout the book when I write the beginning. Seeing how the story turns out is part of the fun. Normally, when I start a book I have the overall mystery in my head including the bad guy. For SKATING AROUND THE LAW, the killer changed. In book two, I actually knew who done it from moment one. Once I have the crux of the mystery, I need to know what the end of chapter one is. Once I have that figured out, I start to write. When that chapter is over, I have to decide what my next chapter hook is and then write to that. No outlines. I tried writing with an outline once and by about page 70 I could barely write anything. Once I started writing the story, it didn’t want to follow the outline. By trying to follow it, my writing came to a screeching halt. I’m envious of people who can write with an outline. It takes them a while to get the outline set, but after that the seem to create dozens of new pages a day. I tend to write about 5-6, which means I write about a chapter every two or three days. The one nice thing about my process is that the pages are mostly usable. Focusing on my hooks seems to help me keep my pacing up and my writing tight. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
What do you plan to do after your book is released? Do you have another project you are working on now or are you just going to count your piles of cash and wait for them to make THE DAMAGE DONE into a movie? (Which begs the question – who plays Lily on the big screen?)
Hilary: This is going to sound crazy, but the most exciting thing about getting THE DAMAGE DONE published is that I’m hoping it will let me write many more books! I have a two-book deal with Forge, and I’ve just finished writing the second novel, which will be published in October 2011. It’s a sequel to THE DAMAGE DONE, and it’s set in Peru three months after the first book, so Lily is still dealing with fallout from it. I have two other novels in progress as well, one a standalone and the other the first book in a new series.
I’ve got short stories coming out in a couple of anthologies, too: BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE will be released this fall, then the Crime Factory anthology that Pulp Press is publishing. I’m kind of giddy about both, because they’re full of stories by some of my favorite writers. I’ve got a bunch of new stories I want to write, too. There’s one in particular that’s been buzzing around my brain, waiting its turn.
It’s lovely to dream about turning my book into a movie. Lily is obsessed with old films, particularly film noir and anything starring Ava Gardner. In my mind, she looks like Ava, and I keep a black-and-white print of Ava on my desk when I’m writing about Lily — actually, it’s there most of the time. There’s a quote of Ava’s next to it, too: “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial.” Ava was incredibly gorgeous, and witty, and filled with attitude. Tough shoes to fill!
I want to ask you about what you’re working on next, too. I’m pretty sure you told me a while back that you’ve already written Books 2 and 3 starring Rebecca, which I think is an incredible feat. Do you have more adventures planned for her, and are there other fiction projects in the works? Also, I know you wrote a story for the Do Some Damage collection — I’d love to hear more about that.
Joelle: I’m delighted to say that I do have books 2 and 3 of the Rebecca Robbins series finished. I have a healthy fear of trying to write funny under deadline which is why when my agent signed me, I immediately got to work on finishing book two. Both books were a blast to write and as long as people want to read about Rebecca, I’ll be thrilled to write her. She and her frisky grandfather have found a special place in my heart and I look forward to seeing what other wacky situations they can get themselves into.
Currently, I’m busy writing the first book of a new series. It was inspired by the performing side of my life and while there aren’t any hat-wearing camels in this one, there are a few eccentric folks running around the story. I’ll be curious to see how the book turns out. So far, I think I like it. I hope an editor will, too.
You had to go and mention the Terminal Damage story, didn’t you? Well, the boys at Do Some Damage were nice enough to ask me to contribute a story to their collection. This story is the reason I know how hard writing short fiction can be and am in awe of your skill. All the stories in Terminal Damage are loosely connected through New York airport travel. For mine, I decided to use Pop, Rebecca Robbins’ grandfather, as the main character. Getting into his head was an interesting and entertaining experience. Unfortunately for the boys, they got a story that wasn’t probably part of their original vision. My brain wanted to create a dark and hard hitting story. It just didn’t happen. Think of my contribution as the comic relief in the middle of the Noir. I liken it to the days of French Grand Opera where tragedy was the main attraction. Then during the intermission an Intermezzo, or short comic opera, would appear on the stage to lighten everyone’s spirits. That would be me. I am honored and terrified to have my writing sandwiched in between such great writers and hope Pop’s adventure is something that won’t disappoint.
We should probably start wrapping up the questions so you can get to work on all the projects you have dancing around in your head. So before we are done, I have to know – what is your favorite drink and what is your favorite dessert? We have to make sure that your fans attending Bouchercon and Noircon know exactly what to order for you when they are trying to impress.
Hilary: First, I have to say that I admire writers who can handle dark comedy. Personally, I can’t wait to read a story from Pop’s perspective! He was one of my favorite things about SKATING AROUND THE LAW.
To answer your question, I can be bribed with champagne and vodka — in fact, the two make an amazing cocktail when mixed together. Any sparkling wine — prosecco, cava — is good. Dessert is tougher, because I was diagnosed with celiac disease six-and-a-half years ago and follow a strict gluten-free diet. I run a site called the Gluten-Free Guidebook to help people find places to eat around the world. Dessert’s a big priority there. Anyone who sends me information I can put on the site impresses me!
I have to ask about your drink and dessert preferences, too, for exactly the same reason — and so I can prepare for the post-launch-party celebration when you come to New York for our Partners & Crime event on September 28th. But I also want to ask about what you like to read. I’m intrigued by the fact that you didn’t set out to write a mystery, and I’m wondering what might have influenced you to go in that direction.
Joelle: I really want to say I drink scotch just so I feel like one of the cool kids. But if I say that someone might actually buy me one and expect me to drink it. So, I’ll be honest and admit I’m a white wine, margarita (no salt) and diet Pepsi kind of girl. As for desserts, anything with fruit or fresh whipped cream will tempt me.
My first love as a reader has always been mysteries and thrillers. I love trying to figure out the puzzle. After reaching the end I often reread the book to see if I can find all the clues I missed. In grade school I read Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown and the Alfred Hitchcock mysteries. I graduated to Agatha Christie when I hit junior high and have read thousands of mysteries and thrillers since then. So, I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that I created a mystery of my own, but it did.
How about you, Hilary? As a travel writer, you learn to create wonderful descriptions and make observations about the world, so it doesn’t surprise me that you turned to writing fiction. But what prompted your literary homicidal tendencies?
Hilary: I blame my grandmother for that! She was the most amazing person, and a huge influence on my life. She bought me a lot of books, including some Nancy Drew editions published in the 1930s, with blue cloth covers and pen-and-ink drawings inside. My grandmother was also the person who introduced me to film noir. Her favorite actress was Barbara Stanwyck, who starred in “Double Indemnity” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” and a host of other darkly beautiful films. My grandmother’s favorite actor was Tyrone Power, and he’s mentioned several times in THE DAMAGE DONE — both Lily and her best friend, Jesse, have crushes on him, and Lily’s former fiancé looks a bit like the actor. My grandmother would have gotten a kick out of that.
I love that Nancy Drew was part of our early formative years, Joelle. Some of my friends kids are now old enough to read those books, I’ve been buying Nancy Drew collections as presents. I think Nancy Drew is the gateway drug to the mystery world, both for cozy and noir.