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An Interview with Linda L. Richards

by Chadwick Ginther - Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 11:08am

Linda L. Richards' first novel featuring drunken private dick Dexter J. Theroux and plucky secretary Kitty Pangborn, Death Was the Other Woman, was one of my favourite novels of 2008. The follow up, Death Was in the Picture will without a doubt find itself in similar company for 2009. Linda was kind enough to agree to a brief email interview to answer some of my questions.

CG: Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

LLR: It wasn't anything as premeditated as that: choice. I set out -- as I always still do -- to write the story that was in my heart; the thing that was most of interest to me. It turned out that one of those things was human interaction under extreme duress and the way the world can unravel when you least expect it. In a nutshell: I kept tripping over dead bodies!

CG: Your first series of books had a more contemporary setting. Why the change?

LLR: I didn't really see it as a change as much as I always tell the story that's most of interest to me in that moment. In a way, too, I see history everywhere. We got here because we were there first. Yet we couldn't understand there properly without experiencing here. It's all connected, in a way. Do you see?

I just finished working on a contemporary thriller. A standalone. At the moment I'm working on another Kitty Pangborn novel. And in my heart, I hear whispers of some other, very different stories. A Cold War thriller. A contemporary series set on the West Coast of Canada. More Kitty (because I adore her and visiting in her world). For me, there's something really delicious about that sort of back and forth. It keeps things very fresh.

CG: The Depression-era setting of the Kitty Pangborn novels seems especially relevant now, with recent economic news. What initially drew you to write stories set in the thirties?

LLR: Kitty Pangborn was born as I went through a period of reading a lot of classic crime fiction a few years ago. I think I was moved most deeply by some of the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And one of the notable facts about the very earliest PIs -- the ones we still read and to a certain degree celebrate today -- is that, from a purely practical standpoint, there was just no way they could be solving crimes as illustrated in the books. Not without help. Those earliest PIs would get out bed in the morning and start drinking. By lunch they'd be feeling no pain at all and by quitting time, they had to have been flat-out drunk. And as I read I began to see these characters in a different light. I felt as though I was seeing what wasn't in the stories and that was what I wrote: the stuff between the lines. The stuff that wasn't there.

To me, the most classic of all the classic novels of crime fiction is Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which was published in 1930. And as I read that book and others that are similar from the same era, I thought about what had made things the way they were in the story. History again, I guess. Take Sam Spade. For him to be the way he was, something must have touched him, he just seemed so damaged. And I began to imagine a veteran of a terrible war -- the worst war for fighting men, by all accounts -- damaged beyond easy healing. We meet him at the very end of Prohibition. Alcohol was illegal in the United States so, of course, there was more drinking going on than at any other time in history. It's also the beginning of the Depression, which means not only is money tight, but crime is flourishing, as it tends to do at times of economic challenge.

As I read these books, I began to see a feminine shadow. I saw her running around after her boss, not because she wants his job or to show him up, but simply because times are hard and she has to protect the job she does have.

In a sense, then, you could say that I wasn't drawn to setting a book in the 1930s. But set at another time, they'd be very different stories due the socio-economic factors that would be in play.

CG: With any work of historical fiction, research must be vital. What means did you use to bring life to your Los Angeles?

LLR: You're right: there's a lot of research. But bringing it to life, right? That's the question. And the challenge.

I feel that, if I'm to write about a thing convincingly, I have to know everything about it. Or, at least, as much as I can. Once I've learned all about it, I have to free my mind and imagine -- using all of my senses -- what that thing feels like in the air. Then I have to share this real thing with you in a way that won't slap you in the kisser. That's the goal. Because if I slap you, I'll bring you forward and you'll leave behind this world I've been trying so hard to put together for you. So I have to avoid the temptation to give you too much. I have to give you enough to suggest the shape of the thing -- the full shape it makes in the world -- so that you can take it with you in a way that has meaning.

It's important for me to trust you as a reader. I put great store in your intelligence and resourcefulness as my partner on this journey. Because I want the full body experience for you and if I just lay it all out, you won't get it. So I have to always remember that your own creativity is as important in all of this as mine. It's my story, sure: but that's only half of the picture. The other half is you. And what tools can I supply that will enhance the ones you already bring? What tools will help make it your story too? That?s what I spend a lot of time thinking about: what do you need to make this journey with me?

CG: Gender roles have evolved and changed since the time in which your last two novels are set. What are the challenges to keeping Kitty a woman of her times and an engaging heroine to modern readers?

LLR: I'm not so sure I agree with you that gender roles have changed so very much since the 1930s. Since forever, really. On the surface, sure. Some things change. But at our core, we humans don't change very much at all. See: that's what resonates. And I think that's what we love about historical fiction. Yes: there are some societal constraints that are in play at different times in history. But down where it matters? We don't think differently. We don't feel differently. And that's what we, as readers, respond to: the things we recognize.

Does that answer your question? I'm not sure it does. Let me try again. If Kitty is engaging to, as you said, modern readers, it is because they recognize themselves in her. She responds to her challenges in ways we identify with and relate to. She is not so very different from us in that way.

CG: How do you balance the need to be true to history with the needs of telling a good story?

LLR: But history offers such great stories! There really doesn't need to be much balancing. Actually, Death Was in the Picture illustrates that point pretty well. There's a lot of real history in that book: all the things around the Production Code and how it came to be. Since it's fairly recent history, the final assessments haven?t been written yet. So I did a lot of research -- mountains of research -- and I came away with an opinion of what actually happened that doesn't exactly reflect what's in the official accounts. I think I'm right, but I've gotten some fairly heated letters from religious types who don't think so.

Now, understand: all of the major characters in that book are fictional. Kitty, her boss Dexter, the actor Laird Wyndham. But a lot of the minor characters are historical. And the book is not meant to tell the story of the Production Code. It can't be, really, as the story is told from Kitty's perspective and there's only so much she can see.

When I think hard about your question, I guess if there is balancing that needs to be done, for me it looks like this: I always do a lot of research. While I'm doing it, nuance for the story will just come to be. I then go off and tell my story and history is part of it. The two things -- history and story -- are by then hopefully entwined in such a way that you can barely tell one from the other.

CG: What writers from the golden age of pulp crime and noir do you most admire?

LLR: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I can't tell you which I prefer because my opinion changes week to week. (This week it's Hammett.)

CG: Many crime classics seem to be set in California, Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Chandler's The Big Sleep notable among them. What do you feel makes the state such a great crime setting?

LLR: Actually, as far as I know, other than bits of the Thin Man books, all of the stories told by both writers take place in California: Hammett in San Francisco, Chandler in a slightly fictionalized Los Angeles. And one of the reasons is that law enforcement in the state was notoriously corrupt in the first half of the 20th century so crime didn't just take hold, it flourished. Add in some tragic Hollywood glamour and the hangover from being the gold rush state and you're pretty much there. California in that period has everything needed for endless stories of crime. Honestly, I read histories and just laugh sometimes: there are many stories from that region and era that I could never tell in fiction. You just wouldn't believe them!

CG: You co-founded January Magazine over 12 years ago. With print commentary on books in decline how important to you feel the Internet is becoming to literary discourse?

LLR: Everyone involved with starting January Magazine had a strong print background. As a result, we didn't spend any time at all thinking about us and them. We think about books. Always about books. That's always driven us far more sharply then questions about the medium. And, yes: we're on Twitter and we have a Facebook group and our "bricks and mortar" are on the Web. If the Internet has gotten to play a more important role in the discussion of books, that's valuable, that's good. But it was never our goal. Our goal was to use what was then a relatively new medium to build a large and growing and linked discussion about books and authors. We've done that. And all these years later, I'm proud of what we've built. It's been a wonderful dozen years of conversation.

CG: Can you tell us a little bit about your next project? Will we be seeing any more of Kitty and Dex?

LLR: I can't tell you about my next project! It's still too secret. I can tell you, as I said earlier, that it's a contemporary thriller and it's not part of a series. Other than that, it's too early to talk about.

And, yes: there will be another novel featuring Kitty and Dex. I'm working on that now and loving it: just loving being back in Kitty's world. Here's where history and fiction do some balancing on the new one: the book takes place in 1931. In fact, the summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1932, so there is some Olympic preparation going on in the book I'm working on and Dex and Kitty's case revolve around that. It's been an awful lot of fun researching the Olympic aspects. It was the Depression, so a lot of countries actually didn't show up due to economic pressures. As a result, there were a few medal upsets. But the 1932 Olympics themselves were a huge success and, in some ways, they left a lasting impression on the city (Olympic Boulevard, for one.) Interesting stuff!

Categories: Interview, Mystery & Crime

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