I first met Linda at the Noir in the Bar evening in downtown Vancouver in early June and had the opportunity to meet her in person and have a chinwag (Ed: do Canadian’s use this word? If not, use the word ‘chat’) over well filled glasses of our respective fire-waters. In the weeks that followed, Linda kindly agreed for me to visit her on the island of Galiano where contrary to the rumour that she reigns from a throne of bones stuck together with crime scene police tape (I just made that bit up), she lives a very wholesome life of creativity and healthy hiking along the many trails that the island offers its residents and visitors alike.
I had just spent a peaceful yet glorious weekend in Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia and I’d taken the ferry that morning from Swartz Bay to Galiano, a journey of just under an hour. Linda was at the other end to warmly greet me as I stepped ashore. The sun was firmly seated in its celestial cockpit, commanding an army of blue that conquered the heavens above and the scene was set for an a very healthy kind of interview experience that took in a 6km hike to the top of Galiano Mountain and a pub lunch later where the interview was largely conducted before catching the final ferry of the day back to the mainland port of Tsawassen.
Linda L Richards is a crime writer with several titles under her belt, most recently Death is in the Blood, the third of the Kitty Pangborn series set in 1931 L.A.
Tell me a little about your life before and during the start of your literary career?
I was born in Vancouver but spent some of my growing years in Los Angeles and Munich, Germany. For the last decade I’ve mostly lived in the Gulf Islands and in Vancouver. My first books were all computer-related. Works of non-fiction: Web Graphics for Dummies and several others. Some of them were a lot of fun and I’m quite proud of them. Bu I really always wanted to write novels: I just took the long way there!
So what turned you to crime fiction?
I didn’t consciously set out to write crime fiction. What I set out to do was to write the stories that were in my heart. And I’d turn around and there’d be a body on the floor. If that happens a few times, you have to just own it: this is the type of story I was meant to tell.
You are one of the co-founders of January Magazine which is lauded for the quality of its book reviews and interviews with writers no less that Salman Rushdie , Dennis Lehane, Mark Billingham, to name but a few. The literary scope of January Magazine is wider than just crime fiction. Do you think it important for crime writers, or even writers of any genre to read widely and outside their comfort zone?
I do think it’s important for anyone who wants to write to read as widely as possible. What is it Stephen King said? “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” But there are lessons to be learned and journeys to be taken in all sorts of books. I don’t think writers of crime fiction necessarily also read only in that genre.
Your series featuring the strong and independent minded Kitty Pangborn (Death Was the Other Woman, Death Was In The Picture, Death Was In The Blood) are all set in Los Angeles in 1931. Why?
In 1931, the end of Prohibition is in sight and the Depression is just getting going. Meanwhile, as far as law enforcement goes, Los Angeles at that time was barely out of the Wild West. It’s just this fantastic moment in history where so much is possible. This extraordinary time that writers like Hammett have exploited beautifully. Even so, I felt a strong female protagonist could add something.
Also, my father immigrated to North America in that period. He honed his English watching those old movies, with their gangster talk and clipped language and it colored the way he spoke for the rest of his life. When I sat down to write the first Kitty Pangborn novel, that language was just there and it flowed out and colored the pages in ways I’d never imagined.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the word ‘galoot’ used in Death is in the Blood. I thought that was only a word used in Ireland, a word which loosely translates as ‘idiot’.
Ha, really? No, it was used in those times too. But there is no inflection of “idiot” in that usage. More like oafish. Someone large and maybe not too handy with their body is more like it.
Will we see Kitty Pangborn in later years, perhaps in the 1940s or beyond, heading up her own Private Detective Agency?
No, definitely not. The Kitty Pangborn novels will only ever be set in 1931. It’s that moment, right? The end of Prohibition is near. It’s the beginning of the Depression. And both of those things greatly impact Kitty’s world as we see it. I don’t want her to mellow and change. I don’t want her to evolve. In a sense, Kitty is a vehicle through which we view an era: this sort of golden moment near the birth of what we now think of as classic noir.
Is it difficult not to impose modern day attitudes and turns of phrases and even behavioral norms onto characters in stories set over 80 years ago or is there nothing new under the sun with regards to these aspects?
I didn’t find it difficult. Challenging sometimes, certainly. But, like writing any historical period, you do the research and gain as deep an understanding of the era as you can and what is essential to it, in terms of what makes it all fit together.
Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do write and plot as you proceed?
I don’t plot in advance at all. I start with an idea and go from there. Sometimes it’s a pretty well-formed idea, but sometimes it’s just a concept.
For the first draft, I write it as though I’m watching a movie that unfolds with each sentence, paragraph and page. I just get the story down, that’s what’s important for me at that stage. And then you edit, right? Lots of editing and sanding, but the heart of the thing has been created with that first draft.
I walk six to eight k every day, no matter where I am. Lately I’ve taken to dictating while I walk, then I transcribe what I’ve spoken. I’m essentially taping the first draft. It’s an extraordinary process that I never thought would work for me. When I transcribe, it’s like I’m hearing a complete story for the first time. It feels sort of magical! I’m really enjoying it.
How do you choose names for your characters?
I randomly pull names out of the air most of the time. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they do not. The point is: I don’t want to slow down enough to choose them on the first rush through. I’m so excited by the story and the telling of it, I know I can get to it afterward.
That said, some of those randomly grabbed names stick wonderfully. Kitty Pangborn. Truly? It’s a good name, right? But where did it come from? I actually have no idea.
How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximize its effectiveness?
The thing with social media is it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? And in 2014, it’s one of the things writers need to do. It’s not a matter of “yes” or “no” but, rather, what. I advise people to choose the mediums that resonate with them: do a couple of things really well and with passion rather than trying a scattershot approach with everything. For instance, I really love Facebook and the community that can be grown there, so I spend a large percentage of my available social media time there. For the last half year or so, I’ve also really been digging on Instagram and I have a sense of it working for me, so that’s one I use regularly. And, of course, a web site is not social media, but I am absolutely positive that no writer should be without one at this stage. It just makes no sense.
I understand that the book you have coming out this autumn is a departure for you.
Yes. One that I’m excited about. It’s called If It Bleeds and it’s the first in my new Nicole Charles series. (And, yes: Hammett fans. The name is homage.)
Nicole is a young reporter who is lucky to have landed a job on a metro daily, but chagrined that, as a gossip columnist, she doesn’t get to do any real reporting.
If It Bleeds is part of Orca Books’ Rapid Reads program. Rapid Reads are mostly aimed at adult readers who are new to English or newly literate. So we’re talking about a sophisticated reader – an adult – who you want to enchant and engage and hopefully even capture for life as a reader. And the best thought is to create a book for that reader. Nothing dumbed down. Not a book for children. But an exciting journey with twists and subplots, but using simple language, fewer syllables and less words.
It was a lot more difficult than that maybe sounds. In the end If It Bleeds actually topped out slightly more than 20,000 words but, in some ways, getting that 20K took more editing than a longer book. I think, in some ways, the experience will have changed the way I write – and certainly how I edit – forever.
I guess it’s like anything. It’s not until you limit yourself in some way that you appreciate how you’ve taken a thing for granted. Again: I wanted to create a sophisticated story. Nothing dumbed down or simplified, but a work that even readers of my other full length novels would enjoy. I think I’ve succeeded. I’m very proud of the tight little package that If It Bleeds grew into.
Your novels are sometimes known for bad guys meeting their just desserts but often not in a conventional way. Can you explain why this facet of karmic justice, if I put it like that, appeals to you?
Oh, that’s funny, Martin. What a splendid observation. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right. I’d have to think: have I ever had the bad guy go off in handcuffs? If I have, he turns up free after a while… then gets hit in the head by a boat oar, or has his head smashed up in some creative way. I mean, it’s deserved, but unexpected, I guess. Like a lot of mystery writers, I like the idea of justice: that a bad person will get their comeuppance, regardless. And I guess a part of me really hopes it’s true. That those of us servicing our karmas throughout our lifetime will be rewarded in some way while all those dreadful people who are constantly getting away with things will end badly.
Finally, have you any general advice to writers reading this interview?
I’m always advising new writers to write the book that’s in their heart. Write the book that’s calling you. Don’t worry about, is this what’s selling? When you’re starting out, there’s a fairly good chance no one will ever see the work besides you. If that’s the case, as long as you’re happy with the work, it’s a success. If you go through all the labor and pain of writing a whole book and you don’t like it, it was all a waste of time. I’ve never heard anyone express regrets for writing a book that was too good.